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Inflation Is Here. What Now?

The central fact of the American economy in mid-2021 is that demand for all sorts of goods and services has surged. But supplies are coming back slowly, with the economy acting like a creaky machine that was turned off for a year and has some rusty parts.

The result, as underlined in new government data this week, is shortages and price inflation across many parts of the economy. That is putting the Biden administration and the Federal Reserve in a jam that is only partly of their own making.

Higher prices and the other problems that result from an economy that reboots itself are frustrating, but should be temporary. Still, the longer that the surges in prices continue and the more parts of the economy that they encompass, the greater the chances that Americans’ psychology about prices and inflation could shift in ways that become self-sustaining.

For the last few decades, companies have resisted raising prices or paying higher wages because they felt that doing so would cost them too much business. That put a damper on inflation across the economy. The question is whether current circumstances are evolving in a way that could change that.

shortage of limes, their prices spike and people use more lemons.

after a cyberattack shut down a major pipeline, are truly random events that tell us virtually nothing about underlying supply and demand or future inflation.

Some other sectors seem poised to experience price rises. Restaurants, for example, are complaining of severe labor shortages that are forcing them to curtail service or sharply raise pay for line cooks and dishwashers. If they try to reflect those higher costs in their prices, it will cause the price of food away from home to start rising faster than the (already fairly high) 3.8 percent figure over the last year.

Professional inflation-watchers are on close watch for signs that these forces might be unleashing a form of thinking about price dynamics unseen since the early 1980s, when prices rose in part because everyone expected them to.

The Fed is betting that won’t happen — that even if there are several months of surging prices, it will be at worst a one-time adjustment, and potentially something that reverses as old spending patterns return and workers return to their jobs.

“If past experience is any guide, production will rise to meet the level of goods demand before too long,” the Fed governor Lael Brainard said in a speech this week. “A limited period of pandemic-related price increases is unlikely to durably change inflation dynamics.”

For now, movements in key financial markets mostly align with the Fed view.

Futures contracts for major commodities like oil and copper, for example, suggest that traders expect prices to fall slightly in the years ahead, not rise further.

And in the bond market, even after a surge in longer-term interest rates following the high inflation reading Wednesday, most signs point to future inflation consistent with the 2 percent the Fed aims for.

Still, the level of future inflation implied by those bond prices has risen significantly in the last few weeks, meaning further moves are likely to increase worries that the inflation issues will be not-so-transitory after all. And the pattern could change abruptly if more evidence starts to arrive that the outlook for inflation is becoming unmoored.

“We aren’t obviously on the way to a very high and persistent inflation outcome,” said Brian Sack, director of global economics at the hedge fund D.E. Shaw and a former senior Federal Reserve official. “But we’re at an inflection point, in that the rise in inflation expectations to date has been a policy success, but a rise from here could become a policy problem.”

The Fed may believe that the evidence emerging in various corners of the economy is a one-time occurrence that will fade into memory before too long. The Biden administration is betting its agenda on the same idea.

Ultimately, what matters more than whatever the bond market does is how ordinary Americans who make everyday economic decisions — demanding raises or not, paying more for a car or not — view things. Can they wait for the complex machinery of the American economy to fully crank into gear?

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Selling Your Home in a Seller’s Market

“Right now, sellers are in the position where they can direct buyers to have as few contingencies as possible,” Ms. Newquist-Nolan, the California broker, said. That’s a smart move, she said, because fewer contingencies means fewer opportunities when a transaction might fall through.

Take home inspections for example. From September 2020 through February 2021, 13.2 percent of winning Redfin offers had waived the inspection contingency, up from 7.3 percent a year ago, the brokerage reports. (Such a contingency would allow buyers to pull out of a deal if an inspection uncovered unexpected repair issues.) “Most buyers are waiving home inspections right now in our area,” Ms. Wethman said. “Pre-offer inspections have become the norm.”

Most sellers are now open to allowing buyers to bring in a home inspector before they make an offer on a home. A pre-offer inspection that finds few problems could give a buyer the confidence to waive an inspection contingency, which subsequently might make the buyer’s offer a more appealing choice for the seller.

Buyers are also finding ways to waive home appraisal contingencies, in an effort to make their bid more attractive to a seller. (Appraisal contingencies allow buyers to terminate a contract if an appraisal comes in lower than their offer price.)

“Some buyers who are putting down 20 percent are agreeing to reduce their down payment to pay the difference if there’s an appraisal gap,” Ms. Wethman said. For example, in a deal where a buyer is offering $300,000 for a home, and has a 20 percent down payment, if the house is appraised at $270,000, the buyer could drop their down payment to 10 percent, and use that 10 percent in cash to make up the appraisal shortfall.

The best approach that sellers can take when weighing offers, Mr. Lejeune said, is to compare them side-by-side.

His strategy: “I present offers to my clients in an Excel spreadsheet that specifics the offer price, loan amount, type of loan, contingencies, and other important metrics,” he said. “It’s basically a cheat sheet for sellers.”

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Rising Debt, Falling Income: How to Dig Out

“It can be depressing when they see their later years of life consumed with making payments and not making much of a difference,” he said. He recommended that retirees ask the credit card company for a lower interest rate.

Older adults often unintentionally increase their high-interest debt by placing expenses on cards that they could pay off in less costly ways, counselors say.

For example, medical bills typically charge little or no interest but turn into high-interest costs if placed on credit cards, Ms. Opperman said. Instead, she said, patients should call hospitals or other providers directly to work out an arrangement. “Many providers can set up repayment plans, and sometimes they will make concessions on behalf of the patient,” she said.

Retirees should also avoid taking out home-equity loans or lines of credit to pay off credit cards or medical bills, said Rose Perkins, quality assurance manager for CCCSMD, a credit counseling service in Columbia, Md. Though tapping home equity carries a lower interest rate than a credit card, a homeowner could put a home at risk if a job loss, the death of a spouse or illness made it difficult to pay off the lender, she said.

“The consumer has increased the amount they owe on their home, so if they cannot meet the down payment for any reason, they are at risk of foreclosure,” Ms. Perkins said. If other cost-cutting options do not work, credit counselors say, a retiree could downsize to a smaller home or take out a federally insured reverse mortgage. A credit counselor or a certified financial planner could help a homeowner decide if a reverse mortgage, which is a complex product, would fit into an overall debt-reduction plan, experts say.

In some instances, a nonprofit agency may recommend that a client enter a debt management plan. Counselors will negotiate with creditors to reduce interest rates and fees and to agree to a repayment plan, which could take up to five years to complete.

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How Shifting Politics Re-energized the Fight Against Poverty

WASHINGTON — A quarter-century ago, a Democratic president celebrated “the end of welfare as we know it,” challenging the poor to exercise “independence” and espousing balanced budgets and smaller government.

The Democratic Party capped a march in the opposite direction this week.

Its first major legislative act under President Biden was a deficit-financed, $1.9 trillion “American Rescue Plan” filled with programs as broad as expanded aid to nearly every family with children and as targeted as payments to Black farmers. While providing an array of benefits to the middle class, it is also a poverty-fighting initiative of potentially historic proportions, delivering more immediate cash assistance to families at the bottom of the income scale than any federal legislation since at least the New Deal.

Behind that shift is a realignment of economic, political and social forces, some decades in the making and others accelerated by the pandemic, that enabled a rapid advance in progressive priorities.

Rising inequality and stagnant incomes over much of the past two decades left a growing share of Americans — of all races, in conservative states and liberal ones, in inner cities and small towns — concerned about making ends meet. New research documented the long-term damage from child poverty.

economic equity at the forefront of the new administration’s agenda.

Whether the new law is a one-off culmination of those forces, or a down payment on even more ambitious efforts to address the nation’s challenges of poverty and opportunity, will be a defining battle for Democrats in the Biden era.

broadly popular with voters, an intensified focus on worker struggles on both the left and the right, including Republicans’ increasing efforts to define themselves as a party of the working class, has scrambled the politics of economic policy across the ideological spectrum.

prominent conservatives have welcomed the antipoverty provisions, applauding them as pro-family even though they violate core tenets of the Republican Party’s decades-long position that government aid is a disincentive to work.

Many Republicans from conservative-leaning states have turned increased attention to growing social problems in their own backyards, in the middle of an opioid crisis and economic stagnation that has left rural Americans with higher poverty rates than urban Americans, particularly for children.

An emerging strain of conservatism, often supported by a new generation of economic thinkers, has embraced expanded spending for families with children, to help lower-income workers and, in some cases, to encourage families to have more children. The conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt celebrated the expanded child credit in a series of Twitter posts on Friday, urging parents to use the proceeds to send their children to parochial school, and said he would work to make them permanent.

nearly six million children out of poverty, “came to be part of the package because families that earn in the bottom third of the income distribution, or at least of the wage distribution, have been disproportionately hurt by the pandemic,” said Cecilia Rouse, the chairwoman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers.

Democrats and poverty researchers began laying the groundwork for many of those provisions years ago, amid economic changes that exposed holes in the safety net. When a 2015 book by Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer, “$2.00 a Day,” argued that rising numbers of families spent months with virtually no cash income, Mr. Brown arranged for all his Democratic Senate colleagues to receive a copy.

At the same time, many scholars shifted their focus from whether government benefits discouraged parents from working to whether the vagaries of a low-wage labor market left parents with adequate money to raise a child.

A growing body of academic research, which Obama administration officials began to herald shortly before leaving office, showed that a large proportion of children spent part of their childhood below the poverty line and that even short episodes of poverty left children less likely to prosper as adults. A landmark report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine in 2019 found that aid programs left children better off.

“That allowed us to change the conversation,” away from the dangers of dependency “to the good these programs do,” said Hilary W. Hoynes, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, who served on the committee that wrote the report.

cut child poverty from prepandemic levels among whites by 39 percent, Latinos by 45 percent and African-Americans by 52 percent.

“Covid exposed the fissures of systemic racism and systemic poverty that already existed,” said the Rev. William J. Barber II, who helps run the Poor People’s Campaign, an effort to get the needy more involved in electoral politics. “It forced a deeper conversation about poverty and wages in this country.”

White House officials and Democratic leaders in Congress say Mr. Biden’s rescue plan has now changed that conversation, creating momentum for permanent expansions of many of its antipoverty efforts. Multiple researchers project the bill will cut child poverty in half this year.

Democrats say they will turn that into an argument against Republicans who might oppose making the benefits permanent. “You’re voting for doubling the child poverty rate — you’re going to do that?” Mr. Brown said.

In selling the plan, Mr. Biden has blurred the lines between the poor and the middle class, treating them less as distinct groups with separate problems than as overlapping and shifting populations of people who were struggling with economic insecurity even before the pandemic. Last week, he at once talked of “millions of people out of work through no fault of their own” and cited the benefits his plan would bring to families with annual incomes of $100,000.

“This is part of why I think it is more transformational,” said Brian Deese, who heads Mr. Biden’s National Economic Council. “This is not just a targeted antipoverty program.”

In coming months, Democrats will face significant hurdles in making provisions like the child benefit permanent, including pressure from fiscal hawks to offset them by raising taxes or cutting other spending.

But the swift passage of even the temporary provisions has left many antipoverty experts delighted.

“A year ago, I would have said it was a pipe dream,” said Stacy Taylor, who tracks poverty policy for Fresh EBT by Propel, a phone application used by millions of food stamp recipients. “I can’t believe we’re going to have a guaranteed income for families with children.”

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