White House Details Almost $2B Plan to Track Variants

“This is about both doing the near term work of supporting sequencing but also really building out that infrastructure,” Ms. Johnson said.

In February, the Biden administration put forward $200 million as a “down payment” on a more robust surveillance program, with the goal of sequencing 29,000 samples weekly. Officials described it as an early step in building out the federal government’s capacity to sequence more samples.

Earlier this month, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the C.D.C. director, said that the B.1.1.7 variant, which is currently estimated to be about 60 percent more contagious and 67 percent more deadly than the original version, had become the most common source of new infections in the United States. The C.D.C. has also been tracking the spread of other variants, such as B.1.351, first found in South Africa, and P.1, which was first identified in Brazil.

Ms. Johnson said that the funding would help health officials across the country respond to outbreaks in a more sophisticated way, including by surging testing in certain areas or considering new mitigation strategies.

When B.1.1.7 was first detected in the United States at the end of December, experts warned that the country was poorly prepared to track coronavirus variants, lacking a national plan for collecting samples and analyzing their mutations to determine the variants’ spread.

In January, the United States was sequencing samples from less than 1 percent of positive coronavirus tests. Researchers said that simply wasn’t enough information to know how common variants really were and how quickly they were spreading. By contrast, Britain, the world’s leader in genomic surveillance, was sequencing up to 10 percent of new positive tests.

Over the past three months, the C.D.C. has charted a steady rise in the number of coronavirus genomes sequenced weekly in the United States, recording a new high of 14,837 for the week ending April 10. The number represented about 3 percent of the country’s positive tests that week.

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Signs of Economic Hope Are Growing, Some With Superlatives

“I found it very encouraging that there are signs that people are waking up from hibernation, buying new clothes and going out to restaurants,” said Beth Ann Bovino, U.S. chief economist at S&P Global. “I think people are feeling optimistic that the United States will win the war on the virus. And they have good reason to be hopeful.”

Many economists said the strong retail sales were likely to continue through the spring, even after the new stimulus payments are used up.

The gradual return to normal activities as business restrictions ease has in turn prompted employers to recall workers — and this time, to hold on to them.

The Labor Department reported on Thursday that the number of first-time claims for state unemployment benefits fell sharply last week, to about 613,000, the lowest level since the start of the pandemic. That was a decline of 153,000, the largest week-over-week decrease since the summer.

In addition, 132,000 new claims were filed for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, a federal program that covers freelancers, part-timers and others who do not routinely qualify for state benefits. That was a decline of 20,000 from the previous week.

“We’re gaining momentum here, which is just unquestionable,” said Diane Swonk, chief economist at the accounting firm Grant Thornton.

There are also broader signs of a comeback.

After a devastating year, airlines are growing increasingly hopeful as travelers return. Over the past month, more than one million people were screened each day at federal airport checkpoints, according to the Transportation Security Administration, a signal that a sustained travel recovery is underway.

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Retail spending rose nearly 10 percent in March as relief payments hit bank accounts.

Retail sales surged in March, the Commerce Department said on Thursday, as Americans spent their latest round of government stimulus checks and the continued roll out of coronavirus vaccines lured more people back into stores.

The 9.8 percent increase last month was a strong comeback from the nearly 3 percent drop in February, when previous stimulus money had dissipated and a series of winter storms made travel difficult across much of the United States.

The rebound in March sales shows how, a year after the nation’s economy locked down to prevent the spread of the virus, consumer spending remains highly dependent on government support. It also reflects that many areas of consumption frozen by the pandemic have bounced back. Sales of clothing and accessories rose 18 percent, while restaurants and bars saw a 13 percent increase.

President Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, which was signed into law last month, provides direct payments of $1,400 to lower-income Americans. Many of these checks began arriving in households toward the end of last month, when economists saw signs that spending was ramping up again, such as increased hotel occupancy and travel through airports.

Economists at Morgan Stanley had predicted that core retail sales would jump 6.5 percent in March, driven by the stimulus checks that started arriving in people’s bank accounts around March 17. The investment bank said 30 percent of consumers tend to spend their checks within the first 10 days, suggesting that many other consumers have yet to spend their checks, which could strengthen April sales.

More broadly, American consumers are also feeling increasingly optimistic as more people become vaccinated and venture out more frequently. One measure of consumer confidence, tabulated by the Conference Board, said confidence increased about 20 points in March from February, fueled by increased income and stronger business and employment expectations.

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The Biden Administration Is Quietly Keeping Tabs on Inflation

“We think the likeliest outlook over the next several months is for inflation to rise modestly,” two officials at Mr. Biden’s Council of Economic Advisers, Jared Bernstein and Ernie Tedeschi, wrote on Monday in a blog post outlining some of the administration’s thinking. “We will, however, carefully monitor both actual price changes and inflation expectations for any signs of unexpected price pressures that might arise as America leaves the pandemic behind and enters the next economic expansion.”

Some Republicans call that posture dangerous. Senator Rick Scott of Florida, the chairman of his party’s campaign arm for the 2022 midterm elections, has called on Mr. Biden and Mr. Powell to present plans to fight inflation now.

“The president’s refusal to address this critical issue has a direct negative effect on Floridians and families across our nation, and hurts low- and fixed-income Americans the most,” Mr. Scott said in a news release last week. “It’s time for Biden to wake up from his liberal dream and realize that reckless spending has consequences, inflation is real and America’s debt crisis is growing. Inflation is rising and Americans deserve answers from Biden now.”

Economic teams in recent administrations spent little time worrying about inflation, because inflationary pressures have been tame for decades. It has fallen short of the Fed’s average target of 2 percent for 10 of the last 12 years, topping out at 2.5 percent in the midst of the longest economic expansion in history.

Shortly before the pandemic recession hit the United States in 2020, President Donald J. Trump’s economic team wrote that “price inflation remains low and stable” even with unemployment below 4 percent. As the economy struggled to climb out from the 2008 financial crisis under President Barack Obama, White House aides feared that prices might fall, instead of rise.

“Given the economic crisis, we worried about preventing deflation rather than inflation,” said Austan Goolsbee, a chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers during Mr. Obama’s first term.

The conversation has changed given the large amounts of money that the federal government is channeling into the economy, first under Mr. Trump and now under Mr. Biden. Since the pandemic took hold, Congress has approved more than $5 trillion in spending, including direct checks to individuals.

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The Week in Business: Amazon Defeats the Union

Good morning. Here are the top stories in business and tech to know for the week ahead. — Charlotte Cowles

Credit…Giacomo Bagnara

Large companies are often good at dodging taxes to maximize profits for their shareholders. But President Biden wants to make that harder with a new tax code that would raise tax rates and close loopholes for American corporations with annual incomes exceeding $2 billion. The plan is intended to bring in enough tax revenue to fund Mr. Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure proposal. If it gets through Congress (and that’s a big if), what’s to stop companies from moving profits overseas to tax shelters like the Cayman Islands? The Biden administration has a plan for that, too: a global minimum tax rate that would apply to multinational corporations regardless of where they’re located.

Amazon won its fight against the biggest push for unionization in the company’s history. The tally of votes showed that workers at its giant warehouse in Alabama had decided against forming a union. The results will need to be certified by federal officials. But it’s a big blow to union organizers and Democrats who believed that the timing was right for organized labor to gain momentum around the country. It’s also a major victory for Amazon, which has been accused of union-busting in several states.

New jobless claims were up for the second consecutive week, a sign that employment gains, while still promising, will be uneven for a time. Even though employers added an impressive 916,000 jobs in March, the economy is still 8.4 million jobs short of where it was before the pandemic. And many sectors that were almost totally wiped out — like travel, restaurants and bars — are only now starting to come back.

Credit…Giacomo Bagnara

Coinbase will become the first publicly traded cryptocurrency exchange in the United States when it posts its shares to the Nasdaq this Wednesday. It has become the biggest American cryptocurrency company by making it easy for people to buy and sell Bitcoin and other digital tokens. (The firm charges a fee each time a customer places a trade order.) Last week, Coinbase said it expected a first-quarter revenue of about $1.8 billion. That’s a whopping increase of about 847 percent from the previous year, mostly thanks to Bitcoin’s recent rally.

Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida is suing the federal government to allow cruise ships to resume sailing from the state’s ports. The boats must meet requirements put in place last year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before they can take passengers, but the industry says that the directions lack clarity. Separately, several cruise lines have announced plans to resume operations from other ports in the Caribbean and Bermuda, often with requirements that all passengers be vaccinated. But Mr. DeSantis has prohibited Florida businesses from asking patrons to show proof of vaccination.

As the coronavirus pandemic caused shutdowns, undocumented immigrants were hit especially hard. Their communities suffered disproportionately from high death rates, and they were largely ineligible for unemployment insurance and other pandemic aid. Until now, that is. In New York, the government is offering one-time payments of up to $15,600 to undocumented immigrants who lost work during the pandemic and could not get access to other jobless benefits. The money will come out of a $2.1 billion fund in the state budget, which critics say should have gone to legal New Yorkers who are struggling.

struck a five-year deal to give the streaming giant exclusive rights to its films once they leave theaters. In France, Ikea is facing a new lawsuit over a decade-old case in which its executives spied on employees and customers. And more bad news for Boeing: The company has told airlines to ground some of its troubled 737 Max jets — the same model that was grounded for over a year after two deadly crashes — because of an electrical issue.

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Beyond Pandemic’s Upheaval, a Racial Wealth Gap Endures

“I want to emphasize that,” he added. “Through no fault of their own.”

The pandemic has hit African-Americans and Latinos hardest on all fronts, with higher infection and death rates, more job losses, and more business closures.

Proposals that confront the wealth gap head on, though, are both expensive and politically charged.

Professor Darity of Duke, a co-author of “From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century,” has argued that compensating the descendants of Black slaves — who helped build the nation’s wealth but were barred from sharing it — would be the most direct and effective way to reduce the racial wealth gap.

Vice President Harris and Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Cory Booker of New Jersey have tended to push for asset-building policies that have more popular support. They have offered programs to increase Black homeownership, reduce student debt, supplement retirement accounts and establish “baby bonds” with government contributions tied to family income.

With these accounts, recipients could build up money over time that could be used to cover college tuition, start a business or help in retirement.

Several states have experimented with small-scale programs meant to encourage children to go to college. Though those programs were not created to close the racial wealth gap, researchers have seen positive side effects. In Oklahoma, child development accounts seeded with $1,000 were created in 2007 for a group of newborns.

“We have very clear evidence that if we create an account of birth for everyone and provide a little more resources to people at the bottom, then all these babies accumulate assets,” said Michael Sherraden, founding director of the Center for Social Development at Washington University in St. Louis, which is running the Oklahoma experiment. “Kids of color accumulate assets as fast as white kids.”

Without dedicated funds — the kind of programs that enabled white families to build assets — it won’t be possible for African-Americans to bridge the wealth gap, said Mehrsa Baradaran, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine, and the author of “The Color of Money: Black Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap.”

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With Warning to Democrats, Manchin Points the Way for Biden’s Agenda

Republican senators, singed by their experience on the pandemic aid bill, responded to Mr. Biden’s gestures to bipartisanship by issuing a chilly statement saying that the last time he made a public plea to work together, “the administration roundly dismissed our effort as wholly inadequate in order to justify its go-it-alone strategy.”

In an appearance on “Fox News Sunday,” Senator Roy Blunt, Republican of Missouri, pushed the administration to negotiate an infrastructure measure that would represent about 30 percent of the $2.25 trillion being proposed, before turning to budget reconciliation for any additional spending increases.

“My advice to the White House has been, take that bipartisan win, do this in a more traditional infrastructure way and then if you want to force the rest of the package on Republicans in the Congress and the country, you can certainly do that,” Mr. Blunt said.

Importantly, Republicans have no interest in the corporate tax increase that would essentially undo their most significant legislative achievement of the Trump era. Neither do business groups, which have helped broker some bipartisan compromises on economic issues in the past but have lost some power in recent years as populist impulses have swept both parties.

Senator Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican and minority leader, called the tax proposal “an effort to rewrite the 2017 tax bill,” which itself passed via budget reconciliation with no Democratic votes.

The Trump tax law “in my view was principally responsible for the fact that in February 2020 we had the best economy of 50 years,” Mr. McConnell said. “But they are going to tear that down.”

Still, business lobbyists and some lawmakers remain hopeful that Mr. Manchin’s appeal could prod Mr. Biden and congressional leaders toward a set of mini-compromises on infrastructure. Such deals could including spending big on research and development for emerging industries, like advanced batteries, in the supply chain bill, which carries bipartisan sponsorship in the Senate. They could also include spending a few hundred billion dollars on highways and other surface transportation projects. That could satisfy at least some of Mr. Manchin’s quest for bipartisanship and give both parties the ability to claim victory.

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New State Unemployment Claims Rose Again Last Week

The job market remains challenging, with the government reporting Thursday that initial claims for state unemployment benefits rose last week.

A total of 741,000 workers filed first-time claims for state jobless benefits last week, an increase of 18,000, the Labor Department said. It was the second consecutive weekly increase after new claims hit a pandemic low.

At the same time, 152,000 new claims were filed for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, a federal program covering freelancers, part-timers and others who do not routinely qualify for state benefits. That was a decline of 85,000.

Neither figure is seasonally adjusted.

“It’s surprising and disappointing,” Rubeela Farooqi, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics, said of the increase in state filings. “But our expectation remains that as large sections of the economy come back online, recovery in the labor market will be ongoing.”

$1,400 stimulus payments for most individuals, which should bolster consumer spending.

Although the rise in regular claims was a setback, the drop in Pandemic Unemployment Assistance claims was encouraging, according to AnnElizabeth Konkel, an economist at Indeed Hiring Lab. “It’s still movement in the right direction,” she said.

Diane Swonk, chief economist at the accounting firm Grant Thornton, said the decline in Pandemic Unemployment Assistance claims could be a sign that the most vulnerable workers were finally benefiting from the uptick in hiring.

“They’ve been living on fumes, but it suggests that some of these gig workers don’t need the unemployment insurance as much as they did before,” she said.

employers added 916,000 jobs in March, twice the gain in February and the most since August. The unemployment rate dipped to 6 percent, the lowest since the pandemic began, with nearly 350,000 people rejoining the labor force.

Still, there is plenty of ground to make up.

Even after the job gains in March, the economy is 8.4 million jobs short of where it was in February 2020. Entire sectors, like travel and leisure, as well as restaurants and bars, are only beginning to recover from the millions of job losses that followed the pandemic’s arrival.

“The claims numbers are a reminder that the labor market recovery, while we still expect it to happen, has a ways to go,” said Nancy Vanden Houten, lead economist at Oxford Economics. “Things are opening up, but not uniformly, and many people are still out of work.”

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