As Bond Yields Rise, Stocks Remain Buoyant, for Now

The sharp rise in bond yields is forcing traders to consider that they may be holding two irreconcilable ideas in their heads.

One is that the Federal Reserve has no real control over bond market interest rates. The other is that the Fed can keep the stock market aloft as long as it tries to control interest rates.

The resilience of share prices — the S&P 500 rose 5.8 percent in the first quarter — suggests that those two ideas can coexist. But if yields continue to rise, the impact on companies, consumers and homeowners and the appeal that fatter bond yields may have to investors could produce a reckoning for stocks.

“The bond market is at an inflection point that eventually is going to be recognized by the stock market,” said Komal Sri-Kumar, president of Sri-Kumar Global Strategies. “Over the last 30 years, the bond market has only gone one way, but a change is occurring now, and it’s likely to be an abrupt one.”

CRB index, which measures a basket of commodities, rose 52 percent in the 12 months through March. Home prices rose 6 percent last year, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

$1.9 trillion bill last month to help the economy after the ravages wrought by the pandemic, President Biden proposed spending $2 trillion more on infrastructure projects, albeit over several years.

That $4 trillion, give or take, would be “going into an economy saturated with $6 trillion of stimulus spending from the Trump administration,” Mr. Sri-Kumar said. So much spending is likely to push up inflation and bond yields, he said.

Michael Hartnett, chief investment strategist at Bank of America Global Research, does not expect such concerns to diminish soon.

Because of such factors as “new central bank mandates, excess fiscal stimulus,” as well as “less globalization, fading deflation from disruption, demographics, debt, we believe inflation rises in the 2020s and the 40-year bull market in bonds is over,” Mr. Hartnett said in a report.

Commodities and other hard assets should outperform in the long term, in his view, along with shares of smaller companies, value stocks and foreign stocks. The dollar, shares of big companies and bonds should do worse.

David Giroux, a portfolio manager and head of investment strategy at T. Rowe Price, said he is worried that the bill will come due for much of the government spending.

“There’s a high likelihood we will have higher corporate taxes next year,” Mr. Giroux said. “That will be a headwind for corporate earnings.”

That persuades him to avoid shares of economically sensitive companies for which “a lot of really good news is already priced in.”

He prefers “stocks with really good business models that have been left behind,” including technology giants that are off their highs, such as Amazon and Google, and companies like utilities. Other favorites include regional banks such as PNC and Huntington Bancshares.

Ms. Bitel at William Blair foresees long-term higher returns by big growth stocks. But she throws in an immense caveat: Because rising interest rates tend to force down valuations, especially on the most expensive segments of the market, there could be a sharp decline before the erstwhile Wall Street darlings excel again.

“Retail investors will be able to buy their favorite growth stocks at a 40 percent discount, but that leadership will resume,” she said, emphasizing that the 40 percent was a ballpark figure.

Ms. Bitel also suggested holding foreign stocks, in particular shares of Chinese health care companies and Japanese software companies.

Mr. Paolini recommends banks, energy and real estate, and said he is avoiding carmakers, industrial companies and home builders.

Considering the investment landscape more broadly, he said, “The outlook for the next one to three years is quite good.” Then he seemed to try to talk himself out of that belief.

“The idea that you can simply print money and everything is fine isn’t sustainable,” Mr. Paolini said. “At some point, we will realize too much has been done and the market is too high, and the situation will change quite fast. I don’t know what that level is or how far away we are from it.”

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As Talk Turns to Inflation, Some Investors Look to Gold

Inflation is back in the news and so, of course, is interest in gold.

After years of dormancy, inflation is expected to rise a bit this summer. It is even possible that as Americans emerge from Covid-19 induced seclusion, their pent-up demand will overheat the economy and weaken the dollar.

Those concerns have put the spotlight on gold, which has long been viewed as a hedge against inflation, a declining dollar and an unstable stock market. Buy gold now and make a quick profit, or so the thinking goes.

But this analysis has problems, starting with the outlook for inflation, which isn’t necessarily that bad. The inflation rate ended 2020 at an anemic 1.4 percent, and Jerome H. Powell, the Federal Reserve chair, has said that despite the potential for a modest surge above 2 percent this summer, the Fed doesn’t expect inflation to move much higher between now and 2023.

Perhaps that’s why gold hasn’t been soaring lately, either. After peaking at more than $2,000 an ounce last summer, gold prices hovered below $1,750 in early April, a decline of nearly 13 percent.

Warren E. Buffett likes to point out. Finally, investors who buy physical gold face the additional risk and cost and of securing their bullion or coins.

A more cautious approach is to avoid chasing returns. Instead, keep a small percentage of a portfolio in gold and other precious metals in the hope that this will be a long-term stabilizer.

“In a world where equity prices continue to elevate untethered to any fundamentals, precious metals as a small amount of diversification makes sense,” said David Trainer, chief executive of New Constructs, an investment research firm based in Nashville.

George Milling-Stanley, chief gold strategist at State Street Global Advisors, said gold offers two benefits over the long term: protection against risk and volatility, and as asset appreciation.

“Gold is a defensive asset that really comes into its own over the long term, when you can enjoy the return stream,” Mr. Milling-Stanley said.

restrained, rarely rising above 3 percent annually and remaining around 2 percent or less most of the time. Gold prices, however, rose from $274 an ounce at the beginning of 2001 to about $1,750 at the end of March.

“We don’t need inflation,” Mr. Milling-Stanley said. Gold performed well anyway.

Some experts recommend investors stick to E.T.F.s that focus strictly on gold, which tends to lead the other precious metals, silver and platinum. Advisers warn that gold, precious metals and other commodities should make up just a sliver of an individual’s portfolio, usually no more than a total of 5 percent.

Whatever its drawbacks as an investment, gold has had an enduring appeal.

“There is a psychological component in owning gold that goes back for centuries,” Ms. Simonetti said. “It’s an asset that gives peace of mind to investors. It just makes investors feel safe and secure.”

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Fear of Inflation Finds a Foothold in the Bond Market

The so-called bond vigilantes may be back, 30 years after they led a sell-off in Treasury securities over the prospect of higher government spending by a new Democratic administration.

The Federal Reserve has downplayed the risk of inflation, and many experts discount the danger of a sustained rise in prices. But there is an intense debate underway on Wall Street about the prospects for higher inflation and rising interest rates.

Yields on 10-year Treasury notes have risen sharply in recent weeks, a sign that traders are taking the inflation threat more seriously. If the trend continues, it will put bond investors on a collision course with the Biden administration, which recently won passage of a $1.9 trillion stimulus bill and wants to spend trillions more on infrastructure, education and other programs.

recall the 1990s, when yields on Treasury securities lurched higher as the Clinton administration considered plans to increase spending. As a result, officials soon turned to deficit reduction as a priority.

coined the term bond vigilante in the 1980s to describe investors who sell bonds amid signs that fiscal deficits are getting out of hand, especially if central bankers and others don’t act as a counterweight.

As bond prices fall and yields rise, borrowing becomes more expensive, which can force lawmakers to spend less.

“They seem to mount up and form a posse every time inflation is making a comeback,” Mr. Yardeni said. “Clearly, they’re back in the U.S. So while it’s fine for the Fed to argue inflation will be transitory, the bond vigilantes won’t believe it till they see it.”

Yields on the 10-year Treasury note hit 1.75 percent last week before falling back this week, a sharp rise from less than 1 percent at the start of the year.

plenty of slack in the economy.

That’s how Alan S. Blinder, a Princeton economist who was an economic adviser to President Bill Clinton and is a former top Fed official, sees it. Even if inflation goes up slightly, Mr. Blinder believes the Fed’s target for inflation, set at 2 percent, is appropriate.

“Bond traders are an excitable lot, and they go to extremes,” he said. “If they are true to form, they will overreact.”

Indeed, there have been rumors of the bond vigilantes’ return before, like in 2009 as the economy began to creep out of the deep hole of the last recession and rates inched higher. But in the ensuing decade, both yields and inflation remained muted. If anything, deflation was a greater concern than rising prices.

It is not just bond traders who are concerned. Some of Mr. Blinder’s colleagues from the Clinton administration are warning that the conventional economic wisdom hasn’t fully accepted the possibility of higher rates or an uptick in prices.

Frequently Asked Questions About the New Stimulus Package

The stimulus payments would be $1,400 for most recipients. Those who are eligible would also receive an identical payment for each of their children. To qualify for the full $1,400, a single person would need an adjusted gross income of $75,000 or below. For heads of household, adjusted gross income would need to be $112,500 or below, and for married couples filing jointly that number would need to be $150,000 or below. To be eligible for a payment, a person must have a Social Security number. Read more.

Buying insurance through the government program known as COBRA would temporarily become a lot cheaper. COBRA, for the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, generally lets someone who loses a job buy coverage via the former employer. But it’s expensive: Under normal circumstances, a person may have to pay at least 102 percent of the cost of the premium. Under the relief bill, the government would pay the entire COBRA premium from April 1 through Sept. 30. A person who qualified for new, employer-based health insurance someplace else before Sept. 30 would lose eligibility for the no-cost coverage. And someone who left a job voluntarily would not be eligible, either. Read more

This credit, which helps working families offset the cost of care for children under 13 and other dependents, would be significantly expanded for a single year. More people would be eligible, and many recipients would get a bigger break. The bill would also make the credit fully refundable, which means you could collect the money as a refund even if your tax bill was zero. “That will be helpful to people at the lower end” of the income scale, said Mark Luscombe, principal federal tax analyst at Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting. Read more.

There would be a big one for people who already have debt. You wouldn’t have to pay income taxes on forgiven debt if you qualify for loan forgiveness or cancellation — for example, if you’ve been in an income-driven repayment plan for the requisite number of years, if your school defrauded you or if Congress or the president wipes away $10,000 of debt for large numbers of people. This would be the case for debt forgiven between Jan. 1, 2021, and the end of 2025. Read more.

The bill would provide billions of dollars in rental and utility assistance to people who are struggling and in danger of being evicted from their homes. About $27 billion would go toward emergency rental assistance. The vast majority of it would replenish the so-called Coronavirus Relief Fund, created by the CARES Act and distributed through state, local and tribal governments, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. That’s on top of the $25 billion in assistance provided by the relief package passed in December. To receive financial assistance — which could be used for rent, utilities and other housing expenses — households would have to meet several conditions. Household income could not exceed 80 percent of the area median income, at least one household member must be at risk of homelessness or housing instability, and individuals would have to qualify for unemployment benefits or have experienced financial hardship (directly or indirectly) because of the pandemic. Assistance could be provided for up to 18 months, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Lower-income families that have been unemployed for three months or more would be given priority for assistance. Read more.

Robert E. Rubin, Mr. Clinton’s second Treasury secretary, echoed that concern but took pains to support the stimulus package.

“There is a deep uncertainty,” Mr. Rubin said in an interview. “We needed this relief bill, and it served a lot of useful purposes. But we now have an enormous amount of stimulus, and the risks of inflation have increased materially.”

relatively loose for the foreseeable future. If higher prices do materialize, the Fed could halt asset purchases and raise rates sooner.

“We’re committed to giving the economy the support that it needs to return as quickly as possible to a state of maximum employment and price stability,” Mr. Powell said at a news conference last week. That help will continue “for as long as it takes.”

While most policymakers expect faster growth, falling unemployment and a rise in inflation to above 2 percent, they nonetheless expect short-term rates to stay near zero through 2023.

But the Fed’s ability to control longer-term rates is more limited, said Steven Rattner, a veteran Wall Street banker and former New York Times reporter who served in the Obama administration.

“At some point, if this economy takes off bigger than any one of us expect, the Fed will have to raise rates, but it’s not this year’s issue and probably not next year’s issue,” he said. “But we are in uncharted waters, and we are to some extent playing with fire.”

The concerns about inflation expressed by Mr. Rattner, Mr. Rubin and others has at least a little to do with a generational angst, Mr. Rattner, 68, points out. They all vividly remember the soaring inflation of the 1970s and early 1980s that prompted the Fed to raise rates into the double digits under the leadership of Paul Volcker.

The tightening brought inflation under control but caused a deep economic downturn.

“People my age remember well the late 1970s and 1980s,” Mr. Rattner said. “I was there, I covered it for The Times, and lived through it. Younger people treat it like it was the Civil War.”

Some younger economists, like Gregory Daco of Oxford Economics, who is 36, think these veterans of past inflation scares are indeed fighting old wars. Any rise in inflation above 2 percent is likely to be transitory, Mr. Daco said. Bond yields are up, but they are only returning to normal after the distortions caused by the pandemic.

“If you have memories of high inflation and low growth in the 1970s, you may be more concerned with it popping up now,” he said. “But these are very different circumstances today.”

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Larry Summers Warned About Inflation. Fed Officials Push Back.

Federal Reserve officials pushed back on Thursday against concerns raised by two prominent economists — Lawrence H. Summers, the former Treasury secretary, and Olivier J. Blanchard, a former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund — that big government spending could overheat the economy and send inflation rocketing higher.

Those warnings have grabbed headlines and spurred debate over the past two months as details of the federal government’s $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill came together. Mr. Summers in particular has kept them up since the legislation passed, saying it was too much on the heels of large spending packages last year. He recently called the approach the “least responsible” fiscal policy in 40 years while predicting that it had a one-in-three chance of precipitating higher inflation and maybe stagflation, or a one-in-three chance of causing the Fed to raise rates and pushing the economy toward recession.

But two leaders at the Fed, which is tasked with using monetary policies to keep inflation steady and contained, gave little credence to those fears on Thursday. Richard H. Clarida, the central bank’s vice chairman, and Charles Evans, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, both responded to questions specifically about Mr. Summers’s and Mr. Blanchard’s warnings.

“They have both correctly pointed out that the U.S. has a lot of fiscal support this year,” Mr. Clarida said on an Institute of International Finance webcast. “Where I would disagree is whether or not that is primarily going to represent a long-term, persistent upward risk to inflation, and I don’t think so.”

9.5 million jobs that were lost during the pandemic are still gone — and that the effect of the government’s relief spending would diminish over time. He also said that while spenders had pent-up demand, there was also pent-up supply because the service sector had been shut for a year.

“At the Fed, we get paid to be attentive and attuned to inflation risks, and we will be,” Mr. Clarida said. But he noted that forecasters didn’t see “undesirable upward pressure” on inflation over time.

Mr. Evans told reporters on a call that he wasn’t sure what “overheating” — the danger that top economists have warned about — actually meant.

“First off, there’s a conversation of is this the best way to spend money,” he summarized, adding that he didn’t have anything to say about that. “But then there’s sort of like, ‘Oh, this is so much that it is going to overshoot potential output, and there’s a risk that we’re going to get overheating, and then inflation.’”

He continued: “What is the definition of overheating? It’s a great word, it evokes all kinds of images, but it’s kind of like potential output is always a strange concept anyway. Can output be too high?”

a decade when inflation spiraled up and out of control in America, Mr. Evans said. “This isn’t the ’70s. We’ve had trouble getting inflation up.”

Inflation has been weak in the United States, and in advanced economies broadly, the past two decades. To try to keep that from turning into a bigger problem, the Fed has been working to “re-anchor” consumer and market expectations to prevent inflation slipping lower. The central bank announced last year that it would begin to aim for 2 percent annual price gains on average over time, allowing for periods of greater increases.

Still, no Fed policymaker wants inflation to suddenly spike, eroding consumer purchasing power. If that happened, the Fed might have to lift interest rates rapidly to slow down the economy, throwing people out of work and possibly causing a recession. That’s what Mr. Summers and Mr. Blanchard are warning about.

Frequently Asked Questions About the New Stimulus Package

The stimulus payments would be $1,400 for most recipients. Those who are eligible would also receive an identical payment for each of their children. To qualify for the full $1,400, a single person would need an adjusted gross income of $75,000 or below. For heads of household, adjusted gross income would need to be $112,500 or below, and for married couples filing jointly that number would need to be $150,000 or below. To be eligible for a payment, a person must have a Social Security number. Read more.

Buying insurance through the government program known as COBRA would temporarily become a lot cheaper. COBRA, for the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, generally lets someone who loses a job buy coverage via the former employer. But it’s expensive: Under normal circumstances, a person may have to pay at least 102 percent of the cost of the premium. Under the relief bill, the government would pay the entire COBRA premium from April 1 through Sept. 30. A person who qualified for new, employer-based health insurance someplace else before Sept. 30 would lose eligibility for the no-cost coverage. And someone who left a job voluntarily would not be eligible, either. Read more

This credit, which helps working families offset the cost of care for children under 13 and other dependents, would be significantly expanded for a single year. More people would be eligible, and many recipients would get a bigger break. The bill would also make the credit fully refundable, which means you could collect the money as a refund even if your tax bill was zero. “That will be helpful to people at the lower end” of the income scale, said Mark Luscombe, principal federal tax analyst at Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting. Read more.

There would be a big one for people who already have debt. You wouldn’t have to pay income taxes on forgiven debt if you qualify for loan forgiveness or cancellation — for example, if you’ve been in an income-driven repayment plan for the requisite number of years, if your school defrauded you or if Congress or the president wipes away $10,000 of debt for large numbers of people. This would be the case for debt forgiven between Jan. 1, 2021, and the end of 2025. Read more.

The bill would provide billions of dollars in rental and utility assistance to people who are struggling and in danger of being evicted from their homes. About $27 billion would go toward emergency rental assistance. The vast majority of it would replenish the so-called Coronavirus Relief Fund, created by the CARES Act and distributed through state, local and tribal governments, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. That’s on top of the $25 billion in assistance provided by the relief package passed in December. To receive financial assistance — which could be used for rent, utilities and other housing expenses — households would have to meet several conditions. Household income could not exceed 80 percent of the area median income, at least one household member must be at risk of homelessness or housing instability, and individuals would have to qualify for unemployment benefits or have experienced financial hardship (directly or indirectly) because of the pandemic. Assistance could be provided for up to 18 months, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Lower-income families that have been unemployed for three months or more would be given priority for assistance. Read more.

The $1.9 trillion measure that the Biden administration ushered through Congress added to a $900 billion relief package enacted in December and a $2 trillion package last March.

Mr. Blanchard, in a March 5 post on Twitter, compared the fresh government spending to a snake swallowing an elephant: “The snake was too ambitious. The elephant will pass, but maybe with some damage.”

He more recently said that he had “no clue as to what happens to inflation and rates” but that there is a lot of uncertainty and that things “could go wrong.”

Feb. 4 Washington Post column that, while it was hugely uncertain, “there is a chance that macroeconomic stimulus on a scale closer to World War II levels than normal recession levels will set off inflationary pressures of a kind we have not seen in a generation.”

He said in a Bloomberg Television interview last week that “we are running enormous risks.”

But Fed officials don’t think big government outlays will be enough to rewrite the world’s low-inflation story. And if it does stoke a slightly faster pickup, that might be a welcome development.

Mr. Clarida acknowledged that price gains were likely to speed up over the next few months, but said he expected most of that “to be transitory” and for inflation to return to “or perhaps run somewhat above” 2 percent in 2022 and 2023.

“This outcome would be entirely consistent with the new framework we adopted in August 2020,” he said.

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As the U.S. government spends big, the Fed’s vice chair pushed back on inflation worries.

The Federal Reserve’s vice chair, Richard H. Clarida, pushed back on concerns raised by two prominent economists — Lawrence H. Summers, the former Treasury secretary, and Olivier J. Blanchard, former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund — that big government spending risks of out-of-control inflation.

“They have both correctly pointed out that the U.S. has a lot of fiscal support this year,” Mr. Clarida said, speaking on an Institute of International Finance webcast. “Where I would disagree is whether or not that is primarily going to represent a long-term, persistent upward risk to inflation, and I don’t think so.”

Mr. Clarida said that there’s a lot of room for the economy to recover — some 9.5 million jobs are missing compared to before the pandemic — and that the effect of the government’s relief spending will diminish over time. He also pointed out that while there is pent-up demand on the part of spenders, there is also pent-up supply, because the service sector has been shut for months on end.

“At the Fed we get paid to be attentive and attuned to inflation risks, and we will be,” he said. But he noted that forecasters don’t see “undesirable upward pressure” on inflation over time.

$3 trillion infrastructure package. While Mr. Clarida declined to comment on specific legislation or proposals, he did say broadly that “infrastructure is needed, and the supply-side of the economy will be boosted if that money is well spent and targeted.”

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Powell and Yellen Tell Senators Economic Support Is Still Needed

America’s top two economic officials told senators on Wednesday that the economy is healing but still in a deep hole and that continued government support is providing a critical lifeline to families and businesses.

The remarks by Jerome H. Powell, the Federal Reserve chair, and Janet L. Yellen, the Treasury Secretary and Mr. Powell’s immediate predecessor at the Fed, before the Senate Banking Committee echoed their testimony before House lawmakers on Tuesday.

Mr. Powell said in his remarks that the government averted the worst possible outcomes in the pandemic economic recession with its aggressive spending response and super-low Fed interest rates.

“But the recovery is far from complete. So at the Fed, we will continue to provide the economy the support that it needs for as long as it takes,” he said.

the recently passed $1.9 trillion relief package, said responding to a crisis with a needed surge of temporary spending without paying for it was “appropriate.”

“Longer-run, we do have to raise revenue to support permanent spending that we want to do,” she said.

She said expanded unemployment insurance, part of the recent relief package, does not seem to be discouraging work and is needed at a time when the labor market is not at full strength.

“While unemployment remains high, it’s important to provide the supplementary relief,” Ms. Yellen said, noting that the aid lasts until the fall. She said the aid should be phased out as the economy recovers.

The Biden administration is also making plans for a $3 trillion infrastructure package, and Republicans on the committee expressed concern about the mounting deficits facing United States.

 stimulus payments would be $1,400 for most recipients. Those who are eligible would also receive an identical payment for each of their children. To qualify for the full $1,400, a single person would need an adjusted gross income of $75,000 or below. For heads of household, adjusted gross income would need to be $112,500 or below, and for married couples filing jointly that number would need to be $150,000 or below. To be eligible for a payment, a person must have a Social Security number. Read more.

Buying insurance through the government program known as COBRA would temporarily become a lot cheaper. COBRA, for the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, generally lets someone who loses a job buy coverage via the former employer. But it’s expensive: Under normal circumstances, a person may have to pay at least 102 percent of the cost of the premium. Under the relief bill, the government would pay the entire COBRA premium from April 1 through Sept. 30. A person who qualified for new, employer-based health insurance someplace else before Sept. 30 would lose eligibility for the no-cost coverage. And someone who left a job voluntarily would not be eligible, either. Read more

This credit, which helps working families offset the cost of care for children under 13 and other dependents, would be significantly expanded for a single year. More people would be eligible, and many recipients would get a bigger break. The bill would also make the credit fully refundable, which means you could collect the money as a refund even if your tax bill was zero. “That will be helpful to people at the lower end” of the income scale, said Mark Luscombe, principal federal tax analyst at Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting. Read more.

There would be a big one for people who already have debt. You wouldn’t have to pay income taxes on forgiven debt if you qualify for loan forgiveness or cancellation — for example, if you’ve been in an income-driven repayment plan for the requisite number of years, if your school defrauded you or if Congress or the president wipes away $10,000 of debt for large numbers of people. This would be the case for debt forgiven between Jan. 1, 2021, and the end of 2025. Read more.

The bill would provide billions of dollars in rental and utility assistance to people who are struggling and in danger of being evicted from their homes. About $27 billion would go toward emergency rental assistance. The vast majority of it would replenish the so-called Coronavirus Relief Fund, created by the CARES Act and distributed through state, local and tribal governments, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. That’s on top of the $25 billion in assistance provided by the relief package passed in December. To receive financial assistance — which could be used for rent, utilities and other housing expenses — households would have to meet several conditions. Household income could not exceed 80 percent of the area median income, at least one household member must be at risk of homelessness or housing instability, and individuals would have to qualify for unemployment benefits or have experienced financial hardship (directly or indirectly) because of the pandemic. Assistance could be provided for up to 18 months, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Lower-income families that have been unemployed for three months or more would be given priority for assistance. Read more.

“I do worry that the Fed may be behind the curve when inflation inevitably picks up,” Senator Patrick J. Toomey, Republican of Pennsylvania, said during his opening remarks.

But Mr. Powell has consistently pushed back on warnings about runaway inflation and did so again on Wednesday.

stuck in the Suez Canal, but also in general as the economy reopens — he struck a similarly unconcerned tone.

“A bottleneck, by definition, is temporary,” he said.

He also batted back concerns about a recent increase in market-based interest rates. The yield on 10-year Treasury notes, a closely watched government bond, has moved up since the start of the year.

“Rates have responded to news about vaccination, and ultimately, about growth,” Mr. Powell said. “That has been an orderly process. I would be concerned if it were not an orderly process, or if conditions were to tighten to a point where they might threaten our recovery.”

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If the Economy Overheats, How Will We Know?

“I don’t think anyone will be too surprised to see massive airfare inflation” in the short term, for example, as the economy reopens, said Wendy Edelberg, director of the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution. “Instead, I worry if we start to see signs that people, businesses and financial markets are responding to the level of overheating as if it were permanent.”

That situation would leave policymakers, especially at the Federal Reserve, faced with two bad choices: Allow inflation to take off in an upward spiral, or stop it by raising interest rates and quite possibly causing a recession.

“Ultimately we’re worried about an outcome in the real economy, which is rapid growth in 2021 followed by a significant reversal in 2022 or 2023 with anything like a recession, negative growth or a sizable increase in the unemployment rate,” said Jason Furman, a former Obama administration economic adviser. “Much of what we call ‘overheating’ is mostly a concern insofar as it triggers that outcome.”

Mr. Furman says annual inflation rates of 3.5 percent or higher in late 2021 or 2022 would “create a substantial risk of macroeconomic reactions that create genuine instability and problems in the economy,” and that even a notch lower than that, 2.5 percent to 3.5 percent, could create some problems.

Julia Coronado, president of MacroPolicy Perspectives, by contrast, argues that it would take several years of inflation at 3 percent or higher — not just a bump in 2021 or 2022 — before she would worry that inflation expectations could become unmoored, leading to either an inflation-tamping recession or a 1970s-style vicious cycle of ever-higher prices.

“It is strange to me that for years economists pined for a better mix of monetary and fiscal policy, and now we have it and there is a narrative among some that it has to end in disaster,” Ms. Coronado said. “I am more optimistic about the macro outlook than I have been in a long time and am far more focused on how quickly the labor market returns to health than any threat from inflation.”

As economists view it, inflation — at least the kind worth worrying about — isn’t a one-time event so much as a process.

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Powell Downplays Inflation Risks as Yellen Foreshadows Future Spending

The economy is healing, the nation’s top two economic officials told lawmakers on Tuesday, but workers and businesses will need continued government support to rebound from the pandemic — and one of the officials, Jerome H. Powell, the Federal Reserve chair, batted back concerns that vigorous policy help could stoke inflation.

Mr. Powell testified Tuesday before the House Financial Services committee alongside Janet L. Yellen, his predecessor at the Fed and now the Treasury secretary, in their first side-by-side appearance in their current roles. In hopes of fueling a rapid rebound in spending and hiring, the government has been spending aggressively and the Fed is keeping borrowing costs at rock bottom.

That all-in approach has helped to avert the most dire potential economic outcomes, Mr. Powell told lawmakers, and it has not created grave inflation risks in the process.

Asked whether President Biden’s recently passed $1.9 trillion spending package to combat the virus could cause prices to shoot higher — especially as the administration eyes plans to spend as much as $3 trillion more on an infrastructure package — Mr. Powell said the Fed did not fear a jump in inflation.

administration’s plans to propose another big spending package on infrastructure, which could be financed in part by tax increases.

She was pressed by Republican lawmakers about how higher taxes would affect consumers and small businesses. “I think a package that consists of investments in people, investments in infrastructure, will help to create good jobs in the American economy,” Ms. Yellen replied, “and changes in the tax structure will help to pay for those programs.”

And she argued that tax increases would be necessary to back up the package.

“We do need to raise revenues in a fair way to support the spending that this economy needs to be competitive and productive,” she said.

 stimulus payments would be $1,400 for most recipients. Those who are eligible would also receive an identical payment for each of their children. To qualify for the full $1,400, a single person would need an adjusted gross income of $75,000 or below. For heads of household, adjusted gross income would need to be $112,500 or below, and for married couples filing jointly that number would need to be $150,000 or below. To be eligible for a payment, a person must have a Social Security number. Read more.

Buying insurance through the government program known as COBRA would temporarily become a lot cheaper. COBRA, for the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, generally lets someone who loses a job buy coverage via the former employer. But it’s expensive: Under normal circumstances, a person may have to pay at least 102 percent of the cost of the premium. Under the relief bill, the government would pay the entire COBRA premium from April 1 through Sept. 30. A person who qualified for new, employer-based health insurance someplace else before Sept. 30 would lose eligibility for the no-cost coverage. And someone who left a job voluntarily would not be eligible, either. Read more

This credit, which helps working families offset the cost of care for children under 13 and other dependents, would be significantly expanded for a single year. More people would be eligible, and many recipients would get a bigger break. The bill would also make the credit fully refundable, which means you could collect the money as a refund even if your tax bill was zero. “That will be helpful to people at the lower end” of the income scale, said Mark Luscombe, principal federal tax analyst at Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting. Read more.

There would be a big one for people who already have debt. You wouldn’t have to pay income taxes on forgiven debt if you qualify for loan forgiveness or cancellation — for example, if you’ve been in an income-driven repayment plan for the requisite number of years, if your school defrauded you or if Congress or the president wipes away $10,000 of debt for large numbers of people. This would be the case for debt forgiven between Jan. 1, 2021, and the end of 2025. Read more.

The bill would provide billions of dollars in rental and utility assistance to people who are struggling and in danger of being evicted from their homes. About $27 billion would go toward emergency rental assistance. The vast majority of it would replenish the so-called Coronavirus Relief Fund, created by the CARES Act and distributed through state, local and tribal governments, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. That’s on top of the $25 billion in assistance provided by the relief package passed in December. To receive financial assistance — which could be used for rent, utilities and other housing expenses — households would have to meet several conditions. Household income could not exceed 80 percent of the area median income, at least one household member must be at risk of homelessness or housing instability, and individuals would have to qualify for unemployment benefits or have experienced financial hardship (directly or indirectly) because of the pandemic. Assistance could be provided for up to 18 months, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Lower-income families that have been unemployed for three months or more would be given priority for assistance. Read more.

“While the economic fallout has been real and widespread, the worst was avoided by swift and vigorous action,” he said.

Mr. Powell and Ms. Yellen faced a volley of questions on how financial regulators should deal with climate change risks. Republicans have expressed concern that the Fed’s growing attention to climate-related issues in its role as a bank overseer could end up making it harder or more expensive for carbon-heavy companies to get loans.

“It’s really very early days in trying to understand what all of this means,” Mr. Powell said, noting that many large banks and large industrial companies were already thinking about and beginning to disclose how climate might affect them over time. “We have a job,” he said, “which is to ensure that the institutions we regulate are resilient to the risks that they’re running.”

Financial Stability Climate Committee “to identify, assess and address” climate-related risks to financial stability.

The new body will approach its task in a way that “considers the potential for complex interactions across the financial system,” Ms. Brainard said, rather than just the risks to individual companies.

That’s the kind of oversight some lawmakers fear.

“Linking hypothetical climate scenarios to risks to the entire financial system seems to me highly speculative,” Representative Andy Barr, a Republican from Kentucky, told Mr. Powell and Ms. Yellen during the Tuesday hearing.

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Jerome Powell Promises Not to Take Away the Punch Bowl

It was once said that the governor of the Bank of England had the power to guide the behavior of Britain’s banks with the mere raise of an eyebrow. For the Federal Reserve in 2021, the equivalent may be Jerome Powell’s chuckle.

Mr. Powell, the Fed chair, was asked at a news conference Wednesday whether — in light of its forecast that the economy would recovery quickly in the months ahead — it was time to “start talking about talking about” slowing the central bank’s buying of $80 billion in bonds each month.

He let out a half-laugh before answering, “Not yet.”

His dismissiveness at the idea that the Fed would even consider slowing its efforts to strengthen the economy was one of many chances he took in Wednesday’s session to convey one simple message: The central bank will not waver in its aggressive efforts to encourage growth until the economy is truly and unquestionably back to health.

It almost surely won’t be the last time he faces questions that second-guess that resolve.

If the economy evolves as Mr. Powell and most private forecasters think it will, a veritable boom will be underway later this year. As a result, he and his colleagues at the Fed would face a continuing test of their willingness to follow through on the approach they unanimously agreed to last summer. That new policy framework ended an era in which the Fed pre-emptively raised interest rates because falling unemployment risked future inflation.

Mr. Powell’s job on Wednesday was to persuade financial markets and everyone who makes economic decisions that the Fed was serious about this plan. That it won’t be swayed by all the things that, based on its history, might cause an increase in interest rates and choke off the expansion prematurely.

If prices for certain goods and services were to surge as the economy came back, it would, in this view, be a one-time bulge rather than a continuing rise in inflation to which the Fed might need to respond. The central bank’s officials now project 2.4 percent inflation this year, overshooting their 2 percent target, with a projected return to the target in 2022.

An old metaphor holds that the Fed’s job is to take away the punch bowl just as the party gets going. The official view of the central bank’s leaders now is that it has been an overly stingy host, taking away the punch bowl so quickly that parties were dreary, disappointing affairs.

The job now is to persuade the world that it really will leave the punch bowl out long enough, and spiked adequately — that it will be a party worth attending. They insist punch bowl removal will be based on actual realized inebriation of the guests, not on forecasts of potential future problematic levels of drunkenness.

Mr. Powell’s dismissive chuckle was just one piece of the messaging. It was the prevailing idea that he returned to in multiple ways (emphasis added in these quotations):

“We will continue to provide the economy the support that it needs for as long as it takes.”

“We’re not going to act pre-emptively based on forecasts for the most part, and we’re going to wait to see actual data. And I think it will take people time to adjust to that, and the only way we can really build the credibility of that is by doing it.”

“People start businesses, they reopen restaurants, the airlines will be flying again — all of those things will happen, and it will turn out to be a one-time bulge in prices, but it won’t change inflation going forward.”

He also played down the release of the Fed’s “dot-plot” of when to expect it to be time to raise rates. Four of 18 Fed officials thought that rate increases would be warranted by the end of 2022, and seven by the end of 2023. Mr. Powell emphasized that a comfortable majority envisioned no rate increases in the next three years.

The questions he faced from the press Wednesday were just the beginning of what figures to be a perennial topic whenever he or other leaders of the central bank face lawmakers, business leaders or the news media. The tone and details may vary, but will all mean: “Are you sure you’re not going to start tightening the money supply?”

The questions might tie into inflationary pressures. For example, many conservatives have started to complain about rising gasoline prices. Based on the experience of past Fed leaders, Mr. Powell can expect plenty of questions about that in his next visit to Capitol Hill.

Or the questions could focus more on booming financial markets and whether the Fed needs to raise rates to rein in speculation.

Moreover, even if Mr. Powell sticks to the plan, the diffuse nature of power within the Federal Reserve system will make it easy for mixed messages to emerge. There are 12 presidents of regional Fed banks and seven governors in Washington (with one slot vacant). This means only a handful need to develop cold feet about the strategy — and start talking about it publicly — to cause markets and businesses to doubt the Fed’s commitment.

In many ways, it is the inverse of the situation that Paul Volcker faced as Fed leader in the early 1980s, as he engineered aggressive rate increases to curtail the high inflation of that era. To prevail, he had to resist pressure from fellow Fed appointees who had not fully bought into the strategy, even threatening to resign rather than lose a close vote.

The situation is certainly not that dramatic — yet — in 2021, given the unanimous vote on the new policy framework and the apparent strong majority on the committee who believe rates need to stay low.

But if history is a guide, and inflation trends and financial markets are as unpredictable in the months ahead as they have been in the recent past, it may take more than a laugh for Mr. Powell to dismiss questions from the tight-money crowd.

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