I hope everyone is enjoying spring, which has has been off to a slow start here in New England!
Federal student loans have been in the news quite a lot since the start of the pandemic, with multiple extensions for federal student loan payment, interest, and collections. The latest extension is through August 31, 2022. It is worth nothing that as part of the extension, 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. The article below provides some guidance for borrowers, with actions to consider taking before this September.
Greetings to all,
I hope everyone has been enjoying autumn, as we transition into the holiday season.
This is the time of year when many employers roll out open enrollment, a window of time when employers introduce changes to their benefit offerings for the upcoming plan year. As the article below describes, it is important to review benefit offerings for the upcoming year, while paying particular attention to changes to benefits and costs. This is also a good opportunity to look for potential tax savings.
Greetings to all,
I hope everyone is enjoying summer. It is hard to believe it is mid-August already! It’s not just the weather that has been warm lately – inflation has also been heating up. Rising inflation has been in the news a lot lately, and almost anyone looking for a used car or housing has experienced higher prices. As the article below describes, there are multiple reasons for recent price increases across multiple parts of the economy. Time will tell how temporary, or “transitory”, the current trends are.
|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.
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
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
Understanding spending is important to understanding your overall financial situation, and to effective financial planning. I sometimes say to people that I can crunch numbers all day long, but it won’t be meaningful unless it’s grounded in how you live. When people start to keep track of their spending, there are invariably surprises, and I often hear “I can’t believe I spend so much on x, y, or z”. Understanding provides a basis to make mindful decisions about spending, and coordinating spending priorities with financial goals can help get you on track to meet your goals. Very often, even modest adjustments to spending can make a big difference in achieving financial goals.
I encourage everyone to take a look at the content below, and start taking steps to get on a good financial track for your situation…and to stay on track if you are already headed in the right direction.
Greetings to all, and happy spring! I hope everyone is enjoying the longer and warmer days.
Many of you are likely aware of the recent passage of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act, which provides relief funding to individuals and businesses, as well as to a variety of federal programs, state and local governments and other priorities.
The news headlines about this plan have highlighted key individual relief provisions, such as stimulus checks and extended unemployment assistance. There are many more relief provisions involving housing, health insurance, student loans, child and dependent tax credits, business relief, and others. This month’s edition of Tom’s Tips focuses on key individual relief provisions in the American Rescue Plan – those that are better known, as well as the less well known and understood provisions. I encourage everyone to take a look at the content below and see what provisions may apply to you.
Social Security is an important, and even vital component of retirement income and retirement planning. However, there are many aspects of Social Security that are often not well understood, and even misunderstood. This month’s edition of Tom’s Tips focuses on myths and facts about Social Security, in an effort to increase understanding and facilitate planning.
The start of a year is a good time to review how we manage different aspects of our finances. Saving and investing to meet major financial goals such as retirement are important elements of financial planning. This month’s edition of Tom’s Tips outlines six keys to more successful investing. Focusing on each of these consistently over time can lead to better investment results, and a higher probability of achieving goals. A good approach is to keep it simple; investing doesn’t need to be complicated to be successful.
A successful investor maximizes gain and minimizes loss. Though there can be no guarantee that any investment strategy will be successful and all investing involves risk, including the possible loss of principal, here are six basic principles that may help you invest more successfully.
It’s the “rolling snowball” effect. Put simply, compounding pays you earnings on your reinvested earnings. The longer you leave your money at work for you, the more exciting the numbers get. For example, imagine an investment of $10,000 at an annual rate of return of 8 percent. In 20 years, assuming no withdrawals, your $10,000 investment would grow to $46,610. In 25 years, it would grow to $68,485, a 47 percent gain over the 20-year figure. After 30 years, your account would total $100,627. (Of course, this is a hypothetical example that does not reflect the performance of any specific investment.)
This simple example also assumes that no taxes are paid along the way, so all money stays invested. That would be the case in a tax-deferred individual retirement account or qualified retirement plan. The compounded earnings of deferred tax dollars are the main reason experts recommend fully funding all tax-advantaged retirement accounts and plans available to you.
While you should review your portfolio on a regular basis, the point is that money left alone in an investment offers the potential of a significant return over time. With time on your side, you don’t have to go for investment “home runs” in order to be successful.
Riding out market volatility sounds simple, doesn’t it? But what if you’ve invested $10,000 in the stock market and the price of the stock drops like a stone one day? On paper, you’ve lost a bundle, offsetting the value of compounding you’re trying to achieve. It’s tough to stand pat.
There’s no denying it — the financial marketplace can be volatile. Still, it’s important to remember two things. First, the longer you stay with a diversified portfolio of investments, the more likely you are to reduce your risk and improve your opportunities for gain. Though past performance doesn’t guarantee future results, the long-term direction of the stock market has historically been up. Take your time horizon into account when establishing your investment game plan. For assets you’ll use soon, you may not have the time to wait out the market and should consider investments designed to protect your principal. Conversely, think long-term for goals that are many years away.
Second, during any given period of market or economic turmoil, some asset categories and some individual investments historically have been less volatile than others. Bond price swings, for example, have generally been less dramatic than stock prices. Though diversification alone cannot guarantee a profit or ensure against the possibility of loss, you can minimize your risk somewhat by diversifying your holdings among various classes of assets, as well as different types of assets within each class.
Asset allocation is the process by which you spread your dollars over several categories of investments, usually referred to as asset classes. The three most common asset classes are stocks, bonds, and cash or cash alternatives such as money market funds. You’ll also see the term “asset classes” used to refer to subcategories, such as aggressive growth stocks, long-term growth stocks, international stocks, government bonds (U.S., state, and local), high-quality corporate bonds, low-quality corporate bonds, and tax-free municipal bonds. A basic asset allocation would likely include at least stocks, bonds (or mutual funds of stocks and bonds), and cash or cash alternatives.
There are two main reasons why asset allocation is important. First, the mix of asset classes you own is a large factor — some say the biggest factor by far — in determining your overall investment portfolio performance. In other words, the basic decision about how to divide your money between stocks, bonds, and cash can be more important than your subsequent choice of specific investments.
Second, by dividing your investment dollars among asset classes that do not respond to the same market forces in the same way at the same time, you can help minimize the effects of market volatility while maximizing your chances of return in the long term. Ideally, if your investments in one class are performing poorly, assets in another class may be doing better. Any gains in the latter can help offset the losses in the former and help minimize their overall impact on your portfolio.
In choosing an asset allocation, you’ll need to consider how quickly you might need to convert an investment into cash without loss of principal (your initial investment). Generally speaking, the sooner you’ll need your money, the wiser it is to keep it in investments whose prices remain relatively stable. You want to avoid a situation, for example, where you need to use money quickly that is tied up in an investment whose price is currently down.
Therefore, your investment choices should take into account how soon you’re planning to use your money. If you’ll need the money within the next one to three years, you may want to consider keeping it in a money market fund or other cash alternative whose aim is to protect your initial investment. Your rate of return may be lower than that possible with more volatile investments such as stocks, but you’ll breathe easier knowing that the principal you invested is relatively safe and quickly available, without concern over market conditions on a given day. Conversely, if you have a long time horizon — for example, if you’re investing for a retirement that’s many years away — you may be able to invest a greater percentage of your assets in something that might have more dramatic price changes but that might also have greater potential for long-term growth.
Note: Before investing in a mutual fund, consider its investment objectives, risks, charges, and expenses, all of which are outlined in the prospectus, available from the fund. Consider the information carefully before investing. Remember that an investment in a money market fund is not insured or guaranteed by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporate or any other government agency. Although the fund seeks to preserve the value of your investment at $1 per share, it is possible to lose money by investing in the fund.
Dollar cost averaging is a method of accumulating shares of an investment by purchasing a fixed dollar amount at regularly scheduled intervals over an extended time. When the price is high, your fixed-dollar investment buys less; when prices are low, the same dollar investment will buy more shares. A regular, fixed-dollar investment should result in a lower average price per share than you would get buying a fixed number of shares at each investment interval. A workplace savings plan, such as a 401(k) plan that deducts the same amount from each paycheck and invests it through the plan, is one of the most well-known examples of dollar cost averaging in action.
Remember that, just as with any investment strategy, dollar cost averaging can’t guarantee you a profit or protect you against a loss if the market is declining. To maximize the potential effects of dollar cost averaging, you should also assess your ability to keep investing even when the market is down.
An alternative to dollar cost averaging would be trying to “time the market,” in an effort to predict how the price of the shares will fluctuate in the months ahead so you can make your full investment at the absolute lowest point. However, market timing is generally unprofitable guesswork. The discipline of regular investing is a much more manageable strategy, and it has the added benefit of automating the process.
Unless you plan to rely on luck, your portfolio’s long-term success will depend on periodically reviewing it. Maybe economic conditions have changed the prospects for a particular investment or an entire asset class. Also, your circumstances change over time, and your asset allocation will need to reflect those changes. For example, as you get closer to retirement, you might decide to increase your allocation to less volatile investments, or those that can provide a steady stream of income.
Another reason for periodic portfolio review: your various investments will likely appreciate at different rates, which will alter your asset allocation without any action on your part. For example, if you initially decided on an 80 percent to 20 percent mix of stock investments to bond investments, you might find that after several years the total value of your portfolio has become divided 88 percent to 12 percent (conversely, if stocks haven’t done well, you might have a 70-30 ratio of stocks to bonds in this hypothetical example). You need to review your portfolio periodically to see if you need to return to your original allocation.
To rebalance your portfolio, you would buy more of the asset class that’s lower than desired, possibly using some of the proceeds of the asset class that is now larger than you intended. Or you could retain your existing allocation but shift future investments into an asset class that you want to build up over time. But if you don’t review your holdings periodically, you won’t know whether a change is needed. Many people choose a specific date each year to do an annual review.
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To the extent that this material concerns tax matters, it is not intended or written to be used, and cannot be used, by a taxpayer for the purpose of avoiding penalties that may be imposed by law. Each taxpayer should seek independent advice from a tax professional based on his or her individual circumstances.
These materials are provided for general information and educational purposes based upon publicly available information from sources believed to be reliable — we cannot assure the accuracy or completeness of these materials. The information in these materials may change at any time and without notice.Prepared by Broadridge Advisor Solutions Copyright 2021.
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Greetings and happy holidays to all! It seems hard to believe that a new year, and decade, are almost upon us.
One of the annual rituals this time of year for many is selecting health insurance coverage for the next year, during a period of time referred to as “open enrollment”. As health care costs continue to increase, paying for health care is an increasing concern for many, both before retirement and in retirement. One approach to mitigating high health care costs is to fund a health savings account. HSAs are one of my favorite financial planning tools. As noted in the article below, HSAs offer triple tax benefits that are not available with other savings vehicles, and HSA funds can be used to fund current health expenses, or invested to fund health care costs later in life.
As the article points out, there are some limitations as to who is able to fund an HSA, but if you do qualify, an HSA is well worth considering.
Best wishes to everyone for a holiday season filled with peace and joy, and for an abundant 2020!
In a 2019 Gallup poll, 25% of Americans age 50 to 64, and 23% of those age 65 and older, said health-care costs were their top financial concern.
By one estimate, a 65-year-old couple who retire in 2019 may need about $300,000 in savings to pay their health-care expenses in retirement. This includes premiums for Medicare Parts B and D, supplemental (Medigap) insurance, and median out-of-pocket prescription drug expenses, but not other health expenses such as long-term care, dental care, and eye care.1
Health expenses are rising faster than inflation, and even insured workers are finding it harder to pay their portion from year to year (premiums, copays, coinsurance, and deductibles), much less plan for the future. The stakes are even higher for early retirees (younger than 65) and self-employed individuals who must purchase their own health insurance and bear the entire cost themselves.
A health savings account (HSA) is a tax-advantaged account linked with a high-deductible health plan (HDHP). They work together to help you cover your current health-care costs and also save for your future needs.
HSAs offer several tax benefits to help encourage diligent saving.
Pre-tax contributions can often be made through an employer via payroll deduction, or you can make contributions yourself and take a tax deduction whether you itemize or not. Either way, HSA contributions reduce your adjusted gross income and federal income tax for the current year.
Any interest or investment earnings compound on a tax-deferred basis inside the HSA.
Withdrawals are tax-free if the money is spent on qualified medical expenses. When HSA money is spent on anything other than qualified medical expenses, withdrawals are taxed as ordinary income, and an onerous 20% penalty applies to taxpayers under age 65.
Depending on your state, HSA contributions and earnings may or may not be subject to state taxes.
The maximum HSA contribution limit in 2020 is $3,550 for individual coverage or $7,100 for family coverage. This annual limit applies to all contributions, including those made by you, your family members, or your employer. You can contribute an additional $1,000 starting the year you turn 55. Once you sign up for Medicare, you can no longer contribute to an HSA.
Funds roll over from year to year and are portable, which means they are yours to keep. When HSA balances reach a certain threshold, you can steer the funds into a paired account with investment options similar to those offered in a 401(k). You can make 2019 contributions up to April 15, 2020.
Pros and cons
HDHPs are designed to help control health costs. HSA owners are forced to pay attention to prices, so they may select lower-cost providers and be more likely to avoid unnecessary spending. On the other hand, some people with HDHPs might be reluctant to seek care when they need it, because they don’t want to spend the money in their account. A high deductible can make it difficult to pay for a costly medical procedure, especially if there hasn’t been much time to build up an HSA balance.
To be eligible to establish or contribute to an HSA, you must be enrolled in a qualifying high-deductible health plan — an HDHP with a deductible of at least $1,400 for individuals, $2,800 for families in 2020. Workers who are offered HDHPs (as a choice or their only option) or purchase their own insurance often face much higher deductibles. In 2019, the average deductible for employer-provided HDHPs was $2,486 for individual coverage and $4,779 for family coverage.2
Qualifying HDHPs also have out-of-pocket maximums, above which the insurer pays all costs. In 2020, the upper limit is $6,900 for individual coverage or $13,800 for family coverage, but plans may have lower caps. This feature could help you budget accordingly for a worst-case scenario.
Premiums are typically lower for HDHPs than traditional health plans. Until the deductible is satisfied, members usually pay more up-front for services such as physician visits, surgery, and prescriptions, but typically receive the insurer’s negotiated discounts.
Some preventive care, such as routine physicals and cancer screenings, may be covered without being subject to the deductible. Under new IRS guidance issued in July 2019, the list of preventive care benefits that HDHPs may provide was expanded to include certain medications and treatments for chronic illnesses such as asthma, diabetes, depression, heart disease, and kidney disease. Providing this coverage encourages patients to seek care before problems become more serious and costly.
Another HSA benefit is that account funds not needed for health expenses are available for any other purpose after you reach age 65. Although HSA funds cannot be used to pay regular health plan premiums, they can be used for Medicare premiums and qualified long-term care insurance premiums and services that you may need later in life.
If you can afford to fund your HSA generously while working, some of those dollars could be left untouched to accumulate for many years. You could even pay current medical expenses out of pocket and preserve your HSA assets for use during retirement. But save your receipts in case you have an unexpected cash crunch. You can reimburse yourself for eligible expenses at any time.
Open enrollment is the time of year when employers typically introduce changes to their benefit offerings. If you purchase your own health insurance, you might also be presented with new options for 2020. The bottom line is that choosing and using your health plan carefully could help you save money. If you choose an HDHP, make sure to contribute the premium dollars you are saving to your HSA, and more if you can.
Before you sign up for a specific plan, read the policy information and look closely for any coverage gaps or policy exclusions, consider the extent to which your prescription drugs are covered, estimate your potential out-of-pocket costs based on last year’s usage, and check to see whether your doctors are in the insurer’s network.
1) Employee Benefit Research Institute, 2019
2) Kaiser Family Foundation, 2019