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The rapid growth the U.S. economy has seen is about to hit a wall

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A National Park Service worker replaces a flag at the Washington Monument which reopened today following a six month closure due to COVID-19 safety measures, in Washington U.S., July 14, 2021.

Kevin Lemarque | Reuter

The U.S. economy is expected to post another roaring growth spurt in the second quarter, before a slow and steady dose of reality starts to sink in.

Gross domestic product is projected to accelerate 9.2% for the April-to-June period, according to a FactSet survey.

In a pre-pandemic world, that would have put annualized growth at its fastest level since the second quarter of 1983. However, the current circumstances and the outsized policy response they generated make this merely the third straight quarter of GDP that sits well above the post-Great Recession trend.

Things are about to change, however.

The economy is creeping back towards normal, the open checkbook from Congress is about to get tighter, and millions of sidelined American workers will be returning to their jobs. That means a gradual reversion to the mean for an economy more used to growing closer to 2% than the much stronger levels it has turned in during the reopening.

“Growth has peaked, the economy will slow a bit in the second half of this year, then much more noticeably in the first half of 2022 as fiscal support fades,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody’s Analytics. “The contours of growth are going to be shaped largely by fiscal policy over the next 18 months. The tailwind just blows less strongly, and may stop altogether by this time next year.”

It’s been a long road getting here, but the economy has gotten very close to its pre-pandemic self.

In fact, according to a running gauge that Jefferies keeps, overall output is at 98.6% of its “normal” level before Covid-19 turned everything upside down. The firm uses a slew of indicators to measure then versus now, and finds that while some areas such as employment and air travel are lagging, retail and housing have helped push overall activity to just below the 2019 level, at 98.6%.

“When I look holistically at household income dynamics and balance sheets, I see a very, very positive situation, very healthy fundamentals, and it’s hard to be pessimistic on the outlook,” said Aneta Markowska, chief financial economist at Jefferies.

Indeed, household net worth totaled $136.9 trillion at the end of the first quarter, a 16% increase from its 2019 level, according to the Federal Reserve. At the same time, household debt payments compared to disposable personal income fell to 8.2%, a record low going back to 1980.

But much of that net worth has been driven by increases in financial assets such as stocks, and personal income has swelled due to government stimulus payments that are slowing and eventually will stop.

Demographics holding back growth

Gasoline prices at a Royal Dutch Shell Plc gas station in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Wednesday, July 7, 2021.

David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Inflation combined with fading fiscal support also then will serve as a growth limit.

“The economy is facing supply constraints with residential investment likely a drag and the change in inventories remaining negative,” Bank of America U.S. economist Alexander Lin said in a note. “Looking ahead, this is likely the peak, with growth cooling in the coming quarters.”

Capital Economics forecasts a below-consensus 8% GDP figure for the second quarter, then a drop to 3.5% in the following period.

“With surging prices squeezing real incomes we suspect the pace of monthly growth will remain lackluster, setting the stage for a sharp slowdown in consumption and GDP growth in the third quarter,” wrote Paul Ashworth, chief North American economist at Capital Economics.

The pandemic is another wildcard.

Cases of the delta variant are spiking in a handful of states, and health officials worry that the U.S. could face a wave like the one hitting some European and Asian countries. Few if any economists expect another wave of lockdowns or similar constraints in the U.S., but pressure from abroad could hit domestic growth.

“Export platforms like Vietnam are being locked down now,” Brusuelas said. “Vietnam is becoming a more important cog in the global supply chain, so we are watching that closely.

Brusuelas added that the negotiations over the debt ceiling also could shake up things in the U.S. Yellen said Friday that extraordinary measures the U.S. may need to take to continuing paying its debts could hit troubles as soon as October.

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Tesla to reverse solar price hike for some customers: legal filing

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Smith Collection/Gado | Archive Photos | Getty Images

Tesla is trying to placate some solar customers who say they faced sudden price hikes earlier this year, according to new filings with the U.S. district court in San Jose, California.

In a Thursday filing, customers’ attorneys wrote, “Tesla informed counsel for Plaintiffs that Tesla had recently launched a program for customers who signed Solar Roof contracts before the April 2021 price changes to return those customers to their original pricing (if they were subject to a price increase in April 2021).”

As of Friday afternoon, further details of this program were not apparent on Tesla’s solar websites nor the Engage website for customers and advocates of the company. CNBC reached out to plaintiffs’ attorneys and Tesla to get further details about the program. They did not immediately respond.

This spring, frustrated Tesla solar customers sued the company after experiencing surprise price increases.

Filings in three separate lawsuits alleged that Tesla solar customers had already signed contracts with Elon Musk’s electric vehicle and renewable energy venture, and even prepared to have solar photovoltaics installed at their homes, when they were surprised by sudden price hikes that required additional payments to move ahead with their installations.

The price hikes were not trivial. For example, plaintiff Matthew Amans’ solar roof price shot up from around $72,000 per his original contract to around $146,000, according to lawsuit filings.

Those lawsuits were later consolidated into Amans v Tesla, Inc.

Tesla hiked prices for its solar installations at least twice early this year, and made it a requirement for customers ordering solar panels or roof tiles to order the Powerwall home energy storage system as well. Later, CEO Elon Musk revealed that the company would not be able to make enough Powerwalls to keep up with demand this year because of the ongoing microchip shortage.

Overall, solar remains a fairly small part of Tesla’s business. Tesla reported energy generation and storage revenue of $801 million in the second quarter of 2021, with a cost of revenue of $781 million for that division. The company does not break out revenue from solar on its own — the unit includes revenue from its lithium-ion battery energy storage systems, which range from home backup batteries to giant, utility-scale systems.

By way of comparison, Tesla booked $10.2 billion in automotive sales during the quarter.

Here’s the legal filing.

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Elizabeth Holmes pushed faster Theranos Walgreens rollout: Testimony

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Elizabeth Holmes, CEO of Theranos, attends a panel discussion during the Clinton Global Initiative’s annual meeting in New York, September 29, 2015.

Brendan McDermid | Reuters

SAN JOSE, CALIF. – A former Theranos scientist testified Friday that Elizabeth Holmes pressured her to validate blood test results from the company’s Edison machine to speed up a rollout in Walgreens despite problems with the device’s accuracy.

Surekha Gangakhedkar, a senior scientist at Theranos for eight years who reported directly to Holmes, testified that she returned from a vacation in August 2013 and discovered that Theranos was about to launch its Edison blood-testing devices in Walgreens stores.

“I was very stressed and unhappy and concerned with the way the launch was going” Gangakhedkar said. “I was not comfortable with the plans that they had in place so I made a decision to resign and not continue working there.”

Gangakhedkar recalled meeting with Holmes in September 2013 about the issues that prompted her resignation.

“At that time she mentioned that she has promised to deliver to the customers and didn’t have much of a choice then to go ahead with the launch,” Gangakhedkar said becoming emotional on the stand.

“Ms. Holmes said she didn’t have much of a choice?” asked Robert Leach, an assistant U.S. attorney.

“Yes,” she replied.

Despite signing a non-disclosure agreement, Gangakhedkar said she printed some documents and took them home when she quit because she was “worried about the launch, I was actually scared that if things do not go well I would be blamed.”

Gangakhedkar was granted immunity from criminal charges in exchange for her testimony.

She testified that in August 2013 she didn’t think the Edison 3.0 and 3.5 were ready to be used for patient testing, adding “there were problems with getting consistent results.” However, Gangakhedkar recalled that Holmes was pressuring the team to validate the tests even though “in my opinion she was aware,” of the accuracy issues.

Holmes is fighting 12 charges of wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud, and has pleaded not guilty. In opening statements, her defense attorney told jurors that Holmes was an ambitious young woman who made mistakes but didn’t commit a crime.

Earlier in the day, Erika Cheung, a former lab associated turned whistleblower, concluded her testimony after three days on the stand. Cheung recalled that frequent quality control failures in the lab created substantial delays in test results for patients.

“We had people sleeping in their cars because it was just taking too long,” Cheung testified. “Every few days we were having to run samples over and over again.”

Cheung, who quit Theranos six months after joining as a college graduate, said she “became concerned probably a month in with the Vitamin D samples.”

Gangakhedkar’s testimony continues on Tuesday. Among the insiders the government plans to call to testify next is Daniel Edlin, a project manager who reported directly to Holmes and worked on the Walgreens partnership. Edlin was also friends with Holmes’ brother, Christian.

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After years of being ‘squeaky clean,’ the Federal Reserve is surrounded by controversy

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The Marriner S. Eccles Federal Reserve building in Washington, D.C., on Friday, Sept. 17, 2021.

Stefani Reynolds | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The Federal Reserve has a big meeting on tap next week, one that will be held under the cloud of an ethical dilemma and a policymaking committee that finds itself with fairly pronounced divisions about the path ahead.

Markets largely expect the Fed to follow the two-day session with no major decisions, but rather just the first but significant nods that the historically easy money pandemic-era accommodation is coming to an end soon if slowly.

“Tapering” will be the word of the day when the post-meeting statement is issued Wednesday, at which time individual officials also will release their forecasts on the future arc of interest rates as well as economic growth and inflation.

All of that will be set against a backdrop of controversy: News reports in recent days indicate that Fed officials have been trading stocks and bonds that could be influenced at least indirectly by their policy decisions.

At the same time, speeches over the past several weeks indicate a schism between those who say the time is now to start tightening policy and those who’d rather wait.

For the normally staid Fed, the present circumstances are unusual and could yield some interesting dynamics.

“I think it’s embarrassing for the Fed. It had such a squeaky-clean reputation,” Greg Valliere, chief U.S. policy strategist at AGF Investments, said of the trading controversy that largely involved regional Presidents Robert Kaplan of Dallas and Eric Rosengren of Boston. “But I don’t think it’s going to change policy in any regard at all. I think it will be rearview mirror pretty soon, assuming there’s no other shoe to drop.”

Valliere did note the issue will help fuel Fed critics such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who had been a vocal detractor of the Fed’s looser regulatory approach in the years since the 2008-09 financial crisis.

A matter of credibility

More than that, though, the Fed lives on its credibility, and some of the recent problems could dent that.

There’s the market credibility issue – Wall Street and investors need to believe that the Fed is at least mostly unified in its monetary policy approach to setting interest rates and associated moves that have market impact. Then there’s the public credibility – at a time when faith in Washington’s institutions has plunged, ethical missteps only add to that and can have repercussions, especially at such a delicate time.

“The ethics here look bad. They should have known better,” said Joseph LaVorgna, chief economist for the Americas at Natixis and former chief economist of the National Economic Council during the Trump administration. “Once you lose that moral authority, it’s a problem.”

Rosengren, Kaplan and any other Fed officials who traded stocks didn’t violate any laws or policies. In fact, that’s become part of the criticism leveled in some circles – that following the financial crisis the Fed didn’t do a housecleaning when it came to internal rules to make sure it avoided the kinds of conflicts that came to light during the financial crisis.

“Keep in mind, they already have [trading] rules they imposed on banks, for example, and yet the Fed’s governors don’t live by those same rules,” said Christopher Whalen, a Fed veteran and now chairman of Whalen Global Advisors. “After Dodd-Frank [the post-crisis banking reforms], every agency in Washington tightened up little conflicts like insider trading. And yet the Fed is somehow exempt from those rules? They look ridiculous.”

For its part, the Fed has noted that it is following rules for other government agencies and has supplemental rules as well.

Jerome Powell, nominee to be chairman of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, shakes hands with US Senator Elizabeth Warren (R), Democrat of Massachusetts, prior to testifying during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.

Saul Loeb | AFP | Getty Images

Still, a spokesman for the central bank said Thursday that Chairman Jerome Powell has directed Fed staff “to take a fresh and comprehensive look at the ethics rules around permissible financial holdings and activities by senior Fed officials,” a spokesman said.

“This review will assist in identifying ways to further tighten those rules and standards. The Board will make changes, as appropriate, and any changes will be added to the Reserve Bank Code of Conduct,” the official added.

The controversy comes against a delicate backdrop for the Fed.

The central bank is preparing to take its first steps to normalize policy again, after slashing benchmark interest rates to zero and doubling the size of its balance sheet through more than $4 trillion in bond purchases.

Fed officials are divided on policy: By Goldman Sachs’ count, six officials who have spoken publicly on the issue of tapering asset purchases are for it and six are against. On inflation, while Powell has said he expects price pressures to recede fairly soon, at least six Fed officials, including Governor Christopher Waller, have said they expect inflation to remain above the central bank’s 2% target beyond 2021.

One more complication thrown into the mix is that Powell’s term is set to expire in February, and President Joe Biden is expected to announce soon his preferred choice to lead the bank ahead. Most on Wall Street expect Powell to be nominated again, but there’s growing sentiment that Biden will move out Randal Quarles as vice chairman in charge of bank supervision and replace him with Governor Lael Brainard, who likely would use a heavier hand in bank regulation.

Amid all those pressures, Powell will have to make sure the Fed gets policy right and is able to clear away some of the contentiousness of late.

“It’s not a fait accompli that Jerome Powell is reappointed,” said LaVorgna, the Natixis economist. “The administration is understandably going to wait and see how the Fed handles the taper and what the markets do. That could be the determining factor in whether he’s reappointed.”

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