MONEY Economy

4 Takeaways from the Fed’s Big Meeting

Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen arrives for a news conference at the Federal Reserve in Washington
Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen Susan Walsh—AP

This afternoon, the Federal Reserve released minutes from its mid-June meeting, providing a slightly more detailed picture of what chair Janet Yellen and her colleagues are thinking about the future of interest rates and monetary policy.

The June meeting itself had been a big shrug: The economy was getting better but not quickly enough to justify raising short-term interest rates; the Fed also said it would continue slowly tapering “quantitative easing,” the massive program of bond buying that’s meant to ease credit and stoke economic growth.

But here are three new things we’ve learned from the minutes.

1) Look for “quantitative easing” to end in October

We already kind of knew this, since the Fed has been reducing its purchases as a steady rate, but the minutes fill in a detail:

Some committee members had been asked by members of the public whether, if tapering in the pace of purchases continues as expected, the final reduction would come in a single $15 billion per month reduction or in a $10 billion reduction followed by a $5 billion reduction. Most participants viewed this as a technical issue with no substantive macroeconomic consequences…

But:

… participants generally agreed … it would be appropriate to complete asset purchases with a $15 billion reduction in the pace of purchases in order to avoid having the small, remaining level of purchases receive undue focus among investors. If the economy progresses about as the Committee expects, warranting reductions in the pace of purchases at each upcoming meeting, this final reduction would occur following the October meeting.

Bear in mind that this just means the Fed will stop buying bonds. It will still own over $4 trillion worth of them.

2) The Fed is divided about how to read inflation data

In a press conference after the meeting, Yellen said that although inflation seemed to be picking up a bit, the numbers were too “noisy” to conclude that inflation would go above the Fed’s 2% target for long.

The minutes of the meeting suggest that the other Fed governors and regional Fed presidents are divided on this. Some are worried that inflation is still far too low, indicating an economy that’s still too slack. And it looks like the recent strong jobs numbers, released after the meeting, which brought unemployment down to 6.1%, won’t change the minds of the inflation doves.

Some participants expressed concern about the persistence of below-trend inflation, and a couple of them suggested that the Committee may need to allow the unemployment rate to move below its longer-run normal level for a time in order keep inflation expectations anchored and return inflation to its 2 percent target, though one participant emphasized the risks of doing so.

But there’s still a vocal hawk team. Although price increases are very low, their main concern is that the Fed won’t be able to react fast enough when the economy turns.

… other participants expressed concern that economic growth over the medium run might be faster than currently expected or that the rate of growth of potential output might be lower than currently expected, calling for a more rapid move to begin raising the federal funds rate in order to avoid significantly overshooting the Committee’s unemployment and inflation objectives.

3) The Fed is worried that it’s being taken for granted.

…participants also discussed whether some recent trends in financial markets might suggest that investors were not appropriately taking account of risks in their investment decisions… [and] not factoring in sufficient uncertainty about the path of the economy and monetary policy.

What’s the problem with that? There’s always concern that easy policy will stoke an asset bubble. But Yellen has said that while she’s keeping this on her radar, it’s not a major concern yet. One good reason to think so: The housing market, the source of the really dangerous bubbles, is hardly frothy.

Despite attractive mortgage rates, housing demand was seen as being damped by such factors as restrictive credit conditions, particularly for households with low credit scores; high down payments; or low demand among younger homebuyers, due in part to the burden of student loan debt.

4) The labor market still looks weaker than it should be.

Although unemployment is down, some participants in the Fed meeting feel that many workers are still struggling to find work—they note that many workers have dropped out of the labor force altogether—and those with jobs still aren’t in a strong position to demand higher wages.

TIME

New Orleans Mayor: Essence Festival ‘Huge Economic Engine’ for the Big Easy

2014 Essence Music Festival - Seminars - Day 2
New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu onstage at the 2014 Essence Music Festival on July 4, 2014 in New Orleans. Paras Griffin—Getty Images

The three-day event generated around $241 million in 2013

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said Friday the Essence Music Festival “may be the most important event the people of this city are involved in.”

“What started off as a small music festival,” Landrieu told TIME, “has now turned into a huge economic engine for this city over a weekend that otherwise wouldn’t have filled up the city.”

Over the past 20 years, big names from Beyoncé to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have drawn massive crowds to the “party with a purpose,” which has become the largest African American music festival in the U.S. Essence is owned by TIME parent company Time Inc.

At a press conference on Friday, Landrieu said the financial impact of the 400,000 people expected to pass through New Orleans over the weekend is “in some instances, incalculable.” Last year, the event brought over a half-million people to the city, generating about $200 million during a weekend that was at one time “dead,” says National Urban League president Marc Morial, who was the city’s mayor when the event first came to town.

“Essence not only gave us something over the Fourth of July weekend, but it gave us something every year,” Morial says. “There’s a lot of local businesses that take advantage of the opportunity to enhance their sales by way of Essence.”

After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, Essence moved the festival to Houston, Texas. The festival’s absence meant the city was left without the people and the money it typically brings in.

“When Essence wasn’t here there was nobody working,” says Murphy Christina, the general manager of Mulate’s Restaurant, a family-owned Cajun restaurant near the festival’s headquarters. The town was so empty that Fourth of July weekend that Christina closed the restaurant. But today, it’s open for business — and business is booming.

“Today, everybody is working,” Christina says. “We’ve got a full house three days in a row.”

Joe Blancheck, general manager of the Marriott hotel across the street from where the event is held, also said the event helps his business.

“All of our hotels sell out pretty far in advance,” Blancheck says. “We have a lot of repeat customers every year.”

MONEY The Economy

Why the Good Jobs Report Isn’t Even Better

140702_JR_GOVERN_1
Bridge Building in the New Deal Era Photo Researchers—Getty Images

These four charts show why today's jobs report could have been that much better— if only public-sector employment would ever bounce back.

Thursday’s jobs report, which showed that the nation’s unemployment rate fell to 6.1%, was viewed in a very positive light.

Not only did more Americans gain employment than expected in June, but wages perked up as well. The White House, in fact, noted that the private sector has added 9.7 million jobs over 52 straight months of job growth.

The key word there is private. Of the 288,000 jobs added in June, 262,000 were private sector positions. That means only 26,000 came from Federal, state and local governments. Which means if you’re a teacher or a Leslie Knope-wannabe, finding work remains less than easy.

In fact, this chart shows how the public sector outlook has deteriorated since the end of the recession in June 2009:

US Government Payrolls Chart

US Government Payrolls data by YCharts

Yet in the aftermath of past recessions, such as the one that ended in 2001, local, state and federal jobs have traditionally been the first to rebound:

US Government Payrolls Chart

US Government Payrolls data by YCharts

Federal employment in particular continues to be weak…

Source: BLS

…The same goes for teaching jobs.

teachers
Source: BLS

Why have teachers had such a rough go of it? Well, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, states are simply spending less on education:

At least 35 states are providing less funding per student for the 2013-14 school year than they did before the recession hit. Fourteen of these states have cut per-student funding by more than 10 percent.

But states are not alone. Ever since the effects of the stimulus have worn off, federal government spending has also hit a wall.

TIME Economy

Unemployment Rate Dips to Lowest Level Since 2008

June job growth beats expectations

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The U.S. economy added almost 288,000 new jobs in June, according to new government data Thursday, handily beating analysts’ expectations and sending the unemployment rate to its lowest level since September of 2008.

The pace of job creation well outpaced projects that the economy would add 215,000 jobs. The unemployment rate dipped from 6.3% to 6.1%, its lowest level since the month Lehman Brothers collapsed and the U.S. economy went into a tailspin.

Stock markets jumped on the news, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average surpassing 17,000 points for the first time ever.

The data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics signaled that the economy was healthily bouncing back from a biting cold winter that hampered growth, and relieved economy watchers who had been alarmed by an economic contraction in the first quarter. The numbers will also sure come as a relief to Democrats who have been fearful that a still-sluggish economy will hurt them against Republicans in the midterm elections. June marked the fifth consecutive month of job gains exceeding 200,000, the best clip since the tech boom of the late 1990s, the Associated Press reports.

Job growth figures for May were also revised upward. BLS described the job gains as “widespread,” powered by growth in “business services, retail trade, food services and drinking places, and health care.”

Signs that the economic recovery remains tepid still persist. While the longterm unemployed, defined as those jobless for 27 weeks or more, dropped by 293,000, 3.1 million Americans remains in that category.

But with exports hitting a record high and imports falling, the trade deficit fell 5.6%, to $44.4 billion.

TIME Economy

U.S. Job Creation at 6-Year High, Poll Says

Office Work Station
John Lamb—Getty Images

On par with May levels

The percentage of Americans who say their employers are hiring remains at a six-year high, according to a new poll, in another positive economic indicator following a sluggish winter.

The Gallup survey out Wednesday found that 40% of employed Americans said their workplace was hiring, while 41% reported no staffing changes and just 13% said their employer was letting workers go. U.S. workers have reported increased hiring at their workplaces for five months.

The poll of more than 16,000 Americans put Gallup’s Job Creation Index—a measure of net hiring activity in the U.S.—at +27, matching May’s index as the top score in more than six years. The index does not measure the actual number of jobs created, but rather reflects the percentage of employers who are hiring.

Another survey by the payroll processor ADP showed that private employers in the U.S. added 281,000 jobs in June, up from 179,000 added in May.

TIME Obama

Obama Threatens to Go It Alone if Congress Doesn’t Help Fix Highways

Obama-Infrastructure
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks on the economy in Georgetown Waterfront Park on July 1, 2014 in Washington. Mandel Ngan—AFP/Getty Images

Obama threatens to continue acting without Congress if they don't fix the Highway Trust

President Barack Obama’s speech Tuesday was intended to call Congress to action on replenishing a fund for state and federal highway projects. Instead, it turned into a political rant against House Republicans, with Obama saying he’ll proceed without Congress’ help if need be.

The Highway Trust Fund is due to run out in 58 days, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers, putting 877,000 jobs and $28 billion in U.S. exports at risk. The fund is rapidly depleting due to declining gas tax revenues, a problem Obama wants to fix by eliminating corporate tax breaks. House Republicans, however, have balked at his plan.

“House Republicans have refused to act on this idea,” said Obama. “I haven’t heard a good reason why they haven’t acted, it’s not like they’ve been busy with other stuff.

“No, seriously. They’re not doing anything. Why don’t they do this?,” Obama added, before arguing that the U.S. spends a smaller portion of its economy on infrastructure than “just about every other advanced country.”

House Republicans, meanwhile, want to keep the highway fund rolling by ending Saturday U.S. Postal Service deliveries or enacting more stringent state online sales taxes. But in Tuesday’s speech, Obama was clearly frustrated by Congress’ inaction and with the increasing partisanship of the issue — House Republicans last month said they plan to sue Obama for what they argue has been the President’s abuse of executive actions, which allow the executive branch to take certain actions without approval from the legislature.

“It’s not crazy; it’s not socialism. It’s not the imperial presidency. No laws are broken, it’s just building roads and bridges like we’ve been doing,” the President said, adding that if House Speaker Boehner (R-OH) and his party won’t cooperate, he will continue to act independently.

“Middle class families can’t wait for a Republican Congress to do stuff,” Obama said. “So sue me. As long as they’re doing nothing, I’m not going to apologize for trying to do something.”

TIME Economy

Millennial-Driven Housing Boom Could Be On The Way

A new study says as the economy improves many millennials could soon be leaving home — causing a housing boom within the next decade.

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Young adults, so-called “millennials,” have been pushed by the recession to live with their parents into adulthood–but they really want to move out, according to a study by Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. That study found that millennials could form 24 million new households by 2025.

Three main factors have been holding millennials back from moving out, said the Harvard study: A weak job market for recent graduates, high debt from student loans and tightened lending standards.

The report also found that the number of young people who buy homes increases as their incomes grow. As and the economy improves, millennials–which the study defined as those born between the years of 1985 and 2004–will make decisions about their living arrangements that will, by extension, affect the economy.

But don’t foresee a mass exodus from parents’ homes, the authors said. Millennials will probably just trickle out of their parents’ nest in what would look like a steady, slow recovery.

 

 

TIME

Unemployed and in Debt, Young Americans Ask Congress for Help

Five years after the end of the Great Recession, America's young adults are still facing economic challenges.

For many millennials, the future looks bleak. “We don’t just face dreams that are deferred, we face dreams that are destroyed,” Emma Kallaway, executive director of the Oregon Student Association, told the Senate Subcommittee on Economic Policy Wednesday. But if they were hoping for answers from Congress, Kallaway and other young adults across America facing frustrations with student loan debt and the sluggish job market will have to wait.

Senate Democrats convened the subcommittee hearing entitled “Dreams Deferred: Young Workers and Recent Graduates in the U.S. Economy” to highlight youth unemployment and heavy student loan debt after Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-MA) student loan bill stalled in the Senate earlier this month. Warren’s bill would have allowed an estimated 25 million people with long-existing student loan debt to refinance at lower interest rates.

Just 63.4% of youth aged 18-29 are employed, Keith Hall, senior research fellow at George Mason University, reported in his testimony. The unemployment rate of workers under the age of 25 is 13.2%, more than twice the overall rate of unemployment.

As joblessness remains high, the cost of college continues to rise, compounding already hard-to-manage debt levels for many young Americans. Student debt in the U.S. now tops $1.2 trillion, according to Rory O’Sullivan, deputy director of the non-profit group Young Invincibles.

“It sounds like perfect storm in a way,” said subcommittee chair Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) of the snowball effects of the Great Recession on young adults.

Youth unemployment also affects overall spending in the broader economy because young adults cannot afford to move out of their parents’ house, buy big items like cars and homes, and get married. Taxpayers bear some of that burden. Youth unemployment deprives the federal government of over $4,100 in potential income taxes and Federal Insurance Contributions Act taxes per 18-24 year old every year, and almost $9,900 per 25-34 year old, according to a recent study by Young Invincibles. That translates into an additional $170 of entitlement costs per taxpayer in the federal budget.

If the problem is clear, the solution is not. Witnesses at the hearing variously suggested state disinvestment in higher education, simplifying the federal aid application and repayment process, offering relief for existing borrowers, and holding institutions more accountable for providing affordable, quality credentials to graduating students.

Merkley asked the panel for their opinions on the merits of the “Pay It Forward” Guaranteed College Affordability Act, which would allow students to go to college without paying up front. Instead, students sign a contract to join an income-based repayment plan for a designated period of time after graduation. Several states are considering versions of the grant plan; Oregon signed one into law in 2013.

Although Kallaway and O’Sullivan said the plan would possibly circumvent the debt-to-income trap, both agreed it was not a long term fix. Kallaway believes the solution is to tackle the problem at the root, in high education costs, and not at the repayment level. “More affordable education upfront is what’s right,” Kallaway said. “Federal student loans should not be a form of income for the government.”

Hall believes that student debt and rising tuition are just symptoms of a larger disease. High unemployment numbers aren’t just an issue for young adults, he pointed out. The problem, he said, is a poorly functioning economy. “Until you solve this labor market problem […] this problem is not going away,” he said. “You’re going to have these continuing symptoms.”

TIME energy

U.S. Oil Could Rescue Iraq

A satellite image shows smoke rising from the Baiji refinery near Tikrit, Iraq, June 18.
A satellite image shows smoke rising from the Baiji refinery near Tikrit, Iraq, June 18. U.S. Geological Survey/Reuters

If civil war engulfs all of Iraq, oil prices are likely to skyrocket. But U.S. exports could change the game

Even though the conflict in Iraq still rages, with forces from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) just an hour outside of Baghdad while the Syrian military is reportedly bombing the insurgents, global oil markets have mostly calmed. Prices for Brent crude on June 26 had fallen below $114 a barrel, and have dropped more than 1% since hitting a nine-month high on June 19. The violence in Iraq’s north and west—including fighting around the country’s largest refinery in Baiji—hasn’t yet seriously affected oil production in the Shiite dominated south. Iraq’s Oil Minister Abdul Kareem al-Luaibi even promised in an interview with Bloomberg that the nation’s oil exports—which have averaged more than 2.5 million barrels a day—will actually accelerate next month. “Oil exports will witness a big increase, as recent events didn’t reflect negatively on Iraq’s crude output and exports,” al-Luaibi said. “International oil companies are working normally in Iraq.”

That doesn’t seem to be quite true, though—international oil majors like BP and ExxonMobil have already evacuated some of their foreign workers from Iraq. And if things do get worse, oil markets might not react so calmly. A recent report from the nonprofit Securing America’s Future Energy found that the loss of just a third of Iraq’s oil output could be enough to push global oil prices up as much as $40 per barrel. Even if production from Iraq stays steady, political turmoil in countries like Libya and Nigeria have helped remove some 3.5 million barrels a day of oil production capacity. That doesn’t leave much room for more trouble in Iraq, the world’s third-largest exporter of crude oil. And with Iraq projected to be the biggest single contributor to new oil production over the coming decades—at least before the ISIS insurgency revved up—what happens in the country will matter at the pumps for a very long time.

But it’s not so easy to predict the future of energy and oil. Case in point: the fracking revolution in the U.S., which has unlocked vast amounts of previously inaccessible crude, and which few experts saw coming. Between 2008 and 2013, U.S. oil production increased by 2.4 million barrels a day, to more than 7.4 million. And the growth hasn’t stopped—production hit 8.3 million barrels a day in April. Most of the new global oil production brought online over the past few years has come from the U.S. While the U.S. doesn’t export raw crude—aside from a few small exceptions, U.S. oil exports have been banned since 1975—more oil at home means fewer imports, which in turns leaves more oil on the global market for everyone else. Take away the fracking revolution, and global oil markets wouldn’t have been able to so easily shrug off the violence in Iraq.

In the years to come, the U.S. could play an even bigger role. As the Wall Street Journal and Reuters reported earlier this week, the Obama Administration has begun taking steps towards allowing U.S. crude exports. If that wording sounds confusing, well, it is. What seems to be happening is that the U.S. Commerce Department will allow a pair of oil companies to begin exporting what is known as ultra-light condensate to international markets, with only minimal refining. (The U.S. has long allowed exports of refined oil products.) That doesn’t mean U.S. oil companies can begin exporting all the crude they want; in fact, both Commerce and the White House, reflecting the political sensitivities around allowing domestic exports at a time when gasoline costs an average of $3.68 a gallon, have insisted that there has been “no change in policy on crude oil exports.”

But with domestic oil production approaching the capacity of U.S. refineries—and the oil industry putting all its considerable pressure on the government—it seems likely that U.S. oil will eventually be sold abroad. What effect that will have domestically is uncertain. A recent report by Goldman Sachs found that the ban on exports was a net economic positive for the U.S., at least until domestic refineries could no longer handle growing production of oil. But it seems clear that lifting or at least modifying the ban would likely lead to more production, as oil companies wouldn’t have to worry about their product being landlocked in the U.S. A report by the research firm IHS found that lifting the ban would lead to more than $700 billion in additional investment in oil extraction between 2016 and 2030, and would increase oil production by an average of 1.2 million barrels a day. And given that global crude demand is expected to rise by about that much over the next several years, that oil could be very useful indeed—especially if today’s fighting in Iraq is only the beginning.

TIME Business

Coalition of the Unwilling

The far right and far left increasingly agree (to hate) Wall Street, tax rates and trade

Election results always have business impacts. But rarely are they as stark as the drop in Boeing stock that followed the defeat of Republican House majority leader Eric Cantor in the Virginia primary on June 10. Cantor, an ally of Big Business in Congress, was defeated by David Brat, an economics professor who has been called the Tea Party’s Elizabeth Warren, an outsider pledging to make capitalism fairer for the little guy. He’s also a proponent of cutting federal subsidies to firms like Boeing–hence the one-day stock drop that wiped out its gains for the year–as well as ending “special tax credits to billionaires.”

What Brat’s victory really highlights is a quirk in our politics that is bringing the far right and far left into a series of unexpected alignments. In addition to being anti-Establishment, Brat’s speeches are often anti-immigration and antiglobalization. But when it comes to such economic-policy issues as taxes, free trade and corporate welfare, a lot of Democrats are, more or less, in agreement with him. (Brat’s office did not respond to interview requests.)

Brat, along with many members of the Tea Party and plenty of people on the far left, would like to see some bankers thrown into jail for their role in the financial crisis. These critics argue that corporations benefit unfairly from government subsidies. (Cantor was a booster of the Export-Import Bank, which Boeing’s foreign customers can tap for U.S. taxpayer–subsidized loans.) They believe the rules of free trade are no longer working when China and others can flout them without consequence. And they’d like to see a tax code that doesn’t explicitly favor the superrich.

To be sure, the philosophical underpinnings of Brat and Warren are vastly different. Populists on the left are against measures like fast-track authority for President Obama–which would allow him to bypass Congress when negotiating trade deals–on policy grounds. They believe that such deals in the past sped the offshoring of America’s industrial base, which ultimately erodes our economic competitiveness. Some on both sides of the aisle argue that trade agreements that used to be about tariffs and quotas increasingly focus on domestic issues such as taxes, financial-services regulation, patents and food- and product-safety rules. Says Michael Stumo, who runs the Coalition for a Prosperous America, an advocacy group that represents agriculture and manufacturing businesses across the U.S.: “Modern trade deals are more about globalizing domestic policy and offshoring our jobs, our industries and our governance.”

On the right, members of the Tea Party are skeptical of free-trade deals because they see them as threats to national sovereignty. As Representatives Michele Bachmann and Walter Jones and a number of other conservatives in Congress put it to President Obama in a letter opposing fast track, “For 200 years of our nation’s history, Congress has led our nation’s trade policy,” and conservatives aren’t interested in giving up that privilege.

These aren’t extreme positions. A recent Gallup poll found that 38% of Americans see foreign trade as a “threat to the economy.” A majority of Americans also support tax reform, in particular higher taxes for the wealthy. Part of the momentum around that issue is, of course, driven by an American economy in which the rich have gotten ever richer since the financial crisis while everyone else has struggled. That’s another topic that the flanks in both parties largely agree on–the people who caused the pain of the past six years still haven’t paid for it. “Those guys [meaning financiers] should have gone to jail,” said Brat in the run-up to the Virginia primary. “Instead of going to jail, they went into Eric Cantor’s Rolodex.”

What could this unlikely alliance mean in political terms? Not much in the short term. In some ways, the coalition of Occupy Democrats and Tea Party Republicans is a Coalition of No. Bipartisan opposition has so far stalled fast-track authority for the President’s trans-Pacific trade deal. Coming up with a new trade agenda that could actually reshape policy is a (slow) work in progress. Republican Dave Camp’s tax-reform plan, reflecting popular anger over plutocrats, includes higher rates for hedge funders and private-equity titans, but it faces long to impossible odds against Big Business lobbyists and their lackeys on both sides of the aisle. Still, the Coalition of No is just getting started. If this year’s midterm elections put more Tea Party Republicans in office, it could increase the number of legislators, like Brat, who have something in common with the left: an anticorporate bias. That, in turn, would make for a very different 2016 presidential election than anybody currently imagines.

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