An Inflation Test Looms Over the Economy and the Election


Wall Street is increasingly divided over whether the Fed will cut interest rates by Election Day. New inflation data out this week will go a long way toward settling that question, as polls show that President Biden is struggling to convince voters that he’s done a good job on the economy.

It’s a big week for economic data with mixed signals on inflation. A first-quarter uptick in inflation has forced the Fed to keep borrowing costs at a 23-year high. Economists see a slight improvement, forecasting that April’s Consumer Price Index report on Wednesday will show that inflation moderated slightly last month.

Such good news would follow a tamer than expected May 3 jobs report, which saw wage growth easing. (Economists will also be watching Tuesday’s Producer Price Index and retail sales data on Wednesday.)

What will it take for the Fed to start cutting rates? The central bank “will need to see at least three benign core inflation prints, perhaps even four, before easing policy,” Sarah House, senior economist at Wells Fargo, wrote in a research note last week. That makes the C.P.I. data crucial, she added, as “time is running out on the clock for even a late summer rate cut.”

Here’s what economists will be zeroing in on:

  • Core C.P.I., which strips out volatile food and fuel prices, is expected to rise by 0.3 percent on a monthly basis — an improvement from the 0.4 percent monthly jumps seen in January, February and March.

  • On an annual basis, core C.P.I. is seen rising by 3.6 percent — an improvement on March’s 3.8 percent, but still well above the Fed’s 2 percent target.

  • So-called shelter inflation, which includes rents and housing costs, is still running hot. Any sign of easing is likely to influence the Fed’s outlook on interest rates.

Consumers and companies alike are worried about inflation. On Friday, the closely watched University of Michigan consumer sentiment survey showed that households are increasingly worried about the cost of living and a slowing jobs market. That comes in an earning season when several dozen C.E.O.s have told analysts that their less affluent customers are cutting back because of high prices. That raises the question: Are these signs that consumer spending is under pressure helping to bring down inflation?

The futures market on Monday was penciling in as many as two rate cuts this year, with the first coming in September. But those odds have fallen steadily since the start of the year — and some rate hawks even see no cuts this year — as inflation has rebounded.

The European Union is reportedly ready to file antitrust charges against Microsoft. The bloc’s executive arm, the European Commission, will accuse the tech giant of undermining rivals of its Teams collaboration app, according to The Financial Times. Such a move would come even after Microsoft offered to unbundle Teams from its Office software suite around the world, though The F.T. said that Microsoft could still settle the case.

Mercedes-Benz workers in Alabama prepare for a historic union vote. The ballot this week follows a watershed victory for the labor movement at a Volkswagen plant in Tennessee last month. It’s the latest test of the United Automobile Workers’s effort to expand its presence to nonunion U.S. factories, but the vote is facing strong opposition from Republican lawmakers and other anti-union forces.

SoftBank’s investments help it beat earnings estimates. The Japanese tech investor reported 231 billion yen, or about $1.5 billion, in profit for the first quarter, compared with a 57.6 billion yen loss a year ago; driving that were gains in investments in Arm and other assets. (Its Vision Funds suffered from paper markdowns in its portfolio.) SoftBank’s C.F.O., Yoshimitsu Goto, said the company was prepared to invest heavily, especially in artificial intelligence.

Students at Duke protest Jerry Seinfeld at their commencement. As the comedian, who has been vocal in his support of Israel, received an honorary degree, dozens walked out, chanting, “Free, free Palestine” while other students walked around campus calling for the school to divest its Israel-tied holdings. It was the latest sign of the tensions on college campuses over the war in Gaza; meanwhile, the hedge fund billionaire Ken Griffin said the protests are “almost like performative art.”

Elon Musk won a reprieve in an Australian court on Monday after a judge refused to extend a ban on X from publishing videos from a grisly knife attack at a church in Sydney last month. The victory comes as Musk faces off against a number of governments over content on his social media platform: He says he’s defending free speech, but others argue he’s using X to push his other commercial interests.

Musk is using X to boost Tesla and SpaceX, write The Times’s Ryan Mac, Jack Nicas and Alex Travelli. His posts have helped turn Javier Milei, Argentina’s right-wing libertarian president, into a rising political superstar. One possible reason: Argentina has huge reserves of lithium, a key material for Tesla’s car batteries. “Elon Musk called me,” Milei said after taking office. “He is extremely interested in the lithium.”

Musk has used the playbook elsewhere. In India, before he bought Twitter, the company often fought government efforts to kill content it didn’t like. Since Musk bought the company, he has lauded Narendra Modi, the Hindu nationalist prime minister, on X, and backed some of his pet causes.

X has also complied with a contentious take-down order. The company agreed to block links to a BBC documentary about Modi’s role in sectarian violence (Musk says it had no choice). In January, Musk said on X that India should get a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. Two months later, India lowered import tariffs on E.V.s like Tesla’s Model 3 to 15 percent of a car’s price from 100 percent.

Critics say Musk is inconsistent. The company has stopped releasing transparency reports that detail the number of government requests to remove content, or sharing the data with Harvard researchers. The Tesla boss is “cherry picking” when to fight back, Nu Wexler, a former Twitter executive, told The Financial Times. “If a government wants something taken down, the calculus at [X] is now: is that country going to buy electric cars from us?”


The death last week of Jim Simons at 86 marked the loss of a transformative Wall Street figure.

It was Simons, a chain-smoking mathematician who jumped into finance after a career as an academic and Cold War code breaker, who introduced the idea of computer-driven, rapid-fire trading — and made billions doing so.

Simons went against the common wisdom. When he set up what became Renaissance Technologies in 1978, Wall Street relied mainly on old-school fundamental investing: the kind of close analysis of company financials and intuitive sense of where a stock would go that made financiers like Warren Buffett wealthy.

But Simons believed that computers could ingest huge amounts of data, discern patterns and make lightning-fast trades. His company made mistakes early on — consider the brief moment when Renaissance cornered the market in Maine potatoes — but eventually established the field of quantitative investing.

The results spoke for themselves. At its peak, Renaissance’s flagship Medallion fund produced average returns of 66 percent before fees, The Wall Street Journal reports. That helped make Simons a billionaire, with a fortune estimated at $31 billion by Forbes.

So-called quant firms now manage about a third of all money, according to The Journal — and the approach has been embraced even by traditional asset managers.

Leading investors paid tribute to Simons:

  • “Jim Simons was the greatest — an unbelievably great investor, philanthropist, and man of character,” Ray Dalio of Bridgewater Associates wrote on X.

  • “There is one GOAT [greatest of all time],” the billionaire Cliff Asness told The Journal. “His name was Jim Simons.”

  • “There are just a few individuals who have truly changed how we view the markets,” Theodore Aronson, the founder of AJO Vista, told Bloomberg. “John Maynard Keynes is one of the few. Warren Buffett is one of the few. So is Jim Simons.”

Simons also made a mark elsewhere. He gave huge amounts to philanthropy, including hundreds of millions to Stony Brook University, where he had taught before getting into finance.

He also became a major Democratic donor, giving $109 million since 2015 to the likes of President Biden and Hillary Clinton. (That said, Robert Mercer, an early Renaissance employee who later became co-C.E.O., became a top donor to Republican politicians — including Donald Trump.)


Evgeny Suvorov, the chief Russia economist at CentroCredit Bank, on the move this weekend by President Vladimir Putin of Russia to appoint the economist Andrey Belousov as defense chief. Suvorov said it’s a sign that Russia plans to pour more economic resources into its war effort in Ukraine.


Beyond inflation data, announcements about artificial intelligence services and earnings are in the spotlight this week. Here’s what to watch.

Monday: OpenAI is set to announce updates for its GPT-4 A.I. model and its ChatGPT chatbot. The company is also near a deal with Apple to power A.I. services on the newest version of iOS, according to Bloomberg.

(The Times has sued OpenAI and Microsoft for copyright infringement of news content related to A.I. systems.)

Tuesday: Home Depot, Sony, Alibaba and Bayer are set to report earnings. And Google holds its annual developers conference, which will focus on A.I.

Thursday: Walmart, Deere and Under Armour report results.

Deals

  • The S.E.C.’s closure of BF Borgers, the audit firm that counted Donald Trump’s social media company as a client, could derail the I.P.O. plans of other start-ups. (FT)

  • Anglo American shareholders want the mining giant to speed up an announcement of its turnaround plan after the company rebuffed a $39 billion takeover offer from rival BHP. (Bloomberg)

Policy

  • “In DC, a new wave of AI lobbyists gains the upper hand” (Politico)

  • Senator Chuck Schumer, the majority leader, called on the F.T.C. to closely scrutinize Chevron’s proposed $53 billion takeover of a smaller rival, Hess, warning of potentially higher oil prices if it goes through. (@SenSchumer)

Best of the rest

  • “Fast Food Forever: How McHaters Lost the Culture War” (NYT)

  • The auction house Christie’s will proceed this week with sales that usually account for more than half of its revenue, despite a cyberattack on Thursday that took down its website. (NYT)

  • Roger Corman, the B-movie producer who also helped propel the careers of Hollywood auteurs like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, died on Thursday. He was 98. (NYT)

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