Initial unemployment claims tumbled last week to their lowest point since 1969, the Labor Department reported Wednesday.
New filings for state benefits totaled 199,000 on a seasonally adjusted basis, a decline of 71,000 from the previous week.
The drop marks a milestone in the economy’s recovery from the pandemic. Weekly claims peaked at more than six million in April 2020 as the coronavirus forced businesses and consumers alike to shut down. As recently as early January, amid a winter resurgence of the coronavirus, new state claims exceeded 900,000 in one week.
Filing for unemployment benefits has come down sharply since then, but remained well above prepandemic levels until very recently.
Unemployment insurance was a key source of relief after the pandemic threw more than 20 million people out of work. To buttress state payments, emergency benefits were funded through federal pandemic relief bills, although those payments ceased in September, cutting off aid to 7.5 million people.
Despite a summer lull, the economy has been showing signs of life lately. Employers added 531,000 jobs in October, and most economists expect growth to pick up in the final quarter of the year, boosted by healthy consumer spending.
“Today’s data reinforce the historic economic progress we are making and the importance of building on that progress in the weeks ahead,” President Biden said in a statement about the unemployment claims report.
As one measure of progress, Mr. Biden pointed to the most recent tally of unemployment benefits of all sorts, from early November, which showed the number of people with continuing claims — those filing for benefits who have already filed an initial claim — at 2.4 million. The figure right before Thanksgiving last year was more than 20 million.
The biggest economic worry lately hasn’t been joblessness but inflation, which has been surging amid labor shortages, supply chain disruptions and higher energy prices.
In a separate report Wednesday, the Commerce Department said that household spending rose 1.3 percent in October, while personal income jumped 0.5 percent, before adjusting for inflation. It also showed that prices climbed by 5 percent in the 12 months through October.
The data for unemployment claims, although certainly welcome news, may not be quite as good as it seems. On an unadjusted basis, state claims rose last week. And employment remains 4.2 million below its level in February 2020, before the pandemic.
“While the labor market is recovering, we think the latest drop in claims may be overstated,” said Gregory Daco, chief U.S. economist at Oxford Economics. “We suspect the decline last week may have been exaggerated by quirky seasonal adjustment factors and think we might see a bounce-back in the weeks ahead.”
Supply Chain Problems Have Small Retailers Gambling on Hoarding
Megan Searfoss has been hoarding sneakers in Connecticut.
Ms. Searfoss, the owner of two running stores in Darien and Ridgefield, Conn., would normally have about 3,000 pairs of shoes in stock ahead of the holiday season. But as she watched supply chain concerns in Vietnam mount this summer and into the fall, she secured a new storage facility and is now carrying around 4,100 pairs.
It’s a costly gamble for Ms. Searfoss, who said she was extended about $165,000 more than she would typically be in November because of worries about potential shortages.
“It’s placing a big bet and anticipating that what all the analysts are saying is correct,” Ms. Searfoss said. “Usually, we get through the New York City Marathon and then we stop buying shoes — we sell off what we have and go into January super, super lean. But we’re being told not to do that because there’s just not going to be any shoes.”
The buildup of running shoes in Connecticut is just one example of how supply chain woes and pandemic-related shortages are affecting thousands of small businesses around the United States this holiday season. While the widespread availability of vaccines is translating into a busier shopping season than last year, businesses of all sizes are grappling with the impact from factory shutdowns overseas, backups at ports, and trucking and other labor shortages.
The unpredictability this year has forced many small businesses to make buying decisions months or weeks earlier than they normally would and to tie up more of their cash in inventory, which can be risky.
“The big thing is you really have to order in advance,” said Dan Quinn, an owner of What We Make, a furniture business in Algonquin, Ill., which sells tables and other wares through Etsy. “I’ve got 14 weeks of projects. I need to get most of that material in house as fast as possible and keep buying it until you have a stockpile basically.”
While many small businesses are affected by manufacturing issues overseas, some have used this moment to their advantage. Etsy, which powers online stores for millions of sellers, said more than half of its U.S. vendors sourced materials from within their own states, allowing them to bypass many of the supply chain problems that are affecting the global economy.
Etsy stores “don’t have the complex supply chains that are vulnerable to single points of failure,” Josh Silverman, Etsy’s chief executive, said in an interview.
Still, the range of shortages can manifest themselves in unusual ways.
Isabel Amigon, owner of the online store Sololi, is still waiting on an order of Christmas tree ornaments she placed in April. The manufacturer alerted her that the order would be delayed because of a shortage in strings to tie on top of the decorated orbs.
Ms. Amigon, who is based in Westchester County, N.Y., said she was worried that if she didn’t get it in time for the holiday season, she would have to wait until next year to make use of the inventory. The string shortage has also led her to remove specific home goods items from her website, such as table runners and washcloths.
“Even if I get them by the end of November, I won’t be able to sell all of them because most people have already bought their ornaments,” Ms. Amigon said. “I placed the orders early, and I still have to face this situation.”
Other missing items are more traditional than string.
Earlier this year, Angela and Sean Arnold were planning to order another set of Disney princess dolls to fill some shelves in their toy store, Playmatters Toys, in Pepper Pike, Ohio. But they got a notification in September from the distributor alerting them and other toy store owners that the items were “indefinitely out of stock” because a Covid-19 outbreak had shut down the factory in Vietnam where the dolls were manufactured.
Even though they anticipated shipping delays and ordered some toys in mid-May instead of August, they could not get ahead of the global disruption.
And it’s not only dolls. The couple has been missing out on other toys and electronics because of shipping delays or disruptions in manufacturing plants in Vietnam. The couple has also been forced to raise prices on some products because of higher transportation and wholesale costs from toy vendors.
“Some things we ordered in June and July are still coming in,” Mr. Arnold said.
Because of these kind of delays, Etsy has viewed this moment as one in which small businesses can provide gift options that are not reliant on overseas factories and shipping. Extra consumer interest in small businesses, whether online or offline, would more likely be welcome after the pandemic dealt a crippling blow to so many last year.
Etsy said it had seen searches for living room furniture soar by 1,572 percent and less drastic but significant jumps for dining tables, checkers or chess boards, suggesting that some shoppers are coming to the site rather than going to chain stores.
Etsy learned how to better handle large surges in demand after face masks exploded as a category on the site during the onset of the pandemic, and it has made improvements designed to mitigate shipping issues it experienced then. Mr. Silverman said that now, virtually all items from sellers in the United States had an expected delivery date, which was not the case a year ago, and shoppers can filter products by geography to shop from vendors in their area, which can help accelerate shipping.
The company also said it checked in with sellers to ensure they had enough raw materials and supplies when its technology observed jumps in demand for specific items.
Mr. Quinn, the owner of the furniture seller What We Make, has seen his business boom as Americans grapple with long wait times and lack of availability for furniture from chains. Customers have been willing to wait 10 weeks for a dining table from him, particularly after 20-week waits at chains like West Elm.
“The big-box stores don’t have a lot of things they normally have, so the positive for us is that people are sort of forced to look at other options whereas before they’d settle for the simplest option,” he said.
Still, he has seen his business disrupted in other ways, including a sharp increase in material prices and a scramble for reclaimed wood, which typically comes from old barns.
“The people who take down the barns for the material we use, a lot of them ended up getting laid off or going on unemployment,” Mr. Quinn said. “So we have had to try to stockpile material and order well in advance of what we used to do.”
While Mr. Quinn has been thriving in spite of competition from major furniture sellers, the country’s biggest retailers are often better equipped to handle supply chain issues than small businesses. Companies like Walmart and Amazon are massive enough that they can charter airplanes to obtain certain goods.
Jeannine Cook doesn’t have that luxury. Ms. Cook, the owner of Harriett’s Bookshop in Philadelphia, noticed during the summer that publishers were having trouble delivering her book orders, with some unable to even provide a timeline for when orders would arrive. The problem became more widespread in late August.
Ms. Cook, who opened a second location in Collingswood, N.J., in July, said more customers were canceling their orders from the bookshop.
“It makes me nervous because I don’t want folks to feel like they can’t get what they need or want,” Ms. Cook said. “It’s hard because we’re already up against the big-box companies that have so much more infrastructure than we do.”
A recent study by Adobe showed that out-of-stock messages in October more than quadrupled compared with October 2019. That’s one reason that the retail industry, including small businesses, has urged the public to shop early this year to secure gifts for the holiday season.
“I hate that we have now gone right from Halloween to Christmas,” said Ms. Searfoss, the proprietor of the running stores, who said she began holiday marketing on Nov. 1 for the first time. “I don’t want people to feel frantic, but I do think it’s pretty serious that they’re not going to get what they want this year.”
She anticipated that shipping delays and out-of-stock issues at bigger chains might drive business to her stores. “People, those days before Christmas, will be buying whatever they can from whatever local store they can,” she said.
“It’s just a little bit stressful for me, thinking, ‘OK, look at all that I’ve bought,’” Ms. Searfoss said. “If I buy it, will they come?”
Powell Says Fed Could Finish Bond-Buying Taper Early
Jerome H. Powell, the Federal Reserve chair, signaled on Tuesday that the central bank is growing more concerned about high — and stubborn — inflation, and could speed up its plan to withdraw economic support as it tries to ensure that rapid price gains do not become long-lasting.
His comments, delivered during a Senate Banking Committee hearing, came at a challenging economic moment for the Fed. Prices for food, shelter and other items are rising quickly, millions of workers have yet to return to the labor market and the virus continues to pose risks to the economic outlook, most recently with the new Omicron variant.
The Fed had been buying $120 billion in government-backed securities each month throughout much of the pandemic to bolster the economy by keeping money flowing in financial markets. In November, officials announced plans to slow those purchases by $15 billion per month, which would have the program ending midway through 2022. But Mr. Powell signaled on Tuesday that the central bank could wrap up its bond-buying more quickly, cutting down the amount of economic juice the Fed will add in upcoming months.
“At this point, the economy is very strong, and inflationary pressures are high,” Mr. Powell said during a hearing before the Senate Banking Committee. “It is therefore appropriate in my view to consider wrapping up the taper of our asset purchases, which we actually announced at our November meeting, perhaps a few months sooner.”
Mr. Powell said he expected Fed officials to discuss slowing bond purchase faster “at our upcoming meeting,” which is scheduled for Dec. 14-15. He stressed that between now and then, policymakers will get a better sense of the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus, a fresh labor market report and updated inflation numbers.
Mr. Powell made it clear that it was too soon for Fed policymakers — or anyone — to tell how much the new variant will affect the economy, since that will hinge on how easily it transmits and whether it causes more severe disease.
“What I’m told by experts is that we’ll know quite a bit about those answers in about a month,” he said. “We’ll know something, though, within a week or 10 days.”
For now, he said, “it’s a risk, it’s a risk to the baseline — it’s not really baked into our forecasts.”
While Omicron’s danger remains uncertain, another virus surge would pose a double-barreled threat to the economy: It could prevent workers from returning to the job market just as it prevents roiled supply chains from returning to normal, keeping a full labor market recovery at bay while making inflation last longer. And the potential threat hits at a fraught moment for policymakers.
The economy has boomed back this year, and hot demand has collided with constrained supply to push inflation sharply higher. The central bank has slowly reoriented its economic policy stance as price gains remain stubbornly elevated, trying to put itself in position to react if needed. Now, the Fed appears to be pivoting more aggressively — and focusing more concertedly on controlling rapid inflation.
“Generally, the higher prices we’re seeing are related to the supply-and-demand imbalances that can be traced directly back to the pandemic and the reopening of the economy, but it’s also the case that price increases have spread much more broadly in the recent few months,” Mr. Powell said Tuesday. “I think the risk of higher inflation has increased.”
Monetary policymakers had spent recent months focused on helping the economy to heal, hoping to pull the millions of workers still missing from the job market back into work.
The Fed’s policy interest rate, its more traditional and more powerful tool, has remained set to near zero to that end. Officials had been stressing that they would be patient in pulling back that support and cooling down the economy, giving missing employees more time to return.
But their tone appears to be shifting.
Slowing bond purchases quickly would put officials in a position to raise borrowing costs sooner than previously forecast. Lifting interest rates earlier or faster would pump the economic brakes, helping to slow home-building, business expansions and consumer spending. Weakening demand would in turn help to weigh down prices over time.
By trying to rein in price increases, the Fed would probably slow hiring. Doing so could be painful at a moment when people remain out of work partly out of virus fears or a lack of child care.
That’s why Omicron could pose such a big challenge. If the new variant continues to shut down factories and slow shipping routes while keeping would-be job applicants at home, it could put the Fed in a tough spot. Central bank policymakers are supposed to foster both full employment and keep prices stable, and such a situation would force them to choose between those goals.
Mr. Powell’s willingness to to pull back support faster despite the new variant — and his full-throated recognition that price gains are not poised to be as short-lived as officials had once hoped — caught investors’ attention.
At one point, Mr. Powell even said that at “coming meetings” he expected the Fed’s policy-setting committee would say that when it comes to inflation, its standard for lifting interest rates had been met. That would mean that central bankers would simply be looking to the job market as they weighed when, whether and how much to raise borrowing costs.
“The tone of his remarks was notably hawkish, suggesting that the Fed’s primary focus is on the risk of more persistent excess inflation,” Krishna Guha, an economist at Evercore ISI, wrote in a research note reacting to the testimony.
Understand the Supply Chain Crisis
Stocks, which had been down roughly 0.5 percent for much of the morning, tumbled after Mr. Powell’s comments, with the S&P 500 trading down about 1.9 percent shortly after noon. Short-term bond yields, which are heavily influenced by expectations for Fed rate hikes, spiked as investors began to expect what is sometimes referred to as a “hawkish” approach to interest rate policy.
“The Fed is the ultimate owner of the ‘transitory’ characterization, and the chair’s decision to move beyond that is a decidedly hawkish step,” wrote Ian Lyngen, head of U.S. rates strategy at BMO Capital Markets in New York, in a note to clients shortly after Mr. Powell’s comments.
The shift in the Fed’s policy approach comes at a sensitive moment for Mr. Powell. The Biden administration announced last week that it will renominate him as chair of the Fed, and that it will elevate Lael Brainard — now a governor — as the central bank’s vice chair. Both await Senate confirmation.
The twin threats of lasting supply chain disruptions and another pandemic flare also come as Republicans are trying to pin high inflation on the Biden administration and its policies. Several Republican senators asked combative questions of Mr. Powell and Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen during their joint testimony on Tuesday, at times trying to back them into blaming rapidly rising prices on Mr. Biden’s policies.
The barrage of criticism came as Democrats are working to pass another $2.2 trillion climate change and social policy bill before the end of the year.
Ms. Yellen defended the Biden administration’s economic agenda, insisting that the policies are fiscally responsible and that they would reduce costs for families at a time when prices are rising.
“The Build Back Better plan contains support for households to help address some of the most burdensome and most rapidly rising costs that they face,” Ms. Yellen said, pointing to proposals to make preschool free, provide expanded care for the elderly and increase education subsidies.
Republicans, who four years ago passed $1.5 trillion in tax cuts that went mostly to the rich, assailed the spending proposals as reckless. Ms. Yellen insisted that tax increases and an investment in the Internal Revenue Service to ensure that people and companies are paying the taxes they owe would prevent the legislation from adding to the debt.
“It is fully paid for, or even more than fully paid for,” Ms. Yellen said.
Others criticized the administration and Fed’s response to the virus and the risks it poses.
“At what point do we just get back to a more normal execution of Fed policy?” Thom Tillis, a Republican Senator from North Carolina, asked Mr. Powell, after stating that the virus is likely to remain present.
“We have to be humble about our ability to predict this, or really understand,” Mr. Powell replied, after saying that the central bank does not expect the new variant to have fallout that is “remotely comparable” to the initial pandemic-spurred state and local lockdowns.
Matt Phillips contributed reporting.
‘Our Money Has No Value’: Frustration Rises in Turkey at Lira Crisis
ISTANBUL — Lines outside bread stores and gas stations; farmers defaulting on loans; impromptu street demonstrations. The signs of economic distress in Turkey are all too clear as the lira continues a dizzying slide.
Sporadic protests have broken out around Turkey and the opposition parties have called for a series of rallies to demand a change of government after the lira crashed sharply last week. The latest week of turmoil follows months of worsening economic conditions for Turkish citizens. The currency has lost more than 45 percent of its value this year, and nearly 20 percent in the last week, continuing its downward trend on Tuesday.
Economists have tied the currency crisis to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s direct interference in monetary policy and his determination to lower interest rates.
The latest crash in the currency came after Mr. Erdogan gave a speech last week outlining his determination to keep rates low as a way of promoting economic growth. He reaffirmed his opposition to raising rates again in comments to reporters aboard his plane as he returned from a visit to Turkmenistan on Monday.
“I have never defended raising interest rates, I don’t now and will not defend it,” he told the reporters. “I will never compromise on this issue.”
There are rumblings of public dissent, unusual for a country where only officially sanctioned demonstrations are permitted and the main television channels and newspapers follow the government line.
Scores of people have been detained for joining street protests. The police detained 70 people in several districts of Istanbul last Wednesday who were protesting the government’s management of the economy, after a record drop in the lira the day before.
The Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions issued a blunt statement on Wednesday. “That’s enough. We want to make ends meet,” it read. “Unemployment, high living costs, price increases, and bills are breaking our backs.”
Necla Sazak, an 80-year-old retired bank employee heading home with a bag of groceries, said she was surviving on credit cards.
“Our purchasing power dropped — our money has no value anymore,” she said.
Business has stalled around the country as inflation scares away domestic shoppers and causes producers to hoard goods.
“I didn’t sell anything since the morning,” Asuman Akkus, the 29-year-old owner of a clothing store in Istanbul, said one recent afternoon. “It is deserted here this week and it is 100 percent because of the dollar.”
Opposition parties have renewed their call for the government to resign and for Mr. Erdogan or Parliament to call early elections. Yet they are in a bind, without the seats in Parliament to force a vote for early elections and wary of triggering unrest that could prompt Mr. Erdogan to impose a state of emergency, which would suspend normal democratic procedures.
Mr. Erdogan, who is sliding in the polls, will not call elections before they are scheduled in June 2023, a political ally, Devlet Bahceli, leader of the Nationalist Movement Party, said last week. In the meantime, Mr. Erdogan ratcheted up the pressure on his opponents by detaining Metin Gurcan, a military and political analyst and a leading member of an emerging opposition party, DEVA, on charges of espionage.
Mr. Erdogan has promised that low interest rates will help kick start the economy within three to six months, but economists said they detected little confidence in his policies at this stage.
“I don’t think he has the confidence of the nation anymore,” said Atilla Yesilada, an investment analyst with Global Source Partners. “There’s an urgent problem of deepening poverty and the wheels of the economy are coming to a standstill,” he said.
Some loyal supporters of Mr. Erdogan, when asked, insist that everything is fine, but even the pro-government columnist Abdulkadir Selvi, of the Turkish daily Hurriyet, said he disagreed with Mr. Erdogan’s economic policy. He recalled an episode during an earlier economic crisis in 2001 when a shopkeeper threw his cash register at the prime minister, sparking a countrywide revolt.
“We can’t ignore what is happening today,” Mr. Selvi warned. He added: “We should stay strong but we shouldn’t miss the fact that broad economic turmoil has broad political consequences.”
Shortages are emerging, including in imported medicines and medical equipment, and even at bakeries, Mr. Yesilada, the analyst, said. A loaf of bread still sells at 2.5 liras, or about 20 cents, but bakeries are complaining that their costs are closer to 4 liras a loaf, he said. “Soon they are going to shut down bakeries and then we are going to have bread riots,” he said.
The Turkish public talks of little but the economy.
“We used to be able to go and have tea with our friends in a cafe somewhere, but now a glass of tea costs 7 liras and so we don’t go,” said Cansu Aydin, a high-school graduate. “Our social lives have come to a stop, and now it’s as if we are living just to survive.”
Oguzhan Yelda, 21, a student in Istanbul, said he worried especially about “utility bills and basic goods like oil, sugar, flour.” Many young people were leaving the country to take menial jobs as cleaners and waiters abroad, he said. “When I graduate, a bleak future awaits me.”
Dogan Gul, 60, was sitting outside a bank in Istanbul on Monday, waiting for it to open so he could make a payment on a loan. “We cannot get by,” he said. “The rent has gone up from 1,500 liras to almost 2,500 liras since last year. I don’t know where this is all going.”
He said he could not afford the cost of transportation to visit relatives.
“For the future of my children, what can I say?” he lamented. “They are each trying to make sure they have a meal once a day. They can’t even think about the next day. They can’t plan their futures. This is not just the case for me but for all of Turkey.”
For Yaman Ayhan, who sells clothing online, the answer is plain. “The leaders have to change,” he said. “Just a decision for snap elections would make the lira gain some value.”