U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen testifies before a House Ways and Means Committee hearing on President Biden’s proposed 2023 U.S. budget, on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 8, 2022.
Jonathan Ernst | Reuters

The recession that many Americans fear is coming is not “at all imminent,” Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said Sunday.

Talk of a recession has accelerated this year as inflation remains high and the Federal Reserve takes aggressive steps to counter it. On Wednesday, the Fed announced a 75 basis point interest rate hike, its largest since 1994. Fed Chair Jerome Powell also indicated the Federal Open Market Committee’s intent to continue its aggressive path of monetary policy tightening in order to rein in inflation.

At the same time, many expect the combination of resilience in consumer spending and job growth to keep the U.S. out of recession.

“I expect the economy to slow,” Yellen said in an interview with ABC’s “This Week.” “It’s been growing at a very rapid rate, as the economy, as the labor market, has recovered and we have reached full employment. It’s natural now that we expect a transition to steady and stable growth, but I don’t think a recession is at all inevitable.”

Although Yellen seemed optimistic about avoiding recession, the global economy is still facing serious threats in the coming months with the continued war in Ukraine, soaring inflation and the Covid-19 pandemic. “Clearly, inflation is unacceptably high,” Yellen said.

Still, she doesn’t believe a drop-off in consumer spending would be the cause of a recession. Yellen told ABC News that the U.S. labor market is the strongest of the post-war period and predicted that inflation would slow “in the months ahead.”

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In this article

A woman pushes a shopping cart through the grocery aisle at Target in Annapolis, Maryland, on May 16, 2022, as Americans brace for summer sticker shock as inflation continues to grow.
Jim Watson | AFP | Getty Images

People still appear willing to shell out to travel, go to the movies and have a drink or two, even as surging prices and fears of a recession have them pulling back in other areas.

How people spend their money is shifting as the economy slows and inflation pushes prices higher everywhere including gas stations, grocery stores and luxury retail shops. The housing market, for example, is already feeling the pinch. Other industries have long been considered recession proof and may even be enjoying a bump as people start going out again after hunkering down during the pandemic.

Still, shoppers everywhere are feeling pressured. In May, an inflation metric that tracks prices on a wide range of goods and services jumped 8.6% from a year ago, the biggest jump since 1981. Consumers’ optimism about their finances and the overall economy sentiment fell to 50.2% in June, its lowest recorded level, according to the University of Michigan’s monthly index.

As gas and food prices climb, Brigette Engler, an artist based in New York City, said she’s driving to her second home upstate less often and cutting back on eating out.

“Twenty dollars seems extravagant at this point for lunch,” she said.

Here’s a look at how different sectors are faring in the slowing economy.

Movies, experiences holding up

Concerts, movies, travel and other experiences people missed during the height of the pandemic are among the industries enjoying strong demand.

Live Nation Entertainment, which owns concert venues and Ticketmaster, hasn’t seen people’s interest in attending concerts wane yet, CEO Joe Berchtold said at the William Blair Growth Stock Conference earlier this month.

In movie theaters, blockbusters like “Jurassic World: Dominion” and “Top Gun: Maverick” have also pulled in strong box office sales. The movie industry long been considered “recession proof,” since people who give up on pricier vacations or recurring Netflix subscriptions can often still afford movie tickets to escape for a few hours.

Alcohol is another category that’s generally protected from economic downturns, and people are going out to bars again after drinking more at home during the early days of the pandemic. Even as brewers, distillers and winemakers raise prices, companies are betting that people are willing to pay more for better-quality alcohol.

“Consumers continue to trade up, not down,” Molson Coors Beverage CEO Gavin Hattersley said on the company’s earnings call in early May. It might seem counterintuitive, but he said the trend is in line with recent economic downturns.

Alcohol sales have also been shielded in part because prices haven’t been rising as quickly as prices for other goods. In May, alcohol prices were up roughly 4% from a year ago, compared with the 8.6% jump for overall consumer price index.

Big airlines like Delta, American and United are also forecasting a return to profitability thanks to a surge in travel demand. Consumers have largely digested higher fares, helping airlines cover the soaring cost of fuel and other expenses, although domestic bookings have dipped in the last two months.

It isn’t clear whether the race back to the skies will continue after the spring and summer travel rushes. Business travel usually picks up in the fall, but airlines might not be able to count on that as some companies look for ways to curb expenses and even announce layoffs.

People’s desire to get out and socialize again is also boosting products like lipstick and high heels that were put away during the pandemic. That recently helped sales at retailers including Macy’s and Ulta Beauty, which last month boosted their full-year profit forecasts.

Luxury brands such as Chanel and Gucci are also proving to be more resilient, with wealthier Americans not as affected by climbing prices in recent months. Their challenges have been more concentrated in China of late, where pandemic restrictions persist.

But the fear is that this dynamic could change quickly, and these retailers’ short-term gains could evaporate. More than eight in 10 U.S consumers are planning to make changes to pull back on their spending in the next three to six months, according to a survey from NPD Group, a consumer research firm.

“There is a tug-of-war between the consumer’s desire to buy what they want and the need to make concessions based on the higher prices hitting their wallets,” said Marshal Cohen, chief retail industry advisor for NPD.

Homes, big-ticket items squeezed

The once red-hot housing market is among those clearly hurting from the slowdown.

Rising interest rates have dampened mortgage demand, which is now roughly half of what it was a year ago. Homebuilder sentiment has dropped to the lowest level in two years after falling for six consecutive months. Real estate firms Redfin and Compass both announced layoffs earlier this week.

“With May demand 17% below expectations, we don’t have enough work for our agents and support staff,” Redfin CEO Glenn Kelman wrote in an email to employees later posted on the company’s website.         

For the retail sector more broadly, data from the Commerce Department also showed a surprising 0.3% drop in overall in May from the previous month. That included declines at online retailers and miscellaneous store retailers such as florists and office suppliers.

And while demand for new and used cars remains strong, auto industry executives are starting to see signs of potential trouble. With the cost for new and used vehicles up by double digits over the last year, car and other motor vehicle dealers saw sales decline 4% decline in May from the previous month, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Ford Motor CFO John Lawler said this week that delinquencies on car loans are starting to tick up too. Although the increase could signal tough times ahead, he said said it’s not yet a worry, since delinquencies had been low.

“It seems like we’re reverting back more towards the mean,” Lawler said at a Deutsche Bank conference.

The restaurant industry is also seeing signs of potential trouble, although how eateries are affected could vary.

Fast-food chains have also traditionally fared better in economic downturns since they’re more affordable and draw diners with promotional deals. Some restaurant companies are also betting people will keep dining out as long as grocery prices rise faster.

The cost of food away from home rose 7.4% over the 12 months ended in May, but prices for food at home climbed even faster, shooting up 11.9%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Restaurant Brands International CEO Jose Cil and Wendy’s CEO Todd Penegor are among the fast-food executives who have emphasized the gap as an advantage for the industry.

But McDonald’s CEO Chris Kempczinski said in early May that low-income consumers have started ordering cheaper items or shrinking the size of their orders. As the largest U.S. restaurant chain by sales, it’s often seen as a bellwether for the industry.

On top of that, traffic across the broader restaurant industry slowed to its lowest point of the year in the first week of June, according to market research firm Black Box Intelligence. That was after the number of visits also slowed in May, though sales ticked up 0.7% on higher spending per visit.

Barclays analyst Jeffrey Bernstein also said in a research note on Friday that restaurants are accelerating discounting, a sign that they’re expecting same-store sales growth to slow. Among the chains that have introduced new deals to draw diners are Domino’s Pizza, which is offering half-price pizzas, and Wendy’s, which brought back its $5 Biggie Bag meal.

Among those scrambling to adjust to a shift in shopper behavior are mass-merchant retailers like Target and Walmart, which issued cautious guidance for the year ahead.

Target warned investors earlier this month that its fiscal second-quarter profits would take a hit as it discounts people bought up during the pandemic but no longer want, such as small appliances and electronics. The big-box retailer is trying to make room on its shelves for the products in demand now: beauty products, household essentials and back-to-school supplies.

CEO Brian Cornell told CNBC that the company’s stores and website are still seeing strong traffic and “a very resilient customer” overall, despite the shift in their buying preferences. Rival Walmart has also been discounting less-desired items like apparel, although the retail giant said it’s been gaining share in grocery as shoppers look to save.

— Leslie Josephs, Lauren Thomas, Michael Wayland, John Rosevear, Sarah Whitten and Melissa Repko contributed reporting.

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The exterior of the Marriner S. Eccles Federal Reserve Board Building is seen in Washington, D.C., June 14, 2022.
Sarah Silbiger | Reuters

After years of being a beacon for financial markets, the Federal Reserve suddenly finds itself second-guessed as it tries to navigate the economy through a wicked bout of inflation and away from ever-darkening recession clouds.

Complaints around the Fed have a familiar tone, with economists, market strategists and business leaders weighing in on what they feel is a series of policy mistakes.

Essentially, the complaints center on three themes for actions past, present and future: That the Fed didn’t act quickly enough to tame inflation, that it isn’t acting aggressively enough now even with a series of rate increases, and that it should have been better at seeing the current crisis coming.

“They should have known inflation was broadening and becoming more entrenched,” said Quincy Krosby, chief equity strategist at LPL Financial. “Why haven’t you seen this coming? This shouldn’t have been a shock. That, I think is a concern. I don’t know if it’s as stark a concern as ‘the emperor has no clothes.’ But it’s the man in the street vs. the PhDs.”

Consumers in fact had been expressing worries over price increases well before the Fed started raising rates. The Fed, however, stuck to its “transitory” script on inflation for months before finally enacting a meager quarter-point rate hike in March.

Then things accelerated suddenly earlier this week, when word leaked out that policymakers were getting more serious.

‘Just doesn’t add up’

The path to the three-quarter-point increase Wednesday was a peculiar one, particularly for a central bank that prides itself on clear communication.

After officials for weeks had insisted that hiking 75 basis points was not on the table, a Wall Street Journal report Monday afternoon, with little sourcing, said that it was likely more aggressive action was coming than the planned 50-basis-point move. The report was followed with similar accounts from CNBC and other outlets. (A basis point is one-one hundredth of 1 percentage point.)

Ostensibly, the move came about following a consumer sentiment survey Friday showing that expectations were ramping up for longer-run inflation. That followed a report that the consumer price index in May gained 8.6% over the past year, higher than Wall Street expectations.

Addressing the notion that the Fed should have been more prescient about inflation, Krosby said it’s hard to believe the data points could have caught the central bankers so off guard.

“You come to something that just doesn’t add up, that they didn’t see this before the blackout,” she said, referring to the period before Federal Open Market Committee meetings when members are prohibited from addressing the public.

“You could applaud them for moving quickly, not waiting six weeks [until the next meeting]. But then you go back to, if it was that dire that you couldn’t wait six weeks, how is it that you didn’t see it before Friday?” Krosby added. “That’s the market’s assessment at this point.”

Fed Chair Jerome Powell did himself no favors at Wednesday’s news conference when he insisted that there is “no sign of a broader slowdown that I can see in the economy.”

On Friday, a New York Fed economic model in fact pointed to elevated inflation of 3.8% in 2022 and negative GDP growth in both 2022 and 2023, respectively at minus-0.6% and minus-0.5%.

The market did not look kindly on the Fed’s actions, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average losing 4.8% for the week to fall below 30,000 for the first time since January 2021 and wiping out all the gains achieved since President Joe Biden took office.

Why the market moves in a particular way in a particular week is generally anybody’s guess. But at least some of the damage seems to have come from impatience with the Fed.

The need to be bold

Though the 75 basis point move was the biggest one-meeting increase since 1994, there’s a feeling among investors and business leaders that the approach still smacks of incrementalism.

After all, bond markets already have priced in hundreds of basis points of Fed tightening, with the 2-year yield rising about 2.4 percentage points to around its highest level since 2007. The fed funds rate, by contrast, is still only in a range between 1.5% and 1.75%, well behind even the six-month Treasury bill.

So why not just go big?

“The Fed is going to have to raise rates much higher than they are now,” said Lewis Black, CEO of Almonty Industries, a Toronto-based global miner of tungsten, a heavy metal used in a multitude of products. “They’re going to have to start getting up into the high single digits to nip this in the bud, because if they don’t, if this gets hold, really gets hold, it’s going to be very problematic, especially for those with the least.”

Black sees inflation’s impact up close, beyond what it will cost his business for capital.

He expects the workers in his mines, based largely in Spain, Portugal and South Korea, to start demanding more money. That’s because many of them took advantage of easily accessed mortgages in Europe and now will have higher housing costs as well as sharp increases in the daily cost of living.

In retrospect, Black thinks the Fed should have started hiking last summer. But he sees pointing fingers as useless at this point.

“Ultimately, we should stop looking for who is to blame. There was no choice. This was the best strategy they thought they had to deal with Covid,” he said. “They know what has to be done. I don’t think you can possibly say with the amount of money in circulation that they can just say, ‘let’s raise 75 basis points and see what happens.’ That’s not going to be sufficient, that’s not going to slow it down. What you need now is to avoid recession.”

What happens now

Powell has repeatedly said he thinks the Fed can manage its way through the minefield, notably quipping in May that he thinks the economy can have a “soft or softish” landing.

But with GDP teetering on a second consecutive quarter of negative growth, the market is having its doubts, and there’s some feeling the Fed should just acknowledge the painful path ahead.

“Since we’re already in recession, the Fed might as well go for broke and give up on the soft landing. I think that’s what investors are expecting now for the short term,” said Mitchell Goldberg, president of ClientFirst Strategy.

“We could argue that the Fed went too far. We could argue that too much money was handed out. It is what it is, and now we have to correct it. We have to look forward now,” he added. “The Fed is way behind the inflation curve. They have to move quickly and they have to move aggressively, and that’s what they’re doing.”

While the S&P 500 and Nasdaq are in bear markets — down more than 20% from their last highs — Goldberg said investors shouldn’t despair too much.

He said the current market run will end, and investors who keep their heads and stick to their longer-term goals will recover.

“People just had this sense of invincibility, that the Fed would come to the rescue,” Goldberg said. “Every new bear market and recession seems like the worst one ever in history and that things will never be good again. Then we climb out of each one with a new set of stock market winners and a new set of winning sectors in the economy. It always happens.”

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