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Credit…Mandel Ngan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
The Federal Reserve is staring down a challenge that would have been all but unthinkable a year ago: With its policies set on emergency mode to bolster growth in the face of the pandemic’s shock, it must now navigate an economy that is expected to strengthen rapidly in the coming months.
Officials will release an interest rate policy decision and their first economic projections of 2021 at 2 p.m. on Wednesday, and they are virtually certain to leave borrowing costs unchanged at near zero.
But analysts and Wall Street investors alike are eager to see whether growing economic optimism will shake up the outlook for policy in the months and years ahead.
The Fed slashed interest rates to rock bottom a year ago as the pandemic shut down huge swaths of the economy. It has also been buying $120 billion in bonds per month, a policy meant to keep credit cheap and help the economy rebound from a virus that has thrown millions out of work.
Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, has been clear for months that officials expect to be patient in removing that policy help — a cautious tone that he is expected to maintain at a news conference on Wednesday.
“This is one of the most critical Fed meetings we’ve had in a while,” said Michelle Meyer, head of U.S. economists at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. “Markets are really paying attention, and they’re going to dissect everything he says.”
That’s because the economic backdrop is shifting. Coronavirus vaccines are fueling hopes for reopening parts of the service sector. A freshly signed stimulus package will pump $1.9 trillion into the economy, with an eye on preventing evictions, funneling cash to parents and putting $1,400 checks directly into bank accounts.
Against that improving backdrop, economists in a Bloomberg survey expect the Fed to increase rates twice in 2023, the news outlet reported. In December, they expected rates to remain unchanged until 2024 or later.
As investors expect faster growth, higher inflation and a quicker-moving Fed, they have pushed up the yield on 10-year Treasury notes. That has weighed on stock indexes, which tend to fall when rates rise.
The Fed’s economic projections — which anonymously report officials’ forecasts for interest rates, unemployment, inflation and growth both through 2023 and in the longer run — could show a shift when they are released on Wednesday.
Wall Street will pay particular attention to the inflation forecast and the policy rate path. The Fed’s median interest rate forecast previously showed no rate increases over the next three years, but analysts expect that officials could now pencil in one move in 2023.
BMW became the latest carmaker to promote its commitment to electric vehicles Wednesday, moving up the introduction of a new electric sedan, hinting at plans for an electric Rolls-Royce, and saying that its Mini cars will run exclusively on batteries, though not until the 2030s.
BMW follows rivals like Volkswagen, General Motors and Volvo that have recently declared their intention to shift to electric vehicles. But BMW, based in Munich, is pursuing a more cautious strategy than some of the others.
Unlike Volkswagen, for example, BMW has not introduced a platform — a chassis and other components shared among numerous body styles — designed exclusively for electric propulsion. BMW models will accommodate either battery power or internal combustion engines, an approach that inevitably involves engineering compromises.
Oliver Zipse, the BMW chief executive, said the company’s strategy gave customers more choice. “Others focus on individual market segments and niches,” he said during a news conference Wednesday. “We, on the other hand, are taking a targeted approach across all market segments.”
Some analysts say BMW’s approach prevents it from fully exploiting the advantages of battery power, such as the opportunity to create roomier interiors.
BMW said Wednesday it would introduce its last new Mini with an internal combustion engine in 2025, but would continue to sell the model into the 2030s. In addition, BMW will begin selling its electric i4 BMW sedan this year, sooner than planned. Rolls-Royce, which has been owned by BMW since the late 1990s, will also offer an electric model, Mr. Zipse said, but he did not give details.
Unlike General Motors or Volvo, BMW and other German carmakers have not set a deadline to stop selling cars that run on fossil fuels. They argue that many regions lack charging stations for electric vehicles. “It is not realistic that the same technologies will prevail equally in every country at the same time,” Mr. Zipse said Wednesday.
BMW sold 2.3 million passenger cars last year, 8 percent fewer than in 2019. That is a relatively small number of vehicles compared with Volkswagen or Toyota, which sell four times that number, and could be a disadvantage as the industry goes electric.
BMW as well as Daimler will have trouble selling enough electric vehicles to justify the expense of retooling factories or developing dedicated platforms, Patrick Hummel, an auto industry analyst at UBS, said during a conference call with reporters last week.
“BMW and Daimler will not be in a position to replicate what Volkswagen is doing,” Mr. Hummel said.
Wall Street has been paying close attention to the outlook for inflation in recent weeks. Key price indexes are expected to bounce back after weak readings last year, and some economists have warned that big government spending could keep them elevated.
That could put a spotlight on Federal Reserve officials’ inflation estimates, and on anything that Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, says about the outlook during his news conference after the central bank’s meeting on Wednesday.
The Fed is trying to use its policies to coax the economy back to full employment while lifting and stabilizing inflation, which has been slipping in recent decades. It wants to hit 2 percent annual price gains on average, and it has pledged not to raise rates from near zero until they are poised to hum along at a slightly faster pace for some time.
But some prominent onlookers have warned that the economy could overheat. They say inflation may jump well above the 2 percent average target, thanks to government outlays and booming demand in a reopening economy.
Fed officials have been consistently less concerned about that possibility, and will give an up-to-date snapshot of their own expectations in their first Summary of Economic Projections of 2021. The last set of estimates, released in December, showed inflation stabilizing at 2 percent.
“How much do they revise up inflation? That’s something I’ll be looking for,” said Seth Carpenter, chief U.S. economist at UBS and a former Fed employee.
Analysts broadly expect price gains to accelerate in the coming months for a mechanical reason: The data are about to lap very weak readings from last spring. The most closely watched inflation measures are compared against the same month a year earlier, a recipe for an automatic increase.
But Fed leaders have been clear that a short-lived bounce is not what they’re talking about when they say they want to see quicker increases.
“There’s a difference between a one-time surge in prices and ongoing inflation,” Mr. Powell said this month.
Credit…Olivier Douliery/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Investors expect a stronger economy and slightly higher inflation in 2021, and they will watch the Federal Reserve chair, Jerome H. Powell, at his news conference on Wednesday for any hints about what that portends for the central bank’s bond-buying plans.
The Fed has been buying $120 billion in Treasury and mortgage-backed bonds each month, and officials have said they will continue that pace until they see “substantial” further progress.
But Mr. Powell and crew haven’t defined “substantial” with any precision. What counts as sufficient economic healing — when the Fed might slow and stop its program — matters to markets because the buying helps to push up prices in bonds and stocks alike.
Some investors have begun to expect the Fed to taper off its buying sooner than they had been forecasting. Others think a recent increase in longer-term bond yields, which has been driven by investor expectations for growth and inflation, could prompt the Fed to revamp its program in the near term.
That’s because those higher market-based rates could make mortgages more expensive and corporate investments less attractive, working against the Fed’s goals. The central bank could shift the composition of its purchases or even buy more to keep interest rates historically low across the spectrum.
Mr. Powell has pushed back on the idea that a taper is imminent and has promised that the Fed will alert investors well before the slowdown starts. He has also pointed out that rates are moving up because of a brightening outlook, and has suggested that the change isn’t worrying for now.
“I would be concerned by disorderly conditions in markets or a persistent tightening in financial conditions that threatens the achievement of our goals,” Mr. Powell said at an event this month, while stressing that the Fed looks at a range of financial conditions.
Credit…House Financial Services Committee
The House Financial Services Committee is holding its second hearing on the GameStop frenzy on Wednesday, with a range of experts expected to expound on what the saga says about the stock market’s plumbing.
The hearing appears likely to have a more wonkish tone than the committee’s first hearing on GameStop, which put a spotlight on Robinhood, the trading app at the center of a remarkable rally that sent shares of the struggling video game retailer up by over 1,600 percent in January.
Witnesses will include stock exchange officials, market analysts, former regulators and academics. Prepared testimony suggests the witnesses will focus on what — if any — deficiencies in the American stock trading system were revealed by the surge of trading in GameStop.
Sal Arnuk, co-founder of trading firm Themis Trading, plans to spotlight the growing role of payment-for-order-flow, where retail brokerage houses such as Robinhood channel customer orders to specific trading firms in exchange for payments.
“These practices create a massive incentive for such brokers to sell their clients orders to sophisticated trading firms uniquely tooled to profit off of them,” Mr. Arnuk will say, according to preliminary testimony released by the House committee. “This is a needless conflict that can harm retail investors, and it degrades the integrity of the market ecosystem as a whole.”
Other witnesses, such as Alexis Goldstein, a senior policy analyst at Americans for Financial Reform, will underscore the growing dominance of the trading firms that pay retail brokerage firms to execute their orders.
Two major market-makers, Citadel Securities and Virtu Financial, “execute a larger volume of U.S. stocks than the New York Stock Exchange,” she said in prepared testimony, urging regulators to look at whether their growth has worsened the prices that are available to investors on the public exchanges.
The hearing is to begin at 10 a.m. Other participants include Michael Blaugrund, chief operating officer of the New York Stock Exchange; Vicki L. Bogan, a Cornell University professor who focuses on the financial and investment behavior of households; Dennis Kelleher, the chief executive of Better Markets, which advocates market reforms; and Michael Piwowar, executive director of the Milken Institute Center for Financial Markets and a former S.E.C. commissioner.
Credit…Matt Rourke/Associated Press
The stimulus money promised under the American Rescue Plan will hit the bank accounts of many Americans on Wednesday — the first official payment date — though some financial institutions chose to make the cash available to people even before it arrived from the government.
Not everyone eligible to receive a payment will get one on Wednesday, though. Additional rounds of payments will be made in the coming weeks, including for people who will receive theirs by mail as a check or debit card. You can check the status of your payment with the Internal Revenue Service’s Get My Payment tool.
Payments top out at $1,400 per person, including children and adult dependents. To qualify for the full $1,400, a single person must have an adjusted gross income of $75,000 or below. For heads of household, adjusted gross income must be $112,500 or less, and for married couples filing jointly, that number has to be $150,000 or below. Partial payments are available to people who earn more, but the amounts fall quickly.
The payments are calculated using the most recent information on file with the I.R.S., which could be your 2019 tax return if you haven’t yet filed for 2020.
If you’re newly eligible for a payment based on your 2020 income but haven’t yet filed your return, the law allows the Treasury Department to continue payments until September. If you don’t get one during that period, you can claim what you’re owed when you file your 2021 taxes.
Amalgamated Bank, the New York-based lender with a history of supporting progressive causes, announced on Wednesday that it would endorse a bill calling for a federal commission to study the lingering effects of slavery — and the merits of providing reparations.
It is the first American bank to support H.R. 40. The legislation, named after the federal government’s promise to give freed families “40 acres and a mule,” was first proposed more than 30 years ago. Its current lead sponsor is Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, Democrat of Texas, and its 169 co-sponsors are all Democrats. (President Biden has endorsed forming a committee to study reparations, but he has not committed to signing the bill should Congress approve it, which isn’t assured.)
Amalgamated came to support the bill after racial justice protests last year. Lynne Fox, the lender’s chair and interim chief executive, told the DealBook newsletter that the protests convinced the bank’s leaders that they needed to address structural racism with “systemic changes” to society. The bank, which has $6 billion in assets, has previously embraced policies that it said would help reduce gun-related violence.
A bank’s support is symbolically important, according to Ms. Fox. “We acknowledge — and I think others in the financial industry need to acknowledge — the deep-rooted connections between the American financial sector and the slave economy,” she said.
Executives in the banking industry have noted that their firms’ histories have included financing slaveholders, and admitted more recently to racial discrimination against employees and customers. Lenders are under increasing pressure to promote racial equity, including by shareholders.
For her part, Ms. Fox declined to criticize other lenders directly. “We don’t see ourselves as judging other institutions’ conduct,” she said. “Talking is a good first step. We look forward to when other concrete steps are taken.”
Amalgamated has already moved to address racial equity within its walls, Ms. Fox said. Those steps include reviewing wage policies, forming an employee-led committee to review policies and practices, and providing antiracism training.
In its statement endorsing the legislation, Amalgamated pledged to do more: “We believe the commission created through H.R. 40 is an important first step towards achieving racial justice. The work shouldn’t stop there.”
The S&P 500 index opened slightly lower on Wednesday, before the latest Federal Reserve monetary policy decisions are announced.
The S&P 500 pulled back from a record high on Tuesday, but volatility in stock markets has subsided from earlier in the month when bond yields jumped higher at a rate that took investors by surprises and caught the attention of central bank officials.
Government bond prices fell on Wednesday, sending their yields higher. The yield on 10-year Treasury notes rose to 1.66 percent.
Most European stock indexes were lower. The Stoxx Europe 600 index fell 0.5 percent, led by health care and industrial companies, while Britain’s FTSE 100 index dropped 0.6 percent.
Oil prices fell. Futures on West Texas Intermediate, the U.S. crude benchmark, fell 0.8 percent to $64.26 a barrel.
A Bank of America analyst maintained his “buy” rating on Uber after the company said it would reclassify all 70,000 of its drivers in Britain as workers, giving them additional benefits, following a court ruling last month. Justin Post, the analyst, said the change would increase driver costs in the country by 7 percent to 9 percent but the outcome “reflects evolution, not platform risk.”
The benefits could make Uber more appealing for drivers, force other companies to make similar changes and make it harder for new entrants in the market, Mr. Post wrote in a research note. Uber’s share price opened down 2.2 percent on Wednesday.
Uber will reclassify more than 70,000 drivers in Britain as workers, it said on Tuesday. The decision, which will provide the drivers a minimum wage, vacation pay and access to a pension plan, is the first time the company has agreed to classify its drivers in this way, Uber said. It comes in response to a landmark British Supreme Court decision last month that said Uber drivers were entitled to more protections. The decision represents a shift for Uber, though the move was made easier by British labor rules that offer a middle ground between freelancers and full employees that doesn’t exist in other countries.
Google is cutting in half its commission on developers’ first $1 million in app sales, following a similar move by Apple that is aimed at appeasing developers and regulators who accuse the companies of abusing their dominance of the smartphone industry. Google said that starting July 1, it would take 15 percent of the first $1 million developers take in from certain app sales, down from 30 percent. Google will still charge 30 percent after the first $1 million.
The problems of Greensill Capital, a financial firm with ties to SoftBank and Credit Suisse, deepened Tuesday after its German unit entered insolvency proceedings.
Germany’s banking regulator, known as BaFin, said Tuesday that a judge had granted its request to open insolvency proceedings for Greensill Bank in Bremen. BaFin also formally determined that Greensill Bank was not able to repay all of its customers’ deposits, a step that allows depositors to receive compensation from public and private insurance funds.
The insolvency of the German unit was expected after Greensill Capital, which provides financing to companies and has been advised by former Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain, filed for a form of bankruptcy protection in Britain last week.
Credit Suisse acknowledged on Tuesday that it was likely to suffer losses from a loan it had made to the firm. It said that it had received $50 million from the administrator of Greensill Capital’s assets in Britain but that $90 million of the loan was outstanding.
Credit Suisse’s asset management unit oversaw $10 billion in funds that Greensill packaged based on financing it provided to companies. The loans allowed companies to stretch out payments to suppliers. Credit Suisse has returned $3 billion in cash to investors in the funds and said it was working to recover more money.
Credit Suisse said Tuesday that the funds’ managers “intend to announce further cash distributions over the coming months.” The bank has not specified what losses, if any, investors in the funds might ultimately suffer.