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With bond-buying ‘taper’ in the bag, Fed turns a wary eye to inflation

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November 3, 2021

By Howard Schneider

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Federal Reserve on Wednesday is expected to detail plans to end its pandemic-era bond purchases by mid-2022 as policymakers shift their focus towards what, if anything, to do about a surge in inflation that is lasting longer than anticipated.

U.S. central bankers, in the minutes of their Sept. 21-22 meeting, signaled that a “taper” of the $120 billion in monthly asset purchases would be approved at this week’s gathering of the policy-setting Federal Open Market Committee.

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What the minutes described as an “illustrative tapering path” would trim the purchases by $15 billion per month beginning in November or December, a pace and starting point that would end the program by June or July.

(For graphic on Fed balance sheet by era – https://graphics.reuters.com/USA-FED/TAPER/xmpjolmanvr/chart.png)

Of more note now is how the Fed changes other parts of its policy statement, and particularly its description of inflation as “largely reflecting transitory factors.”

Fed officials still largely hold that view. By some time in 2022 they anticipate that global supply bottlenecks will have eased, pandemic-fueled demand for goods among U.S. consumers will cool after massive spending on cars, motorcycles and appliances, and enough people will be pushing to return to jobs that the pace of wage and benefit increases will also subside.

But in recent weeks Fed officials have acknowledged the risks to that outlook. The jump in inflation this year has already lasted longer than anticipated; headline rates are running at twice the Fed’s 2% target; and rising rents, low business inventories, and large numbers of workers still waiting on the sidelines may mean the high pace of price increases will continue for now.

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(For graphic on “Broad-based” or not? “Broad-based” or not? – https://graphics.reuters.com/USA-FED/INFLATION/klpykzrowpg/chart.png)

The dilemma facing the U.S. central bank is whether inflation eases before policymakers feel compelled to step in with interest rate increases to curb it. Investors are acting as if the Fed’s patience will run out soon.

The Fed cut its overnight benchmark federal funds interest rate to the near-zero level last year in a bid to stem the economic fallout of the pandemic. Trading in federal funds futures currently show investors expecting up to three quarter-percentage-point rate increases in 2022; Fed officials as of September were split over whether there would even be one.

“Will they hold on to the transitory description of inflation? My best guess is they will,” in order to keep their commitment to support the economic recovery until the economy is closer to full employment, said Aneta Markowska, an economist at Jefferies. “If they were being intellectually honest they would probably drop it, but given what is happening in the market the Fed has to tread carefully.”

Push back too hard on the current market expectations, by emphasizing the 5 million U.S. jobs still missing from before the pandemic, and it could “unhinge” the market outlook for inflation, she noted. Lean too hard on inflation risks, and it could push rate hike expectations even higher, begin to restrict credit and borrowing, and slow the recovery.

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EYES ON POWELL

The Fed is due to release its policy statement at 2 p.m. EDT (1800 GMT). It will not issue new economic forecasts, so beyond the statement it will be up to Fed Chair Jerome Powell in his news conference half an hour later to strike a balance between the two sides of the central bank’s mandated goals of achieving maximum employment and stable prices.

This will be a critical communications moment for Powell whose term as Fed chief ends in February 2022. The White House has yet to announce whether the former investment banker will be reappointed to a second term.

Through much of the pandemic, Powell’s bias – and that of most other Fed policymakers – has been in favor of the job market, in line with the central bank’s new strategic approach to allow more risks with higher inflation in order to push job growth as high as possible.

The Fed currently says it will not raise rates until inflation has not just risen to its 2% target, but is on track to exceed it “for some time,” so that the 2% level is maintained on average following years in which it ran low.

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That phrase has not been quantified in terms of how much or how long an overshoot of inflation is intended. While Fed policymakers have generally described achievement of the inflation benchmark as still “a ways off,” a few have noted that the averages are creeping higher already.

(For graphic on Inflation, on average Inflation, on average – https://graphics.reuters.com/USA-FED/FRAMEWORK/byvrjjmbkve/chart.png)

The labor market rebound has also taken on a different course than Fed officials expected. Despite near-record numbers of job openings, labor force participation is improving only slowly – with workers by choice or family necessity taking more time to return to jobs, and using savings elevated by pandemic benefit payments to cover the bills in the meantime.

The employment-to-population ratio is still 2.4 percentage points below where it was at the outset of the pandemic in February 2020, less than half the ground needed to be covered to return to the previous level.

(For graphic on The jobs hole facing Biden and the Fed – https://graphics.reuters.com/USA-ECONOMY/JOBS/jbyprzlrqpe/chart.png)

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The discussion over the taper of the Fed’s purchases of U.S. Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities will likely end on Wednesday with the central bank declaring that the economy has made “substantial further progress” in healing from the pandemic.

(For graphic on “Substantial further progress” for the Fed? – https://graphics.reuters.com/USA-ECONOMY/FEDPROGRESS/yzdvxmmmdpx/chart.png)

The debate will then turn to how much more the job market can improve, how fast it can be done, and whether COVID-19 has changed the economy in ways that mean higher inflation with fewer people working.

“If the Fed projects that inflation will not revert to target within a reasonable amount of time, then the Fed could step up the tightening schedule even if employment is short of the mandate,” Tim Duy, chief U.S. economist at SGH Macro Advisors, wrote ahead of the policy decision. “The Fed could tell this story after this week’s meeting. In practice, the Fed has made pretty clear it is waiting for more inflation data” to see if the “transitory” narrative holds.

(Reporting by Howard Schneider; Editing by Dan Burns and Paul Simao)

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Amazon asks India antitrust body to revoke Reliance-Future deal approval

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November 28, 2021

By Aditya Kalra and Abhirup Roy

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – Amazon has asked India’s antitrust regulator to revoke its approval for Future Retail’s $3.4 billion sale of retail assets to Reliance, saying it was “illegally obtained”, violating an order suspending the deal, a letter seen by Reuters shows.

The approval for the deal was a “nullity in the eyes of law” as an arbitrator’s order was still in force, according to the letter sent by Amazon.com Inc to the Competition Commission of India (CCI) last week.

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The battle between two of the world’s richest men, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and Reliance Industries Ltd boss Mukesh Ambani, marks a contest for preeminence in India’s booming, nearly trillion-dollar retail market.

The winner in the fight for Future Retail Ltd, India’s second-largest retailer and Amazon’s estranged local partner, will get pole position in the race to meet the daily needs of more than a billion people.

The CCI, Amazon, Future Group and Reliance did not respond to requests for comment.

Future has said the arbitrator’s suspension order was invalid but Indian courts have declined to overturn it.

If the regulator agrees with the previously unreported letter, it would be a major setback for oil-to-telecom conglomerate Reliance.

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Amazon won an injunction against the deal from a Singapore arbitrator last year, alleging Future had violated contracts that prevented it from selling the assets to entities including Reliance.

But the CCI later cleared the deal.

Future misled the CCI and continued to seek approval for the deal, Amazon said in the letter dated Wednesday, calling the injunction a “brazen attempt to subvert the rule of law”.

Amazon asked for a personal hearing from the CCI to make its case.

The letter comes as Amazon is also battling allegations that it misrepresented facts and concealed information while seeking antitrust clearance for a 2019 deal with Future Group.

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Amazon has so far successfully used this deal’s contracts to block Future’s deal with Reliance.

(Reporting by Aditya Kalra and Abhirup Roy in New Delhi; Additional reporting by Zeba Siddiqui; Editing by William Mallard)

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Exclusive-Visa complains to U.S. govt about India backing for local rival RuPay

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November 28, 2021

By Aditya Kalra

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – Visa Inc has complained to the U.S. government that India’s “informal and formal” promotion of domestic payments rival RuPay hurts the U.S. giant in a key market, memos seen by Reuters show.

In public Visa has downplayed concerns about the rise of RuPay, which has been supported by public lobbying from Prime Minister Narendra Modi that has included likening the use of local cards to national service.

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But U.S. government memos show Visa raised concerns about a “level playing field” in India during an Aug. 9 meeting between U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) Katherine Tai and company executives, including CEO Alfred Kelly.

Mastercard Inc has raised similar concerns privately with the USTR. Reuters reported in 2018 that the company had lodged a protest https://reut.rs/3cQA2La with the USTR that Modi was using nationalism to promote the local network.

“Visa remains concerned about India’s informal and formal policies that appear to favour the business of National Payments Corporation of India” (NPCI), the non-profit that runs RuPay, “over other domestic and foreign electronic payments companies,” said a USTR memo prepared for Tai ahead of the meeting.

Visa, USTR, Modi’s office and the NPCI did not respond to requests for comment.

Modi has promoted homegrown RuPay for years, posing a challenge to Visa and Mastercard in the fast-growing payments market. RuPay accounted for 63% of India’s 952 million debit and credit cards as of November 2020, according to the most recent regulatory data on the company, up from just 15% in 2017.

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Publicly, Kelly said in May that for years there was “a lot of concern” that the likes of RuPay could be “potentially problematic” for Visa, but he stressed that his company remained India’s market leader.

“That’s going to be something we’re going to continually deal with and have dealt with for years. So there’s nothing new there,” he told an industry event.

‘NOT SO SUBTLE PRESSURE’

Modi, in a 2018 speech, portrayed the use of RuPay as patriotic, saying that since “everyone cannot go to the border to protect the country, we can use RuPay card to serve the nation.”

When Visa raised its concerns during the USTR gathering on Aug. 9, it cited the Indian leader’s “speech where he basically called on India to use RuPay as a show of service to the country,” according to an email U.S. officials exchanged on the meeting’s readout.

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Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said last year that “RuPay is the only card” banks should promote. The government has also promoted a RuPay-based card for public transportation payments.

While RuPay dominates the number of cards in India, most transactions still go through Visa and Mastercard as most RuPay cards were simply issued by banks under Modi’s financial inclusion programme, industry sources say.

Visa told the U.S. government it was concerned India’s “push to use transit cards linked to RuPay” and “the not so subtle pressure on banks to issue” RuPay cards, the USTR email showed.

Mastercard and Visa count India as a key growth market, but have been jolted by a 2018 central bank directive for them to store payments data “only in India” for “unfettered supervisory access”.

Mastercard faces an indefinite ban on issuing new cards in India after the central bank said it was not complying with the 2018 rules. A USTR official privately called the Mastercard ban “draconian”, Reuters reported in September.

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(Reporting by Aditya Kalra in New Delhi; Editing by William Mallard)

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‘Flash mob’ thieves target U.S. retail stores on Black Friday

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November 28, 2021

By Steve Gorman

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Black Friday shoppers weren’t the only ones out hunting for bargains on the day after Thanksgiving. Thieves were busy as well.

Police in Los Angeles and cities elsewhere across the country spent much of their holiday weekend patrols looking for suspects in a spate of “flash mob” robberies on Friday, part of a surging U.S. crime trend in which groups of thieves swarm a store, ransack the shelves and flee.

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Authorities also have used the term “smash-and-grab” to describe the trend.

At least two such robberies were reported on Saturday by the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. A local television station, KCAL-TV, counted a total of six smash-and-grab heists on the city’s west side alone on Friday.

In one incident, a group of eight men entered a Home Depot outlet at a shopping mall in Lakewood, south of downtown Los Angeles, walked directly to the tool aisle and snatched a bunch of hammers, sledgehammers and crowbars valued at about $400 before making their getaway, the sheriff’s office said.

According to L.A. television station KTTV, the Home Depot robbery on Friday night involved up to 20 suspects who pulled up to the store in as many as 10 cars and donned ski masks before raiding the tool aisle.

“We tried to stop them,” store employee Luis Romo told KTTV. “We closed the front entrance, and they put their sledgehammers up and whoever got in the way, they were going to hurt them.”

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The Los Angeles City News Service said four suspects in that robbery were arrested on Saturday by Beverly Hills police.

In a similar incident Friday afternoon, a group of 10 men or more invaded a store in the city’s Fairfax district and started grabbing merchandise without paying for it, pushing employees out of the way before fleeing the scene, according to LAPD.

Police are investigating possible ties between that incident and a flurry of other robberies and retail thefts on Friday and earlier in the week, including two smash-and-grabs reported on Wednesday, an LAPD spokesperson said.

The rash of retail crime prompted the LAPD to place its officers on a citywide tactical alert on Friday afternoon.

Mass robberies also were reported on Friday at two Best Buy electronics stores in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, one of them involving as many as 30 suspects, while a spree of pre-dawn retail burglaries were under investigation in Chicago.

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In one of the biggest flash-mob robberies reported on the West Coast in recent days, police in the San Francisco suburb of Walnut Creek were seeking about 80 suspects who swarmed and ransacked a department store last Saturday.

(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Paul Simao)

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