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    Shock Waves Hit the Global Economy, Posing Grave Risk to Europe

    The threat to Europe’s industrial might and living standards is particularly acute as policymakers race to decouple the continent from Russia’s power sources.Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the continuing effects of the pandemic have hobbled countries around the globe, but the relentless series of crises has hit Europe the hardest, causing the steepest jump in energy prices, some of the highest inflation rates and the biggest risk of recession.The fallout from the war is menacing the continent with what some fear could become its most challenging economic and financial crisis in decades.While growth is slowing worldwide, “in Europe it’s altogether more serious because it’s driven by a more fundamental deterioration,” said Neil Shearing, group chief economist at Capital Economics. Real incomes and living standards are falling, he added. “Europe and Britain are just worse off.”Several countries, including Germany, the region’s largest economy, built up a decades-long dependence on Russian energy. The eightfold increase in natural gas prices since the war began presents a historic threat to Europe’s industrial might, living standards, and social peace and cohesion. Plans for factory closings, rolling blackouts and rationing are being drawn up in case of severe shortages this winter.The risk of sinking incomes, growing inequality and rising social tensions could lead “not only to a fractured society but a fractured world,” said Ian Goldin, a professor of globalization and development at Oxford University. “We haven’t faced anything like this since the 1970s, and it’s not ending soon.”Other regions of the world are also being squeezed, although some of the causes — and prospects — differ.Gazprom, Russia’s state-owned energy company, said this week that it would not resume the flow of natural gas through its Nord Stream 1 pipeline until Europe lifted Ukraine-related sanctions.Hannibal Hanschke/EPA, via ShutterstockHigher interest rates, which are being deployed aggressively to quell inflation, are trimming consumer spending and growth in the United States. Still, the American labor market remains strong, and the economy is moving forward.China, a powerful engine of global growth and a major market for European exports like cars, machinery and food, is facing its own set of problems. Beijing’s policy of continuing to freeze all activity during Covid-19 outbreaks has repeatedly paralyzed large swaths of the economy and added to worldwide supply chain disruptions. In the last few weeks alone, dozens of cities and more than 300 million people have been under full or partial lockdowns. Extreme heat and drought have hamstrung hydropower generation, forcing additional factory closings and rolling blackouts.A troubled real estate market has added to the economic instability in China. Hundreds of thousands of people are refusing to pay their mortgages because they have lost confidence that developers will ever deliver their unfinished housing units. Trade with the rest of the world took a hit in August, and overall economic growth, although likely to outrun rates in the United States and Europe, looks as if it will slip to its slowest pace in a decade this year. The prospect has prompted China’s central bank to cut interest rates in hopes of stimulating the economy.Understand the Decline in U.S. Gas PricesCard 1 of 5Understand the Decline in U.S. Gas PricesGas prices are falling. More

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    Price Cap on Russian Oil Wins Backing of G7 Ministers

    The proposal aims to stabilize unsettled energy markets in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But it faces considerable obstacles.WASHINGTON — Top officials from the world’s leading advanced economies agreed on Friday to move ahead with a plan to cap the price of Russian oil, accelerating an ambitious effort to limit how much money Russia can earn from each barrel of crude it sells on the global market.Finance ministers from the Group of 7 nations said they were firming up details of a price cap, with the aim of both depressing the price of global oil and reducing critical revenue that President Vladimir V. Putin is relying on to finance Russia’s war effort in Ukraine. The untested plan has been pushed by the Biden administration as way of keeping sanctions pressure on Russia while minimizing the impact on a global economy that has been saddled with soaring energy and food prices this year.Hours after the G7 ministers announced their plan on Friday, Gazprom, the Russian-owned energy giant, said it would postpone restarting the flow of natural gas through a closely watched pipeline that connects Russia to Germany, known as Nord Stream 1. The unexpected delay was attributed to mechanical problems with the pipeline, but it raised concerns that it was in retaliation for the price cap, an idea that Moscow has condemned.Eric Mamer, a spokesman for the European Commission, said that the “fallacious pretenses” for the latest delay were “proof of Russia’s cynicism.”The price cap still has many hurdles to clear before it can take effect, but its goal is to keep Russian oil flowing to global markets that depend on those supplies, while substantially reducing the profit Moscow reaps from its sales. Europe still consumes nearly two million barrels of Russian oil a day, though its imports have fallen since the war began, and the European Union is preparing to wean itself off those supplies by the end of the year.Officials are racing to put the price-cap plan in place by early December to try to limit the economic fallout from the new E.U. sanctions. They would ban nearly all Russian oil imports to the European Union and block the insurance and financing of Russian oil shipments.The Biden administration has become concerned that those moves could send energy prices skyrocketing and potentially tip the global economy into a recession if millions of barrels of Russian oil were suddenly yanked off the global market, drastically reducing the world’s supply of crude. U.S. administration officials have estimated that oil could soar to $200 a barrel or higher unless efforts to impose the price cap are successful.The initiative is a novel attempt to blunt the global economic impact of the invasion. Oil prices rose as fears of confrontation grew a year ago, and spiked when Russian troops entered Ukraine in February. They have receded in recent months, in part because much of Europe has tipped into recession, reducing global oil demand.Whether the price cap can work will hinge on a variety of factors, including securing agreement by all 27 E.U. member states and determining how the actual price would be set. Maritime insurers, which are critical to making the plan work, would also have to figure out how to comply in a way that allows them to continue insuring Russian oil cargo without running afoul of sanctions.The industry, which would be responsible for making sure that oil buyers and sellers were honoring the price cap, has warned that insurers lack the capacity to police the transactions. Financial services in Europe undergird international energy shipments around the world, and fully blocking their ability to deal with Russian oil could disrupt exports globally, even to countries that have not adopted Russian oil embargoes.The G7 finance ministers said in their statement that they intended to use a “record-keeping and attestation model” to track of whether oil transactions were below the price ceiling, and that they would try to minimize the administrative burden on insurers.A tanker at a crude oil terminal near Nakhodka. Maritime insurers would have to figure out how to comply with a cap in a way that allows them to continue covering Russian oil cargo.Tatiana Meel/ReutersRachel Ziemba, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, said the agreement unveiled on Friday raised more questions than answers and suggested a challenging path ahead.“This sounds like something that is very technical and technocratic that is going to be hard to monitor and fully enforce,” Ms. Ziemba said.Understand the Decline in U.S. Gas PricesCard 1 of 5Understand the Decline in U.S. Gas PricesGas prices are falling. More

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    This Remote Mine Could Foretell the Future of America’s Electric Car Industry

    Hiding a thousand feet below the earth’s surface in this patch of northern Minnesota wetlands are ancient mineral deposits that some view as critical to fueling America’s clean energy future.Tim Gruber for The New York TimesA company called Talon Metals is drilling here around the clock, extracting samples of rock rich with nickel in a bid to become the country’s sole source of a material used to power zero-emission vehicles.But some locals are fighting the mine, for fear it could pollute their environment. The pushback hints at how difficult it may be to build an all-American supply chain that powers the country’s transition to electric vehicles.This Remote Mine Could Foretell the Future of America’s Electric Car IndustryTAMARACK, Minn. — In this isolated town of about 100 people, dozens of employees are at work for Talon Metals, drawing long cylinders of rock from deep in the earth and analyzing their contents. They liken their work to a game of Battleship — each hole drilled allows them to better map out where a massive and long-hidden mineral deposit is lurking below.The company is proposing to build an underground mine near Tamarack that would produce nickel, a highly sought-after mineral that is used to power electric vehicles. It would be a profitable venture for Talon, which has a contract to supply nickel for Tesla’s car batteries, and a step forward in the country’s race to develop domestic supply chains to feed the growing demand for electric vehicles.But mines that extract metal from sulfide ore, as this one would, have a poor environmental record in the United States, and an even more checkered footprint globally. While some in the area argue the mine could bring good jobs to a sparsely populated region, others are deeply fearful that it could spoil local lakes and streams that feed into the Mississippi River. There is also concern that it could endanger the livelihoods and culture of Ojibwe tribes whose members live just over a mile from Talon’s land and have gathered wild rice here for generations.Talon says it will invest heavily to design the world’s greenest and most responsible mine yet, one that they say “Joe Biden can love.” But some people in the community remain skeptical, including about the company’s promises to respect Indigenous rights, like the tribes’ authority over lands where their members hunt and gather food. Part of that mistrust stems from the fact that Talon’s minority partner, Rio Tinto, provoked outrage in 2020 by blowing up a 46,000-year-old system of Aboriginal caves in Australia in a search for iron ore.Kelly Applegate, the commissioner of natural resources for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, said he was “very concerned” about how the mine might damage the environment. “This again is an assault on Native culture, a disturbance of our way of being, another trauma that could potentially happen to our people,” he said.He described it as a “huge environmental justice issue” to mine local resources for electric cars that the tribe’s members would be unable to afford. Except for some wealthy homeowners who spend their summers around the lakes, the area is one of the poorest parts of Minnesota. Native Americans in Minnesota experience poverty at higher rates than any other racial or ethnic group in the state. Locals say the only Tesla for miles is Talon’s company car.“Talon and Rio Tinto will come and go — greatly enriched by their mining operation. But we, and the remnants of the Tamarack mine, will be here forever,” Mr. Applegate said.The project, which lies 50 miles west of Lake Superior, highlights some of the challenges that are emerging as the Biden administration tries to transition America to electric vehicles. The administration has said it wants to make the supply chains for batteries more resilient by sourcing minerals inside North America. But that desire could bring its own potential for environmental damage and infringement of the rights of Indigenous Americans. Much of the nation’s supply of battery materials is near tribal land.The world urgently needs to switch to cleaner cars to limit the global damage from climate change, many climate activists say. Last week, California approved a plan to ban the sale of new gas-powered cars by 2035.But current supply chains for electric vehicle batteries — and the batteries that would be needed for the electric grid that would charge that fleet of vehicles — rely on some adversarial and heavily polluting foreign nations. Much of the nickel that goes into car batteries is produced by strip mines that have decimated rainforests in Indonesia and the Philippines, releasing vast amounts of carbon dioxide before being refined in Chinese factories powered by coal.Read More on Electric VehiclesBanning Gasoline Cars: California is leading the way in the push to electrify the nation’s car fleet with a plan to ban sales of new internal-combustion vehicles by 2035, but the rule will face several challenges.Inflation Reduction Act: The law extends tax incentives in an effort to steer more U.S. consumers toward electric cars. But new rules complicate the qualification process.Plug-In Hybrids: After falling behind all-electric cars, U.S. sales of plug-in hybrids have been surging. The high cost of electric cars and gasoline have given them an opening.Car Crashes: Tesla and other automakers capture data from their vehicles to operate their products. Experts say the collected information could also improve road safety.Another source of nickel is a massive mining operation north of the Arctic Circle in Norilsk, Russia, which has produced so much sulfur dioxide that a plume of the toxic gas is big enough to be seen from space. Other minerals used in electric vehicle batteries, such as lithium and cobalt, appear to have been mined or refined with the use of child or forced labor.With global demand for electric vehicles projected to grow sixfold by 2030, the dirty origins of this otherwise promising green industry have become a looming crisis. The Democrats’ new tax and climate bill devotes nearly $400 billion to clean energy initiatives over the next decade, including electric vehicle tax credits and financing for companies that manufacture clean cars in the United States.New domestic high-tech mines and factories could make this supply chain more secure, and potentially less damaging to the global environment. But skeptics say those facilities may still pose a risk to the air, soil and water that surrounds them, and spark a fierce debate about which communities might bear those costs.The project is near lakes and streams that feed into the Mississippi River, and where Ojibwe tribes have gathered wild rice for generations.The potential risks to plants and wildlife come from the sulfide ores; the ores, in which materials like copper and nickel are lodged, can leach out sulfuric acid and heavy metals. More than a dozen former copper mines in the United States are now Superfund sites, contaminated locations where taxpayers can end up on the hook for cleanup.In January, the Biden administration canceled leases for another copper-nickel mine near a Minnesota wilderness area, saying the Trump administration had improperly renewed them.Talon Metals insists that it will have no such problems. “We can produce the battery materials that are necessary for the energy transition and also protect the environment,” said Todd Malan, the company’s chief external affairs officer and head of climate strategy. “It’s not a choice.”The company is using high-tech equipment to map underground flows of water in the area and create a 3-D model of the ore, so it can mine “surgically” while leaving other parts of the earth undisturbed, Mr. Malan said. Talon is also promising to use technology that will safely store the mine’s toxic byproducts and do its mining far underground, in deep bedrock where groundwater doesn’t typically penetrate.Talon has teamed up with the United Steelworkers union on work force development. And Rio Tinto has won a $2.2 million Department of Energy grant to explore capturing carbon near the site, which may allow the mine to market its products as zero emission.“We can produce the battery materials that are necessary for the energy transition and also protect the environment,” said Todd Malan, the chief external affairs officer and head of climate strategy at Talon.In a statement, Talon said it was committed to “meaningful consultations with tribal sovereign governments and tribal people” and producing a mine plan that addressed their concerns, as well as working with tribal governments interested in economic benefit sharing.The company has held several informational meetings with tribal staff and members, but some tribal members say they still need far more details from Talon about its plans.If the mine comes online in 2026 as scheduled, it will be positioned to feed a hungry market. The United States currently has one operating nickel mine, in Michigan, but its resources will be exhausted by 2026.In Washington, a bipartisan consensus is growing that the country should reduce its reliance on risky overseas minerals. To limit global warming to the levels that advanced countries have agreed on, the International Energy Agency estimates, the world will need roughly 20 times as much nickel and cobalt by 2040 as it had in 2020 and 40 times as much lithium.Recycling could play a bigger role in supplying these materials by the end of the decade, and some new car batteries do not use any nickel. Yet nickel is still highly sought after for electric trucks and higher-end cars, because it increases a vehicle’s range.The infrastructure law passed last year devoted $7 billion to developing the domestic supply chain for critical minerals. The climate and tax law also sets ambitious thresholds for ensuring that electric vehicles that receive tax incentives are partly U.S.-made.Elisabeth Kachinske logged core samples containing nickel at Talon’s offices in Tamarack, Minn.Talon’s proposed mine could help Tesla meet those thresholds. Tesla gets its nickel from China, Australia, New Caledonia and Canada, and its chief executive, Elon Musk, has begged miners to produce more.Some environmental and left-leaning groups that have long been skeptical of domestic mining are adjusting those positions, arguing that resources are needed for the energy transition.Collin O’Mara, the chief executive of the National Wildlife Federation, said that there was a growing need for battery materials that were mined responsibly, and that Talon was promising to use state-of-the-art techniques to minimize the mine’s footprint.But he acknowledged that for local residents it would still take a leap of faith in new technologies and Talon’s ability to apply them. “There still isn’t an example of an existing mine that has had no impacts,” he said.The economic potential — and the environmental risks — may go far beyond a single mine. The entire region is home to deposits of nickel, copper and cobalt, which were formed 1.1 billion years ago from a volcano that spewed out miles of liquid magma.Talon has leased 31,000 acres of land in the area, covering an 11-mile geological feature deep under the swamp. The company has zealously drilled and examined the underground resources along one of those 11 miles, and discovered several other potential satellite deposits.Elizabeth Skinaway, a member of the Sandy Lake Band of Minnesota Chippewa, is especially concerned about damage to the wild rice, which she has gathered in lakes near the proposed mine for 43 years.In August, the company announced that it had also acquired land in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to explore for more nickel.Talon will start Minnesota’s environmental review process within a few months, and the company says it anticipates a straightforward review. But legal challenges for proposed mines can regularly stretch to a decade or more, and some living near the project say they will do what they can to fight the mine.Elizabeth Skinaway and her sister, Jean Skinaway-Lawrence, members of the Sandy Lake Band of Minnesota Chippewa, are especially concerned about damage to the wild rice, which Ms. Skinaway has been gathering in lakes several miles from the proposed mine for 43 years.Ms. Skinaway acknowledges the need to combat climate change, which also threatens the rice. But she sees little justice in using the same kind of profit-driven, extractive industry that she said had long plundered native lands and damaged the global environment.“The wild rice, the gift from the creator, that’s going to be gone, from the sulfide that’s going to leach into the river and the lakes,” she said. “It’s just a really scary thought.”“We were here first,” said her sister. “We should be heard.”The Talon drill site near Tamarack. More

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    Airfares Tumbled as Jet Fuel Prices Fell

    Airline ticket prices fell sharply in July after peaking in recent months, fueled by high costs, high demand and a limited number of flights.Fares fell 7.8 percent in July compared to June, helping to ease overall inflation. Aviation experts said they expect prices to continue to drop into the fall as jet fuel prices and demand ease.Fares peaked in May when many travelers began confirming summer travel plans. After more than two years of exercising caution, many people took longer trips this summer, which is typically the busiest season for air travel. At the same time, many airlines cut the number of flights on their summer schedules to reduce the risk of mass delays and cancellations because of weather and staffing problems especially around holidays and other peak travel days. Fares were also driven up by high labor and fuel costs.The drop in fares last month coincided with a decline in U.S. jet fuel prices, which were down about 25 percent at the end of last month, from their peak at the end of April, according to the Energy Information Administration.Flight prices typically drop from late August through mid-fall as summer travel eases, according to Hopper, a travel booking and price-tracking app. Fares are expected to average $286 this month, down as much as 25 percent from May, Hopper said. Fares are expected to stay below $300 through September, before rising again, to a peak of $373 in November, up 24 percent from the same month in 2019, Hopper said.Despite broader economic concerns, airline executives have said in recent weeks that they haven’t seen a substantial decline in bookings beyond usual seasonal trends. More

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    The Carried Interest Loophole Survives Another Political Battle

    The latest effort to narrow the preferential tax treatment used by private equity executives failed after Senator Kyrsten Sinema objected.WASHINGTON — Once again, carried interest carried the day.The last-minute removal by Senate Democrats of a provision in the climate and tax legislation that would narrow what is often referred to as the “carried interest loophole” represents the latest win for the private equity and hedge fund industries. For years, those businesses have successfully lobbied to kill bills that aimed to end or limit a quirk in the tax code that allows executives to pay lower tax rates than many of their salaried employees.In recent weeks, it appeared that the benefit could be scaled back, but a last-minute intervention by Senator Kyrsten Sinema, the Arizona Democrat, eliminated what would have been a $14 billion tax increase targeting private equity.Lawmakers’ inability to address a tax break that Democrats and some Republicans have called unfair underscores the influence of lobbyists for the finance industry and how difficult it can be to change the tax code.In addition to doing away with the carried interest provision, the deal Democratic leaders cut with Ms. Sinema included a 1 percent excise tax on stock buybacks and changes to a minimum corporate tax of 15 percent that favored manufacturers.On Friday, the private equity and hedge fund industries applauded the development, describing it as a win for small business.“The private equity industry directly employs over 11 million Americans, fuels thousands of small businesses and delivers the strongest returns for pensions,” said Drew Maloney, the chief executive of the American Investment Council, a lobbying group. “We encourage Congress to continue to support private capital investment in every state across our country.”Bryan Corbett, the chief executive of the Managed Funds Association, said: “We’re happy to see that there is bipartisan recognition of the role that private capital plays in growing businesses and the economy.”Carried interest is the percentage of an investment’s gains that a private equity partner or hedge fund manager takes as compensation. At most private equity firms and hedge funds, the share of profits paid to managers is about 20 percent.Under existing law, that money is taxed at a capital-gains rate of 20 percent for top earners. That’s about half the rate of the top individual income tax bracket, which is 37 percent. A tax law passed by Republicans in 2017 largely left the treatment of carried interest intact, after an intense lobbying campaign, but it did narrow the exemption by requiring executives to hold their investments for at least three years in order to enjoy preferential tax treatment.An agreement reached last week by Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, and Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, would have extended that holding period to five years from three, while changing the way the period is calculated in hopes of reducing taxpayers’ ability to take advantage of the lower 20 percent tax rate.What’s in the Democrats’ Climate and Tax BillCard 1 of 6A new proposal. More

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    Carried Interest Is Back in the Headlines. Why It’s Not Going Away.

    Changes demanded by Senator Kyrsten Sinema will preserve a tax loophole that Democrats have complained about for years.For years, Democrats and even some Republicans such as former President Donald J. Trump have called for closing the so-called carried interest loophole that allows wealthy hedge fund managers and private equity executives to pay lower tax rates than entry-level employees.Those efforts have always failed to make a big dent in the loophole — and the latest proposal to do so also faltered this week. Senate leaders announced on Thursday that they had agreed to drop a modest change to the tax provision in order to secure the vote of Senator Kyrsten Sinema, Democrat of Arizona, and ensure passage of their Inflation Reduction Act, a wide-ranging climate, health care and tax bill.An agreement reached last week between Senator Chuck Schumer, the majority leader, and Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, would have taken a small step in the direction of narrowing carried interest tax treatment. However, it would not have eliminated the loophole entirely and could still have allowed rich business executives to have smaller tax bills than their secretaries, a criticism lobbed by the investor Warren E. Buffett, who has long argued against the preferential tax treatment.The fate of the provision was always in doubt given the Democrats’ slim control of the Senate. And Ms. Sinema had previously opposed a carried interest measure in a much larger bill called Build Back Better, which never secured the 50 Senate votes needed — Republicans have been unified in their opposition to any tax increases.Had the legislation passed in the form that Mr. Schumer and Mr. Manchin presented it last week, the shrinking of the carried interest exception would have brought Democrats a tiny bit closer to realizing their vision of making the tax code more progressive.What is carried interest?Carried interest is the percentage of an investment’s gains that a private equity partner or hedge fund manager takes as compensation. At most private equity firms and hedge funds, the share of profits paid to managers is about 20 percent.Under existing law, that money is taxed at a capital-gains rate of 20 percent for top earners. That’s about half the rate of the top individual income tax bracket, which is 37 percent.The 2017 tax law passed by Republicans largely left the treatment of carried interest intact, after an intense business lobbying campaign, but did narrow the exemption by requiring private equity officials to hold their investments for at least three years before reaping preferential tax treatment on their carried interest income.What would the Manchin-Schumer agreement have done?The agreement between Mr. Manchin and Mr. Schumer would have further narrowed the exemption, in several ways. It would have extended that holding period to five years from three, while changing the way the period is calculated in hopes of reducing taxpayers’ ability to game the system and pay the lower 20 percent tax rate.Senate Democrats say the changes would have raised an estimated $14 billion over a decade, by forcing more income to be taxed at higher individual income tax rates — and less at the preferential rate.The longer holding period would have applied only to those who made $400,000 per year or more, in keeping with President Biden’s pledge not to raise taxes on those earning less than that amount.The tax provision echoed a measure that was initially included in the climate and tax bill that House Democrats passed last year but that stalled in the Senate. The carried interest language was removed amid concern that Ms. Sinema, who opposed the measure, would block the overall legislation.Why hasn’t the loophole been closed by now?Many Democrats have tried for years to completely eliminate the tax benefits private equity partners enjoy. Democrats have sought to redefine the management fees they get from partnerships as “gross income,” just like any other kind of income, and to treat capital gains from partners’ investments as ordinary income.Such a move was included in legislation proposed by House Democrats in 2015. The legislation would also have increased the penalties on investors who did not properly apply the proposed changes to their own tax filings.The private equity industry has fought back hard, rejecting outright the basic concepts on which the proposed changes were based.“No such loophole exists,” Steven B. Klinsky, the founder and chief executive of the private equity firm New Mountain Capital, wrote in an opinion article published in The New York Times in 2016. Mr. Klinsky said that when other taxes, including those levied by New York City and the state government, were accounted for, his effective tax rate was between 40 and 50 percent.What would the change have meant for private equity?The private equity industry has defended the tax treatment of carried interest, arguing that it creates incentives for entrepreneurship, healthy risk-taking and investment.The American Investment Council, a lobbying group for the private equity industry, described the proposal as a blow to small business.“Over 74 percent of private equity investment went to small businesses last year,” said Drew Maloney, chief executive of the council. “As small-business owners face rising costs and our economy faces serious headwinds, Washington should not move forward with a new tax on the private capital that is helping local employers survive and grow.”The Managed Funds Association said the changes to the tax code would hurt those who invested on behalf of pension funds and university endowments.“Current law recognizes the importance of long-term investment, but this proposal would punish entrepreneurs in investment partnerships by not affording them the benefit of long-term capital gains treatment,” said Bryan Corbett, the chief executive of the association.“It is crucial Congress avoids proposals that harm the ability of pensions, foundations and endowments to benefit from high-value, long-term investments that create opportunity for millions of Americans.”Jim Tankersley More

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    How U.S. Inflation Expectations Are Being Shaped by Consumer Choices

    How Bacon and Costco Fish Shape America’s View of InflationEconomic policymakers are razor focused on inflation expectations after more than a year of rapid price increases. Consumers explain how they’re thinking about rising costs.Jeanna Smialek and July 27, 2022Inflation started in the bacon aisle for Dan Burnett, a 58-year-old former medical center administrator who lives in Margaretville, N.Y.Last summer, he began to notice that the breakfast staple was increasing sharply in price, jumping to $10 from $8 per pack at his local grocer. Before long, a wide variety of food products were more expensive — so many that he began driving 45 miles to shop at Aldi and Walmart, hoping to score better deals. This summer, it seems that inflation is across the board, pushing up prices on brake repair, hotel rooms and McDonald’s fries.“My biggest fear is that they don’t get it under control, and that it just persists,” Mr. Burnett said. He is thinking about how he might have to reshape his financial future in a world where prices — which had long increased at a rate of 2 percent or less per year — now climb by considerably more.“Once people get this mind-set of ‘You can increase prices and people will just pay it,’ you’re off to the races.” Dan BurnettPeople like Mr. Burnett, who is beginning to believe that America’s price burst might last, are the Federal Reserve’s biggest fear. If consumers and companies expect fast inflation to be a permanent feature of the American economy, they might begin to shift their behavior in ways that cause prices to keep rising. Consumers might begin to accept price increases without shopping around, workers might demand higher pay to cover climbing costs, and businesses might raise prices both to cover their higher labor bills and because they think customers will stomach the heftier price tags.Economists often blame that sort of spiraling inflationary mind-set for fueling rapid price gains in the 1970s and 1980s, a painful episode in which inflation proved difficult to tame. That is why the Fed, which is responsible for keeping inflation under control, has been focusing on a range of inflation expectation measures, hoping that a high-price psychology is not taking hold.Most signs suggest that people still believe that inflation will fade with time. But interpreting inflation expectations is more art than science: Economists disagree about which metrics matter, how to measure them and what could make them change. And after more than a year of rapid price increases, central bank officials are increasingly worried that it’s foolish to take the stability of price expectations for granted. Officials have been rapidly raising interest rates to try to cool the economy and send a signal to the public that they are serious about wrestling price increases lower.“There’s a clock running here, where we have inflation running now for more than a year,” Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, said recently. “It would be bad risk management to just assume those longer-term inflation expectations would remain anchored indefinitely in the face of persistent high inflation. So we’re not doing that.”Central bankers closely watch measures including the University of Michigan’s longer-term inflation outlook survey as they try to judge whether expectations remain under wraps. Those have moved up since 2020, but have not jumped by as much as actual inflation. Still, those trackers show only where expectations are today. They say little about when they might change or what might shift them. To get a more detailed, qualitative sense of how consumers are thinking about inflation, The New York Times asked readers what costs were sticking out to them, how much inflation they expected and how they were forming that opinion. The takeaway: While many people still expect inflation to ease with time, that assumption is a fragile one as many Americans experience the fastest inflation of their adult lives across a broad range of goods and services.Grocery and gas prices are weighing heavily on many people’s minds, consistent with research about how consumers form price expectations. But the particular products raising eyebrows vary widely and expand beyond just food and gas.Guitars, rent and pedicures are getting more expensive in California. Artisan crafts are commanding higher prices in New Mexico.Pedicures are getting more expensive in California.People are coping with the climbing costs in a range of ways. Many said they were cutting consumption, which could help inflation to ease by lowering demand and giving supply a chance to catch up. A few were continuing to buy, hoping that costs would moderate with time. But others were asking for more pay or trying to find other ways to cover their climbing costs while resigning themselves to increasing prices.For Siamac Moghaddam, a 37-year-old who is in the Navy and lives in San Diego, dealing with inflation has been less about cutting down on little things — like the pedicures he enjoys getting, since he is in boots all the time — and more about saving on big expenses, like rent. His landlord recently raised his apartment rent by $200, so he moved out of his two bedroom and into a one bedroom.“Everyone’s adjusting,” he said. He thinks the Fed’s rate increases will bring inflation under control, though in the process, “I think we’re going to suffer economically.”Robert Liberty, 68 and from Portland, Ore., is trying to save on food and travel.“I reached for an avocado in the store, and I jerked back my hand like it was about to be burned when I saw the price — it was $5.50 per avocado,” said Mr. Liberty, a part-time lawyer and consultant whose husband works full time. He thinks inflation will moderate, though he’s unsure how much. For now, an avocado, he said, is “one thing we can do without.”“I quit Starbucks. I had to. I just didn’t feel like that was justifiable. It’s like a small car payment.” Fontaine WeymanFontaine Weyman, a 43-year-old songwriter from Charleston, S.C., is more toward the middle of the inflation-expectations range. Ms. Weyman delivers for Instacart and, with her husband, has a household income of around $80,000. Starbucks has always been her personal indulgence, but she’s cutting it out.“It’s $6.11 for just a Venti iced coffee with a little bit of cold foam on top — that’s like $180 a month,” Ms. Weyman said. While she still believes inflation will fade with time, she and her husband are thinking about how to increase their household income in case it doesn’t.“We know that he’ll most likely get a 5 to 10 percent raise anyway in March, but I’ve asked him to ask for 15 percent,” she said.That pattern — cutting back and hoping for the best but also planning for a possible higher-inflation future — is the one Susan Hsieh is embracing as she watches costs at Costco climb. Ms. Hsieh lives in Armonk, N.Y., with her husband and two teenage children, and has cut back on buying frozen Chilean sea bass fillets as they jump sharply in price, which is sad news for her family.“That fish is really tasty,” she said.Chilean sea bass has become more expensive at Costco.Rising costs across goods and services have also prompted Ms. Hsieh, who works at a branch of the United States Treasury, to ask for higher pay this year. She knew the 2.2 percent raise she was going to get as a typical cost-of-living adjustment was not going to keep up with inflation. She ended up just shy of a 5 percent raise.“I think I’m going to ask again,” she said of her salary negotiation this coming year, assuming inflation sticks around.Mr. Burnett, buyer of bacon, might offer the clearest illustration of why expectations for faster inflation could spell trouble for the Fed if they begin to take hold in earnest. For him, the breadth of today’s price changes makes it hard to believe that inflation will fade soon.Mr. Burnett, who is retired, is thinking about adapting his life accordingly. He co-owns a condominium in Florida with his sister, and maintenance fees on the unit are going up. Though he rents the condo to tenants for only part of the year, he’s likely to pass the full increase onto them.He likes the tenants and doesn’t want to raise rents by so much that he pushes them out, but he could also see himself and his sister charging even more if they notice that neighboring landlords are pushing prices higher.“I really want to make sure that I’m maximizing income,” he said, given the inflation. And he thinks other people will do the same, which is what makes him think inflation is unlikely to fade soon. “Once people get this mind-set of ‘You can increase prices and people will just pay it,’ you’re kind of off to the races.” More