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In an Unequal Economy, the Poor Face Inflation Now and Job Loss Later – The New York Times

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For Theresa Clarke, a retiree in New Canaan, Conn., the rising cost of living means not buying Goldfish crackers for her disabled daughter because a carton costs $11.99 at her local Stop & Shop. It means showering at the YMCA to save on her hot water bill. And it means watching her bank account dwindle to $50 because, as someone on a fixed income who never made much money to start with, there aren’t many other places she can trim her spending as prices rise.

“There is nothing to cut back on,” she said.

Jordan Trevino, 28, who recently took a better paying job in advertising in Los Angeles with a $100,000 salary, is economizing in little ways — ordering a cheaper entree when out to dinner, for example. But he is still planning a wedding next year and a honeymoon in Italy.

And David Schoenfeld, who made about $250,000 in retirement income and consulting fees last year and has about $5 million in savings, hasn’t pared back his spending. He has just returned from a vacation in Greece, with his daughter and two of his grandchildren.

“People in our group are not seeing this as a period of sacrifice,” said Mr. Schoenfeld, who lives in Sharon, Mass., and is a member of a group called Responsible Wealth, a network of rich people focused on inequality that pushes for higher taxes, among other stances. “We notice it’s expensive, but it’s kind of like: I don’t really care.”

Higher-income households built up savings and wealth during the early stages of the pandemic as they stayed at home and their stocks, houses and other assets rose in value. Between those stockpiles and solid wage growth, many have been able to keep spending even as costs climb. But data and anecdotes suggest that lower-income households, despite the resilient job market, are struggling more profoundly with inflation.

That divergence poses a challenge for the Federal Reserve, which is hoping that higher interest rates will slow consumer spending and ease pressure on prices across the economy. Already, there are signs that poorer families are cutting back. If richer families don’t pull back as much — if they keep going on vacations, dining out and buying new cars and second homes — many prices could keep rising. The Fed might need to raise interest rates even more to bring inflation under control, and that could cause a sharper slowdown.

In that case, poorer families will almost certainly bear the brunt again, because low-wage workers are often the first to lose hours and jobs. The bifurcated economy, and the policy decisions that stem from it, could become a double whammy for them, inflicting higher costs today and unemployment tomorrow.

“That’s the perfect storm, if unemployment increases,” said Mark Brown, chief executive of West Houston Assistance Ministries, which provides food, rental assistance and other forms of aid to people in need. “So many folks are so very close to the edge.”

America’s poor have spent part of the savings they amassed during coronavirus lockdowns, and their wages are increasingly struggling to keep up with — or falling behind — price increases. Because such a big chunk of their budgets is devoted to food and housing, lower-income families have less room to cut back before they have to stop buying necessities. Some are taking on credit card debt, cutting back on shopping and restaurant meals, putting off replacing their cars or even buying fewer groceries.

But while lower-income families spend more of each dollar they earn, the rich and middle classes have so much more money that they account for a much bigger share of spending in the overall economy: The top two-fifths of the income distribution account for about 60 percent of spending in the economy, the bottom two-fifths about 22 percent. That means the rich can continue to fuel the economy even as the poor pull back, a potential difficulty for policymakers.

The Federal Reserve has been lifting interest rates rapidly since March to try to slow consumer spending and raise the cost of borrowing for companies, which will in turn lead to fewer business expansions, less hiring and slower wage growth. The goal is to slow the economy enough to lower inflation but not so much that it causes a painful recession.

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Officials at West Houston Assistance Ministries said its food bank served 200 households on Friday.Meridith Kohut for The New York Times

But job growth accelerated unexpectedly in July, with wages climbing rapidly. Consumer spending, adjusted for inflation, has cooled, but Americans continue to open their wallets for vacations, restaurant meals and other services. If solid demand and tight labor market conditions continue, they could help to keep inflation rapid and make it more difficult for the Fed to cool the economy without continuing its string of quick rate increases. That could make widespread layoffs more likely.

“The one, singular worry is the jobs market — if demand is constrained to the point that companies have to start laying off workers, that’s what hits Main Street,” said Nela Richardson, chief economist at the job market data provider ADP. “That’s what hits low-income workers.”

Lower-income people are already hurting. Mr. Brown’s organization has seen more requests for help in recent months, he said, as local families fall behind on their bills. The size of the typical request has gone up, too, from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand. And he has noticed financial pain creeping up the income spectrum.

Mr. Brown’s observations are backed up by government data: About 12 percent of households reported they were struggling to get enough to eat in early July, up from about 10 percent at the beginning of the year, according to the Census Bureau.

Families can’t easily cut back what they spend on rent, gas or electricity as those prices climb, said Brian Greene, chief executive of the Houston Food Bank, which provides food to Mr. Brown’s organization and other charities across the region. So they cut back on food.

“Food insecurity isn’t about food,” Mr. Greene said. “Food insecurity is about income.”

Many poorer families’ incomes held up relatively well early in the pandemic because government aid — expanded unemployment benefits, stimulus checks and other programs — helped offset lost wages when businesses shut down. Then, as the economy reopened, pay soared for restaurant workers, delivery drivers and other low-wage workers.

But pandemic aid programs have ended and wage growth is slowing in many sectors — average hourly earnings in leisure and hospitality, which rose rapidly last year, actually fell in July from a month earlier for rank-and-file workers. Prices have risen so fast that even unusually quick wage growth has failed to keep up.

Travelers at Kennedy International Airport in New York. If richer people keep going on vacations, dining out and buying new cars, many prices could keep rising.
Gus Powell for The New York Times

The gaping divide between the rich and the poor in this inflationary moment is clear in corporate earnings calls. At Boot Barn, a Western wear retailer, sales of men’s Western boots were down in the first quarter, but sales of higher-priced exotic skin boots picked up. At LVMH, which owns luxury brands like Louis Vuitton and Tiffany, American revenues have been growing strongly, while at Walmart, customers are pulling back as they struggle to afford basic necessities, particularly food, which has run up sharply in price.

“This is affecting customers’ ability to spend on general merchandise categories and requiring more markdowns to move through the inventory, particularly apparel,” Walmart said in its July 25 guidance.

It’s not just apparel: Consumers across the economy are buying less milk and fewer eggs, as prices for those products rise significantly, according to an analysis of government figures by Michelle Meyer, chief U.S. economist for Mastercard. Yet they are also going out to eat at restaurants more often.

The fissures are clear in the car market. Demand for new cars, which generally sell to higher-income buyers, has remained strong and prices continue to soar amid supply shortages — putting upward pressure on inflation. But used-car demand is ebbing and prices have begun to depreciate again.

“We see bifurcation in many parts of the economy and the auto market,” Jonathan Smoke, chief economist at Cox Automotive, said in an interview. “The new vehicle buyer has shown much less price sensitivity.”

Housing is another realm where fates have diverged. Home costs have run up sharply since the pandemic and mortgages are now more expensive, making buying unaffordable for many families. Because would-be buyers can’t afford homes, they are renting, keeping apartments for lease in short supply and pushing rents ever higher. Those soaring rents hit lower-income households especially hard: Roughly six in 10 people in the bottom quarter of earners rent their homes.

By contrast, homeowners have both seen their houses rise in value and often enjoy a built-in inflation hedge, since many refinanced their mortgages and locked in low monthly payments when rates were low in 2020 and 2021.

“The haves are really comfortable right now,” said Nicole Bachaud, an economist from Zillow, also noting that “we’re going to see this gap getting wider between people who are homeowners and people who are probably never going to be homeowners.”

Jamie Kelter Davis for The New York Times

Ms. Clarke, the New Canaan retiree, recently got off the wait list for an affordable apartment for herself and her 24-year-old daughter, who has autism and cannot work. Their new unit has just one bedroom, but it is clean and has new appliances, and at about $1,350 a month, she can squeeze it into her budget.

The lease lasts only a year, however, and Ms. Clarke is worried about finding somewhere to live if it isn’t renewed. Even now, she is barely making ends meet: She lost her car keys recently and had to spend nearly $500 replacing them, wiping out nearly all her small rainy-day fund and leaving her one crisis away from financial disaster.

“When you don’t have money, you’re on a fixed income, you’re constantly thinking, ‘Well, maybe I shouldn’t have bought that,’” she said. “There’s no cushion. There really never was.”

More financially secure families also face headwinds, of course, which could eventually prompt them to slow down spending. The cash savings they built up during the pandemic won’t last forever, and rising prices could prompt many households to pull back their spending.

And swooning stock markets could prompt richer families, who tend to have more money invested, to spend less than they otherwise would. Some economists think that the people in this demographic have mostly kept spending recently — despite their falling economic confidence — because they are eager to take vacations that they had put off earlier in the pandemic.

“Where I’m budgeting, it’s to make room for travel,” said Mr. Trevino of Los Angeles. “I feel like I’ve missed out on that a little bit.”

Economists have speculated that richer consumers’ resilience could fade as autumn approaches and they take stock of their finances amid a slowing economy. But for now, the reality that America’s wealthier consumers have yet to sharply pull back in the face of rising prices may be setting up a tough road ahead for the nation’s poorer ones.

“We really, in a way, haven’t noticed the inflation very much,” Mr. Schoenfeld said. “This economy is very unfair.”

Jason Karaian contributed reporting.

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Powell says economy may be entering 'new normal' after pandemic – BNN Bloomberg

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(Bloomberg) — Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell said the US economy may be entering a “new normal” following disruptions from the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We continue to deal with an exceptionally unusual set of disruptions,” Powell told business and community leaders Friday at a Fed Listens event in Washington. “As policy makers we’re committed to using our tools to help see the economy through what has been a uniquely challenging period.”

In his brief welcoming marks, Powell didn’t discuss the outlook for interest rates or offer more specifics on the economic outlook. All seven of the Board’s governors were present for the panel with Philip Jefferson and Lisa Cook making public comments in their roles as Fed officials for the first time.

Fed officials heard a consistent message that shortages and scarcity were still afflicting businesses along with high labor turnover. Speaking about the small- and medium-sized companies they consult with, Cara Walton, for Harbour Results in Southfield, Michigan, said her clients “can’t find people,” and when they do find them, turnover is high.

US central bankers raised their benchmark lending rate by three quarters of a percentage points this week for a third straight time — the most aggressive pace of tightening seen since the Fed battled inflation back in the 1980s.

Powell and his colleagues are moving rapidly to reduce the highest inflation in nearly 40 years after being slow to spot the threat of broadening price pressures. Critics have slammed them for that error, although inflation has also been worsened by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which boosted food and energy prices around the world.

Fed Vice Chair Lael Brainard, speaking later during the event when the panel considered how families are adapting to the post-pandemic economy, noted that price pressures were hitting the most vulnerable particularly hard.

“We have seen high wage growth among the lowest income workers but looking overall, wages haven’t kept up with inflation and inflation is very high,” she said. “If we look at who bares the burden, everybody is affected by high inflation but of course it puts special burdens on lower income families as well as on people with fixed incomes.”

US consumer prices rose 8.3% in the 12 months through August and officials have vowed to cool them even if that means causing harm to the US economy and its workers. 

Officials couch this as an effort to slow excess demand and put the labor market back into “balance” — a euphemism that glosses over the fact many people could lose their jobs in the process. The labor market has so far remained strong, with unemployment at 3.7%, but policy makers this week forecast that would rise to around 4.4% next year as they continue to raise interest rates.

Fed Listens events have been held around the US since 2019 as the central bank sought public input on a review of its approach to monetary policy. That overhaul was completed in 2021 but the Fed has kept them going to maintain public engagement at a time when its actions remain front-page news.

In closing, Powell thanked the panelists for sharing their experiences of the post-pandemic economy.

“We get to spend a lot of time with data, here at the Fed. But I personally would say I need to hear narratives, I need to hear stories, about what’s really going on out there for it all to make sense,” he said. “We all learned a lot from you today.”

(Adds comment from closing remark from Powell in final paragraph.)

©2022 Bloomberg L.P.

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Charting the Global Economy: Fed Headlines Concert of Rate Hikes – BNN Bloomberg

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(Bloomberg) — Sign up for the New Economy Daily newsletter, follow us @economics and subscribe to our podcast.

The Federal Reserve, Bank of England and Sweden’s Riksbank were just a handful of central banks raising interest rates this week, underscoring the drastic tightening cycle underway as inflation grips the global economy.

Switzerland, South Africa also boosted their benchmark rates. Indonesia, Philippines and Vietnam raised borrowing costs as well following the Fed’s decision.

On the other hand, Turkey surprised with another rate cut, despite inflation running at a 24-year high and the lira trading at a record low. Officials in Hungary may deliver at least one more hike before considering ending the steepest monetary tightening cycle in the European Union. 

Here are some of the charts that appeared on Bloomberg this week on the latest developments in the global economy:

World

The Fed headlined a marathon week of interest-rate hikes, which also stretched to central bankers in Taiwan, Sweden and Mongolia. Meanwhile, Brazil and Norway indicated they may take a time-out from their tightening of monetary policy. The Bank of Japan stuck with its ultra-low rates and Governor Haruhiko Kuroda said there’s little prospect of a near-term rate boost.

The price of copper — used in everything from computer chips and toasters to power systems and air conditioners — has fallen by nearly a third since March. Still, some of the largest miners and metals traders are warning that in just a couple of years’ time, a massive shortfall will emerge for the world’s most critical metal.

US

Fed Chair Jerome Powell vowed the US central bank would crush inflation after officials raised interest rates by 75 basis points for a third straight time and signaled even more aggressive hikes ahead than investors had expected.

Sales of previously owned homes fell for the seventh straight month in August as rising mortgage rates continued to erode affordability and deal a considerable blow to the housing market. The string of declines was the longest since the housing market crashed in 2007.

More consumers are saddled with credit-card debts for longer periods of time, according to a survey, struggling to pay down amid high inflation and rising interest rates. Sixty percent of credit-card debtors say they have been in credit-card debt for at least a year, up from 50% a year ago, CreditCards.com said.

Europe

The risk of a euro-area recession has reached its highest level since July 2020 as concerns grow that a winter energy squeeze will cause a slump in economic activity. Economists polled by Bloomberg now put the probability of two straight quarters of contraction at 80% in the next 12 months, up from 60% in a previous survey.

Dockers at Liverpool, Britain’s fourth-biggest container port, voted unanimously to reject their employer’s latest pay offer — and walk off the job for two weeks in a strike that got into full swing on Tuesday. It’s the latest outbreak of the labor unrest that’s sweeping through key choke points of the world economy.

Asia

Singapore looks like an attractive location for firms wanting to exit Hong Kong, but they may find a move to the city-state hits their bottom line more than expected. With inflation soaring to the highest level in 14 years, expenses including the hiring of talent, office space and utilities are rising at a faster pace in Singapore than in its financial rival, where price increases have been more modest. 

South Korea’s early trade data showed exports are only just still growing in September in a sign of fallout from lockdowns in China and a struggling global economy. Headline exports dropped 8.7%, led by a 14% decline in shipments to China.

Emerging Markets

Emerging Asian markets are reaping the rewards of years of building up foreign-exchange reserves as they become a preferred destination for risk investors. Even as the dollar rallied, emerging Asia’s currencies are mostly faring better than traditional havens such as the yen and euro.

Mexico’s inflation remained little changed in early September, giving Banxico minimal room to reduce the pace of interest rate hikes at its meeting next week.

©2022 Bloomberg L.P.

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TSX slumps as oil falls below $80 and economic gloom settles in – CBC News

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Canada’s benchmark stock index dropped heavily on Friday as prospects of a global recession cause investors to sell first and ask questions later.

The S&P/TSX Composite Index was off by more than 520 points or 2.75 per cent to close at 18,480, dragged down by a plunge in the price of oil. That’s the lowest level for the benchmark Canadian stock index since July.

The benchmark price of crude oil in North America lost almost $5 to close at $79.13 a barrel, its lowest price since January. The catalyst for oil’s decline seems to have been central banks signaling this week that they are so committed to reining in inflation that they are willing to create a recession to achieve it.

The U.S. Federal Reserve hiked its benchmark interest rate on Wednesday, and nine other countries around the world followed suit the next day. That will help bring down inflation, but it will likely come at great cost to the economy.

“Clearly what they are saying is they are so determined to bring inflation down that they are going to bring down the economy in the process,” said John Zecher, the founder of Toronto-based money manager J Zechner & Associates. “That’s the way the market is reading it … They aren’t going to stop until the economy turns down.”

Oil price down to lowest since January

A recession would lead to much less demand for energy, which is why oil sold off. About a fifth of the companies on the TSX are in the energy sector, and they were among the biggest losers Friday. Shares in Suncor, Cenovus, MEG Energy and Crescent Point all lost more than eight per cent on the day.

More and more economic indicators are starting to suggest Canada’s economy either already has derailed or is about to. Employment numbers last week showed the economy has lost jobs for three months in a row, and retail sales data on Friday showed that Canadians are putting away their wallets once more.

Stock markets are responding to that gloom, and some analysts think there is a lot more pain to come.

“The lows that we saw recently in the summer months are going to be challenged in the next couple of days to weeks,” said Larry Berman, chief investment officer with Toronto-based money manager QWealth, in an interview.  “The market [isn’t] priced for what the central banks are going to do.”

The Canadian dollar dipped as low as 73.61 cents US, its lowest level in more than two years.

Shares in New York also sold off, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average closing down almost 500 points to 29,590 — its lowest level of the year.

“Over the next couple of weeks, long-term investors may hesitate buying into weakness,” said Edward Moya, an analyst with foreign exchange firm Oanda. “How far we go below the summer lows is anyone’s guess.”

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