Rapid Inflation Fuels Debate Over What’s to Blame: Pandemic or Policy

The price increases bedeviling consumers, businesses and policymakers worldwide have prompted a heated debate in Washington about how much of today’s rapid inflation is a result of policy choices in the United States and how much stems from global factors tied to the pandemic, like snarled supply chains.

At a moment when stubbornly rapid price gains are weighing on consumer confidence and creating a political liability for President Biden, White House officials have repeatedly blamed international forces for high inflation, including factory shutdowns in Asia and overtaxed shipping routes that are causing shortages and pushing up prices everywhere. The officials increasingly cite high inflation in places including the euro area, where prices are climbing at the fastest pace on record, as a sign that the world is experiencing a shared moment of price pain, deflecting the blame away from U.S. policy.

But a chorus of economists point to government policies as a big part of the reason U.S. inflation is at a 40-year high. While they agree that prices are rising as a result of shutdowns and supply chain woes, they say that America’s decision to flood the economy with stimulus money helped to send consumer spending into overdrive, exacerbating those global trends.

The world’s trade machine is producing, shipping and delivering more goods to American consumers than it ever has, as people flush with cash buy couches, cars and home office equipment, but supply chains just haven’t been able to keep up with that supercharged demand.

by 7 percent in the year through December, its fastest pace since 1982. But in recent months, it has also moved up sharply across many countries, a fact administration officials have emphasized.

“The inflation has everything to do with the supply chain,” President Biden said during a news conference on Wednesday. “While there are differences country by country, this is a global phenomenon and driven by these global issues,” Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said after the latest inflation data were released.

the euro area. Data released in the United Kingdom and in Canada on Wednesday showed prices accelerating at their fastest rate in 30 years in both countries. Inflation in the eurozone, which is measured differently from how the U.S. calculates it, climbed to an annual rate of 5 percent in December, according to an initial estimate by the European Union statistics office.

“The U.S. is hardly an island amidst this storm of supply disruptions and rising demand, especially for goods and commodities,” said Eswar Prasad, a professor of trade policy at Cornell University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

But some economists point out that even as inflation proves pervasive around the globe, it has been more pronounced in America than elsewhere.

“The United States has had much more inflation than almost any other advanced economy in the world,” said Jason Furman, an economist at Harvard University and former Obama administration economic adviser, who used comparable methodologies to look across areas and concluded that U.S. price increases have been consistently faster.

The difference, he said, comes because “the United States’ stimulus is in a category of its own.”

White House officials have argued that differences in “core” inflation — which excludes food and fuel — have been small between the United States and other major economies over the past six months. And the gaps all but disappear if you strip out car prices, which are up sharply and have a bigger impact in the United States, where consumers buy more automobiles. (Mr. Furman argued that people who didn’t buy cars would have spent their money on something else and that simply eliminating them from the U.S. consumption basket is not fair.)

Administration officials have also noted that the United States has seen a robust rebound in economic growth. The International Monetary Fund said in October that it expected U.S. output to climb by 6 percent in 2021 and 5.2 percent in 2022, compared with 5 percent growth last year in the euro area and 4.3 percent growth projected for this year.

“To the extent that we got more heat, we got a lot more growth for it,” said Jared Bernstein, a member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers.

$5 trillion in spending in 2020 and 2021. That outstripped the response in other major economies as a share of the nation’s output, according to data compiled by the International Monetary Fund.

Many economists supported protecting workers and businesses early in the pandemic, but some took issue with the size of the $1.9 trillion package last March under the Biden administration. They argued that sending households another round of stimulus, including $1,400 checks, further fueled demand when the economy was already healing.

Consumer spending seemed to react: Retail sales, for instance, jumped after the checks went out.

loss of purchasing power over time, meaning your dollar will not go as far tomorrow as it did today. It is typically expressed as the annual change in prices for everyday goods and services such as food, furniture, apparel, transportation costs and toys.

Americans found themselves with a lot of money in the bank, and as they spent that money on goods, demand collided with a global supply chain that was too fragile to catch up.

Virus outbreaks shut down factories, ports faced backlogs and a dearth of truckers roiled transit routes. Americans still managed to buy more goods than ever before in 2021, and foreign factories sent a record sum of products to U.S. shops and doorsteps. But all that shopping wasn’t enough to satisfy consumer demand.

stop spending at the start of the pandemic helped to swell savings stockpiles.

And the Federal Reserve’s interest rates are at rock bottom, which has bolstered demand for big purchases made on credit, from houses and cars to business investments like machinery and computers. Families have been taking on more housing and auto debt, data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York shows, helping to pump up those sectors.

But if stimulus-driven demand is fueling inflation, the diagnosis could come with a silver lining. It may be easier to temper consumer spending than to rapidly reorient tangled supply lines.

People may naturally begin to buy less as government help fades. Spending could shift away from goods and back toward services if the pandemic abates. And the Fed’s policies work on demand — not supply.

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How China’s Xi Jinping Is Staging the Beijing Olympics on His Terms

When the International Olympic Committee met seven years ago to choose a host for the 2022 Winter Games, China’s leader, Xi Jinping, sent a short video message that helped tip the scale in a close, controversial vote.

China had limited experience with winter sports. Little snow falls in the distant hills where outdoor events would take place. Pollution was so dense at times that it was known as the “Airpocalypse.”

Mr. Xi pledged to resolve all of this, putting his personal prestige on what seemed then like an audacious bid. “We will deliver every promise we made,” he told the Olympic delegates meeting in Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur.

host of the Summer Olympics, the Games have become a showcase of the country’s achievements. Only now, it is a very different country.

China no longer needs to prove its standing on the world stage; instead, it wants to proclaim the sweeping vision of a more prosperous, more confident nation under Mr. Xi, the country’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong. Where the government once sought to mollify its critics to make the Games a success, today it defies them.

Beijing 2022 “will not only enhance our confidence in realizing the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” said Mr. Xi, who this year is poised to claim a third term at the top. It will also “show a good image of our country and demonstrate our nation’s commitment to building a community with a shared future for mankind.”

Mr. Xi’s government has brushed off criticism from human rights activists and world leaders as the bias of those — including President Biden — who would keep China down. It has implicitly warned Olympic broadcasters and sponsors not to bend to calls for protests or boycotts over the country’s political crackdown in Hong Kong or its campaign of repression in Xinjiang, the largely Muslim region in the northwest.

combat Covid and imposed stricter safety measures than those during the Summer Olympics in Tokyo last year. It has insisted on sustaining its “zero Covid” strategy, evolved from China’s first lockdown, in Wuhan two years ago, regardless of the cost to its economy and its people.

an accusation of sexual assault by the tennis player Peng Shuai, a three-time Olympian, the I.O.C. did not speak out. Instead, it helped deflect concerns about her whereabouts and safety.

staggering costs of the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, and the white-knuckle chaos of preparations for the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro.

blue skies. High-speed railways have slashed the trip from Beijing to the most distant venues from four hours to one.

In an area perennially short of water, China built a network of pipelines to feed a phalanx of snow-making machines to dust barren slopes in white. Officials this week even claimed the entire Games would be “fully carbon neutral.”

Christophe Dubi, executive director of the upcoming Games, said in an interview that China proved to be a partner willing and able to do whatever it took to pull off the event, regardless of the challenges.

“Organizing the Games,” Mr. Dubi said, “was easy.”

The committee has deflected questions about human rights and other controversies overshadowing the Games. While the committee’s own charter calls for “improving the promotion and respect of human rights,” officials have said that it was not for them to judge the host country’s political system.

Instead, what matters most to the committee is pulling off the Games. By selecting Beijing, the committee had alighted on a “safe choice,” said Thomas Bach, the committee’s president.

unseasonably warm weather. Sochi 2014 — intended as a valedictory of Vladimir V. Putin’s rule in Russia — cost a staggering $51 billion.

Growing wariness of organizing the quadrennial event gave China an unexpected advantage. Beijing — no one’s idea of a winter sports capital — could reuse sites from the 2008 Games, including the iconic Bird’s Nest stadium for the opening ceremony. The Water Cube, which held the swimming and diving events 14 years ago, was rebranded as the Ice Cube.

Almaty, the former capital of Kazakhstan, once a republic of the Soviet Union.

The final tally was 44 to 40 for Beijing, with one abstention. Almaty’s supporters were left to fume over a glitch in the electronic voting system that prompted a manual recount to “protect the integrity of the vote.” That Kazakhstan has plunged into political turmoil on the eve of the Games seems now, in hindsight, further validation of the choice to pick Beijing.

Xinhua, compared to 480,000 three years before.

ceremonial scepter popular in the Qing dynasty, complete with a 6,000-seat stadium at the bottom that is supposed to hold soccer matches after the Olympics.

military preparations for the Games, including the installation of 44 antiaircraft batteries around Beijing, even though the likelihood of an aerial attack on the city seemed far-fetched.

“A safe Olympics is the biggest symbol of a successful Beijing Olympic Games, and is the most important symbol of the country’s international image,” he said then.

accusation of sexual harassment rocked the sports world last fall, the committee found itself caught in the furor.

fumed in private. Without the protective cover of the international committee, they feared reprisals if they spoke out individually.

The 2008 Olympics also faced harsh criticism. A campaign led by the actress Mia Farrow called the event the “genocide games” because of China’s support for Sudan despite its brutal crackdown in the Darfur region. The traditional torch relay was hounded by protests in cities on multiple continents, including Paris, London, San Francisco and Seoul.

The accusations against China today are, arguably, even more serious. The United States and other countries have declared that China’s crackdown against the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang amounts to genocide. Ms. Farrow’s biting sobriquet has resurfaced for 2022, with a Twitter hashtag.

only screened spectators of its own choosing. It will mostly be a performance for Chinese and international television audiences, offering a choreographed view of the country, the one Mr. Xi’s government has of itself.

If the coronavirus can be kept under control, Beijing could weather the Olympics with fewer problems than seemed likely when it won the rights to the Games seven years ago. Mr. Xi’s government has already effectively declared it a success. A dozen other Chinese cities are already angling for the 2036 Summer Olympics.

“The world looks forward to China,” Mr. Xi said in an New Year’s address, “and China is ready.”

Chris Buckley contributed reporting. Claire Fu, Liu Yi and Li You contributed research.

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Live Updates: Blinken and Lavrov Pledge to Keep Talking as Military Buildup Continues Around Ukraine

michael barbaro

From The New York Times, I’m Michael Barbaro. This is The Daily.

[music]

Today: Russia is making preparations for what many fear may be a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, prompting warnings from the U.S. of serious consequences if it does. I spoke to my colleague, Moscow bureau chief Anton Troianovski, about what Vladimir Putin wants from Ukraine and just how far he may go to get it.

It’s Wednesday, December 8.

Anton, describe the scene right now on the border between Ukraine and Russia. What does it look like? What exactly is happening there?

anton troianovski

Well, what you’re seeing on the Russian side of the border within 100 to 200 miles away is that thousands of Russian troops are on the move.

archived recording 1

A top military official says intelligence shows nearly 100,000 Russian troops —

archived recording 2

Russian troops have massed on the border of Ukraine.

archived recording 3

— troops on the border with Ukraine. And that’s prompted fears of an invasion early next year.

anton troianovski

We’re seeing a lot of social media footage of tanks and other military equipment on the move, on trains, in some cases, heading west toward the Ukraine border area from as far away as Siberia.

archived recording

Tensions between Russia and Ukraine have been building for some time in the wake of —

anton troianovski

These satellite images that we’re seeing show deployment areas around Ukraine that were empty as recently as June that are now full of military equipment-like tanks and armored personnel carriers.

archived recording

The U.S. called it unusual activity.

anton troianovski

And obviously, Russia moves its forces all the time. It does big military exercises, snap military exercises all the time, but what we’re being told is that these military movements are very unusual. Some of them are happening at night and, in other ways, seemingly designed to obfuscate where various units are going. And experts are saying we’re also seeing things like logistics and medical equipment being moved around, stuff that you really would see if there were real preparations being made for large-scale military action.

michael barbaro

So what’s happening in Russia is not just the movement of the troops that would perhaps carry out an invasion, but the kind of military personnel and equipment that would be required to deal with the repercussions of something like invading Ukraine?

anton troianovski

Yes. So American intelligence officials are seeing intelligence that shows Russia preparing for a military offensive involving an estimated 175,000 troops —

michael barbaro

Wow.

anton troianovski

— as soon as early next year.

michael barbaro

And Anton, is Ukraine preparing for what certainly looks, from what you just described, as a potential invasion?

anton troianovski

They’re in a really tough spot because no matter how much they prepare, their military would be utterly outgunned and outmatched. Ukraine doesn’t have the missile defense and air defense systems that could prevent a huge shock-and-awe campaign at the beginning of Russian military action.

They also don’t know, if and when an attack comes, which direction it might come from, because Russia could attack from any of three directions. So we’re not seeing a big mobilization in Ukraine right now, but our reporting on the ground there does show a grim and determined mood among the military. The soldiers on the border have made it clear that if it comes to it, they will be prepared to do what they can to make this as costly as possible for the other side.

michael barbaro

So I guess the question everyone has in this moment is why would Putin want to invade Ukraine right now and touch off what would no doubt be a major conflict, one in which, as you just said, Russia would have many advantages, but would nevertheless end up probably being a very deadly conflict?

anton troianovski

So obviously, we don’t yet know whether Putin has made the decision to invade. He’s clearly signaling he’s prepared to use military force. What we do know is that he has been extraordinarily fixated on the issue of Ukraine for years. But I think to really understand it, you have to look at three dates over the last 30 years that really show us why Ukraine matters so much to Putin.

michael barbaro

OK. So what’s the first date?

anton troianovski

The first one, 1991, almost exactly 30 years ago, the Soviet Union breaks up, and Ukraine becomes an independent country. For people of Putin’s generation, this was an incredibly shocking and even traumatic moment. Not only did they see and experience the collapse of an empire, of the country that they grew up in, that they worked in, that, in Putin’s case, the former K.G.B. officer that they served. But there was also a specific trauma of Ukraine breaking away. Ukraine, of all the former Soviet republics, was probably the one most valuable to Moscow.

It was a matter of history and identity with, in many ways, Russian statehood originating out of the medieval Kiev Rus civilization. There’s the matter of culture with so many Russian language writers like Gogol and Bulgakov coming from Ukraine. There was the matter of economics with Ukraine being an industrial and agricultural powerhouse during the Soviet Union, with many of the planes and missiles that the Soviets were most proud of coming from Ukraine.

michael barbaro

So there’s a sense that Ukraine is the cradle of Russian civilization, and to lose it is to lose a part of Russia itself.

anton troianovski

Yeah. And it’s a country of tens of millions of people that is also sandwiched between modern-day Russia and Western Europe. So the other issue is geopolitical, that Ukraine in that sort of Cold War security, East-versus-West mindset, Ukraine was a buffer between Moscow and the West. So 1991 was the year when that all fell apart.

And then by the time that Putin comes to power 10 years later, he’s already clearly thinking about how to reestablish Russian influence in that former Soviet space in Eastern Europe and in Ukraine in particular. We saw a lot of resources go in economically to try to bind Ukraine to Russia, whether it’s discounts on natural gas or other efforts by Russian companies, efforts to build ties to politicians and oligarchs in Ukraine. Really, a multipronged effort by Putin and the Kremlin to really gain as much influence as possible in that former Soviet space that they saw as being so key to Russia’s economic and security interests.

michael barbaro

Got it.

anton troianovski

And then fast forward to the second key date, 2014, which is the year it became clear that that strategy had failed.

archived recording

Now, to the growing unrest in Ukraine and the violent clashes between riot police and protesters.

michael barbaro

And why did that strategy fail in 2014?

anton troianovski

That was the year that Ukraine had its — what’s called its Maidan Revolution.

archived recording 1

The situation in Kiev has been very tense.

archived recording 2

Downtown Kiev has been turned into a charred battlefield following two straight nights of rioting.

anton troianovski

It’s a pro-Western revolution —

archived recording

They want nothing short of revolution, a new government and a new president.

anton troianovski

— that drove out a Russia-friendly president, that ushered in a pro-Western government, that made it its mission to reduce Ukraine’s ties with Russia and build its ties with the West.

archived recording

Ukrainians who want closer ties with the West are once again back in their thousands on Independence Square here in Kiev. They believe they —

michael barbaro

Hmm. And what was Putin’s response to that?

anton troianovski

Well, Putin didn’t even see it as a revolution. He saw it as a coup engineered by the C.I.A. and other Western intelligence agencies meant to drive Ukraine away from Russia. And —

archived recording

With stealth and mystery, Vladimir Putin made his move in Ukraine.

anton troianovski

— he used his military.

archived recording

At dawn, bands of armed men appeared at the two main airports in Crimea and seized control.

anton troianovski

He sent troops into Crimea, the Ukrainian Peninsula in the Black Sea that’s so dear to people across the former Soviet Union as kind of the warmest, most tropical place in a very cold part of the world.

archived recording

Tonight, Russian troops — hundreds, perhaps as many as 2,000, ferried in transport planes — have landed at the airports.

anton troianovski

He fomented a separatist war in Eastern Ukraine that by now has taken more than 10,000 lives and armed and backed pro-Russian separatists in that region. So that was the year 2014 when Russia’s earlier efforts to try to bind Ukraine to Moscow failed and when Russia started taking a much harder line.

michael barbaro

And this feels like a very pivotal moment because it shows Putin’s willingness to deploy the Russian military to strengthen the ties between Russia and Ukraine.

anton troianovski

Absolutely. Strengthened the ties or you can also say his efforts to enforce a Russian sphere of influence by military force. And it’s also the start of what we’ve been seeing ever since, which is Putin making it clear that he is willing to escalate, he is willing to raise the stakes and that he essentially cares more about the fate of Ukraine than the West does.

And that brings us to the third date I wanted to talk about, which is early this year, 2021, when we saw the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, really start taking a more aggressive anti-Russian and pro-Western tack. He cracked down on a pro-Russian oligarch and pro-Russian media. He continued with military exercises with American soldiers and with other Western forces.

He kept talking up the idea of Ukraine joining NATO. That’s the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the Western military alliance. And in a sense, this is what Putin seems to fear the most, the idea of NATO becoming more entrenched in this region. So Putin made it clear that this was starting to cross what he describes as Russia’s red lines and that Russia was willing to take action to stop this.

michael barbaro

So to put this all together and understand why Putin is doing what he’s doing when it comes to Ukraine, we have as a backdrop here this fixation with Ukraine for historic, political, economic and cultural reasons. And what’s new and urgent here for Putin is his belief that Ukraine is on the verge of a major break with Russia and toward the West — in particular, a military alliance, NATO — and that he cannot tolerate. And so that brings us up to now and this very imminent and scary threat of a Russian invasion.

anton troianovski

That’s right, Michael. I spoke to a former advisor of Putin’s recently who described Ukraine as a trauma within a trauma for the Kremlin — so the trauma of the breakup of the Soviet Union plus the trauma of losing Ukraine specifically for all those reasons you mentioned. And the thing is it’s true.

Russia is losing Ukraine. I think objectively, though, you have to say it’s losing Ukraine in large part because of Putin’s policies, because of the aggressive actions he’s taken. And if you look at the polls before 2014, something like 12 percent of Ukrainians wanted to join NATO. Now, it’s more than half.

michael barbaro

Wow.

anton troianovski

So you put all that together, Ukraine is indeed drifting toward the West. It does seem like Putin feels like he’s running out of time to stop this and that he’s willing to escalate, he’s willing to raise the stakes, to keep Ukraine out of the West. And what we’re seeing right now on the border is all that playing out.

[music]
michael barbaro

We’ll be right back.

So Anton, the question right now is will President Putin actually carry out an invasion of Ukraine? And how should we be thinking about that?

anton troianovski

Well, it’s quite perilous, of course, to try to get inside Putin’s head, but here’s the case for invading now. Number one: NATO and the United States have made it clear that they are not going to come to Ukraine’s defense, because Ukraine is not a member of the NATO alliance, and NATO’s mutual defense pact only extends to full-fledged members. And of course, I think, politically, Putin believes that neither in the U.S., nor in Western Europe, is there the will to see soldiers from those countries die fighting for Ukraine.

michael barbaro

Right. And President Biden has just very publicly pulled the United States out of the war in Afghanistan and more or less communicated that unless American national security interests are at play, he will not be dispatching troops anywhere.

anton troianovski

Exactly. So Putin saw that, and he sees that potentially things could change. If the West does have more of a military presence in Ukraine in the future, let alone if Ukraine were to become a member of NATO at some point — it’s not going to happen in the next few years, but perhaps at some point — then attacking Ukraine becomes a much more costly proposition. So it’s a matter of war now could be less costly to Russia than war later.

michael barbaro

Right. The geopolitics of this moment may work in favor of him doing it in a way that it might not in a year or two or three.

anton troianovski

Absolutely. And then there’s a couple of other reasons. There’s the fact that if we look at everything Putin has said and written over the last year, he really seems convinced that the West is pulling Ukraine away from Russia against the will of much of the Ukrainian people. Polling doesn’t really bear that out, but Putin really seems to be convinced of that. And so it seems like he may also be thinking that Ukrainians would welcome Russian forces as liberators from some kind of Western occupation.

And then third, there’s the economy. The West has already threatened severe sanctions against Russia were it to go ahead with military action, but Russia has been essentially sanctions-proofing its economy since at least 2014, which is when it took control of Crimea and was hit by all these sanctions from the U.S. and from the E.U. So Russia’s economy is still tied to the West.

It imports a lot of stuff from the West. But in many key areas, whether it’s technology or energy extraction or agriculture, Russia is becoming more self-sufficient. And it is building ties to other parts of the world — like China, India, et cetera — that could allow it to diversify and have basically an economic base even if an invasion leads to a major crisis in its financial and economic relationship with the West.

michael barbaro

Right. So this is the argument that Putin can live with the costs of the world reacting very negatively to this invasion?

anton troianovski

Exactly.

michael barbaro

OK. And what are the reasons why an invasion of Ukraine might not happen? What would be the case against it, if you were Vladimir Putin?

anton troianovski

Well, I mean, I have to say, talking to analysts, especially here in Russia, people are very skeptical that Putin would go ahead with an invasion. They point out that he is a careful tactician and that he doesn’t like making moves that are irreversible or that could have unpredictable consequences.

So if we even look at the military action he’s taken recently, the annexation of Crimea, there wasn’t a single shot fired in that. That was a very quick special-forces-type operation. What we’re talking about here, an invasion of Ukraine, would be just a massive escalation from anything Putin has done so far. We are talking about the biggest land war in Europe since World War II, most likely. And it would have all kinds of unpredictable consequences.

There’s also the domestic situation to keep in mind. Putin does still have approval ratings above 60 percent, but things are a bit shaky here, especially with Covid. And some analysts say that Putin wouldn’t want to usher in the kind of domestic unpredictability that could start with a major war with young men coming back in body bags.

And then finally, looking at Putin’s strategy and everything that he’s said, for all we know, he doesn’t really want to annex Ukraine. He wants influence over Ukraine. And the way he thinks he can do that is through negotiations with the United States.

And that’s where the last key point here comes in, which is Putin’s real conviction that it’s the U.S. pulling the strings here and that he can accomplish his goals by getting President Biden to sit down with him and hammering out a deal about the structure of security in Eastern Europe.

So in that sense, this whole troop build-up might not be about an impending invasion at all. It might just be about coercive diplomacy, getting the U.S. to the table, and getting them to hammer out an agreement that would somehow pledge to keep Ukraine out of NATO and pledge to keep Western military infrastructure out of Ukraine and parts of the Black Sea.

michael barbaro

Well in that sense, Anton, Putin may be getting what he wants, right? Because as we speak, President Putin and President Biden have just wrapped up a very closely watched phone call about all of this. So is it possible that that call produces a breakthrough and perhaps a breakthrough that goes Putin’s way?

anton troianovski

Well, that’s very hard to imagine. And that’s really what makes this situation so volatile and so dangerous, which is that what Putin wants, the West and President Biden can’t really give.

michael barbaro

Why not?

anton troianovski

Well, for instance, pledging to keep Ukraine out of NATO would violate the Western concept that every country should have the right to decide for itself what its alliances are. President Biden obviously has spent years, going back to when he was vice president, really speaking in favor of Ukrainian sovereignty and self-determination and trying to help Ukraine take a more Western path. So Biden suddenly turning on all of that and giving Putin what he wants here is hard to imagine.

michael barbaro

Right, because that would create a very slippery slope when it comes to any country that Russia wants to have influence over. It would then know that the right playbook would be to mass troops on the border and wait for negotiation with the U.S. and hope that the U.S. would basically sell those countries out. That’s probably not something you’re saying that President Biden would willingly do.

anton troianovski

Right. And then, of course, the other question is, well, if Russia doesn’t get what it wants, if Putin doesn’t get what he wants, then what does he do?

michael barbaro

So Anton, it’s tempting to think that this could all be what you just described as a coercive diplomatic bluff by Putin to extract what he wants from President Biden and from the West. But it feels like history has taught us that Putin is willing to invade Ukraine. He did it in 2014.

History has also taught us that he’s obsessed with Ukraine, dating back to 1991 and the end of the Soviet Union. And it feels like one of the ultimate lessons of history is that we have to judge leaders based on their actions. And his actions right now are putting 175,000 troops near the border with Ukraine. And so shouldn’t we conclude that it very much looks like Putin might carry out this invasion?

anton troianovski

Yes, that’s right. And of course, there are steps that Putin could take that would be short of a full-fledged invasion that could still be really destabilizing and damaging. Here in Moscow, I’ve heard analysts speculate about maybe pinpoint airstrikes against the Ukrainian targets, or a limited invasion perhaps just specifically in that area where Russian-backed separatists are fighting.

But even such steps could have really grave consequences. And that’s why if you combine what we’re seeing on the ground in Russia, near the border, and what we’ve been hearing from President Putin and other officials here in Moscow, that all tells us that the stakes here are really high.

michael barbaro

Well, Anton, thank you very much. We appreciate your time.

anton troianovski

Thanks for having me.

michael barbaro

On Tuesday afternoon, both the White House and the Kremlin released details about the call between Putin and Biden. The White House said that Biden warned Putin of severe economic sanctions if Russia invaded Ukraine. The Kremlin said that Putin repeated his demands that Ukraine not be allowed to join NATO and that Western weapons systems not be placed inside Ukraine. But Putin made no promises to remove Russian forces from the border.

[music]

We’ll be right back.

Here’s what else you need to know today. On Tuesday night, top Democrats and Republicans said they had reached a deal to raise the country’s debt ceiling and avert the U.S. defaulting on its debt for the first time. The deal relies on a complicated one-time legislative maneuver that allows Democrats in the Senate to raise the debt ceiling without support from Republicans, since Republicans oppose raising the debt ceiling under President Biden. Without congressional action, the Treasury Department says it can no longer pay its bills after December 15.

Today’s episode was produced by Eric Krupke, Rachelle Bonja and Luke Vander Ploeg. It was edited by Michael Benoist, contains original music by Dan Powell and Marion Lozano, and was engineered by Chris Wood. Our theme music is by Jim Brunberg and Ben Landsverk of Wonderly.

That’s it for The Daily. I’m Michael Barbaro. See you tomorrow.

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Inflation Hits the Fast Food Counter

On a chilly Tuesday afternoon this month, James Marsh stopped by a Chipotle near his suburban Chicago home to grab something to eat.

It had been a while since Mr. Marsh had been to Chipotle — he estimated he goes five times a year — and he stopped cold when he saw the prices.

“I had been getting my usual, a steak burrito, which had been maybe in the mid-$8 range,” said Mr. Marsh, who trades stock options at his home in Hinsdale, Ill. “Now it was more than $9.”

He walked out.

“I figured I’d find something at home,” he said.

The pandemic has led to price spikes in everything from pizza slices in Manhattan to sides of beef in Colorado. And it has led to more expensive items on the menus at fast-food chains, traditionally establishments where people are used to grabbing a quick bite that doesn’t hurt their wallet.

government data. And, in some cases, portions have shrunk.

“In recent years, most fast-food restaurants had, maybe, raised prices in the low single digits each year,” said Matthew Goodman, an analyst at M Science, an alternative data research and analytics firm. “What we’ve seen over the last six-plus months are restaurants being aggressive in pushing through prices.”

This comes at a time when the hypercompetitive fast-food market is booming.

Chains like McDonald’s, Chipotle and Wingstop were big winners of the pandemic as consumers, stuck at home working and tired of cooking multiple meals for their families, increasingly turned to them for convenient solutions. But in the past year, as the cost of ingredients rose and the average hourly wage increased 16 percent to $16.10 in November from a year earlier, according to government data, restaurants began to quietly bump up prices.

But making customers pay more for a burger or a burrito is a tricky art. For many restaurants, it involves complex algorithms and test markets. They need to walk a fine line between raising prices enough to cover expenses while not scaring away customers. Moreover, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. Chains that are operated by franchisees typically allow individual owners to decide pricing. And national chains, like Chipotle and Shake Shack, charge different prices in various parts of the country.

When Carrols Restaurant Group, which operates more than 1,000 Burger Kings, raised prices in the second half of last year, the number of customers actually improved from the third to the fourth quarter. “Over time, we generally have not seen a whole lot of pushback from consumers” on the higher prices, Carrols’ chief executive, Daniel T. Accordino, told analysts at a conference in early January.

Menu prices are likely to continue to climb this year. Many restaurants say they are still paying higher wages to attract employees and expect food prices to rise.

“We expect unprecedented increases in our food basket costs versus 2021,” Ritch Allison, the chief executive of Domino’s Pizza, told Wall Street analysts at a conference this month. While Domino’s hasn’t raised prices, it is altering its promotions — offering the $7.99 pizza deal only to customers ordering online and shrinking the number of chicken wings in certain promotions to eight from 10 — in an effort to maintain profit margins.

Despite the higher food and labor costs, some restaurants are seeing sales and profits rebound past prepandemic levels.

When McDonald’s reports earnings this month, Wall Street analysts expect that its revenues will have hit a five-year high of more than $23 billion, a $2 billion increase from 2019. Net income is predicted to top $7 billion, up from $6 billion in 2019. Other chains like Cracker Barrel and Darden Restaurants, which owns Olive Garden and Longhorn Steakhouse, have resumed dividend payments or cash buybacks of stock after suspending those activities early in the pandemic to conserve cash.

And next month, when Chipotle reports results for 2021, analysts expect revenues to top $7.5 billion, a 34 percent jump from 2019. Net income is expected to almost double from prepandemic levels. In the third quarter, the company repurchased nearly $100 million of its stock. Chipotle declined to make an executive available for an interview, citing the quiet period ahead of its earnings release.

While Chipotle executives blamed higher labor costs for a 4 percent price increase in menu items this summer, the company has been looking for ways to boost its profitability.

One way was to charge higher prices for delivery. Delivery orders through vendors like DoorDash and Uber Eats exploded for Chipotle and other fast-food chains during the pandemic. But so did the commission fees that Chipotle paid the vendors. So in the fall of 2020, it began running tests to see what would happen if it raised the prices of burritos and guacamole and chips that customers ordered for delivery, executives told Wall Street analysts in an earnings call. It essentially meant the customer covered Chipotle’s side of the delivery costs.

The company discovered customers were willing to pay for the convenience of delivery. Now, customers ordering Chipotle for delivery pay about 21 percent more than if they had ordered and picked the food up in the stores, according to an analysis by Jeff Farmer, an analyst at Gordon Haskett Research Advisors.

“I would say that our ultimate goal, so this would be over the long term, maybe the medium term, is to fully protect our margins,” said Jack Hartung, the chief financial officer of Chipotle, on a call with Wall Street analysts last fall. “When you look at our pricing versus other restaurant companies’ for the quality of the food, the quantity of the food, and the quality and convenience of the experience, we offer great value. So we believe we have room to fully protect the margin.”

That doesn’t mean customers are thrilled about the extra costs.

This month, Jacob Herlin, a data scientist in Lakewood, Colo., placed an order: a steak-and-guacamole burrito for $11.95, a Coca-Cola for $3, and chips and guacamole, which were free with a birthday coupon. The total was $14.95, before tax.

But when he clicked to have the food delivered, the price for the burrito jumped to $14.45 and the soda climbed to $3.65, bringing the total to $18.10 before tax, 21 percent more than if he had picked the food up himself.

There was more. Mr. Herlin was charged a delivery fee of $1 and another “service fee” of $2.32, bringing the total for the delivered meal to $23.20. He tipped the driver an additional $3.

Mr. Herlin said he did not mind paying for delivery and wanted drivers to be paid a decent wage. But he felt that Chipotle wasn’t being upfront with customers about the added costs.

“They’re basically hiding the fees two different ways, through that base price increase and through the hidden ‘service fee,’” Mr. Herlin said in an email. “I would very much prefer if they had the same pricing and were just honest about a $5 delivery fee.”

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Your Inflation Questions, Answered

Inflation is high and has been for months. It’s weighing on consumer confidence, making policymakers nervous and threatening to eat away at household paychecks well into 2022.

This is the first time many adults have experienced meaningful inflation: Price gains had been largely quiescent since the late 1980s. When the Consumer Price Index climbed 7 percent in the year through December, it was the fastest pace since 1982.

Naturally, people have questions about what this will mean for their pocketbooks, their finances and their economic futures.

Closely intertwined with price worries are concerns about interest rates: The Federal Reserve is poised to raise borrowing costs to try to slow down demand and keep the situation under control.

furniture and camping gear.

That rapid consumption is running up against constrained supply. Factories shut down early in the pandemic, and in parts of Asia, they continue to do so as Omicron cases surge. There aren’t enough containers to ship all of the goods people want to buy, and ports have become clogged trying to process so many imports.

expanding their profits.

In theory, competition should eat away at extra earnings over time. New firms should jump into the market to sell that same products for less and steal away the customer. Existing competitors should ramp up production to meet demand.

But this may be a unappealing time for new firms to enter the market. Established companies may be hesitant to expand production if doing so involved a lot of investment, because it is not clear how long today’s strong demand will last.

“It is a very uncertain environment,” said Matthew Luzzetti, chief U.S. economist at Deutsche Bank. “A new firm stepping in is a lot of investment, with a lot of financial risk.”

Until companies can produce and transport enough of a given product to go around — as long as shortages remain — companies will be able to raise prices without running much risk of losing customers to a competitor.

In past periods of inflation, do employers typically increase wages or award higher-than-average yearly increases to help employees offset inflation? If so, in what industries is this practice most common? — Annmarie Kutz, Erie, Pa.

There is no standard historical experience with wages and inflation, Mary C. Daly, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, said during an interview with The New York Times on Twitter Spaces last week.

lower-wage service industries have been competing mightily for workers in recent months, and pay is climbing faster there.

“The history isn’t so clear that cost of living translates into higher wages, but that’s largely because inflation has been low and stable for a very long time,” Ms. Daly said.

in December projected that price gains will drop back below 3 percent by the end of the year, and will level off to normal levels over the longer term.

are adjusted for inflation, so those should keep pace with price gains. Bonds that pay back fixed rates do less well during periods of inflation, while stock investments — though riskier — tend to rise more quickly than consumer prices. Ms. Benz recommends holding assets across an array of securities, potentially including inflation-protected securities such as some exchange-traded funds or Treasury Inflation Protected Securities, commonly called TIPS.

“It argues against having too much in cash,” Ms. Benz said. “That’s too much dead money.”

We currently have low unemployment, strong wage growth (largely through attrition / voluntary retirements), easy monetary policy and now rising inflation. What are other periods of time when the United States had these conditions? How did things work out then? — Harshal Patel, Moorestown, N.J.

Jared Bernstein, a member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, pointed to the post-World War II period as a reference point for the present moment.

“Demand was strong, and supply was constrained,” he said in an interview. “That’s a very instructive path for us.”

The good news about that example is that supply eventually caught up, and prices came down without spurring any greater crisis.

Other, more worried commentators have drawn parallels between now and the 1970s, when the Fed was slow to raise rates as unemployment fell and prices rose — and inflation jumped out of control. But many economists have argued that important differences separate that period from this one: Workers were more heavily unionized and may have had more bargaining power to push for higher wages back then, and the Fed was slow to react for years on end. This time, it’s already gearing up to respond.

about price controls in a recent article, and vocal minority think the 1970s experience unfairly tarnished the idea and that it might be worthwhile to reopen the debate.

“This is a great suppressed topic,” said James K. Galbraith, an economist at the University of Texas. “It was absolutely mainstream from the start of World War II until the Reagan administration.”

If inflation is being caused by supply chain problems, how will raising interest rates help? — Larry Harris, Ventura, Calif.

Kristin J. Forbes, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said that a big part of today’s inflation ties to roiled supply chains, which monetary policy can’t do much to fix.

But trade is actually happening at elevated levels even amid the disruptions. Factories are producing, ships are shipping, and consumers are buying at a rapid clip. It is just that supply is not keeping up with that booming demand. Higher interest rates can relieve pressure on demand, making it more expensive to buy a boat or a car, cooling off the housing market and slowing business investment.

“A good part of the supply chain problems, you can’t do anything about,” Ms. Forbes said. “But you can affect demand. And it is the combination of the two which determines inflation.”

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On Ukraine, Biden Flusters European Allies by Stating the Obvious

Her party leader and chancellor, Olaf Scholz, has been more circumspect, saying after a meeting with the NATO secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, on Tuesday that Germany was ready to discuss halting the pipeline should Russia attack Ukraine. “It is clear that there will be a high price to pay and that everything will have to be discussed should there be a military intervention in Ukraine,” Mr. Scholz said.

The issue is sensitive for Washington, too. Last week, at NATO, Wendy R. Sherman, the deputy secretary of state, said: “From our perspective, it’s very hard to see gas flowing through the pipeline or for it to become operational if Russia renews its aggression on Ukraine.”

But the divisions are precisely why her boss, the secretary of state, Antony J. Blinken, is in Berlin on Thursday to talk to the German government and to senior diplomats from Britain and the so-called Normandy Format on Ukraine — France and Germany.

Set up in 2014 after the commemoration of D-Day in Normandy, the group includes Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany, but not the United States, because at the time President Barack Obama wanted to leave Ukraine to the Europeans.

Some consider that to have been a mistake, and there are discussions now about whether the United States should also join to try to de-escalate the current crisis. Negotiations produced the Minsk accords, which both Russia and Ukraine accuse the other of violating, and which Russia continues to say hold the key to the Ukrainian crisis.

Further divisions were on display on Wednesday in Strasbourg, France, where Emmanuel Macron, the French president, gave a long speech to the European Parliament setting out his priorities for the French presidency of the European Union — and implicitly for his own re-election campaign with voting in April.

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Silvio Berlusconi Angles for Italy’s Presidency, Bunga Bunga and All

ROME — Early this month, Silvio Berlusconi sat at a dining room table in his mansion with his girlfriend, more than a half-century younger, and an old political ally. As they feasted on a pumpkin souffle and truffle tagliatelle, the 85-year-old Italian former prime minister and billionaire made hours of phone calls, working his way down a list of disaffected lawmakers he hoped to persuade to elect him president of Italy next week.

“‘We are forming the Bunga Bunga party and we want you with us,’” Christian Romaniello, a lawmaker formerly with the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, recounted Mr. Berlusconi as saying, referring to the sex-fueled bacchanals that Mr. Berlusconi has deemed merely “elegant dinners.” According to Mr. Romaniello, Mr. Berlusconi then added, “‘But I’ll bring the ladies.’”

The Italian presidency, the country’s head of state, is a seven-year position usually filled by a figure of unimpeachable integrity and sobriety whose influence flows from moral authority. The current holder, Sergio Mattarella, is a quiet statesman whose brother was murdered by the mob. Another contender is Mario Draghi, the prime minister and a titan of European politics who has led the country to a period of unusual stability.

Then there is Mr. Berlusconi, who despite his recent bad health, waxen appearance and weakened political standing, is making an unabashed push to win a career-culminating position that he hopes will wash away decades of stains — his allies say unjustly thrown mud — and rewrite his legacy.

mob links and bribing lawmakers; the tax fraud conviction; the ban from office; the sentence to perform community service in a nursing home; his use of his media empire for political gain; his use of the government to protect his media empire; the wiretapped conversations of his libertine party guests regaling the Caligulan extent of his bunga bunga debaucheries; his close relationship with the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, who gifted Mr. Berlusconi a large bed; his appraisal of Barack Obama as “young, handsome and sun tanned”; his comparing a German lawmaker to a concentration camp guard; his second wife’s divorcing him for apparently dating an 18-year-old.

It’s an unorthodox résumé.

Mr. Berlusconi’s conflicts of interest, judicial problems and past behavior made him less than an excellent candidate, said Emma Bonino, a veteran Italian politician and civil rights activist who once ran for the office herself. “I don’t think he would give a good image of our country in the world,” she said.

Mr. Berlusconi declined to comment for this article. But he and his team of longtime advisers are selling him as a moderate, pro-European champion of democracy and can-do capitalism. “I think Silvio Berlusconi can be useful to the country,” Mr. Berlusconi, speaking of himself in the third person, said in October.

In usual fashion, he is using all the levers at his disposal to reach the requisite majority of 505 votes in the secret balloting for the presidency among lawmakers that starts on Monday.

read the headline) and published an insert on his qualities (“hero of liberty”). Weeks ago, lawmakers opening their mailboxes found a photograph of Mr. Berlusconi, arms up and bathing in adoration, on the cover of an anthology of his speeches.

the great-grandfather has remained the father figure of the center-right, which now has — if united — the largest bloc of lawmaker electors in Parliament and a strong desire to choose the next president.

But Mr. Berlusconi’s insistence has caused a major headache for Matteo Salvini, the leader of the nationalist League party, both at work and at home. Mr. Salvini’s girlfriend is the daughter of Denis Verdini, one of Mr. Berlusconi’s closest advisers, who is publicly applying pressure — from house arrest after his conviction in a bankruptcy fraud case — to elect Mr. Berlusconi.

After years of promising Mr. Berlusconi that he would back his candidacy for president, Mr. Salvini sent a stinging message to Mr. Berlusconi this week, saying that, “We must verify if Berlusconi has the numbers before the start of voting next week.” Mr. Salvini indicated that he had somebody else in mind.

Giorgia Meloni, the hard-right leader of Brothers of Italy, the third party in the center-right alliance, spoke on Tuesday of the possibility of Mr. Berlusconi’s stepping aside, prompting speculation that he might drop out.

the cover of Espresso magazine.

For all Mr. Berlusconi’s seeming unsuitability to fill the role of head of state, his allies argue that Italians elected him multiple times, that political considerations motivated the magistrates who hounded him for decades and that he was a self-made and brilliant businessman who built an empire.

But his outsize appetites and self-interested use of power fueled a backlash that seeded and grew the enormous anti-establishment Five Star Movement, co-founded by the comedian Beppe Grillo, who once derided Mr. Berlusconi as a “psychotic dwarf.”

Five Star took power in 2018 as Italy’s leading party, and Mr. Berlusconi’s support dwindled. He took a back seat to the rising nationalists, first Mr. Salvini and then Ms. Meloni, and railed against Five Star as incompetent good-for-nothings and a threat to democracy. He mocked their trademark universal welfare plan as a joke. He called their power structure communist.

Five Star has since imploded and scattered members into a mixed group of lawmakers desperate to avoid new elections that would almost certainly cost them their jobs and pensions. Mr. Berlusconi has explicitly promised to keep the legislature going as president, has called the universal income plan good for the poor and showered gifts on former rivals.

Luigi Di Maio, the Five Star leader who once refused to join any government with Mr. Berlusconi, this Christmas accepted a centuries-old oil painting of Venice from the mogul’s collection, according to a person close to Mr. Di Maio, who declined to comment.

As Mr. Berlusconi worked the phones alongside his girlfriend, who is also a member of Parliament in his political party, he sat next to Vittorio Sgarbi, one of his former ministers and a lawmaker and television personality who is well liked by many Five Star members.

When Mr. Sgarbi called Mr. Romaniello, the former Five Star lawmaker, who was interrupted while making Carnevale masks with his two small children, he jokingly introduced Mr. Berlusconi as “a Grillo-following friend.”

In an interview, Mr. Romaniello said that he was flattered by the call and added that friends contacted by Mr. Berlusconi also respected the former prime minister’s phone banking and “positive charisma.” But Mr. Romaniello said that he still considered himself, politically, “an adversary,” adding that Five Star had been born “as the antithesis of Berlusconi.” A phone call, he said, would not win his vote.

By Tuesday, even Mr. Sgarbi had bailed on Mr. Berlusconi and was urging him to be a kingmaker.

“I don’t think he can do it,” he said in an interview, saying that the duo had only persuaded about 15 lawmakers to back him, far short, even if he had a base of about 450 conservative supporters, to win the election. “It’s useless to try if you don’t have the numbers.”

On Wednesday, as Mr. Berlusconi’s lawyers in Milan successfully argued for a delay in a bribery trial related to his bunga bunga tribulations until after the presidential vote, his team snapped back and vowed that he would persist and, as always, speak for himself.

“I will not disappoint those who have trusted me,” Mr. Berlusconi said.

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Italy Ponders a New Role for Draghi. Let the Politicking Begin.

The secrecy, and self-interested nature, of the vote makes it ripe for influence peddling. In recent days, opening gambits took the form of government-collapsing ultimatums, with Mr. Berlusconi saying that he would pull his party out of government if Mr. Draghi became president.

Secret negotiations between the nationalist League, led by Matteo Salvini, and the center-left Democratic Party, are already underway, with the aim of avoiding new elections, possibly by keeping Mr. Draghi as prime minister of a government consisting of political leaders rather than technocrats.

Many, though perhaps not Mr. Draghi, are hoping that after sufficient votes fail to materialize for presidential hopefuls in opening ballots, a reluctant Mr. Mattarella, 80, can be persuaded by a broad alliance to serve another term, or at least to stick around for a couple more years and leave a new term early.

In theory, that would allow Mr. Draghi to defer his dream job until after the vital recovery fund programs have been put in place. But a year or two is an eternity in constantly evolving Italian politics.

Mr. Draghi, no political neophyte, has added his own pressure, asking the political parties if it was at all imaginable for a government that splinters on the choice of a president — be it him or anyone else — to “come back together magically” to run the country.

But even Mr. Draghi has not been untarnished by the political sniping. His backers say that he has become a more politically cautious broker between the bickering parties than their firm leader. In his most recent news conference, the prime minister sounded defensive, insisting that he was the one really making decisions. His honeymoon period seems to have ended.

“There is a lot of noise in the system because of this presidential race,” Mr. Colao said, nevertheless acknowledging that political pressure had “on the margins” increased the urgency of getting modernizing projects into the pipeline.

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Supply Chain Woes Could Worsen as China Imposes Covid Lockdowns

WASHINGTON — Companies are bracing for another round of potentially debilitating supply chain disruptions as China, home to about a third of global manufacturing, imposes sweeping lockdowns in an attempt to keep the Omicron variant at bay.

The measures have already confined tens of millions of people to their homes in several Chinese cities and contributed to a suspension of connecting flights through Hong Kong from much of the world for the next month. At least 20 million people, or about 1.5 percent of China’s population, are in lockdown, mostly in the city of Xi’an in western China and in Henan Province in north-central China.

The country’s zero-tolerance policy has manufacturers — already on edge from spending the past two years dealing with crippling supply chain woes — worried about another round of shutdowns at Chinese factories and ports. Additional disruptions to the global supply chain would come at a particularly fraught moment for companies, which are struggling with rising prices for raw materials and shipping along with extended delivery times and worker shortages.

China used lockdowns, contact tracing and quarantines to halt the spread of the coronavirus nearly two years ago after its initial emergence in Wuhan. These tactics have been highly effective, but the extreme transmissibility of the Omicron variant poses the biggest test yet of China’s system.

Volkswagen and Toyota announced last week that they would temporarily suspend operations in Tianjin because of lockdowns.

Analysts warn that many industries could face disruptions in the flow of goods as China tries to stamp out any coronavirus infections ahead of the Winter Olympics, which will be held in Beijing next month. On Saturday, Beijing officials reported the city’s first case of the Omicron variant, prompting the authorities to lock down the infected person’s residential compound and workplace.

If extensive lockdowns become more widespread in China, their effects on supply chains could be felt across the United States. Major new disruptions could depress consumer confidence and exacerbate inflation, which is already at a 40-year high, posing challenges for the Biden administration and the Federal Reserve.

“Will the Chinese be able to control it or not I think is a really important question,” said Craig Allen, the president of the U.S.-China Business Council. “If they’re going to have to begin closing down port cities, you’re going to have additional supply chain disruptions.”

thrown the global delivery system out of whack. Transportation costs have skyrocketed, and ports and warehouses have experienced pileups of products waiting to be shipped or driven elsewhere while other parts of the supply chain are stymied by shortages.

For the 2021 holiday season, customers largely circumvented those challenges by ordering early. High shipping prices began to ease after the holiday rush, and some analysts speculated that next month’s Lunar New Year, when many Chinese factories will idle, might be a moment for ports, warehouses and trucking companies to catch up on moving backlogged orders and allow global supply chains to return to normal.

But the spread of the Omicron variant is foiling hopes for a fast recovery, highlighting not only how much America depends on Chinese goods, but also how fragile the supply chain remains within the United States.

American trucking companies and warehouses, already short of workers, are losing more of their employees to sickness and quarantines. Weather disruptions are leading to empty shelves in American supermarkets. Delivery times for products shipped from Chinese factories to the West Coast of the United States are as long as ever — stretching to a record high of 113 days in early January, according to Flexport, a logistics firm. That was up from fewer than 50 days at the beginning of 2019.

The Biden administration has undertaken a series of moves to try to alleviate bottlenecks both in the United States and abroad, including devoting $17 billion to improving American ports as part of the new infrastructure law. Major U.S. ports are handling more cargo than ever before and working through their backlog of containers — in part because ports have threatened additional fees for containers that sit too long in their yards.

Yet those greater efficiencies have been undercut by continuing problems at other stages of the supply chain, including a shortage of truckers and warehouse workers to move the goods to their final destination. A push to make the Port of Los Angeles operate 24/7, which was the centerpiece of the Biden administration’s efforts to address supply chain issues this fall, has still seen few trucks showing up for overnight pickups, according to port officials, and cargo ships are still waiting for weeks outside West Coast ports for their turn for a berth to dock in.

work slowdowns and shipping delays.

“If you have four closed doors to get through and one of them opens up, that doesn’t necessarily mean quick passage,” said Phil Levy, the chief economist at Flexport. “We should not delude ourselves that if our ports become 10 percent more efficient, we’ve solved the whole problem.”

Chris Netram, the managing vice president for tax and domestic economic policy at the National Association of Manufacturers, which represents 14,000 companies, said that American businesses had seen a succession of supply chain problems since the beginning of the pandemic.

“Right now, we are at the tail end of one flavor of those challenges, the port snarls,” he said, adding that Chinese lockdowns could be “the next flavor of this.”

Manufacturers are watching carefully to see whether more factories and ports in China might be forced to shutter if Omicron spreads in the coming weeks.

Neither Xi’an nor Henan Province, the site of China’s most expansive lockdowns, has an economy heavily reliant on exports, although Xi’an does produce some semiconductors, including for Samsung and Micron Technology, as well as commercial aircraft components.

Handel Jones, the chief executive of International Business Strategies, a chip consultancy, said the impact on Samsung and Micron would be limited, but he expressed worries about the potential for broader lockdowns in cities like Tianjin or Shanghai.

stay away from any vehicle collisions involving Olympic participants, to avoid infection.

Last year, terminal shutdowns in and around Ningbo and Shenzhen, respectively the world’s third- and fourth-largest container ports by volume, led to congestion and delays, and caused some ships to reroute to other ports.

But if the coronavirus does manage to enter a big port again, the effects could quickly be felt in the United States. “If one of the big container terminals goes into lockdown,” Mr. Huxley said, “it doesn’t take long for a big backlog to develop.”

Airfreight could also become more expensive and harder to obtain in the coming weeks as China has canceled dozens of flights to clamp down on another potential vector of infection. That could especially affect consumer electronics companies, which tend to ship high-value goods by air.

For American companies, the prospect of further supply chain troubles means there may be another scramble to secure Chinese-made products ahead of potential closures.

Lisa Williams, the chief executive of the World of EPI, a company that makes multicultural dolls, said the supply chain issues were putting pressure on companies like hers to get products on the shelves faster than ever, with retailers asking for goods for the fall to be shipped as early as May.

Dr. Williams, who was an academic specializing in logistics before she started her company, said an increase in the price of petroleum and other raw materials had pushed up the cost of the materials her company uses to make dolls, including plastic accessories, fibers for hair, fabrics for clothing and plastic for the dolls themselves. Her company has turned to far more expensive airfreight to get some shipments to the United States faster, further cutting into the firm’s margins.

“Everything is being moved up because everyone is anticipating the delay with supply chains,” she said. “So that compresses everything. It compresses the creativity, it compresses the amount of time we have to think through innovations we want to do.”

Ana Swanson reported from Washington, and Keith Bradsher from Beijing.

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