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As Omicron Threat Looms, Inflation Limits Fed’s Room to Maneuver

Jacob Scott

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The Omicron variant of the coronavirus comes at a challenging moment for the Federal Reserve, as officials try to pivot from containing the pandemic’s economic fallout toward addressing worryingly persistent inflation.

The central bank has spent the past two years trying to support a still-incomplete labor market recovery, keeping interest rates at rock bottom and buying trillions of dollars’ worth of government-backed bonds since March 2020. But now that inflation has shot higher, and as price gains increasingly threaten to remain too quick for comfort, its policymakers are having to balance their efforts to support the economy with the need to keep price trends from leaping out of control.

That newfound focus on inflation may limit the central bank’s ability to cushion any blow Omicron might deal to America’s growth and the labor market. And in an unexpected twist, the new variant could even speed up the Fed’s withdrawal of economic support if it intensifies the factors that are causing inflation to run at its fastest pace in 31 years.

“In every one of the previous waves of the virus, the Fed was able to react by effectively focusing on downside risks to growth, and trying to mitigate them,” said Aneta Markowska, chief financial economist at Jefferies. “They’re no longer able to do that, because of inflation.”

The Fed’s attention to price increases, even as a threat to growth looms, is a turning point.

Inflation, and especially measures of it that strip out volatile food and fuel prices, had been slow for years. The Fed has two goals — achieving maximum employment and containing price increases — and quiescent inflation meant it could focus on supporting growth and bolstering the labor market, as it did during the earlier stages of the pandemic. But the sharp rise in prices this year has put the Fed’s two goals in tension as it sets policy.

The Omicron variant is in its infancy, and what it will mean for public health and the economy is unclear. But if it does shut down factories and other businesses and keep workers at home, it could keep supply chains out of whack, spelling more trouble for the Fed.

There is a risk that Omicron “will continue that excess demand in the areas that don’t have capacity and will stall the recovery in the areas where we actually have the capacity,” John C. Williams, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, said in an interview last week.

The Status of U.S. Jobs

The pandemic continues to impact the U.S. economy in a multitude of ways. One key factor to keep an eye on is the job market and how it changes as the economic recovery moves forward.

Janet L. Yellen, the Treasury secretary and a former Fed chair, made similar remarks at an event on Thursday.

“The pandemic could be with us for quite some time and, hopefully, not completely stifling economic activity but affecting our behavior in ways that contribute to inflation,” she said of the new variant.

They made their comments just after Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, signaled greater concern around inflation.

“Generally, the higher prices we’re seeing are related to the supply-and-demand imbalances that can be traced directly back to the pandemic and the reopening of the economy, but it’s also the case that price increases have spread much more broadly in the recent few months,” Mr. Powell said during congressional testimony last week. “I think the risk of higher inflation has increased.”

What to Know About Inflation in the U.S.

Fed officials initially expected a 2021 price pop to fade quickly as supply chains unsnarled and factories worked through backlogs. Instead, inflation has been climbing at its fastest pace in more than three decades, and fresh data set for release on Friday are expected to show that the ascent continued as a broad swath of products — like streaming services, rental housing and food — had higher prices.

Given that, Mr. Powell and his colleagues have pivoted to inflation-fighting mode, trying to ensure that they are poised to respond decisively should price pressures persist.

Mr. Powell said last week that officials would discuss speeding up their plans to taper off their bond-buying program — prompting many economists to expect them to announce a plan after their December meeting that would allow them to stop buying bonds by mid-March. The Fed announced early in November that it would slow purchases from $120 billion a month, making the possible acceleration a notable change.

Ending bond-buying early would put officials in a position to raise their policy interest rate, which is their more traditional and more powerful tool.

A faster taper “could set the stage for a rate hike at the March 15-16 meeting, although this may be too early from a labor market perspective even if the pace of improvement does remain rapid,” Jan Hatzius, chief economist at Goldman Sachs, wrote in a research note on Monday. Because he and his team think March would be premature, they expect an initial rate increase in June, though they say May is “very possible.”

Bond purchases help juice markets and keep money flowing to borrowers, so slowing them makes for less additional support each month. A higher Fed interest rate would matter even more, denting asset prices and making many types of borrowing more expensive, like car loans, mortgages and business credit. By raising borrowing costs, the Fed could cool demand, allowing supplies to catch up and lowering prices over time.

Raising rates earlier would be a trade-off. Unemployment has fallen swiftly, dropping to 4.2 percent in November, but nearly four million people are still missing from the labor market compared with just before the pandemic began. Some have most likely retired, but surveys and anecdotes suggest that many are lingering on the sidelines because they lack adequate child care or are afraid of contracting or passing along the coronavirus.

If the Fed begins to remove its support for the economy, slowing business expansion and hiring, the labor market could rebound more slowly and haltingly when and if those factors fade.

But the balancing act is different from what it was in previous business cycles. The factors keeping employees on the sidelines right now are mostly unrelated to labor demand, the side of the equation that the Fed can influence. Employers appear desperate to hire, and job openings have shot up. People are leaving their jobs at historically high rates, such a trend that job-quitting TikTok videos have become a cultural phenomenon.

In fact, the at-least-temporarily-tight labor market is one reason inflation might last. As they compete for workers and as employees demand more pay to keep up with ballooning consumption costs, companies are raising wages rapidly. The Employment Cost Index, which the Fed watches closely because it is less affected by many of the pandemic-tied problems that have muddied other wage gauges, rose sharply in its latest reading — catching policymakers’ attention.

If companies continue to increase pay, they may raise prices to cover their costs. That could keep inflation high, and anecdotal signs that such a trend is developing have already cropped up in the Fed’s survey of regional business contacts, called the Beige Book.

“Several contacts mentioned that labor costs were already being passed along to consumers with little resistance, while others said plans were underway to do so,” the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta reported in the latest edition, released last week.

Still, some believe that inflation will fade headed into 2022 as the world adjusts to changing shopping patterns or as holiday demand that has run up against constrained supply fades. That could leave the Fed with room to be patient on rate increases, even if it has positioned itself to be nimble.

Lifting rates “before those people come back is a little bit like throwing in the towel,” Ms. Markowska said. “I have a hard time believing that the Fed would throw in the towel that easily.”

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‘Moon Knight’ Took Marvel in a Different Orbit, but It Didn’t Rise to the Occasion

Jacob Scott

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Before anyone writes that off as an anomaly, “Eternals” tackled a similar introduction of a dense mythology on the bigger screen, with equally mixed results. It’s a reminder that while film-goers have had more than a decade to get to know characters like Iron Man, Captain America and Thor, introducing some of these lesser-known heroes can pose a more formidable challenge beyond catering to the most ardent fans.
For Marvel, there are warning signs in that, since “Moon Knight” will be followed by several series based on second-tier characters, although the next two on the horizon, “Ms. Marvel” (which is due in June) and “She-Hulk,” at least have the benefit of sharing franchises and name recognition with existing Avengers.
Ultimately, “Moon Knight’s” murky storytelling appeared to squander its principal assets, which included the cool look of the character — a costume that was too seldom used — and the presence of Isaac, who possesses additional genre credentials via the “Star Wars” sequels.

Taking its time in peeling back the layers of the character’s complicated backstory, “Moon Knight” took a weird plunge into the Egyptian mythology behind it, in ways that became increasingly confounding and surreal.

By the time the protagonist’s two halves, Steven Grant and Marc Spector, wound up in a psychiatric hospital talking to an anthropomorphic hippo in the penultimate chapter, the question wasn’t so much being able to keep up with the story as whether bothering to do so was worth the effort.

The sixth and final episode brought the plot to a messy close, seeking to stop the goddess Ammit from proceeding to “purify the souls of Cairo, and then the world.” In the customary credit sequence, the producers capped that off by introducing a third personality, Jake Lockley, also rooted in the comics. While that seemingly spelled the end for the show’s villain (Ethan Hawke), the finish — giving the god Khonshu the protégé he sought — paved the way for further adventures should Marvel so choose.

That last twist might be cause for celebration in narrower confines of the Marvel fan universe, but “Moon Knight” too often felt like it was one long Easter-egg sequence, conspicuously preaching to that choir.

Granted, Marvel has made clear that Disney+ offers the chance to explore different kinds of stories, but “Moon Knight” feels at best like a quirky showcase for Isaac and at worst a failed experiment in terms of execution and tone.

That doesn’t mean this “Moon” won’t somehow rise again, if the closely held streaming data justifies it. But the promise that surrounded this property has faded, providing further evidence that even Marvel isn’t immune from setbacks as it moves into its next phase.

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Start-up Pony.ai says it’s the first self-driving company to get a taxi license in China

Jacob Scott

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Autonomous driving start-up Pony.ai can collect fares for robotaxi rides in parts of two major Chinese cities as of Sunday.

Pony.ai handout

BEIJING — Self-driving start-up Pony.ai announced Sunday it received a taxi license, the first of its kind in China.

The license allows Pony.ai to operate 100 self-driving cars as traditional taxis in the Nansha district of the southern city of Guangzhou, the company said.

The Chinese start-up, which is backed by Toyota, received approval from Beijing city late last year to charge fees to operate a commercial robotaxi business in a suburban district of the city. It is not the same as a taxi licence.

Baidu’s Apollo Go also received approval in the same Beijing district last year.

Pony.ai was valued at $8.5 billion in early March. The company said its Nansha taxi license required 24 months of autonomous driving testing in China and/or other countries, and no involvement in any active liability traffic accidents, among other factors.

The start-up said it plans to launch commercial robotaxi businesses in two other large Chinese cities next year. The company is already testing self-driving cars in those cities and in California. 

Robotaxis in China currently have a human driver present for safety.

— CNBC’s Arjun Kharpal contributed to this report.

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How to watch Timberwolves vs. Grizzlies: TV channel, NBA live stream info, start time

Jacob Scott

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Who’s Playing

Memphis @ Minnesota

Current Records: Memphis 2-1; Minnesota 1-2

What to Know

The Memphis Grizzlies’ road trip will continue as they head to Target Center at 10 p.m. ET this past Saturday to face off against the Minnesota Timberwolves. Memphis will be strutting in after a win while Minnesota will be stumbling in from a loss.

The Grizzlies are hoping for another victory. They beat the Timberwolves 104-95 this past Thursday. The victory came about thanks to a strong surge after the first quarter to overcome a 39-21 deficit. Memphis’ success was spearheaded by the efforts of power forward Brandon Clarke, who had 20 points in addition to eight rebounds, and shooting guard Desmond Bane, who shot 7-for-15 from beyond the arc and finished with 26 points and six boards.

Barring any buzzer beaters, Memphis is expected to win a tight contest. They might be worth taking a chance on against the spread as they are currently on a two-game streak of ATS wins.

Memphis’ win brought them up to 2-1 while the Timberwolves’ defeat pulled them down to a reciprocal 1-2. A couple offensive stats to keep in the back of your head while watching: The Grizzlies come into the game boasting the second most points per game in the league at 115.6. But Minnesota is even better: they rank first in the league when it comes to points per game, with 115.9 on average. Tune in for what’s sure to be a high-scoring contest.

How To Watch

When: Saturday at 10 p.m. ET Where: Target Center — Minneapolis, Minnesota TV: ESPN Online streaming: fuboTV (Try for free. Regional restrictions may apply.) Follow: CBS Sports App Ticket Cost: $76.96

Odds

The Grizzlies are a slight 2.5-point favorite against the Timberwolves, according to the latest NBA odds.

The oddsmakers had a good feel for the line for this one, as the game opened with the Grizzlies as a 3-point favorite.

Over/Under: -110

See NBA picks for every single game, including this one, from SportsLine’s advanced computer model. Get picks now.

Series History

Memphis have won 19 out of their last 28 games against Minnesota.

Apr 21, 2022 – Memphis 104 vs. Minnesota 95 Apr 19, 2022 – Memphis 124 vs. Minnesota 96 Apr 16, 2022 – Minnesota 130 vs. Memphis 117 Feb 24, 2022 – Minnesota 119 vs. Memphis 114 Jan 13, 2022 – Memphis 116 vs. Minnesota 108 Nov 20, 2021 – Minnesota 138 vs. Memphis 95 Nov 08, 2021 – Memphis 125 vs. Minnesota 118 May 05, 2021 – Memphis 139 vs. Minnesota 135 Apr 02, 2021 – Memphis 120 vs. Minnesota 108 Jan 13, 2021 – Memphis 118 vs. Minnesota 107 Jan 07, 2020 – Memphis 119 vs. Minnesota 112 Dec 01, 2019 – Memphis 115 vs. Minnesota 107 Nov 06, 2019 – Memphis 137 vs. Minnesota 121 Mar 23, 2019 – Minnesota 112 vs. Memphis 99 Feb 05, 2019 – Memphis 108 vs. Minnesota 106 Jan 30, 2019 – Minnesota 99 vs. Memphis 97 Nov 18, 2018 – Memphis 100 vs. Minnesota 87 Apr 09, 2018 – Minnesota 113 vs. Memphis 94 Mar 26, 2018 – Memphis 101 vs. Minnesota 93 Dec 04, 2017 – Memphis 95 vs. Minnesota 92 Feb 04, 2017 – Memphis 107 vs. Minnesota 99 Nov 19, 2016 – Memphis 93 vs. Minnesota 71 Nov 01, 2016 – Minnesota 116 vs. Memphis 80 Oct 26, 2016 – Memphis 102 vs. Minnesota 98 Mar 16, 2016 – Minnesota 114 vs. Memphis 108 Feb 19, 2016 – Memphis 109 vs. Minnesota 104 Jan 23, 2016 – Minnesota 106 vs. Memphis 101 Nov 15, 2015 – Memphis 114 vs. Minnesota 106

Injury Report for Minnesota

No Injury Information

Injury Report for Memphis

Dillon Brooks: Game-Time Decision (Foot) Santi Aldama: Out (Knee) Killian Tillie: Out (Knee)

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