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13
May

The Question is How Long High Inflation Will Last?

at an annual rate of 8.5% in March 2022. That is the highest level since December 1981.1 A Gallup poll at the end of March found that one out of six Americans considers inflation to be the most important problem facing the United States.2 The Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U), the most common measure of inflation, rose

Many economists, including policymakers at the Federal Reserve, believed the increase would be transitory and subside over a period of months when inflation began rising in the spring of 2021. Inflation has proven to be more stubborn than expected. There are many reasons for the rising prices. The Fed has a plan to deal with the situation.

Russia and China contributed to the situation.

Among the cause of rising inflation are the growing pains of a rapidly opening economy, pent-up consumer demand, supply-chain slowdowns, and not enough workers to fill open jobs. Significant government stimulus and the Federal Reserve monetary policies helped prevent a deeper recession but contributed to an increase in inflation.

Russian invasion of Ukraine increased the  already high global fuel and food prices.3 China’s response to the reappearance of COVID’s was strict lockdowns, which closed factories and increased  already struggling supply chains for Chinese goods. The volume of cargo handled by the port of Shanghai, the world’s busiest port, dropped by an estimated 40% in early April.4

Behind the Headlines

8.5% year-over-year “headline” inflation in March was high. However, monthly numbers provide a clearer picture of the current trend. The month-over-month increase of 1.2% was extremely high, but more than half of it was due to gasoline prices, which rose 18.3% in March alone.5 Despite the Russia-Ukraine conflict and increased seasonal demand, U.S. gas prices dropped in April, but the trend was moving upward by the end of the month.6 The federal government’s decision to release one million barrels of oil per day from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve for the next six months and allow summer sales of higher-ethanol gasoline may help moderate prices.7

Core inflation, which strips out volatile food and energy prices, rose 6.5% year-over-year in March, the highest rate since 1982. However, the month-over-month increase from February to March was just 0.3%, the slowest pace in six months. Another positive sign was the price of used cars and trucks, which rose more than 35% over the last 12 months (a prime driver of general inflation) but dropped 3.8% in March.8

Wages and Consumer Demand

For the 12 months ended in March, average hourly earnings increased 5.6%. This was not enough to keep up with inflation, although it was enough to dulled some of the effects. Lower-paid service workers received higher increases, with wages jumping by almost 15% for nonmanagement employees in the leisure and hospitality industry. Although inflation has cut deeply into wage gains over the last year, wages have increased at about the same rate as inflation over the two-year period of the pandemic.9

One of the big questions going forward is whether rising wages will enable consumers to continue to pay higher prices, which can lead to an inflationary spiral of ever-increasing wages and prices. Recent signals are mixed. The official measure of consumer spending increased 1.1% in March, but an early April poll found that two out of three Americans had cut back on spending due to inflation.10-11

Soft or Hard Landing?

The Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) of the Federal Reserve has laid out a plan to fight inflation by raising interest rates and tightening the money supply. After dropping the benchmark federal funds rate to near zero in order to stimulate the economy at the onset of the pandemic, the FOMC raised the rate by 0.25% at its March 2022 meeting and projected the equivalent of six more quarter-percent increases by the end of the year and three or four more in 2024.12 This would bring the rate to around 2.75%, just above what the FOMC considers a “neutral rate” that will neither stimulate nor restrain the economy.13

These moves were projected to bring the Fed’s preferred measure of inflation, the Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE) Price Index, down to 4.3% by the end of 2022, 2.7% by the end of 2023, and 2.3% by the end of 2024.14 PCE inflation was 6.6% in March. this tends to run below CPI, so even if the Fed achieves these goals, CPI inflation will likely remain somewhat higher.15

Fed policymakers have signaled a willingness to be more aggressive, if necessary, and the FOMC raised the funds rate by 0.5% at its May meeting, as opposed to the more common 0.25% increase. This was the first half-percent  increase since May 2000, and  there may be more to come. The FOMC also began reducing the Fed’s bond holdings to tighten the money supply. New projections to be released in June will provide an updated picture of the Fed’s intentions for the federal funds rate.16

The question facing the FOMC is how fast it can raise interest rates and tighten the money supply while maintaining optimal employment and economic growth. The ideal is a “soft landing,” like what occurred in the 1990s, when inflation was tamed without damaging the economy. At the other extreme is the “hard landing” of the early 1980s, when the Fed raised the funds rate to almost 20% to control runaway double-digit inflation, throwing the economy into a recession.18

Fed Chair Jerome Powell acknowledges that a soft landing will be difficult to achieve, but he believes the strong job market may help the economy withstand aggressive monetary policies. Supply chains are expected to improve over time, and workers who have not yet returned to the labor force might fill open jobs without increasing wage and price pressures.19

The next few months will be a key period to reveal the future direction of inflation and monetary policy. The hope is that March represented the peak and inflation will begin to trend downward. But even if that proves to be true, it could be a painfully slow descent.

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

1, 5, 8-9) U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2022

2) Gallup, March 29, 2022

3, 7) The New York Times, April 12, 2022

4) CNBC, April 7, 2022

6) AAA, April 25 & 29, 2022

10, 15) U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, 2022

11) CBS News, April 11, 2022

12, 14, 16) Federal Reserve, 2022

13, 17) The Wall Street Journal, April 18, 2022

18) The New York Times, March 21, 2022

11
May

Required Distributions from Inherited Retirement Accounts Change after 2019

Changes were made to the Required Minimum Distributions (RMD) for inherited Retirement Accounts by The Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (SECURE) Act of 2019. The ability of beneficiaries to “stretch-out” the distribution of the account balance of an inherited defined contribution plan or an IRA were changed. After 2019 beneficiaries must  distribute the full amount in the account within 10 years of the original owner’s death, with some exceptions. Where an exception applies, the entire account must generally be emptied within 10 years of the beneficiary’s death, or within 10 years after a minor child beneficiary reaches age 21.
IRS issued proposed regulations (generally applicable starting in 2022) that interpret the revised required minimum distribution (RMD) rules in February 2022. The new rules are complex and create uncertainty. Hopefully, the IRS will simplify and answer the questions. Account owners and their beneficiaries would benefit by familiarize themselves with these new interpretations and how they might be affected by them.

RMD BasicsOwners of traditional IRAs and participants of retirement plan like a 401(k) must start taking RMDs in the year they reach age 72 (age 70½ if you were born before July 1, 1949). An owner of the account may be able to wait until the year after retiring to start RMDs from that account at age 72 or older and still working for the employer that maintains the retirement plan. No RMDs are required from a Roth IRA during lifetime (beneficiaries are subject to inherited retirement account rules). Generally, a 50% penalty applies to the extent that RMDs are not timely distributed.
Changes were made to the Required Minimum Distributions (RMD) for inherited Retirement Accounts by The Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (SECURE) Act of 2019. The ability of beneficiaries to “stretch-out” the distribution of the account balance of an inherited defined contribution plan or an IRA were changed. After 2019 beneficiaries must  distribute the full amount in the account within 10 years of the original owner’s death, with some exceptions. Where an exception applies, the entire account must generally be emptied within 10 years of the beneficiary’s death, or within 10 years after a minor child beneficiary reaches age 21.

IRS issued proposed regulations (generally applicable starting in 2022) that interpret the revised required minimum distribution (RMD) rules in February 2022. The new rules are complex and create uncertainty. Hopefully, the IRS will simplify and answer the questions. Account owners and their beneficiaries would benefit by familiarize themselves with these new interpretations and how they might be affected by them.

RMD Basics
Owners of traditional IRAs and participants of retirement plan like a 401(k) must start taking RMDs in the year they reach age 72 (age 70½ if you were born before July 1, 1949). An owner of the account may be able to wait until the year after retiring to start RMDs from that account at age 72 or older and still working for the employer that maintains the retirement plan. No RMDs are required from a Roth IRA during lifetime (beneficiaries are subject to inherited retirement account rules). Generally, a 50% penalty applies to the extent that RMDs are not timely distributed.

The required beginning date (RBD) for the first year must be taken  by April 1 of the next year. After the first distribution, annual distributions must be taken by the end of each year. Note,  if the first distribution is delayed until April 1 two distributions will be required for that year, one by April 1 and the other by December 31.

The RMD rules govern how quickly retirement plans and/or IRAs must be distributed by the beneficiaries of the accounts. The rules are largely based on two factors: (1) the individuals named as beneficiaries of the retirement plan, and (2) whether the owner dies before or on or after your RBD. Because no lifetime RMDs are required from a Roth IRA, Roth IRA owners are always treated as dying before their RBD.

Who Is Subject to the 10-Year Rule?

Eligible designated beneficiaries (EDBs) are permitted to stretch out distributions to a limited extent. EDB’s include your surviving spouse, your minor children, any individuals not more than 10 years younger than you, and certain disabled or chronically ill individuals. Generally, EDBs can take annual required distributions based on remaining life expectancy. However, once an EDB dies, or once a minor child EDB reaches age 21, any remaining funds must be distributed within 10 years.

Note that the SECURE Act requires that if a designated beneficiary is not an EDB, the entire account must be fully distributed within 10 years after your death.

What If the Designated Beneficiary Is Not an EDB?
If you die before your required beginning date, no distributions are required during the first nine years after your death, but the entire account must be distributed in the tenth year.

If you die on or after your required beginning date, annual distributions based on the designated beneficiary’s remaining life expectancy are required in the first nine years after the year of your death, then the remainder of the account must be distributed in the tenth year.

What If the Beneficiary Is a Nonspouse EDB?

Annual distributions will be required based on your remaining life expectancy. If death occurs before the required beginning date, required annual distributions will be based on the EDB’s remaining life expectancy. If the owner of the account dies on or after their required beginning date, annual distributions after the owner’s death will be based on the greater of (a) what would have been the owners remaining life expectancy or (b) the beneficiary’s remaining life expectancy. Also, if distributions are calculated each year based on what would have been the remaining life expectancy, the entire account must be distributed by the end of the calendar year in which the beneficiary’s remaining life expectancy would have been reduced to one or less (if the beneficiary’s remaining life expectancy had been used).

After the death of the  beneficiary or if the beneficiary is a minor child turns age 21, annual distributions based on remaining life expectancy must continue during the first nine years after the year of such an event. The entire account must be fully distributed in the tenth year.

What If a Designated Beneficiary A Spouse?
There are many special rules if a spouse is a designated beneficiary. The 10-year rule generally has no effect until after the death of the surviving spouse, or possibly until after the death of the spouse’s designated beneficiary.

What Life Expectancy Is Used to Determine RMDs After Death?

Annual required distributions based on life expectancy are generally calculated each year by dividing the account balance as of December 31 of the previous year by the applicable denominator for the current year (but the RMD will never exceed the entire account balance on the date of the distribution).

When life expectancy is used, the applicable denominator is the life expectancy in the calendar year of death, reduced by one for each subsequent year.  When the nonspouse beneficiary’s life expectancy is used, the applicable denominator is that beneficiary’s life expectancy in the year following the calendar year of your death, reduced by one for each subsequent year. (Note that if the applicable denominator is reduced to zero in any year using this “subtract one” method, the entire account would need to be distributed.) And at the end of the appropriate 10-year period, any remaining balance must be distributed.

The rules relating to required minimum distributions are complicated, and the consequences of making a mistake can be severe. Talk to a tax professional to understand how the rules, and the new proposed regulations, apply to your individual situation.

19
Apr

Federal Student Loan Repayments Are Postponed Again

The U.S. Department of Education announced the sixth extension for federal student loan repayment, interest, and collections, through August 31, 2022.1 The prior postponement, the fifth, was to end April 30, 2022. The original extension was in March 2020 at the start of the pandemic.

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona stated: “This additional extension will allow borrowers to gain more financial security as the economy continues to improve and as the nation continues to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.2

A “fresh start”
The Department of Education noted that it will give all federal student loan borrowers a “fresh start” by allowing them to enter repayment in good standing, even those individuals whose loans have been delinquent or in default. More information about loan rehabilitation will be coming from the Department in the weeks ahead.

The Department’s press release stated: “During the extension, the Department will continue to assess the financial impacts of the pandemic on student loan borrowers and to prepare to transition borrowers smoothly back into repayment. This includes allowing all borrowers with paused loans to receive a ‘fresh start’ on repayment by eliminating the impact of delinquency and default and allowing them to reenter repayment in good standing.”3

What should borrowers do  between now and September?

Approximately 41 million Americans have federal student loans.4 There are a  number of things borrowers can do between  now and September 2022.

•          Seek to build up financial reserves during the next few months to be ready to start repayment in September.

•          Continue making student loan payments during the pause (the full amount of the payment will be applied to principal). Interest doesn’t accrue during the pause. Borrowers who continue making payments during this time may be able to save money in the long term, because when the pause ends, interest will be accruing on  a smaller principal balance.

•          Apply for the federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program if they are working in public service and have not yet applied.

•          Visit the federal student aid website, studentaid.gov, to learn more about PSLF and loan repayment options, including income-based options.

•          Pay attention to the news. There has been increased political pressure on the current administration to enact some type of student loan cancellation, ranging from $10,000 per borrower to full cancellation. There are no guarantees, however. So, it wouldn’t  be a good idea for borrowers to put all their eggs in this basket.

1-3) U.S. Department of Education, 2022

4) The Washington Post, April 6, 2022

5
Apr

Is the Global Economy endangered by Ukraine war?

Globalization of trade was expected to promote peace. Russia’s invasion  of Ukraine is taxing that theory. The vulnerabilities of global supply chains are being highlighted. This has compounded the strains caused by the pandemic.

The United States, European Union (EU), United Kingdom (UK), and their allies are using financial sanctions to inflict severe damage on Russia’s economy and pressure its leaders to end the war. This has come a momentous cost to the global economy.

Punishing Russia

The joint effort of these countries to isolate Russia is unparalleled. Some of Russia’s largest banks have been expelled from SWIFT, an international payments system. Assets that Russia’s central bank held in North America and Europe have been frozen, restricting its ability to prop up the value of its currency, the ruble.1

Germany stopped the opening of a new gas pipeline that was intended access natural gas from Russia at the same time the United States and the United Kingdom announced bans on Russian oil imports.2 Hundreds of Western companies have suspended operations or pulled out of Russia, the world’s 11th largest economy, either to comply with sanctions or because of public outrage over the war. Some wealthy oligarchs believed to be close to the Kremlin have also had their assets frozen or seized.3

The effects of sanctions have clearly been felt in Russia, where the central bank raised its key interest rate to 20%, and it’s estimated that the Russian economy could contract up to 10%.4-5 Until recently, Russia was a full participant in the global economy, so being cut off from Western supply chains and technologies could be painful for Russian businesses and consumers. It remains to be seen whether China will step in to fill the void left behind by the West.

Supply Shocks

Russia is a major producer and exporter of food, energy, metals, and other raw materials that often fluctuate in price based on the balance between supply and demand across global markets.6 Therefore, supply shocks stemming from the war and sanctions have caused price spikes for some high-demand goods.

Russia is a top energy exporter, so crude oil and natural gas prices have surged since the conflict began, largely due to concerns about supply constraints. The EU relies heavily on energy imported from Russia (about 40% of its gas supply and almost 25% of its oil). Thus, reductions in energy deliveries from Russia would be difficult to replace and could worsen shortages in the global market.7

Russia is also a major producer of metals such as palladium (needed for catalytic converters), platinum, aluminum, copper, and nickel (needed for batteries).8In addition, about half of the world’s supply of the neon gas used to make semiconductors came from Ukrainian companies that have been forced to close their operations. Until neon production is ramped up elsewhere, shortages could exacerbate the chip shortage that has been slowing the production of new cars, computers, electronic devices, and other products.9

Russia and Ukraine account for nearly 30% of global wheat exports, 17% of corn, 32% of barley, and 75% of sunflower seed oil. Financial sanctions have largely blocked Russia from exporting food, while the conflict has prevented Ukraine from transporting food out of the country. Russia is the world’s top producer of fertilizer, providing about 15% of the global supply. Thus, crop yields throughout the world could be hindered by a shortage of fertilizer, which has risen to record prices alongside the natural gas from which it is often made.10

Consumers everywhere may soon face even higher grocery bills. The United Nations projects that global food costs, which are already at an all-time high, could soar another 22% due to the war. Egypt and other developing nations in North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia are especially dependent on grains from Russia and Ukraine. Disrupted food supplies and elevated prices are expected to cause a notable increase in world hunger.11

Ripple Effects

Russia and Ukraine account for only about 2% of global gross domestic product, but high energy prices and supply shocks caused by the war could have a far-reaching impact on a global economy that has not fully recovered from the pandemic. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) estimates that global economic growth in the first year after the war began will be 1.1% lower, and inflation will be about 2.5% higher, than they would have been without the invasion. The impact will be greatest for countries with closer trade and financial ties to Russia and Ukraine. Throughout the world, people with lower incomes will likely suffer more because food and energy account for a larger share of spending.12

According to the same OECD report, inflation could rise an additional 2% in the euro area and 1.4% higher in the United States than it would have without the war. The OECD expects 2022 economic growth to be reduced by about 1.4% in the euro area and 0.9% in the United States.13

Russian aggression has caused a humanitarian disaster and an economic catastrophe in Ukraine that are nearly impossible to measure. More than 4 million people have already fled Ukraine, and many more could follow. Without outside help, accommodating the flood of refugees is likely to strain the finances of host governments such as Hungary, Moldova, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia.14

Europe has more exposure to the Russia-Ukraine conflict than the United States, but in both economies, inflation had already climbed to levels that haven’t been seen for decades.15 In the coming months, the world’s key central banks will face the tricky task of raising interest rates enough to control inflation without causing a recession. There could also be longer-term repercussions, such as the reorganization of global supply chains and less integrated financial markets.

Estimates and projections are based on current conditions, are subject to change, and may not happen.

1) The Wall Street Journal, March 18, 2022

2) The Wall Street Journal, March 23, 2022

3) The New York Times, March 22, 2022

4, 15) The Wall Street Journal, March 7, 2022

5) The Wall Street Journal, March 16, 2022

6-8, 12-13) OECD, March 2022

9) Reuters, February 25, 2022

10) The New York Times, March 20, 2022

11) Bloomberg, March 13, 2022

14) Associated Press, March 30, 2022

30
Mar

Managing Bond Risks When Interest Rates Rise

After dropping the benchmark federal funds rate to a rock-bottom range of 0%–0.25% early in the pandemic, the Federal Open Market Committee has begun raising the rate toward more typical historical levels in response to high inflation. At its March 2022 meeting, the Committee raised the funds rate to 0.25%–0.50% and projected the equivalent of six more quarter-percentage-point increases in 2022 and three or four more in 2023.1

Raising the federal funds rate places upward pressure on a wide range of interest rates, including the cost of borrowing through bond issues. Regardless of the rate environment, however, bonds are a mainstay for  investors who want to generate income or dampen the effects of stock market volatility on their portfolios. You may have questions about how higher rates could affect your fixed-income investments and what you can do to help mitigate the effect in your portfolio.

Rate sensitivity

When interest rates rise, the value of existing bonds typically falls, because investors would prefer to buy new bonds with higher yields. In a rising rate environment,  investors may be hesitant to tie up funds for a lengthy period, so bonds with longer maturity dates are generally more sensitive to rate changes than shorter-dated bonds. Thus, one way to address interest-rate sensitivity in your portfolio is to hold short- and medium-term bonds. However, keep in mind that although these bonds may be less sensitive to rate changes, they will generally offer a lower yield than longer-term bonds.

A more specific measure of interest-rate sensitivity is called duration. A bond’s duration is derived from a complex calculation that includes the maturity date, the present value of principal and interest to be received in the future, and other factors. To estimate the impact of a rate change on a bond investment, multiply the duration by the expected percentage change in interest rates. For example, if interest rates rise by 1%, a bond  or bond fund with a three-year duration might be expected to lose roughly 3% in value; one with a seven-year duration might fall by about 7%. Your investment professional or brokerage firm can provide information about the duration of your bond investments.

If two bonds have  the same maturity, the bond with the higher yield will typically have a shorter duration. For this reason, U.S. Treasuries tend to be more rate sensitive than corporate bonds of similar maturities. Treasury securities, which are backed by the federal government as to the timely payment of principal and interest, are considered lower risk and thus can pay lower rates of interest than corporate bonds. A five-year Treasury bond has a duration of less than five years, reflecting income payments received prior to maturity. However, a five-year corporate bond with a higher yield has an even shorter duration.

When a bond is held to maturity, the bond owner would receive the face value and interest, unless the issuer defaults. However, bonds redeemed prior to maturity may be worth more or less than their original value. Thus, rising interest rates should not affect the return on a bond you hold to maturity, but may affect the price of a bond you want to sell on the secondary market before it reaches maturity.

Bond ladders

Owning a diversified mix of bond types and maturities can help reduce the level of risk in the fixed-income portion of your  portfolio. One structured way to take this risk management approach is to construct a bond ladder, a portfolio of bonds with maturities that are spaced  at regular intervals over a certain number of years. For example, a five-year ladder might have 20% of the bonds mature each year.

Bond ladders may vary in size and structure, and could include several types of bonds depending on an investor’s time horizon, risk tolerance, and goals. As bonds in the lowest rung of the ladder mature, the funds are often reinvested at the long end of the ladder. By doing so, investors may be able to increase their cash flow by capturing higher yields on new issues. A ladder might also be part of a withdrawal strategy in which the returned principal from maturing bonds provides retirement income.

In the current situation, with rates projected to rise over a two- to three-year period, it might make sense to create a short bond ladder now and a longer ladder when rates appear to have stabilized. Keep in mind that the anticipated path of the federal funds rate is only a projection, based on current conditions, and may not happen. The actual direction of interest rates might change.

Laddering ETFs and UITs

Building a ladder with individual bonds provides certainty if the bonds are held to maturity, but it can be expensive. Individual bonds typically require a minimum purchase of at least $5,000 in face value, so creating a diversified bond ladder might require a sizable investment. Diversification is a method used to help manage investment risk; it does not guarantee a profit or protect against investment loss.

A similar approach involves laddering bond exchange-traded funds (ETFs) that have defined maturity dates. These funds, typically called target-maturity funds, generally hold many bonds that mature in the same year the ETF will liquidate and return assets to shareholders. Target maturity ETFs may enhance diversification and provide liquidity, but unlike individual bonds, the income payments and final distribution rate are not fully predictable.

Another option is to purchase unit investment trusts (UITs) with staggered termination dates. Bond-based UITs typically hold a varied portfolio of bonds with maturity dates that coincide with the trust termination date, at which point you could reinvest the proceeds as you wish. The UIT sponsor may offer investors the opportunity to roll over the proceeds to a new UIT, which typically incurs an additional sales charge.

Bond funds

Bond funds — mutual funds and ETFs composed mostly of bonds and other debt instruments — are subject to the same inflation, interest rate, and credit risks associated with their underlying bonds. Thus, falling bond prices due to rising rates can adversely affect a bond fund’s performance. Because longer-term bonds are generally more sensitive to rising rates, funds that hold short- or medium-term bonds may be more stable as rates increase.

Bond funds do not have set maturity dates (except for the target maturity ETFs discussed above), because they typically hold bonds with varying maturities, and they can buy and sell bonds before they mature. So, you might consider the fund’s duration, which considers the durations of the underlying bonds. The longer the duration, the more sensitive a fund is to changes in interest rates. You can usually find duration with other information about a bond fund. Although helpful as a general guideline, duration is best used when comparing funds with similar types of underlying bonds.

A fund’s sensitivity to interest rates is only one aspect of its value — fund performance can be driven by a variety of dynamics in the market and the broader economy. Moreover, as underlying bonds mature and are replaced by higher-yielding bonds in a rising interest rate environment, the fund’s yield and/or share value could potentially increase over the long term. Even in the short term, interest paid by the fund could help moderate any losses in share value.

It’s also important to remember that fund managers might respond differently if falling bond prices adversely affect a fund’s performance. Some might try to preserve the fund’s asset value at the expense of its yield by reducing interest payments. Others might emphasize preserving a fund’s yield at the expense of its asset value by investing in bonds of longer duration or lower credit quality that pay higher interest but carry greater risk. Information on a fund’s management, objectives, and flexibility in meeting those objectives is spelled out in the prospectus and may be available with other fund information online.

The return and principal value of individual bonds, UIT units, and mutual fund and ETF shares fluctuate with changes in market conditions. Fund shares and UIT units, when sold, and bonds redeemed prior to maturity may be worth more or less than their original cost. ETFs typically have lower expense ratios than mutual funds, but you may pay a brokerage commission whenever you buy or sell ETFs, so your overall costs could be higher, especially if you trade frequently. Supply and demand for ETF shares may cause them to trade at a premium or a discount relative to the value of the underlying shares. UITs may carry additional risks, including the potential for a downturn in the financial condition of the issuers of the underlying securities. There may be tax consequences associated with the termination of the UIT and rolling over an investment into a successive UIT. There is no assurance that collaborating with a financial professional will improve investment results.

1) Federal Reserve, March 16, 2022

22
Mar

2021 Federal Income Tax Returns are Due April 18, 2022 For Most Individuals

If you live in Maine or Massachusetts the due date is April 19, 2022.

You can extend the filing date.

You can  file for an extension by filing IRS Form 4868, Application for Automatic Extension of Time to File U.S. Individual Income Tax Return by the April due date. The extension gives you an additional six months (until October 17, 2022) to file your federal income tax return. You can also file for an automatic six-month extension electronically (details on how to do so can be found in the Form 4868 instructions). There may be penalties for failing to file or for filing late.

Note: Special rules apply if you’re living outside the country, or serving in the military outside the country, on the regular due date of your federal income tax return.

Include a payment if possible.
File  the return, and pay as much as you can afford if you absolutely cannot pay what you owe. You’ll owe interest and possibly penalties on the unpaid tax. You will limit the penalties assessed by filing your return on time, and you may be able to work with the IRS to pay the unpaid balance (options available may include the ability to enter into an installment agreement).

It’s important to understand that filing for an automatic extension  to file your return does not provide any additional time to pay your tax. When you file for an extension, you must estimate the amount of tax you will owe. Paying the full amount by the April filing due date will reduce interest and penalties based on the amount not paid. IRS may void the extension if your estimate of taxes was not reasonable.

Tax refunds

The IRS encourages taxpayers seeking tax refunds to file their tax returns as soon as possible. The IRS anticipates most tax refunds being issued within 21 days of the IRS receiving a tax return if the return is filed electronically, the tax refund is delivered through direct deposit, and there are no issues with the tax return. To avoid delays in processing, the IRS encourages people to avoid paper tax returns whenever possible.

IRA contributions

Contributions to an individual retirement account (IRA) for 2021 can be made up to the April due date (without regard to extensions) for filing the 2021 federal income tax return.

17
Mar

What Do Rising Interest Rates Mean for You?

On March 16, 2022, the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) of the Federal Reserve raised the benchmark federal funds rate by 0.25% to a target range of 0.25% to 0.50%. This is the beginning of a series of increases that the FOMC expects to conduct over the next two years to combat high inflation.1

The FOMC released economic projections that suggest the equivalent of six  additional 0.25% increases in 2022, followed by three or four more increases in 2023 when it announced the current increase, 2 These are only projections, based on current conditions, and may not happen. However, they provide a helpful picture of the potential direction of U.S. interest rates.

What is the federal funds rate?

The federal funds rate is the interest rate at which banks lend funds to each other overnight to maintain legally required reserves within the Federal Reserve System. The FOMC sets a target range, usually a 0.25% spread, and then sets two specific rates that function as a floor and a ceiling to push the funds rate into that target range. The rate may vary slightly from day to day, but it generally stays within the target range.

Although the federal funds rate is an internal rate within the Federal Reserve System, it serves as a benchmark for many short-term rates set by banks and can influence longer-term rates as well.

Why does the Fed adjust the federal funds rate?

The Federal Reserve and the FOMC operate under a dual mandate to conduct monetary policies that foster maximum employment and price  stability. Adjusting the federal funds rate is the Fed’s primary tool to influence economic growth and inflation.

The FOMC lowers the federal funds rate to stimulate the economy by making it easier for businesses and consumers to borrow, and raises the rate to combat inflation by making borrowing more expensive. In March 2020, when the U.S. economy was devastated by the pandemic, the Committee quickly     dropped the rate to its rock-bottom level of 0.00%–0.25% and has kept it there for two years as the economy recovered.

The FOMC has set a 2% annual inflation goal as consistent with healthy economic growth. The Committee considered it appropriate for inflation to run above 2% for some time to balance the extended period when it ran below 2% and give the economy more time to grow in a low-rate environment. However, the steadily increasing inflation levels over the last year — with no sign of easing — have forced the Fed to change course and tighten monetary policy.

How will consumer interest rates be affected?

The prime rate, which commercial banks charge their best customers, is tied directly to the federal funds rate, and generally runs about 3% above it. Though actual rates can vary widely, small-business loans, adjustable-rate mortgages, home-equity lines of credit, auto loans, credit cards, and other forms of consumer credit are often linked to the prime rate, so the rates on these types of loans typically increase with the federal funds rate. Fixed-rate home mortgages are not tied directly to the federal funds rate or the prime rate. Although Fed rate hikes may put upward pressure on new mortgage rates.

Rising interest rates make it more expensive for consumers and businesses to borrow. Although, retirees and others who seek income could eventually benefit from higher yields on savings accounts and certificates of deposit (CDs). Banks typically raise rates charged on loans more quickly than they raise rates paid on deposits, but an extended series of rate increases should filter down to savers over time.

What about bond investments?

Interest-rate changes can have a broad effect on investments, but the impact tends to be more pronounced in the short term as markets adjust to the new level.

When interest rates rise, the value of existing bonds typically falls. Put simply, investors would prefer a newer bond paying a higher interest rate than an existing bond paying a lower rate. Longer-term     bonds tend to fluctuate more than those with shorter maturities because investors may be reluctant to tie up their money for an extended period if they anticipate higher yields in the future.

Bonds redeemed prior to maturity may be worth more or less than their original value, but when a bond is held to maturity, the bond owner would receive the face value and interest, unless the issuer defaults. Thus, rising interest rates should not affect the return on a bond you hold to maturity, but may affect the price of a bond you want to sell on the secondary market before it reaches maturity.

Although the rising-rate environment may have a negative impact on bonds you currently hold and want to sell, it might also offer more appealing rates for future bond purchases.

Bond funds are subject to the same inflation, interest rate, and credit risks associated with their underlying bonds. Thus, falling bond values due to rising rates can adversely affect a bond fund’s performance. However, as underlying bonds mature and are replaced by higher-yielding bonds within a rising interest-rate environment, the fund’s yield and/or share value could potentially increase over the long term.

How will the stock market react?

Equities may also be affected by rising rates, though not as directly as bonds. Stock prices are closely tied to earnings growth, so many corporations stand to benefit from a more robust economy, even with higher interest rates. On the other hand, companies that rely on heavy borrowing will likely face higher costs going forward, which could affect their bottom lines.

The stock market reacted positively to the initial rate hike and the projected path forward, but investors will be watching closely to see how the economy performs as interest rates adjust — and whether the increases are working to tame inflation.3

The market may continue to react, positively or negatively, to the government’s inflation reports or the Fed’s interest-rate decisions, but any reaction is typically temporary. As always, it’s important to maintain a long-term perspective and make sound investment decisions based on your own financial goals, time horizon, and risk tolerance.

The FDIC insures CDs and bank savings accounts, which generally provide a fixed rate of return, up to $250,000 per depositor, per insured institution. The return and principal value of stocks and investment     funds fluctuate with market conditions. Shares, when sold, may be worth more or less than their original cost. Investments offering the potential for higher rates of return also involve higher risk.

Investment funds are sold by prospectus. Please consider the fund’s objectives, risks, charges, and expenses carefully before investing. The prospectus, which contains this and other information about the investment company, can be obtained from your financial professional. Be sure to read the     prospectus carefully before deciding whether to invest.

1–2) Federal Reserve, March 16, 2022

3) The Wall Street Journal, March 17, 2022

11
Mar

Telephone Scam Tips (1)

People lose a significant amount of money to phone scams. In some scams, the callers act friendly and helpful. In others they may threaten or try to scare you. The scammer will always try to get your money or personal information to later commit identity theft crimes.

Common phone scams include:

1.  Prize and lottery scam.
2. Loved one in trouble and needs money for bail / medical expenses.
3. Past due tax scam.
4. Overdue bill such as electric or water bill.
5. Computer is allegedly broken and needs repair.
6. Loan or improved credit card interest rate scam.
7.  Charity scams.

How to recognize a scam:

1.  There is no prize – if you have to pay money for a prize or lottery you were selected for, it is a    scam. If it is too good to be true, it is.
2. You won’t be arrested – scammers pretend to be law enforcement and threaten to arrest or fine you if you don’t agree to pay back taxes or some other debt right away.
3. There is NEVER a good reason to send cash or pay with a gift card – scammers will often ask you to wire money, pay through a money transfer app, or through a gift card (Target card, Apple iTunes gift card, etc.)
4. Scammers want you to feel pressured to make a decision right away. They do not want to give you time to verify the information they are telling you is inaccurate.
5.  Government agencies, utility companies, or banks will not call to confirm your sensitive information such as your social security number.

What to do if you receive a call:

1. HANG UP.
2. Consider blocking the phone number.
3. Don’t trust your caller ID – scammers can make any name or number show up on your caller ID.
4. If in doubt, call 911 to have an officer respond to your location. The officer can assist you in verifying if the call is a scam.

(1)  Wilmette Police Department March 9, 2022

11
Mar

Common Tax Scams to Watch For

Internal Revenue Service has issued numerous Tax Sam/Consumer Alerts (1). According to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), tax scams tend to increase during tax season and/or times of crisis.(2). Following
are some of the scams to watch out for.

Phishing  and text message scams

Phishing and text message scams usually involve unsolicited emails or text messages that seem to come from legitimate IRS sites to convince you to provide personal or financial information. Once scam artists obtain this information, they use it to commit identity or financial theft. The IRS does not initiate contact    with taxpayers by email, text message, or any social media platform to request personal or financial information. The IRS initiates most contacts through regular mail delivered by the United States Postal Service.

Phone scams

Phone scams typically involve a phone call from someone claiming that you owe money to the IRS, or you’re entitled to a large refund. The calls may show up as coming from the IRS on your Caller ID, be accompanied by fake emails that appear to be from the IRS, or involve follow-up calls from individuals saying they are from law enforcement. These scams often target more vulnerable populations, such as immigrants and senior citizens, and  will use scare tactics such as threatening arrest, license revocation, or deportation.

Tax-related identity theft

Tax-related identity theft occurs when someone uses your Social Security number to claim a fraudulent tax refund. You may not even realize you’ve been the victim of identity theft until you file your tax return and discover that a return has already been filed using your Social Security number. Or the IRS may send you a letter indicating it has identified a suspicious  return using your Social Security number. To help prevent tax-related identity theft, the IRS now offers the Identity Protection PIN Opt-In Program. The Identity Protection PIN is a six-digit code that is known only to you and the IRS, and it helps the IRS verify your identity when you file your tax return.

Tax preparer fraud

Scam artists will sometimes pose as legitimate tax preparers and try to take advantage of unsuspecting taxpayers by committing refund fraud or identity theft. Be wary of any tax preparer who  won’t sign your tax return (sometimes referred to as a “ghost preparer”), requires a cash-only payment, claims fake deductions/tax credits, directs refunds into his or her own account, or promises an unreasonably large or inflated refund. A legitimate tax preparer will generally ask for proof of your income and eligibility for credits and deductions, sign the return as the preparer, enter a valid preparer tax identification number, and provide you with a copy of your return. It’s important to choose a tax preparer carefully because  you are legally responsible for what’s on your return, even if it’s prepared by someone else.

False offer in compromise

An offer in compromise (OIC) is an agreement between a taxpayer and the IRS that can help the taxpayer settle tax debt for less than the full amount that is owed. Unfortunately, some companies charge excessive fees and falsely advertise that they can help taxpayers obtain larger OIC settlements with the IRS. Taxpayers can contact the IRS directly or use the IRS  Offer in Compromise Pre-Qualifier tool at https://irs.treasury.gov/oic_pre_qualifier/ to see if they qualify for an OIC.

Unemployment insurance fraud

Typically, this scheme is perpetrated by  scam artists who try to use your personal information to claim unemployment benefits. If you receive an unexpected prepaid card for unemployment benefits, see an unexpected deposit from your state in your bank account, or receive IRS Form 1099-G for unemployment compensation that you did not apply for, report it to your state unemployment insurance office as soon as possible.

Fake charities

Charity scammers pose as legitimate charitable organizations to solicit donations from unsuspecting donors. These scam artists often take advantage of ongoing tragedies and/or disasters, such as a devastating tornado or the COVID-19 pandemic. Be wary of charities with names that are like more familiar or nationally known organizations. Before donating to a charity, make sure it is legitimate and never donate cash, gift cards, or funds by wire transfer. The IRS website has a tool to assist you in checking out the status of a charitable organization at https://www.irs.gov/charities-and-nonprofits.

Protecting yourself from scams

Fortunately, there are some things you can do to help protect yourself from scams, including those that target taxpayers:

  • Don’t click on suspicious or unfamiliar links in emails, text messages, or instant messaging services — visit government websites directly for valuable information
  • Don’t answer a phone call if you don’t recognize the phone number — instead, let it go to voicemail and check later to verify the caller
  • Never download email attachments unless you can verify that the sender is legitimate
  • Keep device and security software up to date, maintain strong passwords, and use multi-factor authentication
  • Never share personal or financial information via email, text message, or over the phone

1)    https://www.irs.gov/newsroom/tax-scams-consumer-alerts
2)   Internal Revenue Service,  2022

3
Mar

Global Finance: Kicking Russia Out of SWIFT

Over the past days, the United States and other countries have imposed various sanctions on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. One sanction that was discussed initially but not implemented immediately was blocking Russia from the SWIFT global banking network. However, the United States and European allies eventually agreed to remove selected Russian banks from SWIFT. What does this mean?

What is the SWIFT financial system?

SWIFT, which stands for the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, is a cooperative of financial institutions formed in 1973. Headquartered in Belgium, SWIFT is overseen by the National Bank of Belgium along with other major central banks, including the U.S. Federal Reserve System, the Bank of England, and the European Central Bank.1

SWIFT isn’t a traditional bank and doesn’t move money like a traditional bank. Rather, it moves information about money, acting as a secure global messaging system that connects more than 11,000 financial institutions in over 200 countries and territories around the world, alerting banks when transactions are about to take place and facilitating cross-border financial activity.2

SWIFT communications are important to the global banking system. In 2021, SWIFT recorded an average of 42 million messages per day, an 11.4% increase over 2020.3

Blocking selected Russian banks from SWIFT is a drastic measure that could potentially result in significant economic pain for Russia, both immediately and over the long term. It essentially cuts Russia off from the global financial system.4

What was behind the initial delay in expelling Russia from SWIFT?

The United States favored blocking Russia from SWIFT at the outset,  but couldn’t do so unilaterally. Such a move required the support of other European nations, and some of the 27-member nations in the European Union (EU) were initially hesitant. Because Russia is a key energy supplier to Europe, some European nations worried that expelling Russia from SWIFT could potentially disrupt natural gas supplies and make it more costly and complicated to send payments for energy and other goods.5 Another reason for hesitancy was the fear of jeopardizing a fragile post-COVID economic recovery in Europe.6

Additionally, there were concerns that blocking Russia from SWIFT would cause it to find alternative ways to participate in the global economy by forging stronger ties with China, developing its own financial messaging system, and/or creating its own digital currency. There was also the  risk that Russia could attempt to disrupt the global economy through ransomware attacks.7

While the United States waited for buy-in from all 27-member EU nations to block Russia from SWIFT, it focused on targeting Russian banks directly to limit their ability to raise capital and access U.S. dollars. Russia’s financial services sector is heavily dominated by state-owned entities that rely on the U.S. financial system to conduct their business activities, both within Russia and internationally. By targeting Russian banks directly with sanctions, the United States attempted to isolate Russia from international finance and commerce.8

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen stated, “Treasury is taking serious and unprecedented action to deliver swift and severe consequences to the Kremlin and significantly impair their ability to use the Russian economy and financial system to further their malign activity.”9

The road to SWIFT sanctions

Then on February 26, 2022, after intense international diplomacy and an impassioned  plea by Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky that by all accounts moved world leaders to act, the United States, Canada, the European Union, and the United Kingdom agreed to kick selected Russian banks off the SWIFT financial network.10In making the announcement, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen stated, “This will ensure that these banks are disconnected from the international financial system and harm their ability to operate globally.”11

Not all Russian banks were cut off from SWIFT, though. As a compromise, some smaller banks were allowed to remain to allow European nations to pay for natural gas (the EU imports 40% of its natural gas from Russia) and  to allow the United States to pay for oil.12

Along with blocking certain Russian banks from SWIFT, the United States, Canada, the European Union, and the United Kingdom also announced that they would take additional actions against Russia’s central bank to prevent it from deploying its more than $600 billion in reserves in attempt to “sanction-proof” Russia’s economy. Ms. von der Leyen stated, “We will paralyze the assets of Russia’s central bank.”13

This is a fluid situation, and ongoing diplomacy around sanctions is likely in the days and weeks ahead.

1-2, 4) nbcnews.com, February 24, 2022

3) SWIFT FIN Traffic & Figures, 2022

5) The New York Times, February 24, 2022

6) The New York Times, February 25, 2022

7) The New York Times, February 23, 2022

8-9) U.S. Department of the Treasury,  February 24, 2022

10) The Washington Post, February 27, 2022

11-13) The Wall Street Journal, February 26, 2022