Consumer prices jumped more than expected last month, with rent, food and furniture costs surging as a limited supply of housing and a shortage of goods stemming from supply chain troubles combined to fuel rapid inflation.
The Consumer Price Index climbed 5.4 percent in September from a year earlier, faster than its 5.3 percent increase through August and above economists’ forecasts. Monthly price gains also exceeded predictions, with the index rising 0.4 percent from August to September.
The figures raise the stakes for both the Federal Reserve and the White House, which are facing a longer period of rapid inflation than they had expected and may soon come under pressure to act to ensure the price gains don’t become a permanent fixture.
On Wednesday, President Biden said his administration was doing what it could to fix supply-chain problems that have helped to produce shortages, long delivery times and rapid price increases for food, televisions, automobiles and other products.
Social Security Administration said on Wednesday that benefits would increase 5.9 percent in 2022, the biggest boost in 40 years. The increase, known as a cost-of-living adjustment, is tied to rising inflation.
jumped early in 2021 as prices for airfares, restaurant meals and apparel recovered after slumping as the economy locked down during the depths of the pandemic. That was expected. But more recently, prices have continued to climb as supply shortages mean businesses cannot keep up with fast-rising demand. Factory shutdowns, clogged shipping routes and labor shortages at ports and along trucking lines have combined to make goods difficult to produce and transport.
expect higher prices. If people believe that their lifestyles will cost more, they may demand higher compensation — and as employers lift pay, they may charge more for their goods to cover the costs, setting off an upward spiral.
though typically too little to fully offset the amount of inflation that has occurred this year. There are notable exceptions to that, including in leisure and hospitality jobs, where pay has accelerated faster than prices.
The fact that rents and other housing costs are now climbing only compounds the concern that price gains are becoming stickier.
“You have the sticky, important and cyclical piece of inflation surprising to the upside,” said Laura Rosner-Warburton, an economist at MacroPolicy Perspectives. “It is certainly a very significant development.”
Matt Permar, a 24-year-old mail carrier from Toledo, Ohio, rents a two-bedroom apartment in a suburban area with a friend from college. The pair had paid $540 a month each for two years, which Mr. Permar called “pretty standard.” But that has changed.
“With the housing market being the way it is, they raised it about $100,” he said of his monthly rent. As a result, Mr. Permar said, he will have less cash to save or invest.
The Fed aims for 2 percent inflation on average over time, which it defines using a different but related index, the Personal Consumption Expenditures measure. That gauge is released at more of a delay, and has also jumped this year.
Central bankers have said they are willing to look past surging prices because the gains are expected to prove transitory, and they expect long-run trends that had kept inflation low for years to come to dominate. But they have grown wary as rapid price gains last.
The Fed’s September meeting minutes showed that “most participants saw inflation risks as weighted to the upside because of concerns that supply disruptions and labor shortages might last longer and might have larger or more persistent effects on prices and wages than they currently assumed.”
Fed officials’ moves toward slowing their bond purchases could leave them more nimble if they find that they need to raise rates to control inflation next year. Officials have signaled that they want to stop buying bonds before raising rates, so that their two tools are not working at odds with each other.
Wall Street is watching every inflation data point closely, because higher rates from the Fed could squeeze growth and stock prices. And climbing costs can cut into corporate profits, denting earning prospects.
White House officials and many Wall Street data watchers tend to emphasize a “core” index of inflation, which strips out volatile food and fuel prices. Core inflation climbed 4 percent in the year through last month, but the monthly gain was less pronounced, at 0.2 percent.
Some economists welcomed that moderation as good news, along with the cooling in key prices, like airfares, that had popped earlier in the economic reopening. Others emphasized that once supply chain kinks were worked out, prices could drop on products like couches, bikes and refrigerators, providing a counterweight to rising housing expenses.
Omair Sharif, founder of Inflation Insights, said he expected consumer price inflation to moderate, coming in at 2.75 percent to 3 percent on a headline basis by next July, and for core inflation to cool down even more.
“I don’t think there’s any reason to panic,” he said.
Ana Swanson and Ben Casselman contributed reporting.
The spread of the Delta variant has delayed office reopenings, disrupted the start of school and generally dashed hopes for a return to normal after Labor Day. But it has not pushed the U.S. economic recovery into reverse.
Now that recovery faces a new test: the removal of much of the aid that has helped keep households and businesses afloat for the past year and a half.
The Paycheck Protection Program, which distributed hundreds of billions of dollars in grants and loans to thousands of small businesses, concluded last spring. A federal eviction moratorium ended last month after the Supreme Court blocked the Biden administration’s last-minute effort to extend it. Most recently, an estimated 7.5 million people lost unemployment benefits when programs that expanded the system during the pandemic were allowed to lapse.
Next up: the Federal Reserve, which on Wednesday indicated it could start pulling back its stimulus efforts as early as November.
OpenTable, for example, have fallen less than 10 percent from their early-July peak. That is a far smaller decline than during the last Covid surge, last winter.
“It has moved down, but it’s not the same sort of decline,” Mr. Bryson said of the OpenTable data. “We’re living with it.”
$120 billion in monthly bond purchases — which have kept borrowing cheap and money flowing through the economy — but it will almost certainly keep interest rates near zero into next year. Millions of parents will continue to receive monthly checks through the end of the year because of the expanded child tax credit passed in March as part of President Biden’s $1.9 trillion aid package.
That bill, known as the American Rescue Plan, also provided $350 billion to state and local governments, $21.6 billion in rental aid and $10 billion in mortgage assistance, among other programs. But much has not been spent, said Wendy Edelberg, director of the Hamilton Project, an economic-policy arm of the Brookings Institution.
“Those delays are frustrating,” she said. “At the same time, what that also means is that support is going to continue having an effect over the next several quarters.”
Household savings could provide a buffer — if they last.
Economists, including officials in the Biden administration, say that as the economy heals, there will be a gradual “handoff” from government aid to the private sector. That transition could be eased by a record-setting pile of household savings, which could help prop up consumer spending as government aid wanes.
A lot of that money is held by richer, white-collar workers who held on to their jobs and saw their stock portfolios swell even as the pandemic constrained their spending. But many lower-income households have built up at least a small savings cushion during the pandemic because of stimulus checks, enhanced unemployment benefits and other aid, according to researchers at the JPMorgan Chase Institute.
“The good news is that people are going into the fall with some reserves, more reserves than normal,” said Fiona Greig, co-director of the institute. “That can give them some runway in which to look for a job.”
recent survey by Alignable, a social network for small business owners. Not all have had sales turn lower, said Eric Groves, the company’s chief executive. But the uncertainty is hitting at a crucial moment, heading into the holiday season.
“This is a time of year when business owners in the consumer sector in particular are trying to pull out their crystal ball,” he said. “Now is when they have to be purchasing inventory and doing all that planning.”
open a new location as part of a development project on the West Side of Manhattan.
Go big. If some aid ended up going to people or businesses that didn’t really need help, that was a reasonable trade-off for the benefit of getting money to the millions who did.
Today, the calculus is different. The impact of the pandemic is more tightly focused on a few industries and groups. At the same time, many businesses are having trouble getting workers and materials to meet existing demand. Traditional forms of stimulus that seek to stoke demand won’t help them. If automakers can’t get needed parts, for example, giving money to households won’t lead to more car sales — but it might lead to higher prices.
That puts policymakers in a tight spot. If they don’t get help to those who are struggling, it could cause individual hardship and weaken the recovery. But indiscriminate spending could worsen supply problems and lead to inflation. That calls for a more targeted approach, focusing on the specific groups and industries that need it most, said Nela Richardson, chief economist for ADP, the payroll processing firm.
“There are a lot of arrows in the quiver still, but you need them to go into the bull’s-eye now rather than just going all over,” Ms. Richardson said.
Federal Reserve officials indicated on Wednesday that they expect to soon slow the asset purchases they have been using to support the economy and predicted they might raise interest rates next year, sending a clear signal that policymakers are preparing to curtail full-blast monetary help as the business environment snaps back from the pandemic shock.
Jerome H. Powell, the Fed’s chair, said during a news conference that the central bank’s bond purchases, which have propped up the economy since the depths of the pandemic downturn, “still have a use, but it’s time for us to begin to taper them.”
That unusual candor came for a reason: Fed officials have been trying to fully prepare markets for their first move away from enormous economic support. Policymakers could announce a slowdown to their monthly government-backed securities purchases as soon as November, the Fed’s next meeting, and the program may come to a complete end by the middle of next year, Mr. Powell later said. He added that there was “very broad support” on the policy-setting Federal Open Market Committee for such a plan.
Nearly 20 months after the coronavirus pandemic first shook America, the Fed is trying to guide an economy in which business has rebounded as consumers spend strongly, helped along by repeated government stimulus checks and other benefits.
markets on edge. In the United States, partisan wrangling could imperil future government spending plans or even cause a destabilizing delay to a needed debt ceiling increase.
Mr. Powell and his colleagues are navigating those crosscurrents at a time when inflation is high and the labor market, while healing, remains far from full strength. They are weighing when and how to reduce their monetary policy support, hoping to prevent economic or financial market overheating while keeping the recovery on track.
“They want to start the exit,” said Priya Misra, global head of rates strategy at T.D. Securities. “They’re putting the markets on notice.”
Investors took the latest update in stride. The S&P 500 ended up 1 percent for the day, slightly higher than it was before the Fed’s policy statement was released, and yields on government bonds ticked lower, suggesting that investors didn’t see a reason to radically change their expectations for interest rates.
The Fed has been holding its policy rate at rock bottom since March 2020 and is buying $120 billion in government-backed bonds each month, policies that work together to keep many types of borrowing cheap. The combination has fueled lending and spending and helped to foster stronger economic growth, while also contributing to record highs in the stock market.
fresh set of economic projections on Wednesday, laying out their predictions for growth, inflation and the funds rate through the end of 2024. Those included the “dot plot” — a set of anonymous individual estimates showing where each of the Fed’s 18 policymakers expect their interest rate to fall at the end of each year.
last released in June. This was the first time the Fed has released 2024 projections, and officials expected rates to stand at 1.8 percent at the end of that year.
sharply higher in recent months, elevated by supply-chain disruptions and other quirks tied to the pandemic. The Fed’s preferred metric, the personal consumption expenditures index, climbed 4.2 percent in July from a year earlier.
Fed officials expected inflation to average 4.2 percent in the final quarter of 2021 before falling to 2.2 percent in 2022, the new forecasts showed.
Central bankers are trying to predict how inflation will evolve in the coming months and years. Some officials worry that it will remain elevated, fueled by strong consumption and newfound corporate pricing power as consumers come to expect and accept higher costs.
Others fret that the same factors pushing prices higher today will lead to uncomfortably low inflation down the road — for instance, used car prices have contributed heavily to the 2021 increase and could fall as demand wanes. Tepid price increases prevailed before the pandemic started, and the same global trends that had been weighing inflation down could once again dominate.
“Inflation expectations are terribly important, we spend a lot of time watching them, and if we did see them moving up in a troubling way” then “we would certainly react to that,” Mr. Powell said. “We don’t really see that now.”
The Fed’s second goal — full employment — also remains elusive. Millions of jobs remain missing compared with before the pandemic, even after months of historically rapid employment gains. Officials want to avoid lifting interest rates to cool off the economy before the labor market has fully healed. It’s difficult to know when that might be, because the economy has never recovered from pandemic-induced lockdowns before.
“The process of reopening the economy is unprecedented, as was the shutdown at the onset of the pandemic,” Mr. Powell said on Wednesday.
Given those uncertainties, the Fed is likely to move cautiously on raising interest rates. And while Mr. Powell teed up a possible November announcement that the Fed would start slowing its bond-buying, even that is subject to change if the economy does not shape up as expected — or if major risks on the horizon materialize.
“The start of tapering would be delayed if the debt ceiling standoff is unresolved and markets are in turmoil,” Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, wrote in a research note following the meeting.
Yet Mr. Powell made clear that the Fed was not equipped to ride to the rescue if lawmakers could not resolve their differences.
“It’s just very important that the debt ceiling be raised in a timely fashion,” Mr. Powell said, adding that “no one should assume the Fed or anyone else can protect markets and the economy in the event of a failure” to “make sure that we do pay those, when they’re due.”
Disappointing August jobs numbers intensified the economic uncertainty caused by the Delta variant, putting pressure on the Federal Reserve as it considers when to reduce its policy support and on the White House as it tries to get more Americans vaccinated.
Fed officials and President Biden had been looking for continued improvement in the job market, but the Labor Department reported on Friday that employers added just 235,000 jobs in August — far fewer than projected and a sign that the ongoing coronavirus surge may be slowing hiring.
“There’s no question that the Delta variant is why today’s job report isn’t stronger,” Mr. Biden said in remarks at the White House. “I know people were looking, and I was hoping, for a higher number.”
A one-month slowdown is probably not enough to upend the Fed’s policy plans, but it does inject a dose of caution. It also will ramp up scrutiny of upcoming data as the central bank debates when to take its first steps toward a more normal policy setting by slowing purchases of government-backed bonds.
speech last week that as of the central bank’s July meeting, he and most of his colleagues thought they could start reducing the pace of asset purchases this year if the economy performed as they expected.
sharp pullback in hotel and restaurant hiring, which tends to be particularly sensitive to virus outbreaks. The participation rate, a closely watched metric that gauges what share of the population is working or looking, stagnated.
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But there were other signs that underlying demand for workers remained strong. Wages continued to rise briskly, suggesting that employers were still paying up to lure people into work. Over the last three months, job gains have averaged 750,000, which is a strong showing. And the unemployment rate continued to decline in spite of the weakness in August, slipping to 5.2 percent.
4.2 percent in the year through July — well above the 2 percent average that officials aim to achieve over time.
Officials widely expect those price gains to slow as the economy returns to normal and supply chain snarls clear up. But they are monitoring consumer inflation expectations and wages keenly: Prices could keep going up quickly if shoppers begin to accept higher prices and workers come to demand more pay.
That’s why robust wage gains in the August report stuck out to some economists. Average hourly earnings climbed by 0.6 percent from July to August, more than the 0.3 percent economists in a Bloomberg survey had forecast. Over the past year, they were up 4.3 percent, exceeding the expected 3.9 percent.
The fresh data put the Fed “in an uncomfortable position — with the slowdown in the real economy and employment growth accompanied by signs of even more upward pressure on wages and prices,” wrote Paul Ashworth, the chief North America economist at Capital Economics.
referred to that consideration in a footnote to last week’s speech.
“Today we see little evidence of wage increases that might threaten excessive inflation,” he said.
Plus, it is unclear whether pay gains will remain robust as workers return. While it is hard to gauge how much enhanced unemployment benefits discouraged workers from taking jobs, and early evidence suggests that the effect was limited, a few companies have signaled that labor supply has been improving as they sunset.
Other trends — the end of summer and the resumption of in-person school and day care — could allow parents who have been on the sidelines to return to the job search, though that might be foiled if Delta keeps students at home.
“There’s still so much disruption, it’s hard for businesses and workers to make plans and move forward when you don’t know what’s coming around the next bend,” said Julia Coronado, the founder of MacroPolicy Perspectives, adding that this is a moment of “delicate transition.”
Eighteen months into the pandemic, Jerome H. Powell, the Federal Reserve chair, has offered the strongest sign yet that the Fed is prepared to soon withdraw one leg of the support it has been providing to the economy as conditions strengthen.
At the same time, Mr. Powell made clear on Friday that interest rate increases remained far away, and that the central bank was monitoring risks posed by the Delta variant of the coronavirus.
The Fed has been trying to bolster economic activity by buying $120 billion in government-backed bonds each month and by leaving its policy interest rate at rock bottom. Officials have been debating when to begin slowing their bond buying, the first step in moving toward a more normal policy setting. They have said they would like to make “substantial further progress” toward stable inflation and full employment before doing so.
Mr. Powell, speaking at a closely watched conference that the Kansas City Fed holds each year, used his remarks to explain that he thinks the Fed has met that test when it comes to inflation and is making “clear progress toward maximum employment.”
six million fewer jobs than before the pandemic. And the Delta variant could cause consumers and businesses to pull back as it foils return-to-office plans and threatens to shut down schools and child care centers. That could lead to a slower jobs rebound.
Mr. Powell made clear that the Fed wants to avoid overreacting to a recent burst in inflation that it believes will most likely prove temporary, because doing so could leave workers on the sidelines and weaken growth prematurely. While the Fed could start to remove one piece of its support, he emphasized that slowing bond purchases did not indicate that the Fed was prepared to raise rates.
“We have much ground to cover to reach maximum employment, and time will tell whether we have reached 2 percent inflation on a sustainable basis,” he said in his address to the conference, which was held online instead of its usual venue — Jackson Hole in Wyoming — because of the latest coronavirus wave.
The distinction he drew — between bond buying, which keeps financial markets chugging along, and rates, which are the Fed’s more traditional and arguably more powerful tool to keep money cheap and demand strong — sent an important signal that the Fed is going to be careful to let the economy heal more fully before really putting away its monetary tools, economists said.
told CNBC on Friday that he supported winding down the purchases “as quickly as possible.”
“Let’s start the taper, and let’s do it quickly,” he said. “Let’s not have this linger.”
James Bullard, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, said on Friday that the central bank should finish tapering by the end of the first quarter next year. If inflation starts to moderate then, the country will be in “great shape,” Mr. Bullard told Fox Business.
“If it doesn’t moderate, then I think the Fed is going to have to be more aggressive in 2022,” he said.
ushered in a new policy framework at last year’s Jackson Hole gathering that dictates a more patient approach, one that might guard against a similar overreaction.
But as Mr. Bullard’s comments reflected, officials may have their patience tested as inflation climbs.
The Fed’s preferred price gauge, the personal consumption expenditures index, rose 4.2 percent last month from a year earlier, according to Commerce Department data released on Friday. The increase was higher than the 4.1 percent jump that economists in a Bloomberg survey had projected, and the fastest pace since 1991. That is far above the central bank’s 2 percent target, which it tries to hit on average over time.
“The rapid reopening of the economy has brought a sharp run-up in inflation,” Mr. Powell said.
They warn that if the Fed overreacts to today’s inflationary burst, it could wind up with permanently weak inflation, much as Japan and Europe have.
White House economists sided with Mr. Powell’s interpretation in a new round of forecasts issued on Friday. In its midsession review of the administration’s budget forecasts, the Office of Management and Budget said it expected the Consumer Price Index inflation rate to hit 4.8 percent for the year. That is more than double the administration’s initial forecast of 2.1 percent.
initially expected. But they still insist that it will be short-lived and foresee inflation dropping to 2.5 percent in 2022. The White House also revised its forecast of growth for the year, to 7.1 percent from 5.2 percent.
Slow price gains sound like good news to anyone who buys oat milk and eggs, but they can set off a vicious downward cycle. Interest rates include inflation, so when it slows, Fed officials have less room to make money cheap to foster growth during times of trouble. That makes it harder for the economy to recover quickly from downturns, and long periods of weak demand drag prices even lower — creating a cycle of stagnation.
“While the underlying global disinflationary factors are likely to evolve over time, there is little reason to think that they have suddenly reversed or abated,” Mr. Powell said. “It seems more likely that they will continue to weigh on inflation as the pandemic passes into history.”
Mr. Powell offered a detailed explanation of the Fed’s scrutiny of prices, emphasizing that inflation is “so far” coming from a narrow group of goods and services. Officials are keeping an eye on data to make sure prices for durable goods like used cars — which have recently taken off — slow and even fall.
Mr. Powell said the Fed saw “little evidence” of wage increases that might threaten high and lasting inflation. And he pointed out that measures of inflation expectations had not climbed to unwanted levels, but had instead staged a “welcome reversal” of an unhealthy decline.
Still, his remarks carried a tone of watchfulness.
“We would be concerned at signs that inflationary pressures were spreading more broadly through the economy,” he said.
Federal Reserve officials left policy unchanged on Wednesday but moved up expectations for when they would first raise interest rates from rock bottom, a sign that a healing labor market and rising inflation were giving policymakers confidence that they would achieve their full employment and stable price goals in coming years.
Fed policymakers expect to make two interest rate increases by the end of 2023, the central bank’s updated summary of economic projections showed Wednesday. Previously, the median official had anticipated that rates would stay near zero — where they have been since March 2020 — at least into 2024. The Fed now sees rates rising to 0.6 percent by the end of 2023, up from 0.1 percent.
The significant upgrade comes as the economy is healing, and as Fed officials penciled in stronger growth in 2021, faster inflation and slightly quicker labor market progress next year.
“Progress on vaccinations has reduced the spread of Covid-19 in the United States,” the Fed said in a statement released at the conclusion of its June 15-16 policy meeting, one that contained several optimistic revisions. “Progress on vaccinations will likely continue to reduce the effects of the public health crisis on the economy, but risks to the economic outlook remain.”
late April, and since it last released economic projections in March. Inflation data have come in faster than officials had expected, and consumer and market expectations for future inflation have climbed. Employers have been hiring more slowly than they were this spring, as job openings abound but it takes workers time to flow into them.
The Fed continued to call that inflation increase largely “transitory” in its new statement. It has consistently pledged to take a patient approach to monetary policy as the economic backdrop rapidly shifts.
Mr. Powell acknowledged that “inflation has come in above expectations” but suggested it was largely because of robust consumer demand coupled with shortages and bottlenecks as the economy reopens.
“Our expectation is that these high inflation readings that we’re seeing now will start to abate,” he said, adding that if prices moved up in a way that was inconsistent with the Fed’s goal, central bankers would be prepared to react by reducing monetary policy support.
The central bank made no changes on Wednesday to its main policy interest rate, which has been set at near zero since March 2020, helping keep borrowing cheap for households and businesses. The Fed will also continue to buy $120 billion in government-backed bonds each month, which keeps longer-term borrowing costs low and can bolster stock and other asset prices. Those policies work together to keep money flowing easily through the economy, fueling stronger demand that can help to speed up growth and job market healing.
Officials have pledged to continue to support the economy until the pandemic shock is well behind the United States. Specifically, they have said that they want to achieve “substantial” progress toward their two economic goals — maximum employment and stable inflation — before slowing their bond purchases. The bar for raising interest rates is even higher. Officials have said they want to see the job market back at full strength and inflation on track to average 2 percent over time before they will lift interest rates away from rock bottom.
a “number” of officials at the Fed’s April meeting suggested that they would like to start talking about how and when to begin the so-called taper soon, minutes from that gathering showed.
The Fed is buying $80 billion in Treasury bonds each month, and $40 billion in mortgage-backed securities. Those purchases have helped to push the central bank’s balance sheet holdings up to about $8 trillion — roughly twice as big as they were as recently as summer 2019.
Officials including Robert S. Kaplan, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, and Patrick Harker, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, have signaled that they think it would be appropriate to get those discussions going. Other important policymakers have sounded patient, with John Williams, the New York Fed president, saying that “we’re not near the substantial further progress marker,” in a June 3 Yahoo Finance interview.
Mr. Powell said on Wednesday that officials had begun “talking about talking about” slowing those bond purchases but that the central bank was not preparing to start tapering anytime soon.
“I expect that we’ll be able to say more about timing as we start to see more data,” Mr. Powell said.
Some Republican politicians have questioned whether emergency monetary policy settings remain necessary as the economy reopens and growth rebounds, the Fed has signaled over that the United States is in for a long period of central bank support.
preferred inflation gauge came in at 3.6 percent in April compared to the previous year and is likely to jump even higher in May. The more up-to-date Consumer Price Index was up 5 percent in the year through last month, partly as the figures were compared to very low readings last year.
Officials expect the current price pop to prove temporary, the product of one-off data quirks and the fact that demand is recovering faster than supply chains coming out of the pandemic. Markets seem to broadly share that view: While they have penciled in slightly higher inflation, that recent increase in expectations appears to be stabilizing at a level that is probably more or less consistent with the Fed’s goals.
Still, Wall Street strategists and politicians in Washington alike are watching for any sign that Fed officials have become more concerned about lasting price pressures as some stickier prices in the real economy — such as shelter costs — stabilize and increase.
If inflation does take off in a lasting way and the Fed has to lift interest rates to slow the economy and tame price pressures, that could be bad news. Rapid rate adjustments have a track record of causing recessions, which throw vulnerable workers out of jobs.
But the Fed tries to balance risks when setting policy, and so far, it has seen the risk of pulling back support early as the one to avoid. Millions of jobs are still missing since the start of the pandemic, and monetary policy could help to keep the economy recovering briskly so that displaced employees have a better chance of finding new work.
Alan Rappeport and Matt Phillips contributed reporting.
“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.
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.
One-off prices vs. long-term trends
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.
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.
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.