2021 Social Security Tax and Benefit Increases Announced

The Social Security Administration recently announced 2021 increases to both benefits and the taxable wage base for FICA taxes.

Increases Announced for 2021

Workers are facing a 3.7 percent increase in the taxable wage base subject to Social Security taxes, increasing the amount from $137,700 up to $142,800. This means high earners who make as much as or more than the taxable wage base will pay $8,853.60 of the employee withholding portion or $17,707.20 in total for the self-employed – who pay both employee and employer portions of the tax.

Retirees receiving benefits will only garner a 1.3 percent cost-of-living (COLA) raise in 2021, resulting in a raise of $20 per month for the average single beneficiary and $33 per month for the average retired couple. COLA increases for beneficiaries have been low for a long time, with several years seeing zero increases in the past decade or so. You can see the historic trend of COLA increases in the chart below, going back to 1975.

Historical Social Security COLA Increases1
Year Increase Year Increase
2020 1.3% 1997 2.1%
2019 1.6% 1996 2.9%
2018 2.8% 1995 2.6%
2017 2.0% 1994 2.8%
2016 0.3% 1993 2.6%
2015 0.0% 1992 3.0%
2014 1.7% 1991 3.7%
2013 1.5% 1990 5.4%
2012 1.7% 1989 4.7%
2011 3.6% 1988 4.0%
2010 0.0% 1987 4.2%
2009 0.0% 1986 1.3%
2008 5.8% 1985 3.1%
2007 2.3% 1984 3.5%
2006 3.3% 1983 3.5%
2005 4.1% 1982 7.4%
2004 2.7% 1981 11.2%
2003 2.1% 1980 14.3%
2002 1.4% 1979 9.9%
2001 2.6% 1978 6.5%
2000 3.5% 1977 5.9%
1999 2.5% 1976 6.4%
1998 1.3% 1975 8.0%

Medical Expenses Outpacing COLA increases

Low COLA increases are putting pressure on retirees’ finances as medical expenses are rising at a much faster pace, with some believing they are given too little weight in the COLA calculation. Moreover, retirees need to consider Medicare Part B and Part D premiums.

While the official 2021 premiums are not announced yet, there are estimates out there that Part B premiums (covering doctor and outpatient services) will raise $9 per month, or approximately 6.2% percent, from $144.30 to $153.30. These are just average figures, as there are income-related surcharges that apply to both Part B and Part D drug premiums. During 2020, for example, individuals making more than $87k per year and couples filing jointly making over $174k per year began paying higher premiums for Part B and Part D than other recipients, with those at the top of the surcharge paying almost $1,000 per month for Part B premiums alone.

Income Caps on Working Beneficiaries

Finally, there are new earnings limits for workers below full retirement age (age 66 for people born in 1943 through 1954). In 2021, those who are not at full retirement age will lose $1 in Social Security benefits for every $2 they earn over $1,580 a month ($18,960 per year). After reaching one’s full retirement age, there are no earning thresholds that will impact benefits.

Conclusion

The 2021 COLA increase continues the recent trend of coming in low and putting pressure on retirees’ finances, while medical expenses continue to rise at much faster rates. As a result, retirees will see less disposable income from their benefits, while high-earning workers will see continued tax increases that outpace benefit payouts. This puts pressure on all beneficiaries of the system.

1 Starting in 1975, Social Security benefit increases have been based on cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs). Pre-1975, the benefit increases were set by legislation.

How Businesses Can Adapt, Grow During COVID-19

In order to survive – and even thrive – during these unprecedented times, small businesses have had to find new ways to make money. The UPS Store’s Small Biz Buzz survey found that 41 percent of small businesses in the United States took steps to modify their businesses in hopes of survival. Fifteen percent provided customers with curbside delivery options, 28 percent moved to online sales as their primary source of sales, and 65 percent made a concerted effort to grow their e-commerce capabilities.

More than 50 percent of those polled by a U.S. Census Bureau Small Business Pulse Survey said it would be at least half a year before pre-COVID levels of business come back. Looking at overall economic recovery, and we could be waiting five years or more for things to return to where they were before. When it comes to small businesses, it might take even more time; however, businesses that adapt will be more likely to succeed.

In order to increase the chances of the pivot being successful, Harvard Business Review recommends doing so based on the newly created conditions of the crisis. In the case of the pandemic, it’s created more telecommuting, disrupted supply chains, and required everyone to socially distance for work, leisure, and daily tasks. In light of these circumstances, there are three factors for a pivot to be successful.

Social Distancing Opportunities

With the pandemic demanding less contact, chiefly through social distancing, businesses must find ways to work around the new circumstances. One example is how dating websites have added video dating for users. Other examples include grocery stores limiting in-store customers, requiring workers and customers to wear masks, and adding more and wider delivery areas for groceries and other products.

Building on Original Business Concept

The second recommendation by HBR is that businesses examine how additional and different services or products complement the original business concept.

Let’s consider Airbnb; when travel and resulting bookings collapsed, the platform’s hosts received financial assistance that helped facilitate guest relations virtually. In a shift from its non-hotel lodging option via homeowners and apartment dwellers offering their abode for rent, Airbnb moved to provide hosts with the ability to hold online events, such as cooking classes, art therapy, virtual tours, or other activities.

Looking to the future and building on the opportunity for growth, tourists could learn about new places to travel and things to do and learn while visiting the new destination.

Adapting to Change by Adding Value

The final ingredient of a successful pivot, according to HBR, is that the move demonstrates how well a company can adapt, work through problems and adjust to market forces while proving profitable and resonating as a value in the consumer’s view.

Before the lockdown orders, Spotify placed a sizeable portion of its business model on having primarily free customers stream music on personal devices. Spotify would benefit in two ways – they wouldn’t have to send out Spotify-specific devices, along with relying on receiving advertisers’ income that free users would listen to in exchange for a free Spotify membership. However, when the pandemic hit, Spotify’s advertisers cut their marketing budgets, making this business model difficult for Spotify to sustain.

Spotify’s pivot offered podcasts for users from music artists, talk show hosts, celebrities, etc. By offering premium subscriptions for its podcasts, along with curated, niche programming, Spotify gave customers more control and a better value over previous media offerings.

While the pandemic doesn’t necessarily mean a “going out of business sign” for companies, it could spell the end of the road for those that don’t adapt to the new economy.

Sources

https://www.uschamber.com/co/start/strategy/metlife-us-chamber-small-business-index-covid-19

https://hbr.org/2020/07/how-businesses-have-successfully-pivoted-during-the-pandemic

https://www.uschamber.com/co/start/strategy/pivoting-your-business-to-survive-pandemic

How Will the Biden Administration Influence the Federal Reserve?

With the nation on the precipice of a transition of administrations on Jan. 20, 2021, there will need to be many roles filled both in and out of the White House. With the potential for Janet Yellen to replace Steven Mnuchin as the next treasury secretary, there is much speculation about how the Federal Reserve will be shaped by the Biden administration.

Predicting Changes to the Federal Reserve

When 2022 arrives, Chair of the Federal Reserve Jerome Powell’s term will expire. While presidents have historically given another term to first-term chairs who were appointed by the outgoing administration, there is no indication that Powell will stay on for another year. President Trump deviated from this norm when he appointed Powell to replace then-Chair Janet Yellen. Originally appointed by Obama to the Fed in 2012, Powell was first a Fed governor and a Republican politically.

First Vice Chair Richard Clarida’s term expires in January 2022. Vice-Chair of Banking Supervision Randal Quarles’ term expires in October 2021. Both vice-chairs are expected to be replaced when their terms are up.  

With two Fed board seats still unfilled, and if the Biden administration nominates Fed Governor Lael Brainard to become the next Treasury Secretary, it would create a third Fed board seat opening. Brainard is favored as a strong candidate because many economic experts see a need for the Fed and the U.S. Treasury to work together closely.    

While President Trump attempted to fill one of the empty Fed seats with Judy Shelton, on Nov. 17, the U.S. Senate declined her nomination to sit on the Federal Reserve Board of Governors; Christopher Waller still could be confirmed during the Senate’s post-election session. Assuming he doesn’t get confirmed before Congress adjourns and 2020 closes, the nomination will expire.

What’s Not Expected to Change

When it comes down to how the Fed handles monetary policy, chances are things won’t change much from the current status quo. Since the U.S. economy is still in a malaise due to the harmful effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Fed has made a crystal-clear statement that interest rates will remain at “near zero” for the next 36 months, at a minimum.

In August 2020, the Fed announced that it’s recommitting itself to maintain existing rates as the economy emerges from the downturn for a longer period of time, compared to past Federal Reserve efforts to spur economic growth. Then on Nov. 5, the Federal Reserve’s FOMC Statement reinforced that the federal funds rates will stay at 0 percent to ¼ percent, as long as economic growth is threatened.

Promoting Diversity

Part of the Democrats’ legislative agenda is for the Fed to take action to reduce racial inequality. The objective is for this to become part of the Fed’s existing mandate, which currently includes price stability and maximum employment. If President Biden endorses this legislation, it would likely have an even greater impact on the Fed.

Another thing to consider is that Biden is expected to appoint more minorities to the FOMC, which, with the exception of Janet Yellen serving a four-year term, has been all white men.

Many at the Fed already recognize the importance of including all Americans in opportunities to benefit from a robust economy. During August 2020, the Fed announced that it is taking its time boosting interest rates, in contrast to how it handled past economic challenges, in order to produce an economy that favors job seekers, especially minorities.

Chairman Jerome Powell explained to the media that the Fed is ready and able to implement its financial instruments to prop up the economy and ensure that the country’s emergence from COVID-19 will be assisted. Powell has called on Congress to pass more stimulus, especially to help those who lost jobs from the pandemic.

Depending on who is selected and confirmed as treasury secretary, there could be a renewed hope for recently discontinued stimulus programs, some in conjunction with the Fed. In a letter dated Nov. 19, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin indicated to Jerome Powell the following Federal Reserve programs that will cease functioning on Dec. 31, 2020:

  • Program 1: Primary Market Corporate Credit Facility (PMCCF)
  • Program 2: Secondary Market Corporate Credit Facility (SMCCF)
  • Program 3: Municipal Liquidity Facility (MLF)
  • Program 4: Main Street Lending Program (MSLP)
  • Program 5: Term Asset-Back Securities Loan Facility (TALF)

Funded via Congress’ CARES Act, these programs give the Fed the power to loan as much as $4.5 trillion to markets.

Naturally, this move is currently opposed by the Fed because it takes away additional tools that can be deployed to support the economy and its underlying financial systems. Treasury Secretary Mnuchin’s actions will return $429 billion from the Fed to Congress to be re-appropriated.

One program that will be lost is the MSLP, which was recently modified to give loans as small as $100,000 per applicant. With no more access by year-end, this will likely impact smaller businesses.

It is noteworthy that the following programs were extended for an additional 90 days after Dec. 31, 2020. These include Commercial Paper Funding Facility (CPFF), Market Mutual Fund Liquidity Facility (MMLF), Primary Dealer Credit Facility (PDCF), and Paycheck Protection Program Liquidity Facility (PPPLF), used to shore-up money market liquidity. Though, depending on who is the treasury secretary in 2021, there might be a reconsideration of any or all of these programs. 

Last Minute Financial Moves for Year’s End

There are certain year-end financial transactions that must clear by Dec. 31 to be reported on the 2020 tax return. It’s important to take a good look at your financial portfolio in light of the plethora of unusual events that occurred this year. Now is a good time to see if you have fallen off track and reposition your portfolio for better opportunities in 2021.

Investment Portfolio

Despite the dramatic stock market drop that accompanied the outbreak of COVID-19 on our shores, markets have recovered remarkably well. This means the traditional strategy of harvesting gains and losses at year-end could be appropriate for many investors. When your capital losses are more than your capital gains for the year, you can claim up to $3,000 to reduce your taxable income and even carry over remainder losses on next year’s tax return.

Harvesting is also a good way to rebalance your asset allocation strategy, so you are well-positioned to meet long-term goals starting in the New Year. If you are interested in selling winners and losers to mitigate your 2020 tax liability, make sure, these transactions are fully completed by Dec. 31.

Tip: Some investors might be tempted to sell shares for a loss and then buy back into that position. However, take pains to avoid running afoul of the “wash rule,” which is when an investor purchases a “substantially identical” security within 30 days of a loss sale. Doing so diminishes the losses you can claim on your taxes, even if you buy it back in January. This also can occur inadvertently through automatic dividend and capital gains reinvestment purchases – so monitor your holdings and make sure there’s a 30-day lag between sale and reinvestment.

Retirement Accounts

For workers who invest in an employer-sponsored 401(k) plan, you have until the end of the year to defer up to $19,500 ($26,000 if you’re age 50 or older) from your paycheck. If you’d like to stash away more money, the combined annual limit for traditional and Roth IRAs is $6,000 ($7,000 for age 50+) for 2020. Note, however, that contributions for these accounts may continue to be made up until you file your 2020 tax return.

Tip: Given the potential for higher taxes under the new administration, it might be wise to max out after-tax Roth IRA contributions while taxes are low. When taxes are higher, traditional IRAs and 401(k)s tend to be more valuable because tax-deferred contributions help reduce current income. You also might want to convert a portion of traditional IRA funds to a Roth this year to take advantage of the lower tax environment. Convert only a strategic portion to avoid tipping your current income into a higher tax bracket.

Retirement Plan Withdrawals

You have only until year-end to withdraw up to $100,000 without penalty from a retirement plan if you have been directly affected by COVID-19 this year. Note, too, that subsequent income taxes on this withdrawal either can be spread out over a three-year period or avoided entirely if you re-contribute the funds over the next three years.

Tip: Legislation passed early in the year permits retirees to skip taking required minimum distributions in 2020. However, because the stock market has recovered nicely, and in light of higher taxes in the future, it might be a good idea to go ahead and take this distribution before year-end.

Education Savings Accounts

If your college student received a tuition refund this year because the class experience moved online, be aware that any refunds of College Savings 529 plans must be deposited back into that account. Otherwise, that money is considered a distribution for non-qualified expenses. Make that deposit back into the 529 account by year-end to avoid any taxes or penalties.

Tip: Parents and grandparents can reduce their estates by making a year-end gift to a student’s 529 plan. You may gift up to $15,000 ($30,000 for married couples) per beneficiary without incurring gift taxes or affecting your lifetime gift tax exemption ($11.58 million).

COVID-19 Vaccine Rollout: Where We Are So Far

While the pandemic is not over, we do have some good news. There are vaccines and they will be available soon. Here’s where we are in terms of an overall plan and where states are with distributing the vaccines.

Operation Warp Speed

The current administration has already purchased hundreds of millions of doses of several vaccine candidates. Two of them are from Moderna and Pfizer and they’ve shown significant efficacy in Phase 3 clinical trials. The incoming Biden administration will take on distribution and has established a COVID-19 Task Force. A limited number of doses may become available as early as December.

The Interim Playbook

This document from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is the roadmap for state, territorial, tribal, and local public health programs and their partners. It focuses on how to plan and operationalize a vaccine response to the pandemic within their jurisdictions. It’s quite comprehensive and is a good reference for the coming months.

Phased Approach

In the Interim Playbook, the CDC has given states a set of planning assumptions by which they can develop their distribution plans and explains how the vaccine will likely be administered in phases.

  • Phase 1 – there is an initial limited supply of vaccine doses that will be prioritized for certain groups. The distribution will be more tightly controlled and a limited number of providers will be administering the vaccine.
  • Phase 2 – supply would increase and access will be expanded to include a broader set of the population, with more providers involved.
  • Phase 3 – there would likely be sufficient supply to meet demand and distribution would be integrated into routine vaccination programs.

Common Themes and Concerns from State Plans

The Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), a non-profit organization focusing on national health issues, sought to collect plans from all 50 states and DC. As of Nov. 13, they’ve reviewed 47 of these plans and have singled out key areas contained within each plan.

  • Identifying priority populations for vaccination. Each state will determine who will be first in line, initially; however, every plan highlights the following categories as being the priority during Phase 1: healthcare workers, essential workers, and those at high risk (older people and those with pre-disposing health risk factors). A majority of states (25 of 47, or 53 percent) have at least one mention of incorporating racial and/or ethnic minorities or health equity considerations in their targeting of priority populations. 
  • Identifying the network of providers in their state will be responsible for administering vaccines. Even though states are at different points in the process, providers will likely include hospitals and doctors’ offices, pharmacies, health departments, federally qualified health centers, and other clinics that play a role in administering vaccines today. Given the need to quickly vaccinate most residents, additional partners will be needed, such as long-term care facilities, and will (potentially) set up public locations like schools and community centers for mass vaccinations.
  • Developing the data collection and reporting systems needed to track the vaccine distribution progress. Many states are relying on (and often expanding) existing state-level immunization registries, while other states are developing new systems or using those provided by the federal government. To sum it up, each state is at a different stage in this process.
  • Laying out a communications strategy for the period before and during vaccination. The CDC has asked states to design plans that anticipate and respond to different populations and include the need to address misinformation and vaccine hesitancy. Not surprisingly, some of these states’ plans are detailed while some are not.

All of these things are high-level summations of what is planned so far. For a more detailed explanation, check out the Interim Playbook from the CDC. The COVID-19 situation is ever-changing, but the most important takeaway is that steps are being put in place to help protect us all. Stay safe.

Sources

States Are Getting Ready to Distribute COVID-19 Vaccines. What Do Their Plans Tell Us So Far?

https://www.newsweek.com/fauci-optimistic-about-covid-19-vaccine-says-high-risk-could-get-it-december-1546384

https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/imz-managers/downloads/COVID-19-Vaccination-Program-Interim_Playbook.pdf

Will StarLink be the Next Disruption to the Telecommunication Industry?

With every new project comes expectations, uncertainties, questions, opposition, and more. Elon Musk’s StarLink internet is one such project.

Just last month, on Nov. 24, SpaceX launched 60 StarLink internet satellites – making a total of more than 900 of its flat-panel satellites already on low earth orbit (LEO). This also marked the company’s 23rd space launch since the start of 2020.

But just what is StarLink; why is it a big deal; and will it replace existing internet infrastructure?

Follow along for information already in the public domain that will help answer some of these questions.

What is StarLink?

StarLink is an initiative by SpaceX that aims to provide internet from space. Its goal is to do this through a low earth constellation of micro-satellites that promise high speed and low latency internet access to all parts of the world. What this means is that you can access fast internet from any corner of the world, whether in the forest, in the middle of the ocean, or anywhere else.

How Does StarLink Internet Work?

First, a little history. Product development started in 2015, and by February 2018, two prototype test flights were launched. In May 2019, the first large deployment made up of 60 operational satellites was launched. Since then, it has been a continuous process to send more satellites into space. SpaceX intends to have launched 12,000 satellites by 2028, with an ambitious target of 1,440 per year.

So how does StarLink internet work? Unlike other satellites that are placed in higher earth orbits, StarLink satellites are placed in low earth orbits. The high-placed satellites have to travel long distances, which leads to high latency – and this is what SpaceX intends to solve.

Will StarLink Replace ISPs?

Currently, service providers like Verizon and AT&T are already spending millions to reinforce their fiber infrastructure reach to cover more ground. In addition, 5G is already available in many areas and promises superior reliability, negligible latency, and high speeds. Yet more StarLink satellites are being sent to space.

In fact, if the project is successful, there will be a constellation of satellites surrounding the earth as Musk plans to have an additional 30,000 added to the initial approved 12,000 (although this doesn’t go well with astronomers, who have raised concerns that this will ruin the night sky).

So, will StarLink replace other ISPs? There is no telling the long-term plan that SpaceX has, but one thing that Musk has given an assurance on is that he intends to serve only remote areas and mobile applications, such as in planes, trains, and ships.

If we were to compare StarLink and 5G, you would find that they do have different characteristics. However, it would cost a lot more for 5G to cover large areas, while StarLink would be able to cover most of the world if all satellites are placed correctly. Nevertheless, the two may work together. For example, in situations where there is no internet connection, StarLink could provide internet backhaul to 5G remote towers.

If you are in a densely populated city, you will still need your ISP. According to Musk, StarLink can’t work in cities with dense populations due to bandwidth limitations.

When Will StarLink be Available to the Public?

On Oct. 26, 2020, a public beta test was launched in select areas in the northern United States and Canada. StarLink internet is expected to be available in more regions in 2021.

One of the few instances of when StarLink has publicly been reported on is by Washington emergency responders in early August when the organization offered the internet to areas devastated by wildfires. Following an interview with CNBC, emergency telecommunications leader Richard Hall praised StarLink as being quick to set up and reliable.

As we wait for the internet to go public, one sure thing is that there are a lot of interested people. In March 2020, SpaceX got a license for up to one million user terminals from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). By August, there were already more than 700,000 people registering interest across the United States, and so the company asked for expansion for up to 5 million user terminals.

Final Thoughts

As already pointed out, the StarLink internet might not initially disrupt the monopoly of the telecom sector. Instead, it could be a beneficial project and even complement the telcos.

Keeping in mind that the internet has played a great role in improving economic opportunities and easing communication, StarLink could be the bridge to help solve the digital divide by providing internet to remote areas.

A Flush of Protections for Veterans and Native Americans

Veterans’ Compensation Cost-of-Living Adjustment Act of 2020 (HR 6168) – Introduced by Rep. Elaine Luria (D-VA) on March 10, this bill increases Vet compensation benefits by 1.3 percent (the same as for Social Security recipients). The increase impacts veteran disability compensation, compensation for dependents, the clothing allowance for certain disabled veterans, and dependency and indemnity compensation for surviving spouses and children. This bill passed in the House in May and the Senate in September, and was signed into law by the president on Oct. 20.

Veterans’ Care Quality Transparency Act (HR 2372) – Designed to improve mental health care for veterans and reduce suicide rates, this bill was introduced by Rep. Lauren Underwood (D-IL) on April 25, 2019. It requires the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to report on all arrangements between the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and non-VA organizations related to suicide prevention and mental health services. The bill passed in the House in May, the Senate in September, and was enacted on Oct. 20.

Improving Safety and Security for Veterans Act of 2019 (S 3147) – This Act was introduced by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) on Dec. 19, 2019. The bill passed in the Senate in December 2019, the House in November, and is waiting to be signed by the president. Following the investigation of events that ended in tragic veteran deaths in 2017 and 2018, this legislation aims to increase VA health center accountability. Specifically, it requires the Department of Veterans Affairs to submit reports to Congress detailing VA policies and procedures relating to patient safety and quality of care. The first report is due within 30 days after the bill is written into law.

Whole Veteran Act (HR 2359) – This bill was introduced by Rep. Connor Lamb (D-PA) on April 25, 2019. The purpose of this legislation is to expand VA Health efforts to deploy a holistic model of care that focuses on patient engagement and total health. It includes integrating non-drug approaches, such as hypnosis and acupuncture, with standard medical treatment. The bill passed in the House in May, the Senate in October, and was signed into law by the president on Oct. 30.

Vet Center Eligibility Expansion Act (HR 1812) – This legislation extends readjustment counseling and related mental health services to non-combat veterans. These benefits are now available to National Guard and Reserve troops whose service includes fighting national disasters and other emergency and crisis situations. Introduced by Rep. Phil Roe (R-TN) on March 18, 2019, this bill passed in the House in May, the Senate in September, and was signed by the president on Oct. 20.

A bill to nullify the Supplemental Treaty Between the United States of America and the Confederated Tribes and Bands of Indians of Middle Oregon, concluded on Nov. 15, 1865 (S 832) – This bill nullifies the supplemental treaty between the United States and this particular tribe in Middle Oregon, which was signed in 1865. The treaty restricted the tribe members from leaving the reservation, among other conditions. The Department of the Interior has stated that the treaty was never enforced by the federal government or Oregon. The legislation was introduced by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) on March 19, 2019, passed in both Houses, and signed into law on Oct. 20.

Native American Business Incubators Program Act (S 294) – This bill establishes a grant program to provide business incubation and other business services to Native American entrepreneurs and businesses. It was introduced by Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) on Jan. 31, 2019, passed in both Houses, and signed by the president on Oct. 20.

Our Top 6 Year-End Tax Planning Tips

This has been a year of economic and tax uncertainty with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, potential stimulus bills and the presidential election. As a result, tax planning may be more important than usual this year. To help guide you, we will cover six year-end tax planning strategies – three for individuals and three for businesses.

Individual Year-End Tax Planning Tips and Strategies

1. Take advantage of above-the-line charitable deductions.

Unlike previous years, where taxpayers needed to itemize their deductions in order to see any tax benefit from charitable deductions, everyone can benefit on their 2020 tax return. The CARES Act created an above-the-line charitable deduction for taxpayers who don’t itemize. In order to benefit from the $300 cash contributions deduction, make sure to donate before the end of the year if you haven’t already.

2. Stimulus Check Impact

The CARES Act also created the stimulus payments of up to $1,200 per taxpayer and $500 per qualified dependent child. While the initial round of stimulus checks was based on 2018 or 2019 tax return filing information, these stimulus payments are technically pre-paid 2020 tax credits. As a result, your 2020 tax return will calculate the credit due based on your income level, and there’s nothing but good news here. If your 2020 return shows you should receive an additional credit, you can claim it on your return. But if your return shows a credit less than a stimulus check you’ve already received, there is no claw back.

3. Investment With Opportunity Zones

Congress created powerful incentives for investing in very specific geographic regions by creating special tax treatment for “opportunity zones.” Investments in opportunity zones offer taxpayers the potential to defer tax on gains until as late as 2026. Moreover, there is the potential to recognize only 90 percent of gains on investments held for at least five years; and no tax on those held for 10 years (there are other rules, but they are out of the scope of this article). As a result, investments in opportunity zones can provide tax-free potential and protect against future tax law changes.

Business Year-End Tax Planning Tips and Strategies

1. Accelerate AMT Refunds

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act repealed the corporate Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) and let companies claim all of their unused AMT credits in any taxable year beginning after 2017 but before 2022. The CARES Act accelerated the refund timeline, letting companies claim all their unused credits in either 2018 or 2019. For many, the most effective way to take advantage of this is to file a tentative refund claim on Form 1139, which must be done by Dec. 31, 2020.

2. Use Current Losses for Quick Refunds

The CARES Act brought back a tax provision that allows businesses to take current losses and offset them against income from prior years and receive refunds now. Net operating losses (NOLs) that are the result of 2018, 2019 and 2020 business activity can be carried five years back to claim refunds against taxes paid.

Careful consideration should be given to the strategy for claiming these NOL carry-backs because, depending on the type of business entity, your tax rate may have been higher in some of the five available years versus others. Make sure to leverage any tax rate arbitrage to maximize your benefit.

3. Payroll Tax Deduction Timing

Another provision of the CARES Act gives employers the option to postpone payment of their portion of Social Security taxes until the end of 2020. The deferred amounts are due half by the end of 2021 and 2022. This may be great from a liquidity perspective; however, depending on your businesses accounting, this could also mean a deferral of the deductibility of this expense as well. You should weigh the liquidity benefits of the deferral versus the value of a current year deduction – especially considering the accelerated NOL provisions discussed above.

Conclusion

These are just a few of the potential year-end tax planning strategies you can employ before the end of 2020. Make sure to consider these and speak with your tax advisor to see what makes the most sense for your situation.

How to Effectively On-board & Train Employees Virtually

With COVID-19 still requiring remote working, companies that effectively on-board new workers retain their workers longer, have better worker performance and increase their profits by almost 100 percent, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. However, there are many considerations that companies should take during this important process.

For remote orientations, a welcome package that discusses the company’s products or services can be emailed to attendees prior to the live introduction. It’s also imperative that essential employees for the new hires (training and supervisors, for example) and existing employees who they will be working with are on the virtual meeting for introductions.  

Other considerations include maintaining a sense of professionalism. If a company has a dress code, training managers should serve as an example by dressing appropriately and communicating the requirement to new hires. This also can apply to the physical background of remote workers – having a professional-looking environment with muted colors.

Equip Workers With Varied Communication Tools

While almost everyone uses email to communicate, Harvard Business Review (HBR) suggests that email should not be the sole method of communication for remote workers. Along with team communication platforms, video conferencing benefits workers because communicating with body language helps normalize the remote work experience. Video conferencing with recording capabilities also can be used for online training so that employees may access this resource at their own convenience.

Managing Virtual Communication

Regardless of how virtual employees communicate, there needs to be some structure to find the right balance for efficiency. Examples could include using instant messages for urgent but simple communication needs. When it comes to video conferencing, consider touching base for 10 to 15 minutes once a day for a check-in or feedback session. Determining communication frequency depends on when workers work (different time zones, staggered shifts, etc.) and what’s effective for managers and employees.

Schedule a check-in phone call – either once a day or perhaps once in the morning and once in the late afternoon. It can be modified depending on the individual or the type of worker, be it a call with a single employee or an entire group if they are used to working together.

HBR says that workers are heavily influenced on how to deal with abrupt changes or crises based on their leaders’ actions. Whether a manager is calm and collected or anxious and not in control, those they are supervising will act similarly. Regardless of the situation, managers who empathize with feelings of uncertainty and give verbal encouragement will impart a sense of confidence to the entire team.

Regardless of how social a person is during office hours, the lack of morning greetings, break room conversations, water cooler chat and saying goodbye when leaving the office reinforces the isolation of working remotely – and that can affect anyone.

Therefore, weaving in time for employees to build rapport is also recommended by HBR. Whether it’s going around virtually to ask how everyone’s weekend was, or having the company deliver a meal to remote workers for a virtual office party, it’s been reported that these types of activities relieve feelings of isolation and garner goodwill with the company.

Businesses that take the appropriate steps to build and develop a balanced remote workforce can survive and thrive, but only by adapting to the very different demands of working virtually.

Sources

https://www.uschamber.com/co/run/human-resources/onboard-employees-during-covid-19

https://hbr.org/2020/03/a-guide-to-managing-your-newly-remote-workers  

How Would a Second Stimulus Check Impact Markets?

The $1,200 stimulus check sent out to individuals had mixed impacts on our economy, based on academic research, including by the University of California-Davis. For recipients with $3,000 or more in their bank accounts, there was no positive impact on the economy. However, for recipients with bank account balances up to $500, they spent 44.5 percent of their check, on average, within 10 days of receiving the stimulus check.

The first stimulus check was part of the CARES Act, which guided how the checks were issued:

The IRS began with those who filed 2018 and/or 2019 taxes, and looked at their adjusted gross income (AGI) as a starting point.

  • For “eligible individuals,” they received a full $1,200 check if they earned up to $75,000. If they earned between $75,000 and $99,000, the payment would be reduced by $1 for every $20 earned beyond $75,000. If they earned $99,000 or more, they would not be eligible for a stimulus check.
  • For “head of household filers,” they would get a $1,200 check for earnings up to $112,500. For earnings up to $136,500, the payment would be reduced by $1 for every additional $20 earned. If they earned $136,500 or more, they would not be eligible for a stimulus check.
  • For “married couples filing joint returns,” they would get a $1,200 check for earnings up to $150,000. For earnings up to $198,000, the payment would be reduced by $1 for every additional $20 earned. If they earned $198,000 or more, they would not be eligible for a stimulus check.

Depending on the filer, if they had a qualifying child 16 years or younger who they claimed on their tax return, each child could qualify for $500 in additional stimulus funds.

While the language is still subject to change because there’s no legislation passed and signed into law, uncertainty still exists regarding proposals for a second stimulus check/plan.

One proposal includes increasing the payments for dependents to $1,000 from $500. Another proposal includes casting a wider net for dependents – college students and/or older parents who reside in the same household, giving $500 for this category.

A September report by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) shows how consumers across the income distribution levels handled their stimulus checks.  

The NBER study found that once a stimulus payment was received, the typical individual spent $250 per day, compared to $90 a day before stimulus checks were available to recipients. Within 10 days, more than 20 percent of each dollar was spent. However, the report found different activity depending on the respondent’s income level and job security.

The study found that for recipients with checking accounts with more than a $4,000 balance, only 11 cents of stimulus money was spent in the month following receipt of their check. Looking a month out from when a stimulus check was received, those who had more assets were far less likely to spend their check quickly. However, for respondents with bank account balances of less than $100, more than 40 percent of their stimulus check was spent within one month.

These consumer expenditures offer a good indicator of how spending from another stimulus check would impact the economy. As the U.S. Department of Labor and U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show for 2019, there are different spending trends for each quintile or income strata (20 percent per quintile) for different income levels.

During 2019, each quintile increased, with the bottom quintile’s income growing by 6.6 percent, compared to the top quintile’s income growing by 6.7 percent. Quintiles two through four saw increases of income between 3.2 percent and 4.9 percent.

For reference, the 2019 “lower income bounds” are as follows:

  • Second quintile: $22,488
  • Third quintile: $43,432
  • Fourth quintile: $72,234
  • Fifth quintile: $120,729

“Average annual expenditures” for 2019 were $63,036 for “all consumer units,” or 3 percent more than 2018. A consumer unit is defined as either a family, an individual living on his or her own, and/or sharing costs with others or maintaining a residence with other individuals, but retaining the financial means to take care of themselves.

During 2019, while every quintile increased spending, the bottom quintile spent 8.6 percent more, versus the second quintile increasing their spending by 1.3 percent. All quintiles saw growth in spending for food at home, housing, transportation and cash contributions. Except for the second quintile, healthcare expenditures increased. For the food away from home category, the first, third and fifth quintiles increased spending. For apparel and services, the first, third and fourth quintiles saw increased spending.

Based on analysis conducted after stimulus checks were issued to individuals and families, sending out an additional stimulus check to those in the lower to mid-quintiles, along with promoting job growth and a strengthening job market, looks like the best way to help the economy recover.