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    US National Debt Tops $31 Trillion for First Time

    America’s borrowing binge has long been viewed as sustainable because of historically low interest rates. But as rates rise, the nation’s fiscal woes are getting worse.WASHINGTON — America’s gross national debt exceeded $31 trillion for the first time on Tuesday, a grim financial milestone that arrived just as the nation’s long-term fiscal picture has darkened amid rising interest rates.The breach of the threshold, which was revealed in a Treasury Department report, comes at an inopportune moment, as historically low interest rates are being replaced with higher borrowing costs as the Federal Reserve tries to combat rapid inflation. While record levels of government borrowing to fight the pandemic and finance tax cuts were once seen by some policymakers as affordable, those higher rates are making America’s debts more costly over time.“So many of the concerns we’ve had about our growing debt path are starting to show themselves as we both grow our debt and grow our rates of interest,” said Michael A. Peterson, the chief executive officer of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, which promotes deficit reduction. “Too many people were complacent about our debt path in part because rates were so low.”The new figures come at a volatile economic moment, with investors veering between fears of a global recession and optimism that one may be avoided. On Tuesday, markets rallied close to 3 percent, extending gains from Monday and putting Wall Street on a more positive path after a brutal September. The rally stemmed in part from a government report that showed signs of some slowing in the labor market. Investors took that as a signal that the Fed’s interest rate increases, which have raised borrowing costs for companies, may soon begin to slow.Higher rates could add an additional $1 trillion to what the federal government spends on interest payments this decade, according to Peterson Foundation estimates. That is on top of the record $8.1 trillion in debt costs that the Congressional Budget Office projected in May. Expenditures on interest could exceed what the United States spends on national defense by 2029, if interest rates on public debt rise to be just one percentage point higher than what the C.B.O. estimated over the next few years.The Fed, which slashed rates to near zero during the pandemic, has since begun raising them to try to tame the most rapid inflation in 40 years. Rates are now set in a range between 3 and 3.25 percent, and the central bank’s most recent projections saw them climbing to 4.6 percent by the end of next year — up from 3.8 percent in an earlier forecast.Federal debt is not like a 30-year mortgage that is paid off at a fixed interest rate. The government is constantly issuing new debt, which effectively means its borrowing costs rise and fall along with interest rates.Inflation F.A.Q.Card 1 of 5What is inflation? More

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    Job Openings Fell in August, but Turnover Was Little Changed

    Government data showed 10.1 million openings, a decline from 11.2 million in July. Overall hiring, quitting and layoffs were fairly steady.Employers continued to ease off the number of jobs they were hiring for in August, but not by much, adding to the picture of a labor market that’s cooling but still short of available workers.About 10.1 million positions were open at the end of the summer, down from 11.2 million in July, the Labor Department reported Tuesday. That still left 1.7 unemployed workers for each available job, around the highest proportion on record.The job openings rate — calculated by dividing the number of job openings by the sum of employment and open jobs — was 6.2 percent, down from a revised 6.8 percent in July. The number and share of people being hired and leaving their jobs remained about level.Federal Reserve officials have theorized that rather than prompting employers to lay people off, rising interest rates would instead subdue the economy by simply reducing their need for additional workers. So far, that’s happening — but very slowly.“Our perspective is really distorted,” said Diane Swonk, chief economist at the accounting firm KPMG. “It’s still not anything like what we saw prepandemic. It’s cooling from a boil to a rolling simmer. And that’s not enough.”Ms. Swonk referred to data released by the job search website Indeed, which shows a consistently elevated level of new job postings, even though demand for retail workers in particular has leveled off.“They’ve come off their peak, but they’re still plateauing at a high level,” Ms. Swonk said. The share of people quitting their jobs is also an indicator of workers’ confidence that employment opportunities abound. About 4.2 million people gave notice in August, slightly more than during the previous month. That left the rate of people quitting their jobs — the number of people voluntarily leaving their jobs divided by total employment — only slightly below the 3 percent it reached at the end of last year, the highest reading on record.One of the largest drops in openings came in the financial sector, where mortgage brokers have been losing work as rising interest rates are subduing the housing market, although openings in rental and leasing activities rose. Retail openings also dropped, as companies prepared for a softer holiday season.Even while slowing down job postings, companies have been holding on to workers. After rising slightly in the first half of the year, the number of initial claims for unemployment has been trending lower since midsummer as employers have tried to stay fully staffed. In the release by the Labor Department on Tuesday, layoffs ticked up slightly to 1.5 million in August, but remained lower than their historical average.“Simply put, companies slashed payrolls by more than was necessary during the height of the pandemic and are struggling to restore staffing levels to where they were before Covid-19 hit,” Bob Schwartz, an Oxford Economics senior economist, wrote in a note last week. More

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    Less Turnover, Smaller Raises: Hot Job Market May Be Losing Its Sizzle

    Unemployment is low, and hiring is strong. But there are signs that frenzied turnover and rapid wage growth are abating.Last year, Klaussner Home Furnishings was so desperate for workers that it began renting billboards near its headquarters in Asheboro, N.C., to advertise job openings. The steep competition for labor drove wages for employees on the furniture maker’s production floor up 12 to 20 percent. The company began offering $1,000 signing bonuses to sweeten the deal.“Consumer demand was through the roof,” said David Cybulski, Klaussner’s president and chief executive. “We just couldn’t get enough labor fast enough.”But in recent months, Mr. Cybulski has noticed that frenzy die down.Hiring for open positions has gotten easier, he said, and fewer Klaussner workers are leaving for other jobs. The company, which has about 1,100 employees, is testing performance rewards to keep workers happy rather than racing to increase wages. The $1,000 signing bonus ended in the spring.“No one is really chasing employees to the dollar anymore,” he said.By many measures, the labor market is still extraordinarily strong even as fears of a recession loom. The unemployment rate, which stood at 3.7 percent in August, remains near a five-decade low. There are twice as many job openings as unemployed workers available to fill them. Layoffs, despite some high-profile announcements in recent weeks, are close to a record low.But there are signs that the red-hot labor market may be coming off its boiling point.Major employers such as Walmart and Amazon have announced slowdowns in hiring; others, such as FedEx, have frozen hiring altogether.Americans in July quit their jobs at the lowest rate in more than a year, a sign that the period of rapid job switching, sometimes called the Great Resignation, may be nearing its end. Wage growth, which soared as companies competed for workers, has also slowed, particularly in industries like dining and travel where the job market was particularly hot last year.More broadly, many companies around the country say they are finding it less arduous to attract and retain employees — partly because many are paring their hiring plans, and partly because the pool of available workers has grown as more people come off the economy’s sidelines.The labor force grew by more than three-quarters of a million people in August, the biggest gain since the early months of the pandemic. Some executives expect hiring to keep getting easier as the economy slows and layoffs pick up.“Not that I wish ill on any people out there from a layoff perspective or whatever else, but I think there could be an opportunity for us to ramp some of that hiring over the coming months,” Eric Hart, then the chief financial officer at Expedia, told investors on the company’s earnings call in August.Taken together, those signals point to an economic environment in which employers may be regaining some of the leverage they ceded to workers during the pandemic months.The State of Jobs in the United StatesEconomists have been surprised by recent strength in the labor market, as the Federal Reserve tries to engineer a slowdown and tame inflation.August Jobs Report: Job growth slowed in August but stayed solid, suggesting that the labor market recovery remains resilient, even as companies pull back on hiring.Factory Jobs: American manufacturers have now added enough jobs to regain all that they shed during the pandemic — and then some.Missing Workers: The labor market appears hot, but the supply of labor has fallen short, holding back the economy. Here is why.Black Employment: Black workers saw wages and employment rates go up in the wake of the pandemic. But as the Federal Reserve tries to tame inflation, those gains could be eroded.That is bad news for workers, particularly those at the bottom of the pay ladder who have been able to take advantage of the hot labor market to demand higher pay, more flexible schedules and other benefits. With inflation still high, weaker wage growth will mean that more workers will find their standard of living slipping.But for employers — and for policymakers at the Federal Reserve — the calculation looks different. A modest cooling would be welcome after months in which employers struggled to find enough staff to meet strong demand, and in which rapid wage growth contributed to the fastest inflation in decades.Too pronounced a slowdown, however, could lead to a sharp rise in unemployment, which would almost certainly lead to a drop in consumer demand and create a new set of problems for employers.Leila and David Manshoory have struggled for months to recruit workers for their fast-growing skin care and beauty brand, Alleyoop. In recent weeks, however, that has begun to change. They have begun to get more applications from more qualified candidates, some of whom have been laid off by other e-commerce companies. And notably, applicants aren’t demanding the sky-high salaries they were last spring.“I think the tables are turning a little bit,” Mr. Manshoory said. “There are people who need to pay their bills and are realizing there might not be a million jobs out there.”Alleyoop, too, has pared its hiring plans somewhat in preparation for a possible recession. But not too much — Mr. Manshoory said he saw this as a moment to snap up talent that the three-year-old company might struggle to hire in a different economic environment.“You kind of want to lean in when other people are pulling back,” he said. “You just have more selection. There’s a lot of, unfortunately, talented people getting let go from really large companies.”The resilience of the labor market has surprised many economists, who expected companies to pull back on hiring as growth slowed and interest rates rose. Instead, employers have continued adding jobs at a rapid clip.Klaussner Home Furnishings, which has about 1,100 employees, is testing performance rewards to keep workers happy rather than racing to increase wages.Eamon Queeney for The New York Times“There are some signs in the labor market data that there’s been a bit of cooling since the beginning of the year, or even the spring, but it’s not a lot,” said Nick Bunker, director of North American economic research for the career site Indeed. “Maybe the temperature has ticked down a degree or two, but it’s still pretty high.”But Mr. Bunker said there was evidence that the frenzy that characterized the labor market over the past year and a half had begun to die down. Job openings have fallen steadily in Indeed’s data, which is more up to date than the government’s tally.And Mr. Bunker said the decline in voluntary quits was particularly notable because so much recent wage growth had come from workers moving between jobs in search of better pay.Recent research from economists at the Federal Reserve Banks of Dallas and St. Louis found that there had been a huge increase in poaching — companies hiring workers away from other jobs — during the recent hiring boom.If companies become less willing to recruit workers from competitors, and to pay the premium that doing so requires, or if workers become less likely to hop between jobs, that could lead wage growth to ease even if layoffs don’t pick up.There are hints that could be happening. A recent survey from another career site, ZipRecruiter, found that workers had become less confident in their ability to find a job and were putting more emphasis on finding a job they considered secure.“Workers and job seekers are feeling just a little bit less bold, a little bit more concerned about the future availability of jobs, a little bit more concerned about the stability of their own jobs,” said Julia Pollak, chief economist at ZipRecruiter.Some businesses, meanwhile, are becoming a bit less frantic to hire. A survey of small businesses from the National Federation of Independent Business found that while many employers still had open positions, fewer of them expected to fill those jobs in the next three months.More clues about the strength of the labor market could come in the upcoming months, the time of year when companies, including retailers, traditionally ramp up hiring for the holiday season. Walmart said in September that this year it would hire a fraction of the workers it did during the last holiday season.The signs of a cool-down extend even to leisure and hospitality, the sector where hiring challenges have been most acute. Openings in the sector have fallen sharply from the record levels of last year, and hourly earnings growth slowed to less than 9 percent in August from a rate of more than 16 percent last year.Until recently, staffing shortages at Biggby Coffee were so severe that many of the chain’s 300-plus stores had to close early some days, or in some cases not open at all. But while hiring remains a challenge, the pressure has begun to ease, said Mike McFall, the company’s co-founder and co-chief executive. One franchisee recently told him that 22 of his 25 locations were fully staffed and that only one was experiencing a severe shortage.A Biggby Coffee store in Sterling Heights, Mich. Until recently, staffing shortages at some locations were so severe that many of the chain’s 300-plus stores had to close early some days.Sarah Rice for The New York Times“We are definitely feeling the burden is lifting in terms of getting people to take the job,” Mr. McFall said. “We’re getting more applications, we’re getting more people through training now.”The shift is a welcome one for business owners like Mr. McFall. Franchisees have had to raise wages 50 percent or more to attract and retain workers, he said — a cost increase they have offset by raising prices.“The expectation by the consumer is that you are raising prices, and so if you don’t take advantage of that moment, you are going to be in a pickle,” he said, referring to the pressure to increase wages. “So you manage it by raising prices.”So far, Mr. McFall said, higher prices haven’t deterred customers. Still, he said, the period of severe staffing shortages is not without its costs. He has seen a loss in sales, as well as a loss of efficiency and experienced workers. That will take time to rebuild, he said.“When we were in crisis, it was all we were focused on,” he said. “So now that it feels like the crisis is mitigating, that it’s getting a little better, we can now begin to focus on the culture in the stores and try to build that up again.” More

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    August PCE Inflation Data Shows Prices Are Stubbornly High

    The Federal Reserve’s preferred inflation gauge remained elevated in August, data released on Friday showed, further evidence that the central bank is contending with a stubborn problem as it tries to choke off the worst inflation in four decades.The Personal Consumption Expenditures inflation measure, which is the measure the Fed officially targets as it tries to achieve 2 percent annual inflation, climbed 6.2 percent over the year through August. While that was a slowdown from 6.4 percent in July, it was higher than the 6 percent that economists in a Bloomberg survey had expected.The details of the report were even more concerning. Price increases have been moderating somewhat on an overall basis, partly because gas prices have been declining. But after volatile fuel and food prices were stripped out to get a sense of underlying inflationary pressures, the index climbed 4.9 percent over the year through August, an acceleration from 4.7 percent the month before. And on a monthly basis, the core index picked up by 0.6 percent, the fastest increase since June.Consumers also continued to spend in August, particularly on dining, travel and other services, the report showed, though the pace was slowing. Incomes rose, buoyed by a hot job market.The data underlined the challenging path the Fed faces as it tries to guide the U.S. economy toward slower inflation. Both the economy and price pressures have retained momentum, even as central bankers raise interest rates to try to cool demand. As a result, the Fed has become steadily more aggressive in its efforts to constrain spending and temper inflation, and it is likely to keep raising rates and keep them elevated for a while.Inflation F.A.Q.Card 1 of 5What is inflation? More

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    New Inflation Data Shows Prices Remain Stubbornly High

    The Federal Reserve’s preferred inflation gauge remained elevated in new data released on Friday, further evidence that the central bank is contending with a stubborn problem as it tries to choke off the worst inflation in four decades.The Personal Consumption Expenditures inflation measure, which is produced by the Commerce Department and is the measure the Fed officially targets as it tries to achieve 2 percent annual inflation, climbed by 6.2 percent in the year through August. While that was a slowdown from 6.4 percent in July, it was higher than the 6 percent economists in a Bloomberg survey had expected.Inflation has been moderating somewhat on an overall basis partly because gas prices are declining. After stripping out food and fuel, both of which jump up and down, inflation climbed 4.9 percent in the year through August. That compares to 4.7 percent the month before. On a monthly basis, the core index picked up by 0.6 percent, a rapid pace of increase that was the fastest since June.The data underlined what a rocky road the Fed faces as it tries to guide the U.S. economy toward slower inflation.Economists are hopeful that healing supply chains, a slowing housing market, cooling consumer demand and a moderating labor market will combine to pull inflation lower in the months ahead. But Russia’s war in Ukraine poses a constant risk to the global supply of food and oil, and industries including automobiles remain severely disrupted. Rents and other service costs have been rising sharply, and labor shortages spanning many industries have pushed wages up, which could feed through to higher prices.Inflation F.A.Q.Card 1 of 5What is inflation? More

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    Inflation Has Hit Tenants Hard. What About Their Landlords?

    Publicly traded corporate landlords are reporting some of their highest margins ever, while smaller operators say rent increases are eaten up by costs.Of all the categories driving inflation in recent months, among the largest — and most persistent — is rent.In buildings with more than 50 units, tenants in one-bedroom apartments have been handed new leases costing about 17 percent more on average than they did in March 2020, according to CoStar Group, a Washington-based real estate data company. The Labor Department’s rent indicator — which includes ongoing leases, not just renewals — has steadily risen, to 6.7 percent last month over the previous August.So while tenants absorb rent increases that often exceed their income gains, are landlords minting money? It depends on the landlord.Publicly traded owners of sprawling real estate portfolios, like Invitation Homes, have enjoyed some of their best returns over the past few quarters. Things look very different, however, for Neal Verma, whose company manages 6,000 apartments in the Houston area.Earlier this year, Mr. Verma experimented with raising rents enough to cover the cost of spiking wages, property taxes, insurance and maintenance. Turnover doubled in the properties where he tried it, as people left for nearby buildings.“It’s crushing our margins,” Mr. Verma said. “Our profits from last year have evaporated, and we’re running at break-even at a number of properties. There’s some people who think landlords must be making money. No. We’ve only gone up 12 to 14 percent, and our expenses have gone up 30 percent.”Overall, the ferocious run-up in rents has been driven by tenants’ desire for more space and location flexibility created by remote work; rising interest rates that have locked would-be buyers out of the for-sale market; and cost increases on delayed maintenance. But the one factor landlords track most closely is their customers’ ability to absorb higher rents.Higher-earning tenants, who flock to newer buildings with more amenities, have been more willing to accept rent increases. Low-income renters, while seeing faster wage growth, have borne the brunt of higher prices for necessities like groceries and gasoline, and rents in older buildings are rising at a slower rate than in newer, nicer ones.“The reality is that rents can only rise as incomes rise,” said Jay Parsons, chief economist at the real estate data firm RealPage, noting that rent averages 23 percent of the monthly incomes across the apartments that RealPage tracks. “If people can’t afford it, you can’t lease it.”Geography also matters. Even among the largest landlords, those with a presence in Sun Belt cities such as Miami, Tampa, Nashville and Phoenix saw far faster rent growth than high-cost coastal markets like San Francisco, where rents fell substantially during the pandemic lockdowns as white-collar workers fled for remote locations.Inflation F.A.Q.Card 1 of 5What is inflation? More