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    Fear and Loathing Return to Tech Start-Ups

    Workers are dumping their stock, companies are cutting costs, and layoffs abound as troubling economic forces hit tech start-ups.Start-up workers came into 2022 expecting another year of cash-gushing initial public offerings. Then the stock market tanked, Russia invaded Ukraine, inflation ballooned, and interest rates rose. Instead of going public, start-ups began cutting costs and laying off employees.People started dumping their start-up stock, too.The number of people and groups trying to unload their start-up shares doubled in the first three months of the year from late last year, said Phil Haslett, a founder of EquityZen, which helps private companies and their employees sell their stock. The share prices of some billion-dollar start-ups, known as “unicorns,” have plunged by 22 percent to 44 percent in recent months, he said.“It’s the first sustained pullback in the market that people have seen in legitimately 10 years,” he said.That’s a sign of how the start-up world’s easy-money ebullience of the last decade has faded. Each day, warnings of a coming downturn ricochet across social media between headlines about another round of start-up job cuts. And what was once seen as a sure path to immense riches — owning start-up stock — is now viewed as a liability.The turn has been swift. In the first three months of the year, venture funding in the United States fell 8 percent from a year earlier, to $71 billion, according to PitchBook, which tracks funding. At least 55 tech companies have announced layoffs or shut down since the beginning of the year, compared with 25 this time last year, according to Layoffs.fyi, which monitors layoffs. And I.P.O.s, the main way start-ups cash out, plummeted 80 percent from a year ago as of May 4, according to Renaissance Capital, which follows I.P.O.s.An Instacart shopper at a grocery store in Manhattan. The company slashed its valuation to $24 billion in March from $40 billion last year. Brittainy Newman/The New York TimesLast week, Cameo, a celebrity shout-out app; On Deck, a career-services company; and MainStreet, a financial technology start-up, all shed at least 20 percent of their employees. Fast, a payments start-up, and Halcyon Health, an online health care provider, abruptly shut down in the last month. And the grocery delivery company Instacart, one of the most highly valued start-ups of its generation, slashed its valuation to $24 billion in March from $40 billion last year.“Everything that has been true in the last two years is suddenly not true,” said Mathias Schilling, a venture capitalist at Headline. “Growth at any price is just not enough anymore.”The start-up market has weathered similar moments of fear and panic over the past decade. Each time, the market came roaring back and set records. And there is plenty of money to keep money-losing companies afloat: Venture capital funds raised a record $131 billion last year, according to PitchBook.But what’s different now is a collision of troubling economic forces combined with the sense that the start-up world’s frenzied behavior of the last few years is due for a reckoning. A decade-long run of low interest rates that enabled investors to take bigger risks on high-growth start-ups is over. The war in Ukraine is causing unpredictable macroeconomic ripples. Inflation seems unlikely to abate anytime soon. Even the big tech companies are faltering, with shares of Amazon and Netflix falling below their prepandemic levels.“Of all the times we said it feels like a bubble, I do think this time is a little different,” said Albert Wenger, an investor at Union Square Ventures.On social media, investors and founders have issued a steady drumbeat of dramatic warnings, comparing negative sentiment to that of the early 2000s dot-com crash and stressing that a pullback is “real.”Even Bill Gurley, a Silicon Valley venture capital investor who got so tired of warning start-ups about bubbly behavior over the last decade that he gave up, has returned to form. “The ‘unlearning’ process could be painful, surprising and unsettling to many,” he wrote in April.The uncertainty has caused some venture capital firms to pause deal making. D1 Capital Partners, which participated in roughly 70 start-up deals last year, told founders this year that it had stopped making new investments for six months. The firm said that any deals being announced had been struck before the moratorium, said two people with knowledge of the situation, who declined to be identified because they were not authorized to speak on the record.Other venture firms have lowered the value of their holdings to match the falling stock market. Sheel Mohnot, an investor at Better Tomorrow Ventures, said his firm had recently reduced the valuations of seven start-ups it invested in out of 88, the most it had ever done in a quarter. The shift was stark compared with just a few months ago, when investors were begging founders to take more money and spend it to grow even faster.That fact had not yet sunk in with some entrepreneurs, Mr. Mohnot said. “People don’t realize the scale of change that’s happened,” he said.Sean Black, the founder and chief executive of Knock. “You can’t fight this market momentum,” he said.Jeenah Moon for The New York TimesEntrepreneurs are experiencing whiplash. Knock, a home-buying start-up in Austin, Texas, expanded its operations from 14 cities to 75 in 2021. The company planned to go public via a special purpose acquisition company, or SPAC, valuing it at $2 billion. But as the stock market became rocky over the summer, Knock canceled those plans and entertained an offer to sell itself to a larger company, which it declined to disclose.In December, the acquirer’s stock price dropped by half and killed that deal as well. Knock eventually raised $70 million from its existing investors in March, laid off nearly half its 250 employees and added $150 million in debt in a deal that valued it at just over $1 billion.Throughout the roller-coaster year, Knock’s business continued to grow, said Sean Black, the founder and chief executive. But many of the investors he pitched didn’t care.“It’s frustrating as a company to know you’re crushing it, but they’re just reacting to whatever the ticker says today,” he said. “You have this amazing story, this amazing growth, and you can’t fight this market momentum.”Mr. Black said his experience was not unique. “Everyone is quietly, embarrassingly, shamefully going through this and not willing to talk about it,” he said.Matt Birnbaum, head of talent at the venture capital firm Pear VC, said companies would have to carefully manage worker expectations around the value of their start-up stock. He predicted a rude awakening for some.“If you’re 35 or under in tech, you’ve probably never seen a down market,” he said. “What you’re accustomed to is up and to the right your entire career.”Start-ups that went public amid the highs of the last two years are getting pummeled in the stock market, even more than the overall tech sector. Shares in Coinbase, the cryptocurrency exchange, have fallen 81 percent since its debut in April last year. Robinhood, the stock trading app that had explosive growth during the pandemic, is trading 75 percent below its I.P.O. price. Last month, the company laid off 9 percent of its staff, blaming overzealous “hypergrowth.”SPACs, which were a trendy way for very young companies to go public in recent years, have performed so poorly that some are now going private again. SOC Telemed, an online health care start-up, went public using such a vehicle in 2020, valuing it at $720 million. In February, Patient Square Capital, an investment firm, bought it for around $225 million, a 70 percent discount.Others are in danger of running out of cash. Canoo, an electric vehicle company that went public in late 2020, said on Tuesday that it had “substantial doubt” about its ability to stay in business.Baiju Bhatt, left, and Vlad Tenev, founders of Robinhood, at the New York Stock Exchange last year for the company’s initial public offering. Robinhood recently laid off 9 percent of its workers.Sasha Maslov for The New York TimesBlend Labs, a financial technology start-up focused on mortgages, was worth $3 billion in the private market. Since it went public last year, its value has sunk to $1 billion. Last month, it said it would cut 200 workers, or roughly 10 percent of its staff.Tim Mayopoulos, Blend’s president, blamed the cyclical nature of the mortgage business and the steep drop in refinancings that accompany rising interest rates.“We’re looking at all of our expenses,” he said. “High-growth cash-burning businesses are, from an investor-sentiment perspective, clearly not in favor.” More

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    Hot Job Market, an Economic Relief, Is a Wall Street Worry

    This year’s decline in stock prices follows a historical pattern: “When unemployment is ultra low, the uppity times are behind us,” a bank research chief said.The U.S. unemployment rate is 3.6 percent — only a hair above its level just before the pandemic, which was a 50-year low. Corporate profits rocketed by 35 percent in 2021, and profit margins were at their widest since 1950. Yet stocks have been hammered lately: Two key stock indexes, the S&P 500 and the Nasdaq 100, have been deep in negative terrain since the start of the year.What may seem a contradiction is actually a historical pattern: Hot labor markets and hot stock markets often don’t mix well.In fact, times of low unemployment are correlated with somewhat subdued stock returns, while valuations trend higher on average during periods of high unemployment. Analysts explain this phenomenon as a plain function of the unemployment rate’s status as a “lagging indicator” — letting people know how the economy was faring in the immediate past — while the stock market itself constantly serves as a “leading indicator,” coldly, if somewhat imperfectly, projecting an evolving consensus about the fate of companies as time goes on.“When unemployment is ultra low, the uppity times are behind us, and when it’s super high, there are good times ahead,” said Padhraic Garvey, a head of research at ING, a global bank.Stocks outperform on average when unemployment is high.Average annual returns in the S&P 500 index from 1948 to 2022, by the concurrent rate of unemployment

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    Average annual returns
    Note: The S&P 500 index was formally introduced in 1957. The performance of companies prior to 1957 that joined the index later are included in this analysis.Sources: Ben Koeppel, BXK Capital; Ben Carlson, Ritholtz Wealth By The New York TimesIn 2007, for instance, unemployment sank as low as 4.4 percent, but the annual return for the S&P 500 index was only 5.5 percent. Stocks plunged during the financial crisis the next year — and then, in 2009, as unemployment ripped higher to 10 percent, the index gained 26.5 percent. (Breaks in the pattern occur, since various tailwinds for big business, such as the tech boom of the 1990s, can briefly overpower historical trends.)When recoveries peak, investor exuberance can lead to excessive risk taking by businesses, which plants the seeds of the next downturn — just as workers are benefiting from being in high demand, with their higher wages cutting into corporate cash piles built up during good times, putting pressure on near-term profits. Financial investors also have to contend with the Federal Reserve’s response to the cycle — if there’s inflation, as there is now, a strong labor market may give it room to raise interest rates. A weak one can pressure it to cut rates. Action in either direction affects stock valuations.The State of Jobs in the United StatesJob openings and the number of workers voluntarily leaving their positions in the United States remained near record levels in March.March Jobs Report: U.S. employers added 431,000 jobs and the unemployment rate fell to 3.6 percent ​​in the third month of 2022.Job Market and Stocks: This year’s decline in stock prices follows a historical pattern: Hot labor markets and stocks often don’t mix well.New Career Paths: For some, the Covid-19 crisis presented an opportunity to change course. Here is how these six people pivoted professionally.Return to the Office: Many companies are loosening Covid safety rules, leaving people to navigate social distancing on their own. Some workers are concerned.This year, in addition to those forces, the war in Ukraine has slowed global growth and added to the pandemic’s strain on global supply chains, increasing the cost of raw materials.Senior executives at Morgan Stanley wrote in a recent note that their “strategists see higher wages amid the tightening labor market and related labor shortages posing a risk to 2022 corporate profit margins,” adding a reminder that “what matters for markets isn’t always the same as what matters for the aggregate economy.”Wage growth, milder in recent history, has spiked quickly.Median wage growth for hourly workers from the prior year, three-month average

    Note: Gaps in the data are due to methodology changes in the Current Population Survey that prevent year-over-year comparisons.Source: Federal Reserve Bank of AtlantaBy The New York TimesEven though large companies achieved record profit margins last year, earnings estimates for many firms are declining compared with expectations set earlier this year. Recent “wage inflation,” as many frame it, is seen by countless stock traders as adding one burden too many — rapid enough to worry not only executives but also some prominent liberal economists who typically shrug off complaints about labor expenses as overplayed.Federal Reserve data shows that median annual pay increases are within the range — 3 to 7 percent — that prevailed from the 1980s until the 2007-9 recession. But a variety of leaders in business and in government, including the Fed chair, Jerome H. Powell, and Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen, have become more wary of their brisk pace.Corporate profits hit new highs last year.After-tax profits for U.S. corporations, seasonally adjusted

    Notes: Profits are in current dollars, not adjusted for inflation, minus capital consumption adjustment or inventory valuation adjustment (IVA). Sources: U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis; Federal Reserve Bank of St. LouisBy The New York TimesIn the nonfinancial “real” economy, intense competition for workers that leads to greater choice and compensation is positive “because we’re making more money, we have more money to spend, we can absorb inflation better because we’ve gotten raises,” said Liz Young, head of investment strategy at SoFi, a San Francisco-based financial services company. At the same time, she acknowledged, “The other thing with a tight labor market is that when wages increase somebody has to pay for that.”Through most of the swift recovery from the pandemic-induced recession, money managers made a simple bet on the strengthening labor market as a signal that more people earning more disposable income would lead to even more spending on goods and services sold by the companies they trade, enhancing their future earnings.Now, the calculus on Wall Street isn’t so simple.In the coming months, many financial analysts say they’ll pay less attention to data on job creation and focus instead on growth in average hourly earnings — cheering for them to flatten or at least moderate, so that labor costs can ebb.Stocks have tumbled so far in 2022.S&P 500 daily close through April 26

    Source: S&P Dow Jones Indices LLCBy The New York TimesAfter three years of outsized returns, the down year in markets is compounding the sour mood among the nation’s broadly defined middle class, whose wage gains have generally not kept up with inflation, and whose retirement savings and net worth (outside of home equity) are partly tied to such indexes. The University of Michigan consumer sentiment index has been hovering near lows not reached since the slow jobs recovery after the 2008 financial crisis.Ultimately, this cranky disconnect between strong jobs data and the national mood may stem from an initial lag between relative winners and losers in this robust-but-rocky recovery: The economic benefits of tightening an already-tight labor market are, in the short run, relatively concentrated — accruing to those with lower starting wages and less formal education, and to demographic cohorts like Black Americans, who are often “last hired, first fired” during business cycles. In the meantime, the downsides of even temporary high inflation are diffuse — spread broadly across the population, though frequently damaging the finances of lower-income groups the most.It remains true that the increased demand for labor has helped millions of workers come out ahead. After adjusting for inflation, wages have fallen for middle- and high-income groups but risen for the bottom third of earners on average: The wages of the typically lower-paid employees of the leisure and hospitality industry — the broad sector focused on travel, dining, entertainment, recreation and tourism — have risen nearly 15 percent over the past year, far outpacing inflation.A substantial bloc of economists are contending that wages are receiving too much blame for inflation. A recent analysis across 110 industries by the Economic Policy Institute, a progressive think tank based in Washington, concluded that wage growth wasn’t correlated with the surge in costs that suppliers dealt with last year, suggesting that much of inflation could still be stemming from other forces, like supply chain imbalances.Many analysts believe that if unemployment stays low enough for long enough, the fruits of a hot labor market will widen — creating a virtuous cycle in which employers increase pay for various rungs of workers, while economizing their business models to become more efficient, increasing capacity, productivity and the health of corporate balance sheets.That hope is under threat, as the Federal Reserve proceeds with a plan to increase borrowing costs by quickly raising interest rates to rein in some lending, consumer spending, business investment and demand for labor.Despite various challenges, the most optimistic market participants predict that employers, workers and consumers can experience a so-called “soft landing” this year, in which the Fed increases borrowing costs, helping inflation and wage growth moderate without a painful slowdown that kills off the recovery: Morgan Stanley strategists, for instance, expect real wages to turn positive overall by midyear, outpacing price increases, as inflation eases and pay rates maintain some strength. That could be a boon for stocks as well.“It’s possible that over the next few quarters the labor market continues to be tight despite the Fed hiking,” said Andrew Flowers, a labor economist at Appcast, a tech firm that helps companies target recruitment ads. He still sees an “overwhelming appetite” for hiring.Although especially low unemployment isn’t typically a bullish sign for stocks, some recent years have bucked the trend. In 2019, when the S&P 500 returned roughly 30 percent, unemployment by year’s end had fallen to 3.6 percent, in line with present levels.In such an uncertain environment, forecasts for how stocks will fare by the end of the year are varying widely among top Wall Street firms. By several technical measures, the market’s trajectory is currently near “make or break” levels.Public companies have “become massively efficient, so from an operating performance basis, they’ve been able to take on these extra costs,” said Brian Belski, the chief investment strategist at BMO Capital Markets. The outlook from Mr. Belski’s bank is among the most confident, with a call that the S&P 500 index will finish 2022 at 5,300 — 27 percent above Tuesday’s close, and far above most estimates.“At the end of the day, I think for the economy it’s good that we are seeing these sort of wages,” he said. “Don’t ever bet against the U.S. consumer, ever.” More

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    Stocks sink and oil prices jump as markets reel from Russia’s attack on Ukraine.

    The price of oil jumped to more than $105 a barrel for the first time since 2014, European natural gas futures soared 31 percent, and global stock indexes plummeted on Thursday as Russia launched an invasion of Ukraine, extending market turmoil in the United States and Europe that had been driven by fears of a full-scale attack.Wall Street was poised for a slide when trading begins, with futures pointing to a 2.5 percent drop in the S&P 500.The devastation in financial and commodity markets from Russia’s overnight attack was immediate and broad, starting in Asia’s markets, where the Hang Seng in Hong Kong lost 3.2 percent.By midday in Europe, Germany’s DAX index had fallen nearly 5 percent, and the broader Stoxx Europe 600 was 3.8 percent lower.The price of Brent crude oil, the global benchmark, rose more than 8 percent to $105.32 a barrel. West Texas Intermediate crude also jumped 8 percent, moving above $100 a barrel for the first time in over seven years.Dutch front-month gas futures, a European benchmark for natural gas, jumped 31 percent when trading started, to about 116.5 euros a megawatt-hour. Russia provides more than a third of the European Union’s gas, with some of it running through pipelines in Ukraine.With more severe financial sections against Russia in the works, global bank stocks are falling faster than the markets overall. Shares of European banks with the biggest Russian operations are plunging: Raiffeisen of Austria is down 17 percent, while UniCredit of Italy and Société Générale of France have both lost 11 percent of their value in early trading.In Moscow, stocks collapsed and the ruble fell to a record low against the dollar. The MOEX Russia equities index lost nearly a third of its value. The Russian stock exchange resumed trading at 10 a.m. local time after suspending the session earlier in the day.Global markets had broadly been souring in recent days. The Stoxx Europe 600 reversed early gains to fall 0.3 percent on Wednesday. The S&P 500 notched its fourth consecutive day of losses, losing 1.8 percent and sliding deeper into correction territory — a drop of more than 10 percent from a recent high. It is now 11.9 percent off its Jan. 3 peak.The news from Ukraine turned increasingly dire on Thursday. The Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, ordered the start of a “special military operation,” and Ukraine’s government confirmed that several cities were under attack. Cyberattacks also knocked out government institutions in Ukraine. The Ukraine Crisis’s Effect on the Global EconomyCard 1 of 6A rising concern. More

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    Russia-Ukraine Crisis Troubles the Stock Market

    Whether you call it a correction or a panic attack, a stock market that was already becoming shaky has been roiled by Russia’s hostilities toward Ukraine.The U.S. stock market has been stumbling since the beginning of the year. Now, Russia’s escalating conflict with Ukraine is adding considerably to the market’s problems.After President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia ordered troops to enter two separatist-controlled enclaves in Ukraine, the S&P 500, which often serves as a proxy for the U.S. stock market, also crossed a notable threshold.On Tuesday, the S&P 500 fell to 4,304.76, down 1.01 percent for the day. That wasn’t much of a loss, but it nonetheless represented a notable milestone. It brought the stock market down 10.3 percent from its most recent peak on Jan. 3.On Wednesday, the index dropped another 1.84 percent, bringing its losses from the record to 11.9 percent.In Wall Street jargon, that meant the S&P 500 is in a “correction,” because its losses since Jan. 3 exceeded 10 percent.That 10 percent definition is entirely arbitrary and the subject of many quibbles, but this much is clear: A correction is not a good thing.“It’s an early warning indicator that tells you the market isn’t heading in the direction you want it to be going in,” said Edward Yardeni, an independent Wall Street economist who has compiled detailed records on modern stock market history. “A 10 percent decline isn’t that bad in itself, necessarily, but if the market keeps heading down, the next thing you know, you’re down 20 percent and then by common agreement you’re in a bear market, and, maybe, worrying about a recession.”

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    Recent S&P 500 Corrections
    Note: Bear markets are highlighted in red. The low point of the correction from the peak on Jan. 3, 2022, has yet to be determined. Source: Yardeni ResearchBy The New York TimesWhat makes the market decline disconcerting is that an escalating geopolitical conflict in Eastern Europe is now being added to the stock market’s ample woes.Stocks have been falling for weeks, for a variety of reasons. Concerns about the prospect of rising interest rates and generally tighter monetary policy from the Federal Reserve are at the top of my personal list.The Fed is, perhaps belatedly, planning at its meeting on March 15-16 to start increasing its benchmark funds rate from its current near-zero level, and then to begin reducing its $8.9 trillion balance sheet. All that is intended to mitigate the inflation that is running at an annual rate of 7.5 percent, a 40-year high.In addition, the death, illness and inconvenience caused by the coronavirus pandemic have had myriad pernicious effects. The labor force in the United States is smaller than it would be otherwise, and the economy’s service sector hasn’t fully rebounded. The pandemic has also caused supply chain bottlenecks that have held back sales and production and increased the prices of important products as varied as automobiles and kitchen appliances.Many publicly traded companies are circumventing these problems and passing the associated costs on to consumers, but their ability to keep doing so, while generating the profits that fuel the stock market, is questionable.The Russia-Ukraine crisis threatens to make matters worse for the economy and the markets. Russia produces important commodities, like palladium, which is needed in the catalytic converters of gasoline-powered automobiles, and whose prices have contributed to the high inflation in the United States.The anticipation of interruptions in commodity supplies has increased prices in futures markets, particularly for oil and natural gas, all of which could go much higher if the Ukraine crisis intensifies and if Western sanctions begin to bite.For those who remember the 1970s and early 1980s, an era of soaring inflation and multiple recessions caused in part by a geopolitical shift and two oil shocks, the possibility of a 2020s parallel is deeply disturbing.So is the fact that Russia is a nuclear power engaging in aggressive action against an independent country that is supported by NATO. The possibility that the conflict could be the start of a new Cold War, or something even worse, can’t be totally dismissed.That said, for investors, it’s worth remembering that since the stock market hit bottom in March 2020, the S&P 500 rose 114.4 percent through Jan. 3. Compared with that stupendous increase, the market’s decline since then has been inconsequential.S&P 500Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic

    Source: RefinitivBy The New York TimesWhat’s more, although just about everyone who closely follows the stock market agrees that it has had a correction, there is no agreement on when it took place. Laszlo Birinyi, who began analyzing the market with Salomon Brothers back in 1976, says a correction happens whenever the market crosses the 10 percent border, whether it’s at the end of the trading day or in the middle of it.That’s why Mr. Birinyi, who heads his own independent stock market research firm, Birinyi Associates, in Westport, Conn., says a market correction occurred on Jan. 24, not on Tuesday. The market at one point on Jan. 24 dropped as far as 12 percent below its close on Jan. 3 before rebounding smartly. “The psychology of the market, the mood, shifted then,” Mr. Birinyi said. “People were panicky until then — and then they weren’t.”The Ukraine Crisis’s Effect on the Global EconomyCard 1 of 6A rising concern. More

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    Federal Reserve Rolls Out Tough Trading Restrictions After Scandal

    The Federal Reserve on Friday adopted a new set of ethics rules meant to prevent questionable financial market trading activity by top officials, a sweeping response to a scandal that has rocked the central bank since late last year.Fed officials traded in individual stocks, real estate securities and stock funds in 2020, a year in which the central bank rolled out a range of pandemic response programs that placed officials’ day-to-day decisions at the core of what happened in financial markets. Three high-ranking policymakers resigned earlier than they had planned after news of the trading broke last year and early in 2022.Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, acknowledged in the wake of the revelations that he and his colleagues were not “happy” with what had happened and said they would revamp the central bank’s ethics rules to prevent a similar situation in the future.The new rules, which were previewed in October, aim to fulfill that promise. They prevent senior officials from purchasing individual stocks or funds tracing business sectors, the Fed said, and they ban investments in individual bonds, cryptocurrencies, commodities or foreign currencies, among other securities.Senior Fed officials must now announce that they are buying or selling a security 45 days in advance, and that notice will not be retractable. Investments must be held for at least one year under the new guidelines.The Fed’s 12 regional bank presidents will be required to publicly disclose securities transactions within 30 days, the way that its seven board members in Washington already do. They must post financial disclosures on their bank websites, something they now do only sporadically.The fresh set of rules will apply to a wide array of personnel with access to sensitive information, from reserve bank first vice presidents and research directors to high-ranking staff members and people designated by the chair.The Fed will also extend its financial trading blackout period — which typically applies in the run-up to Fed meetings — by one day after each meeting. That will align it with the period in which Fed officials are not allowed to give speeches.Most of the restrictions will take effect on May 1, although the new rules on the advance notice and preclearance of transactions will take effect on July 1.Financial disclosures released in late 2021 showed that Robert S. Kaplan, the former Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas president, had made big individual-stock trades, while Eric S. Rosengren, the Boston Fed president, had traded in real estate securities. Mr. Kaplan resigned in September, citing the scandal; Mr. Rosengren resigned simultaneously, citing health issues.Richard H. Clarida, then the Fed’s vice chair, sold and then rapidly repurchased a stock fund on the eve of a major Fed decision, corrected financial disclosures showed. Mr. Clarida also resigned slightly earlier than planned, though he did not cite a reason. More

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    Inflation and Deficits Don’t Dim the Appeal of U.S. Bonds

    Markets have been in upheaval. The Federal Reserve is taking steps to cool off the economy, as questions loom about the course of the recovery. And headlines are proclaiming that government bond yields are near two-year highs.But the striking thing about bonds isn’t that yields — which influence interest rates throughout the economy — have risen. It’s that they remain so low.In the past year, with consumer prices rising at a pace unseen since the early 1980s, a conventional presumption was that the demand for bonds would slump unless their yields were high enough to substantially offset inflation’s bite on investors’ portfolios.Bond purchases remained near record levels anyway, which pushed yields lower. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note — the key security in the $22 trillion market for U.S. government bonds — is about 1.8 percent. That’s roughly where it was on the eve of the pandemic, or when Donald J. Trump was elected president, or even a decade ago, when inflation was running at a mere 1.7 percent annual rate — compared with the 7 percent year-over-year increase in the Consumer Price Index recorded in December.If you had run that data past market experts last spring, “I think you would have been hard-pressed to find anybody on the Street who’d believe you,” said Scott Pavlak, a fixed-income portfolio manager at MetLife Investment Management.Because the 10-year Treasury yield is a benchmark for many other interest rates, the rates on mortgages and corporate debt have been near historical lows as well. And despite a binge of deficit spending by the U.S. government — which standard theories say should make a nation’s borrowing more expensive — continuing demand for government debt securities has meant that investors are, in inflation-adjusted terms, paying to hold Treasury bonds rather than getting a positive return.The major reasons for this odd phenomenon include long-term expectations about inflation, a large (and unequally distributed) surge in wealth worldwide and the growing ranks of retiring baby boomers who want to protect their nest eggs against the volatility of stocks.And that has potentially huge consequences for public finances.“If governments ever wanted to engage in an aggressive program of spending, now is the time,” said Padhraic Garvey, a head of research at ING, a global bank. “This is a perfect time to issue bonds as long as possible and proceed with long-term investment plans — and as long as the rate of return on those plans is in excess of the funding costs, they pay for themselves.”Weighing the Fed’s RoleBecause the government debt issued by the United States is valued, with few exceptions, as the safest financial asset in the global market — and because this debt is used as the collateral for trillions of dollars of systemically important transactions — the monthly and weekly fluctuations of key U.S. Treasuries, like the 10-year note, are watched closely.There are rancorous debates about the added role that the emergency bond-buying program conducted by the Fed since March 2020 — which included hundreds of billions of dollars in U.S. debt securities — has played in keeping rates down. Understand Inflation in the U.S.Inflation 101: What is inflation, why is it up and whom does it hurt? Our guide explains it all.Your Questions, Answered: We asked readers to send questions about inflation. Top experts and economists weighed in.What’s to Blame: Did the stimulus cause prices to rise? Or did pandemic lockdowns and shortages lead to inflation? A debate is heating up in Washington.Supply Chain’s Role: A key factor in rising inflation is the continuing turmoil in the global supply chain. Here’s how the crisis unfolded.Some of the central bank’s critics concede that the Fed’s aggressive measures (which officials are dialing back) may have proved necessary at the start of the pandemic to stabilize markets. But they insist its program, another form of economic stimulus, continued far too long, egging on inflation by increasing demand and keeping rates low — an equation that hurt savers who could benefit from higher returns to hedge against the price increases.Still, most mainstream analysts also tend to identify a broader gumbo of coalescing factors beyond monetary policy.Several major market participants attribute these stubbornly low yields in spite of a high-growth, high-inflation economy to a widening sense among investors that a time of slower growth and milder price increases may eventually reassert itself.“While inflation has surged, they do not expect it to be persistent,” said Brett Ryan, the senior U.S. economist at Deutsche Bank. “In other words, over the long run, the post-pandemic world is likely to look very similar to the prepandemic state of the economy.”Long-run inflation expectations are still relatively anchored at an annual rate of about 2.4 percent over the next 10 years. This indicates that markets think the Fed will prevent inflation from spiraling upward, despite the huge increase in debt and the supply of dollars.Lots of Cash in Search of HavensOne potent element driving down rates is that from 2000 to 2020 — a stretch that included a burst dot-com bubble, a breakdown of the world’s banking system and a pandemic that upended business activity — global wealth in terms of net worth more than tripled to $510 trillion. The resulting savings glut has deeply affected the market, particularly for government bonds.The vast majority of wealth has accumulated to borderless corporations and a multinational elite desperate to park that capital somewhere that is safe and allows its money to earn some level of interest, rather than lose value even more quickly as cash. They view lending the money to a national government in its own currency as a prudent investment because, at worst, the debt can be repaid by creating more of that currency.The downside for these investors is that only so many stable, powerful countries have this privilege: This mix of exorbitant levels of wealth and a scarcity of safe havens for it has whetted, at least for now, a deepening appetite for reliable government debt securities — especially U.S. Treasuries.“To have truly risk-free returns and storage of your dollars, where else are you going to put them?” asked Daniel Alpert, a managing partner of the investment bank Westwood Capital.As the principle of supply and demand would suggest, the combination of high demand and low supply has helped keep Treasury bond prices high, which in turn produces lower yields.Demographic changes are affecting bond trends, too. As they approach or reach retirement, hundreds of millions of people across developed economies are looking for safer places than the stock market for their assets.Even in an inflationary environment, “there’s just this huge demand for yield in fixed income from people,” said Ben Carlson, the director of institutional asset management at Ritholtz Wealth Management. “You have all these boomer retirees who have money in the stock market and they’re doing great, but they know soon they’re not going to have a paycheck anymore and they need some portion of their portfolio to provide yield and stability.”Running Room for Federal SpendingThe U.S. Treasury market has grown to roughly $23 trillion, from $3 trillion two decades ago — directly in step with the national debt, which has grown to over 120 percent of gross domestic product, from 55 percent.But borrowing costs for the American government have trended lower, not higher. Congress issued roughly $5 trillion in Treasury debt securities to finance pandemic fiscal relief, “and we had, effectively, zero cost of capital for most of it,” said Yesha Yadav, a law professor at Vanderbilt University whose scholarship covers the Treasury market’s structure and regulations.Since the 1980s, the federal debt has skyrocketed.Total public debt as a percentage of gross domestic product

    Note: Data through the third quarter of 2021Source: Federal Reserve Board of St. LouisBy The New York TimesBut the cost of paying investors back is at its lowest in years.Interest payments on U.S. debt as a percentage of gross domestic product.

    Note: Data through 2020. Federal interest payments are still projected to be low in 2022.Source: Federal Reserve Economic DataBy The New York TimesThe cost of the interest payments that the U.S. government owes on its debt peaked in 1991 at 3.2 percent of gross domestic product, when the national debt was only 44 percent of G.D.P. By that measure, interest costs now are about half what they were back then.Inflation F.A.Q.Card 1 of 6What is inflation? More