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29
Jul

Mid-Year Is a Good Time for a Financial Checkup

The first half of 2021 is behind us. As life emerges from the pandemic to a “new normal,” a mid-year financial checkup may be more important than ever this year. Here are some ways to make sure that your financial situation is continuing the right path.

Reassess your financial goals
At the beginning of the year, you may have set financial goals geared toward improving your financial situation. Perhaps you wanted to save more, spend less, or reduce your debt. How much progress have you made? If your income, expenses, and life circumstances have changed, you may need to rethink your priorities. Review your financial statements and account balances to determine whether you need to make any changes to keep your financial plan on track.

Look at your taxes
Completing a mid-year estimate of your tax liability may reveal new tax planning opportunities. You can use last year’s tax return as a basis, then factor in any anticipated adjustments to your income and deductions for this year. Check your withholding, especially if you owed taxes or received a large refund. Doing that now, rather than waiting until the end of the year, may help you avoid owing a big tax bill next year or overpaying taxes and giving Uncle Sam an interest-free loan. You can check your withholding by using the IRS Tax Withholding Estimator https://www.irs.gov/individuals/tax-withholding-estimator . If necessary, adjust the amount of federal or state income tax withheld from your paycheck by filing a new Form W-4 with your employer. Be sure to factor any Advance Child Tax Credit Payments if you are receiving or expect to receive any. https://www.irs.gov/credits-deductions/advance-child-tax-credit-payments-in-2021

Check your retirement savings
If you’re still working, look for ways to increase retirement plan contributions. For example, if you receive a pay increase this year, you could contribute a higher percentage of your salary to your employer-sponsored retirement plan, if available. For 2021, the contribution limit is $19,500, or $26,000 if you’re age 50 or older. If you are close to retirement or already retired, take another look at your retirement income needs and whether your current investment and distribution strategy will provide the income you will need.

Evaluate your insurance coverage
What are the deductibles and coverage limits of your homeowners/renter’s insurance policies? How much disability or life insurance coverage do you have? Your insurance needs can change over time. As a result, you’ll want to make sure your coverage has kept pace with your income and family/personal circumstances. The cost and availability of life insurance depend on factors such as age, health, and the type and amount of insurance purchased.

Ask questions
Some questions you should also ask yourself as part of your mid-year financial checkup:
• Do you have enough money set aside to cover unexpected expenses?
• Do you have money left in your flexible spending account?
• Are your beneficiary designations up to date?
• Have you checked your credit score recently?
• Do you need to create or update your will?
• When you review your portfolio, is your asset allocation still in line with your financial goals, time horizon, and tolerance for risk? Are any changes warranted?
Asset allocation is a method used to help manage investment risk; it does not guarantee a profit or protect against investment loss. All investing involves risk, including the possible loss of principal, and there is no guarantee that any investment strategy will be successful.

21
Jul

New Global Tax Accord Takes Shape

After more than four years of international negotiations taking place mostly behind the scenes, 132 countries — representing more than 90% of worldwide gross domestic product (GDP) and including the Group of 20 (G20) large economies — recently agreed to a new plan to reform international tax laws in an effort to “ensure that multinational enterprises pay a fair share of tax wherever they operate.”1

The negotiations, overseen by the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), represent the most significant attempt in over a century to overhaul the global tax system and bring international tax policy into the modern digital age. The accord has the potential to reshape global commerce.2

What is the crux of the new global tax agreement?

The global agreement has two main pillars. The first would require large, multinational enterprises (including digital companies) to pay taxes in countries where their goods or services are sold and where they earn profits, even if they have no physical presence there. This provision is aimed primarily at large U.S. tech companies that sell their goods and services abroad, and is intended to supercede attempted regulation by other countries that are already in the process of trying to collect taxes on these companies.3

The second pillar, proposed by the United States, calls for a 15% global minimum corporate tax rate in an effort to prevent multinational companies from shopping for a country or jurisdiction with the lowest tax rates, a phenomenon U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen described as a “race to the bottom.”4

President Biden added: “With a global minimum tax in place, multinational corporations will no longer be able to pit countries against one another in a bid to push tax rates down and protect their profits at the expense of public revenue.”5

The OECD estimated that raising the global minimum corporate tax rate to 15% would generate an estimated $150 billion in additional global tax revenues each year. It stated that the  “package will provide much-needed support to governments needing to raise necessary revenues to repair their budgets and their balance sheets while investing in essential public services, infrastructure and the measures necessary to help optimise the strength and the quality of the post-COVID recovery.”6

What countries are on board?

All the G20 economies, representing over 75% of global trade, have endorsed the deal. They include the United States, Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Republic of Korea, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and most countries of the European Union.7 In all, 132 countries are in favor.

However, several countries with low corporate tax rates that currently operate as tax havens have not agreed to the deal, including Ireland, several Caribbean countries, Hungary, Estonia, Kenya, Nigeria, Peru, and Sri Lanka.8 These smaller nations are attempting to secure a better deal to enable them to compete with larger countries and make up for the potential loss of any tax advantage. The refusal of Ireland, Hungary, and Estonia to sign on to a global corporate tax rate is a potential roadblock because of the European Union’s requirement for unanimity on tax issues. 9

Undoubtedly, there is a significant amount of work to be done to bring “holdout” nations on board. The Biden administration has pushed Congress to approve a new tax rule that would punish companies that operate in the United States but  have headquarters in those holdout countries by significantly increasing their tax liabilities. The  president has also pushed Congress to increase the minimum tax on revenue earned by U.S.  companies outside the United States in an effort to help fund the $4 trillion infrastructure and economic agenda he hopes to pass this year.10

Has the new global tax agreement been enacted yet?

No. There are still significant, complex technical and policy details that need to be worked out, including how the plan will be executed and which U.S. multinational companies will be subject to the new rules on digital tax.

In addition, the plan needs to be approved by Congress and the national legislatures of participating countries. In the United States, each pillar of the plan could be considered separately. According to Treasury Secretary Yellen, the provision for a 15% global minimum corporate tax rate could be included in a budget bill headed to Congress later in 2021, while the provision on digital taxation of multinational companies might be ready for Congress in the spring of 2022. A further wrinkle is that if the digital tax provision is considered an international treaty, it will require two-thirds approval in the Senate.11

In any event, the global tax accord is due to be finalized by G20 leaders at their next meeting in Rome in October 2021, with G20 finance ministers anticipating global implementation in 2023.12

1, 3, 6) OECD.org, 2021

2, 4-5, 8, 10) The New York Times, July 8, 2021

7) G20.org, 2021

9, 11-12) Bloomberg, July 11, 2021

8
Jul

Should You Be Concerned About Inflation?

If you pay attention to financial news, you are probably seeing a lot of discussion about inflation, which has reared its head in the U.S. economy after being mostly dormant for the last decade. In May 2021, the Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U), often called headline inflation, rose at an annual rate of 5.0%, the highest 12-month increase since August 2008.1

The CPI-U measures the price of a fixed market basket of goods and services purchased by residents of urban and metropolitan areas — about 93% of the U.S. population. You have likely seen price increases in some of the goods and services you purchase, and if so it’s natural to be concerned.

The larger question is whether these price increases are temporary, caused by factors such as supply-chain issues and labor shortages that will be resolved as the economy continues to emerge from the pandemic, or whether they indicate a fundamental imbalance that could cause widespread long-term inflation and hold back economic growth.

Most economists — including Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen — believe the current spike is primarily due to transitory factors that will fade in the coming months. One example of this, cited by Powell in a recent press conference, is the price of lumber.2–3

Supply and Demand

Early in the pandemic, many lumber mills shut down or cut back on production because they expected a major slowdown in building. In fact, demand for housing and home renovation increased during the pandemic, as many people who worked from home wanted more space, a different location, or  improvements to their current homes. Low supply and high demand sent lumber prices soaring.4

Sawmills geared up as quickly as they could and were reaching full capacity just as demand began to ebb, with builders cutting back due to high prices and homeowners using their discretionary income to buy other goods and services. Suddenly the supply exceeded demand, and prices began to drop. Wholesale lumber prices are still higher than before the pandemic, and it takes time for price drops to filter down to the retail level, but it’s clear that the extreme inflation was transitory and has been reversed. The lumber story also suggests that consumers and businesses will cut back on spending for a product that becomes too expensive rather than spend at any price and feed an inflationary spiral.5

Chips and Cars

Another example of pandemic-driven imbalance between supply and demand is used car and truck prices, which have skyrocketed almost 30% over the last 12 months and represent a substantial portion of the overall increase in CPI. Used vehicles are hard to find in large part because fewer new cars are being built — and fewer new cars are being built because there is a shortage of computer chips. A single new car can require more than 1,000 chips, and when auto manufacturers were forced to close their factories early in the pandemic and new vehicle sales plummeted due to lack of demand, chip manufacturers shifted from producing chips for cars to producing chips for high-demand consumer electronics such as webcams, phones, and laptops.6–8

As the economy reopened and the demand for cars increased, chip producers were unable to shift and increase production quickly enough to meet the needs of auto manufacturers. The chip shortage is expected to reduce global auto production by 3.9 million vehicles in 2021, a drop of 4.6%. Unlike lumber, the chip shortage may take some time to resolve, because chip manufacturing is a long, multi-step process and most chips are manufactured outside the United States. The federal government has stepped in to encourage U.S. manufacturers to build new facilities and increase production.9

Fundamental Forces

Imbalances between supply and demand are to be expected as the economy reopens, and most such imbalances should work themselves out in the marketplace. But other forces could fuel more extensive inflation. Massive federal stimulus packages have provided consumers with more money to spend, while ongoing stimulus from the Federal Reserve has increased the money supply and made it easier to borrow.

Although unemployment is still relatively high at 5.9%, millions of jobs remain open as workers are hesitant to return to positions they consider unsafe in light of the pandemic, are unable to work due to lack of child care, and/or are rethinking their careers in a post-pandemic world.10–11This may change in September as extended unemployment benefits expire and children return to school, but the current imbalance is forcing many businesses to raise wages, especially in lower-paying jobs.12

The increases so far are primarily “catching up” after many years of low wages and should be absorbed by businesses or passed on to consumers with moderate price increases.13 However, if wages and prices increase too quickly and consumers earning higher wages are willing to spend regardless of rising prices — because they expect prices to rise even higher — the wage-price inflation spiral could be difficult to control.

Reading the Economy

When considering the current situation, it’s helpful to look at other measures of inflation.

Base effect. On a purely mathematical level, high 12-month CPI increases in March, April, and May 2021 reflect the fact that the CPI is being compared with those months in 2020, when prices decreased as the economy closed in response to the pandemic. This comparison to unusually low numbers is called the base effect. To avoid this effect, it’s helpful to look at annualized inflation over a two-year period, comparing prices now with prices before the pandemic. By that measure, current inflation is about 2.5%, a little higher than the average over the last decade but not nearly as concerning as a 5.0% level.14

Core inflation. Prices of some items are more volatile than others, and food and energy are especially volatile categories that can change quickly even in a low-inflation environment. For this reason, economists tend to look more carefully at core inflation, which strips out food and energy prices and generally runs lower than CPI-U. Core CPI rose at an annual rate of 3.8% in May 2021, which sounds better than 5.0% until you consider that it is the highest core inflation since June 1992. The good news is that the 0.7% monthly increase from April to May was lower than the 0.9% rise from March to April, suggesting that core inflation may be slowing down.  (The CPI-U increase also slowed in May, rising 0.6% for the month after a 0.8% increase in April.)15

Sticky prices.  Another helpful measure is the sticky-price CPI, which sorts the components of the CPI into categories that are relatively slow to change (sticky) and those that change more rapidly (flexible). The sticky price CPI increased just 2.7% over the 12-month period ending in May 2021. By contrast, the flexible component of the CPI increased 12.4% over the year.16 This suggests that a variety of factors — such as problems with supply chains, labor, and extreme weather — may be moving prices on flexible items, but that underlying economic forces are moving more stable prices at a relatively moderate rate.

The Fed’s Arsenal

The Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC), an arm of the Federal Reserve, is charged with setting economic policy to meet its dual mandate of fostering maximum employment while promoting price stability. The Fed’s primary economic tools are the benchmark federal funds rate, which affects many other interest rates, and its bond-buying program, which injects liquidity into the economy. Put simply, the Fed lowers the funds rate and buys bonds to stimulate the economy and increase employment, and raises the rate and stops buying bonds or sells bonds to put the brakes on inflation.

The federal funds rate has been at its rock-bottom range of 0.0% to 0.25% since March 2020, when the Fed dropped it quickly in the face of the pandemic, and the Federal Reserve is buying $120 billion in government bonds every month, much less than it did early in the pandemic but still a substantial and steady injection of money into the economy.17 (Unlike an individual or a regular bank that must spend money to purchase bonds, the central bank buys bonds by creating an electronic deposit in one of its member banks, thus creating “new money” that can be used to lend and circulate into the economy.)

Some inflation is necessary for economic growth — without it, an economy is stagnant — and in 2012, the FOMC set a 2% target for healthy inflation, based on a measure called the Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE) Price Index. The PCE price index uses much of the same data as the CPI, but it captures a broader range of expenditures and reflects changes in consumer spending.

More specifically, the FOMC focuses on core PCE (excluding food and energy), which remained below the 2% target for most of the last decade. In August 2020, the FOMC changed its policy to target an average PCE inflation rate of 2% and indicated it would allow inflation to run higher for some time to balance the time it ran below the target. This is the current situation. Core PCE increased at a 12-month rate of 3.4% in May 2021, but so far the Fed has shown little inclination to take action in the short term.18 The FOMC projects PCE inflation to drop to 3.1% by the end of the year and to 2.1% by the end of 2022.19

At its June meeting, the FOMC did indicate an important shift by projecting the federal funds rate would increase in 2023 to a range of 0.5% to 0.75%, effectively two quarter-point steps.  (In March, the projection had been to hold the rate steady at least through 2023.) Fed Chair Powell also indicated that the FOMC has begun “talking about talking about” reducing the monthly bond purchases.20 Neither of these signals suggests any immediate action or serious concern about inflation. However, the fact that the funds rate remains near zero and that the Fed continues to buy bonds gives the central bank powerful “weapons” to employ if it believes inflation is increasing too quickly.

The next few months may indicate whether inflation is slowing down or changes in monetary policy are necessary. Unfortunately, prices do not always come down once they rise, but it may be helpful to keep in mind that prices of many goods and services did decline during the pandemic, and the higher prices you are seeing today might not be far out of line compared with prices before the economic slowdown. As long as inflation begins trending downward, it seems likely that the current numbers reflect growing pains of the recovery rather than a long-term threat to economic growth.

U.S. Treasury securities are backed by the full faith and credit of the U.S. government as to the timely payment of principal and interest. The principal value of Treasury securities fluctuates with market conditions. If not held to maturity, bonds could be worth more or less than the original amount paid. Projections are based on current conditions, are subject to change, and may not come to pass.

1, 6, 10, 14) U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2021

2, 17, 19–20) Federal Reserve, 2021

3) Bloomberg, June 5, 2021

4–5) The New York Times, June 21, 2021

7) CBS News, June 22, 2021

8–9) Time, June 28, 2021

11) CNBC, June 8, 2021

12–13) CNBC, May 22, 2021

15) The Wall Street Journal, June 22, 2021

16) Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, 2021

18) U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, 2021

6
Jul

Hostage Data: Ransomware and Protecting Your Digital Information

On May 7, 2021, the Colonial Pipeline, which carries almost half of the East Coast’s fuel supply from Texas to New Jersey, shut down operations in response to a ransomware attack. Colonial paid a $4.4 million ransom not long after discovering the attack, and the pipeline was reopened within a week. While there was enough stored fuel to weather the outage, panic buying caused gasoline shortages on the East Coast and pushed the national average price of gasoline over $3.00 per gallon for the first time since 2014.1

Ransomware is not new, but the Colonial Pipeline incident demonstrated the risk to critical infrastructure and elicited strong response from the federal government. Remarkably, the Department of Justice recovered most of the ransom, and the syndicate behind the attack, known as DarkSide, announced it was shutting down operations.2

The Department of Homeland Security issued new regulations requiring owners and operators of critical pipelines to report cybersecurity threats within 12 hours of discovery, and to review cybersecurity practices and report the results within  30 days.3 On a broader level, the incident increased focus on government initiatives  to strengthen the nation’s cybersecurity and create a global coalition to hold countries that shelter cybercriminals accountable.4

Malicious Code

Ransomware is malicious code (malware) that infects the victim’s computer system, allowing the perpetrator to lock the files and demand a ransom in return for a digital key to restore access. Some attackers may also threaten to reveal sensitive data. There were an estimated 305 million ransomware attacks globally in 2020, a 62% increase over 2019. More than 200 million of them were in the United States.5

The recent surge in high-profile ransomware attacks represents a shift by cybercriminal syndicates from stealing data from “data-rich” targets such as retailers, insurers, and financial companies to locking data of businesses and other organizations that are essential to public welfare. A week after the Colonial Pipeline attack, JBS USA Holdings, which processes one-fifth of the U.S. meat supply, paid an $11 million ransom.6 Health-care systems, which spend relatively little on cybersecurity, are a prime target, jeopardizing patient care.7 Other common targets include state and local governments, school systems, and private companies of all sizes.8

Ransomware gangs, mostly located in Russia and other Eastern European countries, typically set ransom demands in relation to their perception of the victim’s ability to pay, and high-dollar attacks may be resolved through negotiations by a middleman and a cyber insurance company. Although the FBI discourages ransom payments, essential businesses and organizations may not have time to reconstruct their computer systems, and reconstruction can be more expensive than paying the ransom.9

Protecting Your Data

While major ransomware syndicates  focus on more lucrative targets, plenty of cybercriminals prey on individual consumers, whether locking data for ransom, gaining access to financial accounts, or stealing and selling personal information. Here are some tips to help make your data more secure.10

Use strong passwords and protect them. An analysis of the Colonial Pipeline attack revealed that the attackers gained access through a leaked password to an old account with remote server access.11  Strong passwords are your first line of defense. Use at least 8 to 12 characters with a mix  of upper- and lower-case letters, numbers, and symbols. Longer and more complex passwords are better. Do not use personal information or dictionary words.

One technique is to use a passphrase that you can remember and adapt. For example, Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water could be J&jwuth!!2faPow. Though it’s tempting to reuse a strong password, it is safer to use different passwords for different accounts. Consider a password manager program that generates random passwords, which you can access through a strong master password. Do not share or write down your passwords.

No easy answers. Be careful when establishing security questions that can  be used for password recovery. It may be better to use fictional answers that you  can remember. If a criminal can guess your answer through available information (such as an online profile), he or she can reset your password and gain access to your account.

Take two steps. Two-step authentication, typically a text or email code sent to your mobile device, provides a second line of defense even if a hacker has access to your password.

Think before you click. Ransomware and other malicious code are often transferred to the infected computer through a “phishing” email that tricks the reader into clicking on a link. Never click on a link in an email or text unless you know the sender and have a clear idea where the link will take you.

Install security software. Install antivirus software, a firewall, and an email filter — and keep them updated. Old antivirus software won’t stop new viruses.

Back up your data. Back up regularly to  an external hard drive. For added security, disconnect the drive between backups.

Keep your system up-to-date. Use the most recent operating system that can run on your computer and download security updates. Most ransomware attacks target vulnerable operating systems and applications.

If you see a notice on your computer that you have been infected by a virus or that your data is being held for ransom, it’s more likely to be a fake pop-up window than an actual attack. These pop-ups typically have a phone number to call for “technical support” or to make a payment. Do not call the number and do not click on the window or any links. Try exiting your browser and restarting your computer. If you continue to receive a notice or your data is really locked, contact a legitimate technical support provider.

For more information and other tips, visit the Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency website at us-cert.cisa.gov/ncas/tips.

1–2, 11) Vox, June 8, 2021

3) U.S. Department of Homeland Security, May 27, 2021

4)  The Washington Post, June 4, 2021

5) 2021 SonicWall Cyber Threat Report

6)  The Wall Street Journal, June 9, 2021

7)  Fortune, December 5, 2020

8)  Institute for Security and Technology, 2021

9)  The New Yorker, June 7, 2021

10) Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency, 2021

2
Jun

Shortages and Bottlenecks Expose Weak Links in U.S. Supply Chains

U.S. consumers won’t soon forget the troubling shortages of personal protective equipment during the early days of the pandemic, or when the first stay-at-home orders spurred panic buying and stress-inducing shortages of toilet paper, cleaning products, and food.

Now, as the economy reopens fully and all at once, consumers are again experiencing a wide array of shortages. Businesses are having trouble hiring workers as well as acquiring sufficient supplies of raw materials and key components needed for manufacturing.

Businesses that shut down or cut back when the economy was closed could not ramp up quickly enough to meet a flood of demand in the spring of 2021. The speedy rollout of widespread COVID-19 vaccinations unleashed this pent-up demand faster than expected, catching many businesses off-guard. At the same time, the flow of goods ordered from overseas was slowed by shipping bottlenecks.

Some of these supply disruptions were triggered or worsened by extraordinary calamities, and panic buying by consumers and businesses intensified the more serious shortages.

Here’s a look at some of the events that have stressed corporate supply chains and impacted the economy — regionally, nationally, and globally — in the first half of 2021.

Gas crisis

In mid-May, a ransomware attack led to the multi-day shutdown of a 5,500-mile pipeline responsible for supplying 45% of the fuel on the East Coast. Existing stockpiles might have held up, but news of the outage caused a run on gasoline, and states of emergency were declared by the governors of North Carolina, Georgia, Virginia, and Florida. The average price of a gallon of gasoline spiked to a six-and-a-half-year high, but increases were larger in states that rely heavily on the pipeline.1-2

Trade disrupted

Longer delivery times caused shortages of some raw materials and many types of consumer goods purchased from overseas. Congestion in the busiest West Coast ports left dozens of huge container ships from all over the world anchored off the California coast, waiting to unload. These log jams peaked in February 2021, when imports surged. Now that port workers can be vaccinated, operators are aiming to clear the backlog by the summer.3  In March, a six-day blockage of the Suez Canal by a grounded cargo ship caused massive disruption in international trade. Globally, container ship capacity is stretched and demand is high, so costs could remain elevated for some time.4

Texas freeze

In mid-February, a brutal winter storm knocked out the power grid in Texas, shut down numerous chemical plants, and froze the production of plastics used for packaging and materials needed to make many goods, including auto parts, computers, PVC piping, and paint. This resulted in global shortages, production delays, and higher costs for manufacturers and homebuilders, which will likely be passed on to buyers.5

The same storm closed major chicken-processing plants. Large losses of chicks and eggs, on top of COVID-19–related staffing problems, caused a nationwide chicken shortage and price hikes for restaurants.6

Lumber and housing

When the pandemic hit, many U.S. lumber mills were closed, and the expectation was that housing demand would falter. However, after a brief pause, demand for homes and home remodeling took off, surprising builders and domestic lumber producers. The price of lumber was already rising due to tariffs, but it has skyrocketed more than 300% since April 2020 and caused the price of a new single-family home to increase by nearly $36,000.7

Chips and cars

A global shortage of semiconductors, or computer chips, is limiting the production of all kinds of goods, including home appliances, cars, PCs, gaming systems, servers, and 5G equipment. The effects of the chip shortage are far-reaching but most evident in the market for new and used cars. Auto makers have been forced to cut production of more than 1.2 million vehicles in North America. Dealer inventories are strained, and new and used car prices are causing sticker shock.8-9

The U.S. Senate is debating a bipartisan bill that would invest $100 billion in research, commercialization, and training programs to boost critical technologies, including the domestic production of semiconductors.10

Labor concerns

Some employers report having difficulty finding workers who are willing to take lower-paying jobs, and staffing issues are a contributing factor in the shortages. Some workers may be reluctant to accept jobs because the enhanced unemployment benefits provide more income than they would normally earn through work. For others, opportunities to participate in the workforce are more limited due to lack of child care or skill gaps. To attract much-needed workers, some large employers in the retail and restaurant industries have raised entry-level wages. At least 22 states plan to end the $300 federal benefit by this summer in a bid to spur more people to seek jobs.11

Hard lessons

Since the pandemic began, businesses have had to make difficult decisions amidst great uncertainty. Some supply constraints could ease in the coming months, but other problems, like the chip shortage, could take longer to resolve. Recent events also serve as a reminder that critical energy-control systems and infrastructure are vulnerable to cyberattacks and weather events, and that the damage can ripple throughout the economy when energy providers are knocked offline.

In April 2021, inflation shot up 4.2% over the previous year, the highest rate since 2008. Mismatches between supply and demand are pushing up consumer prices, which is one reason many economists believe the spring rise in inflation will be mostly “transitory.”12 Regardless, prices rarely fall once they have risen, which means even short-lived bursts of inflation can be painful for consumers.

The longer-term path of inflation is still unclear and could depend on economic policy decisions yet to be made. Moreover, the nation’s economic prospects will largely be determined by how U.S. businesses react to the challenges they are facing, and whether corporate leaders can reshape their strategies and invest in ways that strengthen their supply chains for the future.

1-2, 12) The Wall Street Journal, May 13, 2021

3) Bloomberg, May 16, 2021

4) Bloomberg, May 3, 2021

5) The Wall Street Journal, March 17, 2021

6) Associated Press, April 25, 2021

7) CNBC.com, April 30, 2021

8-9) The Wall Street Journal, April 19 and May 13, 2021

10) Reuters, May 17, 2021

11) The Wall Street Journal, May 20, 2021

25
May

Crisis Averted? Financial Help for Struggling Renters and Landlords

By one estimate, U.S. landlords were owed about $57 billion in unpaid back rent at the beginning of 2021. The average household that fell behind owed about four months of rent, or $5,600. Altogether, more than 10 million U.S. families were facing the possibility of eviction.1

Many landlords, including those who depend on rent payments for retirement income, have experienced financial difficulties in lockstep with their heavily impacted tenants. Although multi-family apartment complexes are often owned by large corporations, about 90% of single-family rentals are owned by small investors who are facing the risk of mortgage default, bankruptcy, or forced property sales.2

Fortunately, the March 2021 federal stimulus bill added almost $22 billion in housing assistance to the $25 billion previously allocated by Congress.3 In many cases, payments are being sent directly to landlords through new or existing local programs on behalf of renters who meet certain eligibility requirements.

Program parameters

Under the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP), the U.S. Treasury has distributed grants to states, cities, and counties with populations greater than 200,000 to be used for back-due rent and utility bills accrued after March 13, 2020. Eligibility is limited to households that earn less than 80% of the area’s median income, as defined by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Applicants must document their incomes, prove they qualified for unemployment benefits or suffered financial hardship due to COVID-19 that impacted their ability to pay rent, and submit unpaid bills or notices that demonstrate they are at risk of becoming homeless.

What can landlords do?

Tenants and landlords generally apply for the funds together, but the application process and guidelines differ from program to program. In some states, landlords may be asked to forgive a percentage of the rental arrears in exchange for larger rent payments.

If you are a landlord, you might reach out to tenants who are behind on rent and encourage them to explore any potential opportunities for financial assistance. Check the websites of your state and local housing agencies to find the status and requirements of various housing programs and how to apply. Of course, many higher-earning households won’t be eligible for help, and in areas with lots of lower-income renters, local programs could run dry quickly.

Evicting tenants can be a painful and expensive process. If you have tenants who fell behind but are trying to catch up, it may be advantageous to work out a payment program instead to help keep them in place.

1) Moody’s Analytics, 2021

2) RealtyTrac, 2021

3) The Wall Street Journal, March 11, 2021

14
May

American Families Plan Would Provide Benefits for Some, More Taxes for Others

On April 28, 2021, the White House released a fact sheet for President Biden’s American Families Plan (AFP), which proposes about $1 trillion in investments and $800 billion in tax cuts. There would also be tax increases for those making more than $400,000 per year. Major provisions proposed in the plan are summarized here, including some tax provisions.

Education

The AFP proposes the following:

  • Free universal pre-school for all three- and four-year olds.
  • Two years of free community college.
  • Increased assistance to low-income students by raising the maximum Pell Grant award that pays for college education by about $1,400.

Child care

Low- and middle-income families would pay no more than 7% of their income on child care.

Nutrition

Summer and school meal programs would be expanded for low-income families.

Unemployment insurance

Funds would be provided for unemployment system modernization, equitable access, and fraud prevention. The plan proposes to automatically adjust the length and amount of unemployment insurance benefits depending on economic conditions.

Paid leave

A national comprehensive paid family and medical leave program would be created and scaled in over a 10-year period.

Health insurance

  • The American Rescue Plan Act of  2021 (ARPA 2021), enacted in  March 2021, provided that persons who bought their own health insurance through a government exchange might qualify for a lower cost through December 31, 2022. The AFP would make that provision permanent.
  • The AFP would also lower prescription drug prices by letting Medicare negotiate prices.
  • In addition, the AFP would create a public option and the option for people to enroll in Medicare at age 60.

Child tax credit

ARPA 2021 made the following temporary changes to the child tax credit. For 2021, the credit amount increased from $2,000 to $3,000 per qualifying child ($3,600 for qualifying children under age 6), subject to phaseout based on modified adjusted gross income. The legislation also made 17-year-olds eligible as qualifying children in 2021. For most taxpayers, the credit  is fully refundable for 2021 if it exceeds tax liability. The Treasury Department is expected to send out periodic advance payments (to be worked out by the Treasury) for up to one-half of the refundable credit during 2021.

The AFP would make permanent the full refundability of the child tax credit, and extend the other child tax credit provisions through 2025. Longer term, the plan would seek to make all these provisions permanent.

Child and dependent care tax credit

ARPA 2021 made the following temporary changes to the child and dependent care tax credit. For 2021, the legislation increased the maximum credit up to $4,000 for one qualifying individual and up to $8,000 for two or more (based on an increased applicable percentage of 50% of costs paid and increased dollar limits). Most taxpayers will not have the applicable percentage reduced (can be reduced from 50% to 20% if AGI exceeds a substantially increased $125,000) in 2021. However, the applicable percentage can now also be reduced from 20% down to 0% if the taxpayer’s AGI exceeds $400,000 in 2021. For most individuals, the credit  is fully refundable for 2021 if it exceeds tax liability.

The AFP would make these provisions permanent.

Earned income tax credit

In addition to some other changes to the earned income tax credit (some temporary, some permanent), ARPA 2021 made the following temporary changes to the earned income tax credit for 2021. The legislation generally increased the credit available for individuals with no qualifying children (bringing it closer to the amounts for individuals with one, two, or three or more children which were already much higher). For individuals with no qualifying children, the minimum age at which the credit can be claimed was generally lowered from 25 to 19 (24 for certain full-time students) and the maximum age limit of 64 was eliminated (there are no similar age limits for individuals with qualifying children).

The AFP would make these provisions permanent for individuals with no qualifying children.

Increase in top tax rate on wealthiest taxpayers

The AFP would raise the top income tax rate on individuals back up to 39.6%, applying only to the top one percent. The 39.6% rate would also apply to the capital gains and dividends of households making over $1 million (the top 0.3 percent).

Stepped-up basis

The tax basis of most property is stepped-up (or down) to fair market value when an individual dies. The AFP would eliminate this step-up in basis for gains in excess of $1 million ($2.5 million per couple when combined with existing real estate exemptions). There would be provisions designed with protections for family-owned businesses and farms.

Like-kind exchanges

Current tax law allows real estate investors to defer taxes when they exchange property. The AFP would eliminate the tax deferral on like-kind exchanges for gains greater than $500,000.

5
May

Rising Inflation: Where Will It Go from Here?

In March 2021, the Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U) rose 0.6%, the largest one-month increase since August 2012. Over the previous 12 months, the increase was 2.6%, the highest year-over-year inflation rate since August 2018. (By contrast, inflation in 2020 was just 1.4%.). 1

The annual increase in CPI-U — often called headline inflation — was due in part to the fact that the index dropped in March 2020, the beginning of the U.S. economic shutdown in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Thus, the current 12-month comparison is to an unusual low point in prices. The index dropped even further in April 2020, and this “base effect” will continue to skew annual data through June. 2

The monthly March increase, which followed a substantial 0.4% increase in February, is more indicative of the current situation. Economists expect inflation numbers to rise for some time. The question is whether they represent a temporary anomaly or the beginning of a more worrisome inflationary trend. 3

Measuring Prices

In considering the prospects for inflation, it’s important to understand some of the measures that economists use.

CPI-U measures the price of a fixed market basket of goods and services. As such, it is a good measure of prices consumers pay if they buy the same items over time, but it does not reflect changes in consumer behavior and can be unduly influenced by extreme increases in specific categories. Nearly half of the March increase was due to gasoline prices, which rose 9.1% during the month, in part because of production interruptions caused by severe winter storms in Texas.4 Core CPI, which strips out volatile food and energy prices, rose 0.3% in March and just 1.6% year over year. 5

In setting economic policy, the Federal Reserve prefers a different inflation measure called the Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE) Price Index, which is even broader than the CPI and adjusts for changes in consumer behavior — i.e., when consumers shift to purchase a different item because the preferred item is too expensive. More specifically, the Fed looks at core PCE, which rose 0.4% in March and 1.8% for the previous 12 months, slightly higher than core CPI but still lower than the Fed’s target of 2% for healthy economic growth. 6

A Hot Economy

Based on the core numbers, inflation is not yet running high, but there are clear inflationary pressures on the U.S. economy. Loose monetary policies by the central bank and trillions of dollars in government stimulus could create excess money supply as the economy reopens. Pent-up consumer demand for goods and services is likely to rise quickly, fueled by stimulus payments and healthy savings accounts built by those who worked through the pandemic with little opportunity to spend their earnings. Businesses that shut down or cut back when the economy was closed may not be able to ramp up quickly enough to meet demand. Supply-chain disruptions and higher costs for raw materials, transportation, and labor have already led some businesses to raise prices. 7

According to the April Wall Street Journal Economic Forecasting Survey, gross domestic product (GDP) is expected to increase at an annualized rate of 8.4% in the second quarter of 2021 and by 6.4% for the year — a torrid annual growth rate that would be the highest since 1984. As with the base effect for inflation, it’s important to keep in mind that this follows a 3.5% GDP decline in 2020. Even so, the expectation is for a hot economy through the end of the year, followed by solid 3.2% growth in 2022 before slowing down to 2.4% in 2023. 8-9

Three Scenarios

Will the economy get too hot to handle? Though all economists expect inflation numbers to rise in the near term, there are three different views on the potential long-term effects.

The most sanguine perspective, held by many economic policymakers including Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, is that the impact will be short-lived and due primarily to the base effect with little or no long-term consequences. 10 Inflation has been abnormally low since the Great Recession, consistently lagging the Fed’s 2% target. In August 2020, the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) announced that it would allow inflation to run moderately above 2% for some time in order to create a 2% average over the longer term. Given this policy, the FOMC is unlikely to raise interest rates unless core PCE inflation runs well above 2% for an extended period. 11 The mid-March FOMC projection sees core PCE inflation at just 2.2% by the end of 2021, and the benchmark federal funds rate remaining at 0.0% to 0.25% through the end of 2023. 12

The second view believes that inflation may last longer, with potentially wider consequences, but that any effects will be temporary and reversible. The third perspective is that inflation could become a more extended problem that may be difficult to control. Both camps project that the base effects will be amplified by “demand-pull” inflation, where demand exceeds supply and pushes prices upward. The more extreme view believes this might lead to a “cost-push” effect and inflationary feedback loop where businesses, faced with less competition and higher costs, would raise prices preemptively, and workers would demand higher wages in response. 13

Maintaining Perspective

Although it’s too early to tell whether current inflation numbers will lead to a longer-term shift, you can expect higher prices for some items as the economy reopens. Consumers don’t like higher prices, but it’s important to keep these increases in perspective. Gasoline, jet fuel, and other petroleum prices are rising after being deeply depressed during the pandemic. Airline ticket prices are increasing but remain below their pre-pandemic level. Used cars and trucks are more expensive than before the pandemic, but clothing is still cheaper. 14 Food is up 3.5% over the last 12 months, a significant increase but not extreme for prices that tend to be volatile. 15

For now, it may be helpful to remember that “headline inflation” does not always represent the larger economy. And with interest rates near zero, the Federal Reserve has plenty of room to make any necessary adjustments to monetary policy.

Projections are based on current conditions, are subject to change, and may not come to pass.

1, 5, 15) U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2021

2-4, 7) The Wall Street Journal, April 13, 2021

6, 9) U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, 2021

8) The Wall Street Journal Economic Forecasting Survey, April 2021

10, 13) Bloomberg, March 29, 2021

11) The Wall Street Journal, April 14, 2021

12) Federal Reserve, 2021

14) The New York Times, April 13, 2021

7
Apr

High-Frequency Indicators: Where to Look for Signs of Recovery

Since the pandemic began, disruptions in business activity have varied greatly from region to region, and often from one week to the next, according to the severity of local COVID-19 outbreaks. Unfortunately, many of the official government statistics used to gauge the health of the U.S. economy are backward looking and somewhat delayed.

Changes in the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP) indicate the rate at which the economy is growing or shrinking, but the first GDP estimate is not published by the Bureau of Economic Analysis until about one month after each quarter ends. GDP increased at a 4.3% rate in the fourth quarter of 2020 but posted the worst annual decline (-3.5%) since 1946. 1.

Rapid changes in virus conditions — for better or worse — can make many of the monthly reports that gauge employment, consumer spending, and production seem outdated and irrelevant by the time they are released. Consequently, economists and investors have been focusing on more timely data sources to monitor the economic impact of the pandemic throughout the nation. This information is reported every week, and in some cases every day, by government agencies or private companies with access to key business insights.

Here are some of the high-frequency indicators that may be helpful in evaluating the progress of the economic recovery.

Employment picture

A weekly report from the Department of Labor includes the number of new claims for unemployment insurance benefits under state programs filed by workers who recently lost their jobs, as well as the number of continuing claims filed by those who remain unemployed. This provides an early look at whether the labor market is improving or worsening on a state-by-state and national basis. For the week ending March 20, 2021, first-time claims for unemployment benefits fell to 684,000, the lowest level since before economic lockdowns began in mid-March of 2020. 2.

The ASA Staffing Index from the American Staffing Association tracks weekly changes in temporary and contract employment. Many employers rely on temporary help before hiring additional permanent employees, so staffing agency trends tend to lead nonfarm employment by three to six months. As of March 8-14, 2021, there were 11.2% more staffing jobs than there were one year earlier. 3

Consumer behavior

The proprietary Johnson Redbook Index captures consumer spending trends based on weekly data from a representative sample of thousands of large general merchandise and apparel retailers. In an encouraging sign, this key index improved 9.4% year-over-year on March 23, 2021. 4

The reservation app OpenTable has been monitoring the impact of COVID-19 on the hard-hit restaurant industry, providing data that doubles as an indicator of the “openness” of local economies around the world. Daily data shows changes in the number of people dining at restaurants compared with the same day of the same week in 2019. As of March 28, 2021, the weekly average number of U.S. seated diners was still down 29% from 2019, but had bounced back considerably from the last week in February, when the average was 40% below 2019. 5

Mobility and travel

Other technology companies rolled out tools designed to help public health officials and policymakers around the world monitor day-to-day mobility trends with data collected from smartphone apps. Google’s Community Mobility Reports show changes in visits to places like grocery stores, retail shops, and parks. Apple’s Mobility Trends Reports show changes in routing requests (since January 2019) for walking, driving, and public transportation trips, the latter of which have been slower to recover.6

The number of people who pass through U.S. airport checkpoints is posted daily by the Transportation Security Administration. On March 21, 2021, a spring-break surge caused the number of air travelers to rise above 1.5 million for the first time in about a year. Still, this total was far below the 2.2 million air travelers on the same Sunday in 2019. 7

The hotel occupancy rate (released weekly by STR) is another good indicator of the willingness of consumers and businesses to spend money on travel. U.S. hotel occupancy hit 58.9% in the week ending March 20, 2021, the highest level in a year. More importantly, the industry had recovered nearly 85% of comparable 2019 occupancy. 8

Real-time tracker

In May 2020, Harvard-based nonprofit Opportunity Insights, in partnership with several private-sector providers of high-frequency data, launched a real-time Economic Tracker as a free public service. Interactive charts show day-to-day changes in U.S. debit- and credit-card spending, small-business revenue, employment, online job postings, and time spent outside the home. In addition to nationwide statistics, disparities in progress can be broken down by income and industry, as well as by state or metro area.

Fed indexes

The Weekly Economic Index (WEI), which is published by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, signals the state of the U.S. economy based on 10 different indicators of consumer behavior, the labor market, and production that are available daily or weekly. The WEI is scaled to the four-quarter GDP growth rate, which means the weekly result is the economic growth that could be expected if current activity continued for a year. For the week ending March 20, 2021, the WEI jumped to 4.14% from -0.33% the previous week. 9

In addition, the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta keeps a running estimate of GDP changes — GDPNow — that is updated based on a model that incorporates incoming economic data. On March 26, 2021, the growth estimate for the first quarter of 2021 was 4.7%. 10

These estimates are based on current conditions, are subject to change, and may not come to pass. Neither is an official forecast of the Federal Reserve. When investing, it’s generally wise to maintain a long-term approach based on your personal goals, time frame, and risk tolerance, rather than react too quickly to shifting economic dynamics

1) U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, 2021

2) U.S. Department of Labor, 2021

3) American Staffing Association, 2021

4) Investing.com, 2021

5) OpenTable, 2021

6) Apple Mobility Trends, 2021

7) Transportation Security Administration, 2021

8) STR, 2021

9-10) Federal Reserve, 2021

31
Mar

U.S. Credit-Card Debt Levels See Record Drop in 2020

Despite the financial challenges experienced by Americans as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, U.S. credit-card debt dropped to record levels in 2020, decreasing by almost $83 billion. 1) This unprecedented drop was likely the result of individuals receiving financial assistance through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act and having access to more cash. Economic aid in the form of stimulus payments, suspended student loan payments, and broad state-sponsored unemployment benefits, allowed Americans to pay down their balances. 2) In fact, according to a U.S. Census Bureau survey, almost 60% of adults in households that experienced a loss in employment income during the pandemic used their second stimulus check to pay down debt. 3)

If you are still struggling to pay down your balances, here are some strategies to help eliminate your credit-card debt.

  • Pay off cards with the highest interest rates first. If you have more than one card with an outstanding balance, one option is to pay the most   to the card with the highest interest rate and continue making payments to your other cards until the card with the highest interest rate is paid off.  You can then focus your repayment efforts on the card with the next-highest interest rate, and so on, until they’re all paid off.
  • Apply for a balance transfer. Many credit-card companies offer highly competitive balance transfer offers (e.g., 0% interest for 12 months).  Transferring your credit-card balance to a card with a lower interest rate may enable you to reduce interest charges and pay more against your existing balance.  Keep in mind that most balance transfer offers charge a fee (usually a percentage of the balance transferred), so be sure to do the calculations to make sure it’s cost-effective before you apply.
  • Pay more than the minimum. If you pay only the minimum payment due on a credit card, you’ll continue to carry the bulk of your balance forward without reducing your overall balance.  Instead, try to make payments that exceed  the minimum amount due.  For more detailed information on the impact that making just the minimum payment will have on your overall balance, refer to your monthly billing statement.
  • Look for other sources of available funds. If you always seem to find that you don’t have the extra cash available to pay down your balances, you may want to look for other sources of available funds.  Are you expecting an employment bonus or other financial windfall in the near future?  If so, consider using those funds to help eliminate or pay down your credit-card debt.

1) Credit Card Debt Study, WalletHub,  March 2021

2) Credit Card Debt in 2020, Experian,  November 2020

3) Household Pulse Survey, U.S. Census Bureau,  March 2021