As Jerome H. Powell’s term as the chair of the Federal Reserve nears its expiration, President Biden’s decision over whether to keep him in the job has grown more complicated amid Senator Elizabeth Warren’s vocal opposition to his leadership and an ethics scandal that has engulfed his central bank.
Mr. Powell, whose four-year term as chair expires early next year, continues to have a good chance of being reappointed because he has earned respect within the White House for his aggressive use of the Fed’s tools in the wake of the pandemic recession, people familiar with the administration’s internal discussions said.
But the decision and the timing of an announcement remain subject to an unusually high level of uncertainty, even for a top economic appointment. The White House will most likely announce Mr. Biden’s choice in the coming weeks, but that, too, is tenuous.
The administration is preoccupied with other major priorities, including passing spending legislation and lifting the nation’s debt limit. But the uncertainty also reflects growing complications around Mr. Powell’s renomination. Ms. Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, has blasted his track record on big bank regulation and last week called him a “dangerous man” to lead the central bank.
Securities and Exchange Commission to investigate whether the transactions amounted to insider trading. “The responsibility to safeguard the integrity of the Federal Reserve rests squarely with him.”
Asked on Tuesday whether he had confidence in Mr. Powell, the president said he did but that he was still catching up on events.
The White House’s decision over Mr. Powell’s future is pending at a critical moment for the U.S. economy. Millions of jobs are still missing compared with before the pandemic, and inflation has jumped higher as strong demand clashes with supply chain disruptions, presenting dueling challenges for the Fed chair to navigate. The Fed’s next leader will also shape its involvement in climate finance policy, a possible central bank digital currency and the response to the central bank’s ethics dilemma.
“This is starting to feel like an incredibly consequential time for the Fed,” said Dennis Kelleher, the chief executive of Better Markets, a group that has been critical of the Fed’s deregulatory moves in recent years and has criticized it for insufficient ethical oversight.
26 transactions, albeit all in broad-based funds. He also noted that Lael Brainard, a Fed governor and a longtime favorite to replace Mr. Powell if he is not reappointed, did not report any transactions year.
“If you’re trying to go above and beyond, and be beyond reproach, not trading is the better option,” Mr. Hauser said.
bought and sold individual stocks, his 2017 disclosures showed. Ms. Brainard herself has in the past made broad-based transactions. It was the Fed’s more expansive role in 2020 that spurred the backlash.
Agencies often need a “wake-up call” to notice evolving problems with their oversight rules, said Norman Eisen, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and an ethics adviser in President Barack Obama’s White House.
“My own view is that Chair Powell is pivoting briskly to address the weaknesses in the Fed’s ethics system,” he said.
enabled big banks to become more intertwined with venture capital.
Critics say reappointing Mr. Powell amounts to retaining that more hands-off regulatory approach. And some progressive groups suggest that if Mr. Powell stays in place, Mr. Quarles will feel emboldened to stick around: He has hinted that he might stay on as a Fed governor once his leadership term ends.
That would mean four of seven Fed Board officials — a majority — would remain Republican-appointed. Two other governors — Michelle W. Bowman and Christopher J. Waller — were nominated by President Donald J. Trump.
During Mr. Powell’s Senate testimony last week, Ms. Warren said renominating him as chair meant “gambling that, for the next five years, a Republican majority at the Federal Reserve, with a Republican chair who has regularly voted to deregulate Wall Street, won’t drive this economy over a financial cliff again.”
Even without Ms. Warren’s approval, Mr. Powell would most likely draw enough support to clear the Senate Banking Committee, the first step before the full Senate could vote on his nomination, because of his continued backing from the committee’s Republicans. But having a powerful Democratic opponent whose support the administration needs on other legislative priorities is not helpful.
The Fed chair does have some powerful allies in the administration, including Ms. Yellen, the Treasury secretary. But the decision rests with Mr. Biden.
“I know he will talk to many people and consider a wide range of evidence and opinions,” Ms. Yellen said on CNBC on Tuesday.
None of those transactions took place between late March and May 1, a Fed official said, which would have curbed Mr. Kaplan’s ability to use information about the coming rescue programs to earn a profit.
But the trades drew attention for other reasons. Mr. Conti-Brown pointed out that Mr. Kaplan was buying and selling oil company shares just as the Fed was debating what role it should play in regulating climate-related finance. And everything the Fed did in 2020 — like slashing rates to near zero and buying trillions in government-backed debt — affected the stock market, sending equity prices higher.
“It’s really bad for the Fed, people are going to seize on it to say that the Fed is self-dealing,” said Sam Bell, a founder of Employ America, a group focused on economic policy. “Here’s a guy who influences monetary policy, and he’s making money for himself in the stock market.”
Mr. Perli noted that Mr. Kaplan’s financial activity included trading in a corporate bond exchange-traded fund, which is effectively a bundle of company debt that trades like a stock. The Fed bought shares in that type of fund last year.
Other key policymakers, including the New York Fed president, John C. Williams, reported much less financial activity in 2020, based on disclosures published or provided by their reserve banks. Mr. Williams told reporters on a call on Wednesday that he thought transparency measures around trading activity were critical.
“If you’re asking should those policies be reviewed or changed, I think that’s a broader question that I don’t have a particular answer for right now,” Mr. Williams said.
Washington-based board officials reported some financial activity, but it was more limited. Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, reported 41 recorded transactions made by him or on his or his family’s behalf in 2019, and 26 in 2020, but those were typically in index funds and other relatively broad investment strategies. Randal K. Quarles, the Fed’s vice chair for supervision, recorded purchases and sales of Union Pacific stock from 2019 in his 2020 disclosure. Those stocks were assets of Mr. Quarles’s wife and he had no involvement in the transactions, a Fed spokesman said.
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.
As Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin scrambled to save faltering markets at the start of the pandemic last year, America’s top economic officials were in near-constant contact with a Wall Street executive whose firm stood to benefit financially from the rescue.
Laurence D. Fink, the chief executive of BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, was in frequent touch with Mr. Mnuchin and Mr. Powell in the days before and after many of the Fed’s emergency rescue programs were announced in late March. Emails obtained by The New York Times through a records request, along with public releases, underscore the extent to which Mr. Fink planned alongside the government for parts of a financial rescue that his firm referred to in one message as “the project” that he and the Fed were “working on together.”
While some conversations were previously disclosed, the newly released emails, together with public calendar records, show the extent to which economic policymakers worked with a private company as they were drawing up a response to the financial meltdown and how intertwined BlackRock has become with the federal government.
60 recorded calls over the frantic Saturday and Sunday leading up to the Fed’s unveiling on Monday, March 23, of a policy package that included its first-ever program to buy corporate bonds, which were becoming nearly impossible to sell as investors sprinted to convert their holdings to cash. Mr. Mnuchin spoke to Mr. Fink five times that weekend, more than anyone other than the Fed chair, whom he spoke with nine times. Mr. Fink joined Mr. Mnuchin, Mr. Powell and Larry Kudlow, who was the White House National Economic Council director, for a brief call at 7:25 the evening before the Fed’s big announcement, based on Mr. Mnuchin’s calendars.
book on funds.
On March 24, 2020, the New York Fed announced that it had again hired BlackRock’s advisory arm, which operates separately from the company’s asset-management business but which Mr. Fink oversees, this time to carry out the Fed’s purchases of commercial mortgage-backed securities and corporate bonds.
BlackRock’s ability to directly profit from its regular contact with the government during rescue planning was limited. The firm signed a nondisclosure agreement with the New York Fed on March 22, restricting involved officials from sharing information about the coming programs.
were contracting and its business outlook hinged on what happened in certain markets.
While the Fed and Treasury consulted with many financial firms as they drew up their response — and practically all of Wall Street and much of Main Street benefited — no other company was as front and center.
Simply being in touch throughout the government’s planning was good for BlackRock, potentially burnishing its image over the longer run, Mr. Birdthistle said. BlackRock would have benefited through “tons of information, tons of secondary financial benefits,” he said.
Mr. Mnuchin could not be reached for comment. Asked whether top Fed officials discussed program details with Mr. Fink before his firm had signed the nondisclosure agreement, the Fed said Mr. Powell and Randal K. Quarles, a Fed vice chair who also appears in the emails, “have no recollection of discussing the terms of either facility with Mr. Fink.”
“Nor did they have any reason to do so because the Federal Reserve Bank of New York handled the process with great care and transparency,” the central bank added in its statement.
Brian Beades, a spokesman for BlackRock, highlighted that the firm had “stringent information barriers in place that ensure separation between BlackRock Financial Markets Advisory and the firm’s investment business.” He said it was “proud to have been in a position to assist the Federal Reserve in addressing the severe downturn in financial markets during the depths of the crisis.”
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The disclosed emails between Fed and BlackRock officials — 11 in all across March and early April — do not make clear whether the company knew about any of the Fed and Treasury programs’ designs or whether they were simply providing market information.
Fed chair’s official schedule from that March. Those calendars generally track scheduled events, and may have missed meetings in early 2020 when staff members were frantically working on the market rescue and the Fed was shifting to work from home, a central bank spokesman said.
Mr. Powell’s calendars did show that he talked to Mr. Fink in March, April and May, and he has previously answered questions about those discussions.
“I can’t recall exactly what those conversations were, but they would have been about what he is seeing in the markets and things like that, to generally exchanging information,” Mr. Powell said at a July news conference, adding that it wasn’t “very many” conversations. “He’s typically trying to make sure that we are getting good service from the company that he founded and leads.”
BlackRock’s connections to Washington are not new. It was a critical player in the 2008 crisis response, when the New York Fed retained the firm’s advisory arm to manage the mortgage assets of the insurance giant American International Group and Bear Stearns.
Several former BlackRock employees have been named to top roles in President Biden’s administration, including Brian Deese, who heads the White House National Economic Council, and Wally Adeyemo, who was Mr. Fink’s chief of staff and is now the No. 2 official at the Treasury.
in early 2009 to $7.4 trillion in 2019. By the end of last year, they were $8.7 trillion.
As it expanded, it has stepped up its lobbying. In 2004, BlackRock Inc. registered two lobbyists and spent less than $200,000 on its efforts. By 2019 it had 20 lobbyists and spent nearly $2.5 million, though that declined slightly last year, based on OpenSecrets data. Campaign contributions tied to the firm also jumped, touching $1.7 million in 2020 (80 percent to Democrats, 20 percent to Republicans) from next to nothing as recently as 2004.
short-term debt markets that came under intense stress as people and companies rushed to move all of their holdings into cash. And problems were brewing in the corporate debt market, including in exchange-traded funds, which track bundles of corporate debt and other assets but trade like stocks. Corporate bonds were difficult to trade and near impossible to issue in mid-March 2020. Prices on some high-grade corporate debt E.T.F.s, including one of BlackRock’s, were out of whack relative to the values of the underlying assets, which is unusual.
People could still pull their money from E.T.F.s, which both the industry and several outside academics have heralded as a sign of their resiliency. But investors would have had to take a financial hit to do so, relative to the quoted value of the underlying bonds. That could have bruised the product’s reputation in the eyes of some retail savers.
fund recovery was nearly instant.
When the New York Fed retained BlackRock’s advisory arm to make the purchases, it rapidly disclosed details of those contracts to the public. The firm did the program cheaply for the government, waiving fees for exchange-traded fund buying and rebating fees from its own iShares E.T.F.s back to the New York Fed.
The Fed has explained the decision to hire the advisory side of the house in terms of practicality.
“We hired BlackRock for their expertise in these markets,” Mr. Powell has since said in defense of the rapid move. “It was done very quickly due to the urgency and need for their expertise.”
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.
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.
Jerome H. Powell, the Federal Reserve chair, struck a hopeful tone about the United States economy in a speech on Monday — but he emphasized that the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic has disproportionately harmed vulnerable communities.
“While some countries are still suffering terribly in the grip of Covid-19, the economic outlook here in the United States has clearly brightened,” Mr. Powell said. And in the United States, “lives and livelihoods have been affected in ways that vary from person to person, family to family, and community to community.”
Mr. Powell used the remarks to preview an upcoming Fed report that will show how Black and Hispanic workers lost jobs at a greater rate in pandemic lockdowns and how the pandemic pushed mothers out of the labor force and made it harder for people without college degrees to hang onto work.
Among the statistics he highlighted from the Survey of Household Economics and Decisionmaking, which he said will be released later this month:
About 20 percent of adults in their prime working years without a bachelor’s degree were laid off last year, compared to 12 percent of college-educated workers.
More than 20 percent of Black and Hispanic prime-age workers were laid off in 2020, versus 14 percent of white workers.
Roughly 22 percent of parents were not working or were working less thanks to child-care and school disruptions.
About 36 percent of Black mothers, and 30 percent of and Hispanic mothers, were not working or were working less.
“The Fed is focused on these longstanding disparities because they weigh on the productive capacity of our economy,” Mr. Powell said. “We will only reach our full potential when everyone can contribute to, and share in, the benefits of prosperity.”
Mr. Powell said that while achieving an equitable economy is the job of many parts of government, the Fed has a role to play with both its economic tools and in its bank supervision and community development work.
“Those who have historically been left behind stand the best chance of prospering in a strong economy with plentiful job opportunities,” Mr. Powell said. “We see our robust supervisory approach as critical to addressing racial discrimination, which can limit consumers’ ability to improve their economic circumstances.”
“While the level of new cases remains concerning,” he said, “continued vaccinations should allow for a return to more normal economic conditions later this year.”
Fed officials have signaled that they will keep interest rates low and bond purchases going at the current $120 billion-per-month pace until the recovery is more complete. The Fed has said it would like to see “substantial” further progress before dialing back government-backed bond buying, a policy meant to make many kinds of borrowing cheap. The hurdle for raising rates is even higher: Officials want the economy to return to full employment and achieve 2 percent inflation, with expectations that inflation will remain higher for some time.
“A transitory rise in inflation above 2 percent this year would not meet this standard,” Mr. Powell said of the Fed’s criteria for achieving its average inflation target before raising interest rates. When it comes to bond buying, “the economy is a long way from our goals, and it is likely to take some time for substantial further progress to be achieved.”
He later said that “it is not time yet” to talk about scaling back, or “tapering,” bond purchases.
Unemployment, which peaked at 14.8 percent last April, has since declined to 6 percent. Retail spending is strong, supported by repeated government stimulus checks. Consumers have amassed a big savings stockpile over months of stay-at-home orders, so there is reason to expect that things could pick up further as the economy fully reopens.
Yet there is room for improvement. The jobless rate remains well above its 3.5 percent reading coming into the pandemic, with Black workers and those in lower-paying jobs disproportionately out of work. Some businesses have closed forever, and it remains to be seen how post-pandemic changes in daily patterns will affect others, like corporate offices and the companies that service them.
“There’s no playbook here,” said Michelle Meyer, the head of U.S. economics at Bank of America, adding that the Fed needed time to let inflation play out and the labor market heal, and that while the signs were encouraging, central bankers would only “react when they have enough evidence.”
The Fed has repeatedly said it wants to see realized improvement in economic data — not just expected healing — before it reduces its support. Based on their March economic projections, most Fed officials are penciling in interest rates near zero through at least 2023.
The question is whether the new technology is going to make the yuan an attractive alternative to other currencies. Chinese central bankers say it is not an effort to supplant the dollar, and Martin Chorzempa, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, said digitization won’t fix issues that make the yuan unattractive as a reserve currency in the first place — like capital controls, which mean you can’t exchange it easily at all times.
Is Bitcoin coming for the dollar?
Others worry that private-sector innovations like Bitcoin or “stablecoins,” which are backed by a bundle of assets or currencies, could become an attractive alternative to government-created cash if central banks don’t keep up.
Mr. Powell has argued that Bitcoin is more like gold than the dollar. It has value because it’s rare and people want to hold it, so it can even at times be traded for other goods and services, but it is not government-guaranteed money.
But global regulators did slow down Facebook’s stablecoin project, originally known as Libra and now called Diem, because they worried about the potential for money laundering and financial system disruption.
Mr. Powell said in testimony last year that Libra was “a bit of wake up call that this is coming fast and could come in a way that is quite widespread and systemically important fairly quickly,” highlighting the “importance of making quick progress.”
If tech companies come to dominate the payment system, that could create privacy and stability issues. In fact, China’s digital yuan was pursued partly in reaction to the rise and dominance of private-sector digital payment platforms like Alipay and WeChat Pay.
A faster or instant payments system, like the FedNow instant payment technology that America’s central bank is now developing, could keep the Fed up-to-date without changing the system as much as a digital currency would. But digital dollar fans say the point is to prepare for the future — and the future might be central bank digital currency.
“Digital cash, if built in the right way, could be really groundbreaking,” said Neha Narula, who is the director of the Digital Currency Initiative at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is working with the Boston Fed on its project.