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Unemployment Claims Rise Anew in Latest Sign of Economic Distress

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The American economy is showing fresh signs of deceleration, hammered by layoffs, a surge in coronavirus cases and the lack of fresh aid from Washington.

The Labor Department reported Thursday that 886,000 people filed new claims for unemployment benefits last week, an increase of nearly 77,000 from the previous week. Adjusted for seasonal variations, the total was 898,000.

The rise follows the announcement of layoffs by major companies including Disney and United Airlines in recent weeks and an impasse between Republicans and Democrats over another round of aid for the economy. A recent jump in coronavirus infections, principally in the Midwest and Western states, only added to the grim outlook.

“It’s discouraging,” said Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics. “The labor market appears to be stalled, which underscores the need for new stimulus as quickly as possible.”

The economy rebounded strongly in late spring and early summer as lockdowns eased in many parts of the country and employers brought back workers from furloughs. But those recalls have slowed, even as federal stimulus efforts have waned.

In past recessions, 800,000 new claims for state unemployment insurance in a week would have been extraordinary. But over the last 30 weeks, that figure has become a floor, not a ceiling.

The latest numbers “point to a lot of churn in the labor market, and it appears the rate of firings has picked up,” said Michael Gapen, chief U.S. economist at Barclays.

More layoffs are expected as sectors like leisure and hospitality struggle. In some states, restaurants have been able to salvage some business by serving diners outside, but that option will disappear in many areas as winter approaches.

“The course of the virus determines the course of the economy,” said Diane Swonk, chief economist at the accounting firm Grant Thornton. “You can’t fully reopen with the contagion so high.”

ImageA copies phone numbers posted on the locked doors of a Georgia Department of Labor office. Fewer companies are recalling workers, even as federal aid as waned.
Credit…John Bazemore/Associated Press

A federal program set to expire at the end of the year, Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, is seeing a surge in new applications. It provides 13 weeks of extended benefits after the end of regular state payments, which typically last 26 weeks.

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In the week that ended Sept. 26, the most recent period with available data, nearly 2.8 million people were getting the extended benefits, a jump from fewer than two million the previous week. That increase was roughly equal to the decline in the number collecting state benefits.

But receiving those benefits, which are administered by the states, isn’t so easy, experts say. “The transition from regular state benefits to P.E.U.C. is not going smoothly,” said Heidi Shierholz, senior economist and director of policy at the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning research group.

In some places, recipients of state unemployment benefits haven’t been notified of their eligibility for the federal extension, and aging computer systems have slowed the processing of applications.

If the program is not extended by Congress, “we’re going to see a disaster,” Ms. Shierholz said. “There will be a huge drop in living standards and an increase in poverty as well as downward pressure on economic growth.”

For workers facing the end of regular benefits, the extended payments have proven to be a lifeline.

Jared Gaxiola of Torrance, Calif., was laid off from his job as a freelance lighting technician in March, after live events were canceled across the country. When his state benefits ran out in mid-September, he was able to get a 13-week extension through Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation.

Mr. Gaxiola, 35, hopes to find a job by the time the federal payments run out in December. But with entertainment work still scarce, he worries about how he will pay his rent in the new year.

“I could probably borrow money from my sister if I needed to,” Mr. Gaxiola said. “But I really don’t want to have to do that.”

Credit…Jose A. Alvarado Jr. for The New York Times

Some workers who are caught between an unforgiving job market and uncertain prospects for help from the government have taken matters into their own hands.

For three years, Lea Polizzi worked more than 50 hours a week as a nanny and a freelance photographer in New York City. But in March, when the pandemic hit, the family she worked for on the Upper East Side left the city, and all of her photography gigs dried up.

Ms. Polizzi, 24, filed for unemployment benefits and started receiving about $200 a week from the state, as well as a $600 federal supplement. Those payments enabled her to meet expenses — including the $1,100 rent for her apartment in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn — while she looked for a job.

But the $600 payments expired at the end of July. Since then, Ms. Polizzi has used about 75 percent of her savings — roughly $4,000 — to pay bills.

“That was the money I had saved to use for vacations or emergency funds,” she said. “I was going to buy a new camera. And then as soon as everything started going down, I had to put everything on hold, because I knew that I was going to end up having to pay rent with it eventually.”

Ms. Polizzi recently received $900 from Lost Wages Assistance, a short-term supplement from the federal government, and she expects one more payment from the program in the next few weeks.

In the meantime, she is making masks, lingerie, hats and jewelry and selling the items online at $25 to $200 apiece.

She has made about 60 sales. “Hopefully, I’ll be able to make it work and just pay all my bills through my art ventures,” she said.

Despite the challenging picture over all, a few workers have been able to find better-paying positions, securing shelter in the coronavirus storm.

Before the pandemic struck, Chloe Ezi was a lifeguard at a public aquatic center in Powder Springs, Ga. It was part-time work that paid $11 an hour, but she was able to bring in an extra $300 a week by teaching private swim lessons.

In March, Ms. Ezi was sent home during coronavirus lockdowns. Because she continued to be paid half her wages — about $75 a week — the pool operators told her that she was not eligible to file for unemployment benefits.

Ms. Ezi, 19, was called back to work in May, but because virus restrictions kept her from teaching private swim lessons, she was able to bring in only about $150 a week — barely enough to cover her $280 monthly car insurance bill, her $80 cellphone bill, and $100 monthly payments to Penn Foster College, where she is completing a dental assistant certificate program, plus groceries and other necessities.

“That’s not a lot to live off of,” Ms. Ezi said. “I was zeroing out my paycheck every month.”

To save money, Ms. Ezi lived with her boyfriend in his parents’ house.

“We’re all just a big family living in this house together,” she said. “It can get pretty stressful living with so many people like this.”

Tired of living in such close quarters, Ms. Ezi began looking for a job that would pay more. In August, she found a full-time position as a sales representative at a store that sells birding equipment, where she makes $13 an hour plus tips. She remains on the staff at the pool, where she still picks up an occasional shift.

Now she and her boyfriend can afford to rent a one-bedroom apartment in Smyrna, Ga. They moved in on Wednesday.

“My new job allowed us to finally get our own place,” she said. “I’m feeling pretty proud of myself right now.”

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The Trump campaign celebrated a growth record that Democrats downplayed.

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The White House celebrated economic growth numbers for the third quarter released on Thursday, even as Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidential campaign sought to throw cold water on the report — the last major data release leading up to the Nov. 3 election — and warned that the economic recovery was losing steam.

The economy grew at a record pace last quarter, but the upswing was a partial bounce-back after an enormous decline and left the economy smaller than it was before the pandemic. The White House took no notice of those glum caveats.

“This record economic growth is absolute validation of President Trump’s policies, which create jobs and opportunities for Americans in every corner of the country,” Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign said in a statement, highlighting a rebound of 33.1 percent at an annualized rate. Mr. Trump heralded the data on Twitter, posting that he was “so glad” that the number had come out before Election Day.

The annualized rate that the White House emphasized extrapolates growth numbers as if the current pace held up for a year, and risks overstating big swings. Because the economy’s growth has been so volatile amid the pandemic, economists have urged focusing on quarterly numbers.

Those showed a 7.4 percent gain in the third quarter. That rebound, by far the biggest since reliable statistics began after World War II, still leaves the economy short of its pre-pandemic levels. The pace of recovery has also slowed, and now coronavirus cases are rising again across much of the United States, raising the prospect of further pullback.

“The recovery is stalling out, thanks to Trump’s refusal to have a serious plan to deal with Covid or to pass a new economic relief plan for workers, small businesses and communities,” Mr. Biden’s campaign said in a release ahead of Thursday’s report. The rebound was widely expected, and the campaign characterized it as “a partial return from a catastrophic hit.”

Economists have warned that the recovery could face serious roadblocks ahead. Temporary measures meant to shore up households and businesses — including unemployment insurance supplements and forgivable loans — have run dry. Swaths of the service sector remain shut down as the virus continues to spread, and job losses that were temporary are increasingly turning permanent.

“With coronavirus infections hitting a record high in recent days and any additional fiscal stimulus unlikely to arrive until, at the earliest, the start of next year, further progress will be much slower,” Paul Ashworth, chief United States economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a note following the report.

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Black and Hispanic workers, especially women, lag in the U.S. economic recovery.

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The surge in economic output in the third quarter set a record, but the recovery isn’t reaching everyone.

Economists have long warned that aggregate statistics like gross domestic product can obscure important differences beneath the surface. In the aftermath of the last recession, for example, G.D.P. returned to its previous level in early 2011, even as poverty rates remained high and the unemployment rate for Black Americans was above 15 percent.

Aggregate statistics could be even more misleading during the current crisis. The job losses in the initial months of the pandemic disproportionately struck low-wage service workers, many of them Black and Hispanic women. Service-sector jobs have been slow to return, while school closings are keeping many parents, especially mothers, from returning to work. Nearly half a million Hispanic women have left the labor force over the last three months.

“If we’re thinking that the economy is recovering completely and uniformly, that is simply not the case,” said Michelle Holder, an economist at John Jay College in New York. “This rebound is unevenly distributed along racial and gender lines.”

The G.D.P. report released Thursday doesn’t break down the data by race, sex or income. But other sources make the disparities clear. A pair of studies by researchers at the Urban Institute released this week found that Black and Hispanic adults were more likely to have lost jobs or income since March, and were twice as likely as white adults to experience food insecurity in September.

The financial impact of the pandemic hit many of the families that were least able to afford it, even as white-collar workers were largely spared, said Michael Karpman, an Urban Institute researcher and one of the studies’ authors.

“A lot of people who were already in a precarious position before the pandemic are now in worse shape, whereas people who were better off have generally been faring better financially,” he said.

Federal relief programs, such as expanded unemployment benefits, helped offset the damage for many families in the first months of the pandemic. But those programs have mostly ended, and talks to revive them have stalled in Washington. With virus cases surging in much of the country, Mr. Karpman warned, the economic toll could increase.

“There could be a lot more hardship coming up this winter if there’s not more relief from Congress, with the impact falling disproportionately on Black and Hispanic workers and their families,” he said.

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Ant Challenged Beijing and Prospered. Now It Toes the Line.

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As Jack Ma of Alibaba helped turn China into the world’s biggest e-commerce market over the past two decades, he was also vowing to pull off a more audacious transformation.

“If the banks don’t change, we’ll change the banks,” he said in 2008, decrying how hard it was for small businesses in China to borrow from government-run lenders.

“The financial industry needs disrupters,” he told People’s Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper, a few years later. His goal, he said, was to make banks and other state-owned enterprises “feel unwell.”

The scope of Mr. Ma’s success is becoming clearer. The vehicle for his financial-technology ambitions, an Alibaba spinoff called Ant Group, is preparing for the largest initial public offering on record. Ant is set to raise $34 billion by selling its shares to the public in Hong Kong and Shanghai, according to stock exchange documents released on Monday. After the listing, Ant would be worth around $310 billion, much more than many global banks.

The company is going public not as a scrappy upstart, but as a leviathan deeply dependent on the good will of the government Mr. Ma once relished prodding.

More than 730 million people use Ant’s Alipay app every month to pay for lunch, invest their savings and shop on credit. Yet Alipay’s size and importance have made it an inevitable target for China’s regulators, which have already brought its business to heel in certain areas.

These days, Ant talks mostly about creating partnerships with big banks, not disrupting or supplanting them. Several government-owned funds and institutions are Ant shareholders and stand to profit handsomely from the public offering.

The question now is how much higher Ant can fly without provoking the Chinese authorities into clipping its wings further.

Excitable investors see Ant as a buzzy internet innovator. The risk is that it becomes more like a heavily regulated “financial digital utility,” said Fraser Howie, the co-author of “Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China’s Extraordinary Rise.”

“Utility stocks, as far as I remember, were not the ones to be seen as the most exciting,” Mr. Howie said.

Ant declined to comment, citing the quiet period demanded by regulators before its share sale.

The company has played give-and-take with Beijing for years. As smartphone payments became ubiquitous in China, Ant found itself managing huge piles of money in Alipay users’ virtual wallets. The central bank made it park those funds in special accounts where they would earn minimal interest.

After people piled into an easy-to-use investment fund inside Alipay, the government forced the fund to shed risk and lower returns. Regulators curbed a plan to use Alipay data as the basis for a credit-scoring system akin to Americans’ FICO scores.

China’s Supreme Court this summer capped interest rates for consumer loans, though it was unclear how the ceiling would apply to Ant. The central bank is preparing a new virtual currency that could compete against Alipay and another digital wallet, the messaging app WeChat, as an everyday payment tool.

Ant has learned ways of keeping the authorities on its side. Mr. Ma once boasted at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, about never taking money from the Chinese government. Today, funds associated with China’s social security system, its sovereign wealth fund, a state-owned life insurance company and the national postal carrier hold stakes in Ant. The I.P.O. is likely to increase the value of their holdings considerably.

“That’s how the state gets its payoff,” Mr. Howie said. With Ant, he said, “the line between state-owned enterprise and private enterprise is highly, highly blurred.”

China, in less than two generations, went from having a state-planned financial system to being at the global vanguard of internet finance, with trillions of dollars in transactions being made on mobile devices each year. Alipay had a lot to do with it.

Alibaba created the service in the early 2000s to hold payments for online purchases in escrow. Its broader usefulness quickly became clear in a country that mostly missed out on the credit card era. Features were added and users piled in. It became impossible for regulators and banks not to see the app as a threat.

ImageAnt Group’s headquarters in Hangzhou, China.
Credit…Alex Plavevski/EPA, via Shutterstock

A big test came when Ant began making an offer to Alipay users: Park your money in a section of the app called Yu’ebao, which means “leftover treasure,” and we will pay you more than the low rates fixed by the government at banks.

People could invest as much or as little as they wanted, making them feel like they were putting their pocket change to use. Yu’ebao was a hit, becoming one of the world’s largest money market funds.

The banks were terrified. One commentator for a state broadcaster called the fund a “vampire” and a “parasite.”

Still, “all the main regulators remained unanimous in saying that this was a positive thing for the Chinese financial system,” said Martin Chorzempa, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

“If you can’t actually reform the banks,” Mr. Chorzempa said, “you can inject more competition.”

But then came worries about shadowy, unregulated corners of finance and the dangers they posed to the wider economy. Today, Chinese regulators are tightening supervision of financial holding companies, Ant included. Beijing has kept close watch on the financial instruments that small lenders create out of their consumer loans and sell to investors. Such securities help Ant fund some of its lending. But they also amplify the blowup if too many of those loans aren’t repaid.

“Those kinds of derivative products are something the government is really concerned about,” said Tian X. Hou, founder of the research firm TH Data Capital. Given Ant’s size, she said, “the government should be concerned.”

The broader worry for China is about growing levels of household debt. Beijing wants to cultivate a consumer economy, but excessive borrowing could eventually weigh on people’s spending power. The names of two of Alipay’s popular credit functions, Huabei and Jiebei, are jaunty invitations to spend and borrow.

Huang Ling, 22, started using Huabei when she was in high school. At the time, she didn’t qualify for a credit card. With Huabei’s help, she bought a drone, a scooter, a laptop and more.

The credit line made her feel rich. It also made her realize that if she actually wanted to be rich, she had to get busy.

“Living beyond my means forced me to work harder,” Ms. Huang said.

First, she opened a clothing shop in her hometown, Nanchang, in southeastern China. Then she started an advertising company in the inland metropolis of Chongqing. When the business needed cash, she borrowed from Jiebei.

Online shopping became a way to soothe daily anxieties, and Ms. Huang sometimes racked up thousands of dollars in Huabei bills, which only made her even more anxious. When the pandemic slammed her business, she started falling behind on her payments. That cast her into a deep depression.

Finally, early this month, with her parents’ help, she paid off her debts and closed her Huabei and Jiebei accounts. She felt “elated,” she said.

China’s recent troubles with freewheeling online loan platforms have put the government under pressure to protect ordinary borrowers.

Ant is helped by the fact that its business lines up with many of the Chinese leadership’s priorities: encouraging entrepreneurship and financial inclusion, and expanding the middle class. This year, the company helped the eastern city of Hangzhou, where it is based, set up an early version of the government’s app-based system for dictating coronavirus quarantines.

Such coziness is bound to raise hackles overseas. In Washington, Chinese tech companies that are seen as close to the government are radioactive.

In January 2017, Eric Jing, then Ant’s chief executive, said the company aimed to be serving two billion users worldwide within a decade. Shortly after, Ant announced that it was acquiring the money transfer company MoneyGram to increase its U.S. footprint. By the following January, the deal was dead, thwarted by data security concerns.

More recently, top officials in the Trump administration have discussed whether to place Ant Group on the so-called entity list, which prohibits foreign companies from purchasing American products. Officials from the State Department have suggested that an interagency committee, which also includes officials from the departments of defense, commerce and energy, review Ant for the potential entity listing, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Ant does not talk much anymore about expanding in the United States.

Ana Swanson contributed reporting.

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