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11
Nov

New College Cost Data for 2020-2021 School Year

Every year, the College Board releases updated college cost data and trends in its annual report. Although costs can vary significantly depending on region of the country and college, the College Board publishes average cost figures, which are based on a survey of approximately 4,000 colleges across the country.

Following are cost highlights for the 2020-2021 academic year.(1) Because many residential colleges shifted to an online model this year, the College Board estimated 2020-2021 room and board figures to be the same as 2019-2020, adjusted for a 1% inflation rate.

Total cost of attendance” includes direct billed costs for tuition, fees, room, and board, plus a  sum for indirect costs that includes books, transportation, and personal expenses, which will vary by student.

Public college costs (in-state students)

  • Tuition and fees increased 1.1% to $10,560
  • Room and board increased 1% to $11,620
  • Total cost of attendance: $26,820

Public college costs (out-of-state students)

  • Tuition and fees increased 0.9% to $27,020
  • Room and board increased 1% to $11,620 (same as in-state)
  • Total cost of attendance: $43,280

Private college costs

  • Tuition and fees increased 2.1% to $37,650
  • Room and board increased 1% to $13,120
  • Total cost of attendance: $54,880

Over the past decade, the average published tuition, fees, room, and board at private 4-year colleges increased by 17% beyond increases in the Consumer Price Index, and at 4-year public colleges increased 15% beyond increases in the Consumer Price Index.(2)

FAFSA opened October 1st

The FAFSA for the next school year, 2021-2022, opened on October 1, 2020. The 2021-2022 FAFSA  relies on income information from your 2019 federal income tax return and current asset information. Your income is the biggest factor in determining financial aid eligibility.

A detailed analysis of the federal aid formula is beyond the scope of this article, but generally here’s how your expected family contribution (EFC) is calculated:(3)

  • Parent income is counted up to 47% (income equals adjusted gross income, plus untaxed income/benefits minus certain deductions)
  • Student income is counted at 50% over the student’s income protection allowance ($6,970 for the 2021-2022 year)
  • Parent assets over the asset protection allowance are counted at 5.64% (home equity, retirement accounts, cash value life insurance, and annuities are not counted at all)
  • Student assets are counted at 20%

Your EFC remains constant, no matter which college your child attends.   Your EFC is not the same as your child’s financial need. To calculate financial need, subtract your EFC from the cost of a specific college. Because costs vary at each college, your child’s financial need will vary by college.

Just because your child has financial need doesn’t automatically mean that colleges will meet 100% of that need. Colleges that do meet 100% of “demonstrated need” usually advertise this; not all colleges do. If a college doesn’t meet 100% of your child’s financial need, you’ll have to make up the gap, in addition to paying your EFC.

To get an estimate ahead of time what your out-of-pocket cost might be at a particular school, run a college’s net price calculator, which is available on every college website. You input income, asset, and general family information and the net price calculator provides an estimate of the grant aid your child might expect at that particular college. The cost of the college minus this grant aid equals your net price, hence the name “net price calculator.”

Reduced asset protection allowance

Over the past two decades, a stealth change in the FAFSA has been negatively impacting a family’s eligibility for financial aid. The asset protection allowance, which lets parents shield a certain amount of assets from consideration (in addition to the assets listed above that are already shielded), has been steadily declining for years, resulting in higher EFCs. Ten years ago, the asset protection allowance for a 48-year-old married parent with a child about to enter college was $46,200. For 2021-2022, that same allowance is $6,600, resulting in a $2,233 decrease in a student’s aid eligibility ($46,200 – $6,600 x 5.64%).(4)

Student loan debt

Student debt is the  second-highest consumer debt category after mortgage debt, ahead of both auto loans and credit card debt.(5) More than six in ten (62%) college seniors who graduated  in 2019 had student loan debt, owing an average of $28,950.(6) Paying careful attention to costs at college time might help you and/or your child avoid excessive student loan debt.

1-2) College Board, 2020

3-4) U.S. Department of Education,  The EFC Formula, 2021-2022, 2011-2012

5) Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Quarterly Report on Household Debt and Credit, August 2020

6) Institute for College Access & Success, Student Debt and the Class of 2019, October 2020

4
Nov

IRA and Retirement Plan Limits for 2021

Many IRA and retirement plan limits are indexed for inflation each year. While some of the limits remain unchanged for 2021, other key numbers have increased.

IRA contribution limits

The maximum amount you can contribute to a traditional IRA or a Roth IRA in 2021 is $6,000 (or 100% of your earned income, if less), unchanged from 2020. The maximum catch-up contribution for those age 50 or older remains $1,000. You can contribute to both a traditional IRA and a Roth IRA in 2021, but your total contributions cannot exceed these annual limits.

Income limits for deducting traditional IRA contributions

If you (or if you’re married, both you and your spouse) are not covered by an employer retirement plan, your contributions to a traditional IRA are generally fully tax deductible. If you’re married, filing jointly, and you’re not covered by an employer plan but your spouse is, your deduction is limited if your modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) is between $198,000 and $208,000 (up from $196,000 and $206,000 in 2020), and eliminated if your MAGI is $208,000 or more (up from $206,000 in 2020).

For those who are covered by an employer plan, deductibility depends on your income and filing status.

If your 2021 federal income tax  filing status is:Your  IRA deduction is limited if your MAGI is      between:Your deduction is eliminated if your MAGI is:
Single or head of household$66,000 and $76,000$76,000 or more
Married filing jointly or qualifying      widow(er)$105,000 and $125,000 (combined)$125,000 or more      (combined)
Married filing separately$0      and $10,000$10,000 or more

If your filing status is single or head of household, you can fully deduct your IRA contribution up to $6,000 ($7,000 if you are age 50 or older) in 2021 if your MAGI is $66,000 or less (up from $65,000 in 2020). If you’re married and filing a joint return, you can fully deduct up to $6,000 ($7,000 if you are age 50 or older) if your MAGI is $105,000 or less (up from $104,000 in 2020).

Income limits for contributing to a Roth IRA

The income limits for determining how much you can contribute to a Roth IRA have also increased.

If your 2021 federal income tax filing status is:Your Roth IRA contribution is limited if your MAGI is:You cannot contribute to a Roth IRA if your MAGI is:
Single or head of householdMore than $125,000 but less than $140,000$140,000 or more
Married filing jointly or qualifying      widow(er)More than $198,000 but less than $208,000      (combined)$208,000 or more (combined)
Married filing separatelyMore than $0 but less than $10,000$10,000 or more

If your filing status is single or head of household, you can contribute the full $6,000  ($7,000 if you are age 50 or older) to a Roth IRA if your MAGI is $125,000 or less (up from $124,000 in 2020). And if you’re married and filing a joint return, you can make a full contribution if your MAGI is $198,000 or less (up from $196,000 in 2020). Again, contributions can’t exceed 100% of your earned income.

Employer retirement plan limits

Most of the significant employer retirement plan limits for 2021 remain unchanged from 2020. The maximum amount you can contribute (your “elective deferrals”) to a 401(k) plan remains  $19,500 in 2021. This limit also applies to 403(b) and 457(b) plans, as well as the Federal Thrift Plan. If you’re age 50 or older, you can also make catch-up contributions of up to $6,500 to these plans in 2021. [Special catch-up limits apply to certain participants in 403(b) and 457(b) plans.]

The amount you can contribute to a SIMPLE IRA or SIMPLE 401(k) remains $13,500 in 2021, and the catch-up limit for those age 50 or older remains $3,000.

Plan type:Annual dollar  limit:Catch-up limit:
401(k), 403(b), governmental 457(b),      Federal Thrift Plan$19,500$6,500
SIMPLE plans$13,500$3,000

Note: Contributions can’t exceed 100% of your income.

If you participate in more than one retirement plan, your total elective deferrals can’t exceed the annual limit ($19,500 in 2021 plus any applicable catch-up contributions). Deferrals to 401(k) plans, 403(b) plans, and SIMPLE plans are included in this aggregate limit, but deferrals to Section 457(b) plans are not. For example, if you participate in both a 403(b) plan and  a 457(b) plan, you can defer the full dollar limit to each plan — a total of     $39,000 in 2021 (plus any catch-up contributions).

The maximum amount that can be allocated to your account in a defined contribution plan [for example, a 401(k) plan or profit-sharing plan] in 2021 is $58,000 (up from $57,000 in 2020) plus age 50 or older catch-up     contributions. This includes both your contributions and your employer’s     contributions. Special rules apply if your employer sponsors more than one retirement plan.

Finally, the maximum amount of compensation that can be taken into account in determining benefits for most plans in 2021 is $290,000 (up from $285,000 in 2020), and the dollar threshold for determining highly compensated employees (when 2021 is the look-back year) remains      $130,000 (unchanged from 2020).

12
Oct

Medicare Open Enrollment for 2021 Begins October 15

The annual Medicare Open Enrollment Period is the time during which Medicare beneficiaries can make new choices and pick plans that work best for them. Each year, Medicare plan costs and coverage typically change. In addition, your health-care needs may have changed over the past year. The Open Enrollment Period — which begins on October 15 and runs through December 7 — is your opportunity to switch Medicare health and prescription drug plans to better suit your needs.

During this period, you can:

  • Join a Medicare prescription drug plan (Part D)
  • Switch from one Part D plan to another Part D plan
  • Drop your Part D coverage altogether
  • Switch from Original Medicare to a Medicare Advantage plan
  • Switch from a Medicare Advantage plan to Original Medicare
  • Change from one Medicare Advantage plan to a different Medicare Advantage plan
  • Change from a Medicare Advantage plan that offers prescription drug coverage to a Medicare Advantage plan that doesn’t offer prescription drug coverage
  • Switch from a Medicare Advantage plan that doesn’t offer prescription drug coverage to a Medicare Advantage plan that does offer prescription drug coverage

Any changes made during Open Enrollment are effective as of January 1, 2021.

Review plan options

Now is a good time to review your current Medicare plan to see if it’s still right for you. Have you been satisfied with the coverage and level of care you’re receiving with your current plan? Are your premium costs or out-of-pocket expenses too high? Has your health changed? Do you anticipate needing medical care or treatment, or new or pricier prescription drugs?

If your current plan doesn’t meet your health-care needs or fit within your budget, you can switch to a new plan. If you find that you’re satisfied with your current Medicare plan and it’s still being offered, you don’t have to do anything. The coverage you have will continue.

Medicare Part B (hospital insurance) premium and deductible costs capped for 2021

A provision of the short-term government spending bill recently passed by Congress and signed by President Trump limits potential Medicare Part B premium and deductible increases to 25% of what they would otherwise be. In April, the Medicare Trustees projected a 6% increase in the standard Medicare Part B premium, but stated that this projection was uncertain. Most Medicare costs for the following year are typically announced in late October or early November, so actual Medicare Part B costs for 2021 will not be available until then.

New and expanded benefits for 2021

Expansion of telehealth services. Medicare Advantage plans may now cover a wider range of telehealth and other virtual services, including virtual check-ins and E-visits that allow you to talk with your doctor or other health-care providers using an online patient portal.

Medicare Advantage for beneficiaries with End-Stage Renal Disease (ESRD). Medicare-eligible individuals with ESRD are eligible to enroll in a Medicare Advantage plan during Open Enrollment. Plan coverage will start January 1, 2021.

Acupuncture coverage for back pain. Medicare now covers up to 12 acupuncture visits in 90 days for chronic low back pain.

Lower out-of-pocket costs for insulin. You may be able to join a drug plan that offers supplemental benefits for insulin (Part D Senior Savings Model). The copay for a 30-day supply of insulin will be $35 or less. Coverage will begin on January 1, 2021.

You can find more information on new and expanded benefits in the Medicare & You 2021 Handbook on medicare.gov.

Where can you get more information?

Determining what coverage you have now and comparing it to other Medicare plans can be confusing and complicated. Pay attention to notices you receive from Medicare and from your plan, and take advantage of available help. You can call 1-800-MEDICARE or visit the Medicare website, medicare.gov, to use the Plan Finder and other tools that can make comparing plans easier.

You can also call your State Health Insurance Assistance Program (SHIP) for free, personalized counseling at no cost to you. Visit shiptacenter.org or call the toll-free Medicare number to find the phone number for your state.

2
Sep

The Bull Is Back… Will It Keep Charging?

On August 18, 2020, the S&P 500 set a record high for the first time since COVID-19 ushered in a bear market on February 19. The cycle from peak to peak was just 126 trading days, the fastest recovery in the history of the index, erasing losses from an equally historic plunge of almost 34% in February and March.1

Based on the traditional definition of market cycles, the new record confirms that a bull market began on March 23 when the index closed at its official low point. This also confirms that the February-March bear market was the shortest on record, lasting just 33 days.2

Although the strong comeback is good news for investors, there is a striking disconnect between the buoyant market and an economy still struggling with high unemployment and a public health crisis. The market is not the economy, but the economy certainly affects the market. So it may seem puzzling that the market could reach a record high not long after the largest quarterly decline in gross domestic product (GDP) in U.S. history.3

Optimism vs. exuberance

Whereas GDP measures current economic activity, the stock market is forward looking. The rapid bounceback suggests that investors believe the pandemic will be controlled in the not-too-distant future and that business activity will return to normal. Whether this optimism is warranted remains to be seen. The current economic situation remains tenuous, but there are hopeful signs.

A vaccine could be available in early 2021, later than anticipated but offering light at the end of the tunnel.4 In the meantime, the virus continues to suppress business activity. The 10.2% July unemployment rate represented a big improvement over the previous three months, but it was still higher than at any time during the Great Recession.5  Recent projections of corporate earnings suggest they will not contract as much as expected, but they will still contract.6 GDP is projected to make up ground in the third and fourth quarters but remain negative for the year.7

The extreme of market optimism is irrational exuberance, and there may be some of that at work in the current situation. The proliferation of low-cost trading apps has encouraged less-experienced investors to trade aggressively, which might be driving some of the market surge.8

Economic stimulus

The single, most important factor behind the market recovery is the deep commitment from the Federal Reserve to provide unlimited support through low interest rates and bondbuying programs. For some investors, the fact that the economy is still struggling has a strangely positive effect in guaranteeing that the Fed will keep the money flowing.9

Further support from the federal government is more uncertain, but the strong market suggests that investors may be counting on a second stimulus package.10

Nowhere else to go

Low interest rates make it easier for businesses and individuals to borrow, but they have reduced bond yields to the point that many investors are willing to take on greater risk in equities to generate income. Money that might normally be invested in the bond market has poured into stocks, driving prices higher. This situation has its own acronym: TINA, There Is No Alternative to Stocks.11

Big tech at the wheel

While the S&P 500 is generally considered representative of the U.S. stock market, the recovery has centered around technology companies, which have helped provide goods and services throughout the pandemic. The Big Six tech stocks — Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Microsoft, and Alphabet (Google’s parent) — were up collectively by more than 43% for the year through August 18. By contrast, the rest of the companies in the S&P 500 were down collectively by about 4%. The Big Six tech companies now represent more than one-fourth of the total market capitalization of the S&P 500 and thus have an outsized effect on index performance.12

One question facing investors is whether to chase the winners or look to stocks and sectors that still lag their previous highs and may have greater growth potential. Chasing performance is seldom a good idea, but there are solid reasons why certain stocks have been so successful in the current environment.

Are stocks overvalued?

The most common measure of stock value is price/earnings (P/E) ratio, which represents the stock price divided by corporate earnings over the previous 12 months or by projected earnings over the next 12 months. The projected P/E ratio for the S&P 500 on August 18 was 22.6, the highest since March 2000 at the peak of the dot-com bubble. Big tech stocks were even higher, trading at 26 times their projected earnings, and the Big Six were higher still at more than 40 times projected earnings.13-14

A different measure of stock value compares the total market capitalization of all U.S. stocks with GDP. By this measure, the market was 77.6% overvalued on August 18, by far the highest valuation ever recorded. The previous highs were 49.3% in January 2018 and 49.0% in March 2000. This extreme ratio illustrates the current disconnect between the stock market and GDP, but a significant GDP increase during the third quarter could bring it down.15

In considering these valuations, keep in mind that these are extraordinary times, and traditional expectations and measures of value may not tell the whole story. If nothing else, the extreme volatility and rapid market cycles of 2020 have illustrated the importance of maintaining a diversified all-weather portfolio and the danger of overreacting to market movements. While new records are exciting, they are only signposts along the road to achieving your long-term goals.

The return and principal value of stocks and bonds fluctuate with changes in market conditions. Shares, when sold, and bonds redeemed prior to maturity may be worth more or less than their original cost. Investments seeking to achieve higher yields also involve a higher degree of risk. Diversification is a method used to help manage investment risk; it does not guarantee a profit or protect against investment loss. The performance of an unmanaged index such as the S&P 500 is not indicative of the performance of any specific investment. Individuals cannot invest directly in an index. Past performance is not a guarantee of future results. Actual results will vary.

1, 3, 6, 8, 11, 13) The Wall Street Journal, August 18, 2020

2) CNBC, August 18, 2020

4, 9) The New York Times, August 18, 2020

5) U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2020

7) The Wall Street Journal Economic Forecasting Survey, August 2020

10) CNBC, August 14, 2020

12, 14) The Washington Post, August 20, 2020

15) Forbes, August 18, 2020

29
Jul

IRS Clarifies COVID-19 Relief Measures for Retirement Savers

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act passed in March 2020 ushered in several measures designed to help IRA and retirement plan account holders cope with financial fallout from the virus.  The rules were welcome relief to many people, but left questions about the details unanswered. In late June, the IRS released Notices 2020-50 and 2020-51, which shed light on these outstanding issues.

Required minimum distributions (RMDs)

One CARES Act measure suspends 2020 RMDs from defined contribution plans and IRAs. Account holders who prefer to forgo RMDs from their accounts, or to withdraw a lower amount than required, may do so. The waiver also applies to account holders who turned 70½ in 2019 and would have had to take their first RMD by April 1, 2020, as well as beneficiaries of inherited retirement accounts.

One of the questions left unanswered by the legislation was: “What if an account holder took an RMD in 2020 before passage of the CARES Act and missed the 60-day window to roll the money back into a qualified account?”

In April, IRS Notice 2020-23 extended the 60-day rollover rule for those who took a distribution on or after February 1, 2020, allowing participants to roll their money back into an eligible retirement account by July 15, 2020.  This seemingly left account owners who had taken RMDs in January without recourse. However, IRS Notice 2020-51 rectified the situation by stating that all 2020 RMDs — even those received as early as January 1 — may be rolled back into a qualified account by August 31, 2020. Moreover, such a rollover would not be subject to the one-rollover-per-year rule.

This ability to undo a 2020 RMD also applies to beneficiaries who would otherwise be ineligible to conduct a rollover. (However, in their case, the money must be rolled back into the original account.)

This provision does not apply to defined benefit plans.

Coronavirus withdrawals and loans

Another measure in the CARES Act allows qualified IRA and retirement plan account holders affected by the virus to withdraw up to $100,000 of their vested balance without having to pay the 10% early-withdrawal penalty (25% for certain SIMPLE IRAs). They may choose to spread the income from these “coronavirus-related distributions,” or CRDs, ratably over a period of three years to help manage the associated income tax liability. They  may also recontribute any portion of the distribution that would otherwise be eligible for a tax-free rollover to an eligible retirement plan over a three-year period, and the amounts repaid would be treated as a trustee-to-trustee transfer, avoiding tax consequences.(1)

In addition, the CARES Act included a provision stating that between March 27 and  September 22, 2020, qualified coronavirus-affected retirement plan participants may also be able to borrow up to 100% of their vested account balance or $100,000, whichever is less. In addition, any qualified participant with an outstanding loan who has payments due between March 27, 2020, and December 31, 2020, may be able to delay those payments by one year.

IRS Notice 2020-50

To be eligible for coronavirus-related provisions in the CARES Act, “qualified individuals” were originally defined as IRA owners and retirement plan participants who were diagnosed with the virus, those whose spouses or dependents were diagnosed with the illness, and account holders who experienced certain adverse financial consequences as a result of the pandemic. IRS Notice 2020-50 expanded that definition to also include an account holder, spouse, or household member who has experienced pandemic-related financial setbacks as a result of:

  • A quarantine, furlough, layoff, or reduced work hours
  • An inability to work due to lack of childcare
  • Owning a business forced to close or reduce hours
  • Reduced pay or self-employment income
  • A rescinded job offer or delayed start date for a job

These expanded eligibility provisions enhance the opportunities for account holders to take a CRD.

The Notice clarifies that qualified individuals can take multiple distributions totaling no more than $100,000 regardless of actual need. In other words, the total amount withdrawn does not need to match the amount of the adverse financial consequence. (Retirement investors should consider the pros and cons carefully before withdrawing money.)

It also states that individuals will report a coronavirus-related distribution (or distributions) on their federal income tax returns and on Form 8915-E, Qualified 2020 Disaster Retirement Plan Distributions and Repayments. Individuals can also use this form to report any recontributed amounts. As noted above, individuals can choose to either spread the income ratably over three years or report it all in year one; however, once a decision is indicated on the initial tax filing, it cannot be changed. Note that if multiple CRDs occur in 2020, they must all be treated consistently — either ratably over three years or reported all at once.

Taxpayers who recontribute amounts after paying taxes on reported CRD income will have to file amended returns and Form 8915-E to recoup the payments. Taxpayers who elect to report income over three years and then recontribute amounts that exceed the amount required to be reported in any given year may “carry forward” the excess contributions — i.e., they may report the additional amounts on the next year’s tax return.

The Notice also clarifies that amounts can be recontributed at any point during the three-year period beginning the day after the day of a CRD. Amounts recontributed will not apply to the one-rollover-per-year rule.

Regarding plan loans, participants who delay their payments as permitted by the CARES Act should understand that once the delay period ends, their loan payments will be recalculated to include interest that accrued over the time frame and reamortized over a period up to one year longer than the original term of the loan.

Retirement plans are not required to adopt the loan and withdrawal provisions, so check with your plan administrator to see which options might apply to you. However, qualified individuals whose plans do not specifically adopt the CARES Act provisions may choose to categorize certain other types of distributions — including distributions that in any other year would be considered RMDs — as CRDs on their tax returns, provided the total amount does not exceed $100,000.

For more information, review IRS Notices 2020-50 and 2020-51, and speak with a tax professional.

(1)Qualified beneficiaries may also treat a distribution as a CRD; however, nonspousal beneficiaries are not permitted to recontribute funds, as they would not otherwise be eligible for a rollover.

The foregoing is provided for information purposes only.  It is not intended or designed to provide legal, accounting, tax, investment or other professional advice.  Such advice requires consideration of individual circumstances. Individuals have different situations and preferences. Before any action is taken based upon this information, it is essential that competent individual professional advice be obtained.  JAS Financial Services, LLC is not responsible for any modifications made to this material, or for the accuracy of information provided by other sources. 

14
Jul

The Shape of Economic Recovery

On June 8, 2020, the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), which has official responsibility for determining U.S. business cycles, announced that February 2020 marked the end of an expansion that began in 2009 and the beginning of a recession.(1)  This was no great surprise considering widespread business closures due to the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting spike in unemployment, but it was an unusually quick official announcement.

The NBER defines a recession as “a decline in economic activity that lasts more than a few months,” so it typically takes from six months to a year to determine when a recession started. In this case, the NBER’s Business Cycle Dating Committee concluded that “the unprecedented magnitude of the decline in employment and production, and its broad reach across the entire economy,” warrants the designation of a recession, “even if it turns out to be briefer than earlier contractions.”(2)

Another common definition of a recession is two or more quarters of negative growth in gross domestic product (GDP), and it’s clear that the current situation will meet that test. The U.S. economy shrank at an annual rate of 5% in the first quarter of 2020 — a significant but deceptively small decline, because the economy was strong during the first part of the quarter. (3)

The first official estimate for the second quarter will not be available until July 30, but the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta keeps a running estimate that is updated based on incoming economic data. As of July 9, the Atlanta Fed estimated that GDP would drop at a 35.5% annual rate in the second quarter.(4) By comparison, the largest quarterly drop since World War II was 10% in the first quarter of 1958, followed by 8.4% in the fourth quarter of 2008.(5)

Most economists believe that GDP will turn upward in the third quarter as businesses continue to open.(6) But with the extreme decline in business activity during the first half of 2020, it will take sustained growth to return the economy to its pre-recession level. In its June economic projections, the Federal Reserve Open Market Committee projected a 6.5% annual drop in GDP for 2020, followed by 5.0% growth in 2021 and 3.5% growth in 2022.(7)  The simple math of these projections suggests the economy may not return to its 2019 level until 2022.

By the letters

Economists traditionally view economic recessions and recoveries as having a shape, named after the letter it resembles.

V-shaped — a rapid fall followed by a quick rebound to previous levels. The 1990-91 recession, which lasted only eight months and was followed by strong economic growth, was V-shaped. This type of recovery would require control of COVID-19 through testing and treatment, a quick ramp-up of business activity, and a return to pre-recession spending habits by consumers. (8-9)

U-shaped — an extended recession before the economy returns to previous levels. The Great Recession, which lasted 18 months followed by a slow recovery, was U-shaped. If COVID-19 takes longer to control and the economy does not bounce back as expected in the third quarter, the current recession could be prolonged. (10-11)

W-shaped — a “double-dip” recession in which a quick recovery begins but drops back sharply before beginning again. The U.S. economy experienced a W-shaped  recession in 1980-82, when a second oil crisis and high inflation triggered a brief recession, followed by a quick recovery and another recession sparked by overly aggressive anti-inflation policies by the Federal Reserve. This type of recession could occur if a second wave of COVID-19 forces businesses to shut down again later in the year, just as the economy is recovering. (12-13)

L-shaped — a steep drop followed by a long period of high unemployment and low economic output. The Great Depression, which lasted 43 months with four straight years of negative GDP growth, was L-shaped. This is unlikely in the current environment, considering the strength of the U.S. economy before COVID-19 and the unprecedented economic support from the Federal Reserve. (14-15)

A swoosh

In the July Economic Forecasting Survey by The Wall Street Journal, which polls more than 60 U.S. economists each month, 13.0% of respondents thought the recovery would be V-shaped, 11.1% expected it to be W-shaped, 5.5% indicated it would be U-shaped, and none thought it would be L-shaped.(16)

The vast majority — 70.4% — believed the recovery would take a “Nike swoosh” shape, which suggests a sharp drop followed by a long, slow recovery.(17) This view factors in the possibility that businesses may be slow to rehire, and consumers could be slow to resume  pre-recession spending patterns. It also considers that some businesses may be impacted longer than others. Airlines do not expect to return to pre-COVID passenger activity until 2022, and movie theaters, beauty salons, sporting events, and other high-contact businesses may struggle until a vaccine is developed. (18)

Adding to the prognosis for a slow recovery is the fact that the rest of the world is also fighting the pandemic, including many countries where growth was already more sluggish than in the United States. And if the virus resurges in the fall or early 2021, the recovery may turn jagged with significant setbacks along the way. (19)

While the consensus suggests that the duration of the actual recession may be brief, it is much too early to know the true shape of the recovery. However, the economy will recover, as it has in even more challenging situations. All these projections indicate that a key factor in determining the shape of recovery will be control of COVID-19. Beyond that, the underlying question is whether the virus has fundamentally changed the U.S. and global economies.

(1-2), (8), (10), (12), (14) National Bureau of Economic Research, June 2020

(3), (5), (15) U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, June 2020

(4) Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, July 9, 2020

(6), (16-17) The Wall Street Journal Economic Forecasting Survey, July 2020

(7) Federal Reserve, June 10, 2020

(9), (11), (13) Forbes Advisor, June 8, 2020

(18-19) The Wall Street Journal, May 11, 2020

8
Jul

July 15 Due Date Approaches for Federal Income Tax Returns and Payments

The due date for federal income tax returns and payments is Wednesday, July 15, 2020. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the original due date for filing federal income tax returns and making tax payments was postponed by the IRS from April 15, 2020, to July 15, 2020. No interest, penalties, or additions to tax are incurred by taxpayers during this 90-day relief period for any return or payment postponed under this relief provision.

The relief applied automatically to all taxpayers, who did not need to file any additional forms to qualify for the relief. The relief applied to federal income tax payments (for taxable year 2019) due on April 15, 2020, and estimated tax payments (for taxable year 2020) due on April 15, 2020, and June 15, 2020, including payments of tax on self-employment income. There is no limit on the amount of tax that could be deferred.

Need more time?

If you’re not able to file your federal income tax return by July 15, you can  file for an extension by the July due date using IRS Form 4868, Application for Automatic Extension of Time to File U.S. Individual Income Tax Return. Filing this extension gives you an additional three months (until October 15, 2020) to file your federal income tax return. You can also file for an automatic three-month extension electronically (details on how to do so can be found in the Form 4868 instructions).

Pay what you owe

One of the biggest mistakes you can make is not filing your return because you owe money. If the bottom line on your return shows that you owe tax, file and pay the amount due in full by the due date if at all possible. If you absolutely cannot pay what you owe, file the return and pay as much as you can afford. You’ll owe interest and possibly penalties on the unpaid tax, but 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 have to estimate the amount of tax you will owe; you should pay this amount by the July due date.  If you don’t, you will owe interest, and you may owe penalties as well. If the IRS believes that your estimate of taxes was not reasonable, it may void your extension.

Tax refunds

The IRS encourages taxpayers seeking a tax refund to file their tax return as soon as possible. Apparently, most tax refunds are still being issued within 21 days of the IRS receiving a tax return. However, the IRS is experiencing delays in processing paper tax returns due to limited staffing.

24
Jun

Social Security and Medicare Face Financial Challenges

Most Americans will eventually receive Social Security and Medicare benefits. Each year, the Trustees of the Social Security and Medicare Trust Funds release lengthy reports to Congress that assess the health of these important programs. The newest reports, released on April 22, 2020, discuss the current financial condition and ongoing financial challenges that both programs face, and project a Social Security cost-of-living adjustment (COLA)  for 2021.

How Social Security and Medicare will be affected by the COVID-19 pandemic is still uncertain; the Trustees acknowledge that the estimates and analysis included in the reports do not reflect the potential effects.

Social Security Trust Funds

The Social Security program consists of two parts, each with its own financial account (trust fund) that holds the Social Security payroll taxes that are collected to pay Social Security benefits. Retired     workers, their families, and survivors of workers receive monthly benefits under the Old-Age and Survivors Insurance (OASI) program; disabled workers and their families receive monthly benefits under the Disability Insurance (DI) program. The combined programs are referred to as OASDI. Other income (reimbursements from the General Fund of the U.S. Treasury and income tax revenue from benefit taxation) is also deposited in these accounts. Money that is not needed in the current year to pay benefits and administrative costs is invested (by law) in special Treasury bonds that are guaranteed by the U.S. government and earn interest. As a result, the Social Security Trust Funds have built up reserves that can be used to cover benefit obligations if payroll tax income is insufficient to pay full benefits.

Note that the Trustees provide certain projections based on the combined OASI and DI (OASDI) Trust Funds. However, these projections are hypothetical, because the trusts are separate, and generally one program’s taxes and reserves cannot be used to fund the other program.

Highlights of Social Security Trustees Report

  • Social Security’s total cost  is projected to be less than its total income in 2020 and higher than its total income (including interest) in 2021 and all later years. The U.S. Treasury will need to withdraw from trust fund reserves to help pay benefits. The Trustees project that the hypothetical combined trust fund reserves (OASDI) will be depleted in 2035, the same as   projected in last year’s report, unless Congress acts.
  • Once the hypothetical combined trust fund reserves are depleted in 2035, payroll tax revenue alone should still be sufficient to pay about 79% of scheduled benefits initially, with the percentage falling gradually to 73% by 2094.
  • The OASI Trust Fund, when considered separately, is projected to be depleted in 2034, the same as projected in last year’s report. Payroll tax revenue alone would then be sufficient to pay 76% of scheduled benefits.
  • The DI Trust Fund is expected to be depleted in 2065, 13 years later than projected in last year’s report. For a second year in a row, the depletion date has changed significantly, reflecting the  fact that  both benefit applications and the total number of disabled workers currently receiving benefits  have been declining over the past few years. Once the DI Trust Fund is depleted, payroll tax revenue alone would be sufficient to pay 92% of scheduled benefits.
  • Based on the “intermediate” assumptions in this year’s report, the Social Security Administration is projecting that the cost-of-living adjustment (COLA), which will be announced in the fall of 2020, will be 2.3% (last year’s report projected a COLA of 1.8% and the actual COLA was 1.6%). This COLA would apply to benefits starting in January 2021.

Medicare Trust Funds

There are two Medicare trust funds. The Hospital Insurance (HI) Trust Fund helps pay for hospital care (Medicare Part A costs). The Supplementary Medical Insurance (SMI) Trust Fund comprises two separate accounts, one covering Medicare Part B (which helps pay for physician and outpatient costs) and one covering Medicare Part D (which helps cover the prescription drug benefit).

Highlights of Medicare Trustees Report

  • Annual costs for the Medicare HI Trust Fund exceeded tax income each year from 2008 to 2015. There were small fund surpluses in 2016 and 2017. In 2018 and 2019, expenditures exceeded income, and deficits are expected  for all later years.
  • The HI Trust Fund is projected to be depleted in 2026, the same year as projected in last year’s report. Once the HI Trust Fund is depleted, tax and premium income would still cover 90% of estimated program costs, declining to 78% by 2044 and then gradually increasing to 90% by 2094. The Trustees note that long-range projections of Medicare costs are highly uncertain because the health-care landscape is shifting and the effects are unknown.

Why are Social Security and Medicare Facing Financial Challenges?

Social Security and Medicare are funded primarily through the collection of payroll taxes. Because of demographic and economic factors, including higher retirement rates and lower birth rates, there will be fewer workers per beneficiary over the long term, worsening the strain on the trust funds.

What is Being Done to Address These Challenges?

Both reports continue to urge Congress to address the financial challenges facing these programs soon, so that solutions will be less drastic and may be implemented gradually, lessening the impact on the public. Combining some of the following solutions may also lessen the impact of any one solution.

  • Raising the current Social Security payroll tax rate (currently 12.40%). According to this year’s report, an immediate and permanent payroll tax increase of 3.14 percentage points to 15.54% would be necessary to address the long-range revenue shortfall (4.13 percentage points to 16.53% if the increase started in 2035).
  • Raising or eliminating the ceiling on wages currently subject to Social Security payroll taxes ($137,700 in 2020).
  • Raising the full retirement age beyond the currently scheduled age of 67 (for anyone born in 1960 or later).
  • Reducing future benefits. According to this year’s report, to address the long-term revenue shortfall, scheduled benefits would have to be immediately and permanently reduced by about 19% for all current and future beneficiaries, or by about 23% if reductions were applied only to those who initially become eligible for benefits in 2020 or later.
  • Changing the benefit formula that is used to calculate benefits.
  • Calculating the annual cost-of-living adjustment for benefits differently.

You can view a combined summary of the 2020 Social Security and Medicare Trustees Reports and a full copy of the Social Security report at https://www.ssa.gov/. You can find the full Medicare report at https://www.cms.gov/.

2
Jun

Think Twice Before Speculating on a COVID-19 Cure

As hundreds of companies race to develop vaccines and drug therapies that could help end the COVID-19 pandemic, news reports on successful or failed trials affect individual stock prices and can trigger swings in the broader market.(1) Understandably, this highly contagious virus — and its severe economic repercussions — has a knack for stirring up investors’ emotions.

By May 27, 2020, COVID-19 was responsible for more than 100,000 deaths in the United States and about 355,000 worldwide. (2) Investors are human beings first, and most of us are waiting anxiously for a cure that would stop the suffering and allow normal life to resume.

Governments and nonprofits have provided billions of dollars in support, and some red tape has been loosened, all to help speed a costly, complex, and time-consuming drug development process.(3) Even so, this influx of public funding — along with a concerted humanitarian effort — suggests that some of the most important discoveries may not generate profits for investors.

High hopes for a vaccine

A vaccine prepares the body’s immune system to recognize and resist a specific disease, preventing it from causing sickness and spreading to others. As of May 27, the World Health Organization (WHO) was tracking 125 experimental vaccine candidates globally, 10 of which had advanced to clinical evaluation. Another 115 candidates are still in the pre-clinical stage, which involves testing in cells and/or animals and waiting for regulators to review results and grant permission for human trials. (4)

Clinical studies are conducted in three phases. During Phase I, a small study of healthy people tests the safety and immune response of the vaccine at different doses. Phase II is a randomized, double-blind, controlled study of hundreds of people that further assesses safety, efficacy, and optimal dosing. If all goes well, clinical studies expand to include thousands of people in Phase III. (5) These larger studies can be challenging because they test how well the vaccine works in an environment where the virus is spreading. (6)

Despite the urgency, COVID-19 vaccine candidates can’t skip any of these crucial steps, but timelines have been accelerated. (7) Health officials have said it could take 12 to 18 months before a vaccine may be available. (8)

The U.S. government has struck supply deals with several pharmaceutical companies to support research into leading vaccine candidates and boost the manufacturing capacity needed to produce 300 million doses by fall of 2020, should a candidate prove effective. (9)

Other nations and well-funded nonprofits have made similar deals. Massive public investment allows drug makers to get a head start on manufacturing doses while waiting for human trials to conclude and approval to be granted. In return, at least one drug maker has promised to sell an approved vaccine without making a profit during the pandemic. (10)

A COVID-19 vaccine is not imminent — a point made by the fact that there is no vaccine to prevent HIV after several decades of research. Still, early progress on several fronts offers reasons to be cautiously optimistic. (11)

Testing old and new therapies

The development and approval process for experimental drugs is similar to the one for vaccines. Companies that develop successful treatments are likely to face the same manufacturing challenges and pricing pressures. In the meantime, doctors are testing existing therapies that might help COVID-19 patients. (12)

One existing antiviral drug was approved for emergency use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration after it was determined to help hospitalized patients with severe COVID-19 recover faster. The pharmaceutical giant that makes the drug has ramped up production and is donating about 1.5 million doses as a public good. (13)

Scientists are also working on targeted antibody therapies, which depend on the identification of specific antibodies that bind with and neutralize the novel coronavirus. At high doses the right antibodies might prevent the disease from worsening in hospitalized patients, and at lower doses the same antibodies could provide short-term immunity for front-line workers.

Effective antibody drugs are easier to develop but more complex to manufacture. Thus, there is limited global capacity to produce the large amounts needed. Governments, nonprofits, and companies that are normally competitors are reportedly discussing ways to share manufacturing plants if one company’s antibody proves to work better than the others. (14)

Antibody treatments could help save lives as long as COVID-19 is a threat, but widespread vaccination could make them obsolete. If a successful vaccine materializes, many valiant efforts to develop beneficial therapies may never make much money.

More implications for investors

As of May 21, 2020, the U.S. government had invested at least $2 billion for the development of coronavirus vaccines and $300 million for antiviral and antibody therapies. (15) New biotechnologies, generous financial support, and unprecedented cooperation between governments and industry leaders could shave several years off typical development timelines. (16)

It’s rarely easy to predict which new products will perform well enough in multiple rounds of studies to earn regulatory approval. Moreover, the stock market’s mid-May rally and high valuations for biotech and pharmaceutical shares imply that success in developing COVID-19 treatments might already be priced in — especially for newsmakers. (17)

Headline-induced price swings suggest that investors are making decisions driven by hopes and fears, and possibly based on limited information, instead of a realistic assessment of an investment’s longer-term earnings potential. Now more than ever, it’s important to have a well-researched investment strategy based on your own goals, time horizon, and risk tolerance.

All investing involves risk, including the possible loss of principal, and there is no guarantee that any investment strategy will be successful.

(1), (17) The Wall Street Journal, May 18, 2020

(2) Johns Hopkins University, May 27, 2020

(3), (5), (7), (8), (16) World Economic Forum, 2020

(4) World Health Organization, May 27, 2020

(6) Bloomberg News, May 7, 2020

(9), (10) The Wall Street Journal, May 21, 2020

(11) NPR.com, May 12, 2020

(12), (14), (15) Bloomberg Businessweek, April 20, 2020

(13) STAT, April 29, 2020

11
May

Coping with Market Volatility: Be Sure to Use Appropriate Benchmarks

Do you find yourself glued to the daily news reports on market movements wondering about your own savings and investments? Before you make any hasty decisions, be sure you understand how these reports relate — or don’t relate — to your individual portfolio.

The variance in the returns of different portfolios is largely attributable to their asset allocations. If you have a well-diversified portfolio that includes multiple asset classes (stocks, bonds, cash alternatives), be sure to compare its overall performance to relevant benchmarks, rather than the gains and losses reported throughout daily news cycles. For example, just because a particular stock market index, such as the S&P 500, may have dropped by a double-digit percentage doesn’t necessarily mean your entire portfolio is down by the same amount. If you find that your investments are at least matching relevant benchmarks, you might feel better about your overall strategy.

Asset allocation and diversification do not guarantee that you won’t suffer losses, of course, and they also can’t guarantee a profit. But they can help spread your risk. When the overall market declines, some asset classes and individual investments may be affected more than others.

Before letting daily headlines drive your investment decisions, consider whether your asset allocation is appropriate for your immediate and long-term needs and the risk you’re comfortable taking.

For help in determining appropriate benchmarks for your portfolio, give me a call. I am here to help.

All investing involves risk, including the possible loss of principal, and there is no guarantee that any investment strategy will be successful.

Although there is no assurance that working with a financial professional will improve investment results, a professional can evaluate your objectives and available resources and help you consider appropriate long-term financial strategies.