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Pandemic effects and government aid are blunting impact of higher rates, for now

By NICK TIMIRAOS and Tom Fairless
Tue, Aug 8, 2023 10:31amGrey Clock 5 min

The world’s central banks raced at an extraordinary pace over the past year to cool inflation, but it hasn’t proved enough—yet.

Economic growth remains mostly solid and price pressures strong across affluent countries despite sharply higher interest rates.

Why haven’t growth and inflation slowed more? Much of the explanation lies in the pandemic’s weird effects and the time it takes for central-bank rate increases to curb economic activity. Additionally, historically tight labor markets have fuelled wage gains and consumer spending.

First, the unusual nature of the pandemic-induced 2020 recession and the ensuing recovery blunted the normal impacts of rate hikes. In 2020 and 2021, the U.S. and other governments provided trillions of dollars in financial assistance to households that were also saving money as the pandemic interrupted normal spending patterns. Meanwhile, central banks’ rock-bottom interest rates allowed companies and consumers to lock in low borrowing costs.

Households and businesses continued to spend heavily in recent months. Families tapped their savings, which were replenished by solid income growth. Businesses kept hiring thanks to pandemic-related labour shortages and large profits.

“There are just a lot of embedded pandemic-era forces that are working against this tightening,” Tom Barkin, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, told reporters last week.

Two industries traditionally sensitive to interest rates—autos and construction—offer examples.

Pandemic-related shortages of semiconductor chips limited the supply of cars for sale, leading eager buyers to pay higher prices for the vehicles available. Although U.S. construction of single-family homes tumbled last year, construction employment grew over the past 12 months. Fuelling job growth were supply-chain bottlenecks that extended the time needed to finish homes and a record amount of U.S. apartment construction, which takes longer to complete.

U.S. single-family housing construction has rebounded recently thanks to historically low numbers of homes for sale. Many households refinanced during the pandemic and locked in low mortgage rates—a good reason to stay put. “I didn’t fully anticipate how much the move in interest rates would convince people not to put their houses on the market,” Barkin said.

Normally, the Federal Reserve’s rate increases force heavily indebted consumers and businesses to rein in spending because they have to pay more to service their loans. But consumers haven’t overextended themselves with debt over the past two years; household debt service payments accounted for 9.6% of disposable personal income during the first quarter, below the lowest levels recorded between 1980 and the onset of the pandemic in March 2020.

“A lot of the imbalances you might anticipate at this point in the cycle just have not had the time to build up,” said Matthew Luzzetti, chief U.S. economist at Deutsche Bank.

Second, government spending has continued to bolster growth, cushioning economic shocks that proved less catastrophic than expected. While Europe’s energy crisis helped to tip the region into a shallow recession over the winter, the region skirted the deep downturn that some analysts had forecast. European governments pledged up to $850 billion to support spending.

This year falling oil and natural-gas prices have pumped up economic growth by putting money into consumers’ pockets, boosting confidence and easing pressures on government budgets. The price of a barrel of oil has fallen by nearly half in the past year, from around $120 to less than $70—below its level before Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine sent prices soaring.

The reopening of China’s economy supported activity in the country’s many trading partners, while weak domestic growth prompted Beijing this month to provide new stimulus.

In the U.S., fiscal policy has provided more oomph for the economy this year. Federal funding continues to flow from President Biden’s roughly $1 trillion infrastructure package approved in 2021 and two pieces of legislation signed last year that provide hundreds of billions of dollars to boost renewable-energy production and semiconductor manufacturing.

A rock waiting to drop

Third, it takes time for higher interest rates to ripple through the economy and cool growth and inflation. The Bank of England first raised interest rates from near zero in December 2021, while the Fed and the European Central Bank lifted off in March 2022 and July 2022, respectively.

By some estimates, the first two-thirds of the Fed’s rate increases only restored rates to a level that was no longer pushing on the gas pedal, while the last third slowed the economy by pressing the brakes. The upshot is that policy has restricted growth for just eight or nine months, Atlanta Fed President Raphael Bostic wrote in an essay published last week.

Chicago Fed President Austan Goolsbee compared the potential coming impact of the Fed’s 5 percentage points in rate increases to the unseen hazards faced by Wile E. Coyote, the unlucky cartoon character. “If you raise 500 basis points in one year, is there a huge rock that’s just floating overhead…that’s going to drop on us?” he said in a recent interview.

Dario Perkins, managing director at the research firm TS Lombard, said higher rates are slowing growth in ways that aren’t obvious, such as by causing employers to cut unfilled jobs or companies to forgo expansion. “It might appear that monetary policy isn’t working when, in fact, it is,” he wrote in a recent report.

Climbing the last mile

To be sure, some central banks might not have done enough to cool demand. The ECB, for example, increased its key rate to 3.5% this month, but it is still negative when adjusted for inflation—potentially a stimulative level.

Many economists still anticipate a recession over the next six to 18 months, either because of past rate increases or those to come.

Just how much higher to raise rates is hard to judge because of mixed signals about economic activity. In the U.S., hiring has been strong, but average hours worked declined in May and the number of people filing for state unemployment benefits has climbed in recent weeks to its highest levels since late 2021.

Falling energy and grocery prices helped lower U.S. inflation to 4% in May from a four-decade high last summer of around 9%, according to the Labor Department’s consumer-price index. The breadth of price increases has narrowed. In May, less than 50% of all prices in the CPI rose by more than 5%, down from 80% of the index at one point last year.

Central bankers remain anxious, however, because measures of so-called core inflation, which exclude volatile food and energy prices, have declined much less. Those readings tend to better predict future inflation.

Central banks in Norway and the U.K. announced half-point interest-rate increases last week to address persistent inflation. Central banks in Canada and Australia recently resumed rate increases after pausing, pointing to higher service-sector inflation and tight labor markets.

The Switzerland-based Bank for International Settlements, a consortium of central banks, warned in a report released Sunday that reducing inflation to many central banks’ 2% target could be harder than expected.

Easy gains from lower energy- and food-price inflation have been banked. The longer high inflation lasts, the more likely it is that people will adjust their behaviour and reinforce it, the BIS said. In that scenario, central banks might find they need to cause a sharper downturn to force inflation down to their goal.

“The ‘last mile’ may pose the biggest challenge,” the BIS said.


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I.M. Pei was the confident visionary behind such transformative structures as the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong and the Louvre Pyramid in Paris, but he was also humble, and for years resisted a retrospective of his work.

Pei, a Chinese-American architect who died in 2019 at 102 , would always protest any suggestion of a major exhibition, saying, “why me,” noting, too, that he was still actively at work, recalls his youngest son, Li Chung “Sandi” Pei. A decade ago, when Pei was in his mid-to-late 90s, he relented, finally telling Aric Chen, a curator at the M+ museum in Hong Kong, “all right, if you want to do it, go ahead,” Sandi says.

A sweeping retrospective, “I.M. Pei: Life Is Architecture,” will open June 29 at M+ in the city’s West Kowloon Cultural District. The exhibition of more than 300 objects, including drawings, architectural models, photographs, films, and other archival documents, will feature Pei’s influential structures, but in dialogue with his “social, cultural, and biographical trajectories, showing architecture and life to be inseparable,” the museum said in a news release.

As a Chinese citizen who moved to the U.S. in 1935 to learn architecture, Pei—whose full first name was Ieoh Ming—brought a unique cultural perspective to his work.

“His life is what’s really interesting and separates him from many other architects,” Sandi says. “He brought with him so many sensibilities, cultural connections to China, and yet he was a man of America, the West.”

Facade of the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong in a photograph commissioned by M+ in 2021.
© South Ho Siu Nam

Pei’s architectural work was significant particularly because of its emphasis on cultural institutions—from the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., to the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar—“buildings that have a major impact in their communities,” Sandi says. But he also did several urban redevelopment projects, including Kips Bay Towers in Manhattan and Society Hill in Philadelphia.

“These are all places for people,” Sandi says. “He believed in the importance of architecture as a way to bring and celebrate life. Whether it was a housing development or museum or a tall building or whatever—he really felt a responsibility to try to bring something to wherever he was working that would uplift people.”

A critical juncture in Pei’s career was 1948, when he was recruited from the Harvard Graduate School of Design (where he received a master’s degree in architecture) by New York real estate developer William Zeckendorf.

With Zeckendorf, Pei traveled across the country, meeting politicians and other “movers and shakers” from Denver and Los Angeles, to Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Boston, and New York. “He became very adept at working in that environment, where you had to know how to persuade people,” Sandi says.

During the seven-year period Pei worked with Zeckendorf, the developer fostered the growth of his architecture practice, supporting an office that included urban, industrial, graphic, and interior designers, in addition to architects and other specialists, Sandi says.

When Pei started his own practice in 1955, “he had this wealth of a firm that could do anything almost anywhere,” Sandi says. “It was an incredible springboard for what became his own practice, which had no parallel in the profession.”

According to Sandi, Chinese culture, traditions, and art were inherent to his father’s life as he grew up, and “he brought that sensibility when he came into America and it always influenced his work.” This largely showed up in the way he thought of architecture as a “play of solids and voids,” or buildings and landscape.

“He always felt that they worked together in tandem—you can’t separate one from the other—and both of them are influenced by the play of light,” Sandi says.

View of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, on the mesa, in a photograph commissioned by M+ in 2021.
© Naho Kubota

Pei also often said that “architecture follows art,” and was particularly influenced by cubism, an artistic movement exploring time and space that was practiced in the early 20th century by Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and the sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, among others. This influence is apparent in the laboratory at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., and at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, N.Y. “Those two buildings, if you look at them, have a play of solid and void, which are very cubistic,” Sandi says.

Yet Sandi argues that his father didn’t have a specific architectural style. Geometry may have been a consistent feature to his work, but his projects always were designed in response to their intended site. The resulting structure emerged as almost inevitable, he says. “It just was the right solution.”

Pei also intended his buildings “not only to be themselves a magnet for life,” but also to influence the area where they existed. “He never felt that a building stood alone,” Sandi says. “Urban design, urban planning, was a very important part of his approach to architecture, always.”

After he closed his own firm to supposedly “retire” in the early 1990s, Pei worked alongside Sandi and his older brother, Chien Chung (Didi) Pei, who died late last year, at PEI Architects, formerly Pei Partnership Architects. Pei would work on his own projects, with their assistance, and would guide his sons, too. The firm had substantial involvement in the Museum of Islamic Art, among other initiatives, for instance, Sandi says.

Working with his father was fun, he says. In starting a project, Pei was often deliberately vague about his intentions. The structure would coalesce “through a process of dialogue and sketches and sometimes just having lunch over a bottle of wine,” Sandi says. “He was able to draw from each of us who was working on the project our best efforts to help to guide [it] to some kind of form.”

The M+ retrospective, which will run through Jan. 5, is divided into six areas of focus, from Pei’s upbringing and education through to his work in real estate and urban redevelopment, art and civic projects, to how he reinterpreted history through design.

Sandi, who will participate in a free public discussion moderated by exhibition co-curator Shirley Surya on the day it opens, is interested “in the opportunity to look at my father anew and to see his work in a different light now that it’s over, his last buildings are complete. You can take a full assessment of his career.”

And, he says, “I’m excited for other people to become familiar with his life.”