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Posts from the ‘Consumer Information’ Category

5
Oct

Social Security’s Uncertain Future: What You Should Know

Social Security is a pay-as-you-go system, which means today’s workers are paying taxes for the benefits received by today’s retirees. There are many factors that are causing long-run fiscal challenges. Factors causing long-run fiscal challenges, including demographic trends such as lower birth rates, higher retirement rates, and longer life spans. There are simply not enough U.S. workers to support the growing number of beneficiaries. See the discussion under “Pandemic Impact” below. Social Security is not in danger of collapsing, but the clock is ticking on the program’s ability to pay full benefits.

Annually, the Trustees of the Social Security Trust Funds provide a detailed report to Congress that tracks the program’s current financial condition and projected financial outlook. In the latest report, released in August 2021, the Trustees estimate that the retirement program will have funds to pay full benefits only until 2033, unless Congress acts to shore up the program. This day of reckoning is expected to come one year sooner than previously projected because of the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Report Highlights

Social Security consists of two programs, each with its own financial account (trust fund) that holds the payroll taxes that are collected to pay 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.

Combined OASDI costs are projected to exceed total income (including interest) in 2021, and the Treasury will withdraw reserves to help pay benefits. The Trustees project that the combined reserves will be depleted in 2034. After that, payroll tax revenue alone should be sufficient to pay about 78% of scheduled benefits. OASDI projections are hypothetical, because the OASI and DI Trusts are separate, and generally one program’s taxes and reserves cannot be used to fund the other program.

The OASI Trust Fund, considered separately, is projected to be depleted in 2033. Payroll tax revenue alone would then be sufficient to pay 76% of scheduled OASI benefits.

The DI Trust Fund is projected to be depleted in 2057, eight years sooner than estimated in last year’s report. Once the trust fund is depleted, payroll tax revenue alone would be sufficient to pay 91% of scheduled benefits.

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

Proposed Fixes

The Trustees 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 help soften the impact of any one solution.

  • Raising the current Social Security payroll tax rate (currently 12.4%). Half is paid by the employee and half by the employer (self-employed individuals pay the full 12.4%). An immediate and permanent payroll tax increase of 3.36 percentage points to 15.76% would be needed to cover the long-range revenue shortfall (4.20 percentage points to 16.60% if the increase started in 2034).
  • Raising or eliminating the ceiling on wages subject to Social Security payroll taxes ($142,800 in 2021).
  • Raising the full retirement age beyond the currently scheduled age of 67 (for anyone born in 1960 or later).
  • Reducing future benefits. To address the long-term revenue shortfall, scheduled benefits would have to be immediately and permanently reduced by about 21% for all current and future beneficiaries, or by about 25% if reductions were applied only to those who initially become eligible for benefits in 2021 or later.
  • Changing the benefit formula that is used to calculate benefits.
  • Calculating the annual cost-of-living adjustment for benefits differently.

Pandemic Impact

The 2021 Trustees Report states that Social Security’s short-term finances were “significantly affected” by the pandemic and the severe but short-lived recession in 2020. “Employment, earnings, interest rates, and GDP [gross domestic product] dropped substantially in the second calendar quarter of 2020 and are assumed to rise gradually thereafter toward recovery by 2023, with the level of worker productivity and thus GDP assumed to be permanently lowered by 1%.” The projections also accounted for elevated mortality rates over the period 2020 through 2023 and delays in births and immigration. Because payroll tax revenues are rebounding quickly, the damage to the program was not as great as many feared.

Sharp increases in consumer prices in July and August suggest that beneficiaries might receive the highest annual benefit increase since 1983 starting in January 2022. The Social Security Administration’s chief actuary has estimated that the 2022 cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) will be close to 6.0%.1(The official COLA had not been announced at the time of this writing.)

What’s at Stake for You?

The Census Bureau has estimated that 2.8 million Americans ages 55 and older filed for Social Security benefits earlier than they had anticipated because of COVID-19.2 Many older workers may have been pushed into retirement after losing their jobs or because they had health concerns.

If you regret starting your Social Security benefits earlier than planned, you can withdraw your application within 12 months of your original claim and reapply later. But you can do this only once, and you must repay all the benefits you received. Otherwise, if you’ve reached full retirement age, you may voluntarily suspend benefits and restart them later. Either of these moves would result in a higher future benefit.

Even if you won’t depend on Social Security to survive, the benefits could amount to a meaningful portion of your retirement income. An estimate of your monthly retirement benefit can be found on your Social Security Statement, which can be accessed when you sign up for my Social Security account on SSA.gov. If you aren’t receiving benefits and haven’t registered for an online account, you should receive an annual statement in the mail starting at age 60.

No matter what the future holds for Social Security, your retirement destiny is still in your hands. But it may be more important than ever to save as much as possible for retirement while you are working. Don’t wait until you have one foot out the door to consider your retirement income strategy.

All information is from the 2021 Social Security Trustees Report, except for:

1) AARP, September 15, 2021

2) U.S. Census Bureau, 2021

21
Sep

2022-2023 School Year Opens on October 1 for FAFSA

Financial aid kickoff season begins in October. Incoming and returning college students can start filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, for the next academic year. The FAFSA is a prerequisite for federal student loans, grants, and work-study, and may be required by colleges before they distribute their own institutional aid to students.

How do I submit the FAFSA?

The FAFSA for the 2022-2023 school year opens on October 1, 2021. Here are some tips for filing it.

  • The fastest and easiest way to submit the FAFSA is online at studentaid.gov. The site contains resources and tools to help you complete the form, including a list of the documents and information you’ll need to file it. The online FAFSA allows your tax data to be directly imported from the IRS, which speeds up the overall process and reduces errors.
  • Before you file the FAFSA online, you and your child will each need to obtain an FSA ID (federal student aid ID), which you can also do online by following the instructions. (Once you have an FSA ID, you can use the same one each year.)
  • The FAFSA can also be filed in paper form. But it will take much longer for the government to process it.
  • You don’t need to complete the FAFSA by October 1. But it’s a promising idea to file it as early as possible in the fall because some federal aid programs operate on a first-come, first-served basis. Colleges typically have a priority filing date for both incoming and returning students; the priority filing date can be found in the financial aid section of a college’s website. You should submit the FAFSA before that date.
  • Students must submit the FAFSA every year to be eligible for financial aid (along with any other college-specific financial aid form that may be required, such as the CSS Profile). Any colleges you list on the FAFSA will also get a copy of the report.
  • There is no cost to submit the FAFSA.

How does the FAFSA calculate financial need?

The FAFSA looks at a family’s income, assets, and household information (for example, family size) to calculate what a family can afford to pay. This figure is known as the EFC or expected family contribution. All financial aid packages are built around this number.

Tip: Starting with the 2023-2024 FAFSA (which will be available next year starting October 1, 2022), the EFC will be renamed the SAI, or student aid index.

When counting income, the FAFSA uses information in your tax return from two years earlier. This year is often referred to as the “base year” or the “prior-prior year.” For example, the 2022-2023 FAFSA will use income information in your 2020 tax return, so 2020 would be the base year or prior-prior year.

When counting assets, the FAFSA uses the current value of your and your child’s assets. Some assets are not counted and do not need to be listed on the FAFSA. These include home equity in a primary residence, retirement accounts (e.g., 401k, IRA), annuities, and cash-value life insurance. Student assets are weighted more heavily than parent assets; students must contribute 20% of their assets vs. 5.6% for parents.

Your EFC remains constant, no matter which college your child attends. The difference between your EFC and a college’s cost of attendance equals your child’s financial need. Your child’s financial need will be different at every school.

After your EFC is calculated, the financial aid administrator at your child’s school will attempt to craft an aid package to meet your child’s financial need by offering a combination of loans, grants, scholarships, and work-study. Keep in mind that colleges are not obligated to meet 100% of your child’s financial need. If they don’t, you are responsible for paying the difference. Colleges often advertise on their website and brochures whether they meet “100% of demonstrated need.”

Should I file the FAFSA even if my child is unlikely to qualify for aid?

Yes, probably. There are two good reasons to submit the FAFSA even if you don’t expect your child to qualify for need-based aid.

First, all students attending college at least half-time are eligible for unsubsidized federal student loans, regardless of financial need or income level. (“Unsubsidized” means the borrower, rather than the federal government, pays the interest that accrues during school and during the grace period and any deferment periods after graduation.) If you want your child to be eligible for this federal loan, you’ll need to submit the FAFSA. But don’t worry, your child won’t be locked in to taking out the loan. If you submit the FAFSA and then decide your child doesn’t need the student loan, your child can decline it through the college’s financial aid portal before the start of the school year.

Second, colleges typically require the FAFSA when distributing their own need-based aid, and in some cases as a prerequisite for merit aid. So, filing the FAFSA can give your child the broadest opportunity to be eligible for college-based aid. Similarly, many private scholarship sources may want to see the results of the FAFSA.

8
Sep

Too Hot to Handle: What’s Ahead for the U.S. Housing Market?

The U.S. housing market, already strong before the pandemic, has heated up to record levels in 2021. The Case-Shiller U.S. National Home Price Index, which measures home prices in 20 major metropolitan areas, reported a 12-month increase of 18.6% in June 2021, the largest year-over-year gain in data going back to 1987.1

The National Association of Realtors (NAR), which provides more current data, reported that the national median price of an existing home was $359,900 in July, down from a record $362,800 in June. Even so, this was the 113th consecutive month of year-over-year price increases. The June to July price relief was due in part to increased supply. Total inventory of new and existing homes increased 7.3% over June but was still down 12.0% from a year ago.2

The July 2021 NAR data suggests that the red-hot market may be cooling slightly, but prices are still extremely high, and industry experts expect them to remain high for the foreseeable future. Here’s a look at some key factors behind the current trend and prospects for future direction.

Low Supply, Surprise Demand

The housing supply has been low for more than a decade. The housing crash devastated the construction industry, and a variety of factors, including labor shortages, tariffs, limited land, and restrictive permit processes, have kept the supply of new homes below historical averages, placing more pressure on existing homes to meet demand.3

The pandemic exacerbated labor problems and led to supply-chain issues and high costs for raw materials that held back construction, while demand exploded despite the economic downturn. With the shift to remote work and remote education, many people with solid jobs looked for more space, and low interest rates made higher prices more affordable.4

At the same time, homeowners who might have seen high prices as an opportunity to sell were hesitant to do so because of economic uncertainty and the high cost of moving to another home. Refinancing at low rates offered an appealing alternative and kept homeowners in place. Government mortgage forbearance programs have helped families from losing their homes but also kept homes that might have otherwise foreclosed off the market.5

Health concerns also played a part. The pandemic made it less appealing to have strangers entering a home for an open house. And older people who might have moved into assisted living or other senior facilities were more likely to stay in their homes.6

Taken together, these factors produced a perfect storm of low supply and high demand that drove already high prices to dizzying levels and created desperation among buyers.  All-cash sales accounted for 23% of transactions in July, up from 16% in July 2020. The average home stayed on the market for just 17 days, down from 22 days last year. Almost 90% of homes sold in less than a month.7

Freezing Out First-Time Buyers

Recent inventory gains have been primarily in more expensive houses, and there continues to be a critical shortage of affordable homes. First-time buyers accounted for just 30% of purchases in July 2021, down from 34% the previous year.8 A common formula for home affordability is to multiply income by three — i.e., a couple who earns $100,000 might qualify to buy a $300,000 house. A study of 50 cities found that home prices in Q2 2021 were, on average, 5.5 times the local median income of first-time buyers, putting most homes out of reach.9

The lack of affordable housing for first-time buyers also helps to drive rents higher. People with higher incomes who might be buying homes are willing and able to pay higher rents. Rents on newly signed leases in July were 17% higher than what the previous tenant paid, the highest jump on record. After dropping while many young people lived with parents during the pandemic, occupancy of rental units hit a record high of 96.9%.10

Is This a Bubble?

From 2006 to 2012, the housing market plummeted 60%, taking the broader U.S. economy with it.11 Mortgage requirements were made much stricter after the housing crash, and homeowners today are more likely to afford their homes and to have more equity from larger down payments. The housing market has always been cyclical, so it’s likely that prices will turn downward at some point in the future, but less likely that prices will collapse the way they did during the Great Recession.12

What’s Next?

Prices are so high that some buyers are backing off, but demand remains strong and will outstrip housing supply for the foreseeable future. Some near-term relief might come if high prices inspire more homeowners to sell, and if the end of government programs puts more foreclosed homes on the market. There are more single-family homes under construction than at any time since 2007, but it will take months or years for those homes to increase the housing supply.13

The housing market tends to be seasonal, with demand dying down in the fall and the winter. That didn’t happen last year, because pent-up demand was so strong that it pushed through the seasons. With the supply/demand tension easing, the seasonal slowdown may be more significant this year.14 The Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (Freddie Mac) projects that home prices will grow by 12.1% in 2021, lower than the current pace, and drop further to 5.3% growth in 2022.15

Location, Location

Although national trends reflect broad economic forces, the housing market is fundamentally local. The West is the most expensive region, with a median price of $508,300 for an existing home, followed by the Northeast ($411,200), the South ($305,200), and the Midwest ($275,300).16 Within regions, there are dramatic price differences among states, cities, and towns. The trend to remote work, which helped drive prices upward, may help moderate prices in the long term by allowing workers to live in more affordable areas.

1) S&P Dow Jones Indices, August 31, 2021

2, 7, 8, 16) National Association of Realtors, August 23, 2021

3, 4, 6) The New York Times, May 14, 2021

5) NBC News, July 6, 2021

9)  The New York Times, August 12, 2021

10) Bloomberg Businessweek, August 18, 2021

11) NPR, August 17, 2021

12) The Wall Street Journal, March 15, 2021

13) Bloomberg, August 19, 2021

14) CNN Business, August 23, 2021

15)  Freddie Mac, July 2021

29
Jul

Mid-Year Is a Good Time for a Financial Checkup

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

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

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

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

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

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

21
Jul

New Global Tax Accord Takes Shape

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

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

What is the crux of the new global tax agreement?

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

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

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

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

What countries are on board?

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

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

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

Has the new global tax agreement been enacted yet?

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

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

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

1, 3, 6) OECD.org, 2021

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

7) G20.org, 2021

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

8
Jul

Should You Be Concerned About Inflation?

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

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

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

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

Supply and Demand

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

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

Chips and Cars

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

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

Fundamental Forces

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

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

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

Reading the Economy

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

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

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

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

The Fed’s Arsenal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2, 17, 19–20) Federal Reserve, 2021

3) Bloomberg, June 5, 2021

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

7) CBS News, June 22, 2021

8–9) Time, June 28, 2021

11) CNBC, June 8, 2021

12–13) CNBC, May 22, 2021

15) The Wall Street Journal, June 22, 2021

16) Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, 2021

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

6
Jul

Hostage Data: Ransomware and Protecting Your Digital Information

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

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

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

Malicious Code

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

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

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

Protecting Your Data

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1–2, 11) Vox, June 8, 2021

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

4)  The Washington Post, June 4, 2021

5) 2021 SonicWall Cyber Threat Report

6)  The Wall Street Journal, June 9, 2021

7)  Fortune, December 5, 2020

8)  Institute for Security and Technology, 2021

9)  The New Yorker, June 7, 2021

10) Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency, 2021

2
Jun

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gas crisis

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

Trade disrupted

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

Texas freeze

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

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

Lumber and housing

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

Chips and cars

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

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

Labor concerns

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

Hard lessons

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

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

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

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

3) Bloomberg, May 16, 2021

4) Bloomberg, May 3, 2021

5) The Wall Street Journal, March 17, 2021

6) Associated Press, April 25, 2021

7) CNBC.com, April 30, 2021

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

10) Reuters, May 17, 2021

11) The Wall Street Journal, May 20, 2021

7
Apr

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

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

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

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

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

Employment picture

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

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

Consumer behavior

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

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

Mobility and travel

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

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

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

Real-time tracker

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

Fed indexes

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

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

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

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

2) U.S. Department of Labor, 2021

3) American Staffing Association, 2021

4) Investing.com, 2021

5) OpenTable, 2021

6) Apple Mobility Trends, 2021

7) Transportation Security Administration, 2021

8) STR, 2021

9-10) Federal Reserve, 2021

31
Mar

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

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

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

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

1) Credit Card Debt Study, WalletHub,  March 2021

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

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