U.S. labor costs accelerate in the first quarter

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. labor costs increased more than expected in the first quarter as wage growth picked up, further evidence that inflation will push higher this year as the economy reopens.

The Employment Cost Index, the broadest measure of labor costs, jumped 0.9% last quarter after gaining 0.7% in the October-December quarter. That lifted the year-on-year rate of increase to 2.6% from 2.5% in the fourth quarter.

The ECI is widely viewed by policymakers and economists as one of the better measures of labor market slack and a predictor of core inflation as it adjusts for composition and job quality changes. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast the ECI rising 0.7% in the first quarter.

Wages and salaries shot up 1.0% after advancing 0.8% in the fourth quarter. They were up 2.7% year-on-year. Economists expect wages will increase further in the second quarter as companies compete for scarce workers.

Despite employment being 8.4 million jobs below its peak in February 2020, businesses are struggling to find suitable workers as they rush to meet robust domestic demand.

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell on Wednesday acknowledged the worker shortage saying “one big factor would be schools aren’t open yet, so there’s still people who are at home taking care of their children, and would like to be back in the workforce, but can’t be yet.”

Higher wages, if the worker scarcity persists, could contribute to boosting inflation this year, though many economists and Powell believe the anticipated surge in price pressures as the broader economy reopens will be transitory.

(Reporting By Lucia Mutikani)

Fiscal stimulus powers U.S. economic growth in first quarter

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. economic growth accelerated in the first quarter as the government gave money to mostly lower-income households, fueling consumer spending and setting the course for what is expected to be the strongest performance this year in nearly four decades.

The government largesse also extended to businesses, especially in the high-contact services industry. The massive fiscal stimulus and easing anxiety over COVID-19, with all adult Americans now eligible for vaccination against the virus, have resulted in a faster economic rebound in the United States compared to its global rivals.

The second-fastest gross domestic product growth since the third quarter of 2003, reported by the Commerce Department on Thursday, left output just 0.9% shy of its level at the end of 2019. Economists expect a full recovery from the pandemic recession, which started in February 2020, in late 2023.

The report is a boost for President Joe Biden as he celebrated 100 days in the White House.

“In early 2021, the economy was served a strong cocktail of improving health conditions and rapid vaccinations along with a fizzy dose of fiscal stimulus and a steady flow of monetary policy support,” said Lydia Boussour, lead U.S. economist at Oxford Economics in New York. “Looking ahead, we foresee the economy’s spring bloom turning into a summer boom.”

GDP increased at a 6.4% annualized rate last quarter, the government said in its advance estimate for the first three months of the year. That followed a 4.3% growth rate in the fourth quarter. It was the biggest first-quarter increase in growth since 1984.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast GDP growth would increase at a 6.1% pace in the January-March period.

Income at the disposal of households before accounting for inflation surged by a whopping $2.36 trillion after decreasing $402.1 billion in the fourth quarter. As result, consumer spending jumped at a 10.7% rate, boosted by purchases of motor vehicles, furniture, recreational goods and electronics. Consumers also dined out, stayed at hotels and gambled.

Consumer spending, which accounts for more than two-thirds of U.S. economic activity, grew at a 2.3% pace in the fourth quarter. Some of the stimulus money was stashed away, with savings ballooning to $4.12 trillion from $2.25 trillion in the fourth quarter. Economists estimate households have accumulated at least $2 trillion in excess savings during the pandemic.

The government has provided nearly $6 trillion in COVID-19 relief over the past year. Robust demand in the first quarter pushed against supply constraints, leading businesses to draw down inventories, limiting the rise in GDP growth.

Excluding inventories, government and trade, the economy grew at a 10.6% rate last quarter.

The rapidly accelerating growth could revive fears about the economy overheating. The Federal Reserve on Wednesday acknowledged the burgeoning domestic activity, but the U.S. central bank gave no sign it was ready to reduce its extraordinary support for the recovery.

The booming economy could also erode support among moderate Democrats for Biden’s ambitious economic agenda. Biden on Wednesday unveiled a sweeping $1.8 trillion package for families and education in his first joint speech to Congress. Republicans oppose more stimulus, now worried about swelling debt. The new package and an earlier infrastructure and jobs plan total around $4 trillion, rivaling the annual federal budget.

“The second quarter will be hotter, people have money to spend as they are able to go shopping and traveling again,” said Sung Won Sohn, a finance and economics professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. “Production is being ramped up to rebuild inventories. President Biden and (Fed) Chairman (Jerome) Powell, do we need all the stimuli?”

U.S. stocks were mostly higher. The dollar was steady against a basket of currencies. U.S. Treasury prices fell.

POWERFUL MOMENTUM

Inflation has accelerated, but many economists, including Fed officials, expect it will be transitory as the labor market remains 8.4 million jobs below its peak in February 2020.

The labor market is gradually recovering. In a separate report on Thursday, the Labor Department said initial claims for state unemployment benefits fell 13,000 to a seasonally adjusted 553,000 during the week ended April 24.

While claims have dropped from a record 6.149 million in early April 2020, they are above the range of 200,000 to 250,000 that is viewed as consistent with a healthy labor market.

There were 16.6 million people receiving unemployment benefits in the first week of April.

“We’re still probably a couple years away from pre-pandemic employment levels, but based on the powerful economic momentum built up in the first quarter, we should return close to a fully-functioning economy in the second quarter,” said Robert Frick, corporate economist at Navy Federal Credit Union in Vienna, Virginia.

Economists forecast growth this year could top 7%, which would be the fastest since 1984. The economy contracted 3.5% in 2020, the worst performance in 74 years.

Growth in the first quarter was also driven by business spending on equipment, which posted a third straight quarter of double-digit expansion. But business investment in nonresidential structures fell for a sixth straight quarter as a rebound in mining exploration, shafts and wells was offset by a drop in commercial and healthcare buildings.

Residential investment contributed to GDP growth for a third straight quarter. But trade was a drag for the third consecutive quarter as some of the domestic demand was satiated with imports. Inventories were drawn down at a rate of 85.5 billion.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Paul Simao)

Pace of U.S. economic recovery accelerates, Fed says

By Jonnelle Marte, Ann Saphir and Howard Schneider

(Reuters) – The U.S. economic recovery accelerated to a moderate pace from late February to early April as consumers, buoyed by increased COVID-19 vaccinations and strong fiscal support, opened their wallets to spend more on travel and other items, the Federal Reserve said on Wednesday.

The labor market, which was decimated by the coronavirus pandemic, also improved as more people returned to work, with the pace of hiring picking up the most in the manufacturing, construction, and leisure and hospitality sectors.

“Reports on tourism were more upbeat, bolstered by a pickup in demand for leisure activities and travel which contacts attributed to spring break, an easing of pandemic-related restrictions, increased vaccinations, and recent stimulus payments among other factors,” the U.S. central bank said in its latest “Beige Book,” a collection of anecdotes about the economy from its 12 regional districts.

Hospitality contacts told the Atlanta Fed they had “solid bookings for the remainder of spring and through the summer months and beyond,” according to the report, which was compiled by the Dallas Fed using surveys conducted before April 5.

While most districts said the pace of growth in their regional economies was moderate, the New York Fed said its economy “grew at a strong pace for the first time during the pandemic, with growth broad-based across industries.”

The improvement occurred despite an increase in COVID-19 cases in the region, the New York Fed said. “Moreover, business contacts have grown increasingly optimistic about the near-term outlook.”

FOCUS ON WAGES

Fed Chair Jerome Powell said this week that the U.S. economy is at an “inflection point” where growth and hiring could pick up speed over the coming months thanks to increased COVID-19 vaccinations and strong fiscal stimulus.

The United States added 916,000 jobs in March, the largest gain in seven months, according to Labor Department data. And U.S. consumer prices rose at the fastest clip in more than 8-1/2 years in March as vaccinations and stimulus boosted economic activity, according to Labor Department data released on Tuesday.

However, Powell and other Fed officials say the brighter economic forecasts and brief period of higher inflation will not affect monetary policy, and the central bank will keep its support in place until the crisis is over. The U.S. economy is still 8.4 million jobs short of its pre-pandemic levels.

Policymakers agreed last month to leave interest rates near zero and to keep purchasing $120 billion a month in bonds until there was “substantial further progress” toward the Fed’s goals for maximum employment and inflation. Fed officials will gather again in two weeks for their next policy-setting meeting.

The report highlighted the strategies some businesses are considering as they reopen, increase capacity and attempt to recruit workers. One staffing services firm told the Cleveland Fed that pay had for the first time become the top priority of job seekers, surpassing the type of work.

Several workforce contacts suggested that employers might be delaying wage hikes in hopes of a surge of newly vaccinated job seekers, the Minneapolis Fed reported: “Why start raising wages when a lot of labor might be coming back?”

(Reporting by Jonnelle Marte; Editing by Paul Simao)

Climate change, rich-poor gap, conflict likely to grow: U.S. intelligence report

By Jonathan Landay and Mark Hosenball

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Disease, the rich-poor gap, climate change and conflicts within and among nations will pose greater challenges in coming decades, with the COVID-19 pandemic already worsening some of those problems, a U.S. intelligence report said on Thursday.

The rivalry between China and a U.S.-led coalition of Western nations likely will intensify, fueled by military power shifts, demographics, technology and “hardening divisions over governance models,” said Global Trends 2040: A More Contested World, produced by the U.S. National Intelligence Council (NIC).

Regional powers and non-state actors may exert greater influence, with the likely result “a more conflict-prone and volatile geopolitical environment” and weakened international cooperation, it said.

The report by top U.S. intelligence analysts, which is produced every four years, assessed the political, economic, societal and other trends that likely will shape the national security environment in the next 20 years.

“Our intent is to help policymakers and citizens … prepare for an array of possible futures,” the authors wrote, noting they make no specific predictions and included input from diverse groups, from American students to African civil society activists.

Challenges like climate change, disease, financial crises and technological disruption “are likely to manifest more frequently and intensely in almost every region and country,” producing “widespread strains on states and societies as well as shocks that could be catastrophic,” the report said.

It said the coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 3 million people marked the greatest “global disruption” since World War Two, with the consequences likely to last for years.

COVID-19, it said, exposed – and sometimes widened – disparities in healthcare, raised national debts, accelerated nationalism and political polarization, deepened inequality, fueled distrust in government and highlighted failed international cooperation.

In the process, it is slowing – and possibly reversing – progress in fighting poverty, disease and gender inequality.

Many problems caused by the pandemic are forecast by the report to grow by 2040.

“There is a certain set of trends that we’ve identified that seem to be accelerating or made more powerful because of the pandemic,” said an NIC official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The report posed five scenarios for what the world might look like in 2040.

The most optimistic – a “renaissance of democracies” – found that democratic governments would prove “better able to foster scientific research and technological innovation, catalyzing an economic boom,” enabling them to cope with domestic stresses and to stand up to international rivals.

The most pessimistic scenario – “tragedy and mobilization” – posited how COVID-19 and global warming could devastate global food supplies, leading to riots in Philadelphia that kill “thousands of people.”

(Reporting by Jonathan Landay and Mark Hosenball in Washington; Editing by Tim Ahmann and Peter Cooney)

GM, Ford cutting more North American production due to chip shortage

By David Shepardson and Ankit Ajmera

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -General Motors Co and Ford Motor Co both said on Thursday they will cut more vehicle production due to a semiconductor chip shortage that has roiled the global automotive industry.

The White House plans a summit on the chip shortage issue next Monday that is expected to include GM Chief Executive Mary Barra and Ford Chief Executive Jim Farley and top technology firm executives.

A U.S. auto industry group this week urged the government to help and warned that a global semiconductor shortage could result in 1.28 million fewer vehicles built this year and disrupt production for another six months.

President Joe Biden wants at least $50 billion to help boost U.S. semiconductor production, but that will not address short-term needs. “This is something that there is a great deal of focus at the highest level across government,” White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

The largest U.S. automaker said it will cut production for two weeks at its Spring Hill assembly plant that makes popular SUVs starting on Monday, and cut a week of Chevrolet Blazer production at its Ramos plant in Mexico and its Lansing Delta Township factory in Michigan.

GM’s Lansing Grand River Assembly will extend its downtime through the week of April 26, while its CAMI Assembly (Canada) and Fairfax Assembly plants will extend production shutdowns through the week of May 10.

Ford, the second-largest U.S automaker, said it will cancel production next week at its Chicago Assembly Plant, its Flat Rock Assembly Plant and part of its Kansas City Assembly Plant. It will also operate its Ohio Assembly Plant on a reduced schedule.

Ford said it will operate more plants this summer during traditional shutdown weeks to make up for lost production.

GM said the latest cuts have been factored into its forecast that the shortage could reduce this year’s profit by up to $2 billion.

GM said it has not taken downtime or reduced shifts at any of its more profitable full-size truck or full-size SUV plants due to the shortage.

(Reporting by David Shepardson in Washington and Ankit Ajmera in Bengaluru; Editing by Maju Samuel and Sriraj Kalluvila)

Biden says higher corporate taxes won’t harm U.S. economy

By Andrea Shalal

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -President Joe Biden on Monday defended his proposal to increase corporate taxes to help pay for a big boost in U.S. infrastructure spending, saying he is not at all worried the tax hike would harm the economy.

Speaking to reporters after arriving back in Washington after a weekend at the presidential Camp David retreat in Maryland, Biden also said there was “no evidence” his proposed corporate tax increase would drive companies away from the United States.

The Democratic president once again took aim at the 50 or 51 corporations on the Fortune 500 list that paid no taxes at all for three years, saying it was time for them to pay their share.

Asked if raising the corporate tax rate to 28% from 21% would drive away corporations, Biden said, “Not at all … there’s no evidence of that.”

Biden said other countries were investing billions and billions of dollars in infrastructure, and the United States needed to do so to boost its competitiveness.

“I’m going to push as hard as I can to change the circumstances so we can compete with the rest of the world,” he said. “Everybody else in the rest of the world is investing in infrastructure and we’re going to do it here.”

Biden pushed back at Republican criticism that the president’s $2.3 trillion American Jobs Plan is filled with items that are unrelated to infrastructure.

He listed clean water, school and high-speed rail as key items that also counted as infrastructure, in addition to more traditional projects such as bridges, highways and roads.

Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm on Sunday said Biden would prefer to secure Republican backing for his plan, but if that failed to happen, he would likely support using a procedural strategy called reconciliation to allow Democrats to pass it in the Senate.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said last week that Biden’s infrastructure plan was “bold and audacious” but would raise taxes and increase debt. He vowed to fight it “every step of the way.”

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Writing by Andrea Shalal and Tim Ahmann; Editing by Aurora Ellis)

Biden kicks off effort to reshape U.S. economy with infrastructure package

By Jarrett Renshaw

(Reuters) – President Joe Biden on Wednesday will call for a dramatic and more permanent shift in the direction of the U.S. economy with a roughly $2 trillion package to invest in traditional projects like roads and bridges alongside tackling climate change and boosting human services like elder care.

He also aims to put corporate America on the hook for the tab, which is expected to grow to a combined $4 trillion once he rolls out the second part of his economic plan in April.

Coupled with his recently enacted $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package, Biden’s infrastructure initiative would give the federal government a bigger role in the U.S. economy than it has had in generations, accounting for 20% or more of annual output.

The effort, to be announced on Wednesday at an event in Pittsburgh, sets the stage for the next partisan clash in Congress where members largely agree that capital investments are needed but are divided on the total size and inclusion of programs traditionally seen as social services. Just how to pay for them will be a fractious issue in its own right.

Biden for now is ignoring a campaign promise and sparing wealthy Americans from any tax increase. The plan would increase the corporate tax rate to 28% from 21% and change the tax code to close loopholes that allow companies to move profits overseas, according to a senior administration official.

It does not include expected increases in the top marginal tax rate or to the capital gains tax. The plan would spread the cost for projects over an eight-year period and aims to pay for it all over 15 years, the senior administration official said.

The plan also includes $621 billion to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, highways and ports, including a historic $174 billion investment in the electric vehicle market that sets a goal of a nationwide charging network by 2030.

Congress will also be asked to put $400 billion toward expanding access to affordable home or community-based care for aging Americans and people with disabilities.

There is $213 billion provided to build and retrofit affordable and sustainable homes along with hundreds of billions to support U.S. manufacturing, bolster the nation’s electric grid, enact nationwide high-speed broadband and revamp the nation’s water systems to ensure clean drinking water.

SECOND LEGISLATIVE PACKAGE COMING

Biden is moving forward with the massive job and infrastructure effort as he navigates an ambitious time line to provide enough COVID vaccines for all adults by the end of May and the deployment of pandemic relief.

The White House is also dealing with a rise in the number of migrants at the southern border, the fallout from back-to-back mass shootings and a looming showdown over the Senate filibuster

The plan forms one part of the “Build Back Better” agenda that the administration aims to introduce. The White House has said the administration will introduce a second legislative package within weeks.

The second package is expected to include an expansion in health insurance coverage, an extension of the expanded child tax benefit, and paid family and medical leave, among other efforts aimed at families, the officials said.

White House officials have not explained whether they will seek to have both efforts pass at the same time or try to get Congress to approve one first.

The jockeying around Biden’s push has already begun, as allies push for inclusion of their priorities in the upcoming legislative effort and Republicans signal early concerns about the size and scope of the package.

Moderate Democrats have said the package should be more targeted to traditional infrastructure projects to attract Republican votes, seeking a return to bipartisan policymaking.

Liberal lawmakers want to use the party’s slim majorities in Congress to tackle some of the nation’s biggest problems, such as climate change and economic inequality, with resources that reflect the size of those challenges.

Representative Pramila Jayapal, a leading progressive Democrat, said on Tuesday that outside groups like Americans for Tax Fairness pegged the infrastructure and jobs plan that Biden rolled out on the campaign trail at between $6.5 trillion and $11 trillion over 10 years.

“We’d like to see a plan that goes big,” Jayapal said. “We really think that there’s ample room to get the overall number up to somewhere in that range in order to really tackle the scale of investments that we need to make.”

Republican Garret Graves, his party’s senior member on the House Select Committee on the climate crisis, said he was keeping an open mind but was concerned that Democrats were leveraging the popularity of infrastructure to usher in a broad expansion of social welfare.

“If they’re just going to encapsulate a cow pie in a candy shell, then I’m not there,” Graves said in an interview on Tuesday.

(Reporting by Jarrett Renshaw; Additional reporting by Richard Cowan and Makini Brice; Editing by Dan Burns and Peter Cooney)

Cold weather chills U.S. retail sales, manufacturing production

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. retail sales fell more than expected in February amid bitterly cold weather across the country, but a rebound is likely as the government disburses another round of pandemic relief money to mostly lower- and middle-income households.

The harsh weather also took a bite out of production at factories last month as the deep freeze in Texas and other parts of the South put some petroleum refineries, petrochemical facilities and plastic resin plants out of commission.

The setback is probably temporary, with the strongest economic growth since 1984 anticipated this year, thanks to massive fiscal stimulus and an acceleration in the pace of vaccines, which should allow for broader economic re-engagement, even as new COVID-19 cases are starting to creep up.

Federal Reserve officials, who started a two-day meeting on Tuesday, are likely to focus on the underlying economic strength, expectations of higher inflation and a steadily recovering labor market.

“We knew the economy took a major hit in February due to the brutally cold weather and a lot of snow,” said Joel Naroff, chief economist at Naroff Economics in Holland, Pennsylvania. “No reason to panic over the February numbers, the economy is moving forward rapidly and it should pick up the pace as the latest stimulus payout hits home.”

Retail sales dropped by 3.0% last month, the Commerce Department said. But data for January was revised sharply up to show sales rebounding 7.6% instead of 5.3% as previously reported. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast retail sales falling only 0.5% in February.

Unseasonably cold weather gripped the country in February, with deadly snow storms lashing Texas. The decline in sales last month also reflected the fading boost from one-time $600 checks to households, which were part of nearly $900 billion in additional fiscal stimulus approved in late December, as well as delayed tax refunds.

The broad-based decrease was led by motor vehicles, with receipts at auto dealerships dropping 4.2%. Sales at clothing stores fell 2.8%. Consumers also slashed spending at restaurants and bars, leading to a 2.5% drop in receipts. Sales at restaurants and bars decreased 17% compared to February 2020.

Receipts at electronics and appliance stores dropped 1.9% and sales at furniture stores tumbled 3.8%. There were also big declines in sales at sporting goods, hobby, musical instrument and book stores. Receipts at food and beverage stores were unchanged. Sales at building material stores decreased 3.0%. Online retail sales plunged 5.4%.

Stocks on Wall Street were mixed. The dollar rose against a basket of currencies. Longer-dated U.S. Treasury prices fell.

TEMPORARY SETBACK

Excluding automobiles, gasoline, building materials and food services, retail sales decreased 3.5% last month after surging by an upwardly revised 8.7% in January. These so-called core retail sales correspond most closely with the consumer spending component of gross domestic product. They were previously estimated to have shot up 6.0% in January.

President Joe Biden last week signed his $1.9 trillion rescue package into law, which will send additional $1,400 checks to households as well as extend a government-funded $300 weekly unemployment supplement through Sept. 6. Households have also accumulated $1.8 trillion in excess savings.

“This year, we expect the combination of an improved health situation and generous fiscal stimulus to fuel a consumer boom for the history books,” said Lydia Boussour, lead U.S. economist at Oxford Economics in New York.

Economists at Goldman Sachs on Saturday raised their first-quarter GDP growth estimate to a 6% annualized rate from a 5.5% pace, citing the latest stimulus from the Biden administration. The economy grew at a 4.1% rate in the fourth quarter.

Goldman Sachs forecast 7.0% growth this year. That would be the fastest growth since 1984 and would follow a 3.5% contraction last year, the worst performance in 74 years.

The rosy economic outlook was not dimmed by a separate report from the Fed on Tuesday showing output at factories tumbled 3.1% in February, also weighed down by a global semiconductor shortage because of the pandemic.

“While we expect these supply disruptions to be temporary, auto production could remain soft in the very near term,” said Veronica Clark, an economist at Citigroup in New York. “With substantial new fiscal stimulus to support demand for consumer goods in the coming months, supply disruptions could lead to rising prices.”

Indeed, supply constraints because of coronavirus-related restrictions are driving up commodity prices. A third report from the Labor Department showed import prices rose 1.3% last month after surging 1.4% in January. They jumped 3.0% on a year-on-year basis after rising 1.0% in January.

Though inflation is expected to accelerate as early as the first half of this year, many economists do not expect it to spiral out of control with millions of Americans unemployed. Supply chain bottlenecks are also expected to start easing as more people around the globe get vaccinated.

The dollar has also strengthened so far this year against the currencies of the United States’ main trade partners.

“There is still a great deal of unused industrial capacity in the U.S. economy. This will help keep inflation under control throughout this year,” said Gus Faucher, chief economist at PNC Financial in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Dan Burns and Andrea Ricci)

Texas regulator warns lawmakers against rollback in storm power prices

(Reuters) – The head of Texas’s power regulator told lawmakers on Thursday that any effort to retroactively reduce the power prices levied during a recent storm would lead to lawsuits that the state could lose.

The state’s power grid operator raised power prices sharply during a February freeze that pushed two power companies into bankruptcy. Others have warned of potential bankruptcies. Top officials this week called on the Public Utility Commission (PUC) of Texas to immediately reduce about $16 billion in power prices.

Any repricing would trigger lawsuits that the commission would lose, PUC Chairman Arthur D’Andrea bluntly told lawmakers at a hearing in Austin. Commodity contracts used to hedge power have closed and any repricing “will have consequences” for the state’s power, agriculture and other markets, he said.

“If I do it, I get sued and lose right away,” he told a state committee. The legislature could attempt to change the pricing by passing a bill, but it also would face lawsuits and could lose, he added.

The state independent market adviser has recommended a pricing of the final 32 hours of the five-day emergency and called for some service fees to be cut, citing grid rules. Emergency charges amounted to $16 billion for power and about $1.5 billion for service fees tied to the power price.

The state’s governor, lieutenant governor and 28 of 32 state senators this week also called on the PUC and grid operator to “correct” the final 32 hours of power pricing, citing the recommendation and impact on utilities.

“These corrections are squarely within your authority, whether by your own action or an order to ERCOT,” the senators told D’Andrea in a letter on Tuesday, referring to the state grid operator by its acronym.

“I disagree” with the senators’ call, D’Andrea said. He has continually ruled out a power price rollback, arguing “it is impossible to unscramble” insisting the decision to raise prices during the cold snap was known to all grid users.

D’Andrea pushed back against the market monitor’s estimate of the power overcharges, telling lawmakers the amount was much smaller, about $3.2 billion.

Intercontinental Exchange Inc. (ICE), which handles Texas power trades, last week closed contracts that covered billions of dollars in state power trades and has no authority to reopen settled contracts. ICE has deferred settling four contracts tied to the service fees that are much smaller in value, people familiar with the matter told Reuters.

(Reporting by Gary McWilliams; Editing by Marguerita Choy and Daniel Wallis)

U.S. weekly jobless claims drop to four-month low

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The number of Americans filing new claims for jobless benefits dropped to a four-month low last week as an improving public health environment allows more segments of the economy to reopen, putting the labor market recovery back on track.

Still, a full recovery from the deep scars inflicted by the COVID-19 pandemic will probably take years, with the weekly unemployment claims report from the Labor Department on Thursday also showing a whopping 20.1 million Americans collecting unemployment checks in late February.

“The economy and the labor market are entering the next phase of the rebound, supported by a ramping up of vaccinations and declining infections that will allow for a resumption of activity,” said Rubeela Farooqi, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics in White Plains, New York.

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits decreased 42,000 to a seasonally adjusted 712,000 for the week ended March 6, the lowest level since early November. Data for the prior week was revised to show 9,000 more applications received than previously reported.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast 725,000 applications in the latest week.

Unadjusted claims dropped 47,170 to 709,458 last week, amid declines in Texas, New York and Mississippi, where claims had been boosted in the prior period by harsh weather. Claims rose in Ohio, which has been plagued by fraudulent applications.

Including a government-funded program for the self-employed, gig workers and others who do not qualify for the regular state programs, 1.2 million people filed claims last week.

U.S. stocks opened higher. The dollar fell against a basket of currencies. U.S. Treasury prices were mixed.

INFECTIONS FALLING

New coronavirus infections have dropped for eight straight weeks, declining 12% last week, according to a Reuters analysis of state, county and CDC data. Vaccinations jumped to a record 2.2 million shots per day and virus-related deaths fell 18%.

That, together with nearly $900 billion in additional pandemic relief money advanced by the government in late December, fired up consumer spending and hiring in February after declining in December.

Domestic demand is expected to surge in the months ahead, after Congress approved President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion recovery package, which will send fresh aid to small businesses as well as one-time $1,400 checks to mostly lower- and middle-income households. It will also extend a government-funded $300 weekly unemployment supplement through Sept. 6.

Jobless claims have been slow to decline with the improvement in economic activity and public health because of issues ranging from fraudulent filings and backlogs to recent winter storms in the South.

Though claims have dropped from a record 6.867 million in March 2020 when the pandemic hit the United States just more than a year ago, they are above their 665,000 peak during the 2007-09 Great Recession and could remain elevated because of the expanded unemployment benefits. In a well-functioning labor market, claims are normally in a 200,000 to 250,000 range.

“There is some risk in our view though that expanded unemployment, with benefits of an additional $300 per week, could keep the level of claims for unemployment benefits more elevated this year, as some workers could earn more on unemployment than in their previous jobs,” said Andrew Hollenhorst, an economist at Citigroup in New York.

Regular state unemployment benefits averaged about $346 per week in January. Together with the weekly $300 subsidy, they add up to $646 per week or over $15 per hour for a 40-hour week.

The federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, though some states have higher rates.

The claims report also showed the number of people receiving benefits after an initial week of aid declined 193,000 to 4.144 million during the week ended Feb 27. The decrease largely reflected people exhausting their eligibility for benefits, limited to 26 weeks in most states.

About 5.455 million people were on the government-funded extended benefits program during the week ended Feb. 20, up 986,351 from the prior week. There number of people on unemployment benefits under all programs during that period increased by 2.087 million.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Paul Simao and Andrea Ricci)