U.S. labor market healing despite unexpected rise in weekly jobless claims

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits increased last week for the first time in 1-1/2 months, but layoffs are easing amid a reopening economy and a shortage of people willing to work.

While other data on Thursday showed factory activity in the mid-Atlantic region continuing to grow at a steady pace in June, a measure of future production surged to its highest level in nearly 30 years. Factories in the region that covers eastern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey and Delaware also reported stepping up hiring, which bodes well for job growth this month.

The scarcity of labor is a hurdle to faster employment growth. The Federal Reserve on Wednesday held its benchmark short-term interest rate near zero and said it would continue to inject money into the economy through monthly bond purchases. The U.S. central bank brought forward its projections for the first post-pandemic interest rate hikes into 2023 from 2024.

“We continue to see labor market progress, but as has been the case through the pandemic, the situation remains fluid,” said AnnElizabeth Konkel, an economist at Indeed Hiring Lab. “We are in a wildly different place than we were in June 2020, but we have not crossed the finish line just yet.”

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits rose 37,000 to a seasonally adjusted 412,000 for the week ended June 12, the Labor Department said. That was the first increase since late April. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast 359,000 applications for the latest week.

The increase in claims was led by California, Kentucky and Pennsylvania. The four-week moving average of claims, considered a better measure of labor market trends as it irons out week-to-week volatility, fell 8,000 to 395,000.

The economy, ironically, is facing a labor crunch despite employment remaining 7.6 million jobs below its peak in February 2020. A shortage of childcare facilities is keeping some parents, mostly women, at home.

Generous government-funded unemployment benefits, including a $300 weekly check, have also been blamed, as well as a reluctance by some to return to work out of fear of contracting COVID-19 even though vaccines are widely accessible.

Pandemic-related retirements and transitions into new careers are also factors.

Fed Chair Jerome Powell told reporters on Wednesday he was “confident that we are on a path to a very strong labor market, a labor market that shows low unemployment, high participation, rising wages for people across the spectrum.”

The White House also struck an optimistic note on the labor market, with senior economic adviser Jared Bernstein saying: “I saw a labor market that continues to improve, continues to grow as shots in arms and checks in pockets have helped pull this recovery forward.”

Iowa, Mississippi and Missouri terminated all federal government-funded emergency benefits last Saturday, while Alaska ended only the $300 supplement. Twenty-one other states also led by Republican governors, including Texas and Florida, will end these benefits for residents between June 19 and July 10.

Louisiana is ending the weekly supplementary check on July 31, the only state with a Democratic governor to terminate the federal benefits. For the rest of the country, they will lapse on Sept. 6.

Iowa reported an increase in claims for the regular state unemployment insurance program last week, while Alaska, Mississippi and Missouri saw declines. Only Alaska reported a decrease in claims for the government-funded Pandemic Unemployment Assistance.

Economists are watching the 26 states to see if their actions will boost employment or labor force participation over the summer, which could offer clues on labor market trends for the rest of the year when all government aid lapses.

There are a record 9.3 million job openings, while 9.3 million people are officially unemployed.

“We also could see added noise in the claims report if people end up trying to shuffle between programs or re-determine eligibility,” said Daniel Silver, an economist at JPMorgan in New York.

Stocks on Wall Street were mixed while the dollar rose against a basket of currencies. Longer-dated U.S. Treasury prices were trading higher.

STRONG FACTORY HIRING

In a separate report on Thursday, the Philadelphia Fed said its business conditions index dipped to a reading of 30.7 this month from 31.5 in May. But its measure of activity over the next six months surged to 69.2, the highest level since 1991, from 52.7 last month.

The survey’s gauge of factory employment in the mid-Atlantic region surged to 30.7 from a reading of 19.3 May. Factories also anticipated hiring more workers over the next six months, which offers further support to the labor market. Many, however, reported that labor shortages and supply chain bottlenecks were constraining their ability to fully use their resources.

Though layoffs are easing, initial claims remain well above the 200,000-250,000 range that is viewed as consistent with healthy labor market conditions. Claims have, however, dropped from a record 6.149 million in early April 2020.

Last week’s claims data included the period during which the government surveyed business establishments for the nonfarm payrolls component of June’s employment report. The economy created 559,000 jobs in May after adding 278,000 in April.

To get a better picture of how hiring fared in June, economists will await data next week on the number of people continuing to receive benefits after an initial week of aid.

The so-called continuing claims, which are reported with a one-week lag, edged up 1,000 to 3.518 million in the week ended June 5. There were 14.8 million people collecting unemployment checks under all programs at the end of May.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Additional reporting by Evan Sully and Trevor Hunnicutt; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Andrea Ricci and Paul Simao)

U.S. manufacturing sector picks up in May; work backlogs rising

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. manufacturing activity picked up in May as pent-up demand amid a reopening economy boosted orders, but unfinished work piled up because of shortages of raw materials and labor.

The Institute for Supply Management (ISM) said on Tuesday its index of national factory activity increased to a reading of 61.2 last month from 60.7 in April.

A reading above 50 indicates expansion in manufacturing, which accounts for 11.9% of the U.S. economy. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast the index rising to 60.9 in May.

A shift in demand to goods from services as the COVID-19 pandemic kept Americans at home, strained supply chains, with the virus also disrupting labor at manufacturers and their suppliers, leading to raw material shortages across industries.

More than half of adults in the United States are now fully vaccinated against COVID-19, allowing authorities to lift pandemic-related restrictions on businesses. That is whipping up demand across the economy, as is massive fiscal stimulus. There is no sign the supply bottlenecks are easing, even as demand is reverting back to services.

The survey’s forward-looking new orders sub-index jumped to 67.0 from a reading of 64.3 in April. Inventories at factories are barely growing and business warehouses are almost bare.

But production is being constrained by worker shortages. A measure of factory employment dropped to a six-month low in May. Labor is scarce despite nearly 10 million Americans being officially unemployed.

Generous unemployment benefits funded by the government, problems with child care and fears of contracting the virus, even with vaccines widely accessible, as well as pandemic-related retirements have been blamed for keeping workers home.

Lack of workers and shortages of raw materials such as semiconductors used in the production of motor vehicles and electronic goods led to a further increase in backlogs of uncompleted work.

The shortages are also keeping input prices elevated. The ISM survey’s measure of prices paid by manufacturers hovered near levels last seen in July 2008, when the economy was in the throes of the Great Recession.

The higher prices are fanning inflation pressures. The government reported on Friday that a measure of underlying inflation tracked by the Federal Reserve for its 2% target accelerated 3.1% on a year-on-year basis in April, the biggest increase since July 1992.

Most economists and Fed Chair Jerome Powell maintain that higher inflation will be transitory.

The slowdown in hiring at factories last month could temper expectations for an acceleration in job growth in May after nonfarm payrolls increased by only 266,000 in April.

According to an early Reuters survey of economists, payrolls likely increased by 700,000 jobs in May. The government is due to publish May’s employment report on Friday.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

Factbox: Latest on the worldwide spread of the coronavirus

(Reuters) – The head of the World Health Organization has called for launching negotiations this year on an international treaty to boost pandemic preparedness, as part of sweeping reforms envisioned by member states.

EUROPE

* Germany’s Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for infectious disease is to reduce the coronavirus risk level for the country to “high” from “very high” as the situation improves, Health Minister Jens Spahn said.

* Spain is considering easing rules on wearing face masks outdoors, as early as in mid-June.

AMERICAS

* With half the country at least partially protected against the coronavirus, Americans escaped their pandemic doldrums over the Memorial Day holiday weekend.

ASIA-PACIFIC

* South Korea closed its first phase of reservations for Johnson and Johnson vaccines as military personnel signed up for all 800,000 shots on offer, the government said.

* A shipment of coronavirus vaccines to North Korea via the global COVAX sharing program that was expected for late May has been delayed again amid protracted consultations, South Korea’s Unification Ministry said.

* Australia’s Victoria state authorities said it was still unclear whether a snap one-week lockdown to contain a fresh COVID-19 outbreak would end as planned on Thursday night, as the state grapples with a growing virus outbreak.

* Japan plans to start vaccination at workplaces and universities on June 21 to speed up the country’s inoculation drive.

MIDDLE EAST AND AFRICA

* Dubai, the second-largest member of the United Arab Emirates federation, has started offering the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to 12-15 year old’s, the government media office said on Twitter.

* Turkey further eased measures including partially lifting a weekend lockdown and opening restaurants to a limited number of guests.

MEDICAL DEVELOPMENTS

* A Wuhan-based affiliate of China’s Sinopharm said the start of operations at a new factory will raise the annual production capacity of its COVID-19 vaccine to at least 1 billion doses.

* A deal on an intellectual property waiver for COVID-19 vaccines at the World Trade Organization was no closer to acceptance on Monday despite Washington’s backing, due to expected skepticism about a new draft, sources close to the talks told Reuters.

ECONOMIC IMPACT

* Global stocks again hit record highs and oil rose on Tuesday, before European and U.S. data that should this week offer major clues to the health of the world economy.

* Euro zone manufacturing activity expanded at a record pace in May, according to a survey which suggested growth would have been even faster without supply bottlenecks that have led to an unprecedented rise in input costs.

* Ireland will begin to gradually phase out temporary coronavirus-related jobless payments later this year while maintaining other income and business supports as the economy fully reopens, Public Expenditure Minister Michael McGrath said.

* Turkish factory activity shrank in May for the first time in a year as output and new orders slowed down due to a 17-day full lockdown imposed to curb a surge in new coronavirus cases, a survey showed.

(Compiled by Jagoda Darlak and Ramakrishnan M.; Editing by William Maclean)

G7 criticizes nations who undermine global trade in rallying cry for reform

By William James

LONDON (Reuters) -Trade ministers from the Group of Seven (G7) wealthy nations criticized countries who undermine the global trading system and called for democratic states to rally behind reforms of the international trade rulebook.

Following a virtual meeting, the G7 members said they were concerned about “increased use of non-market policies and practices” and took aim at those who use heavy subsidies, mask the state’s involvement in the economy, and steal technology.

“These distort competition and reduce fairness and trust in the system,” they said in a communique issued by Britain, which holds the rotating presidency of the G7 this year.

“Fundamentally, we note that they are a threat to the integrity and sustainability of the rules-based multilateral trading system.”

The communique did not refer to China directly, but members like Britain have accused Beijing of undermining the system by using all the policies mentioned.

China, a World Trade Organization member since 2001, has denied criticism that it steals intellectual property, unfairly hurts the environment or improperly trades goods made with forced labor.

In another indirect reference to China, the communique also called on countries which use World Trade Organization rules designed for developing economies to their advantage, and called for the rules to be changed to prevent that.

Britain and other WTO members have previously argued that China benefits from exceptions to the rules which were made decades ago and no longer reflect its status as an economic superpower.

“We call on advanced WTO Members claiming developing country status to undertake full commitments in ongoing and future WTO negotiations,” the communique said.

The group held “frank and constructive” discussions regarding reform of the WTO dispute resolution system – parts of which were paralyzed in recent years by former U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration.

They said those discussion would continue at a further meeting in October, and more broadly expressed support for WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s efforts to reform the organization.

(Reporting by William James; Editing by Hugh Lawson, Toby Chopra and Nick Macfie)

U.S. labor costs accelerate in the first quarter

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. labor costs increased more than expected in the first quarter as wage growth picked up, further evidence that inflation will push higher this year as the economy reopens.

The Employment Cost Index, the broadest measure of labor costs, jumped 0.9% last quarter after gaining 0.7% in the October-December quarter. That lifted the year-on-year rate of increase to 2.6% from 2.5% in the fourth quarter.

The ECI is widely viewed by policymakers and economists as one of the better measures of labor market slack and a predictor of core inflation as it adjusts for composition and job quality changes. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast the ECI rising 0.7% in the first quarter.

Wages and salaries shot up 1.0% after advancing 0.8% in the fourth quarter. They were up 2.7% year-on-year. Economists expect wages will increase further in the second quarter as companies compete for scarce workers.

Despite employment being 8.4 million jobs below its peak in February 2020, businesses are struggling to find suitable workers as they rush to meet robust domestic demand.

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell on Wednesday acknowledged the worker shortage saying “one big factor would be schools aren’t open yet, so there’s still people who are at home taking care of their children, and would like to be back in the workforce, but can’t be yet.”

Higher wages, if the worker scarcity persists, could contribute to boosting inflation this year, though many economists and Powell believe the anticipated surge in price pressures as the broader economy reopens will be transitory.

(Reporting By Lucia Mutikani)

Fiscal stimulus powers U.S. economic growth in first quarter

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. economic growth accelerated in the first quarter as the government gave money to mostly lower-income households, fueling consumer spending and setting the course for what is expected to be the strongest performance this year in nearly four decades.

The government largesse also extended to businesses, especially in the high-contact services industry. The massive fiscal stimulus and easing anxiety over COVID-19, with all adult Americans now eligible for vaccination against the virus, have resulted in a faster economic rebound in the United States compared to its global rivals.

The second-fastest gross domestic product growth since the third quarter of 2003, reported by the Commerce Department on Thursday, left output just 0.9% shy of its level at the end of 2019. Economists expect a full recovery from the pandemic recession, which started in February 2020, in late 2023.

The report is a boost for President Joe Biden as he celebrated 100 days in the White House.

“In early 2021, the economy was served a strong cocktail of improving health conditions and rapid vaccinations along with a fizzy dose of fiscal stimulus and a steady flow of monetary policy support,” said Lydia Boussour, lead U.S. economist at Oxford Economics in New York. “Looking ahead, we foresee the economy’s spring bloom turning into a summer boom.”

GDP increased at a 6.4% annualized rate last quarter, the government said in its advance estimate for the first three months of the year. That followed a 4.3% growth rate in the fourth quarter. It was the biggest first-quarter increase in growth since 1984.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast GDP growth would increase at a 6.1% pace in the January-March period.

Income at the disposal of households before accounting for inflation surged by a whopping $2.36 trillion after decreasing $402.1 billion in the fourth quarter. As result, consumer spending jumped at a 10.7% rate, boosted by purchases of motor vehicles, furniture, recreational goods and electronics. Consumers also dined out, stayed at hotels and gambled.

Consumer spending, which accounts for more than two-thirds of U.S. economic activity, grew at a 2.3% pace in the fourth quarter. Some of the stimulus money was stashed away, with savings ballooning to $4.12 trillion from $2.25 trillion in the fourth quarter. Economists estimate households have accumulated at least $2 trillion in excess savings during the pandemic.

The government has provided nearly $6 trillion in COVID-19 relief over the past year. Robust demand in the first quarter pushed against supply constraints, leading businesses to draw down inventories, limiting the rise in GDP growth.

Excluding inventories, government and trade, the economy grew at a 10.6% rate last quarter.

The rapidly accelerating growth could revive fears about the economy overheating. The Federal Reserve on Wednesday acknowledged the burgeoning domestic activity, but the U.S. central bank gave no sign it was ready to reduce its extraordinary support for the recovery.

The booming economy could also erode support among moderate Democrats for Biden’s ambitious economic agenda. Biden on Wednesday unveiled a sweeping $1.8 trillion package for families and education in his first joint speech to Congress. Republicans oppose more stimulus, now worried about swelling debt. The new package and an earlier infrastructure and jobs plan total around $4 trillion, rivaling the annual federal budget.

“The second quarter will be hotter, people have money to spend as they are able to go shopping and traveling again,” said Sung Won Sohn, a finance and economics professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. “Production is being ramped up to rebuild inventories. President Biden and (Fed) Chairman (Jerome) Powell, do we need all the stimuli?”

U.S. stocks were mostly higher. The dollar was steady against a basket of currencies. U.S. Treasury prices fell.

POWERFUL MOMENTUM

Inflation has accelerated, but many economists, including Fed officials, expect it will be transitory as the labor market remains 8.4 million jobs below its peak in February 2020.

The labor market is gradually recovering. In a separate report on Thursday, the Labor Department said initial claims for state unemployment benefits fell 13,000 to a seasonally adjusted 553,000 during the week ended April 24.

While claims have dropped from a record 6.149 million in early April 2020, they are above the range of 200,000 to 250,000 that is viewed as consistent with a healthy labor market.

There were 16.6 million people receiving unemployment benefits in the first week of April.

“We’re still probably a couple years away from pre-pandemic employment levels, but based on the powerful economic momentum built up in the first quarter, we should return close to a fully-functioning economy in the second quarter,” said Robert Frick, corporate economist at Navy Federal Credit Union in Vienna, Virginia.

Economists forecast growth this year could top 7%, which would be the fastest since 1984. The economy contracted 3.5% in 2020, the worst performance in 74 years.

Growth in the first quarter was also driven by business spending on equipment, which posted a third straight quarter of double-digit expansion. But business investment in nonresidential structures fell for a sixth straight quarter as a rebound in mining exploration, shafts and wells was offset by a drop in commercial and healthcare buildings.

Residential investment contributed to GDP growth for a third straight quarter. But trade was a drag for the third consecutive quarter as some of the domestic demand was satiated with imports. Inventories were drawn down at a rate of 85.5 billion.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Paul Simao)

Pace of U.S. economic recovery accelerates, Fed says

By Jonnelle Marte, Ann Saphir and Howard Schneider

(Reuters) – The U.S. economic recovery accelerated to a moderate pace from late February to early April as consumers, buoyed by increased COVID-19 vaccinations and strong fiscal support, opened their wallets to spend more on travel and other items, the Federal Reserve said on Wednesday.

The labor market, which was decimated by the coronavirus pandemic, also improved as more people returned to work, with the pace of hiring picking up the most in the manufacturing, construction, and leisure and hospitality sectors.

“Reports on tourism were more upbeat, bolstered by a pickup in demand for leisure activities and travel which contacts attributed to spring break, an easing of pandemic-related restrictions, increased vaccinations, and recent stimulus payments among other factors,” the U.S. central bank said in its latest “Beige Book,” a collection of anecdotes about the economy from its 12 regional districts.

Hospitality contacts told the Atlanta Fed they had “solid bookings for the remainder of spring and through the summer months and beyond,” according to the report, which was compiled by the Dallas Fed using surveys conducted before April 5.

While most districts said the pace of growth in their regional economies was moderate, the New York Fed said its economy “grew at a strong pace for the first time during the pandemic, with growth broad-based across industries.”

The improvement occurred despite an increase in COVID-19 cases in the region, the New York Fed said. “Moreover, business contacts have grown increasingly optimistic about the near-term outlook.”

FOCUS ON WAGES

Fed Chair Jerome Powell said this week that the U.S. economy is at an “inflection point” where growth and hiring could pick up speed over the coming months thanks to increased COVID-19 vaccinations and strong fiscal stimulus.

The United States added 916,000 jobs in March, the largest gain in seven months, according to Labor Department data. And U.S. consumer prices rose at the fastest clip in more than 8-1/2 years in March as vaccinations and stimulus boosted economic activity, according to Labor Department data released on Tuesday.

However, Powell and other Fed officials say the brighter economic forecasts and brief period of higher inflation will not affect monetary policy, and the central bank will keep its support in place until the crisis is over. The U.S. economy is still 8.4 million jobs short of its pre-pandemic levels.

Policymakers agreed last month to leave interest rates near zero and to keep purchasing $120 billion a month in bonds until there was “substantial further progress” toward the Fed’s goals for maximum employment and inflation. Fed officials will gather again in two weeks for their next policy-setting meeting.

The report highlighted the strategies some businesses are considering as they reopen, increase capacity and attempt to recruit workers. One staffing services firm told the Cleveland Fed that pay had for the first time become the top priority of job seekers, surpassing the type of work.

Several workforce contacts suggested that employers might be delaying wage hikes in hopes of a surge of newly vaccinated job seekers, the Minneapolis Fed reported: “Why start raising wages when a lot of labor might be coming back?”

(Reporting by Jonnelle Marte; Editing by Paul Simao)

Climate change, rich-poor gap, conflict likely to grow: U.S. intelligence report

By Jonathan Landay and Mark Hosenball

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Disease, the rich-poor gap, climate change and conflicts within and among nations will pose greater challenges in coming decades, with the COVID-19 pandemic already worsening some of those problems, a U.S. intelligence report said on Thursday.

The rivalry between China and a U.S.-led coalition of Western nations likely will intensify, fueled by military power shifts, demographics, technology and “hardening divisions over governance models,” said Global Trends 2040: A More Contested World, produced by the U.S. National Intelligence Council (NIC).

Regional powers and non-state actors may exert greater influence, with the likely result “a more conflict-prone and volatile geopolitical environment” and weakened international cooperation, it said.

The report by top U.S. intelligence analysts, which is produced every four years, assessed the political, economic, societal and other trends that likely will shape the national security environment in the next 20 years.

“Our intent is to help policymakers and citizens … prepare for an array of possible futures,” the authors wrote, noting they make no specific predictions and included input from diverse groups, from American students to African civil society activists.

Challenges like climate change, disease, financial crises and technological disruption “are likely to manifest more frequently and intensely in almost every region and country,” producing “widespread strains on states and societies as well as shocks that could be catastrophic,” the report said.

It said the coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 3 million people marked the greatest “global disruption” since World War Two, with the consequences likely to last for years.

COVID-19, it said, exposed – and sometimes widened – disparities in healthcare, raised national debts, accelerated nationalism and political polarization, deepened inequality, fueled distrust in government and highlighted failed international cooperation.

In the process, it is slowing – and possibly reversing – progress in fighting poverty, disease and gender inequality.

Many problems caused by the pandemic are forecast by the report to grow by 2040.

“There is a certain set of trends that we’ve identified that seem to be accelerating or made more powerful because of the pandemic,” said an NIC official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The report posed five scenarios for what the world might look like in 2040.

The most optimistic – a “renaissance of democracies” – found that democratic governments would prove “better able to foster scientific research and technological innovation, catalyzing an economic boom,” enabling them to cope with domestic stresses and to stand up to international rivals.

The most pessimistic scenario – “tragedy and mobilization” – posited how COVID-19 and global warming could devastate global food supplies, leading to riots in Philadelphia that kill “thousands of people.”

(Reporting by Jonathan Landay and Mark Hosenball in Washington; Editing by Tim Ahmann and Peter Cooney)

GM, Ford cutting more North American production due to chip shortage

By David Shepardson and Ankit Ajmera

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -General Motors Co and Ford Motor Co both said on Thursday they will cut more vehicle production due to a semiconductor chip shortage that has roiled the global automotive industry.

The White House plans a summit on the chip shortage issue next Monday that is expected to include GM Chief Executive Mary Barra and Ford Chief Executive Jim Farley and top technology firm executives.

A U.S. auto industry group this week urged the government to help and warned that a global semiconductor shortage could result in 1.28 million fewer vehicles built this year and disrupt production for another six months.

President Joe Biden wants at least $50 billion to help boost U.S. semiconductor production, but that will not address short-term needs. “This is something that there is a great deal of focus at the highest level across government,” White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

The largest U.S. automaker said it will cut production for two weeks at its Spring Hill assembly plant that makes popular SUVs starting on Monday, and cut a week of Chevrolet Blazer production at its Ramos plant in Mexico and its Lansing Delta Township factory in Michigan.

GM’s Lansing Grand River Assembly will extend its downtime through the week of April 26, while its CAMI Assembly (Canada) and Fairfax Assembly plants will extend production shutdowns through the week of May 10.

Ford, the second-largest U.S automaker, said it will cancel production next week at its Chicago Assembly Plant, its Flat Rock Assembly Plant and part of its Kansas City Assembly Plant. It will also operate its Ohio Assembly Plant on a reduced schedule.

Ford said it will operate more plants this summer during traditional shutdown weeks to make up for lost production.

GM said the latest cuts have been factored into its forecast that the shortage could reduce this year’s profit by up to $2 billion.

GM said it has not taken downtime or reduced shifts at any of its more profitable full-size truck or full-size SUV plants due to the shortage.

(Reporting by David Shepardson in Washington and Ankit Ajmera in Bengaluru; Editing by Maju Samuel and Sriraj Kalluvila)

Biden says higher corporate taxes won’t harm U.S. economy

By Andrea Shalal

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -President Joe Biden on Monday defended his proposal to increase corporate taxes to help pay for a big boost in U.S. infrastructure spending, saying he is not at all worried the tax hike would harm the economy.

Speaking to reporters after arriving back in Washington after a weekend at the presidential Camp David retreat in Maryland, Biden also said there was “no evidence” his proposed corporate tax increase would drive companies away from the United States.

The Democratic president once again took aim at the 50 or 51 corporations on the Fortune 500 list that paid no taxes at all for three years, saying it was time for them to pay their share.

Asked if raising the corporate tax rate to 28% from 21% would drive away corporations, Biden said, “Not at all … there’s no evidence of that.”

Biden said other countries were investing billions and billions of dollars in infrastructure, and the United States needed to do so to boost its competitiveness.

“I’m going to push as hard as I can to change the circumstances so we can compete with the rest of the world,” he said. “Everybody else in the rest of the world is investing in infrastructure and we’re going to do it here.”

Biden pushed back at Republican criticism that the president’s $2.3 trillion American Jobs Plan is filled with items that are unrelated to infrastructure.

He listed clean water, school and high-speed rail as key items that also counted as infrastructure, in addition to more traditional projects such as bridges, highways and roads.

Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm on Sunday said Biden would prefer to secure Republican backing for his plan, but if that failed to happen, he would likely support using a procedural strategy called reconciliation to allow Democrats to pass it in the Senate.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said last week that Biden’s infrastructure plan was “bold and audacious” but would raise taxes and increase debt. He vowed to fight it “every step of the way.”

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Writing by Andrea Shalal and Tim Ahmann; Editing by Aurora Ellis)