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May 2021 Consumer Price Index Shows Fastest Inflation Since 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Global Tax Deal Reached Among G7 Nations

LONDON — The top economic officials from the world’s advanced economies reached a breakthrough on Saturday in their yearslong efforts to overhaul international tax laws, unveiling a broad agreement that aims to stop large multinational companies from seeking out tax havens and force them to pay more of their income to governments.

Finance leaders from the Group of 7 countries agreed to back a new global minimum tax rate of at least 15 percent that companies would have to pay regardless of where they locate their headquarters.

The agreement would also impose an additional tax on some of the largest multinational companies, potentially forcing technology giants like Amazon, Facebook and Google as well as other big global businesses to pay taxes to countries based on where their goods or services are sold, regardless of whether they have a physical presence in that nation.

Officials described the pact as a historic agreement that could reshape global commerce and solidify public finances that have been eroded after more than a year of combating the coronavirus pandemic. The deal comes after several years of fraught negotiations and, if enacted, would reverse a race to the bottom on international tax rates. It would also put to rest a fight between the United States and Europe over how to tax big technology companies.

has been particularly eager to reach an agreement because a global minimum tax is closely tied to its plans to raise the corporate tax rate in the United States to 28 percent from 21 percent to help pay for the president’s infrastructure proposal.

EU Tax Observatory estimated that a 15 percent minimum tax would yield an additional 48 billion euros, or $58 billion, a year. The Biden administration projected in its budget last month that the new global minimum tax system could help bring in $500 billion in tax revenue over a decade to the United States.

The plan could face resistance from large corporations and the world’s biggest companies were absorbing the development on Saturday.

“We strongly support the work being done to update international tax rules,” said José Castañeda, a Google spokesman. “We hope countries continue to work together to ensure a balanced and durable agreement will be finalized soon.”

said this month that it was prepared to move forward with tariffs on about $2.1 billion worth of goods from Austria, Britain, India, Italy, Spain and Turkey in retaliation for their digital taxes. However, it is keeping them on hold while the tax negotiations unfold.

Finishing such a large agreement by the end of the year could be overly optimistic given the number of moving parts and countries involved.

“A detailed agreement on something of this complexity in a few months would just be lighting speed,” said Nathan Sheets, a former Treasury Department under secretary for international affairs in the Obama administration.

The biggest obstacle to getting a deal finished could come from the United States. The Biden administration must win approval from a narrowly divided Congress to make changes to the tax code and Republicans have shown resistance to Mr. Biden’s plans. American businesses will bear the brunt of the new taxes and Republican lawmakers have argued that the White House is ceding tax authority to foreign countries.

Representative Kevin Brady of Texas, the top Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee, said on Friday that he did not believe that a 15 percent global minimum tax would curb offshoring.

“If the American corporate tax rate is 28 percent, and the global tax rate is merely half of that, you can guarantee we’ll see a second wave of U.S. investment research manufacturing hit overseas, that’s not what we want,” Mr. Brady said.

At the news conference, Ms. Yellen noted that top Democrats in the House and Senate had expressed support for the tax changes that the Biden administration was trying to make.

“We will work with Congress,” she said.

Liz Alderman contributed reporting from Paris.

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Global Shortages During Coronavirus Reveal Failings of Just in Time Manufacturing

In the story of how the modern world was constructed, Toyota stands out as the mastermind of a monumental advance in industrial efficiency. The Japanese automaker pioneered so-called Just In Time manufacturing, in which parts are delivered to factories right as they are required, minimizing the need to stockpile them.

Over the last half-century, this approach has captivated global business in industries far beyond autos. From fashion to food processing to pharmaceuticals, companies have embraced Just In Time to stay nimble, allowing them to adapt to changing market demands, while cutting costs.

But the tumultuous events of the past year have challenged the merits of paring inventories, while reinvigorating concerns that some industries have gone too far, leaving them vulnerable to disruption. As the pandemic has hampered factory operations and sown chaos in global shipping, many economies around the world have been bedeviled by shortages of a vast range of goods — from electronics to lumber to clothing.

In a time of extraordinary upheaval in the global economy, Just In Time is running late.

“It’s sort of like supply chain run amok,” said Willy C. Shih, an international trade expert at Harvard Business School. “In a race to get to the lowest cost, I have concentrated my risk. We are at the logical conclusion of all that.”

shortage of computer chips — vital car components produced mostly in Asia. Without enough chips on hand, auto factories from India to the United States to Brazil have been forced to halt assembly lines.

But the breadth and persistence of the shortages reveal the extent to which the Just In Time idea has come to dominate commercial life. This helps explain why Nike and other apparel brands struggle to stock retail outlets with their wares. It’s one of the reasons construction companies are having trouble purchasing paints and sealants. It was a principal contributor to the tragic shortages of personal protective equipment early in the pandemic, which left frontline medical workers without adequate gear.

a shortage of lumber that has stymied home building in the United States.

Suez Canal this year, closing the primary channel linking Europe and Asia.

“People adopted that kind of lean mentality, and then they applied it to supply chains with the assumption that they would have low-cost and reliable shipping,” said Mr. Shih, the Harvard Business School trade expert. “Then, you have some shocks to the system.”

presentation for the pharmaceutical industry. It promised savings of up to 50 percent on warehousing if clients embraced its “lean and mean” approach to supply chains.

Such claims have panned out. Still, one of the authors of that presentation, Knut Alicke, a McKinsey partner based in Germany, now says the corporate world exceeded prudence.

“We went way too far,” Mr. Alicke said in an interview. “The way that inventory is evaluated will change after the crisis.”

Many companies acted as if manufacturing and shipping were devoid of mishaps, Mr. Alicke added, while failing to account for trouble in their business plans.

“There’s no kind of disruption risk term in there,” he said.

Experts say that omission represents a logical response from management to the incentives at play. Investors reward companies that produce growth in their return on assets. Limiting goods in warehouses improves that ratio.

study. These savings helped finance another shareholder-enriching trend — the growth of share buybacks.

In the decade leading up to the pandemic, American companies spent more than $6 trillion to buy their own shares, roughly tripling their purchases, according to a study by the Bank for International Settlements. Companies in Japan, Britain, France, Canada and China increased their buybacks fourfold, though their purchases were a fraction of their American counterparts.

Repurchasing stock reduces the number of shares in circulation, lifting their value. But the benefits for investors and executives, whose pay packages include hefty allocations of stock, have come at the expense of whatever the company might have otherwise done with its money — investing to expand capacity, or stockpiling parts.

These costs became conspicuous during the first wave of the pandemic, when major economies including the United States discovered that they lacked capacity to quickly make ventilators.

“When you need a ventilator, you need a ventilator,” Mr. Sodhi said. “You can’t say, ‘Well, my stock price is high.’”

When the pandemic began, car manufacturers slashed orders for chips on the expectation that demand for cars would plunge. By the time they realized that demand was reviving, it was too late: Ramping up production of computer chips requires months.

stock analysts on April 28. The company said the shortages would probably derail half of its production through June.

The automaker least affected by the shortage is Toyota. From the inception of Just In Time, Toyota relied on suppliers clustered close to its base in Japan, making the company less susceptible to events far away.

In Conshohocken, Pa., Mr. Romano is literally waiting for his ship to come in.

He is vice president of sales at Van Horn, Metz & Company, which buys chemicals from suppliers around the world and sells them to factories that make paint, ink and other industrial products.

In normal times, the company is behind in filling perhaps 1 percent of its customers’ orders. On a recent morning, it could not complete a tenth of its orders because it was waiting for supplies to arrive.

The company could not secure enough of a specialized resin that it sells to manufacturers that make construction materials. The American supplier of the resin was itself lacking one element that it purchases from a petrochemical plant in China.

One of Mr. Romano’s regular customers, a paint manufacturer, was holding off on ordering chemicals because it could not locate enough of the metal cans it uses to ship its finished product.

“It all cascades,” Mr. Romano said. “It’s just a mess.”

No pandemic was required to reveal the risks of overreliance on Just In Time combined with global supply chains. Experts have warned about the consequences for decades.

In 1999, an earthquake shook Taiwan, shutting down computer chip manufacturing. The earthquake and tsunami that shattered Japan in 2011 shut down factories and impeded shipping, generating shortages of auto parts and computer chips. Floods in Thailand the same year decimated production of computer hard drives.

Each disaster prompted talk that companies needed to bolster their inventories and diversify their suppliers.

Each time, multinational companies carried on.

The same consultants who promoted the virtues of lean inventories now evangelize about supply chain resilience — the buzzword of the moment.

Simply expanding warehouses may not provide the fix, said Richard Lebovitz, president of LeanDNA, a supply chain consultant based in Austin, Texas. Product lines are increasingly customized.

“The ability to predict what inventory you should keep is harder and harder,” he said.

Ultimately, business is likely to further its embrace of lean for the simple reason that it has yielded profits.

“The real question is, ‘Are we going to stop chasing low cost as the sole criteria for business judgment?’” said Mr. Shih, from Harvard Business School. “I’m skeptical of that. Consumers won’t pay for resilience when they are not in crisis.”

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Republicans Push Biden to Divert Federal Aid for Infrastructure

WASHINGTON — From California to Virginia, many states that faced devastating shortfalls in the depths of the pandemic recession now find themselves flush with tax revenues because of a rebounding economy and a soaring stock market. Lawmakers who worried about budget cuts are now proposing lucrative increases in school spending, tax cuts and direct payments to their residents.

That turnaround is partly the product of strong income tax receipts, particularly in states that heavily tax high earners and the wealthy, whose finances have fared well in the crisis. The unexpectedly rosy picture is raising pressure on President Biden to repurpose hundreds of billions of dollars of federal aid approved this year, in order to help fund a potential bipartisan infrastructure deal.

Last week, Senator Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah, suggested that Mr. Biden and Republican negotiators look to “some of the funding that’s been sent to states already under the last few bills” to help pay for that agreement. “They don’t know how to use it,” Mr. Romney said. “They could use that money to finance part of the infrastructure relating to roads and bridges and transit.”

Some economists and budget experts support that push, arguing that the money could be better spent elsewhere and that states’ spending plans could add to a risk of rapid inflation breaking out across the country. Other researchers and local budget officials say that the federal aid is rescuing harder-hit cities and states, like New York City and Hawaii, from a cascade of layoffs and spending cuts.

$1.9 trillion economic assistance package that Mr. Biden signed in March. They say the aid will help ensure that the economic rebound does not repeat the years of state and local budget cutting that followed the 2008 financial crisis, which slowed the recovery from recession and contributed to millions of Americans waiting years to reap its benefits.

“We still feel strongly that the state and local plan is critical to ensuring we have a strong insurance policy for the type of strong growth we want, the type of equitable recovery the country deserves,” Gene Sperling, a senior adviser to Mr. Biden who oversees fulfillment of the March assistance package, said in an interview, “and to coming back from the 1.3 million jobs lost at the state and local level.”

Even if the administration wanted to recoup or divert the funds, it is unlikely that it could repurpose the money or make significant changes to how it is used without congressional action.

The debate over the state and local funding comes as Mr. Biden navigates a critical week of negotiations with Republicans over infrastructure in search of a deal, and as he prepares to travel to Cleveland on Thursday to speak about the economy. How to pay for any new spending is a primary hurdle in the talks, with Mr. Biden pushing to raise taxes on corporations and Republicans preferring increased user fees like the gas tax.

Repurposing unspent funds could help advance an agreement, particularly given Republican opposition to bankrolling state aid in previous rescue packages. Democrats pushed hard to include lucrative financial assistance for states, cities and tribes in Mr. Biden’s rescue bill. Republicans fought those efforts, warning they would serve as a “bailout” to high-tax, high-spend liberal states. They also cited a series of projections from Wall Street firms and other analysts suggesting that many states’ revenues were faring better than officials had feared in the early months of the pandemic.

do not need more federal money. That is particularly true in states that do not rely primarily on the tourism or hospitality industries for tax revenues. Those with progressive tax systems that have caught surging revenues from investment income enjoyed by wealthy residents — like Silicon Valley moguls — are also faring well.

California officials expect a $15 billion surplus this fiscal year, after fearing a $54 billion shortfall. Virginia has seen nearly $2 billion in unanticipated revenues. As has Oregon, where economists recently upgraded the state’s revenue forecasts — moving it from projected deficits to surplus — in a report that surprised and delighted many lawmakers.

“It’s extremely surprising,” said Mark McMullen, the Oregon state economist.

“Obviously, when the shutdowns first set in and we saw these catastrophic employment losses, we treated them as a normal recession in our forecasts,” he said.

But surging income tax revenues and several rounds of federal assistance have now put the state “above our prepandemic forecasts,” Mr. McMullen added.

The strong revenue figures come as more federal relief money is just beginning to roll out the door. The Treasury Department began sending funds to states this month and has so far distributed more than $100 billion — about half of what is available to be disbursed immediately. Local governments are expected to receive the rest next year, although states still experiencing a sharp rise in unemployment will get a lump sum right away.

as a much lower risk than Mr. Summers does.

Other analysts warn that state budget situations could sour if the stock market dips sharply or economic growth fizzles. Many cities, like New York, have struggled with sluggish tax revenues and still are reliant on federal to help avoid further layoffs.

New York expects to receive more than $22 billion in Covid-19 federal aid, according to the nonpartisan Citizens Budget Commission. Despite the funds, the city is still anticipating budget gaps in the coming years, the result of declining revenues like property taxes.

In retrospect, said Lucy Dadayan, a senior research associate at the Tax Policy Center, the March law should have included “more targeted funding” for the states and cities that need it most.

$8.8 billion from the federal government. Ben Watkins, the director of the Florida Division of Bond Finance, said the state was using the relief money to invest in infrastructure and water quality projects and directing some of its surplus funds to hurricane preparedness.

He described the windfall as staggering.

“It’s a good problem to have,” Mr. Watkins said, “but that doesn’t mean that it’s not excessive.”

States have substantial leeway in how they use the money, though they are prohibited from using the funds to subsidize tax cuts. Several Republican-led states have sued the Treasury Department, arguing that the restriction infringes on state sovereignty.

The lawsuits do not appear to be slowing the delivery of the funds. Ohio failed to win an injunction blocking the restrictions from being enforced this month, and Missouri had its case thrown out of court after a federal judge said the state did not demonstrate that the law caused it harm.

$26 million corporate tax cut last week, and lawmakers have told The Omaha World-Herald that they believe that by keeping the federal funds in a separate account from the state’s general fund, they will be in compliance with the law.

Nicholas Fandos and Dana Goldstein contributed reporting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Existing-Home Sales Declined in April, With a Tight Supply and Record Prices.

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Soaring prices and a shortage of available homes are starting to hold back the blazing U.S. housing market.

Sales of existing homes fell 2.7 percent in April, the National Association of Realtors said Friday. It was the third straight monthly decline after a surge in transactions earlier in the pandemic.

Mortgage rates have crept up since the start of the year, which has likely put a crimp in demand. But the main force holding back sales isn’t a lack of willing buyers. It is a lack of homes for them to buy — especially at prices they can afford.

The median sales price of an existing home was $341,600 in April, up 19.1 percent from a year earlier. Both the price and the increase were record highs. The number of homes on the market rose in April but was down 20.5 percent from a year ago and remained close to a record low.

gone for more than their asking price, up from about a quarter a year ago.

“Even if demand comes down, supply is the issue, and until we see more homes come on the market, that’s going to limit sales,” said Glenn Kelman, Redfin’s chief executive. “When you meet a new buyer you almost say, ‘Good luck.’”

The increase in remote work during the pandemic has led to an increase in demand for homes, particularly outside of city centers. That demand has remained as the economy has begun to reopen, even as millions of millennials are reaching the age when Americans have historically looked to buy homes. But the combination of high prices and limited inventories is making it especially hard for young people to get into the housing market.

“First-time buyers in particular are having trouble securing that first home for a multitude of reasons, including not enough affordable properties, competition with cash buyers and properties leaving the market at such a rapid pace,” Lawrence Yun, chief economist for the National Association of Realtors, said in a statement.

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As Paycheck Protection Program Runs Dry, Desperation Grows

The government’s $788 billion relief effort for small businesses ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic, the Paycheck Protection Program, is ending as it began, with the initiative’s final days mired in chaos and confusion.

Millions of applicants are seeking money from the scant handful of lenders still making the government-backed loans. Hundreds of thousands of people are stuck in limbo, waiting to find out if their approved loans — some of which have been stalled for months because of errors or glitches — will be funded. Lenders are overwhelmed, and borrowers are panicking.

“Some of our lenders have been getting death threats,” said Toby Scammell, the chief executive of Womply, a loan facilitator that has nearly 1.6 million applications awaiting funding. “There’s a lot of angry, scared people who were really counting on this program and are afraid of being shut out.” More funding seems unlikely. Congress twice extended the program in December and March, anteing up nearly $300 billion total in new aid, but there is little indication that it will do so again.

The relief program had been scheduled to keep taking applications until May 31. But two weeks ago, its manager, the Small Business Administration, announced that the program’s $292 billion in financing for forgivable loans this year had nearly run out and that it would immediately stop processing most new applications.

reaching businesses owned by women and minorities, a priority for the Biden administration. But they are not intended to operate on a large scale — and suddenly thousands of desperate borrowers were beating down their door.

“I’m averaging 150 calls a day,” said Brooke Mirenda, the chief executive of the Sunshine State Economic Development Corporation, a Florida lender. “When you’re talking to borrowers who are crying because there’s $8,000 at stake and for them it’s months of their mortgage payment — that’s a really huge deal.”

In something akin to a game of musical chairs, banks and other lenders are now frantically trying to find community financial institutions to take over their backlog of applications. Even though most focus on underserved borrowers, they can process loans for any qualified applicant — but very few have the capacity to do that in large numbers.

contact community financial institutions to determine which ones are lending, but those who have tried said the effort was often fruitless.

Sheri, a photographer in Brooklyn who asked that her last name not be used to protect her privacy, wrote to more than a dozen lenders. Three replied. One was not offering P.P.P. loans, one said she did not meet its qualification rules, and the other requested more information and did not confirm whether or not it could offer her a loan.

Representatives of the Small Business Administration did not directly answer questions about the challenges of finding a willing lender.

“Community-based financial lenders play a key role in generating economic growth and opportunity in some of our most distressed communities,” Patrick Kelley, the head of the agency’s Office of Capital Access, said in a written statement.

“In just over seven days, more than 450 C.F.I.s have processed over 273,000 Paycheck Protection Program applications totaling $4.6 billion, more than 50 percent of the $9 billion remaining one week ago,” he added.

The Paycheck Protection Program has had a rocky road since its inception. Its early days, in April 2020, were plagued by technology problems and confusing rules. Big banks rebuffed many borrowers, and some prioritized bigger and wealthier businesses.

Fraud has been a constant challenge, too, and the Justice Department has charged hundreds of people with taking loans illegally. Many of the tiniest businesses were entirely shut out; a late move by the Biden administration to get more money to solo business owners wreaked havoc for lenders and contributed to the recent deluge of applications.

Now, an additional bottleneck is causing turmoil: Banks and other mainstream lenders are racing to finalize hundreds of thousands of applications that were still in progress when the Small Business Administration closed the program to new applications. Those loans could still be funded, the agency told them, but they would need to move fast.

That set off a panic, with anguished applicants besieging overwhelmed lenders — especially so-called fintechs, a group of online lenders that cranked out P.P.P. loans at a blistering pace. Many took on more customers than they could handle and are now struggling to manage irate borrowers clamoring for help and information.

George Greenfield, the owner of CreativeWell, a small literary agency and speakers’ bureau in Montclair, N.J., applied in March for a loan from Biz2Credit, a fintech lender.

But Mr. Greenfield’s application was complicated — he’s a sole proprietor, but one who, before the pandemic, had part-time employees — and Biz2Credit’s system struggled to accurately calculate his loan amount. The initial amount he was offered was less than a quarter of what he was eligible for.

Mr. Greenfield and his accountant spent more than a month trying to get the mistake fixed, with no success. Emails went unanswered. Online customer service agents could not help. And when the S.B.A. cut off new loans, his problem became urgent: If he abandoned his Biz2Credit application, he feared he would not be able to find a new lender.

“My blood is boiling,” Mr. Greenfield said last week of his stalled application. “This company has no regard for the small-business owners they said they wanted to serve.”

After a New York Times reporter contacted Biz2Credit, a company agent quickly called Mr. Greenfield and untangled his application. Within hours, he had the paperwork to finalize his loan for the correct amount. He was happy with the outcome but infuriated by the process.

Rohit Arora, the chief executive of Biz2Credit, acknowledged that Mr. Greenfield was not alone in his frustration. “We were thrown off guard by the S.B.A. shutdown,” he said. “They’re running a very chaotic program. There hasn’t been much communication.”

Biz2Credit processed more than 182,000 P.P.P. loans this year, but Mr. Arora estimated that he had tens of thousands of stranded applications that his company would be unable to fund. “For the last week, we’ve been slammed,” Mr. Arora said. “The customers have been very angry, very frustrated, very scared. I can understand.”

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Once Tech’s Favorite Economist, Now a Thorn in Its Side

Paul Romer was once Silicon Valley’s favorite economist. The theory that helped him win a Nobel prize — that ideas are the turbocharged fuel of the modern economy — resonated deeply in the global capital of wealth-generating ideas. In the 1990s, Wired magazine called him “an economist for the technological age.” The Wall Street Journal said the tech industry treated him “like a rock star.”

Not anymore.

Today, Mr. Romer, 65, remains a believer in science and technology as engines of progress. But he has also become a fierce critic of the tech industry’s largest companies, saying that they stifle the flow of new ideas. He has championed new state taxes on the digital ads sold by companies like Facebook and Google, an idea that Maryland adopted this year.

And he is hard on economists, including himself, for long supplying the intellectual cover for hands-off policies and court rulings that have led to what he calls the “collapse of competition” in tech and other industries.

“Economists taught, ‘It’s the market. There’s nothing we can do,’” Mr. Romer said. “That’s really just so wrong.”

free-market theory. Monopoly or oligopoly seems to be the order of the day.

The relentless rise of the digital giants, they say, requires new thinking and new rules. Some were members of the tech-friendly Obama administration. In congressional testimony and research reports, they are contributing ideas and credibility to policymakers who want to rein in the big tech companies.

Their policy recommendations vary. They include stronger enforcement, giving people more control over their data and new legislation. Many economists support the bill introduced this year by Senator Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota, that would tighten curbs on mergers. The bill would effectively “overrule a number of faulty, pro-defendant Supreme Court cases,” Carl Shapiro, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, and a member of the Council of Economic Advisers in the Obama administration, wrote in a recent presentation to the American Bar Association.

Some economists, notably Jason Furman, a Harvard professor, chair of the Council of Economic Advisers in the Obama administration and adviser to the British government on digital markets, recommend a new regulatory authority to enforce a code of conduct on big tech companies that would include fair access to their platforms for rivals, open technical standards and data mobility.

his Nobel lecture in 2018 prompted him to think about the “progress gap” in America. Progress, he explained, is not just a matter of economic growth, but should also be seen in measures of individual and social well-being.

Mr. Romer pushed the idea that new cities of the developing world should be a blend of government design for basics like roads and sanitation, and mostly let markets take care of the rest. During a short stint as chief economist of the World Bank, he had hoped to persuade the bank to back a new city, without success.

In the big-tech debate, Mr. Romer notes the influence of progressives like Lina Khan, an antitrust scholar at Columbia Law School and a Democratic nominee to the Federal Trade Commission, who see market power itself as a danger and look at its impact on workers, suppliers and communities.

That social welfare perspective is a wider lens that appeals to Mr. Romer and others.

“I’m totally on board with Paul on this,” said Rebecca Henderson, an economist and professor at the Harvard Business School. “We have a much broader problem than one that falls within the confines of current antitrust law.”

Mr. Romer’s specific contribution is a proposal for a progressive tax on digital ads that would apply mainly to the largest internet companies supported by advertising. Its premise is that social networks like Facebook and Google’s YouTube rely on keeping people on their sites as long as possible by targeting them with attention-grabbing ads and content — a business model that inherently amplifies disinformation, hate speech and polarizing political messages.

So that digital ad revenue, Mr. Romer insists, is fair game for taxation. He would like to see the tax nudge the companies away from targeted ads toward a subscription model. But at the least, he said, it would give governments needed tax revenue.

In February, Maryland became the first state to pass legislation that embodies Mr. Romer’s digital ad tax concept. Other states including Connecticut and Indiana are considering similar proposals. Industry groups have filed a court challenge to the Maryland law asserting it is an illegal overreach by the state.

Mr. Romer says the tax is an economic tool with a political goal.

“I really do think the much bigger issue we’re facing is the preservation of democracy,” he said. “This goes way beyond efficiency.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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