Inflation fears among America’s small businesses are rising again and their faith in the Fed is falling

The fight against inflation was going well for the Federal Reserve and economy for much of last year and into 2024, but one important demographic remained unconvinced about the progress being made in lowering pricing: small business owners.

Now, more influential parties are coming around to a view that small businesses have been stubborn in saying is closer to the on-the-ground truth: inflation isn’t coming down fast enough. On Wednesday, Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell conceded that after three months of disappointing data on inflation, there has been a “lack of further progress” this year. Market traders, who not long ago were in interest rate cut euphoria mode and forecasting up to six rate cuts by the Fed this year, are now more likely to see one or two cuts at most.

Disappointment over inflation is nothing new for small business owners, and their frustration over high prices is increasing again, according to the CNBC|SurveyMonkey Small Business Survey for Q2 2024.

One in four (24%) small business owners tell CNBC that they think inflation has reached a peak, down from 29% in the previous quarter, and back to where the economic sentiment reading was a year ago. The percentage of small business owners who expect inflation to rise from here is trending up as well — 75% this quarter, up from 69% in Q1.

“Small business owners are the engine of our economy, and the data shows they are still pessimistic about overcoming inflation,” Lara Belonogoff, senior director of brand management and research at SurveyMonkey, said in a statement upon the Q2 survey’s release.

This CNBC|SurveyMonkey online poll was conducted April 8-12, 2024 among a national sample of 2,130 self-identified small business owners ages 18 and up.

Despite a positive market reaction to Fed Chair Powell’s comments after the FOMC meeting on Wednesday — in the least, Powell all but ruled out another rate hike this year — small business confidence in the Fed has declined. Last quarter, a little over one-third (35%) of business owners said they had confidence in the Fed. That’s not fallen back to 31%, where it was in Q2 of last year.

“Inflation remains a top concern, clearly, for small businesses,” said U.S. Small Business Administration head Isabel Casillas Guzman in an interview with CNBC’s Kate Rogers at the virtual Small Business Playbook event on Thursday. “We’ve tried to make sure the SBA is more readily available to credit worthy borrowers out there. Half of businesses don’t get the capital they need fully, or at all.”

She suggested small business owners start with local SBA resource partners, local district offices, which can connect them with lenders on the ground, as well as starting with the SBA’s online Lender Match tool.

One finding over which small businesses are in line with a broader macro view is the overall state of the economy. Over one-quarter (27%) describe the economy as “excellent or good,” which has not trended lower even as inflation fears have picked back up. It’s also notably up from 21% in the year-ago quarterly survey. The economy’s performance helps explain why nearly three times as many business owners cite inflation as the biggest risk they face (37%) compared to the No. 2 threat, consumer demand, at 13%.

SBA Administrator Guzman cited the 17.2 million new business applications filed during the Biden administration as a sign of the economic optimism despite inflation. She pointed to the Biden legislation that is spurring government spending on infrastructure and clean energy, which are economic growth drivers. “These are all small business trades across those opportunities,” she said. “That’s the economic growth the president has been focused on.”

Increasingly, though, it’s also a fiscal policy-linked spending plan and rise in federal debt that economists are tying to sticky inflation.

The CNBC|SurveyMonkey Small Business Confidence Index was unmoved quarter-over-quarter, at 47 out of 100, and up one point from Q2 of last year.

Fed's Jerome Powell: Inflation remains too high and path forward is uncertain

The CNBC|SurveyMonkey data is consistent with other recent small business survey findings. Goldman Sachs’ 10,000 Small Businesses Voices survey released this week cited 71% of small business owners saying inflationary pressures have increased on their businesses over the past three months and 49% saying they’ve had to raise the prices. In the CNBC survey, 48% said they are raising prices.

Inflation will loom large in how America’s small business owners tilt in the presidential election.

Inflation is the No. 1 issue over which small business owners say they will vote, with 63% of survey respondents citing it, followed by economic growth at 61%.

Confidence in President Biden’s handling of the presidency — which is typically low in a small business demographic that skews conservative — remains underwater in the new survey, at 31%, down by two percentage points quarter over quarter. Among Republican small business owners taking the survey, 5% approve of the job Biden is doing. Among Democrats, 82% of small businesses approve of Biden, though pollsters say that approval ratings under 90% within one’s own party are a signal of dissatisfaction.

Biden has made some gains with his supporters, with the overall Small Business Confidence Index reading among this survey subset unchanged quarter over quarter at 61, and up from 55 in Q3 of 2023.

The CNBC survey found that in one area, small business owners who identify as either Republicans or Democrats do reach a rare point of consensus: both say that when it comes to government policy, they are getting slighted compared to large corporations.

The Goldman Sachs survey found that 55% of business owners are unhappy with the amount of focus small business issues get from candidates. Inflation, at 73%, was the issue cited most frequently.

Guzman said that the SBA has doubled the number of small-dollar loans, including to startups, as well as to women and people of color, who she noted are starting businesses at the highest rates. She also said more of the government loan volume is going into “rural banking deserts.”

And the total amount of government contracts going to small businesses has reached 28%, Guzman said, roughly $178 billion, according to the recent government scorecard. “We want more people to do business with the largest buyer in the world,” she said. 



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‘Iran is in for the long haul’ with oil tanker hijacks, expert says, as U.S. considers more sanctions

Iranian soldiers take part in an annual military drill in the coast of the Gulf of Oman and near the strategic Strait of Hormuz.

Anadolu | Anadolu | Getty Images

The containership MSC Aries seized by Iran over the weekend marked at least the sixth vessel hijacked by Iran and its proxies in response to the Israel-Gaza war, and it’s adding to the challenges to longstanding freedom of navigation principles that maritime shipping relies on.

Before this weekend’s tanker seizure, the last vessel Iran hijacked was the St. Nikolas on January 1. According to U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, that brought the total number of vessels being held to five, and over 90 crew members hostage. Previous to that, the Iranian-backed Houthis hijacked The Galaxy Leader on November 19.

The latest development has shipping and energy experts bracing for a long-term timeline of uncertainty.

“Iran is in this for the long haul,” said Samir Madani, co-founder of Tankertrackers.com, an independent online service that tracks and reports crude oil shipments in several geographical and geopolitical points of interest.

The MSC Aries was identified by Iran as having a link to Israel. The containership has a carrying capacity of 15,000-TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent containers). MSC leases the Aries from Gortal Shipping, an affiliate of Zodiac Maritime, which is partly owned by Israeli businessman Eyal Ofer.

MSC declined to comment directly to CNBC.

In a statement released by MSC on Wednesday, it said the crew members were safe and discussions with Iranian authorities were underway to secure their earliest release and to have the cargo discharged.

Madani said he does not expect a quick release. “They will hold the MSC Aries for a long period. Iran has been holding some tankers for about a year, if not longer now,” he said.

According to Tankertracker information, Madani said the vessel is being held in the Khuran Straits, not too far from three other tankers Iran hijacked: the Advantage Sweet, Niovi, and St. Nikolas.

A Planet Labs satellite image of the location of the MSC Aries and other tankers recently hijacked by Iran.

Planet Labs PBC

As the U.S. considers more sanctions against Iran in response to its recent attack on Israel, Iran has been using the hijacked ships as a means of sanctions retaliation.

“Iran has already seized the Kuwaiti oil that was onboard the Advantage Sweet and has been loaded onto their VLCC supertanker the Navarz. Iran chose to do this as a way to compensate for sanctions,” Madani said.

While the Niovi was empty at the time of the seizure, the St. Nikolas is filled with a million barrels of Iraqi oil.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said on Tuesday that the government may do more to prevent Iran’s ability to export oil despite U.S. sanctions. China’s purchases of Iranian oil in recent years have allowed Iran to keep a positive trade balance.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, China, the world’s largest importer of crude oil, imported 11.3 million barrels per day of crude oil in 2023, 10% more than in 2022. Iran ranked second in oil exports to China behind Russia. Customs data indicates that China imported 54% more crude oil (1.1 million b/d) from Malaysia in 2023 than in 2022, with industry analysts speculating that much of the oil shipped from Iran to China was relabeled as originating from countries such as Malaysia, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman to avoid U.S. sanctions.

The markets continues to assess the risk of further escalation in the military tensions between Israel and Iran, which could lead to a disruption in the Strait of Hormuz, through which about 30% of the world’s seaborne oil passes, according to JPMorgan. On Tuesday, oil edged higher amid talk of sanctions.

An Iranian blockade would supercharge oil prices, but the risk is low given that the strait has never been closed off despite many threats by Tehran to do so over the past four decades, according to JPMorgan.

“They can’t close the Strait of Hormuz, but they can do significant damage to energy infrastructure, to vessels in the region,” RBC’s head of global commodity strategy and Middle East and North Africa research, Helima Croft, told CNBC on Monday, referring to Iran’s capabilities.

“While I can’t imagine Iran would want to fill up their anchorage with vessels, they want to keep the waters in a constant state of chaos,” Madani said. But with a closure, he said, “They would shoot themselves in the foot since their biggest client is China.”

Andy Lipow, president of Lipow Oil Associates, says the closure of the Strait of Hormuz would result in a spike of Brent crude oil prices to the $120 to $130 range. “This would strain ties with China and India who purchase a significant amount of Persian Gulf oil to meet much of their energy demand.”

Lipow also said Iran might be reluctant to shut the waterway for fear of antagonizing Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq, who depend on the strait being open for most of their oil exports. The bigger immediate fear in the oil market, he said, is that the attack by Iran on Israeli territory leading to a counterattack by Israel on Iran damaging oil-producing and exporting facilities.

Kevin Book, managing director of ClearView Energy Partners, says the markets need to keep an eye on sanctions from both the US and UN potentially.

In a note to clients, ClearView highlighted that the House of Representatives added several Iran sanctions bills to its calendar for consideration this week, under suspension rules, including new sanctions on Iranian oil exports to China. Book said the House was considering 11 bills in all in response to Iran’s attack on Israel.

“We think most if not all bills could garner (notionally) veto-proof bipartisan support,” the note said. “Passage requires a two-thirds majority of all members present and voting.”

Israel has also asked the U.N. to reinstate multilateral sanctions lifted by the Iran nuclear deal, but for this to happen, France, Germany and the U.K., parties to the nuclear deal, would have to agree. “There are many risks unfolding. The forest is on fire,” Book said.

Sen. Dean Sullivan talks impact of Iran's strikes on Israel and what it means for crude oil prices

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‘Too few college-educated men’: A look at why many women undergo egg freezing, and the costs associated with it

Lynn Curry, nurse practitioner for Huntsville Reproductive Medicine, P.C., lifts frozen embryos out of IVF cryopreservation dewar, in Madison, Alabama, U.S., March 4, 2024. 

Roselle Chen | Reuters

As legal battles over reproductive rights increase across the U.S., one area that could be impacted is egg freezing.

In February, the Alabama state Supreme Court ruled that all embryos created through in vitro fertilization are considered children. This ruling could have far-reaching ramifications of civil and criminal liabilities for fertility clinics and their patients. Over 1 million frozen eggs and embryos are stored in the United States alone, according to biotech fertility company TMRW Life Sciences.

Women who choose to undergo reproductive technology procedures such as egg freezing face a long road riddled with obstacles. Here’s a look into the driving forces behind egg freezing and the financial, social and emotional costs that come with it — based on personal experiences from women across the country.

The ‘mating gap’: What’s driving egg freezing

There’s a notion that most women delaying motherhood are doing so to focus on other aspects of their lives, such as their careers. That’s not so much the case anymore, according to Marcia Inhorn, a professor specializing in medical anthropology at Yale University.

“The majority of women who freeze their eggs are doing it because they have not found a partner. I call that the mating gap — the lack of eligible, educated, equal partners,” Inhorn, who last year authored the book “Motherhood on Ice: The Mating Gap and Why Women Freeze Their Eggs,” told CNBC.

This problem stems from the fact that today, women are receiving higher education at greater rates than men. Inhorn noted that women are outperforming men in higher education in 60% of countries, and that in the United States alone there are 27% more women than men in higher education.

“The result is that, for women who are highly educated in America and of reproductive age — between 20 and 39 — there literally are millions too few college-educated men,” Inhorn added.

Another reason women freeze their eggs is the sense of empowerment the procedure brings them. Fundamentally, Inhorn believes that this freedom that egg freezing allows is what ultimately draws increasingly younger women to the procedure.

“It gives you a little reprieve, a little extra time,” she said.

This statement is one that reproductive endocrinologists and fertility specialists Drs. Nicole Noyes and Aimee Eyvazzadeh agree with.

Noyes, who has worked in the fertility industry since 2004 and is based in New York, has seen a noticeable shift in her patients’ ages and attitudes in the last two decades. In the beginning, her patients tended to be older, in their early 40s and viewed egg freezing as a last-ditch procedure as they hedged the end of their reproductive lives. Now, women as young as their late 20s come in to see Noyes.

Eyvazzadeh, who has also worked in the field for 20 years and lives in California, has noticed a trend towards younger patients who are choosing to freeze their eggs while they’re at their most viable.

This is the case for social media influencer Serena Kerrigan, who just recently turned 30. Despite being in a relationship, egg freezing was a procedure she willingly undertook while focusing on growing her business, she told CNBC.

Kerrigan, who has more than 800,000 followers between her Instagram and TikTok and is based in New York, began sharing her egg freezing journey last year. She wanted to remove some of the stigma around egg freezing and give her followers an inside look at the arduous process.

Kerrigan has paid for all her procedures on her own, she told CNBC, and recently partnered with her clinic, Spring Fertility, to donate a round of egg freezing to one of her followers. Eventually, she hopes egg freezing can be less stigmatized.

“There’s a layer of shame or taboo that I actually don’t understand. To me, this is science, and this is incredible, and this is a huge advancement,” she said. “This is a way of putting the power back into women and having control of their lives.”

The benefits are high, but so are the costs

While the benefits of egg freezing are certainly enormous, so too are the associated costs.

The average price for a single egg freezing cycle in the U.S. clocks in at $11,000. Many women need multiple egg freezing cycles, especially as they grow older and egg number and quality begin to deteriorate. That’s not to mention additional charges like hormone medication and yearly storage fees, which could respectively clock in at around $5,000 and $2,000.

Nutrition health coach Jenny Hayes Edwards froze her eggs in 2010 at 34 years old and was one of the first women in the U.S. to undergo the procedure. Despite it still being labeled an “experimental” procedure in the U.S., Hayes Edwards was certain she wanted to try. She wasn’t dating anybody at the time and was “working like crazy” while running her restaurant businesses in Colorado.

But high costs were her number one obstacle. Her restaurants had taken a hit after the 2008 financial collapse, when many consumers began foregoing their expensive ski vacations in Colorado.

Hayes Edwards remembers it being a tough decision to make. But her mother eventually helped sway her in favor of the procedure.

“It’s just money, and the opportunity that you might be missing is so much bigger,” Hayes Edwards recalled her mother saying. “I was so grateful that she pushed me over the edge.”

She was able to scrape together the $15,000 needed through maxing out a credit card, selling some jewelry and liquidating a bond in her inheritance.

Hayes Edwards now has a healthy three-year-old daughter, conceived nearly a decade after she froze her eggs, and is still appreciative for the extra time egg freezing bought her to meet her now-husband.

Employer benefits

In recent years, egg freezing, fertility and family planning services have increasingly popped up as employer benefits, especially among technology companies. A 2021 study from Mercer showed 42% of large companies — those with at least 20,000 employees — covered in vitro fertilization services in 2020, up from 36% in 2015. Nineteen-percent of these companies had egg freezing benefits, more than triple the 6% offering these benefits in 2015.

Michelle Parsons decided to freeze her eggs since the procedure was offered through her job. The various tech companies Parsons has worked for have offered anywhere between $10,000 to $75,000 in fertility benefits.

Parsons, who is a lesbian, had always known that she wanted to freeze her eggs — and undertook the procedure while working at Match Group as chief product officer of dating app Hinge. At the time, neither she nor her ex-partner were ready to have children, but it was one financial incentive Parsons didn’t want to miss out on.

Besides eggs, Parsons also chose to freeze her successfully fertilized embryos as another backup. Frozen embryos have a much higher likelihood of viable thawing. In fact, Parsons’ search for a sperm donor sparked one of the most-used features on the Hinge app — voice prompts.

“When we started to listen to all of these voice recordings of potential sperm donors, the lightbulb went off in my head and I was like, wow, this is what’s missing from dating right now,” Parsons told CNBC. “Because voice gives you so much nuance into personality, humor, vibe … we ended up building that feature called voice prompts on Hinge and it was a huge, wild success that led to rapid growth for Hinge and it became viral on TikTok.”

Still, Parsons noticed egg freezing taking a toll on her professional and personal life in other ways.

“You have to inject yourself with hormones for two weeks. You have to eat differently. You don’t really want to be in social settings. You can’t drink. There are all these other ramifications around just going through that process, even though we know it’ll be for this one month and then it’ll be over,” she said.

The process also doesn’t guarantee success.

Evelyn Gosnell underwent her first egg retrieval when she was 32, following by two additional cycles at 36 and 38 years old. By the time she was ready to have children with her now-partner, the New York-based behavioral scientist had many frozen eggs ready. But, she received no viable and normal embryos after her eggs had been thawed and fertilized.

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Powell reinforces position that the Fed is not ready to start cutting interest rates

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell on Wednesday reiterated that he expects interest rates to start coming down this year, but is not ready yet to say when.

In prepared remarks for congressionally mandated appearances on Capitol Hill Wednesday and Thursday, Powell said policymakers remain attentive to the risks that inflation poses and don’t want to ease up too quickly.

“In considering any adjustments to the target range for the policy rate, we will carefully assess the incoming data, the evolving outlook, and the balance of risks,” he said. “The Committee does not expect that it will be appropriate to reduce the target range until it has gained greater confidence that inflation is moving sustainably toward 2 percent.”

Those remarks were taken verbatim from the Federal Open Market Committee’s statement following its most recent meeting, which concluded Jan. 31.

During the question-and-answer session with House Financial Services Committee members, Powell said he needs “see a little bit more data” before moving on rates.

“We think because of the strength in the economy and the strength in the labor market and the progress we’ve made, we can approach that step carefully and thoughtfully and with greater confidence,” he said. “When we reach that confidence, the expectation is we will do so sometime this year. We can then begin dialing back that restriction on our policy.”

Stocks posted gains as Powell spoke, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average up more than 250 points heading into midday. Treasurys yields mostly moved lower as the benchmark 10-year note was off about 0.3 percentage point to 4.11%.

Rates likely at peak

In total, the speech broke no new ground on monetary policy or the Fed’s economic outlook. However, the comments indicated that officials remain concerned about not losing the progress made against inflation and will make decisions based on incoming data rather than a preset course.

“We believe that our policy rate is likely at its peak for this tightening cycle. If the economy evolves broadly as expected, it will likely be appropriate to begin dialing back policy restraint at some point this year,” Powell said in the comments. “But the economic outlook is uncertain, and ongoing progress toward our 2 percent inflation objective is not assured.”

He noted again that lowering rates too quickly risks losing the battle against inflation and likely having to raise rates further, while waiting too long poses danger to economic growth.

Markets had been widely expecting the Fed to ease up aggressively following 11 interest rate hikes totaling 5.25 percentage points that spanned March 2022 to July 2023.

In recent weeks, though, those expectations have changed following multiple cautionary statements from Fed officials. The January meeting helped cement the Fed’s cautious approach, with the statement explicitly saying rate cuts aren’t coming yet despite the market’s outlook.

As things stand, futures market pricing points to the first cut coming in June, part of four reductions this year totaling a full percentage point. That’s slightly more aggressive than the Fed’s outlook in December for three cuts.

Inflation easing

Despite the resistance to move forward on cuts, Powell noted the movement the Fed has made toward its goal of 2% inflation without tipping over the labor market and broader economy.

“The economy has made considerable progress toward these objectives over the past year,” Powell said. He noted that inflation has “eased substantially” as “the risks to achieving our employment and inflation goals have been moving into better balance.”

Inflation as judged by the Fed’s preferred gauge is currently running at a 2.4% annual rate — 2.8% when stripping out food and energy in the core reading that the Fed prefers to focus on. The numbers reflect “a notable slowing from 2022 that was widespread across both goods and services prices.”

“Longer-term inflation expectations appear to have remained well anchored, as reflected by a broad range of surveys of households, businesses, and forecasters, as well as measures from financial markets,” he added.

Powell is likely to face a variety of questions during his two-day visit to Capitol Hill, which started with an appearance Wednesday before the House Financial Services Committee and concludes Thursday before the Senate Banking Committee.

Questioning largely centered around Powell’s views on inflation and rates.

Republicans on the committee also grilled Powell on the so-called Basel III Endgame revisions to bank capital requirements. Powell said he is part of a group on the Board of Governors that has “real concerns, very specific concerns” about the proposals and said the withdrawal of the plan “is a live option.” Some of the earlier market gains Wednesday faded following reports that New York Community Bank is looking to raise equity capital, raising fresh concerns about the state of midsize U.S. banks.

Though the Fed tries to stay out of politics, the presidential election year poses particular challenges.

Former President Donald Trump, the likely Republican nominee, was a fierce critic of Powell and his colleagues while in office. Some congressional Democrats, led by Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, have called on the Fed to reduce rates as pressure builds on lower-income families to make ends meet.

Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., joined the Democrats in calling for lower rates. During his term, Democrats frequently criticized Trump for trying to cajole the Fed into cutting.

“Housing inflation and housing affordability [is] the No. 1 issue I’m hearing about from my constituents,” Pressley said. “Families in my district and throughout this country need relief now. I truly hope the Fed will listen to them and cut interest rates.”

Correction: Ayanna Pressley is a Democratic representative from Massachusetts. An earlier version misidentified the state.

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‘Two Sessions’ congress: The economic goals in Chinese leaders’ coded language

China’s “Two Sessions” congress that began this week is the country’s most important political event of the year. To understand what’s at stake, it helps to have some fluency in Chinese Communist Party (CCP) parlance. Terms such as “new productive forces” and “new three” appear vague, but they speak volumes about the party’s agenda during the 10-day congress.

China’s annual political extravaganza has attained cruising speed. The “Two Sessions” congress of two of the country’s most important political bodies has already touched on economic recovery, the modernisation of the army, foreign relations and the question of Taiwan.

During the event, nearly 3,000 members of the National People’s Congress (NPC) – China’s parliament – meet to set the legislative agenda for the coming year. The 2023 session set the roadmap for more than 2,000 measures that were adopted, according to the official Xinhua news agency.

Alongside the NPC meeting, the congress also hosts the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a body meant to give its opinion on the political priorities for the year. Some 2,000 members of the CCP and civil society debate under the watchful eye of Beijing.

The Two Sessions are framed by Chinese media as the best way for a foreign observer to understand how “Chinese democracy” works. They can thus offer a good reading of the political climate in China – provided one understands the CCP parlance in use. One of the best ways to build literacy is to spot the buzzwords that pop up again and again, as reported by Bloomberg News.

Most of them may seem obscure at first glance. What does Chinese President Xi Jinping mean by the “new productive forces”? What are the “new three” developments that participants in the Two Sessions often refer to? Knowing how to interpret these terms “enables us to understand the main developments in the economic and social policy of Xi Jinping and the government, beyond the official announcements”, says Marc Lanteigne, a Sinologist at the Arctic University of Norway.

These buzzwords are also a way to implicitly acknowledge mistakes. Chinese leaders “are never going to clearly say ‘no way’, but the coded language often heralds changes in direction, and thus a tacit acknowledgment that something wasn’t working anymore”, says Lanteigne.

To help make sense of it all, FRANCE 24 has examined three terms in use during these Two Sessions that can help clarify the CCP’s true perspective on China’s economic and social situation, a viewpoint that is not necessarily obvious in official media and public statements.

The ‘new productive forces’

Xi has been using this expression since at least September, but China’s president never specifies which forces he is invoking to rescue the country’s economy.

He referred to them again during the Two Sessions to affirm that they would enable China to reach a 5 percent growth target without any problems.

The “new productive forces” are “a modern version of expressions used by all Chinese leaders since Mao Zedong to designate the economic sectors that are going to be favoured”, explains Lanteigne.

The Sinologist is betting that Xi is referring to services – especially financial – and information technologies with the 2024 version of “productive forces”.

By invoking “new” forces, Xi also aims to sideline the “old” engines of Chinese growth. In other words, the president is indicating that it is time to stop “betting everything on investment in infrastructure and real estate”, says Lanteigne, who expects to see less construction of highways and railroads. Real estate developers, shaken by the fall of debt-laden Evergrande, have received confirmation that saving them is no longer a government priority, he adds.

‘AI plus’ 

Chinese Premier Li Qiang put the country’s “AI plus” initiative on the map. He made it the cornerstone of the “work report” published by the NPC on Tuesday.

Here again, “the contours of this concept are very vague”, says Lanteigne. The main idea is to support artificial intelligence in all sectors of the economy. But how, when, and where to begin? “We’ll have to wait for the details, but the ambition is clear: to make AI a driving force in the economy and boost artificial intelligence research”, he says.

China is far from the only country betting on AI: since the advent of ChatGPT, artificial intelligence has become the hot topic for everyone. But it’s the “plus” that is meant to distinguish China’s engagement.

“By adding a ‘plus’, the authorities want to give the impression that China is already at the next stage,” says Lanteigne.

The term suggests that Beijing has already mastered AI and is now looking for the best ways to use it. It also aims to counter the image of a country that is falling behind. Blame it on ChatGPT and its clones: all these tools come from the West, and a narrative has started to develop suggesting China is having trouble catching up.

Read moreChina, AI and a say on world order: Why the US rejoined UNESCO

The ‘new three’ 

The expression has gained popularity in the media and economic circles for over a year, as noted in a Citigroup bank report published in January 2024. During the recent debates in the NPC, Li expressed delight that “the new three have grown by 30 percent in one year”.

The term refers to solar panels, electric cars and batteries. “It’s not surprising that this term is being put forward at a time when China’s champion electric car maker – BYD – is displaying increasingly global ambitions,” says Lanteigne.

By using the term, the government is showing its support for a manufacturer whose commercial appetite is beginning to concern Western countries. In late February, US President Joe Biden described Chinese electric cars as a risk to American “national security”.

“It’s also a concept that complements the idea of ‘new productive forces’,” says Lanteigne. Once again, it’s a question of turning over a new leaf: these “new three” are opposed to the “old” sectors – textiles and cheap electronics – that were China’s international glory.

China aims to show countries that it intends to remain the “world’s factory”, but now for technological products with high added value.

These “new three” pillars have something in common: “They are meant to illustrate China’s ambition to move towards an eco-responsible economy,” says Lanteigne.

Solar panels represent renewable energy, while electric cars and the batteries that power them symbolise the decarbonisation of road traffic. The “new three” thus also serves as a new slogan for “green” China.

This article is a translation of the original in French.

Read moreAsia-Pacific region: A new cold war brewing

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For Black workers, progress in the workplace but still a high hill to climb

Ali and Jamila Wright, co-owners of Brooklyn Tea.

Courtesy: Brooklyn Tea

Looking at the state of Black employment in America tells a mixed story: Much progress has been made in the age of the Covid-19 pandemic and beyond, but much is left to be done.

In the nearly four years that have passed since the pandemic upended the U.S. economy, the advancement for Black people has been unmistakable: a surge in earnings that outdid the gains for both white and Hispanic people, an unemployment rate that has fallen more than a percentage point from where it stood in January 2020 and a general sense that the collective consciousness has been raised regarding inequality in the workplace.

Yet, there are still racial discrepancies in terms of earnings. Black workers are still notably underrepresented in some professions, particularly high-end tech, and efforts to address some of these issues have fallen out of favor amid criticism that they have gone too far and are inefficient.

On balance, though, there’s a feeling of optimism that real progress has been made.

“This recovery really stretched the limits of what policymakers thought was possible for Black workers,” said Jessica Fulton, interim president at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that focuses on issues for people and communities of color. “We were in a situation where folks accepted that Black unemployment was going to always be high and there was nothing that they could do about it. So I think this is an opportunity to continue to push the limits of what’s possible.”

When looking at the data, the numbers are encouraging.

The Black unemployment rate in January was 5.3%, up a touch from December but still near the all-time low of 4.8% hit in April 2023. Black employment in the month totaled nearly 20.9 million people, up 6.3% from February 2020, the month before the pandemic hit, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

From a pay standpoint, the numbers are even more encouraging. For Black workers, weekly before-tax earnings as of the end of 2023 have risen 24.8% since the first quarter of 2020. That’s more than the 18.1% increase for white people and the 22.6% rise for Hispanics during the period. Of the groups the BLS measures, only Asians, at 25.1% had seen bigger pay gains.

Still, the unemployment rate is lower for white people, by a wide margin at 3.4% in January.

“High unemployment for Black workers is a solvable problem,” Fulton said. “There are challenges we need to address. We need to figure out how to address discrimination, we need to figure out how do we address unequal access to high-quality workforce development. We need to figure out how to address labor loopholes.”

Focus on tech

One of the areas where the greatest discrepancies exist for underrepresented groups is technology, where Black people and others hold few positions and even fewer are in management roles.

The situation is well-documented. While Black people make up about 12% of the U.S. labor force, they hold just 8% of all tech jobs and a mere 3% of executive positions, according to a McKinsey & Company study released in 2023.

There are several groups working to address the disparity, with varying levels of success.

Those involved tell similar stories. Black workers are interested in tech and believe there are opportunities. Companies don’t understand the real-world benefits of a diverse workplace. Opportunities are limited amid a backlash against the diversity, equity and inclusion push.

“Diversity is not just a warm and fuzzy feeling. You are proven by numbers to get a better return on investment,” said Autumn Nash, a software engineer at a major tech company in the Northwest that she asked not to be named because the company hadn’t given permission for this article.

Nash, who is Black, holds a prominent position in tech, where she has worked for well over a decade while both climbing the corporate ladder and trying to assist those in her cohort achieve success as well.

Autumn Nash

Courtesy: Autumn Nash

Along with her work responsibilities, she’s involved with several organizations looking to help others achieve in tech. They include Rewriting the Code, a global network founded in 2017 that focuses on women, and MilSpouse Coders, which assists military spouses and where Nash serves as education board chair.

Companies that build diversity the right way prosper, she said. Those that don’t have suffered on a tangible level in the form of products that are inadequate and data bases that don’t reflect real-world dynamics.

“The lack of diversity has left very big, wonderful tech companies with egg on their face, because they’ve had premature products,” Nash said. “One of the best ways to fight data bias is with diversity, and it’s diversity in all different backgrounds. If you look at the boards of most big AI companies, do you see diversity there?”

Indeed, instances of bias along racial lines is still seen as a significant problem, particularly in tech.

Some 24% of tech workers said they experienced racial discrimination at work in 2022, up from 18% the prior year, according to a survey by tech career marketplace Dice. While some companies have changed their corporate culture, many others remain behind.

“There are some good stories out there,” said Sue Harnett, founder of Rewriting the Code. “Goldman Sachs and Bank of America do an outstanding job, not only trying to recruit, but actually bringing them on board and converting them from being interns to full-time employees.”

Rewriting the Code collaborates with workers and companies to address diversity issues. Specifically, the organization focuses on college women and follows them through the first six years or so on their career path.

On the downside, Harnett still sees too many token measures that don’t go far enough.

For instance, she said some companies focus on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, which only goes so far in being able to find a capable and diverse workforce.

“I cringe when I talk with a company and ask them about their diversity recruiting strategy and their answer is they work with HBCUs,” she said. “That can be part of the strategy, but it shouldn’t be the only strategy.”

Harnett is sympathetic, though, with how tough the job can be.

“The amount of money that you have to put in to try and find this talent can be overwhelming, but I think there are solutions out there, so I’m personally optimistic,” she said. “I wish we made more progress by now. But the companies are ones that will drive this.”

The small business view

Sometimes the answers are found closer to home.

Ali and Jamila Wright are co-owners of Brooklyn Tea, a small business based in the New York City borough that has expanded to Atlanta and is looking for more growth opportunities.

From a hiring strategy, they focus almost solely on underrepresented groups who have a variety of employment needs. For instance, they hire actors in between shows or other workers in other professions who have been laid off and need a bridge until they find other employment.

Ali and Jamila Wright, co-owners of Brooklyn Tea.

Courtesy: Brooklyn Tea

“All of our employees are people of color,” Ali Wright said. “We have people of color, we have people that are binary or nonbinary. So being that we are diverse ourselves, it just makes it easier to hire people that we know are systematically disadvantaged.”

Brooklyn Tea has been a beneficiary of a relatively booming small business environment, particularly for Black and Latino entrepreneurs.

Black-owned businesses as a share of Black households surged from 5% to 11% from 2019 to 2022, the fastest pace in 30 years, according to the Small Business Administration. The surge has come as the number and dollar value of loans to Black-owned businesses has more than doubled and as the share of the SBA’s loan portfolio to minority-owned businesses has jumped to more than 32% from 23% since 2020.

However, race remains a tenuous dynamic in the U.S., and there’s always the possibility that progress can be rolled back, particularly considering a growingly hostile attitude toward DEI initiatives. Critics say the approach has resulted in a misallocation of resources, particularly following controversies at Ivy League schools.

“From 2020 until 2022, that’s when we all felt the most potential and the most hope, even in the midst of a pandemic,” Jamila Wright said. “We were receiving so much funding and just collaboration from corporate entities, and that attack on DEI has impacted some of the businesses, including ours.”

But the controversies have mainly triggered a reexamination of how to achieve diversity, not a backdown on initiatives in general.

For instance, a Conference Board survey in December found no human resources executives were planning to scale back diversity efforts. Still, Jamila Wright said she is cautious about the future.

“I think history has taught us that nothing, when it comes to race in America, blows over quickly,” she said. “So it’s just us trying to figure out how to be savvy in situations where we shouldn’t have to be savvy. That has been something that we have to become equipped to do.”

CORRECTION: Autumn Nash is a software engineer at a major tech company in the Northwest. A representative for her firm misstated her name.

Bonawyn Eison: Removing barriers will lead to reform

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Fed officials expressed caution about lowering rates too quickly at last meeting, minutes show

WASHINGTON – Federal Reserve officials indicated at their last meeting that they were in no hurry to cut interest rates and expressed both optimism and caution on inflation, according to minutes from the session released Wednesday.

The discussion came as policymakers not only decided to leave their key overnight borrowing rate unchanged but also altered the post-meeting statement to indicate that no cuts would be coming until the rate-setting Federal Open Market Committee held “greater confidence” that inflation was receding.

“Most participants noted the risks of moving too quickly to ease the stance of policy and emphasized the importance of carefully assessing incoming data in judging whether inflation is moving down sustainably to 2 percent,” the minutes stated.

The meeting summary did indicate a general sense of optimism that the Fed’s policy moves had succeeded in lowering the rate of inflation, which in mid-2022 hit its highest level in more than 40 years.

However, officials noted that they wanted to see more before starting to ease policy, while saying that rate hikes are likely over.

“In discussing the policy outlook, participants judged that the policy rate was likely at its peak for this tightening cycle,” the minutes stated. But, “Participants generally noted that they did not expect it would be appropriate to reduce the target range for the federal funds rate until they had gained greater confidence that inflation was moving sustainably toward 2 percent.”

Before the meeting, a string of reports showed that inflation, while still elevated, was moving back toward the Fed’s 2% target. While the minutes assessed the “solid progress” being made, the committee viewed some of that progress as “idiosyncratic” and possibly due to factors that won’t last.

Consequently, members said they will “carefully assess” incoming data to judge where inflation is heading over the longer term. Officials noted both upside and downside risks and worried about lowering rates too quickly.

Questions over how quickly to move

“Participants highlighted the uncertainty associated with how long a restrictive monetary policy stance would need to be maintained,” the summary said.

Officials “remained concerned that elevated inflation continued to harm households, especially those with limited means to absorb higher prices,” the minutes said. “While the inflation data had indicated significant disinflation in the second half of last year, participants observed that they would be carefully assessing incoming data in judging whether inflation was moving down sustainably toward 2 percent.”

The minutes reflected an internal debate over how quickly the Fed will want to move considering the uncertainty about the outlook.

Since the Jan. 30-31 meeting, the cautionary approach has borne out as separate readings on consumer and producer prices showed inflation running hotter than expected and still well ahead of the Fed’s 2% 12-month target.

Multiple officials in recent weeks have indicated a patient approach toward loosening monetary policy. A stable economy, which grew at a 2.5% annualized pace in 2023, has encouraged FOMC members that the succession of 11 interest rate hikes implemented in 2022 and 2023 have not substantially hampered growth.

To the contrary, the U.S. labor market has continued to expand at a brisk pace, adding 353,000 nonfarm payroll positions in January. First-quarter economic data thus far is pointing to GDP growth of 2.9%, according to the Atlanta Fed.

Along with the discussion on rates, members also brought up the bond holdings on the Fed’s balance sheet. Since June 2022, the central bank has allowed more than $1.3 trillion in Treasurys and mortgage-backed securities to roll off rather than reinvesting proceeds as usual.

‘Ample level of reserves’

The minutes indicated that a more in-depth discussion will take place at the March meeting. Policymakers also indicated at the January meeting that they are likely to take a go-slow approach on a process nicknamed “quantitative tightening.” The pertinent question is how high reserve holdings will need to be to satisfy banks’ needs. The Fed characterizes the current level as “ample.”

“Some participants remarked that, given the uncertainty surrounding estimates of the ample level of reserves, slowing the pace of runoff could help smooth the transition to that level of reserves or could allow the Committee to continue balance sheet runoff for longer,” the minutes said. “In addition, a few participants noted that the process of balance sheet runoff could continue for some time even after the Committee begins to reduce the target range for the federal funds rate.”

Fed officials consider current policy to be restrictive, so the big question going forward will be how much it will need to be relaxed both to support growth and control inflation.

There is some concern that growth continues to be too fast.

The consumer price index rose 3.1% on a 12-month basis in January – 3.9% when excluding food and energy, the latter of which posted a big decline during the month. So-called sticky CPI, which weighs toward housing and other prices that don’t fluctuate as much, rose 4.6%, according to the Atlanta Fed. Producer prices increased 0.3% on a monthly basis, well above Wall Street expectations.

In an interview on CBS’ “60 Minutes” that aired just a few days after the FOMC meeting, Chair Jerome Powell said, “With the economy strong like that, we feel like we can approach the question of when to begin to reduce interest rates carefully.” He added that he is looking for “more evidence that inflation is moving sustainably down to 2%.”

Markets have since had to recalibrate their expectations for rate cuts.

Where traders in the fed funds futures market had been pricing in a near lock for a March cut, that has been pushed out to June. The expected level of cuts for the full year had been reduced to four from six. FOMC officials in December projected three.

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The ‘generals’ elections’ that turned against Pakistan’s military

Pakistan’s 2024 general elections were dubbed the “most rigged” in the country’s history, with the popular Imran Khan barred from running and the military seen as backing former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. That was before results showed Khan-backed independent candidates leading the race. The stage appears to be set for a turbulent period after an irate electorate reacted to the military’s perceived meddling in politics – again.

Voters in the 2024 Pakistani general elections manoeuvred sheaves of ballot papers offering a profusion of symbols including tables, chairs, apples, airplanes, calculators and kitchen appliances. But there was no cricket bat on the ballot. 

With former cricket star and prime minister Imran Khan behind bars, his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party was banned from using its signature icon in a country where symbols are important tools for the electorate because of high illiteracy rates. This forced PTI-backed candidates to run as independents, each using different symbols that stretched ballot papers and the national imagination.

The country’s real power-wielder, however, was not on the ballot paper, and Pakistanis were never given a symbol or say on the issue.

The 2024 general election was dubbed the most rigged in Pakistan’s history, with wags on social media calling it the “generals’ election”, referring to the all-powerful military in the nuclear-armed South Asian nation.

The consensus ahead of the vote was that regardless of who forms a government, the army would continue to rule the roost. The newly elected civilian administration would simply have to follow the rules of the Pakistani power game to survive.

In the course of its 76-year history, Pakistan has developed a system that some scholars call a “hybrid regime” featuring a mix of civilian politics and military interference in electoral democracy. The tacit agreement sees the generals controlling defence and foreign policies, leaving domestic socioeconomic issues to the politicians.

But the hybrid model has been changing in recent years, putting Pakistan in dangerous terrain. And the man widely believed to be calling the shots in the military has done little to inspire national confidence.

Prospect of a ‘chatterbox’ parliament

With Khan losing military support, and his party stymied at the poll, the military’s chosen candidate, veteran politician Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) party was expected to snag an outright win.

An outright Sharif win would see the dynastic Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) – led by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, son of assassinated premier Benazir Bhutto – going into opposition. It would see the two establishment parties once again dominating Pakistani politics.

But after a surprisingly strong showing by PTI-backed independent candidates, who led the national election results, Sharif changed tack on Friday, declaring he would form a coalition government.

“We don’t have enough of a majority to form a government without the support of others and we invite allies to join the coalition so we can make joint efforts to pull Pakistan out of its problems,” he said.

Nawaz Sharif, center, addresses supporters in Lahore, Pakistan, February 9, 2024. © K.M. Chaudary, AP

Under Pakistan’s electoral rules, victorious independent candidates can join any party in the 336-seat National Assembly. With the imprisoned Khan facing nearly 200 legal charges ranging from corruption to leaking state secrets, experts predict the popular former cricketer-politician is likely to remain behind bars for several years.

The results of Thursday’s vote point to fractious political period ahead, warns Ayesha Siddiqa, senior fellow at King’s College, London, and author of “Military Inc.: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy”. “If there are many independents in parliament, it will make the house a chatterbox,” she noted. “It will be an unruly, funny kind of parliament with everyone going for each other’s jugulars.”

Khan’s fall from military grace

Overseeing the political turbulence is the man at the helm of the military, Pakistani army chief General Asim Munir. This comes as the country faces major economic and security crises.

Khan may be behind bars, but he remains a political force. The former cricketer-politician maintains that the myriad legal charges against him are politically motivated. Most Pakistanis, including Khan’s opponents, do not disagree. A weak judiciary means Pakistan is ranked 130th out of 142 countries on the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law index.

A poster of Imran Khan on display at his party office in Islamabad, February 9, 2024.
A poster of Imran Khan on display at his party office in Islamabad, February 9, 2024. © Anjum Naveed, AP

Since General Munir was appointed army chief in November 2022, Khan’s legal woes have multiplied. At times, they have taken an absurdly personal turn.

Relations between the two men have been acrimonious since Khan was elected prime minister in 2018 and replaced Munir as chief of Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) spy agency with a loyalist, according to Pakistani media reports.

Read morePakistan army chief’s deepening rift with Imran Khan

On February 3, just days before the election, a Pakistani court sentenced Khan and his wife Bushra Bibi to seven years in jail in a case related to their marriage, which it declared “un-Islamic”.

The verdict was widely criticised by legal experts as a “disgrace” and a “damning blot” on Pakistan’s judiciary.

Sharif rises again

When he stood for elections in 2018, Khan was widely seen as the military’s candidate, “handpicked, groomed and installed” by the generals. But that was until Khan fell out with the army in a fate shared by Sharif, the politician widely tipped to be Pakistan’s new prime minister.

Khan and Sharif’s reversal of fortunes reflects the dramatic shift in Pakistani politics, which has been likened to a “Game of Thrones”. In 2017, Sharif was ousted as prime minister when he attempted to institute civilian oversight of the military. After he was hit with a slew of corruption charges, Sharif went into self-imposed exile abroad to avoid serving sentences. Khan at that time was viewed as the army’s favourite son.

But as the country spiralled into political turmoil last year, with Khan’s supporters storming army residences and bases in unprecedented displays of disaffection with the military, Sharif was back in the generals’ favour.

After four years of exile, Sharif returned to Pakistan last October.  Within weeks of his return, his convictions were overturned, leaving him free to seek a fourth term in office.

A businessman and former chief minister of Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous and prosperous province, Sharif has a record of pursuing economic growth and development. During his previous stints as prime minister, the billionaire politician sought closer trade ties with India, Pakistan’s giant neighbour and arch-foe.

Sharif’s return to Pakistan was widely viewed as a sign that the military was seeking a safe pair of hands to handle the country’s crippling economic crisis. But over the past few months, the military has been increasingly encroaching on the economic turf.

Army takes top seat on economic council

More than seven decades after independence, Pakistan is facing its worst economic crisis. Inflation has hovered around 30 percent, sending the currency, the rupee, into freefall. Last year, the impoverished South Asian nation narrowly escaped a sovereign debt default when the IMF approved a $3 billion bailout package.

While it was provided a band-aid from the brink, Pakistan still has to tackle major structural problems since it is seeking a new IMF bailout programme after the current arrangement expires in three weeks.

As the crisis deepened last year, Pakistan established an apex economic body, the Special Investment Facilitation Council (SIFC), to coordinate economic and fiscal policies. 

The formation of the SIFC was touted as a key move to raise international investor confidence and uphold democratic governance. But then the army secured a top seat at the economic policy table, raising eyebrows in fiscal circles with the announcement that the co-chair of the new SIFC was none other than army Chief General Munir.

When ‘dangerous duffers’ call the shots

The 2024 vote saw the army playing an exceptionally heavy card, even by Pakistani standards. The tactic appeared to have failed, with voters overcoming the odds to elect PTI-backed candidates. But this could spell a period of further turbulence, analysts warn.

“Assuming most of the independent candidates are PTI, if [Sharif’s] PML-N has to form a government, it will have to form a coalition,” said Siddiqa. “The weaker the coalition, the stronger [the] military.”

The military’s meddling in politics has long earned the wrath of Pakistani democratic rights defenders. Nearly 15 years ago, one of the country’s leading human rights lawyers, the late Asma Jehangir, created a stir when she called the country’s military leaders “duffers” on a live TV show.

Jehangir subsequently modified her monicker to “dangerous duffers”, noting that the term implied the military top brass was “not only incompetent, but incapable of learning”. 

The latest election has shown that Jehangir’s verdict still holds, according to Siddiqa.    

“They haven’t changed that much, they’re still dangerous duffers because they think they have a role in governance,” she said. “But the military is a strong pole, and so are the political parties. With this election, the political parties are back in play. It now depends on how they conduct themselves.”

In the past, Pakistan’s political parties have formed common cause with the army in a bid to unseat rivals. The lack of civilian unity to relegate the military to the barracks has enabled the generals to periodically meddle with the ballots. Following Thursday’s vote, social media sites were awash with messages by Pakistanis calling for dialogue and national unity. If their calls are ignored, it will not be for the first time in Pakistan’s troubled history.

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Fed holds rates steady, indicates it is not ready to start cutting

WASHINGTON — The Federal Reserve on Wednesday sent a tepid signal that it is done raising interest rates but made it clear that it is not ready to start cutting, with a March move lower increasingly unlikely.

In a substantially changed statement that concluded the central bank’s two-day meeting this week, the Federal Open Market Committee removed language that had indicated a willingness to keep raising interest rates until inflation had been brought under control and was on its way toward the Fed’s 2% inflation goal. 

However, it also said there are no plans yet to cut rates with inflation still running above the central bank’s target. The statement further provided limited guidance that it was done hiking, only outlining factors that will go into “adjustments” to policy.

“The Committee does not expect it will be appropriate to reduce the target range until it has gained greater confidence that inflation is moving sustainably toward 2 percent,” the statement said.

During Fed Chair Jerome Powell‘s news conference, he said policymakers are waiting to see additional data to verify that the trends are continuing. He also noted that a March rate cut is unlikely.

“I don’t think it’s likely that the committee will reach a level of confidence by the” March meeting, Powell said.

“We want to see more good data. It’s not that we’re looking for better data, we’re looking for a continuation of the good data we’ve been seeing,” he added.

Markets initially took the news in stride but slid following Powell’s comments casting doubt on a March cut. The Dow Jones Industrial Average surrendered more than 300 points in the session while Treasury yields plunged. Futures pricing also swung, with the market assigning about a 64% chance the Fed would stay put at its March 19-20 meeting, according to CME Group calculations.

While the committee’s statement did condense the factors that policymakers would consider when assessing policy, it did not explicitly rule out more increases. One notable change was removing as a consideration the lagged effects of monetary policy. Officials largely believe it takes at least 12 to 18 months for adjustments to take effect; the Fed last hiked in July 2023 after starting the tightening cycle in March 2022.

“In considering any adjustments to the target range for the federal funds rate, the Committee will carefully assess incoming data, the evolving outlook, and the balance of risks,” the statement said. That language replaced a bevy of factors including “the cumulative tightening of monetary policy, the lags with which monetary policy affects economic activity and inflation, and economic and financial developments.”

‘Moving into better balance’

Those changes were part of an overhaul in which the Fed seeks to chart a course ahead, with inflation moving lower and economic growth proving resilient. The statement indicated that economic growth has been “solid” and noted the progress made on inflation.

“The Committee judges that the risks to achieving its employment and inflation goals are moving into better balance,” the FOMC missive said. “The economic outlook is uncertain, and the Committee remains highly attentive to inflation risks.”

Gone from the statement was a key clause that had referenced “the extent of any additional policy firming” that might come. Some Fed watchers had been looking for language to emphasize that additional rate hikes were unlikely, but the statement left the question at least somewhat open.

Going into the meeting, markets had expected the Fed could begin reducing its benchmark overnight borrowing rate as soon as March, with May also a possible launching point. Immediately after the decision, stocks fell to session lows.

Policymakers, though, have been more circumspect about their intentions, cautioning that they see no need to move quickly as they watch the data unfold. Committee members in December indicated a likelihood of three quarter-percentage point rate cuts this year, less ambitious than the six that futures markets are pricing, according to the CME Group.

More immediately, the committee, for the fourth consecutive time, unanimously voted not to raise the fed funds rate. The key rate is targeted in a range between 5.25%-5.5%, the highest in nearly 23 years.

The Fed has been riding a wave of decelerating inflation, a strong labor market and solid economic growth, giving it both leeway to start easing up on monetary policy and caution about growth that could reaccelerate and drive prices higher again. Along with 11 rate hikes, the Fed also has been allowing its bond holdings to roll off, a process that has shaved more than $1.2 trillion off the central bank balance sheet. The statement indicated that the balance sheet runoff will continue apace.

The ‘soft-landing’ narrative

Many economists now are adopting a soft-landing narrative where the Fed can bring inflation down without torpedoing economic growth.

Separate reports Wednesday indicated that the labor market is softening, but so are wages. Payrolls processing firm ADP reported that private companies added just 107,000 new workers in January, a number that was below market expectations but still indicative of an expanding labor market. Also, the Labor Department reported that the employment cost index, a gauge the Fed watches closely for signals of inflation coming through wages, increased just 0.9% in the fourth quarter, the smallest rise since the second quarter of 2021.

More broadly, inflation as measured through core personal consumption expenditures prices rose 2.9% in December from the prior year, the lowest since March 2021. On a six- and three-month basis, core PCE prices both ran at or below the Fed’s target.

In a separate matter, the Fed also announced it was altering its investment policy both for high-ranking officials and staff. The changes expand the scope of those covered to include anyone with access to “confidential FOMC information” and said some staff might be required to submit brokerage statements or other documents to verify the accuracy of disclosures.

The changes follow controversy over multiple Fed officials trading from private accounts at a time when the central bank was making major changes to policy in the early days of the Covid pandemic.

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Taiwanese youth voice income, housing concerns ahead of crucial elections

While cross-strait relations remain an overarching theme in Taiwan’s presidential and legislative elections this weekend, many young voters are more concerned with domestic issues, such as low wages and housing, that preoccupy them as much as or even more than the threat of an invasion by the People’s Republic of China. FRANCE 24 met with several of them. 

Some 19.5 million Taiwanese are eligible to vote in the island’s presidential and legislative elections on Saturday, January 13. Some 2.8 million, or 15 percent, are aged between 20 and 29 years old. 

Voters will determine Taiwan’s next leader from among three candidates: the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)’s Lai Ching-te, the Kuomintang (KMT)’s Hou Yu-ih and the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP)’s Ko Wen-je. 

Incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen from the pro-independence DPP is due to step down at the end of her second consecutive term in May.     

Read moreTaiwan’s presidential election: Who are the candidates in the high-stakes vote?

Despite not being a large enough cohort to determine the outcome of an election, young people nevertheless represent a sizable chunk of Taiwan’s electorate capable of tipping the scales in a neck-and-neck race. 

With less than a day to go before the election, political groups have called on young people to return home and vote.  

Taiwan’s voting system relies on household registrations to determine voter eligibility. Despite moving to other cities for work and study, many young Taiwanese remain registered in their home town, so they must return in order to vote. 

While many have already bought tickets and packed their bags for the weekend, some remain uncertain whether they’ll cast their ballots on Saturday.  

Eligible youth participation in the past two elections ranged from 56.3 to 72.7 percent

Stagnant wages 

“I still haven’t decided yet if I’m going to vote … if I do, I’ll take the bus first thing tomorrow morning,” said Wang Miao, a 25-year-old woman working in Taipei’s IT sector.  

Wang’s hometown is in Kaohsiung, a southern port city over 400km from the capital. 

“The thing is, I don’t feel like the elections are going to change anything … Wages are low, and inflation is still high,” she said. 

IT worker Wang Miao pictured in Penghu County. © Wang Miao

While median wages in Taiwan grew 2.37 percent in 2023, average consumer prices increased by 2.5 percent over the same period, outpacing wage growth.  

“My company gave us a 1.5 percent raise last year, which is ridiculous compared to inflation,” said Xu Jing-chen, a 29-year-old engineer working in Hsinchu, a city southwest of Taipei.  

On the way back home to the coastal city of Tainan, Xu said he feels frustrated at the current politics because the available options seem unlikely to resolve the issues that young people face. 

“They’re all talking about raising the minimum wage, but I don’t make the minimum, so how does that affect me? I’m only voting out of civil duty … As far as I can tell, none of the candidates are offering any concrete solutions to improve our lives,” he said. 

While Lai proposes to increase the monthly minimum wage of publicly traded companies’ employees to 30,000 New Taiwan Dollars (NTD) (or €880.40), Hou proposes a general hike of minimum wage to NTD 33,000 (€968.70) from the current NTD 27,470 (€806.37). Both are significantly lower than the NTD 43,166 (€1265.13) median wage in Taiwan. 

“The only option for me, if I want to increase my salary, is to move abroad, maybe to the US. But my parents are here, my home is here,” Xu said.  

Hoping to start a family with his girlfriend, Xu said he has been looking to purchase an apartment in Hsinchu. 

Unaffordable housing 

“The market is crazy. A simple two-bedroom can cost over NTD 10 million (around €292,000), and that is without a parking space!” Xu said. 

Due to low interest rates, tax cuts and market speculation, housing in Taiwan is notoriously unaffordable, with an average unit costing over 9 times the median annual wage, far exceeding the price-to-income ratio of 3 times the annual wage recommended by the UN.  

Other young Taiwanese also talk about housing concerns. 

Wu Qian-hue, a 26-year-old graduate student working part-time and living with her parents in the suburbs of Taichung, a bustling city in central Taiwan, said soaring rents have prevented her from moving out. 

“What’s the point? I can barely pay for my daily expenses and that’s it. I barely have any savings, everything I make goes to pay my bills. There’s nothing left at the end of the month. Living with my family helps me avoid getting into debt,” she said. 

“One day I’d like to have a place of my own, but for now it’s a dream,” Wu said, lamenting her city’s high housing costs.  

“Everything’s more expensive now … House prices in Taipei are crazy. For now, I can only afford to rent. I’m glad [that] I receive a subsidy for it,” said Pheonix Hung, a 27-year-old artist working in Taipei.  

Hung added that she plans to vote for Lai in the upcoming presidential election because of his party’s policies on housing, which introduced rent subsidies for single people and households with young children in 2019.  

Taiwanese artist Pheonix Hung pictured in Taipei.
Taiwanese artist Pheonix Hung pictured in Taipei. © Phoenix Hung

Computer science student and first-time voter Sung Zhi-ming, 22, said he chose to remain in accommodations provided by his university, where he shares a room with three other students, because of high rents. 

“I don’t really have a choice. It’s either this or back home, which is too far to commute every day,” said Sung, who comes from Hualian, a city on Taiwan’s east coast. 

Sung said he plans to vote for the Taiwan People’s Party’s Ko Wen-je, a candidate popular among younger generations for his outspoken manner and focus on domestic issues. 

Both Ko and Lai propose to tax vacant properties to encourage owners to put them on the rental market.  

Cross-strait relations 

But Taiwan’s relations with its giant neighbour remain at the forefront of some young people’s minds. 

Sung, who finished his military service last year, said he’s worried about a potential Chinese invasion

Taiwan requires all male citizens of military age to serve for four months in the national army, a period that was extended to one year starting in 2024. 

“I know we hear about it all the time, Chinese drills, Chinese balloons and Chinese ships in the Taiwan Strait, and we’re all kind of numb, by the end of the day … but at the same time, you can’t not think about it,” he said.

Read more‘People don’t want to talk about war’: Taiwan civil defence battles invasion risk denial

Sung said he plans to vote for the KMT, a party that favours closer ties with Beijing, in Saturday’s legislative election. 

“My parents have always voted for the KMT. … We feel like they are more capable of making peace with China. We don’t want a war,” he said.  

While echoing Sung’s sentiments, Wu said she prefers to vote for the DPP. 

Although both parties aim to maintain the status quo, the DPP differs from the KMT ideologically in that it rejects the “One China” principle. The “One China” principle is a diplomatic consensus between mainland China and the KMT that only one “China” exists, without the sides agreeing about which country is the “real” China. 

“They’ve [the DPP] managed to safeguard Taiwan’s independence, despite the pressure from China … We can’t appease China forever; we have to stand up for ourselves,” she said.  

“Of course, I worry about war, but what can you do? It’s not really up to us whether China will invade or not, is it?” Wu said.  

“At the end of the day, you just have to live with it and carry on,” Wang said. 

“The threat of invasion isn’t going to go away any time soon, but that doesn’t mean we can’t care for other issues. We have all sorts of problems, and China is not the biggest one,” she said.  

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