@theMarket: Virus Numbers Help Stocks
Stocks rose this week on the hope that the U.S. may be close to a peak in virus cases, at least in the country's "hot spots." Adding to the reduced case count, the government's efforts to support the economy and the market have had a positive impact on most financial instruments.
Some strategists have warned that the market's gains will prove to be ephemeral, once the fallout from this pandemic begins to seep into the economic data. Some of that data is already showing up. For example, Thursday's unemployment data revealed that another 6.6 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits this week. That brings the total close to 20 million people in three weeks. That is a historical pace of losses. Yet, the stock market gained on the news.
One reason the market went up (instead of down as many expected), was yet another stimulus program announced by the Federal Reserve Bank almost simultaneously. The Fed committed an additional $2.3 trillion to support the new Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES) Act, called the Payroll Protection Program and the Economic Injury and Disaster Loan Program. There was some concern by banks that loans to all these small-business owners might be a risky proposition, especially in the time frame that the government was demanding.
Stepping up to the plate to support these loans, the Fed has come in at just the right time to ensure the success of the government's fiscal stimulus effort. There is no telling what else the central bank may be willing to do. As it stands, Fed Chairman Jerome Powell said this week that "there's no limit on how much we can do as long as it meets the test under the law."
The only thing they can't do, I suspect, is buy equities out right. Of course, the U.S. Treasury could do so, and the Fed could fund the purchases. Given that kind of power, is it any wonder stocks skyrocketed again this week? It is for these reasons that I have cautioned readers not to sell. In this era of corporate socialism, even financial markets are fair game. The government's control of the economy and financial markets has never been this vast and far-reaching.
In addition to these events, there are also plans by the Trump administration to get people back to work as early as May. The success of this plan is largely dependent on the ability to test Americans for the COVI-19 virus. That is nowhere near possible today, but the hope is that it will be soon.
The White House plan would be for a gradual reopening of the economy, starting with those areas and cities that have low or non-existent cases of the virus. The risk here is that the effort might backfire. The transmission rate could reignite, for example, giving a second life to the spread of the virus.
As we enter this three-day holiday, readers should expect that after a 28 percent rebound in the S&P 500 Index from its lows on March 23, a period of profit-taking could be in order. We have reached an important technical level at 2,790. If we can hold above it, we might have a chance to close in on 2,900, however, the odds are not in our favor.
As we enter Passover, I find some similarity between those in Egypt and our own plight today. It may have been the blood of the lamb brushed above the door, or the mask and gloves we wear today, but I am sure the feelings are the same. I will take this time to hope and pray that this modern-day plague will pass over your homes and the loved ones who dwell within it. And for all the Christians and Easter Bunny believers out there, have a Happy Easter!
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The Independent Investor: Small-Business Owners Run Into Red Tape
The $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act has two programs that can help America's business owners to weather the COVID-19 storm.
The $349 billion, first-come, first-served loan programs have seen an overwhelming response from troubled small-business owners nationwide. The job is to get the money into their hands quickly.
The challenge will be to remove or amend a mountain of regulatory requirements that the Small Business Administration and the financial sector have had in place for decades. Adding to the confusion are the owners themselves, who are either not aware that there are actually two loan programs or aren't sure which to apply for.
The Economic Injury and Disaster Loan (EIDL) offers owners up to $2 million for working capital needs like fixed debt and payroll. The interest rate is 3.75 percent (1 percent less, if you are a non-profit) and the term of the loan can be up to 30 years.
There is an automatic one-year deferment of repayment. That means the first payment is not due for 12 months, although interest starts on the date of disbursement.
If you apply for the EIDL you can also apply for a up to $10,000 advance for working capital at the same time. This entire application can be done online and no additional documentation, like tax returns or personal financial statements, are required. The SBA claims that the $10,000 grant (which does not have to be repaid) will be on its way within three days after the application is filed.
The second loan program is called the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). This loan can amount to as much as $10 million or 2.5 times the average monthly payroll costs of the company's previous year. The proceeds can be used for payroll costs, health insurance, salaries/commissions, rent and mortgage interest, utilities and other business interest incurred after Feb. 15, 2020.
In order to receive this loan, you need to apply through an SBA-certified lender beginning on April 3. This process can take several weeks. This loan, which may be partially forgivable, must be applied for by the end of June 2020.
The greatest potential benefit of the PPP loan is that the amount of the loan eligible to be forgiven is the amount you spend during the first eight weeks of the loan on group health insurance premiums and other health-care costs, payroll costs, rent (pursuant to a lease in force before Feb. 15, 2020), and utilities such as electricity, gas, water, transportation, telephone or internet access expenses for services. These expenses must have been in place before Feb. 15 of this year.
If it sounds too good to be true — wait — because there is a catch. In order for the amount to be forgiven, the company must maintain the same number of employees during a certain time period, for example, from Jan. 1, 2020, to Feb. 29, 2020. There are further stipulations involved, so be sure to read the guidelines of the PPP loan.
You can apply for both loans, but you cannot use the proceeds for the same expenses. Further, the up to $10,000 grant (EIDL) gets deducted from the forgivable portion of the PPP loan.
The potential demand for these loans by the roughly 30 million small businesses in this country could swamp the program. The government recognizes this and promises to replenish the well once it has gone dry. Congress is now working on another $250 billion bill to supplant the existing programs. But in the meantime, there appear to be all sorts of hurdles from the simple intake and processing side to questions of risk and security.
Banks, for example, are worried about the creditworthiness of these new customers. Loan officers like to lend to those they know, companies with a credit history with their department.
As such, from the bank's point of view, it would only make sense to grant those existing small-business customers priority in the loan processing. But that's not the program's intent.
And then there is the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN). Money laundering has long been a challenge. FinCEN has charged the nation's banks to develop and uphold an exacting process, which involves stringent background checks of every new client ever since the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.
These know-thy-customer regulations, together with the processing time and credit checks, could mean months before approval is granted. Of course, that flies in the face of the congressional intent of the bill, which is get the money in the hands of small businesses immediately.
This week, the Federal Reserve Bank added its weight to backstop the programs. They have committed an additional $2.3 trillion to buy up these CARES loans like PPP and EIDL, as well as other fixed income financial securities.
Hopefully, between the Fed's actions, pressure from lawmakers, and the business public, the SBA and the banks that elect to provide loans, will work out the kinks. We are all counting on them to deliver. I think they will.
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@theMarket: Don't Trade This Market
Markets that go up or down several percentage points a day is the new norm. As COVID-19 begins to infect the U.S. heartland, more and more of the country is shutting down. Deaths and cases have still not peaked, so why should we expect the stock market to have bottomed out?
The financial media, I believe, is providing investors a great disservice. Every day, some analyst, money manager, or company executive is either trying to pick a bottom, or telling you the bottom is already in, or arguing that it may be weeks or months away. Ignore them.
My column is not about giving you false hope, or doom-and-gloom warnings. It is about the fact that the stock market is simply "un-investible," right now. I haven't used that term for more than a decade (since the financial crisis of a decade ago), but it is as true today as it was then.
It is a time when events move too quickly for investors to even guess at the financial and economic implications of each news item. Facts are difficult, if not impossible, to ascertain. Financial markets, as a result, react in a strange and unpredictable manner. That describes today's markets to a "T."
But un-investible does not mean you should sell everything and get out of the market. It means that you should do nothing until such time that we have at least an inkling that the storm has passed. A good place to start would be to listen to the medical experts, while ignoring the administration and its constant stream of misinformation. When the doctors see a peak in the virus around the nation, then we can start adding up the economic and financial damage.
Right now, we don't know enough to make any kind of assessment as to what earnings will be, what unemployment will be, how long it will take the economy to get back on firmer footing, and at what rate of growth it may or may not return to. Given that, the probabilities of trying to invest in the stock or credit markets successfully has about the same odds as playing the blackjack table in Las Vegas (if you can find one that is still open).
The unemployment numbers, which doubled again this past week to 6.6 million new jobless claims, was higher than expected. Friday's monthly jobs report for the month of March was expected to be a loss of some 100,000 jobs but the number came in at 701,000 jobs lost. It is simply another indication of people trying to game the economic effect of the pandemic without all the facts. The markets swooned on that data, but bounced back, thanks to some good news in the oil market.
The price of oil has evidently dropped to a point where the Russians, Americans, and Saudis have decided enough is enough. The turnaround began with a series of tweets by the president, who is taking credit for getting Putin and the Saudis to at least negotiate a truce. The price of oil has skyrocketed as a result, up almost 30 percent in two days since the news broke. That is good news for our shale producers, who were teetering on the economic edge ever since the price war erupted.
Over the next few weeks, we should be able to form a clearer picture of what is in store for the country and the markets. Remember that markets tend to discount the future rather quickly. In the absence of any good news (a vaccine or a cure), it wouldn't surprise me if we retested the recent lows. The new virus cases and deaths should continue to climb and that would likely put added pressure on investor sentiment.
My advice is to hang in there. Give it time. Even a hurricane like this will ultimately pass and when it does the sun will break out on all of us.
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The Independent Investor: How the CARE Act Changes Tax-Deferred Account Rules
Listen up, big changes have just occurred because of the newly passed CARE Act. Aside from the "free money" that 90 percent of Americans are expecting, important changes to your retirement accounts have been passed. These changes can save you a bundle in taxes while providing instant cash relief, if you need it.
Normally, if you need money from a retirement account, and you are under 59 1/2 years old, you are required to pay a 10 percent penalty, plus the income tax owed on your withdrawal. There are some exceptions to the rule and the CARE Act just added a big one. The federal government just eliminated that 10 percent penalty for any distributions from IRAs, employer-sponsored retirement plans, or a combination of both.
Individuals can withdraw up to $100,000 in 2020, as long as the withdrawal is "Coronavirus-related." That definition leaves plenty of room for interpretation. If you or a spouse or dependent have been diagnosed with the virus, you qualify. If you or your family have been hurt financially by COVID-19 as a result of being laid off, being quarantined, or reduced working hours, you qualify.
Those who have been unable to work because you have no child care, or if you own a business that has closed or operates under reduced hours, then you can take a distribution as well. In fact, Congress seems to be making this option available to most Americans who require some relief from the negative impact of the virus.
In addition, under normal circumstances when you take a rollover distribution from an employee-sponsored plan such as a 401(k) or a 403(b), the proceeds are subject to a mandatory withholding of 20 percent, but COVID-19 distributions will be exempt from this requirement. The IRS is willing to simply rely on your word that the distribution was virus-related.
There is even better news. Let's say you take out the money, which you will need to tide you over for the next nine months. After that, the economy begins to revive. You get your old job back. If so, the government is allowing you to repay or roll the money you borrowed back into your retirement account. You will have three years to do so. You can return all, or part of what you took out and repay it in a single lump sum, or in multiple repayments.
You will still need to pay regular taxes on whatever you take out this year, but the entire tax bill doesn't have to be paid in 2020. Let's say you do need to take $100,000 out this year. If you normally make $75,000/year in reported income, that will put you in the 12 percent tax bracket if married and filing jointly. But because of the distribution, you would be reporting $175,000. Your taxes would double. The government is allowing you to evenly split the distribution money into tax years 2020, 2021, and 2022, so you only need to pay taxes on one-third of that extra income each year.
For those who have been taking a required minimum distributions (RMD) from their tax deferred accounts each year, that requirement has been waived for this year. The provision applies to IRAs, SEP IRAs, SIMPLE IRAs, 457(b) plans and both 401(k) and 403(b) plans. Both account owners, as well as beneficiaries who are required to take stretch distributions from inherited IRA accounts, are included in the provisions.
What if you have already taken your RMD? You can return the money that was distributed to you in two ways. Simply write a check for the amount and put it back into whatever tax deferred accounts it came from, as long as you do it within sixty days of the distribution. If you took the distribution longer than sixty days ago, you could just consider it a coronavirus withdrawal and you can return the money anytime within the next three years.
There are plenty of other provisions in the CARE Act that I will discuss in future columns. If, in the meantime, you have specific questions, you know how and where to contact me.
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The Independent Investor: An Economic Game Plan
Now that Congress and the Federal Reserve Bank have fired the first salvo of relief spending, investors are wondering how long the trillions of dollars in aid will take to actually do something to alleviate some of the losses to the economy.
Administration officials believe that the cash payments to Americans should start arriving within the next three weeks. That said, most economists expect the country will fall into recession in the second quarter. That begins next week. No one knows how deep of a decline we will ultimately suffer, but suffice it to say, it will be a shock to most of us.
We can also expect a large, possibly a historical, jump in the unemployment rate; some say by 30 percent or more. If today's unemployment data is any indication (3.28 million new jobless claims) we are in for some bad sledding. Just about every economic statistic that we use to predict the economy should also take a huge hit. My hope is that if you are prepared for these developments, you can take them in stride.
Let's be clear: this is a self-inflicted wound to the economy. The nation needed to shut down, if even partially, to slow the spread of COVID-19. As such, we should bear the brunt of the damage in the second quarter, but we will not be out of the woods. As we enter the third and fourth quarters, expect more weakness, with the best case that by the summer into the fall; we could see a "transition" period.
Hopefully, if all goes well, the virus cases (and deaths) will have peaked by then, at least in the large metropolitan areas. That forecast is a bit "iffy" because it depends on a number of things. How long and how many states ultimately embrace a lock-down, and whether or not the shutdown is effective.
To date, because of the failure of the United States government to effectively respond to the disaster, we still do not know how many people are, or will be infected, or how and with what to treat them. In the midst of this uncertainty, President Trump wants us all to go back to work by Easter. Many health experts believe the president is speaking prematurely. If so, it wouldn't be the first time.
Given the timeline and best-case guesses of the economists and the Federal Reserve Bank, the third quarter should experience negative growth as well. By definition, two negative quarters in a row would qualify 2020 as a recession year. Exactly how negative the third quarter will be is anyone's guess, but the hope is that the losses won't be as bad as the second quarter. The unemployment rate may continue to increase, but then turn around by the fourth quarter as more and more Americans go back to work.
The fourth quarter is when we should expect things to improve. Economists are hoping that by the holidays there will be some reason for consumers to celebrate. By the first quarter of next year, we should see an upward explosion in growth as things get back to what I will call "a new normal."
Readers should be aware that the $2 trillion Federal spending bill that was passed this week is not a stimulus program. It is simply an attempt to partially compensate for the estimated $2.5 trillion in lost growth that the economy will suffer in the coming quarters. Likewise, the central bank's multitrillion-dollar injection of liquidity into the financial sector is not meant to stimulate, but only to provide support.
The question I ask myself is what will the economy look like next year after the pandemic has come and gone? Many on Wall Street expect that the government may pass another huge spending bill that will target economic stimulus. The question to ask is whether Washington can put aside partisan differences long enough to do so. Given the present high-level partisan divide in this country, despite the dangers of this pandemic, I wouldn't hold my breath. Stimulus is different from relief. In an election year, who knows if anything can be passed.
We will also be entering 2021 with a vastly higher deficit. Today, both the one-month and three-month U.S. Treasury bills are yielding below zero returns. In the coming months, it is possible that we will follow the rest of the world into a fixed income environment of zero interest rates across the spectrum of U.S. sovereign debt.
Although interest rates are expected to remain historically low, there is no guarantee that that scenario will play out. It is far too early in this new economic cycle to start making forecasts for next year, but given the number of unknowns we face, I would advise readers to keep an open mind as far as the future. Anything can happen in this new environment, where all the rules and records seem to be coming undone on a daily basis.
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