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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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Wall Street tumbles, with tech leading the way. Bitcoin’s drop takes crypto stocks with it.

Tesla was one of the worst-performing stocks in the market on Wednesday, tumbling more than 4 percent. The company had once positioned itself as a prominent supporter of cryptocurrencies, and in March, it announced that it would accept Bitcoin in exchange for cars, helping to set off a surge in the asset.

Last week, Elon Musk, the company’s chief executive, reversed that decision, citing concerns about the energy consumption needed to produce cryptocurrencies. That process, known as mining, involves a using computers to create new Bitcoin by having them solve complex computational problems.

The hard drive maker Seagate Technology — which has a stake in cryptocurrency company Ripple, the creator of the XRP currency — tumbled more than 2 percent. Shares of Seagate and Western Digital, another maker of hard drives, had been on a tear in recent days, as analysts spotlighted surging demand for its computer products, in part, from cryptocurrency miners. Western Digital was down nearly 3 percent.

Bitcoin wasn’t the only element moving the markets. Crude oil tumbled roughly 4 percent, on lingering concerns that the still-spreading coronavirus in India, as well as Thailand, Vietnam and Taiwan, could prompt new restrictions that could curtail economic activity.

The Stoxx Europe 600 index was 1.5 percent lower, while the FTSE 100 in Britain was down 1.3 percent. Stock markets in Asia ended the day mainly lower, with the Nikkei in Japan down by 1.3 percent.

Volatility in the stock markets lately has been driven by sentiment about inflation. Investors are nervous that a jump in prices —  coming as global economies reopen and as the government continues to pump stimulus funds to spur growth — could push the Federal Reserve and other central banks to raise interest rates or take other measures to cool growth. That would be bad news for riskier investments like stocks.

The Fed and other central banks have said they see the recent increases as transitory caused partly by supply chain issues as economies revive from lockdowns, and that they have no plans to remove emergency support for the economy.

Federal Reserve policymakers will release the minutes from their April meeting on Wednesday.

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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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He’s a Dogecoin Millionaire. And He’s Not Selling.

Last February, when Glauber Contessoto decided to invest his life savings in Dogecoin, his friends had concerns.

“They were all like, you’re crazy,” he said. “It’s a joke coin. It’s a meme. It’s going to crash.”

Their skepticism was warranted. After all, Dogecoin is a joke — a digital currency started in 2013 by a pair of programmers who decided to spoof the cryptocurrency craze by creating their own virtual money based on a meme about Doge, a talking Shiba Inu puppy. And investing money in obscure cryptocurrencies has, historically, been akin to tossing it onto a bonfire.

But Mr. Contessoto, 33, who works at a Los Angeles hip-hop media company, is no ordinary buy-and-hold investor. He is among the many thrill-seeking amateurs who have leapt headfirst into the markets in recent months, using stock-trading apps like Robinhood to chase outsize gains on risky, speculative bets.

In February, after reading a Reddit thread about Dogecoin’s potential, Mr. Contessoto decided to go all in. He maxed out his credit cards, borrowed money using Robinhood’s margin trading feature and spent everything he had on the digital currency — investing about $250,000 in all. Then, he watched his phone obsessively as Dogecoin became an internet phenomenon whose value eclipsed that of blue-chip companies like Twitter and General Motors.

disavowed the coin, and even Mr. Musk has warned investors not to over-speculate in cryptocurrency. (Mr. Musk recently sent the crypto markets into upheaval again, after he announced that Tesla would no longer accept Bitcoin.)

What explains Dogecoin’s durability, then?

There’s no doubt that Dogecoin mania, like GameStop mania before it, is at least partly attributable to some combination of pandemic-era boredom and the eternal appeal of get-rich-quick schemes.

But there may be more structural forces at work. Over the past few years, soaring housing costs, record student loan debt and historically low interest rates have made it harder for some young people to imagine achieving financial stability by slowly working their way up the career ladder and saving money paycheck by paycheck, the way their parents did.

Instead of ladders, these people are looking for trampolines — risky, volatile investments that could either result in a life-changing windfall or send them right back to where they started.

posted a screenshot of his cryptocurrency trading app, showing that he’d bought more. And on Thursday, when the value of his Dogecoin holdings fell to $1.5 million, roughly half what it was at the peak, he posted another screenshot of his account on Reddit.

“If I can hodl, you can HODL!” the caption read.

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Ratings Agency: Violence Could Undercut Israeli Economy

Violence in Israel could have “significant economic repercussions” if it leads to sustained conflict between Jewish and Arab citizens, the Fitch credit ratings agency said Thursday.

The warning from Fitch, whose views influence the interest rates paid by the Israeli government and Israeli corporations, was an indication of how rioting and mob attacks in cities like Lod could undercut the country’s recovery from the economic effects of the pandemic.

Fitch, noting that the Israeli economy has withstood past conflicts, said damage to the government’s creditworthiness would be limited “unless there is a substantial and sustained escalation in violence.”

If persistent strife prompts bond investors to demand higher interest rates on Israeli government debt, borrowing costs for businesses and consumers would also rise and act as a brake on growth.

Jewish and Arab citizens have clashed in the worst violence in decades in Israeli cities, in some cases dragging people from their vehicles and beating them severely.

The violence will make it more difficult for the leading political parties to form a stable government following elections in March that produced a stalemate. And the fighting will hurt the Israeli tourism industry, Fitch said.

The fighting will also hinder Israel from benefiting from better relations with other countries in the region, Fitch said. “The prospect of improved regional relations has receded further with the latest clashes,” Fitch said.

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Middle-Class Pay Lost Pace. Is Washington to Blame?

One of the most urgent questions in economics is why pay for middle-income workers has increased only slightly since the 1970s, even as pay for those near the top has escalated.

For years, the rough consensus among economists was that inexorable forces like technology and globalization explained much of the trend. But in a new paper, Lawrence Mishel and Josh Bivens, economists at the liberal Economic Policy Institute, conclude that government is to blame. “Intentional policy decisions (either of commission or omission) have generated wage suppression,” they write.

Included among these decisions are policymakers’ willingness to tolerate high unemployment and to let employers fight unions aggressively; trade deals that force workers to compete with low-paid labor abroad; and the tacit or explicit blessing of new legal arrangements, like employment contracts that make it harder for workers to seek new jobs.

Together, Dr. Mishel and Dr. Bivens argue, these developments deprived workers of bargaining power, which kept their wages low.

decline of unions; a succession of trade deals with low-wage countries; and increasingly common arrangements like “fissuring,” in which companies outsource work to lower-paying firms, and noncompete clauses in employment contracts, which make it hard for workers to leave for a competitor.

also written about unions and other reasons that workers have lost leverage, said the portion of the wage gap that Dr. Mishel and Dr. Bivens attribute to such factors probably overstated their impact.

The reason, he said, is that their effects can’t simply be added up. If excessive unemployment explains 25 percent of the gap and weaker unions explain 20 percent, it is not necessarily the case that they combine to explain 45 percent of the gap, as Dr. Mishel and Dr. Bivens imply. The effects overlap somewhat.

Dr. Katz added that education plays a complementary role to bargaining power in determining wages, citing a historical increase in wages for Black workers as an example. In the first several decades of the 20th century, philanthropists and the N.A.A.C.P. worked to improve educational opportunities for Black students in the South. That helped raise wages once a major policy change — the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — increased workers’ power.

“Education by itself wasn’t enough given the Jim Crow apartheid system,” Dr. Katz said. “But it’s not clear you could have gotten the same increase in wages if there had not been earlier activism to provide education.”

Daron Acemoglu, an M.I.T. economist who has studied the effects of technology on wages and employment, said Dr. Mishel and Dr. Bivens were right to push the field to think more deeply about how institutions like unions affect workers’ bargaining power.

But he said they were too dismissive of the role of market forces like the demand for skilled workers, noting that even as the so-called college premium has mostly flattened over the last two decades, the premium for graduate degrees has continued to increase, most likely contributing to inequality.

Still, other economists cautioned that it was important not to lose sight of the overall trend that Dr. Mishel and Dr. Bivens highlight. “There is just an increasing body of work trying to quantify both the direct and indirect effects of declining worker bargaining power,” said Anna Stansbury, the co-author of a well-received paper on the subject with former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers. After receiving her doctorate, she will join the faculty of the M.I.T. Sloan School of Management this fall.

“Whether it explains three-quarters or one-half” of the slowdown in wage growth, she continued, “for me the evidence is very compelling that it’s a nontrivial amount.”

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