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Posts from the ‘Government & Regulatory’ Category

13
May

The Question is How Long High Inflation Will Last?

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

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

Russia and China contributed to the situation.

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

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

Behind the Headlines

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

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

Wages and Consumer Demand

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

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

Soft or Hard Landing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2) Gallup, March 29, 2022

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

4) CNBC, April 7, 2022

6) AAA, April 25 & 29, 2022

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

11) CBS News, April 11, 2022

12, 14, 16) Federal Reserve, 2022

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

18) The New York Times, March 21, 2022

19
Apr

Federal Student Loan Repayments Are Postponed Again

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

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

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

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

What should borrowers do  between now and September?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4) The Washington Post, April 6, 2022

17
Mar

What Do Rising Interest Rates Mean for You?

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

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

What is the federal funds rate?

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

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

Why does the Fed adjust the federal funds rate?

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

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

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

How will consumer interest rates be affected?

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

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

What about bond investments?

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

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

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

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

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

How will the stock market react?

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

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

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

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

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

1–2) Federal Reserve, March 16, 2022

3) The Wall Street Journal, March 17, 2022

25
Jan

Investments in our Infrastructure is expected to have an impact on our economy.

A bipartisan congress passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The act provides  roughly $1 trillion for infrastructure. Funds are provided  for existing programs and provided more than $550 billion in new funding over the next five years. The expenditures will go toward upgrading aging U.S. transportation, water, power generation, and communication systems.1 The American Society of Civil Engineers called the legislation a significant down payment on the $2.5 trillion in deficiencies identified in the industry group’s 2021 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure.2

The objective is to improve public safety and grease the wheels of commerce by making a historic federal investment in physical infrastructure. This large injection of funds is likely to affect how many Americans commute, travel, transport goods, access the Internet, power homes and buildings, and more, with implications for communities, businesses, industries, and the economy.

How the funds will be used

The new spending is a combination of targeted funds for overdue repair projects and forward-looking programs intended to make the nation’s critical infrastructure assets more resilient to climate risks.3 Here’s an overview of the Act’s allocated funds:

•          $110 billion to fix deteriorating roads and bridges, and other major surface-transportation projects

•          $66 billion to pay for passenger and freight railway maintenance, modernization, and expansion, primarily to overhaul Amtrak and make rail travel a reliable alternative to driving or flying between more U.S. cities

•          $65 billion to build out broadband Internet in underserved areas and subsidies to help lower-income households pay for high-speed Internet access

•          $65 billion to update the electric grid and help protect it from severe weather and cybersecurity threats

•          $55 billion to help ensure access to clean drinking water, remove lead service lines, and upgrade wastewater systems (another $8 billion goes toward addressing dwindling water supplies in the West)

•          $47 billion to help states and cities prepare for and defend against more frequent and destructive storms, droughts, wildfires, and other climate impacts

•          $42 billion to expand and upgrade airports, ports, and border-crossing stations, measures that are sorely needed to shore up supply-chain weaknesses

•          $39 billion to repair and revamp public transit and make it more accessible to the elderly and disabled

•          $21 billion to enhance public health and create jobs by cleaning up abandoned mines and oil and gas wells, polluted waterways, and contaminated superfund sites

•          $11 billion to improve highway and pedestrian safety and support research

•          $7.5 billion to build out a network of electric vehicle charging stations plus $7.5 billion for low-emission school buses and ferries

•          $1 billion to reconnect communities negatively affected by past infrastructure projects

Benefits

Transportation funds are normally allocated to states according to a formula based on population, gas-tax revenue, and other factors, and each state typically decides how to spend the money. Most of the new funding will be distributed under this traditional formula, but $120 billion will be awarded through dozens of new competitive grant programs.4 The Transportation Department will select recipients from applications submitted by state and local governments, and Congress will have direct oversight, so lawmakers can monitor projects and call hearings to assess the results. It’s likely to take at least six months to pass out the money, finalize plans, and kick off projects — and timelines could run longer for grant programs.

Moody’s Analytics projects that the law’s economic impact will peak in about five years and fade as spending tails off, creating an estimated 556,000 jobs and raising U.S. output by 0.5% by year-end 2026. Other projections vary, but economists tend to agree that greater infrastructure spending eases worker mobility and the transportation of goods, providing a boost to labor productivity, business efficiency, and economic growth.5

The additional infrastructure spending will be partially paid for by new revenue and unspent COVID-19 relief funds. However, the Congressional Budget Office found that the Act would add $256 billion to budget deficits over the next decade, so borrowing to cover the difference could offset some of the law’s economic benefits.6

1, 5) The Wall Street Journal, November 6, 2021

2) American Society of Civil Engineers, 2021

3) The New York Times, August 10, 2021; White House Fact Sheet, November 6, 2021

4) The Wall Street Journal, November 7, 2021

6) Congressional Budget Office, August 9, 2021

5
Jan

The Federal Reserve System Fights Inflation

The Federal Reserve System (Fed) adjusts its monetary policy in response to rising inflation. The Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) quickened the reduction of its bond-buying program mid-December 2021. They projected three increases in the benchmark federal funds rate in 2022, followed by three more increases in 2023 and speedup its buying bonds. These steps were more aggressive than previous FOMC actions or projections.1

A closer look at the FOMC’s tools and strategy may help to appreciate the impact of how these steps may affect the U.S. economy, investors, and consumers.

Jobs vs. Prices

The Federal Reserve is our national bank. It has two mandates, maintain price stability and full employment. These mandates require some inflation. An economy without inflation is typically stagnant with weak employment. A strong economy with high employment is prone to high inflation.

The FOMC currently has set a 2% annual inflation target based on the personal consumption expenditures (PCE) price index to meet the Fed’s mandate. The PCE index represents a broad range of spending on goods and services and tends to run below the more widely publicized consumer price index (CPI). The Committee’s policy is to allow PCE inflation to run moderately above 2% for some time to balance the periods when it runs below 2%.

PCE inflation was generally well below the Fed’s 2% target from May 2012 to February 2021. But it has risen quickly since then, reaching 5.7% for the 12 months ending in November 2021 — the highest level since 1982. (By comparison, CPI inflation was 6.8%.)2-3

Fed officials, and many other economists and policy makers, originally believed that inflation was “transitory” due to supply-chain issues related to opening the economy. But the persistence and level of inflation over the last few months led them to take corrective action. They still believe inflation will drop significantly in 2022 as supply-chain problems are resolved, and project a PCE inflation rate of 2.6% by the end of the year.4

The Fed’s Toolbox

The FOMC uses two primary tools to meet an acceptable balance between employment and prices. The first is its power to set the federal funds rate, the interest rate that large banks use to lend each other money overnight to maintain required deposits with the Federal Reserve. This rate serves as a benchmark for many other rates, including the prime rate that commercial banks charge their best customers. The prime rate usually runs about 3% above the federal funds rate and acts as a benchmark for rates on consumer loans such as credit cards and auto loans. The FOMC lowers the funds rate to stimulate the economy to create jobs and raises it to slow the economy to fight inflation.

The second tool is purchasing Treasury bonds to increase the money supply or allowing bonds to mature without repurchasing to decrease the supply. The FOMC purchases Treasuries through banks within the Federal Reserve System. Rather than using funds it holds on to deposit, the Fed simply adds the appropriate amount to the bank’s balance, essentially creating money. This provides the bank with more money to lend to consumers, businesses, or the government (through purchasing more Treasuries).

Shifting from Extreme Stimulus

When the economy shut down in March 2020 in response to the COVID pandemic, the FOMC took extraordinary stimulus measures to avoid a deep recession. The Committee dropped the federal funds rate to its rock-bottom range of 0% to 0.25% and began a bond-buying program that reached an unprecedented level of $75 billion per day in Treasury bonds. By June 2020, this was reduced to $80 billion per month and remained at that level until November 2021, when the FOMC decided to wind down the program at a rate that would have ended it by June 2022.5-6

The December decision accelerated the wind down, so the bond-buying program will end in March 2022, at which point the FOMC will likely consider raising the federal funds rate. Although it’s not certain when an increase will occur, the December projection is that the rate will be in the 0.75% to 1.00% range by the end of 2022 and the 1.50% to 1.75% range by the end of 2023.7

Rising Interest Rates

Currently the Fed’s plan is to slow inflation by returning to a more neutral monetary policy; this represents confidence that the economy is strong enough to grow without extreme stimulus. If these are the only actions required, the impact may be relatively mild. The first increase in rates will likely occur in the spring.

Rising interest rates make it more expensive for businesses and consumers to borrow, which could impact corporate earnings and consumer spending. Rates have an inverse relationship with bond prices. When interest rates rise, prices on existing bonds fall (and vice versa), because investors can buy new bonds paying higher interest.

Conversely, higher rates on bonds, certificates of deposit (CDs), savings accounts, and other fixed-income vehicles could help investors, especially retirees, who rely on fixed-income investments. Brick-and-mortar banks typically react slowly to changes in the federal funds rate, but online banks may offer higher rates.8

Many believe Inflation is a far greater concern other than rising interest rates, and it remains to be seen whether the Fed’s projected rate increases will be enough to tame prices. There are other moving parts, such as the movement of wages and prices. Generally, it is best not to overreact to policy changes. Often the best approach is to maintain an investment portfolio appropriate for your situation and long-term goals.

U.S. Treasury securities are guaranteed by the federal government as to timely payment of principal and interest. The principal value of all bonds fluctuates with market conditions. Bonds not held to maturity could be worth more or less than the original amount paid. The FDIC insures CDs and bank savings accounts, which generally provide a fixed rate of return, up to $250,000 per depositor, per insured institution. Forecasts are based on current conditions, subject to change, and may not happen.

1, 4, 6–7) Federal Reserve, 2021

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

3) U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2021

5) Federal Reserve Bank of New York, 2021

8) Forbes Advisor, December 14, 2021

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.  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. 

3
Jan

Social Security Offices will not reopen for in-person meetings as originally planned January 3, 2022.

December 22, 2021, SSA announced they would not re-open as many expected.

The public is encouraged to use their online services. https://www.ssa.gov/onlineservices/
Their online services can be accessed by activating your Social Security account. Create an account if you do not have an account.
https://secure.ssa.gov/RIL/SiView.action
https://www.ssa.gov/myaccount/

The phone numbers for the local offices can be found using their “Field Office Locator”
https://secure.ssa.gov/ICON/main.jsp

Their COVID-19 web page provides mor information to learn more.
https://www.ssa.gov/coronavirus/

The Retirement Benefit portal has been updated.
https://www.ssa.gov/benefits/retirement/

3
Nov

Budget and Debt Ceiling Vagueness

On September 30, 2021, Congress averted a potential federal government shutdown by passing a last-minute bill to fund government operations through December 3, 2021.1 Two weeks later, another measure raised the debt ceiling by just enough to sustain federal borrowing until about the same date.2 Although these bills provided temporary relief, they did not resolve the fundamental issues, and Congress will have to act again by December 3.

Spending vs. Borrowing

The budget and the debt ceiling are often considered together by Congress, but they are separate fiscal issues. The budget authorizes future spending, while the debt ceiling is a statutory limit on federal borrowing necessary to fund already authorized spending. Thus, increasing the debt ceiling does not increase government spending. But it does allow borrowing to meet increased spending authorized by Congress.

The underlying fact in this relationship between the budget and the debt ceiling is that the U.S. government runs on a deficit and has done so every year since 2002.3 The U.S. Treasury funds the deficit by borrowing through securities such as Treasury notes, bills, and bonds. When the debt ceiling is reached, the Treasury can no longer issue securities that would put the government above the limit.

Twelve Appropriations Bills

The federal fiscal year begins on October 1, and 12 appropriations bills for various government sectors should be passed by that date to fund activities ranging from defense and national park operations to food safety and salaries for federal employees.4 These appropriations for discretionary spending account for about one-third of federal spending, with the other two-thirds, including Social Security and Medicare, prescribed by law.5

Though it would be better for federal agencies to know their operating budgets at the beginning of the fiscal year, the deadline to pass all 12 bills has not been met since FY 1997.6 This year, none of the bills had passed as of late October.7

To delay for further budget negotiations, Congress typically passes a continuing resolution, which extends federal spending to a specific date based on a fixed formula. The September 30 resolution extended spending to December 3 at FY 2021 levels.8 Adding to the stakes of this year’s budget negotiations, spending caps on discretionary spending that were enacted in 2011 expired on September 30, 2021, so FY 2022 budget levels may become the baseline for future spending.9

Raising the Ceiling

A debt limit was first established in 1917 to facilitate government borrowing during World War I. Since then, the limit has been raised or suspended almost 100 times, often with little or no conflict.10 However, in recent years, it has become more contentious. In 2011, negotiations came so close to the edge that Standard & Poor’s downgraded the U.S. government credit rating.11

A two-year suspension expired on August 1 of this year. At that time, the federal debt was about $28.4 trillion, with large recent increases due to the $3 trillion pandemic stimulus passed with bipartisan support in 2020, as well as the 2021 American Rescue Plan and continuing effects of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017.12-13 The Treasury funded operations after August 1 by employing certain “extraordinary measures” to maintain cash flow. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen projected that these measures would be exhausted by October 18.14

The bill signed on October 14 increased the debt ceiling by $480 billion, the amount the Treasury estimated would be necessary to pay government obligations through December 3, again using extraordinary measures. Unlike the budget extension, which is a hard deadline, the debt ceiling date is an estimate, and the Treasury may have a little breathing room.15–16

Potential Consequences

If the budget appropriations bills — or another continuing resolution — are not passed by December 3, the government will be forced to shut down unfunded operations, except for some essential services. This occurred in fiscal years 2013, 2018, and 2019, with shutdowns lasting 16 days, 3 days, and 35 days, respectively.

Although the consequences of a government shutdown would be serious, the economy has bounced back from previous shutdowns. By contrast, a U.S. government default would be unprecedented and could result in unpaid bills, higher interest rates, and a loss of faith in U.S. Treasury securities that would reverberate throughout the global economy. The Federal Reserve has a contingency plan that might mitigate the effects of a short-term default, but Fed Chair Jerome Powell has emphasized that the Fed could not “shield the financial markets, and the economy, and the American people from the consequences of default.”17

Given the stakes, it is unlikely that Congress will allow the government to default, but the road to raising the debt ceiling is unclear. The temporary measure was passed through a bipartisan agreement to suspend the Senate filibuster rule, which effectively requires 60 votes to move most legislation forward. However, this was a one-time exception and may not be available again. Another possibility may be to attach a provision to the education, healthcare, and climate package slated to move through a complex budget reconciliation process that allows a bill to bypass the Senate filibuster. However, the reconciliation process is time-consuming, and it is not clear whether the debt ceiling would meet parliamentary requirements.18

The budget and the debt ceiling are serious issues, but Congress has always found a way to resolve them in the past. It’s generally wise to maintain a long-term investment strategy based on your goals, time frame, and risk tolerance, rather than overreacting to political conflict and any resulting market volatility.

U.S. Treasury securities are guaranteed by the federal 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, they could be worth more or less than the original amount paid. All investments are subject to market fluctuation, risk, and loss of principal. When sold, investments may be worth more or less than their original cost.

Planning is further complicated by the uncertainty as to what changes, if any, will be made relating to income, estate and gift tax provisions and their effective dates. Individual circumstances will differ. Review your situation and planning to determine what if any actions is required. Pay close attention to your current and expected future tax brackets when you consider the timing of deductions and income.

1, 8) The Washington Post, September 30, 2021

2, 16, 18) Barron’s, October 15, 2021

3) U.S. Office of Management and Budget, 2021

4, 7, 9) Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, June 25, 2021; October 18, 2021

5, 11, 14, 17) The Wall Street Journal, September 28, 2021

6) Peter G. Peterson Foundation, October 1, 2021

10) NPR, September 28, 2021

12, 15) U.S. Treasury, 2021

13) Moody’s Analytics, September 21, 2021

26
Oct

Employer Open Enrollment: Make Benefit Choices That Work for You

Open enrollment is the time when employers may change their benefit offerings for the upcoming plan year. If you’re employed, this is your once-a-year chance to make important decisions that will affect your health-care choices and your finances.

Even if you are satisfied with your current health plan, it may no longer be the most cost-effective option. Before you make any benefit elections, take plenty of time to review the information provided by your employer. You should also consider how your life has changed over the last year and any plans or potential developments for 2022.

Decipher Your Health Plan Options

The details matter when it comes to selecting a suitable health plan. One of your options could be a better fit for you (or your family) and might even help reduce your overall health-care costs. But you will have to look beyond the monthly premiums. Policies with lower premiums tend to have more restrictions or higher out-of-pocket costs (such as copays, coinsurance, and deductibles) when you do seek care for a health issue.

To help you weigh the tradeoffs, here is a comparison of the five main types of health plans. It should also help demystify some of the terminology and acronyms used so often across the health insurance landscape.

Health maintenance organization (HMO). Coverage is limited to care from physicians, other medical providers, and facilities within the HMO network (except in an emergency). You choose a primary-care physician (PCP) who will decide whether to approve or deny any request for a referral to a specialist.

Point of service (POS) plan. Out-of-network care is available, but you will pay more than you would for in-network services. As with an HMO, you must have a referral from a PCP to see a specialist. POS premiums tend to be a little bit higher than HMO premiums.

Exclusive provider organization (EPO). Services are covered only if you use medical providers and facilities in the plan’s network, but you do not need a referral to see a specialist. Premiums are typically higher than an HMO, but lower than a PPO.

Preferred provider organization (PPO). You have the freedom to see any health providers you choose without a referral, but there are financial incentives to seek care from PPO physicians and hospitals (a larger percentage of the cost will be covered by the plan). A PPO usually has a higher premium than an HMO, EPO, or POS plan and often has a deductible.

A deductible is the amount you must pay before insurance payments kick in. Preventive care (such as annual visits and recommended screenings) is typically covered free of charge, regardless of whether the deductible has been met.

High-deductible health plan (HDHP). In return for significantly lower premiums, you’ll pay more out-of-pocket for medical services until you reach the annual deductible. HDHP deductibles start at $1,400 for an individual and $2,800 for family coverage in 2022 and can be much higher. Care will be less expensive if you use providers in the plan’s network, and your upfront cost could be reduced through the insurer’s negotiated rate.

An HDHP is designed to be paired with a health savings account (HSA), to which your employer may contribute funds toward the deductible. You can also elect to contribute to your HSA through pre-tax payroll deductions or make tax-deductible contributions directly to the HSA provider, up to the annual limit ($3,650 for an individual or $7,300 for family coverage in 2022, plus $1,000 for those 55+).

HSA funds, including any earnings if the account has an investment option, can be withdrawn free of federal income tax and penalties if the money is spent on qualified health-care expenses. (Some states do not follow federal tax rules on HSAs.) Unspent balances can be retained in the account indefinitely and used to pay future medical expenses, whether you are enrolled in an HDHP or not. Be sure to save receipts if you decide to delay using the funds in the HAS in the future. Delaying using the funds allow the earnings and growth of the funds invested free of income tax. If you change employers or retire, the funds can be rolled over to a new HSA.

Three Steps to a Sound Decision

Start by adding up your total expenses (premiums, copays, coinsurance, deductibles) under each plan offered by your employer, based on last year’s usage. Your employer’s benefit materials may include an online calculator to help you compare plans by taking factors such as your chronic health conditions and regular medications into account.

If you are married, you may need to coordinate two sets of workplace benefits. Many companies apply a surcharge to encourage a worker’s spouse to use other available coverage, so look at the costs and benefits of having both of you on the same plan versus individual coverage from each employer. If you have children, compare what it would cost to cover them under each spouse’s plan.

Before enrolling in a plan, check to see if your preferred health-care providers are included in the network.

Tame Taxes with a Flexible Spending Account

If you elect to open an employer-provided health and/or dependent-care flexible spending account (FSA), the money you contribute via payroll deduction is not subject to federal income and Social Security taxes (nor generally to state and local income taxes). Using these tax-free dollars to pay for health-care costs not covered by insurance or for dependent-care expenses could save you about 30% or more, depending on your tax bracket.

The federal limit for contributions to a health FSA was $2,750 in 2021 and should be similar for 2022. Some employers set lower limits. (The official limit has not been announced by the IRS). You can use the funds for a broad range of qualified medical, dental, and vision expenses.

With a dependent-care FSA, you can set aside up to $5,000 a year (per household) to cover eligible child-care costs for qualifying children aged 12 or younger. The tax savings could help offset some of the costs paid for a nanny, babysitter, day care, preschool, or day camp, but only if the services are used so you (or a spouse) can work.

One drawback of health and dependent-care FSAs is that they are typically subject to the use-it-or-lose-it rule, which requires you to spend everything in your account by the end of the calendar year or risk losing the money. Some employers allow certain amounts (up to $550) to be carried over to the following plan year or offer a grace period up to 2½ months. Still, you must estimate your expenses in advance, and your predictions could turn out to be way off base.

Legislation passed during the pandemic allows workers to carry over any unused FSA funds from 2021 into 2022, if the employer opts into this temporary change. If you have leftover money in an FSA, you should consider your account balance and your employer’s carryover policies when deciding on your contribution election for 2022.

Take Advantage of Valuable Perks

A change in the tax code enacted at the end of 2020 made it possible for employers to offer student debt assistance as a tax-free employee benefit through 2025, spurring more companies to add it to their menu of benefit options. A 2021 survey found that 17% of employers now offer student debt assistance, and 31% are planning to do so in the future. Many employers target a student debt assistance benefit of $100 per month, which doesn’t sound like much, but it adds up.1 For example, an employee with $31,000 in student loans who is paying them off over 10 years at a 6% interest rate would save about $3,000 in interest and get out of debt 2½ years faster.

Many employers provide access to voluntary benefits such as dental coverage, vision coverage, disability insurance, life insurance, and long-term care insurance. Even if your employer doesn’t contribute toward the premium cost, you may be able to pay premiums conveniently through payroll deduction. Your employer may also offer discounts on health-related products and services, such as fitness equipment or gym memberships, and other wellness incentives, like a monetary reward for completing a health assessment.

1) CNBC, September 28, 2021

12
Oct

Medicare Open Enrollment for 2022 Starts October 15

Medicare beneficiaries can make new choices and pick plans that work best for them during the annual Medicare Open Enrollment Period. Costs and coverage typically change annually. Changes in your healthcare needs over the past year also may have changed. The Open Enrollment Period — which begins on October 15 and runs through December 7 — is your opportunity to switch your current Medicare health and prescription drug plans to ones that better suit your needs.

During this period, you can:

  • 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
  • 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

Any changes made during Open Enrollment are effective as of January 1, 2022.

Review plan options

Now is a good time to review your current Medicare benefits to see if they’re still right for you. Are you 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 healthcare needs or fit 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.

Information on costs and benefits

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has announced that the average monthly premium for Medicare Advantage plans will be $19, and the average monthly premium for Part D prescription drug coverage will be $33. CMS will announce 2022 premiums, deductibles, and coinsurance amounts for the Medicare Part A and Part B programs soon.

You can find more information on Medicare benefits in the Medicare & You 2022 Handbook on medicare.gov.

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