There is no easy cure for what ails the U.S. financial system. The Wall Street Journal today (Wednesday, March 22) is filled with must-read articles describing many of the irreparable imbalances. Their correction phases will involve reversals, shakeups and washouts.
Very importantly, there is no going back. The Federal Reserve’s 15-year experiment with 0% interest rates and excessive money creation has reached its convulsive concluding phase. What we are seeing now are the so-called unintended consequences about which others have been warning. The turmoil, pain and suffering necessary to right the ship is at hand.
Is it a recession?
Yes, but it’s not limited to the typical economic (GDP) growth decline. This period is a financial recession, more commonly described later as a crisis in the final, ugly stages. Why crisis? Because when the financial system gets shaken, it hits everywhere, this time including a deterioration of the currency’s purchasing power (AKA inflation), as we have been experiencing. It always ends with diminished trust in financial institutions, like what has started in the banking system.
Important to note is that this period will produce a strong desire to ferret out the people who caused the problems. The Federal Reserve will certainly get some of the blame. So, too, will all those leaders whose ignorance and hubris caused them to make egregious mistakes. Then there are those who knowingly milked the system – they are generally exposed by the media’s investigative journalists.
Does all this sound over the top – simply scare tactics?
Of course. That’s because we are still in the initial stage where there is the hopeful belief that something can be done to correct the problems. For example, the Fed’s secret “emergency” meeting that produced the supposed cure to the depositor run problem at two regional banks: Insuring all their deposits, including those over the FDIC maximum of $250M.
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However, to achieve that solution, the Fed had to label the two regional banks’ problems as “systemic,” meaning that, if left unresolved, they could cause widespread banking system turmoil.
So, is that it? No. As last week’s markets see-sawed, it became clear that – as usual – the first banks to fail are not the last. They are simply the ones that adopted tactics furthermost from sound banking actions. They are the smoke that foreshadows the firestorm. And there is plenty of additional fuel – over 300 other U.S. regional banks. And, yes, many are at risk because banks regularly play follow-the-leader when competing for growth.
As proof, Wall Street analysts now are busy reanalyzing the regional banks – and knocking down the weak, riskier ones. Over 100 are now down 20% or more year-to-date and down over 1/3 from their 52-week highs. Those decliners are the antithesis of the steady-and-safe stocks investors thought they owned.
Watch out for value traps
The financial reversals are happening quickly, meaning the typical value measures are suddenly flashing green – buy! However, the coming revenue and earnings reports will reveal the problematic reality.
And then there are those attractive dividend yields. When revenues and earnings decline, boards will ensure that dividend payments are cut or halted.
About the bank managements following one another… Really?
Yes. At one point during my investment career, I worked with a marketing manager who handled investment products for banks. He told me the beauty of his job was that bank managers were like sheep. Successfully get a couple of banks to act, he said, and soon the others want on board.
A current example is in The Wall Street Journal: “Property Debt Adds to Lender Worries” (page B1).
“A record amount of commercial mortgages expiring in 2023 is set to test the financial health of small and regional banks already under pressure following the recent failures of Silicon Valley Bank and Signature Bank.
“Smaller banks hold around $2.3 trillion in commercial real estate debt, including rental-apartment mortgages, according to an analysis from data firm Trepp Inc. That is almost 80% of commercial mortgages held by all banks.”
“This year will be critical because about $270 billion in commercial mortgages held by banks are set to expire, according to Trepp—the highest figure on record. Most of these loans are held by banks with less than $250 billion in assets.
“If those loans pay off, it would reassure markets. But a large number of defaults could force banks to mark down the value of these and other loans, analysts say, reinforcing fears over the financial health of the U.S. banking system.”
The rest of the article discusses the problems commercial property owners have – primarily the downsized demand for space and the higher loan interest rates. Add in a conservative lending shift by banks and payoffs could be a concern.
The bottom line: It’s not just the regional banks
While the focus is on the regional banks because of the dual bank problems, there is trouble afoot throughout the financial system. Moreover, there are linkages between different types of financial firms and different types of financial instruments. A shift in one place can produce a surprising shift elsewhere, either naturally or with the help of someone’s investment strategy (think hedge funds).
So, expect that the regional bank problems will not be cured and that the root causes have already infected other financial firms, albeit in different ways. In other words, focus on avoiding the many ways a troubled financial system could adversely affect both your investments and your personal finances.
Bonds See 2023 Recession, Stocks Aren’t So Sure
The yield curve is one of the most robust recession predictors and has signaled a recession may be coming since mid 2022. In contrast, U.S. stocks as measured by the S&P 500 are up materially from the lows of last October and only just below year-to-date highs, seemingly rejecting recession fears. Yet, fixed income markets see the Fed potentially cutting rates by the summer, perhaps reacting to a U.S. recession.
The Evidence From The Bond Markets
The recessionary evidence, at least from fixed income markets, is mounting. The 10 yield Treasury yield has been below the 2 year yield consistently since last July. That is is called an inverted yield curve and has signaled a recession fairly reliably when compared to other leading indicators.
Building on that, fixed income markets see almost a nine in ten chance that the Federal Reserve cuts rates by September of this year. That’s something the Fed has repeatedly said they won’t do on their current forecasts. Yet, a recession could cause it to happen.
The Stock Market
In contrast, the stock market shows some optimism. The S&P 500 is up 7% year-to-date as the market has shrugged off fears of contagion from recent banking issues. In particular, tech stocks have rallied.
In contrast, more defensive sectors such as healthcare, utilities and consumer goods have lagged in 2023. This suggests that the stock market is taking more of a ‘risk on’ position and is perhaps less worried about the economy.
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That said the stock market is a leading indicator of the business cycle, it may be that stocks see a recession, but are now looking past it to growth ahead and are factoring in the lower discount rates that a recession might bring as interest rates decline. Also, the U.S. stock market is relatively global, so the fate of the U.S. economy is a key factor in driving profits, but not the only one.
Monitoring unemployment data will be key. Though the yield curve is a good long-term forecaster of recessions it is less precise in signaling when a recession starts. Unemployment rates can offer more accurate recession timing. Unemployment edged up in February, suggesting a recession may be near, but we’ve also seen monthly noise unemployment. Two similar monthly unemployment spikes during 2022 both proved false alarms.
However, if we see a sustained move up in unemployment from the low levels of 2022 that may be a relatively clear sign that a recession is here. Economist Claudia Sahm estimates that a sustained 0.5% increase in unemployment rate from 12-month lows is sufficient to trigger a recession. Unemployment rose 0.2% from January to February 2023, so maybe we’re on the way there. Of course, the jobs market performed better than expected in 2022 and it could do so again. Still, fixed income markets do suggest a 2023 recession is coming. Stock markets don’t necessarily share that view.
Which States Have The Highest And Lowest Life Expectancies?
There’s a wide variance of life expectancies among the 50 states in the U.S., according to a recent report prepared by Assurance, an insurance technology platform that helps consumers with decisions related to insurance and financial well-being.
Figure 1 below shows the 10 states with the highest life expectancy, starting with Hawaii, the state with the highest life expectancy.
Figure 2 below shows the 10 states with the lowest life expectancy, starting with Mississippi, the state with the lowest life expectancy.
Assurance scoured life expectancy data prepared in January 2023 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). With this data, Assurance created several easy-to-understand graphics that offer information about life expectancies.
Life expectancies are a basic measure of well-being
As measured by the CDC, life expectancies are a basic measurement of well-being in a broad population and not a prediction of how long an individual might live. The CDC measures the expected lifespan for a person born in the year of measurement. This measurement is calculated based on the assumption that the individual will live and die according to the rates of death that are prevalent in the measurement year for each age. There’s no assumed improvement or backsliding in the assumed mortality rates in future years for each age in the life expectancy calculation.
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By contrast, an estimated lifespan for an individual would consider their current age, their gender, and some basic lifestyle information. It might also attempt to project future improvements or backsliding in mortality rates based on key factors.
Significant influences on life expectancy calculations
Leading causes of death in the U.S. are heart disease, cancer, and accidents in that order. These immediate causes are significantly influenced by factors in the population such as poverty rates, educational attainment, rates of obesity and smoking, access to healthcare, prevalence of violent crime, and the support people receive from federal, state, and local governments. All these factors can vary widely among different states, which can be a key reason why life expectancies vary by state.
When you think about it, all these factors also have the potential to influence a person’s quality of life. The measured life expectancy rate rolls up all these factors into one objective measurement of well-being that’s based on population data.
In addition to the factors listed above, mortality rates increased and life expectancies decreased in the past few years due to the Covid-19 pandemic. A recent article titled “Live Free And Die” summarized recent research results that show that life expectancies in most countries around the world rebounded after the Covid-19 pandemic but that they continued to decline in the United States. Many of the reasons cited in the article for the continued decline in U.S. life expectancies are the same or similar to the factors listed above.
Why should retirees care about the life expectancies reported here if these measures don’t predict your own lifespan? Life expectancy calculations indicate the general well-being of the entire population in your area. While the living conditions in your area can influence your own lifespan and quality of life, retirees should focus on their remaining life expectancy given their age. They should also consider how the factors listed above that influence life expectancies in the population might apply to them.
You can obtain customized estimates of your remaining life expectancy at the Actuaries Longevity Illustrator. Part of your planning for retirement is understanding how long you an an individual might live, instead of relying on generalized information about larger populations you see in the media.
IRS Dirty Dozen Campaign Warns Taxpayers To Avoid Offer In Compromise ‘Mills’
Owing taxes can be stressful. Unfortunately, the actions of some companies can make it worse. As part of its “Dirty Dozen” campaign, the IRS has renewed a warning about so-called Offer in Compromise “mills” that often mislead taxpayers into believing they can settle a tax debt for pennies on the dollar—while the companies collective excessive fees.
The “Dirty Dozen” is an annual list of common scams taxpayers may encounter. Many of these schemes peak during tax filing season as people prepare their returns or hire someone to help with their taxes. The schemes put taxpayers and tax professionals at risk of losing money, personal information, data, and more.
Tax Debt Resolution Schemes
“Too often, we see some unscrupulous promoters mislead taxpayers into thinking they can magically get rid of a tax debt,” said IRS Commissioner Danny Werfel.
“This is a legitimate IRS program, but there are specific requirements for people to qualify. People desperate for help can make a costly mistake if they clearly don’t qualify for the program. Before using an aggressive promoter, we encourage people to review readily available IRS resources to help resolve a tax debt on their own without facing hefty fees.”
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Offers In Compromise
Legitimate is a key word. Offers in Compromise are an important program to help people who can’t pay to settle their federal tax debts. But, as the IRS notes, these “mills” can aggressively promote Offers in Compromise—OIC—in misleading ways to people who don’t meet the qualifications, frequently costing taxpayers thousands of dollars.
An OIC allows you to resolve your tax obligations for less than the total amount you owe. You generally submit an OIC because you don’t believe you owe the tax, you can’t pay the tax, or exceptional circumstances exist.
Because of the nature of the OIC—and the dollars involved—the process can be time-consuming. It can also be confusing for taxpayers who may not have a complete grasp on their finances.
First, you must complete a detailed application, Form 656, Offer in Compromise. You must also submit Form 433-A, Collection Information Statement for Wage Earners and Self-Employed Individuals, or Form 433-B, Collection Information Statement for Businesses, with supporting documentation (generally, bank and brokerage statements and proof of expenses).
You’ll also need to submit a non-refundable fee of $205 and payment made in good faith. The payment is typically 20% of the offer amount for a lump sum cash offer or the first month’s payment for those made over time. Generally, initial payments will not be returned but will be applied to your tax debt if your offer is not accepted. Payments and fees may be waived if the OIC is submitted based solely on the premise that you do not owe the tax or if your total monthly income falls at or below income levels based on the Department of Health and Human Services (DHSS) poverty guidelines.
The IRS will examine your application and decide whether to accept it based on many things, including the total amount due and the time remaining to collect under the statute of limitations. The IRS will also review your income—including future earnings and accounts receivables—and your reasonable expenses, as determined by their formula. The IRS will also consider the amount of equity you have in assets that you own—this would include real property, personal property (like automobiles), and bank accounts.
Before your offer can be considered, you must be compliant. That means you must have filed all your tax returns and paid off any liabilities not subject to the OIC. After you submit your offer, you must continue to timely file your tax returns, and pay all required tax, including estimated tax payments. If you don’t, the IRS will return your offer.
Additionally, you cannot currently be in an open bankruptcy proceeding, and you must resolve any open audit or outstanding innocent spouse claim issues before you submit an offer.
You can probably tell—it’s a lot to consider. You may want representation. A tax professional can help marshal you through the process and offer practical guidance, while communicating what fees could look like.
By contrast, according to the IRS, an OIC “mill” will usually make outlandish claims, frequently in radio and TV ads, about how they can settle a person’s tax debt for cheap. Also telling: the fees tend to be significant in exchange for very little work.
Those mills also knowingly advise indebted taxpayers to file an OIC application even though the promoters know the person will not qualify, costing taxpayers money and time. You can check your eligibility for free using the IRS’s Offer in Compromise Pre-Qualifier tool.
“Pennies On A Dollar”
What about those promises that taxpayers can routinely settle for pennies on a dollar? Not true. Generally, the IRS will not accept an offer if they believe you can pay your tax debt in full through an installment agreement or equity in assets, including your home. That’s why the IRS tends to reject a majority of OICs that are submitted. The acceptance rate is less than 1 in 3, according to the 2021 Data Book.
The IRS will generally approve an OIC when the amount offered represents the best opportunity for the IRS to collect the debt. It’s true that there’s a formula that the IRS uses to figure out how much they think they can collect from you. But there is some wiggle room to account for special circumstances, including a loss of income or a medical condition. It’s worth noting those are the exceptions, not the rule.
While submitting an OIC may keep the IRS from calling you, it doesn’t stop all collections activities—don’t believe companies that suggest that submitting an OIC will make your tax debt disappear. Penalties and interest will continue to accrue on your outstanding tax liability. Additionally, the IRS may keep your tax refund, including interest, through the date the IRS accepts your OIC.
You may also be liened. In most cases, the IRS will file a Notice of Federal Tax Lien to protect their interests, and the lien will generally stay in place until your tax obligation is satisfied.
An OIC is a serious effort to resolve tax debt and shouldn’t be taken lightly. Be skeptical—if it sounds too good to be true, it likely is. If you’re considering an OIC, hire a competent tax professional who understands the rules and is willing to level with you about your chances of being successful—including other options. Don’t fall into a trap that can make your situation worse.
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