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Fed Confronts Why It May Have Acted Too Slowly on Inflation

Some Federal Reserve officials have begun to acknowledge that they were too slow to respond to rapid inflation last year, a delay that is forcing them to constrain the economy more abruptly now — and one that could hold lessons for the policy path ahead.

Inflation began to accelerate last spring, but Fed policymakers and most private-sector forecasters initially thought price gains would quickly fade. It became clear in early fall that fast inflation was proving to be more lasting — but the Fed pivoted toward rapidly removing policy support only in late November and did not raise rates until March.

Several current and former Fed officials have suggested in recent days that, in hindsight, the central bank should have reacted more quickly and forcefully last fall, but that both profound uncertainty about the future and the Fed’s approach to setting policy slowed it down.

Officials had spent years dealing with tepid inflation, which made some hesitant to believe that rapidly rising prices would last. Even as they became more concerned, it took the Fed’s large group of policymakers time to come to an agreement on how to respond. Another complicating factor was that the Fed had made clear promises to markets about how it would remove support for the economy, which made adjusting quickly more difficult.

8.5 percent from a year earlier, the fastest rate since 1981. Consumer price increases are expected to remain rapid when fresh data are released Wednesday.

And as high prices have lingered, inflation expectations have been creeping up, threatening to change household and business behavior in ways that perpetuate the problem.

Because inflation is eating away at paychecks and making it more difficult for families to afford groceries and cars, it has emerged as a major political issue for President Biden, whose approval ratings have fallen over concerns about his handling of the economy. During remarks at the White House on Tuesday, Mr. Biden called inflation his “top domestic priority” and said his administration was taking steps to contain it. He also sought to push back on Republicans, who have spent months blaming him for stoking inflation, saying their policy ideas were “extreme” and would hurt working families.

biggest increase since 2000, while broadcasting that two more large adjustments could be coming. They are also going to start shrinking their $9 trillion balance sheet of bond holdings next month.

If the Fed continues to rapidly adjust policy this year as it tries to catch up, policymakers risk slamming the brakes on a speeding economy. Such hard stops can hurt, pushing up unemployment and possibly tipping off a recession. Officials typically prefer to apply their policy brakes gradually, increasing the chances that the economy can slow down painlessly.

Still, several Fed officials pointed out that it was easier to say what the Fed should have done in 2021 after the fact — that in the moment, it was difficult to know price increases would last. Inflation initially came mainly from a few big products that were in short supply amid supply chain snarls, like semiconductors and cars. Only later in the year did it become obvious that price pressures were broadening to food, rent and other areas.

“I try to give some grace, and say: In a very uncertain time, with an unprecedented setting, with no real models to guide us, people are going to do the best they can,” Raphael Bostic, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, said in an interview Monday. Mr. Bostic was an early voice suggesting that the Fed should stop buying bonds and think about raising interest rates.

Officials have said it was the acceleration in inflation data in September, followed by rising employment costs, that convinced them that price gains might last and that the central bank needed to act decisively. The Fed chair, Jerome H. Powell, pivoted on policy in late November as those data points added up.

a complicating factor: Mr. Powell was waiting to see if he would be reappointed by the Biden administration, which did not announce its decision to renominate him until mid-November.

“Banking With Interest” podcast episode last week, said reacting to the data was “hard to do until there was clarity as to what the leadership going forward of the Fed was going to be.”

Plus, the Fed had promised to withdraw policy in a certain way, which prevented a rapid reorientation once officials began to fret that inflation might last. Policymakers had pledged to keep interest rates at rock bottom and continue to buy huge sums of bonds until the job market had healed substantially. They had also clearly laid out how they would remove support when the time came: Bond purchases would slow first, then stop, and only then would rates rise.

The point was to convince investors that the Fed would not stop helping the economy too early and to avoid roiling markets, but that so-called forward guidance meant that pulling back support was a drawn-out process.

“Forward guidance, like everything in economics, has benefits and costs,” Richard H. Clarida, who was vice chair of the Fed in 2021 and recently left the central bank, said at a conference last week. “If there’s guidance that the committee feels bound to honor,” he added, it can be complicated for the Fed to move through a sequence of policy moves.

Christopher Waller, a governor at the Fed, noted the central bank wasn’t just sitting still. Markets began to adjust as the Fed sped up its plans to remove policy support throughout the fall, which is making money more expensive to borrow and starting to slow down economic conditions. Mortgage rates, one window into how Fed policy is playing out into the economy, began to move up notably in January 2021 and are now at the highest level since the 2008 housing crisis.

Mr. Waller also pointed out that it was hard to get the Fed’s large policy-setting committee into agreement rapidly.

“Policy is set by a large committee of up to 12 voting members and a total of 19 participants in our discussions,” he said during a speech last week. “This process may lead to more gradual changes in policy as members have to compromise in order to reach a consensus.”

Loretta Mester, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, said in an interview on Tuesday that different people on the committee “looked at the same data with different lenses, and that’s just the nature of the beast.”

But the Fed seems to be learning lessons from its 2021 experience.

Policymakers are avoiding giving clear guidance about what will come next for policy: Officials have said they want to quickly get rates up to the point that they start to weigh on the economy, then go from there. While Mr. Powell said the Fed was thinking about half-point increases at its next two meetings, he gave no clear guidance about what would follow.

“It’s a very difficult environment to try to give forward guidance, 60, 90 days in advance — there are just so many things that can happen in the economy and around the world,” Mr. Powell said at a news conference last week. “So we’re leaving ourselves room to look at the data and make a decision as we get there.”

The war in Ukraine is the latest surprise that is changing the outlook for the economy and inflation in ways that are hard to predict, Mr. Bostic from Atlanta said.

“I have been humbled, chastened — whatever — to think that I know the range of possible things that can happen in the future,” he said. “I’ve really tried to back off of leaning into one kind of story or path.”

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The Stock and Bond Markets Don’t Yet Know How to Cope With the Fed

On Wednesday, the S&P 500 stock index jumped 3 percent, as though all was right with the world. On Thursday, stocks collapsed, with the tech-heavy Nasdaq index plunging 5 percent as though the end of times was in sight.

Things on Friday were only slightly better. The S&P fell again, but only by 0.6 percent, and the Nasdaq lost a mere 1.4 percent. It was the fifth consecutive weekly decline in the S&P 500, its longest streak of losses since June 2011.

If you are looking for patterns in the market’s wild swings, the answer is simple: The financial markets are coming to grips with a stunning policy change by the Federal Reserve.

Over the last two decades, financial markets may have become so accustomed to encouragement from the Fed that they just don’t know how to react, now that the central bank is doing its best to slow down the economy.

news conference on Wednesday that the central bank was really and truly committed to driving down inflation. A transcript of Mr. Powell’s words is available on the Fed site. So is the text of the Fed’s latest policy statement. Check for yourself.

The Fed is willing to increase unemployment in the United States if that is what’s required to get the job done. And while they would much prefer that the United States doesn’t fall into a recession, Fed policymakers are willing to take the heat if the economy falters.

This may be hard to accept, and for a good reason.

millions of casualties worldwide, and it’s not over. From the narrow viewpoint of economics, the pandemic threw supply and demand for a vast variety of goods and services out of whack, and that has baffled policymakers. How much of the current bout of inflation has been caused by Covid, and what can the Fed possibly do about it?

Then there are the continuing lockdowns in China, which have reduced the supply of Chinese exports and dampened Chinese demand for imports, both of which are altering global economic patterns. On top of all that is the oil price shock caused by Russia’s war in Ukraine and by the sanctions against Russia.

Until late last year, the Fed said the inflation problem was “transitory.” Its response to an array of global challenges was to flood the U.S. economy and the world with money. It helped to reduce the impact of the 2020 recession in the United States — and it contributed to great wealth-creating rallies in the stock and bond markets.

But now, the Fed has recognized that inflation has gotten out of control and must be significantly slowed.

This is how Mr. Powell put it on Wednesday. “Inflation is much too high and we understand the hardship it is causing, and we’re moving expeditiously to bring it back down,” he said. “We have both the tools we need and the resolve it will take to restore price stability on behalf of American families and businesses.”

But its tools for reducing the rate of inflation without causing undue harm to the economy are actually quite crude and limited, he later acknowledged, in response to a reporter’s question. “We have essentially interest rates, the balance sheet and forward guidance, and they’re famously blunt tools,” he said. “They’re not capable of surgical precision.”

As if that were not scary enough, for an operation as delicate as the Fed is attempting, he added: “No one thinks this will be easy. No one thinks it’s straightforward, but there is certainly a plausible path to this, and I do think there, we’ve got a good chance to do that. And, you know, our job is not to rate the chances, it is to try to achieve it. So that’s what we’re doing.”

Well, fine. The Fed needs to make the attempt, but given the precariousness of the situation, the high volatility in financial markets is exactly what I’d expect to see.

The Federal Reserve is committed to continuing to raise the short-term interest rate it controls, the Fed funds rate, to somewhere well above 2.25 percent. Only a few months ago, that rate stood close to zero, and on Wednesday, the Fed raised it to the 0.75 to 1 percent range. The Fed also said it would begin reducing its $9 trillion balance sheet in June by about $1 trillion over the next year, and it continues to issue cautionary “forward guidance” — warnings of the kind that Mr. Powell made on Wednesday.

Watch out, he was essentially saying. Financial conditions are going to get much tougher — as tough as needed to stop inflation from becoming entrenched and deeply destructive. The Fed will be using blunt instruments on the American economy. There will be damage, inevitably. People will lose their jobs when the economy slows. There will be pain, even if it isn’t intended.

In the financial markets, short-term traders are unable to make sense of all this. The day-to-day shifts in the markets are about as informative as the meandering of a squirrel. But for those with long horizons, the outlook is straightforward enough.

A period of wrenching volatility is inescapable. This happens periodically in financial markets, yet those very markets tend to produce wealth for people who are able to ride out this turbulence.

It is important, as always, to make sure you have enough money put aside for an emergency. Then, assess your ability to withstand the impact of nasty headlines and unpleasant financial statements documenting market losses.

Cheap, broadly diversified index funds that track the overall market are being hit hard right now, but I’m still putting money into them. Over the long run, that approach has led to prosperity.

Count on more market craziness until the Fed’s struggle to beat inflation has been resolved. But if history is a guide, the odds are that you will do well if you can get through it.

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Fed Raises Interest Rate Half a Percentage Point, Largest Increase Since 2000

Deciding how quickly to remove policy support is a fraught exercise. Central bankers are hoping to move decisively enough to arrest the pop in prices without curbing growth so aggressively that they tip the economy into a deep downturn.

Mr. Powell nodded to that balancing act, saying, “I do expect that this will be very challenging — it’s not going to be easy.” But he said the economy had a good chance “to have a soft, or soft-ish, landing.”

He later elaborated that it could be possible to “restore price stability without a recession, without a severe downturn, and without materially higher unemployment.”

The balance sheet plan the Fed released on Wednesday matched what analysts had expected, which probably also contributed to the sense of market calm. The Fed will begin shrinking its nearly $9 trillion in asset holdings in June by allowing Treasury and mortgage-backed debt to mature without reinvestment. It will ultimately let up to $60 billion in Treasury debt expire each month, along with $35 billion in mortgage-backed debt, and the plan will have phased in fully as of September.

By reducing its bond holdings, the Fed is likely to take steam out of financial markets — bond prices will fall, causing yields to rise, and riskier investments like stocks will become less attractive. It also could help to cool the housing market by pushing up longer-term borrowing costs, which follow bond yields, reinforcing the effect of the central bank’s interest rate increases.

In fact, mortgage rates have already begun to push higher, climbing nearly two percentage points since the start of the year. The rate on a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage averaged 5.1 percent for the week that ended last Thursday, according to Freddie Mac, touching its highest level in more than a decade.

The Fed’s moves “will quickly make financing big-ticket purchases more challenging.” Jonathan Smoke, chief economist at Cox Automotive, wrote in a research note after the meeting. “This is exactly what the Fed wants to see. As demand for homes, cars and other durables declines in response to declining affordability, the rate of price increases should slow as well.”

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The Fed Bets on a ‘Soft Landing,’ but Recession Risk Looms

Jerome H. Powell, the Federal Reserve chair, emphasized this week that the central bank he leads could succeed in its quest to tame rapid inflation without causing unemployment to rise or setting off a recession. But he also acknowledged that such a benign outcome was not certain.

“The historical record provides some grounds for optimism,” Mr. Powell said.

That “some” is worth noting: While there may be hope, there is also reason to worry, given the Fed’s track record when it is in inflation-fighting mode.

The Fed has at times managed to raise interest rates to cool down demand and weaken inflation without meaningfully harming the economy — Mr. Powell highlighted examples in 1965, 1984 and 1994. But those instances came amid much lower inflation, and without the ongoing shocks of a global pandemic and a war in Ukraine.

The part Fed officials avoid saying out loud is that the central bank’s tools work by slowing down the economy, and weakening growth always comes with a risk of overdoing it. And while the Fed ushered in its first rate increase this month, some economists — and at least one Fed official — think it was too slow to start taking its foot off the gas. Some warn that the delay increases the chance it might have to overcorrect.

40-year high and continued to accelerate, but longer-term price growth expectations have nudged only slightly higher.

If consumers and businesses anticipated rapid price increases year after year, that would be a troubling sign. Such expectations could become self-fulfilling if companies felt comfortable raising prices and consumers accepted those higher costs but asked for bigger paychecks to cover their rising expenses.

But after a year of rapid inflation, it is no guarantee that longer-term inflation expectations will stay in check. Keeping them under control is a big part of why the Fed is getting moving now even as a war in Ukraine stokes uncertainty. The central bank raised rates a quarter point this month and projected a series of interest rate increases to come.

While officials would usually look past a temporary pop in oil prices, like the one the conflict has spurred, concerns about expectations mean they do not have that luxury this time.

“The risk is rising that an extended period of high inflation could push longer-term expectations uncomfortably higher,” Mr. Powell said this week.

Mr. Powell signaled that the Fed might raise interest rates by half a percentage point in May and imminently begin to shrink its balance sheet of bond holdings, policies that would remove help from the U.S. economy much more rapidly than in the last economic expansion.

Some officials, including Mr. Bullard, have urged moving quickly, arguing that monetary policy is still at an emergency setting and out of line with a very strong economy.

But investors think the Fed will need to reverse course after a series of rapid rate increases. Market pricing suggests — and some researchers think — that the Fed will raise rates notably this year and early next, only to reverse some of those moves as the economy slows markedly.

“Our base case has the Fed reversing quickly enough to avoid a full-blown recession,” Krishna Guha, the head of global policy at Evercore ISI, wrote in a recent analysis. “But the probability of pulling this off is not particularly high.”

So why would the Fed put the economy at risk? Neil Shearing, the group chief economist at Capital Economics, wrote that the central bank was following the “stitch in time saves nine” approach to monetary policy.

Raising interest rates now to reduce inflation gives the central bank a shot at stabilizing the economy without having to enact an even more painful policy down the road. If the Fed dallies, and higher inflation becomes a more lasting feature of the economy, it will be even harder to stamp out.

“Delaying rate hikes due to fears about the economic spillovers from the war in Ukraine would risk inflation becoming more entrenched,” Mr. Shearing wrote in a note to clients. “Meaning more policy tightening is ultimately needed to squeeze it out of the system, and making a recession at some point in the future even more likely.”

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Why the Fed Raised Interest Rates

Prices for groceries, couches and rent are all climbing rapidly, and Federal Reserve officials have been warily eyeing that trend.

On Wednesday, they took their biggest step yet toward counteracting it, raising their policy interest rate by a quarter of a percentage point.

That small change carries a major signal: Policymakers have fully pivoted to inflation-fighting mode and will do what is necessary to make sure price gains do not remain hot for months and years to come.

The Fed is acting at a tense moment for many consumers and investors. Here’s what happened, and what it is likely to mean for markets and the economy.

other types of interest rates — on mortgages, car loans and credit cards. Some of the interest rates that consumers pay to borrow money have already moved higher in anticipation of the Fed’s coming adjustments.

Policymakers projected that six more similarly sized rate increases would happen this year.

perpetuate supply chain disruptions.

The Fed is also in charge of fostering maximum employment, but with hiring rapid and more open jobs than there are available workers, that goal appears to have been achieved, at least for now.

already beginning to see). With less activity happening, companies need fewer workers. Less demand for labor makes for slower wage growth, which cools demand further. Higher rates effectively pour cold water on the economy.

The effects of higher rates might be visible in markets. Higher interest rates tend to eventually lower stock prices — in part because it costs businesses more to operate when money is expensive to borrow, and in part because Fed rate increases have a track record of touching off recessions, which are terrible for stocks. Pricier borrowing costs also tend to weigh on the value of other assets, like houses, as would-be buyers shy away from the market.

The Fed is also preparing to shrink its balance sheet of bond holdings, and many economists expect Fed officials to release a plan to do so as soon as May. That could push up longer-term rates and will probably further pull down stock, bond and house prices.

You might wonder why the Fed would want to slow down the economy and hurt the stock market. The central bank wants a strong economy, but sustainability is the name of the game: A little pain today could mean less pain tomorrow.

The Fed is trying to get inflation down to a level where price increases do not influence people’s spending choices or daily lives. Officials hope that if they can slow the economy enough to reduce inflation, without damaging it so much that it tips into a recession, they can set the stage for a long and steady expansion.

“I think it’s more likely than not that we can achieve what we call a soft landing,” Mr. Powell said during recent testimony before lawmakers.

The Fed has let the economy down easy before: In the early 1990s it raised rates without sending unemployment higher, and it appeared to be in the process of achieving a soft landing before the pandemic struck, having raised rates between 2015 and 2018.

But economists have warned that it could be a tough act to pull off this time around.

“I wouldn’t rule it out,” Donald Kohn, a former Fed vice chair, said of a soft landing. But he said a clampdown on demand that pushed unemployment higher was also possible.

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As Fed Prepares to Raise Rates, Global Economy Sinks Deeper Into Turmoil 

Jason Furman, an economist at Harvard University, said many forecasters had been doing what investors sometimes refer to as “pricing to perfection”: assuming that everything is going to go well, even if that is not the most likely outcome.

“You can look at the individual items: There’s been a lot of: What if inflation in X, Y, Z goes down?” he said. “And not: What if inflation in A, B, C goes up?”

Many of the factors prompting economists to mark up their inflation forecasts now are not even tied to supply chains.

Matthew Luzzetti, chief U.S. economist at Deutsche Bank, recently revised up his inflation projections because rent costs are rising so rapidly in the Consumer Price Index. Between that and wage growth, he thinks, high inflation will last unless the Fed intervenes.

“For a while, inflation forecasters had been anticipating that the goods side of things would return to more normal dynamics” just as service prices, like rent, began to increase, he said. Services prices have indeed picked up, but normalization in good prices keeps getting “pushed out.”

Consumers continue to spend a bigger share of their budgets on goods instead of services — purchases like travel and manicures — compared with before the pandemic. That has meant global producers are still struggling to keep up with demand. Even potentially short-lived disruptions, like the ones taking place in China, can add to a snowball of delays and shortages.

Data released this month showed that the U.S. trade deficit hit a record in January, the height of the Omicron wave, in part because of surging imports of cars and energy. The average time to ship a container from a Chinese factory to a U.S. warehouse had stretched to 82 days in February, according to Freightos, a logistics platform, up from 45 days two years before.

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Could Inflation Prompt Powell to Act Like Volcker?

To Jerome H. Powell, the chair of the Federal Reserve, Paul Volcker is more than a predecessor. He is one of his professional heroes.

“I knew Paul Volcker,” Mr. Powell said during congressional testimony this month. “I think he was one of the great public servants of the era — the greatest economic public servant of the era.”

Now, if rapid inflation proves more stubborn than policymakers expect, Mr. Powell could find himself in a situation in which he must follow Mr. Volcker’s lead. The towering former Fed chair is best remembered for waging an aggressive — and painful — assault on the swift price increases that plagued America in the early 1980s.

Mr. Volcker’s Fed rolled out policies that pushed a key short-term interest rate to nearly 20 percent and sent unemployment soaring to nearly 11 percent in 1981. Car dealers mailed the Fed keys from unsold vehicles, builders sent two-by-fours from unbuilt houses and farmers drove tractors around the Fed building in Washington in protest. But the approach worked, killing off the rapid price inflation that had festered throughout the 1970s.

expected to begin raising interest rates from near zero at its meeting this week, and is likely to signal that it expects to make a series of moves this year as it tries to cool down the economy and control inflation.

Price increases had run high for more than a decade by the time Mr. Volcker became chair in 1979, making them a part of everyday lives. Shoppers expected prices to go up, businesses knew that, and both acted accordingly.

This time, inflation has been anemic for years (until recently), and most consumers and investors still expect costs to return to lower levels before long, survey and market data show. While inflation has been rapid for the past year, that is a comparatively short period and one that may not fuel the same kind of expectations for higher prices that bedeviled Mr. Volcker’s era.

And while today’s inflation is taking a bite out of household budgets, it is slower than in previous periods: While it rose to 7.9 percent in February, the fastest pace since 1982, it is still well below a peak of 14.6 percent in 1980. Economists expect price gains to begin moderating this year, rather than climbing to such high levels.

more muted version of the wage-price spiral that helped keep inflation high during Mr. Volcker’s years.

are climbing as Russia wages war on Ukraine, mirroring oil price shocks that rocked the economy in the years before Mr. Volcker’s ascent to the chair. The Arab oil embargo of 1973-74 and the Iranian revolution of 1979 both curtailed supply and sharply pushed up pump prices.

And geopolitical instability is fueling uncertainty about what will happen next, much as it did in the 1970s, when war raged in Vietnam.

“That’s the proper historical reference for what we’re trying not to replicate,” Mr. Powell said of the 1970s during separate remarks to Congress this month. “One of the things that is different now is that central banks — including the Fed — very squarely take responsibility for inflation.”

When inflation was taking off in the 1960s and 1970s, Fed officials bickered about how high to raise rates as they worried about hurting the labor market too much. Many economic historians now think that their reluctance to act more quickly allowed those price gains to become locked in until they required a more draconian response.

awaiting Senate confirmation, is the latest economic test that he has had to contend with during his tenure.

Mr. Powell, 69, began his first four years as Fed chair in early 2018. By that Christmas, the central bank’s campaign of steady rate increases intended to fend off inflation had collided with President Donald J. Trump’s trade war to send markets plummeting.

In 2019, Mr. Trump publicly pushed for lower rates and accosted Mr. Powell — whom the president had chosen to lead the central bank — in interviews and on Twitter, calling him a “bonehead,” an “enemy” and a golfer who could not putt.

Then came the onset of the pandemic in 2020, and Mr. Powell and his colleagues crossed red lines and upended norms to rescue markets and the economy. They averted a financial crisis, but 2021 brought with it a new challenge: rapid inflation.

Now, critics are questioning whether the monetary help that Mr. Powell’s Fed unleashed to protect the pandemic-stricken economy — lowering rates to near zero and buying trillions of dollars in government bonds — combined with huge fiscal stimulus to supercharge demand and release an inflationary genie that could prove hard to trap.

The Fed has already begun removing some of that support, stopping bond purchases and communicating plans to raise interest rates by a quarter-point this month and steadily throughout the rest of the year. Mortgage rates have already begun climbing in anticipation of those actions.

wanted to see full employment return before paring back its support, has been too slow to react to changing conditions.

This moment “represents a decade of economic experience in the late 1960s and 1970s, compressed into a year,” said Lawrence H. Summers, a former Treasury secretary who spent last year warning that inflation was going to take off as the government overstimulated the economy.

“The question is: Is this the Fed’s Paul Volcker moment, or is this the Fed’s Arthur Burns moment?” he said.

Mr. Burns preceded Mr. Volcker as Fed chair and was late to react to fast inflation, afraid of slowing the job market and hurting Republicans politically. Mr. Summers warned that so far, today’s situation looked more Burns than Volcker, because the Fed spent 2021 only slowly adjusting to the reality of inflation and is now planning to only steadily adjust policy.

While White House and Fed officials had expected inflation to fade last year, optimistically labeling it “transitory,” their hopes were foiled as rapid consumer demand for couches, cars and other goods collided with pandemic-constrained supply chains. Price gains accelerated rather than slowing down.

“Transitory” has now become a dirty word in policymaking circles. Though officials continue to predict that inflation will moderate, they acknowledge more clearly how uncertain that is.

“We have never put our economy into a deep freeze and then defrosted it before,” said Megan Greene, a senior fellow at a Harvard Kennedy School center and chief global economist for the Kroll Institute. “And we haven’t had a war in continental Europe for a while.”

in Shanghai and Shenzhen, China, a major technology manufacturing hub and port city, are boosting the risk that supply chains remain roiled in the coming months. Those shocks from outside come when price pressures have already begun broadening to categories like rent, another development that could make inflation last.

It is not clear whether those factors will keep inflation drastically higher, but Fed officials will be watching warily.

If the Fed has to raise interest rates to painful levels to cool off the economy and put a lid on prices, it could send financial markets tumbling, erasing stock and housing wealth. It could also slow wage increases and throw people out of jobs as companies retrench, curtailing investment and hiring.

But Fed inaction — or under-action — would also carry risks. High prices that chip away at consumer buying power year after year would make it hard for families and businesses to plan for the future. They could especially hurt people who are out of work and living on savings, or the poor, who devote a big chunk of their budgets to necessities and have less room to cut back if costs get out of control.

Mr. Volcker, Mr. Powell’s long-ago predecessor, one of his professional idols and — potentially, if things go wrong — his muse, died in 2019. But he had thoughts on the trade-off.

Maintaining confidence that a dollar will be able to buy tomorrow what it can today “is a fundamental responsibility of monetary policy,” Mr. Volcker wrote in his 2018 memoir. “Once lost, the consequences can be severe and stability hard to restore.”

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Inflation Rises to 7.9 Percent for February 2022

Prices climbed at the fastest pace in decades in the month leading up to the war in Ukraine, underlining the high stakes facing the United States — along with many developed economies — as the conflict promises to drive costs higher.

The Consumer Price Index rose by 7.9 percent through February, the fastest pace of annual inflation in 40 years. Rising food and rent costs contributed to the big increase, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said, as did a nascent surge in gas prices that will become more pronounced in the March inflation report.

The February report caught only the start of the surge in gas prices that came in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine late last month. Economists expect inflation to pick up even more in March because prices at the pump have since jumped to record-breaking highs. The average price for a gallon of gas was $4.32 on Thursday, according to AAA.

Rapidly climbing costs are hitting consumers in the pocketbook, causing confidence to fall and stretching household budgets. Rising wages and savings amassed during the pandemic have helped many families continue spending despite rising prices, but the burden is falling most intensely on lower-income households, which devote a big chunk of their budgets to daily necessities that are now swiftly becoming more expensive.

signaled it will raise interest rates by a quarter percentage point at its meeting next week, probably the first in a series of moves meant to increase the cost of borrowing and spending money and slow down the economy. By reducing consumption and slowing the labor market, the Fed is able to take some pressure off inflation over time.

Broadening price pressures and high gas costs could become a serious issue for central bank policymakers if they help convince consumers that the run-up in prices will last. If people begin expecting inflation, they may change their behavior in ways that make it more permanent: accepting price increases more readily, and asking for bigger raises to keep up.

“It was another bad report,” said Laura Rosner-Warburton, senior economist at MacroPolicy Perspectives. “Inflation was already way too high before the invasion of Ukraine.”

keep shipping routes tangled and parts scarce. Ukraine is an important producer of neon, which could keep computer chips in short supply, perpetuating the shortages that have plagued automakers. Higher energy costs could ricochet through other industries.

Even without further supply chain troubles, there are signs that inflation is widening beyond a few pandemic-affected sectors, an indication that they could last as the latest virus surge fades from view. Rent of primary residences, for instance, climbed by 0.6 percent from the prior month — the fastest monthly pace of growth since 1999.

Price gains have been rapid around much of the world, causing many central banks to scale back how much help they are providing to their economies. The European Central Bank on Thursday decided to speed up its exit from its bond-buying program as it tries to counter rising inflation. Europe’s push to end its energy dependence on Russia promises to raise costs at a time when inflation is already nearly triple the central bank’s target.

a separate inflation index, but one that is also up considerably.

loss of purchasing power over time, meaning your dollar will not go as far tomorrow as it did today. It is typically expressed as the annual change in prices for everyday goods and services such as food, furniture, apparel, transportation and toys.

For someone who was a longtime Manhattanite, that’s a real loss, Mr. Gutbrod, 61, said. He used to enjoy three restaurant brunches or dinners each week. Now it’s more like one every two weeks.

“I used to go on relaxing drives,” he said, but now joy rides are unaffordable. “I’m on a shoestring budget, and I work pretty hard. For anyone who doesn’t make a lot of money, you have to be intelligent and start cutting corners.”

As it disturbs everyday lives, inflation is likely to dog Democrats and the administration as they fight to retain control of Congress in November. Despite plentiful jobs and quickly rising wages, consumer confidence has fallen to itslowest level since the summer of 2011, when the economy was clambering back from the global financial crisis and Congress was bickering over lifting the nation’s debt ceiling.

That probably at least partly reflects the reality that pay is not quite keeping up with inflation for the typical worker, and that consumers are paying more at the pump, which tends to be a very salient cost for Americans.

In February, the cost of food rose, which is also difficult for consumers on tight budgets. Over the past year, grocery prices have increased by 8.6 percent, the largest yearly jump since the period ending in April 1981. Fresh fruit and dairy products became notably more expensive last month.

The White House has emphasized that it is trying to offset rising costs to the degree that it can.

“We’ve taken steps to address bottlenecks in the supply chain, to reduce those bottlenecks,” Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said this week.

But those changes have mostly helped around the edges, and as prices have shown little sign of moderating on their own, Fed officials have coalesced around the view that they will need to use their policies to cool off demand and keep today’s rapid inflation from becoming entrenched. That may limit the central bank’s room to react to any slowdown in growth prompted by uncertainty and high gas prices.

“They need to stay on track,” said Ms. Rosner-Warburton. “They don’t have as much leeway to respond to these risks, given how elevated inflation is.”

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A Fed Official’s 2020 Trade Drew Outcry. It Went Further Than First Disclosed.

That’s because Fed officials were actively rescuing a broad swath of markets in 2020: In March and April, they slashed rates to zero, bought mortgage-tied and government bonds in mass quantities, and rolled out rescue programs for corporate and municipal debt. Continuing to trade in affected securities for their own portfolios throughout the year could have given them room to profit from their privileged knowledge. At a minimum, it created an appearance problem, one that Mr. Powell himself has acknowledged.

Mr. Kaplan resigned in September, citing the scandal; Mr. Rosengren resigned simultaneously, citing health issues. Mr. Clarida’s term ends at the close of this month, which it was scheduled to do before news of the scandal broke.

Mr. Clarida’s trades, which Bloomberg reported earlier, also raised eyebrows among lawmakers, including Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who has demanded a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation into Fed officials’ 2020 trading. But many ethics experts had seen the transaction as more benign, if poorly timed, because it happened in a broad-based index and the Fed had said it was part of a planned and longer-term investment strategy.

The new disclosure casts doubt on that explanation, given that Mr. Clarida sold out of stocks just days before moving back into them.

“It’s peculiar,” said Norman Eisen, an ethics official in the Obama White House who said he probably would not have approved such a trade. “It’s fair to ask — in what respect does this constitute a rebalancing?”

It is unclear whether Mr. Clarida benefited financially from the trade, but it was most likely a lucrative move. By selling the stock fund as its value began to plummet and buying it back days later when the price per share was lower, Mr. Clarida would have ended up holding more shares, assuming he reinvested all of the money that he had withdrawn. The financial disclosures put both transactions in a range of $1 million to $5 million.

The sale-and-purchase move would have made money within a few days, as stock markets and the fund in question increased in value after Mr. Powell’s announcement. The investment would have then lost money as stocks sank again amid the deepening pandemic crisis.

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