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    Smaller Rate Increase by Federal Reserve Likely as Inflation Cools

    America’s central bank is expected to raise rates by a quarter point on Wednesday. The question now is what comes next.Federal Reserve officials are widely expected to raise interest rates by a quarter point at their meeting this week, further slowing what had been an aggressive pace of rate increases in 2022 as they wait to see how swiftly inflation will fade.Moving gradually will give Fed officials more time to assess how high rates need to rise and how long they need to stay elevated to fully wrangle inflation, both of which are looming and crucial questions. The answers will help to determine how much damage the Fed inflicts on the labor market and broader economy in its quest to control price increases.Central bankers raised interest rates from near zero to above 4.25 percent last year, and they are expected to lift rates to a range of 4.5 to 4.75 percent on Wednesday. Investors will be even more attuned to what may come next, and will parse the Fed’s 2 p.m. statement and the subsequent news conference by the Fed chair Jerome H. Powell for clues about the future.Fed officials predicted in December that they would lift rates to just above 5 percent in 2023, then hold them at a high level throughout the year. But incoming data will drive how high the Fed raises rates and how long they keep them at that level.Since the Fed’s last decision, inflation has meaningfully slowed, and data on the economy show that consumers are becoming more cautious and beginning to spend less. Anecdotes suggest that shoppers may be more sensitive to prices, which would make it more difficult for companies to continue passing along big price increases. At the same time, the job market remains very strong, and economists and central bankers have warned that a re-acceleration in growth and inflation remains possible. That is likely to keep the Fed wary of prematurely declaring victory over inflation.“They’re going to stay vigilant on inflation — I don’t think they’re going to break out the ‘mission accomplished’ banner just yet,” said Gennadiy Goldberg, a rates strategist at T.D. Securities. “If they don’t send the signal that they really want to get inflation under control, the market could over-interpret that as a signal that they’re done. That’s not the message they want to send.”Wall Street will be focused on one word in particular in the Fed’s policy statement: “ongoing.” In recent months, central bankers have stated that “ongoing increases in the target range will be appropriate.”Inflation F.A.Q.Card 1 of 5What is inflation? More

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    California Voters to Decide on Regulating Fast-Food Industry

    Pre-empting a law signed last year, business groups forced a ballot initiative on state oversight of wages and working conditions.LOS ANGELES — A California law creating a council with broad authority to set wages and improve the working conditions of fast-food employees has been halted after restaurant and trade groups submitted enough signatures to place the issue before voters next year.Officials from the California secretary of state’s office announced late Tuesday that Save Local Restaurants, a broad coalition of small-business owners, large corporations, restaurateurs and franchisees, had turned in enough valid signatures to stop the law from taking effect.The group, which has raised millions of dollars to oppose the law, had to submit roughly 623,000 valid voter signatures by an early December deadline to place a question on the 2024 ballot asking California voters if the law should take effect.Legislation signed in September by Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, would set up a 10-member council of union representatives, employers and workers to oversee the fast-food industry’s labor practices in the state.The panel would have the authority to raise the minimum wage of fast-food workers to as much as $22 an hour — well above the statewide minimum of $15.50. In addition, the council would oversee health, safety and anti-discrimination regulations for nearly 550,000 fast-food workers statewide.More on CaliforniaA Wake of Tragedy: California is reeling after back-to-back mass shootings in Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay.Storms and Flooding: A barrage of powerful storms has surprised people in the state with an unrelenting period of extreme weather that has caused extensive damage across the state.New Laws: A new year doesn’t always usher in sweeping change, but in California, at least, it usually means a slate of new laws going into effect.Wildfires: California avoided a third year of catastrophic wildfires because of a combination of well-timed precipitation and favorable wind conditions — or “luck,” as experts put it.Opponents including the International Franchise Association and the National Restaurant Association argued that the measure, Assembly Bill 257, singled out their industry and would in turn burden businesses with higher labor costs that would be passed along to consumers in higher food prices.Matt Haller, president of the International Franchise Association, said the bill “was a solution in search of a problem that didn’t exist.”“Californians have spoken out to prevent this misguided policy from driving food prices higher and destroying local businesses and the jobs they create,” Mr. Haller said.Last year, the Center for Economic Forecasting and Development at the University of California, Riverside, released a study that estimated that employers would pass along one-third of labor compensation increases to consumers.But Mr. Newsom, in signing the measure, said it “gives hardworking fast-food workers a stronger voice and seat at the table to set fair wages and critical health and safety standards across the industry.”Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, a staunch proponent of the measure, assailed fast-food corporations.“Instead of taking responsibility for ensuring workers who fuel their profits are paid a living wage and work in safe, healthy environments, corporations are continuing to drive a race to the bottom in the fast-food industry,” Ms. Henry said. “It’s morally wrong, and it’s bad business.”The effort to put the issue before voters follows a playbook used by large corporations to circumvent lawmakers in Sacramento. In 2019, state lawmakers passed a measure that required companies like Uber and Lyft to treat gig workers as employees. The companies opposed the measure and helped get a proposition on the 2020 ballot allowing them to treat drivers as independent contractors. The measure passed with nearly 60 percent of the vote.The fast-food law has been closely watched by the industry’s workers across California, including  Angelica Hernandez, 49, who has worked at McDonald’s restaurants in the Los Angeles area for 18 years.“We are undeterred, and we refuse to back down,” Ms. Hernandez said. “We can’t afford to wait to raise pay to keep up with the skyrocketing cost of living and provide for our families.”Alison Morantz, a professor at Stanford Law School who focuses on employment law, said what made the law unusual was “its holistic approach to addressing a wide range of problems in a traditionally nonunionized industry — not just low and stagnating wages, but also employment discrimination and poor safety practices.”“If it takes effect, it will be closely watched and could become a harbinger of similar efforts in other worker-friendly jurisdictions,” Ms. Morantz said. More

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    Walmart Raises Starting Wages for Store Workers

    The retail giant said the minimum wages for those employees would range from $14 to $19 an hour, up from $12 to $18 an hour.Walmart, the nation’s largest private employer, is significantly raising its starting wages for store workers, as it battles to recruit and retain workers in a tight retail labor market.On Tuesday, the retail giant said in a memo to employees that it was increasing its minimum wages for store workers to a range of $14 to $19 an hour, up from $12 to $18 an hour.In the memo, Walmart’s chief executive of U.S. operations, John Furner, said the increase was meant “to ensure we have attractive pay in the markets we operate.” The move would immediately affect about 340,000 of the company’s 1.3 million frontline hourly workers in stores across the United States.For years, Walmart has been under pressure from unions, policymakers and activists to raise its wages for workers in its stores. The raises announced Tuesday would increase the average wage across Walmart stores to roughly $17.50 an hour from about $17, though the company’s average wage still trails some competitors like Costco.“We want to make sure we attract the best associates,” a Walmart spokesperson, Anne Hatfield, said in an interview.The raises, which will take affect in March, come amid still persistently high inflation, which has been particularly difficult to navigate for low-wage workers whose paychecks are being stretched by the costs of food, fuel and other basic necessities.The move by Walmart is also a curiously optimistic sign regarding the broader economy: One of the nation’s largest companies is taking steps to retain workers, even as other large employers have been announcing layoffs.Mark Zandi, the chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, said he was surprised that Walmart had raised wages “so significantly” given the risks of a recession.“It suggests that Walmart doesn’t think the economy will suffer a recession anytime soon, or that if it does, it will be a short-lived and modest downturn,” Mr. Zandi said in an email.The move may also reflect the longer-term challenges that retailers face in retaining workers as baby boomers age out of the work force and the labor pool shrinks, he said.Even though the raises will ease the inflationary strain on Walmart workers, they may inadvertently prolong the problem broadly by boosting wages across other sectors of the economy.“Walmart’s move to hike their minimum wage may also complicate the Fed’s efforts to quell wage pressures and thus inflation,” Mr. Zandi said, “as the decision may impact wage hikes and price increases in other labor-intensive industries such as health care, hospitality and personal services that the Fed is focused on in its fight against inflation.” More

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    As Fed Nears Next Rate Decision, Its Vice Chair Cites Reasons for Hope

    Lael Brainard, the vice chair of the Federal Reserve, emphasized that non-wage causes had driven inflation in a sweeping speech.The Federal Reserve’s second-in-command offered a hopeful analysis of America’s inflation situation on Thursday, emphasizing that many of the factors that have driven prices higher over recent years may be poised to fade.“It remains possible that a continued moderation in aggregate demand could facilitate continued easing in the labor market and reduction in inflation without a significant loss of employment,” Lael Brainard, the Fed’s vice chair, said in a speech at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.Ms. Brainard spoke just days before Fed officials are set to begin the quiet period ahead of their Feb. 1 interest rate decision.In some ways, she broke with what her colleagues have been saying about the forces that could keep inflation high. Many central bankers have emphasized the roles that a tight labor market and strong wage growth are likely to play in propping up price increases, but Ms. Brainard focused on other factors that have sped up price increases, particularly when it comes to services.“There are a range of views on what it will take to bring down this component of inflation to prepandemic levels,” Ms. Brainard acknowledged in the remarks. She noted that wages are an important cost for services firms, so “one possible channel is through a weakening in labor demand.”But she added that “to the extent that inputs other than wages may have been responsible in part for important price increases,” a reversal in those factors could help to lower services inflation.In particular, Ms. Brainard noted that supply chain issues and jumps in fuel prices might be passing through to elevate some service costs, and that those could fade away, assuming supply chains continue to heal and gas stays relatively cheap.And Ms. Brainard also cited the reversal of swollen profit margins as something that could help inflation to moderate.Companies have enjoyed an unusual burst of pricing power in the pandemic era as repeated supply chain issues and resilient consumer demand have given them both a reason to try to raise prices and the wherewithal to do so without scaring away shoppers. Many firms have lifted what they are charging more than they needed to cover climbing costs, swelling their profits.“The labor share of income has declined over the past two years and appears to be at or below prepandemic levels, while corporate profits as a share of G.D.P. remain near postwar highs,” Ms. Brainard said.But that might be changing as demand wanes and price sensitivity returns.“The compression of these markups as supply constraints ease, inventories rise and demand cools could contribute to disinflationary pressures,” she said.The Fed is expected to raise interest rates again at its upcoming meeting as it tries to ensure that rapid inflation comes back under control. Officials slowed from a string of three-quarter-point moves in 2022 to a half-point move in December, and several have signaled that they would favor slowing to a quarter-point move at the February gathering.While Ms. Brainard did not speculate on what size rate move would be warranted in her prepared remarks, she did emphasize that borrowing costs will need to remain high to make sure that inflation moderates fully.“Policy will need to be sufficiently restrictive for some time to make sure inflation returns to 2 percent on a sustained basis,” she said. More

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    US Added 223,000 Jobs in December, a Slight Easing in Pace

    The Federal Reserve’s moves to cool the economy with higher interest rates seem to be taking gentle hold. Wage growth lost momentum.The U.S. economy produced jobs at a slower but still comfortable rate at the end of 2022, as higher interest rates and changing consumer habits downshifted the labor market without bringing it to a halt.Employers added 223,000 jobs in December on a seasonally adjusted basis, the Labor Department reported on Friday, in line with economists’ expectations although the smallest gain since President Biden took office.The gradual cooling indicates that the economy may be coming back into balance after years of pandemic-era disruptions — so far with limited pain for workers. The unemployment rate ticked down to 3.5 percent, back to its level from early 2020, which matched a low last seen in 1969.“If the U.S. economy is slipping into recession, nobody told the labor market,” said Chris Varvares, co-head of U.S. economics for S&P Global Market Intelligence, noting that the December number is still nearly double the approximately 100,000 jobs needed to keep up with population growth.Monthly change in jobs More

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    Even a Soft Landing for the Economy May Be Uneven

    Small businesses and lower-income families could feel pinched in the months ahead whether or not a recession is avoided this year.One of the defining economic stories of the past year was the complex debate over whether the U.S. economy was going into a recession or merely descending, with some altitude sickness, from a peak in growth after pandemic lows.This year, those questions and contentions are likely to continue. The Federal Reserve has been steeply increasing borrowing costs for consumers and businesses in a bid to curb spending and slow down inflation, with the effects still making their way through the veins of commercial activity and household budgeting. So most banks and large credit agencies expect a recession in 2023.At the same time, a budding crop of economists and major market investors see a firm chance that the economy will avoid a recession, or scrape by with a brief stall in growth, as cooled consumer spending and the easing of pandemic-era disruptions help inflation gingerly trend toward more tolerable levels — a hopeful outcome widely called a soft landing.“The possibility of getting a soft landing is greater than the market believes,” said Jason Draho, an economist and the head of Americas asset allocation for UBS Global Wealth Management. “Inflation has now come down faster than some recently expected, and the labor market has held up better than expected.”What seems most likely is that even if a soft landing is achieved, it will be smoother for some households and businesses and rockier for others.In late 2020 and early 2021, talk of a “K-shaped recovery” took root, inspired by the early pandemic economy’s split between secure remote workers — whose savings, house prices and portfolios surged — and the millions more navigating hazardous or tenuous in-person jobs or depending on a large-yet-porous unemployment aid system.Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, said: “I wish there were a completely painless way to restore price stability. There isn’t. And this is the best we can do.”Haiyun Jiang/The New York TimesIn 2023, if there’s a soft landing, it could be K-shaped, too. The downside is likely to be felt most by cash-starved small businesses and by workers no longer buoyed by the savings and labor bargaining power they built up during the pandemic.In any case, more turbulence lies ahead as fairly low unemployment, high inflation and shaky growth continue to queasily coexist.Generally healthy corporate balance sheets and consumer credit could be bulwarks against the forces of volatile prices, global instability and the withdrawal of emergency-era federal aid. Chief executives of companies that cater to financially sound middle-class and affluent households remain confident in their outlook. Al Kelly, the chief executive of Visa, the credit card company, said recently that “we are seeing nothing but stability.”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.Retirees: About 3.5 million people are missing from the U.S. labor force. A large number of them, roughly two million, have simply retired.Switching Jobs: A hallmark of the pandemic era has been the surge in employee turnover. The wave of job-switching may be taking a toll on productivity.Delivery Workers: Food app services are warning that a proposed wage increase for New York City workers could mean higher delivery costs.A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy?: Employees seeking wage increases to cover their costs of living amid rising prices could set off a cycle in which fast inflation today begets fast inflation tomorrow.But the Fed’s projections indicate that 1.6 million people could lose jobs by late this year — and that the unemployment rate will rise at a magnitude that in recent history has always been accompanied by a recession.“There will be some softening in labor market conditions,” Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, said at his most recent news conference, explaining the rationale for the central bank’s recent persistence in raising rates. “And I wish there were a completely painless way to restore price stability. There isn’t. And this is the best we can do.”Will the bottom 50 percent backslide?Over the past two years, researchers have frequently noted that, on average, lower-wage workers have reaped the greatest pay gains, with bumps in compensation that often outpaced inflation, especially for those who switched jobs. But those gains are relative and were often upticks from low baselines.Consumer spending accounts for roughly 70 percent of economic activity.Jim Wilson/The New York TimesAccording to the Realtime Inequality tracker, created by economists at the University of California, Berkeley, inflation-adjusted disposable income for the bottom 50 percent of working-age adults grew 4.2 percent from January 2019 to September 2022. Among the top 50 percent, income lagged behind inflation. But that comparison leaves out the context that the average income for the bottom 50 percent in 2022 was $25,500 — roughly a $13 hourly pay rate.“As we look ahead, I think it is entirely possible that the households and the people we usually worry about at the bottom of the income distribution are going to run into some kind of combination of job loss and softer wage gains, right as whatever savings they had from the pandemic gets depleted,” said Karen Dynan, a former chief economist at the Treasury Department and a professor at Harvard University. “And it’s going to be tough on them.”Consumer spending accounts for roughly 70 percent of economic activity. The widespread resilience of overall consumption in the past year despite high inflation and sour business sentiment was largely attributed to the savings that households of all kinds accumulated during the pandemic: a $2.3 trillion gumbo of government aid, reduced spending on in-person services, windfalls from mortgage refinancing and cashed-out stock gains.What’s left of those stockpiles is concentrated among wealthier households.After spiking during the pandemic, the overall rate of saving among Americans has quickly plunged amid inflation.The personal saving rate — a monthly measure of the percentage of after-tax income that households save overall — has dropped precipitously in recent months. 

    Note: The personal saving rate is also referred to as “personal saving as a percentage of disposable personal income.” Personal saving is defined as overall income minus spending and taxes paid.Source: U.S. Bureau of Economic AnalysisBy The New York TimesMost major U.S. banks have reported that checking balances are above prepandemic levels across all income groups. Yet the cost of living is higher than it was in 2019 throughout the country. And depleted savings among the bottom third of earners could continue to ebb while rent and everyday prices still rise, albeit more slowly.Most key economic measures are reported in “real” terms, subtracting inflation from changes in individual income (real wage growth) and total output (real gross domestic product, or G.D.P.). If government calculations of inflation continue to abate as quickly as markets expect, inflation-adjusted numbers could become more positive, making the decelerating economy sound healthier.That wonky dynamic could form a deep tension between resilient-looking official data and the sentiment of consumers who may again find themselves with little financial cushion.Does small business risk falling behind?Another potential factor for a K-shaped landing could be the growing pressure on small businesses, which have less wiggle room than bigger companies in managing costs. Small employers are also more likely to be affected by the tightening of credit as lenders become far pickier and pricier than just a year ago.In a December survey of 3,252 small-business owners by Alignable, a Boston-based small business network with seven million members, 38 percent said they had only one month or less of cash reserves, up 12 percentage points from a year earlier. Many landlords who were lenient about payments at the height of the pandemic have stiffened, asking for back rent in addition to raising current rents.Many landlords who were lenient about payments at the height of the pandemic have stiffened, asking for back rent in addition to raising current rents.Gabby Jones for The New York TimesUnlike many large-scale employers that have locked in cheap long-term funding by selling corporate bonds, small businesses tend to fund their operations and payrolls with a mix of cash on hand, business credit cards and loans from commercial banks. Higher interest rates have made the latter two funding sources far more expensive — spelling trouble for companies that may need a fresh line of credit in the coming months. And incoming cash flows depend on sales remaining strong, a deep uncertainty for most.A Bank of America survey of small-business owners in November found that “more than half of respondents expect a recession in 2023 and plan to reduce spending accordingly.” For a number of entrepreneurs, decisions to maintain profitability may lead to reductions in staff.Some businesses wrestling with labor shortages, increased costs and a tapering off in customers have already decided to close.Susan Dayton, a co-owner of Hamilton Street Cafe in Albany, N.Y., closed her business in the fall once she felt the rising costs of key ingredients and staff turnover were no longer sustainable.She said the labor shortage for small shops like hers could not be solved by simply offering more pay. “What I have found is that offering people more money just means you’re paying more for the same people,” Ms. Dayton said.That tension among profitability, staffing and customer growth will be especially stark for smaller businesses. But it exists in corporate America, too. Some industry analysts say company earnings, which ripped higher for two years, could weaken but not plunge, with input costs leveling off, while businesses manage to keep prices elevated even if sales slow.That could limit the bulk of layoffs to less-valued workers during corporate downsizing and to certain sectors that are sensitive to interest rates, like real estate or tech — creating another potential route for a soft, if unequal, landing.The biggest challenge to overcome is that the income of one person or business is the spending of another. Those who feel that inflation can be tamed without a collapse in the labor market hope that spending slows just enough to cool off price increases, but not so much that it leads employers to lay off workers — who could pull back further on spending, setting off a vicious circle.Those who feel that inflation can be tamed without a collapse in the labor market hope that spending slows just enough to cool off price increases.Jim Wilson/The New York TimesWhat are the chances of a soft landing?If the strained U.S. economy is going to unwind rather than unravel, it will need multiple double-edged realities to be favorably resolved.For instance, many retail industry analysts think the holiday season may have been the last hurrah for the pandemic-era burst in purchases of goods. Some consumers may be sated from recent spending, while others become more selective in their purchases, balking at higher prices.That could sharply reduce companies’ “pricing power” and slow inflation associated with goods. Service-oriented businesses may be somewhat affected, too. But the same phenomenon could lead to layoffs, as slowdowns in demand reduce staffing needs.In the coming months, the U.S. economy will be influenced in part by geopolitics in Europe and the coronavirus in China. Volatile shifts in what some researchers call “systemically significant prices,” like those for gas, utilities and food, could materialize. People preparing for a downturn by cutting back on investments or spending could, in turn, create one. And it is not clear how far the Fed will go in raising interest rates.Then again, those risk factors could end up relatively benign.“It’s 50-50, but I have to take a side, right? So I take the side of no recession,” said Mark Zandi, the chief economist at Moody’s Analytics. “I can make the case on either side of this pretty easily, but I think with a little bit of luck and some tough policymaking, we can make our way through.” More

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    U.S. Moves to Bar Noncompete Agreements in Labor Contracts

    A sweeping proposal by the Federal Trade Commission would block companies from limiting their employees’ ability to work for a rival.In a far-reaching move that could raise wages and increase competition among businesses, the Federal Trade Commission on Thursday unveiled a rule that would block companies from limiting their employees’ ability to work for a rival.The proposed rule would ban provisions of labor contracts known as noncompete agreements, which prevent workers from leaving for a competitor or starting a competing business for months or years after their employment, often within a certain geographic area. The agreements have applied to workers as varied as sandwich makers, hairstylists, doctors and software engineers.Studies show that noncompetes, which appear to directly affect roughly 20 percent to 45 percent of U.S. workers in the private sector, hold down pay because job switching is one of the more reliable ways of securing a raise. Many economists believe they help explain why pay for middle-income workers has stagnated in recent decades.Other studies show that noncompetes protect established companies from start-ups, reducing competition within industries. The arrangements may also harm productivity by making it hard for companies to hire workers who best fit their needs.The F.T.C. proposal is the latest in a series of aggressive and sometimes unorthodox moves to rein in the power of large companies under the agency’s chair, Lina Khan.President Biden hailed the proposal on Thursday, saying that noncompete clauses “are designed simply to lower people’s wages.”“These agreements block millions of retail workers, construction workers and other working folks from taking a better job, getting better pay and benefits, in the same field,” he said at a cabinet meeting.The public will be allowed to submit comments on the proposal for 60 days, at which point the agency will move to make it final. An F.T.C. document said the rule would take effect 180 days after the final version was published, but experts said it could face legal challenges.The agency estimated that the rule could increase wages by nearly $300 billion a year across the economy. Evan Starr, an economist at the University of Maryland who has studied noncompetes, said that was a plausible wage increase after their elimination.Dr. Starr said noncompetes appeared to lower wages both for workers directly covered by them and for other workers, partly by making the hiring process more costly for employers, who must spend time figuring out whom they can hire and whom they can’t.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.Retirees: About 3.5 million people are missing from the U.S. labor force. A large number of them, roughly two million, have simply retired.Switching Jobs: A hallmark of the pandemic era has been the surge in employee turnover. The wave of job-switching may be taking a toll on productivity.Delivery Workers: Food app services are warning that a proposed wage increase for New York City workers could mean higher delivery costs.A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy?: Employees seeking wage increases to cover their costs of living amid rising prices could set off a cycle in which fast inflation today begets fast inflation tomorrow.He pointed to research showing that wages tended to be higher in states that restrict noncompetes. One study found that wages for newly hired tech workers in Hawaii increased by about 4 percent after the state banned noncompetes for those workers. In Oregon, where new noncompetes became unenforceable for low-wage workers in 2008, the change appeared to raise the wages of hourly workers by 2 percent to 3 percent.Although noncompetes appear to be more common among more highly paid and more educated workers, many companies have used them for low-wage hourly workers and even interns.About half of states significantly constrain the use of noncompetes, and a small number have deemed them largely unenforceable, including California.But even in such states, companies often include noncompetes in employment contracts, and many workers in these states report turning down job offers partly as a result of the provisions, suggesting that these state regulations may have limited effects. Many workers in those states are not necessarily aware that the provisions are unenforceable, experts say.“Research shows that employers’ use of noncompetes to restrict workers’ mobility significantly suppresses workers’ wages — even for those not subject to noncompetes, or subject to noncompetes that are unenforceable under state law,” Elizabeth Wilkins, the director of the F.T.C.’s office of policy planning, said in a statement.The commission’s proposal appears to address this issue by requiring employers to withdraw existing noncompetes and to inform workers that they no longer apply. The proposal would also make it illegal for an employer to enter into a noncompete with a worker or to try to do so, or to suggest that a worker is bound by a noncompete when he or she is not.The proposal covers not just employees but also independent contractors, interns, volunteers and other workers.Lina Khan, the F.T.C. chair, has tried to use the agency’s authority to limit the power and influence of corporate giants.Graeme Sloan, via Associated PressDefenders of noncompetes argue that employees are free to turn down a job if they want to preserve their ability to join another company, or that they can bargain for higher pay in return for accepting the restriction. Proponents also argue that noncompetes make employers more likely to invest in training and to share sensitive information with workers, which they might withhold if they feared that a worker might quickly leave.A ban “ignores the fact that, when appropriately used, noncompete agreements are an important tool in fostering innovation,” Sean Heather, a senior vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement.At least one study has found that greater enforcement of noncompetes leads to an increase in job creation by start-ups, though some of its conclusions are at odds with other research.Dr. Starr said that noncompetes did appear to encourage businesses to invest more in training, but that there was little evidence that most employees entered into them voluntarily or that they were able to bargain over them. One study found that only 10 percent of workers sought to bargain for concessions in return for signing a noncompete. About one-third became aware of the noncompete only after accepting a job offer.Michael R. Strain, an economist at the American Enterprise Institute, said that while there were good reasons to scale back noncompetes for lower-wage workers, the rationale was less clear for better-paid workers with specialized knowledge or skills.“If your job is to make minor tweaks to the formula for Coca-Cola and you’re one of 25 people on earth who knows the formula,” Dr. Strain said, speaking hypothetically, “it makes total sense that Coca-Cola might say, ‘We don’t want you to go work for Pepsi.’”He said that it might be possible to satisfy an employer’s concerns with a less blunt tool, like a nondisclosure agreement, but that the evidence for this was lacking.In a video call with reporters on Wednesday, Ms. Khan said she believed the F.T.C. had clear authority to issue the rule, noting that federal law empowers the agency to prohibit “unfair methods of competition.”But Kristen Limarzi, a partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher who previously served as a senior official in the antitrust division of the Justice Department, said she believed such a rule could be vulnerable to a legal challenge. Opponents would probably argue that the relevant federal statute is too vague to guide the agency in putting forth a rule banning noncompetes, she said, and that the evidence the agency has on their effects is still too limited to support a rule.At the helm of the F.T.C. since last year, Ms. Khan has tried to use the agency’s authority in untested ways to rein in the power and influence of corporate giants. In doing so, she and her allies hope to reverse a turn in recent decades toward more conservative antitrust law — a shift that they say enabled runaway concentration, limited options for consumers and squeezed small businesses.Ms. Khan has brought lawsuits in recent months to block Meta, Facebook’s parent company, from buying a virtual reality start-up and Microsoft from buying the video game publisher Activision Blizzard. Both cases employ less common legal arguments that are likely to face heavy scrutiny from courts. But Ms. Khan has indicated she is willing to lose cases if the agency ends up taking more risks.Ms. Khan and her counterpart at the Justice Department’s antitrust division, Jonathan Kanter, have also said they want to increase the focus of the nation’s antitrust agencies on empowering workers. Last year, the Justice Department successfully blocked Penguin Random House from buying Simon & Schuster using the argument that the deal would lower compensation for authors.One question looming over the discussion of noncompetes is what effect banning them may have on prices during a period of high inflation, given that limiting noncompetes tends to raise wages.But the experience of the past two years, when rates of quitting and job-hopping have been unusually high, suggests that noncompetes may not currently be as big an obstacle to worker mobility as they have traditionally been. Partly as a result, banning them may not have much of a short-term effect on wages.Instead, some economists say, the more pronounced effect of a ban may come in the intermediate and long term, once the job market softens and workers no longer have as much leverage. At that point, noncompetes could begin to weigh more heavily on job switching and wages again.“Doing something like this is a way to help sustain the increase in worker power over the last couple of years,” said Heidi Shierholz, president of the liberal Economic Policy Institute, who was chief economist at the Labor Department during the Obama administration.David McCabe More

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    Fed Officials Fretted That Markets Would Misread Rate Slowdown

    Central bankers remained committed to wrestling inflation lower, and wanted to make sure investors understood that message, minutes from the Federal Reserve’s December meeting showed.Federal Reserve officials worried that inflation could remain uncomfortably fast, minutes from their December meeting showed, and some policymakers fretted that financial markets might incorrectly interpret their decision to raise interest rates more slowly as a sign that they were giving up the fight against America’s rapid price gains.Inflation is beginning to slow down but remains abnormally quick: The Personal Consumption Expenditures price index climbed by 5.5 percent over the year through November, down from a 7 percent peak in June but still nearly triple the Fed’s 2 percent inflation goal. Fed officials still saw inflation as unacceptably high at their meeting last month — and worried that rapid price gains might have staying power.“The risks to the inflation outlook remained tilted to the upside,” Fed officials warned during their December policy meeting, minutes released on Wednesday showed. “Participants cited the possibility that price pressures could prove to be more persistent than anticipated, due to, for example, the labor market staying tight for longer than anticipated.”Such risks set up a challenging year for Fed policymakers, who will need to decide how much more they need to raise interest rates — and how long they need to hold them at elevated levels — to bring inflation firmly under control. The Fed wants to avoid pulling back too early, which could allow inflation to become entrenched in the economy. But officials are also conscious that high rates come at a cost: As they slow growth and weaken the labor market, workers are likely to earn less and may even lose their jobs.That’s why the Fed wants to tread carefully, bringing price increases under control without inflicting more damage than necessary. Officials slowed their rate increases last month, lifting their main policy rate by half a point after several three-quarter-point moves in 2022. Officials forecast that they would raise rates by more in 2023, but their estimates suggested that they were nearing the level at which they might pause: They saw rates climbing to about 5.1 percent in 2023, from about 4.4 percent now.Inflation F.A.Q.Card 1 of 5What is inflation? More