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May 2021 Consumer Price Index Shows Fastest Inflation Since 2008

The discussion could shape the path ahead for economic policy, helping to determine how much support President Biden has for infrastructure spending proposals and how patient the Fed can be in removing emergency monetary policy supports.

“This is the largest year-over-year increase in prices since the Great Recession, and massive stimulus spending is a contributing factor,” Senator Mike Crapo, Republican of Idaho, wrote on Twitter. “Proposals for further federal spending, coupled with job-killing tax hikes, are not the remedy for economic recovery.”

The White House has been focused on alleviating bottlenecks where it can, reviewing the supply chain for semiconductors and critical minerals used in all sorts of products. But controlling inflation falls largely to the Fed.

The data comes less than a week before the central bank’s June meeting, which will give the Fed chair, Jerome H. Powell, another opportunity to address how he and his colleagues plan to achieve their two key goals — stable prices and full employment — in the tricky post-pandemic economic environment.

“The Fed has never said how big a reopening spike it expected, but we’re guessing that policymakers have been surprised by the past two months’ numbers,” Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, wrote in a note following the release.

The big policy question facing the Fed is when, and how quickly, it will begin to slow its $120 billion in monthly government-backed bond purchases. That policy is meant to keep borrowing of all kinds cheap and stoke demand, and because it bolsters stock prices, markets are very attuned to when central bankers will taper it.

Mr. Powell and his colleagues have repeatedly said that they need to see “substantial” further progress toward maximum employment and stable inflation that averages 2 percent over time before they pull back from that policy.

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Defying Critics, Biden and Federal Reserve Insist Economic Recovery Remains on Track

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“We should be on track for a fantastic American comeback summer, full steam ahead,” Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, said this month on the chamber floor. “From vaccinations to job growth, the new Biden administration inherited favorable trends in every direction.”

“But in several important ways, the decisions of elected Democrats have contributed to slowing the return to normalcy,” he added.

Critics have also questioned the wisdom of the Fed’s commitment to keeping interest rates low and buying bonds even as prices begin to rise. Senator Patrick J. Toomey, Republican of Pennsylvania, said last month that while the Fed “maintains that this bout of inflation will be mild and temporary,” it “may be time for the central bank to consider the alternative.”

Mr. Biden’s aides say they continue to monitor the threat that consumer prices could spiral upward, forcing a rapid policy response that could slam the brakes on economic growth. They say that those risks remain low, and that they see no reason to change course on the president’s agenda, including proposed infrastructure and social programs that the president asserts will bolster the economy for years to come. That agenda could prove a more difficult sell, even among congressional Democrats, if job growth continues to disappoint and inflation soars higher than expected.

Fed officials also remain undaunted. They show no sign of raising interest rates soon and are continuing to buy $120 billion in government-backed bonds each month. Officials have given only the earliest hints that they might begin to tiptoe away from that emergency policy setting. They argue that their job is to manage risks, and the risk of withdrawing help early is bigger than the risk that the economy will overheat.

“I don’t think it would be good for the industries we want to see thriving as the recovery continues for us to close off that recovery prematurely,” Randal K. Quarles, the Fed’s vice chair for supervision, said at a House committee hearing this week as lawmakers pressed him on the threat of inflation. The Fed is independent of the White House, but responsible for keeping prices in check.

Voters give Mr. Biden high marks for his economic stewardship thus far. A solid majority of Americans — including many Republicans — approve of the president’s plans to raise taxes on high earners and corporations to fund new spending on water pipes, electric vehicles, education, child care assistance, paid leave and other programs, according to polling for The New York Times conducted by the online research firm Survey Monkey from May 3 to 9.

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Is It Time to Panic About Inflation? Ask These 5 Questions First.

Typically, these relative price changes are not a problem of macroeconomics — something best solved by the Federal Reserve (by raising interest rates) or Congress (by raising taxes) — but a problem of the microeconomics of those industries.

The core challenge of an economy emerging from a pandemic is that numerous industries are going through major shocks in demand and supply simultaneously. That means more big swings in relative price than usual.

Last year, relative price changes cut in both directions (prices for energy and travel-related services fell, while prices for meat and other groceries rose). But this spring, the overwhelming thrust is toward higher prices. There are fewer goods and services with falling prices to offset the rises.

Still, many of the most vivid and economically significant examples of price inflation so far, like for used cars, have unique industry dynamics at play, and therefore represent relative price changes, not economywide price rises. One important thing to watch is whether that changes — whether we start seeing uncomfortably high price increases more dispersed across the full range of goods and services.

That would be a sign that we were in a period not simply of an economy adjusting itself, but one of too much money chasing too little stuff.

Not all price changes have equal meaning for inflation. Much depends on what happens next.

If the price of something rises but then is expected to fall back to normal, it will act as a drag on inflation in the future. This often happens when there is a shortage of something caused by an unusual shock, like weather that ruins a crop. In an opposite example, in 2017 a price war brought down the price of mobile phone service, pulling down inflation. But when the price war was over, the downward pull ended.

On the other hand, a price that is expected to rise at exceptional rates year after year has considerably greater implications. Consider, for example, the multi-decade phenomenon in which health care prices rose faster than prices for most other goods, creating a persistent upward push on inflation.

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A Fed vice chair says trying to choke off inflation could ‘constrain’ the recovery.

Randal K. Quarles, the Federal Reserve’s vice chair for supervision and regulation, said that the central bank was monitoring inflation but that for now it expected the pickup underway to be temporary — and that reacting too soon would come at a cost.

“For me, it’s a question of risk management,” Mr. Quarles said during testimony before the House Financial Services Committee. “History would tell us that the economy is unlikely to undergo these inflationary pressures for a long period of time.”

Mr. Quarles pointed out that after the global financial crisis, the central bank lifted interest rates to guard against inflationary pressures. The expected pickup never came, and in hindsight the moves were “premature,” he said. He suggested that the central bank should avoid repeating that mistake.

“We’re coming out of an unprecedented event,” Mr. Quarles said, noting that officials have the tools to tamp down inflation if it does surprise central bankers by remaining elevated. The Fed could dial back bond purchases or lift interest rates to slow growth and weigh down prices.

recent and rapid pickup in consumer prices. The back and forth underlined how politically contentious the Fed’s patient approach to its policy could prove in the coming months. Inflation is expected to remain elevated amid reopening data quirks and as supply tries to catch up to consumer demand.

Some lawmakers pressed Mr. Quarles on how long the Fed would be willing to tolerate higher prices — a parameter the central bank as a whole has not clearly defined.

When it comes to increases, “I don’t think that we can say that one month’s, or one quarter’s, or two quarters’ or more is necessarily too long,” Mr. Quarles said. He noted that it was possible that inflation expectations could climb amid a temporary real-world price increase. But if that happened and caused a “more durable inflationary environment, then the Fed has the tools to address it,” he said.

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Fed Minutes April 2021: Officials Hint They Might Soon Talk About Slowing Bond-Buying

Federal Reserve officials were optimistic about the economy at their April policy meeting, and they began to tiptoe toward a conversation about dialing back support for the economy, as government support and business reopenings fueled consumer spending and paved the way for a rebound.

Fed policymakers have said they need to see “substantial” further progress toward their goals of inflation that averages 2 percent over time and full employment before slowing down $120 billion in monthly bond purchases. The buying is meant to keep borrowing cheap and bolster demand, hastening the recovery from the pandemic recession.

Officials said “it would likely be some time” before their desired standard was met, minutes from the central bank’s April 27-28 meeting released Wednesday showed. But they noted that a “number” of officials said that “if the economy continued to make rapid progress toward the committee’s goals, it might be appropriate at some point in upcoming meetings to begin discussing a plan for adjusting the pace of asset purchases.”

Confusing, and at times conflicting, data released since the April 27-28 gathering could make the Fed’s assessment of when to dial back support — or even to start talking about doing so in earnest — difficult. A report on the job market showed that employers added far fewer jobs than expected. At the same time, an inflation report showed that an expected increase in prices is materializing more rapidly than many economists had thought it would.

The Fed has also held interest rates near-zero since March 2020, in addition to its bond purchases.

Officials have been clear that they plan to slow down bond buying first, while leaving interest rates at rock bottom until the annual inflation rate has moved sustainably above 2 percent and the labor market has returned to full employment.

Markets are extremely attuned to the Fed’s plans for bond purchases, which tend to keep asset prices high by getting money flowing around the financial system. Central bankers are, as a result, very cautious in talking about their plans to taper those purchases. They want to give plenty of signal before changing the policy to avoid inciting gyrations in stocks or bonds.

Stocks whipsawed in the moments after the 2 p.m. release, falling in the moments after before recovering. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note climbed to 1.68 percent.

Even before the recent labor market report showed job growth weakening, Fed officials thought it would take some time to reach full employment, the minutes showed.

“Participants judged that the economy was far from achieving the committee’s broad-based and inclusive maximum employment goal,” the minutes stated. Officials also noted that business leaders were reporting hiring challenges — which have since been blamed for the April slowdown in job gains — “likely reflecting factors such as early retirements, health concerns, child-care responsibilities, and expanded unemployment insurance benefits.”

When it comes to inflation, Fed officials have repeatedly said they expect the ongoing pop in prices to be temporary. It makes sense that data are very volatile, they have said: The economy has never reopened from a pandemic before. That message echoed throughout the April minutes, and has been reiterated by officials since.

“We do expect to see inflationary pressures over the course, probably, of the next year — certainly over the coming months,” Randal K. Quarles, the Fed’s vice chair for supervision, said during congressional testimony on Wednesday. “Our best analysis is that those pressures will be temporary, even if significant.”

“But if they turn out not to be, we do have the ability to respond to them,” Mr. Quarles added.

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Inflation Fears Rise as Prices Surge for Lumber, Cars and More

Turn on the news, scroll through Facebook, or listen to a White House briefing these days and there’s a good chance you’ll catch the Federal Reserve’s least-favorite word: Inflation. If that bubbling popular concern about prices gets too ingrained in America’s psyche, it could spell trouble for the nation’s central bank.

Interest in inflation has jumped this year for both political and practical reasons. Republicans, and even some Democrats, have been warning that the government’s hefty pandemic spending could push inflation higher. And as the economy gains steam, demand is coming back faster than supply. It’s a recipe for bigger price tags for everything from airline tickets to used cars, at least temporarily.

The Fed, which Congress has put in charge of controlling inflation, thinks the jump in prices this year will fade as data quirks, supply bottlenecks and a reopening-induced pop in demand work their way through the system. For now, officials see no reason to tap the brakes by slowing down large-scale bond purchases or raising interest rates, policy changes that would slacken demand as an antidote to accelerating inflation.

And the Fed has big reasons to avoid overreacting: The problem in the wake of the 2007 to 2009 recession was tepid price gains that risked an economically damaging downward spiral, not fast ones. Inflation far above the central bank’s comfort level hasn’t been a feature of the economic landscape since the 1980s.

data from the Gdelt Project. On Fox News Channel, mentions of inflation have surged to six times the normal rate.

Google searches for “inflation” have taken off, Twitter inflation hashtags have increased, and monthly price data reports have newly become front-page headlines.

The surge in attention comes amid stories of computer chip shortages, gas lines, and surging lumber prices, and also as overall measures of real-world price gains are speeding up.

Consumer Price Inflation surprised economists by rocketing higher in April, data released last week showed, rising by 4.2 percent. While prices were expected to climb for technical reasons, supply bottlenecks and resurgent demand combined to push the data point much higher than the 3.6 percent analysts had penciled in. Fed officials use a different but related index to define their inflation goal.

Eye-popping gains are widely expected to cool down as supply catches up with demand and reopening quirks clear, but as they catch consumer attention, inflation expectations are shooting higher across a range of measures. And that poses a risk.

highest level since 2006 last week. A consumer survey collected by the University of Michigan — and closely watched by top Fed officials — jumped in preliminary May data, rising to 4.6 percent for the next year and 3.1 percent for the next five, the highest level in a decade.

The gap between short- and long-term expectations is echoed in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s Survey of Consumer Expectations. Americans’ year-ahead inflation expectations rose to the highest level since 2013 in April, but the outlook for inflation over the next three years has been much more stable.

Fed policymakers have taken heart in the fact that households seem to be preparing more for a short-term pop — something central bankers have said they are willing to look past without lifting rates — than for years of superfast price gains.

But they have been clear that there are limits to tolerable increases, without precisely defining what those would be.

If expectations started to rise “month after month after month,” that would be concerning, Mary C. Daly, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, said during an interview on May 10, before the latest Michigan data were released. She declined to put a number on what would worry her.

Inflation expectations data are notoriously hard to parse, and the consumer trackers tend to be heavily influenced by gas prices. The Fed has recently been using a quarterly measure that has moved up by less. But the speed of recent adjustments has called into question how much acceleration would be a problem, signaling that people have come to accept inflation in a way that will keep actual prices rising.

The inflation outlook is uncertain both because of the unusual moment — the economy has never reopened from a pandemic before — and because the way the government approaches economic policy has shifted over the past year.

The Fed’s new policy approach, adopted last August, both aims for periods of higher inflation and doubles down on the central bank’s full employment goal. Practically, it means the central bank plans to leave rates low for years, and it has helped to justify continuing a huge bond-buying program that the Fed began at the start of the pandemic downturn. Those policies make money cheap to borrow, ultimately bolstering demand for goods and services and helping prices to rise.

At the same time, the federal government has drastically loosened its purse strings, spending trillions of dollars to pull the economy out of the pandemic recession. Both the fiscal and the monetary response are meant to keep households economically whole through a challenging period, so there was also a risk to having less-ambitious policies.

Things will most likely work out, economists have predicted. The demand boom anticipated in 2021 is unlikely to last, because consumers’ pandemic savings will eventually be exhausted. Supply issues should be resolved, though it is not clear when. Many analysts expect prices to moderate over the next year or so.

But some underline that expectations are the vulnerability to watch when it comes to inflation, in case they shift before the smoke clears and prices slow their ascent.

“This is something people are talking about in their daily lives, it’s not just a Washington thing,” said Michael Strain, a researcher at the American Enterprise Institute. “My expectation is that expectations will remain anchored — but it’s clearly a huge risk.”

Jim Tankersley contributed reporting.

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Stocks Rally but End the Week With a Loss

Wall Street ended Friday higher at the close of a broad rally, an upbeat conclusion to whipsaw week of buying and selling as signs of a rebounding economy did battle with mounting inflation jitters.

All three major U.S. indexes built on Thursday’s gains, when the S&P 500 notched its biggest one-day percentage bump in over a month.

“It’s a ‘buy everything’ day,” said Chuck Carlson, senior vice president at Wealthspire Advisors in New York.

Still, the indexes suffered their biggest weekly declines since late February.

Big swings this week were stoked by economic data, which fanned concerns that near-term price spikes could translate into long-term inflation, despite assurances to the contrary from the Federal Reserve.

Economic data released on Friday showed retail sales growth stalling and consumer sentiment dipping as prices continue to rise, suggesting that while the demand boom might be taking a breather, inflation has not.

But in an indication that economic activity could return to normal, revised guidance this week from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said fully vaccinated people no longer needed to wear masks outdoors and could avoid wearing them indoors in most places.

The S&P 500 gained 1.5 percent on Friday, but ended the week 1.4 percent below last week’s close. The Nasdaq composite jumped 2.3 percent on Friday.

All 11 major S&P sectors ended the session green, with energy, boosted by rebounding crude oil prices, enjoying the largest percentage gain.

Walt Disney Company shares dropped after the subscriber additions to its Disney+ streaming service fell short of expectations.

Airbnb reported a 52 percent jump in bookings, driving its stock higher.

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