Fed faces tougher task in deciding whether to cut U.S. rates

The Federal Reserve building is pictured in Washington, DC, U.S., August 22, 2018. REUTERS/Chris Wattie/

By Trevor Hunnicutt

NEW YORK (Reuters) – U.S. employers are hiring workers at a brisk pace, but that is only making the Federal Reserve’s job harder.

On Friday, the Labor Department said nonfarm employers added 224,000 jobs last month – the most in five months, and not the kind of labor market that would normally cause policymakers at the U.S. central bank to cut interest rates.

But the Fed opened up the possibility of cuts last month, citing muted inflation pressures and an economic outlook clouded by a U.S. trade war and slower global growth.

This complicates a debate Fed policymakers are having over whether the economy needs stimulus, setting up a possible standoff with markets at their July 30-31 meeting.

“They are in a bit of a bind,” said Karim Basta, chief economist at III Capital Management. “On the surface, the data, in my opinion, doesn’t really support an imminent cut, but markets are expecting it, and I do think there’s a risk at this stage that they disappoint.”

Markets are overwhelmingly betting the Fed’s next move will be its first rate cut since the financial crisis a decade ago, and President Donald Trump on Friday renewed demands for lower rates to strengthen the economy.

Fed Chairman Jerome Powell has repeatedly said the central bank makes decisions independently from both markets and the White House, but failing to deliver a cut could cause a stock and short-term bond selloff and reduce economic activity.

U.S. interest rates futures fell after the jobs report on Friday. Markets still see a rate cut this month as a near-certainty, though they largely priced out changes for an aggressive half-percentage-point cut.

“These are good numbers, but a rate cut in July is still all but inevitable,” said Luke Bartholomew, investment strategist for Aberdeen Standard Investments. “Employment growth remains a bright spot amid a fairly mixed bag of U.S. data and yet markets have come to expect a cut now so (they) will fall out of bed if they don’t get one.”

The U.S. has not resolved its trade dispute with China, but the two countries agreed last weekend to resume trade talks, putting off new tariffs.

There are still signs of a pullback in economic activity. Businesses’ spending on machines and other equipment is tepid, but employers keep hiring hotel maids, electricians, daycare providers and other workers. They are also paying them more. Average hourly earnings rose at a 3.1%-a-year pace. A May payroll gain of 72,000 now seems like a fluke rather than a sign of deterioration.

Those are not the prototypical conditions for a rate cut. Unemployment at 3.7% is near its lowest levels since 1969 and policymakers have traditionally seen job gains with low unemployment posing risks of inflation.

But economists have grown less confident in academic models that forecast an inverse relationship between unemployment and inflation. The core personal consumption expenditures index is running at 1.6% a year, short of the Fed’s 2% goal.

In its semi-annual report to Congress, the Fed on Friday repeated its pledge to “act as appropriate” to sustain the economic expansion, with possible interest rate cuts in the coming months, but notably said the jobs market had “continued to strengthen” so far this year, and described recent weak inflation as due to “transitory influences.”

Some policymakers think a rate cut could lift inflation expectations, reducing chances of more drastic rate cuts being needed later. With rates at 2.25%-2.50%, policymakers have less room to cut before they resort to unconventional measures.

A cut could also reduce the Fed’s firepower in the case of a more severe downturn and signal greater concern about the future and even that more stimulus is on the way.

(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt in New York; Additional reporting by April Joyner in New York and Howard Schneider in Washington; Editing by Jennifer Ablan and James Dalgleish)

Fed holds rates steady, signals cuts possible later this year

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell holds a news conference following a two-day Federal Open Market Committee meeting in Washington, U.S., June 19, 2019. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Howard Schneider and Jason Lange

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Federal Reserve held interest rates steady on Wednesday but signaled possible rate cuts of as much as half a percentage point over the remainder of this year, as it responded to increased economic uncertainty and a drop in expected inflation.

The U.S. central bank said it “will act as appropriate to sustain” the economic expansion as it approaches the 10-year mark and dropped a promise to be “patient” in adjusting rates. Nearly half its policymakers now show a willingness to lower borrowing costs over the next six months.

While new economic projections showed policymakers’ views of growth and unemployment largely unchanged, they saw headline inflation at just 1.5 percent for the year, down from the 1.8 percent projected in March.

They also expect to miss their 2 percent inflation target next year as well.

Seven of 17 policymakers said they expected it would be appropriate to cut rates by half of a percentage point by the end of 2019, and an eighth saw a rate cut of a quarter point as appropriate.

That was not enough to change the median outlook for the Fed’s targeted overnight lending rate, which officials projected to remain in a range of between 2.25% and 2.50% for the rest of this year.

But it still represented a significant shifting of views on the Fed. It appeared many, and perhaps most, policymakers trimmed a full half percentage point from their outlook for rates. Only one policymaker continues to see a rate hike as likely in 2019.

The long-run federal funds rate, a barometer for the state of the economy over the long term, was cut to 2.50% from 2.80%.

U.S. stocks turned higher after the Fed’s statement was released, with the benchmark S&P 500 up about 0.25% from the previous day’s close. Ahead of the statement, stocks had been fractionally lower on the day.

Yields on U.S. Treasury securities, which had been modestly higher before the rate decision was released, slipped. The 10-year Treasury note yield was down 1 basis point at just shy of 2.05%. The dollar weakened against the euro.

Along with the change in the policy statement, Wednesday’s projections open the door for the central bank to lower rates in short order if the economy weakens, or U.S. trade disputes with China and other nations escalate.

The Fed continued to regard the labor market as “strong” and said “sustained expansion of economic activity” and eventually rising inflation were still “the most likely outcomes.” The drop in inflation, however, was a blow for a central bank hoping to reach its target sometime next year.

Fed Chairman Jerome Powell will hold a press conference at 2:30 p.m. EDT (1830 GMT) to elaborate on the results of the policy meeting, which was the first since President Donald Trump raised tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese imports and threatened, though ultimately decided against, imposing new tariffs on Mexican goods.

Those actions caused Fed officials to change their tone from largely dismissing the macroeconomic fallout of Trump’s trade policies to worrying that a new world order of persistent high tariffs and reordered global supply chains could be emerging.

St. Louis Fed President James Bullard, who had argued that rates should be cut, dissented in Wednesday’s policy decision.

(Reporting by Howard Schneider and Jason Lange; Editing by Paul Simao)

Muted U.S. inflation strengthens case for Fed rate cut

People tour The Shops during the grand opening of The Hudson Yards development, a residential, commercial, and retail space on Manhattan's West side in New York City, New York, U.S., March 15, 2019. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. consumer prices barely rose in May, pointing to moderate inflation that together with a slowing economy increased pressure on the Federal Reserve to cut interest rates this year.

But the report from the Labor Department on Wednesday will likely not shift Fed officials’ views that temporary factors are behind the weak inflation readings. Airline fares, among the transitory factors identified by Fed Chairman Jerome Powell, rebounded and apparel prices stabilized after two straight monthly decreases.

U.S. central bank policymakers are scheduled to meet on June 18-19 against the backdrop of rising trade tensions, slowing growth and a sharp step-down in hiring in May that has led financial markets to price in at least two rate cuts by the end of 2019. A rate cut is not expected next Wednesday.

“This soft inflation backdrop reinforces our call for two (rate) cuts later this year,” said Michael Feroli, an economist at JPMorgan in New York. “We think next week is probably too soon to expect that action, given that growth is still holding in and trade-related risks remain two-sided.”

The consumer price index edged up 0.1% last month as a rebound in the cost of food was offset by cheaper gasoline, the government said. The CPI gained 0.3% in April.

In the 12 months through May, the CPI increased 1.8%, slowing from April’s 1.9% gain. May’s rise in the CPI was broadly in line with economists’ expectations.

Excluding the volatile food and energy components, the CPI nudged up 0.1% for the fourth straight month, the longest such stretch since April 2017. The so-called core CPI was held down by a sharp decline in the prices of used cars and trucks as well as motor vehicle insurance.

In the 12 months through May, the so-called core CPI rose 2.0% after advancing 2.1% in April.

U.S. Treasury prices were trading mostly higher, while the dollar was little changed against a basket of currencies. Stocks on Wall Street slipped as the rate-cut hopes were overshadowed by investor anxiety over the U.S.-China trade war.

GROWTH SLOWING

U.S. President Donald Trump in early May slapped additional tariffs of up to 25% on $200 billion of Chinese goods, prompting retaliation by Beijing. Trump on Monday threatened further duties on Chinese imports if no deal was reached when he meets Chinese President Xi Jinping at a G20 summit at the end of this month in Japan.

Economists have warned that the tariffs will undercut the economy, which will celebrate 10 years of expansion in July, the longest in history. Powell said last week the Fed was closely monitoring the implications of the trade war on the economy and would “act as appropriate to sustain the expansion.”

Data so far have suggested a sharp slowdown in U.S. economic growth in the second quarter after a temporary boost from exports and an accumulation of inventory early in the year. Job growth slowed sharply in May. Manufacturing production, exports and home sales dropped in April, while consumer spending cooled.

The Atlanta Fed is forecasting gross domestic product to increase at a 1.4% annualized rate in the April-June quarter. The economy grew at a 3.1% pace in the first quarter.

A survey of chief executive officers published on Wednesday showed unease about trade policy negatively impacting sales expectations as well as capital spending and hiring plans over the next six months.

The Fed’s preferred inflation measure, the core personal consumption expenditures (PCE) price index, increased 1.6 percent in the year to April after gaining 1.5% in March. Data for May will be released later this month. The core PCE price index has been running below the Fed’s 2% target this year.

Gasoline prices fell 0.5% in May after rising 5.7% in April. Food prices rebounded 0.3% in May after dipping 0.1% in the prior month. Owners’ equivalent rent of primary residence, which is what a homeowner would pay to rent or receive from renting a home, increased 0.3% in May after rising 0.3% in April.

Healthcare costs increased 0.3%, matching April’s rise. That mirrored an increase in healthcare costs at the producer level, suggesting a pickup in the core PCE price index in May. There were gains in hospital and doctor fees. But prices for prescription medication fell 0.2%.

Apparel prices were unchanged in May after tumbling 0.8% in the prior month. They had declined for two months in a row after the government introduced a new method and data to calculate apparel prices. Economists expect the duties on Chinese goods to lift apparel prices in the coming months.

“That’s going to change with new tariffs on the way unless apparel companies can teach other nations to knit sweaters as well as Chinese workers can do,” said Chris Rupkey, chief economist at MUFG in New York.

Prices for used motor vehicles and trucks tumbled 1.4%. That was the largest drop since last September and marked the fourth straight monthly decrease. The cost of motor vehicle insurance fell 0.4%, the most since May 2007. The cost of recreation also decreased.

But prices for airline tickets rebounded 2.0% after falling for two straight months. Prices for household furnishings and new vehicles rose in May. Household furnishings prices are likely to trend higher in the coming months because of the duties on Chinese imports.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Paul Simao)

U.S. producer prices post biggest rise in five months

FILE PHOTO: A customer shops for a turkey at a Walmart store in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., November 20, 2018. REUTERS/Kamil Krzaczynski/File Photo

WASHINGTON, (Reuters) – U.S. producer prices increased by the most in five months in March, but underlying wholesale inflation was tame.

The Labor Department said on Thursday its producer price index for final demand rose 0.6 percent last month, lifted by a surge in the cost of gasoline. That was the largest increase since last October and followed a 0.1 percent gain in February.

In the 12 months through March, the PPI rose 2.2 percent after advancing 1.9 percent in February. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast the PPI would climb 0.3 percent in March and increase 1.9 percent on a year-on-year basis.

A key gauge of underlying producer price pressures that excludes food, energy and trade services was unchanged last month after ticking up 0.1 percent in February. The so-called core PPI increased 2.0 percent in the 12 months through March. That was the smallest annual increase since August 2017 and followed a 2.3 percent rise in February..

Data on Wednesday showed consumer prices rose by the most in 14 months in March, driven by more expensive gasoline. But core inflation remained muted amid a plunge in the cost of apparel.

Slowing domestic and global growth are keeping inflation contained. Wage inflation has also been moderate despite a tight labor market.

Minutes of the Federal Reserve’s March 19-20 policy meeting published on Wednesday described inflation as “muted,” though officials expected it to rise to or near the U.S. central bank’s 2 percent target. The Fed’s preferred inflation measure, the core personal consumption expenditures (PCE) price index, is currently at 1.8 percent.

Last month, wholesale energy prices jumped 5.6 percent, with gasoline prices shooting up 16.0 percent, the most since August 2009. Energy prices rose 1.8 percent in February.

Gasoline accounted for over 60 percent of the 1.0 percent rise in goods prices last month. Goods prices increased 0.4 percent in February.

Wholesale food prices rose 0.3 percent in March, reversing a 0.3 percent drop in the prior month. Core goods prices rose 0.2 percent after edging up 0.1 percent in February.

The cost of services increased 0.3 percent in March after being unchanged in the prior month. Prices for healthcare services fell 0.2 percent last month. There was a sharp drop in the cost of hospital outpatient services. Those healthcare costs feed into the core PCE price index.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani Editing by Paul Simao) ((Lucia.Mutikani@thomsonreuters.com; 1 202 898 8315; Reuters Messaging: lucia.mutikani.thomsonreuters.com@reuters.net)

Malnourished Venezuelans hope urgently needed aid arrives soon

Yaneidi Guzman, 38, poses for a picture at her home in Caracas, Venezuela, February 17, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Carlos Garcia Rawlins and Shaylim Valderrama

CARACAS (Reuters) – Yaneidi Guzman has lost a third of her weight over the past three years as Venezuela’s economic collapse made food unaffordable and she now hopes the opposition will succeed in bringing urgently needed foreign aid to the South American country.

Guzman’s clothes hang limply off her gaunt frame. The 38-year-old is one of many Venezuelans suffering from malnutrition as the once-prosperous, oil-rich OPEC nation has seen its economy halve in size over the last five years under President Nicolas Maduro.

Yaneidi Guzman poses for a picture next to her daughters, Esneidy Ramirez (R), (front L-R) Steffany Perez and Fabiana Perez, at their home in Caracas, Venezuela, April 22, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

Yaneidi Guzman poses for a picture next to her daughters, Esneidy Ramirez (R), (front L-R) Steffany Perez and Fabiana Perez, at their home in Caracas, Venezuela, April 22, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

Venezuelans’ diets have become ever more deficient in vitamins and protein, as currency controls restrict food imports and salaries fail to keep pace with inflation that is now above 2 million percent annually.

Growing malnutrition is one of the reasons Venezuela’s opposition leader Juan Guaido has moved ahead with his plans to bring supplies of food and medicine into Venezuela by land and sea on Saturday, despite resistance from Maduro.

Maduro, who denies there is a humanitarian crisis, has said it is a “show” to undermine him.

On Thursday, crowds cheered as Guaido led a convoy of opposition lawmakers out of Caracas on a 800-km (500 mile) trip to the Colombian border where they hope to receive food and medicine. Guaido has not provided details on how they would bring in the aid.

In response, Maduro denounced the aid, saying in televised comments that he was considering closing the border with Colombia and would close the border with Brazil.

Aid has become a proxy war in a battle for control of Venezuela, after Guaido in January invoked a constitutional provision to assume an interim presidency, saying Maduro’s re-election last year was fraudulent.

“I hope they let the aid in,” said Guzman, who despite holding down two jobs cannot make enough money for the tests, supplements or protein-rich diet that doctors have prescribed her. She and her husband make less than $30 per month and prioritize feeding their three young children.

Maria Guitia washes her son Yeibe Medina at home near San Francisco de Yare, Venezuela, February 18, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

Maria Guitia washes her son Yeibe Medina at home near San Francisco de Yare, Venezuela, February 18, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

While there is a vacuum of government information, almost two-thirds of Venezuelans surveyed in a university study called, “Survey on life conditions,” and published last year, said they had lost on average 11 kilograms (24 lbs) in body weight in 2017.

On the wall of Guzman’s home in the poor hillside district of Petare in the capital Caracas, hangs a wooden plaque with the psalm “The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.”

Yet her fridge is empty except for a few bags of beans.

Sometimes she wakes up not knowing what she will feed her family that day. Mostly they eat rice, lentils and cassava.

While Guzman says she would welcome the aid, she is concerned the one-off shipment would be a drop in an ocean given Venezuelans’ needs. “You don’t only eat once,” she said.

Some political analysts say Saturday’s showdown is less about solving Venezuela’s needs and more about testing the military’s loyalty towards Maduro, by daring it to turn the aid away.

LENTILS AND PLANTAIN

Some aid agencies like Catholic relief agency Caritas are already on the ground providing what help they can.

In San Francisco de Yare, a town 70 km (45 miles) south of Caracas, Maria Guitia’s one-year-old baby’s belly is distended and his arms thin. The pair live with Guitia’s five siblings and parents in a one-room tin shed with a dirt floor and no running water.

Work is scarce and they live off payments for odd jobs and a monthly government handout of heavily-subsidized basic food supplies. They have taken to inventing meals with what little they have like lentils with plantain from the trees in their backyard.

Guitia, 21, said her son had lost weight over the past five months until Caritas gave them some nutritional supplements.

The United Nations and Red Cross have cautioned against the politicization of aid.

The United States, which is pushing Maduro to step down, sent aid for Venezuela to a collection point in neighboring Colombia in military aircraft, in a show of force.

Guzman dreams of living once more not off foreign aid or government handouts but her own work.

“It’s not that I want to be rich, or a millionaire,” she said. “But I do want to give my children a good future, to make sure I can take them to the doctors when they get ill … and that they eat well.”

 

(Reporting by Carlos Garcia Rawlins and Shaylim Valderrama in Caracas; Writing by Sarah Marsh; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Diane Craft)

Fed raises interest rates, signals more hikes ahead

A screen displays the headlines that the U.S. Federal Reserve raised interest rates as a trader works at a post on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in New York, U.S., December 19, 2018. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

By Ann Saphir and Howard Schneider

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – After weeks of market volatility and calls by President Donald Trump for the Federal Reserve to stop raising interest rates, the U.S. central bank instead did it again, and stuck by a plan to keep withdrawing support from an economy it views as strong.

U.S. stocks and bond yields fell hard. With the Fed signaling “some further gradual” rate hikes and no break from cutting its massive bond portfolio, traders fretted that policymakers could choke off economic growth.

“Maybe they have already committed their policy error,” said Fritz Folts, chief investment strategist at 3Edge Asset Management. “We would be in the camp that they have already raised rates too much.”

Interest rate futures show traders are currently betting the Fed won’t raise rates at all next year.

Wednesday’s rate increase, the fourth of the year, pushed the central bank’s key overnight lending rate to a range of 2.25 percent to 2.50 percent.

In a news conference after the release of the policy statement, Fed Chairman Jerome Powell said the central bank would continue trimming its balance sheet by $50 billion each month, and left open the possibility that continued strong data could force it to raise rates to the point where they start to brake the economy’s momentum.

Powell did bow to what he called recent “softening” in global growth, tighter financial conditions, and expectations the U.S. economy will slow next year, and said that with inflation expected to remain a touch below the Fed’s 2 percent target next year, policymakers can be “patient.”

Fresh economic forecasts showed officials at the median now see only two more rate hikes next year compared to the three projected in September.

But another message was clear in the statement issued after the Fed’s last policy meeting of the year as well as in Powell’s comments: The U.S. economy continues to perform well and no longer needs the Fed’s support either through lower-than-normal interest rates or by maintaining of a massive balance sheet.

“Policy does not need to be accommodative,” he said.

In its statement, the Fed said risks to the economy were “roughly balanced” but that it would “continue to monitor global economic and financial developments and assess their implications for the economic outlook.”

The Fed also made a widely expected technical adjustment, raising the rate it pays on banks’ excess reserves by just 20 basis points to give it better control over the policy rate and keep it within the targeted range.

Federal Reserve Board Chairman Jerome Powell arrives at his news conference after a Federal Open Market Committee meeting in Washington, U.S., December 19, 2018. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

Federal Reserve Board Chairman Jerome Powell arrives at his news conference after a Federal Open Market Committee meeting in Washington, U.S., December 19, 2018. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

CHOPPY WATERS

The decision to raise borrowing costs again is likely to anger Trump, who has repeatedly attacked the central bank’s tightening this year as damaging to the economy.

The Fed has been raising rates to reduce the boost that monetary policy gives to the economy, which is growing faster than what central bank policymakers view as a sustainable rate.

There are worries, however, that the economy could enter choppy waters next year as the fiscal boost from the Trump administration’s spending and $1.5 trillion tax cut package fades and the global economy slows.

“I think that markets were looking for more in terms of the pause,” said Jamie Cox, managing partner at Harris Financial Group in Richmond, Virginia.

“It’s not as dovish as expected, but I do believe the Fed will ultimately back off even further as we move into the new year.”

The benchmark S&P 500 index <.SPX> tumbled to a 15-month low, extending a streak of volatility that has dogged the market since late September. The index is down nearly 15 percent from its record high.

Benchmark 10-year Treasury yields fell as low as 2.75 percent, the lowest since April 4.

ECONOMIC PROJECTIONS

Fed policymakers’ median forecast puts the federal funds rate at 3.1 percent at the end of 2020 and 2021, according to the projections.

That would leave borrowing costs just above policymakers’ newly downgraded median view of a 2.8 percent neutral rate that neither brakes nor boosts a healthy economy, but still within the 2.5 percent to 3.5 percent range of Fed estimates for that rate.

Powell parried three questions about whether the Fed intended to restrict the economy with its rate policy, but gave little away.

“There would be circumstances in which it would be appropriate for us to go past neutral, and there would be circumstances in which it would be wholly inappropriate to do so.”

Gross domestic product is forecast to grow 2.3 percent next year and 2.0 percent in 2020, slightly weaker than the Fed previously anticipated. The unemployment rate, currently at a 49-year low of 3.7 percent, is expected to fall to 3.5 percent next year and rise slightly in 2020 and 2021.

Inflation, which hit the central bank’s 2 percent target this year, is expected to be 1.9 percent next year, a bit lower than the 2.0 percent forecast three months ago.

There were no dissents in the Fed’s policy decision.

(Reporting by Ann Saphir and Howard Schneider; Additional reporting by Lewis Krauskopf in New York; Editing by Paul Simao and Dan Burns)

Fed’s Williams expects further U.S. rate increases into next year

President and Chief Executive Officer of the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, John Williams, gestures as he addresses a news conference in Zurich, Switzerland September 22, 2017. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann

By Jonathan Spicer

NEW YORK (Reuters) – One of the most influential Federal Reserve policymakers said on Tuesday he expects further interest-rate hikes continuing next year since the U.S. economy is “in really good shape,” reinforcing the Fed’s upbeat tone in the face of growing doubts in financial markets.

Even as New York Fed President John Williams told reporters he expects the U.S. expansion to carry on and surpass its previous record around mid-2019, stock markets headed lower Tuesday morning while a potentially worrying trend of “inversion” continued to grip Treasury markets.

The Fed is expected to raise its policy rate another notch this month and, according to policymakers’ forecasts from September, aims to continue tightening monetary policy three more times next year. Futures markets, however, are betting a slowdown overseas and in sectors like U.S. housing will force the Fed to stop short.

Yet Williams, a permanent voter on policy and close ally of Fed Chair Jerome Powell, said lots of signs point to a “quite strong” and healthy labor market, and he predicted economic growth of around an above-potential 2.5 percent in 2019.

“Given this outlook I describe of strong growth, strong labor market and inflation near our goal – and taking into account all the various risks around the outlook – I do continue to expect that further gradual increases in interest rates will best foster a sustained economic expansion and a sustained achievement of our dual mandate,” Williams said at the New York Fed.

(Reporting by Jonathan Spicer; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

Venezuela teen’s political cartoons sketch his country’s downfall

Gabriel Moncada draws at his home in Caracas, Venezuela October 15, 2018. Picture taken October 15, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

By Liamar Ramos

CARACAS (Reuters) – In one drawing, Lady Justice is seen fleeing Venezuela, a sword in her right hand and a suitcase in the left.

In another, a crying boy tells his father he does not want school to start again. His anguished father, gazing at a list of expensive school supplies, answers: “Me neither, my son.”

In a third drawing, a Venezuelan is seen running toward an alien spaceship, begging for help.

The creator of these evocative political cartoons is Gabriel Moncada, a 13-year-old Venezuelan schoolboy.

Gabriel Moncada looks at his drawings at his home in Caracas, Venezuela October 15, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

Gabriel Moncada looks at his drawings at his home in Caracas, Venezuela October 15, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

The mature, bespectacled teen always enjoyed drawing animals and cars, but a few years ago began sketching the despair of his compatriots in the face of hyperinflation, mass emigration, and shortages of food and medicine.

“Kids start to realize (what is happening), because they do not go to the movies as much, they realize they cannot stay in the street late, there is not as much food in the house or the same products,” said Moncada, sitting at the desk where he sketches.

“The drawings are a way to express myself. I think it is a creative, fun, and different way of showing the problems we experience daily,” he said.

His mother, 46-year old radio journalist Cecilia Gonzalez, started to publish her son’s cartoons on her Facebook page in late 2016. An impressed friend quickly asked to publish them on her online news site, TeLoCuentoNews, where every Friday for nearly two years they have appeared in a section called “This is how Gabo sees it,” referring to Moncada’s nickname.

Venezuela’s economic meltdown has forced almost 2 million people to flee since 2015, according to the United Nations migration and refugees agencies. President Nicolas Maduro disputes that tally, saying they have been exaggerated by political adversaries, and that those who have left are seeking to return.

Moncada’s mother said the family initially tried to shield him from the reality of the country’s decay but gave up as the problems became increasingly evident.

Gabriel Moncada looks at his drawings on the floor at his home in Caracas, Venezuela October 15, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

Gabriel Moncada looks at his drawings on the floor at his home in Caracas, Venezuela October 15, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

“Nothing is like it used to be, and they realize that,” said Gonzalez. “You bring your kids to school and there are three or four children eating out of the garbage on the corner.”

The increasingly common sight of people eating from the trash emerged in one of Moncada’s sketches, which shows two rats standing below a pile of garbage as human hands dig through it.

One rat asks “Where’s the food?” The other responds “They have taken it from us.”

(Additional reporting by Shaylim Valderrama and Vivian Sequera; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer and Brian Ellsworth; editing by Bill Berkrot)

A decade of U.S. economic sluggishness may have just snapped back to normal

FILE PHOTO: A U.S. five dollar note is seen in this illustration photo June 1, 2017. REUTERS/Thomas White/Illustration/File Photo

By Howard Schneider

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – For a solid decade after the collapse of Lehman Brothers touched off a global financial crisis, there was good reason to think the U.S. economy remained broken, from skepticism about the health of the labor market to tepid economic growth and the moribund rate of interest paid on U.S. Treasury bonds.

In a heartbeat, that seemed to change this week, adding facts on the ground to Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell’s glowing portrait of a historically rosy and extended period of super-low unemployment, modest inflation, and steady growth.

It came through Amazon.com Inc’s move to a $15 minimum wage, possibly setting the bar for companies nationwide. It came through a jump in long-term bond yields that signaled faith the gears of growth will remain engaged for a record-long recovery.

On Friday, it came through the 3.7 percent unemployment rate, a 49-year low, continuing a run of employment growth that many analysts, including at the Fed, have long expected to slow.

“Wage inflation is creeping higher,” said Russell Price, senior economist at Ameriprise Financial Services Inc in Troy, Michigan.

“There’s no question the job market in the United States is possibly at its best in a generation. There’s no question or debate about that. The jobs report has become an inflation report.”

Treasury bond yields rose further on the payrolls report, with the benchmark 10-year note yield touching its highest level since 2011, and U.S. stocks slipped.

The week’s events were not just consistent with the good times scenario both Powell and U.S. President Donald Trump have laid out. They validated it, and in doing so pointed to a U.S. economy that may be starting to work more like it used to.

As an exercise in old-fashioned supply and demand, Amazon’s decision to raise starting wages across the board was perhaps the best example. Fed and other officials have been anticipating for a while, in fact, that the lack of available workers would prompt companies to raise wages.

“When productivity growth is faster, that is your opportunity to share some of your extra output with your workers. That’s what gets wages higher,” said Vincent Reinhart, Chief Economist at investment manager Standish, and former head of the Fed’s monetary affairs division.

Even former skeptics have become open to the idea that a recent rise in productivity may turn into a trend, drawing comparisons with the “Great Moderation” period of growth during the 1990s, which also featured low unemployment and solid wage growth

The rise in long-term bond rates also may herald a return to more normal conditions, giving cautious investors a reasonable return after years of lackluster outcomes, and easing concerns about a flat or “inverted” yield curve that would herald loss of faith in the future.

There is reason to think it may continue.

To pay for the Republican tax cuts and the bump in defense spending, the Treasury is flooding the market with bonds at a near-record pace, with gross issuance of bills, notes and bonds in August topping $1 trillion in a month for only the second time ever, according to federal SIFMA data.

To sell all those bonds, the Treasury may have to pay higher rates. Meanwhile, a major customer, the Fed, whose purchases of $3.5 trillion of assets during and after the crisis helped foster the recovery, has started shrinking its bond portfolio by $50 billion a month.

There are risks surrounding the week’s development, and a few anomalies.

The Fed, for example, is convinced that with its gradual continuing rate increases, inflation will remain controlled – even as unemployment dives for years to come below levels not seen since the 1960s. If inflation does kick in, as it might be expected to do with such a hot labor market and with Trump’s tariffs pushing up the cost of some imports, it would force the Fed to speed up rate hikes and possibly end the party.

Surging bond rates could also throw cold water on Powell’s positive thinking, and call the Fed’s whole strategy of gradual rate increases into question. High Treasury rates mean higher rates for mortgage lending, auto loans, and a host of other forms of credit that could slow the real economy more than the Fed would like.

“The tariffs, quotas, and trade threats are like shooting the starter’s pistol to say: let’s think about renegotiating” wages and salaries, said Reinhart. “It is possible that the limited influence of resource slack on wages and prices was because we were just stuck, (but) that could change.”

A “divergent” U.S. economy, as Cleveland Fed President Loretta Mester warned, could also mean a stronger dollar – and fewer exports and growth.

But as she noted, for a decade now the concern has been about persistent weakness – that the economy was stuck in a state of what prominent economists deemed “secular stagnation.”

The return of volatility, of reasonable returns for savers, of wage pressure benefiting workers, may all pose risks.

But they are the risks of a more normal world.

“The economy is performing extraordinarily well, at least relative to recent history,” said Joseph LaVorgna, chief Americas economics at Natixis. “It’s not the boom of the late ’90s, but it’s doing pretty well.”

(Reporting by Howard Schneider; additional reporting by Jonathan Spicer and Herbert Lash in New York; Editing by Dan Burns and Nick Zieminski)

Federal Reserve prepares for next crisis, bets it will begin like the last

FILE PHOTO: The Federal Reserve building is pictured in Washington, DC, U.S., August 22, 2018. REUTERS/Chris Wattie/File Photo

By Jonathan Spicer and Howard Schneider

BOSTON (Reuters) – The Federal Reserve painted a picture of the U.S. economy that was almost too good to be true at its last meeting, with inflation seen contained in the near future despite the lowest unemployment rate in 20 years.

The Fed’s forecasts were labeled “out of this world” by one economist at the annual National Association for Business Economics (NABE) conference in Boston this week.

On the tenth anniversary of the 2008 financial crisis, which started with an unexpected panic in an under-appreciated corner of the financial sector, the emphasis in recent Fed speeches and research on avoiding excess leverage and financial market imbalances is understandable, but risks ignoring the possibility that the next recession may result from runaway inflation.

“There clearly has been a shift at the Fed toward more attention” to leverage ratios, financial buffers and other measures of financial market resilience, said Robert Gordon, economist and social sciences professor at Northwestern University and an expert on productivity and economic growth. “They have governors who are particularly appointed to be in charge of that now in a sense that they didn’t used to.”

Earlier, Gordon told the NABE conference that the Fed’s inflation forecasts were “unbelievable” and continued strong job creation will inevitably boost prices even though few see an immediate threat.

Global trade policy tensions, an emerging market debt crisis, or some other shock may happen, but would need to be large and sustained to undermine the 3.0 percent growth that the $20 trillion U.S. economy is currently enjoying.

Few believe the U.S. housing sector poses the same risk it did in the early 2000s, and while student loans and other consumer borrowing have grown, overall household credit and debt payment levels are manageable.

Still, if the Trump administration nominates the Fed’s former financial-stability guru, Nellie Liang, as a board governor, as expected, efforts to avoid another financial crisis could increase further.

In reports to Congress, the Fed has, for example, highlighted concerns about commercial real estate and the stock market where rising prices could reverse sharply as interest rates rise.

The likely choice of Liang comes after Fed chair Jerome Powell recently downplayed the relevance of traditional inflationary signals in setting interest rates and noted that in the last two recessions the trouble started in financial markets.

“Risk management suggests looking beyond inflation for signs of excesses,” he said in late August at the annual conference in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

Yet Powell also said last month he sees only moderate risks across a dashboard of indicators, including household leverage and current bank capital levels.

TIME FOR A BUFFER?

A test may come in two months when Fed governors decide whether to raise the so-called countercyclical capital buffer for banks which would force them to set aside more capital to cushion a downturn.

Fed Governor Lael Brainard has argued the buffer should be raised from zero, citing the shot of fiscal stimulus from last year’s U.S. tax cuts and high asset prices in the context of a decade-long economic expansion.

Metrics analyzed by Liang as head of the Fed’s financial stability division are not yet cause for concern, but her research has made clear that tools like the countercyclical buffer could be used to limit credit growth before it becomes problematic.

CYCLE ENDINGS

Liang, a senior fellow at Brookings Institution, has also argued that tighter monetary policy and early intervention is best to ward off possible crises, so some expect her to oversee a broader financial stability file as a Fed governor.

Financial market imbalances could be sparked by spending from the 2017 tax cuts or further stock price gains, Goldman Sachs economists wrote recently.

Yet with unemployment at 3.9 percent, and U.S. banks stabilized by post-crisis regulations, many economists believe the end of this long business cycle will be marked by a traditional resurgence of inflation and corresponding Fed interest rate rises.

The Fed itself expects unemployment to hover between 3.5 and 3.7 percent through 2021, roughly a full percentage point below levels seen as consistent with a stable inflation rate.

“I think it’s inevitable it will be associated with higher rates of inflation,” said Harvard economics professor James Stock, a former member of President Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers.

The Fed has been raising interest rates gradually since late 2015 to head off future problems but it is less clear how rising rates might affect risk-taking in the “shadow” banking sector, where hedge funds and other less-regulated firms extend credit to riskier companies. In July, the Fed warned that “borrowing among highly levered and lower-rated businesses remains elevated.”

In a recent paper presented at the Brookings Institution, former Fed Chair Ben Bernanke said one lesson from the crisis is that policymakers needed to include interactions between credit markets and the economy in their projections, in effect weaving financial stability concerns into models of how the economy responds to different shocks.

Asked how concerned he was about current financial market signals, Boston Fed President Eric Rosengren told the conference on Monday: “I don’t think there is an alarm going off. But I do think there are a lot of yellow lights.”