Fighting Foreign Terrorism on Homeland Soil, Increased Protections for Clean Water and Low-Income Veterans, and New Appropriations for FY2020

Terrorist and Foreign Fighter Travel Exercise Act of 2019 (HR 1590) – This bill promotes the identification and determent of terrorist activity from reaching the homeland, and enhances the United States government’s ability to respond to terrorism, including emerging threats. Specifically, the legislation requires the Department of Homeland Security to develop and conduct exercises related to foreign terrorism, including the National Incident Management System, National Response Plan, and other related plans and strategies. The legislation was introduced on March 7 by Rep. Michael Guest (R-MS). The president signed the bill into law on Oct. 9.

Alaska Remote Generator Reliability and Protection Act (S 163) – This bill is designed to prevent catastrophic failure or shutdown of remote diesel power engines due to emission control devices in remote areas of Alaska. It instructs the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to revise particulate matter emissions standards for nonemergency stationary diesel engines, and to report on methods for assisting these areas in meeting specified energy needs. The legislation was introduced by Rep. Dan Sullivan (R-AK) on Jan. 16 and signed into law by the president on Oct. 4.

A bill to permit States to transfer certain funds from the clean water revolving fund of a State to the drinking water revolving fund of the State in certain circumstances, and for other purposes (S 1689) – Introduced on May 23 by Rep. Cory Booker (D-NJ), this legislation was enacted on Oct. 4. The bill empowers states with the ability to transfer up to 5 percent of federal grant funds from its clean water fund to its drinking water fund to help address any threats to public health resulting from increased exposure to lead in drinking water. This reallocation is available for only one year.

Autism Collaboration, Accountability, Research, Education and Support Act of 2019 (HR 1058) – This legislation reauthorizes the previous Autism CARES Act of 2014 to expand government programs to include older people with autism who are often misdiagnosed and underdiagnosed. The bill allocates $1.8 billion in funding for autism programs to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institutes of Health and the Health Resources & Services Administration. The legislation was sponsored by Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ). It was introduced on Feb. 7 and signed into law by the president on Sept. 30.

Department of Veterans Affairs Expiring Authorities Act of 2019 (HR 4285) – This legislation reauthorizes funding for programs and services at the Veterans Administration, which were set to expire at the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. The bill extends funding for two specific programs. 1.) Keeping Our Commitment to Overseas Veterans Act of 2019, to keep the VA Regional Office and Outpatient Clinic in Manila, Philippines, open for business through Sept. 30, 2020. This clinic provides healthcare, benefits and services to thousands of U.S. veterans living in the Philippines. 2.) Supportive Services for Veteran Families program (through Sept. 30, 2021), which provides grants for supportive services to assist very low-income veterans and their families who are either residing in permanent housing or transitioning from homelessness. The bill was introduced on Sept. 11 by Rep. Anthony Brindisi (D-NY) and was signed into law by the president on Sept. 30.

Continuing Appropriations Act, 2020, and Health Extenders Act of 2019 (HR 4378) – Known as a continuing resolution (CR), this bill prevents a government shutdown by continuing fiscal year 2020 appropriations to federal agencies through Nov. 21. The bill was introduced by Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) on Sept. 18 and signed into law on Sept. 27.

National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 (S 1790) – Introduced on June 11 by Rep. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), this is an original bill that authorizes U.S. Military appropriations for fiscal year 2020 for the Department of Defense, military construction and Department of Energy defense activities. The legislation both authorizes appropriations and sets forth policies, requirements and limitations for how funds are used. The legislation was passed by Congress on Sept. 17 and is currently awaiting signature by the president.

How to Stay Safe with Business Email Compromise on the Rise

According to a report by the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) released in July, financial institutions have incurred more than $9 billion in losses due to Business Email Compromise (BEC) schemes since 2016. With such staggering losses, businesses and even individuals can’t afford to ignore BEC attacks.

What is BEC?

BEC fraud involves cyber thieves posing as company executives or a business contact with the intention to commit wire transfer fraud or obtain sensitive information. The main targets are businesses working with foreign suppliers or a business that carries out regular wire-transfer payments.

To carry out this attack, criminals might pretend to be the company CEO and request that a junior staff member perform a task for them, such as transferring funds. Attackers take advantage of the fact that most organizations don’t have a set procedure to verify instructions received from the top management.

How Attackers Collect Data from their Targets

Cyber criminals use various techniques to carry out BEC fraud, with the main aim of stealing funds from the victims. The techniques used include:

  • Imposter techniques – this can be carried out in various ways. Attackers use a look-alike domain, display-name deception and spoofed emails that appear to come from legitimate addresses.
  • Social engineering – when a target has not set appropriate privacy settings on social media accounts, an attacker can easily collect information that will make their requests sound legitimate.
  • Malware – this enables attackers to have access to sensitive information that makes the fake request sound legitimate.
  • Mining from the Dark Web – here attackers can obtain stolen credentials.

How to Avoid BEC Attacks

It is difficult for conventional security systems to detect BEC schemes. Consider a case in which a transaction is initiated willingly by a legitimate user in response to a request from a legitimate source. Such an email has no payloads such as malicious attachments that can be blocked.

Here are some methods to help reduce the possibility of these attacks:

  • Raising awareness of common attack scenarios or tactics used by the cyber criminals, such as a false domain name that looks almost like the original one, impersonation of a vendor, false sense of urgency or a request for secrecy.
  • Training employees on cyber security risks and implications.
  • Implementing email authentication protocols like Domain-Based Message  Authentication, Reporting and Conformance (DMARC) and email authentication, such as DomainKeys Identified Mail (DKIM).
  • Using layered defense, such as encryption, and virtual private networks.
  • Implementing a multifactor authentication that will introduce a secondary authorization control. This will help stop attackers even when they have access to the target’s credentials.
  • Establishing communication protocols that will allow for a follow-up. For instance, if the person is requesting financial transactions, an employee should call to ascertain the request.
  • Scrutinizing all emails that request for fund transfer.
  • Monitoring incoming email, especially those that use VIP names.
  • Optimizing accounting systems and controls.

Final Thoughts

Apart from taking precautionary measures, businesses also should make sure that their insurance specifically covers BEC attacks, as courts might have different interpretations of policies. Consider the case of Apache Corporation, which lost $7million due to a BEC attack. The judge ruled that since the money was sent to pay a legitimate invoice to the wrong bank, it was not covered by their insurance policy.

Note that a majority of these criminals are from countries that might not have strict laws on cybercrime, making it difficult to have them prosecuted.

So, whether you run a small, medium or large business, or even a personal account, it’s vital that you take precautionary measures against the increasing BEC schemes.

5 Ways to Save on Holiday Gifting

Believe it or not, the holidays are right around the corner. And try as you might, overspending is real – whether you plan ahead or wait until the last minute. With this in mind, here are a few ways to get a handle on spending and save money on gifting.

Set Limits. Decide how much you’re going to spend overall on holiday gifts and how many people you’re buying for. Then do the math. For instance, you might want to spend $250 for 10 people. That’s $25 per person. However, there might be those you want to spend more on, which is perfectly understandable. But you can get into trouble when you buy your sister an expensive sweater and then feel like you need spend just as much your brother, mother or aunt. Spending sprawl sets in and it’s a runaway train. One way to avoid this situation is deciding before you shop how you’ll divvy up the amount you’ve set aside. While the holidays are special, remember that your family and friends also have birthdays, which means you don’t have to throw down a big chunk of change in one fell swoop during this time of year.

Shop Thanksgiving Weekend. Believe it or not, Thanksgiving Day has historically been the best time to find bargains. And you don’t have to leave your turkey dinner and run to the mall, unless you want to (read: uncomfortable family dynamic). The good news is that, on this day of carb overload, you can also find great deals online. If you miss the sales on Thanksgiving, you can always hit Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Black Friday, if you can stand the crowds, yields serious savings. And the beauty of Cyber Monday is you can shop from your favorite chair in your PJs, if you want.

Buy Gifts for Kids at Cheaper Stores. While adults might appreciate a brand name gift from, say, Neiman Marcus, kids really don’t care. Look online at Hollar.com for some great deals, as well as at discount stores like Walmart and Kmart, where you’ll find some big markdowns on popular gifts. The truth is, you don’t have to pay full retail prices from fancy stores for gifts that will surprise and delight the little ones.

Make Your Own Gifts. If you’re a craftsperson, handmade gifts always touch the heart: quilts, paintings, photographs, jewelry, bath and body products and so on. If you’re not so crafty, then going to holiday fairs are a good way to select handmade gifts. Etsy is another great place to find handcrafted items. Food is also a heartfelt gift to make and give, especially for the person who has everything. No matter what you choose to make, chances are you’ll save big time.

Give Secondhand Gifts. The key to giving this sort of gift is knowing where to shop. Good places to check are thrift stores and used bookstores, where you can find gently used clothing, board games, jewelry, books and even CDs and DVDs. Just make sure to check for rips or tears that might be unsightly. If you don’t want to make the trek, eBay is great for people who are collectors. Amazon even has items that are used. Just check to see if there’s a link that says “used and new offers” on the page of the product you’re looking for. All of the aforementioned resources can be treasure troves for terrific, affordable finds.

While it’s the spirit of giving that the holidays are all about, saving when you’re gifting might be one of the best gifts of all.

Sources

https://www.simple.com/blog/how-to-save-money-on-holiday-presents

https://www.moneycrashers.com/ways-save-money-holiday-gifts-friends-family/

https://www.dealnews.com/features/Thanksgiving-Day-Will-Top-Black-Friday-for-the-Best-Deals/857586.html

What to Expect and How to Prepare for a Recession

Economists generally determine that the country has fallen into a recession after two consecutive quarters of negative gross domestic product (GDP) growth. Since 1967, the United States has experienced seven recessions.

The thing is, predicting a recession is a little like predicting a tornado. Experts are never exactly sure if or when one will occur, but they can cite when conditions a ripe for one based past experience. The good news for predictors is that the economy follows a similar pattern of indicators in the months leading up to a recession.

The bad news is that many those indicators have recently emerged. For example:

  • Inverted Yield Curve – This is when the yield on longer-term Treasury bonds is lower than the yield on shorter-term Treasury bonds, which happened recently for the first time since 2007. On average, an inverted yield curve has occurred 14 months in advance of every recession in the past 50 years.
  • Corporate Profits – Estimates for corporate earnings growth have dropped substantially since last year, from 7.6 percent to 2.3 percent.
  • Global Trade – The ongoing U.S. trade war with China has resulted in weakness in the manufacturing and farming industries. Moreover, global trade volume is also down, which further reduces the market for U.S.-manufactured goods.

What to Expect in a Recession

The worst recession in U.S. history was the most recent one, between 2007 and 2009. Dubbed the Great Recession, it was short (compared to the Great Depression of 1929-1939) but it took a powerful toll on a large chunk of the population. For example, close to half of U.S. households lost at least 25 percent of their net worth; one out of every four households lost at least 75 percent of their net worth.

About one-third of households experienced one or more of the following:

  • Fell more than two months behind on their mortgage
  • Had their home foreclosed
  • Had their home equity drop into negative territory
  • Lost a job

That was a bad recession. Fortunately, while economists are seeing signs of another one on the horizon, as of now (absent any significant shocks) they do not expect it to be as severe.

Tips to Prepare for a Recession

With multiple warning signs evident, it appears we do have some time before a recession potentially hits. It’s a good idea to use this time to protect your financial situation to help minimize any impact that a recession can have on you personally. The following are some tips to consider.

Shore Up Your Finances

Start by reducing your debt as much as possible, particularly any accounts exposed to a variable interest rate. The interest on credit cards and home equity lines of credit have a habit of increasing when you can least afford it. If you have a variable rate mortgage you might want to refinance at today’s low fixed mortgage rates so your monthly payments do not increase. One way to generate a robust savings fund is to temporarily suspend contributions to a retirement plan and save that money in a readily available account.

Minimize Household Expenses

Most people have to cut back on household expenses during a recession, so you might as well start now to help you prepare. For example, consider trading in a gas-guzzling car for one with better gas mileage and lower monthly payments, or pull the plug on cable TV and switch to a streaming service. Deploying these cost-reduction strategies now not only reduces your expenses during a recession but will also help contribute to your savings fund.

In many areas of the country, real estate prices are at the top of the market. It might be worth considering selling your house now while you can get a good price. This will give you a pot of cash to sit on during the recession, which is especially helpful if you lose your job. In fact, after the sale you may consider renting until real estate prices drop and you can purchase another home at a good price – and maintain a healthy cache of savings. This strategy could also save you from raiding your investment portfolio for money – helping protect your future financial security.

Protect Your Investment Portfolio

Take a good look at your portfolio and give it a recession stress test. Consider reallocating some funds to options that tend to perform reliably during an economic decline, such as:

  • Government bonds
  • Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS)
  • Corporate Inflation-Protected Securities (CIPS)
  • Consumer staples stocks
  • Well-established dividend stocks
  • Fixed Income Annuity (FIA)

Recognize that it is generally not a good idea to completely cash out of the market. The best way to accumulate wealth over time is to stay invested regardless of temporary economic declines. In fact, investors who maintained their market positions between 2007 and 2017 experienced an average 240 percent growth rate.

Once the recession has ended, think about rebalancing your portfolio to realign its strategic asset allocation with your investment objectives and timeline. This allows you to cash in on outperforming assets and buy into depressed securities that could be poised for post-recession growth.

How Will Ongoing China Trade Tensions Tensions Impact Consumer Spending?

According to the U.S. Department of Commerce and the U.S. Census Bureau, retail sales came in at a negative 0.3 percent for September, even though it’s still 4.1 percent more than September 2018’s report. The same report followed up on August 2019’s numbers, with a revision by the agency to 0.6 percent, up from 0.4 percent. With the ongoing U.S.-China trade war and tariff uncertainty, how will consumer spending be impacted?

Current State of Trade and Tariffs

With phase one agreed to, at least in principle, at the end of the meeting with Chinese Vice Premier Liu on Oct. 11, President Trump agreed to keep tariffs at 25 percent on $250 billion in Chinese imports, instead of increasing the tariffs to 30 percent. Additional tariffs also are threatened to be imposed on Dec. 15 for other goods, depending on future negotiations. However, by then the fourth quarter will be nearly completed, so this will probably lessen the likelihood of reduced U.S. consumer spending during the holiday shopping season.

According to an Oct. 3 press release, the National Retail Federation (NRF) projects that consumer purchases for the 2019 holiday season will come in between $727.9 billion and $730.7 billion. The current holiday spending is projected to grow between 3.8 percent and 4.2 percent compared to 2018. It’s important to note that the NRF’s 2019 projections don’t include restaurants, auto dealerships or gas stations. And the projections are higher despite an average retail sales growth of 3.7 percent over the past five years.

The NRF says that along with interest rate and global economic concerns and a politicizing of the economy, trade is an equally concerning factor for retail sales.   

As the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) announced an additional 10 percent of tariffs on $300 billion in Chinese imports, effective Sept. 1, the NRF explained that consumer confidence was shaken. A September 2019 NRF survey found that 79 percent of retail shoppers were worried that tariffs will increase the prices of goods they would be buying.

With the USTR reporting on Aug. 23 that $112 billion of Chinese imports will face tariffs of 15 percent, up from 10 percent, on Sept. 1, the NRF explains how it impacts consumer items, especially footwear and apparel. The NRF gives a few examples of how consumers, specifically football fans, will be impacted negatively.

Footballs made in China are now subject to 15 percent tariffs, no longer 10 percent. While sweatshirts, T-shirts and jerseys (for football and all professional sports teams made in China), are subject to a 15 percent tariff – this is still a sizeable cost increase. If these were subject to 25 percent tariffs, research by the Trade Partnership done for the NRF found that it would cost U.S. consumers $4.4 billion extra for this type of apparel.

While it hasn’t happened yet, the $160 billion of Chinese imports currently subject to 10 percent tariffs are expected to be increased to a 15 percent tariff on Dec. 15. While it’s still expected to be implemented at the tail end of Q4, any effects will naturally be felt in 2020.

While there’s no way to determine how tariffs will impact retail sales officially calculated, consumers will certainly take a second look at prices whether or not they make a purchase.

LIFO Versus FIFO and How Each Method Values Inventory

As the name implies, First-In, First-Out (FIFO) is a way for companies to value their inventory. The first items put into inventory or produced by the company are accordingly the first taken out of inventory or transferred to customers and therefore expensed. When it comes to accounting for acquisition and/or production costs, initial and earlier costs are the first to be expensed, with more recent costs staying on the balance sheet to be expensed later.

Assume a company already has 200 widgets costing $4/widget. From there, the company increased its inventory at three more times during a selected accounting period. Three hypothetical, additional purchases include:

200 widgets @ $6/widget

200 widgets @ $7/widget

200 widgets @ $8/widget

If the company had 500 widgets purchased, there would be different considerations be it FIFO or LIFO. First, we’ll discuss FIFO.

For the 500 widgets sold to customers, the FIFO’s Cost of Goods Sold (COGS) (assuming there are no additional inputs that would increase the COGS for simplicity sake) would be $2,700.

This calculation will look at how COGS works for FIFO:

200 initial widgets costing $4/widget = $800 in COGS  

200 widgets from the first additional purchase, costing $6/widget = $1,200 in COGS

100 widgets from the second additional purchase, costing $7/widget = $700 in COGS

For a total of $2,700 in COGS

Assuming there were no purchases during the selected accounting period, there would be 300 widgets remaining in inventory, or $3,000 in inventory costs. The inventory would show up on the balance sheet, according to the following calculation:

200 widgets @ $7/widget = $1,400 in inventory

200 widgets @ $8/widget = $1,600 in inventory

Now this is compared to LIFO, or Last-In, First-Out, which accounts for expenses by looking at most recent costs first. With the same company selling the same 500 widgets in the same accounting time-frame, but expensing their most recent 500 widgets first, here is the rundown:

200 widgets @ $8/widget = $1,600 in COGS

200 widgets @ $7/widget = $1,400 in COGS

100 widgets @ $6/widget = $600 in COGS

For a total of $3,600 expensed

The inventory would be left as the following:

100 widgets @ $6/widget = $600

200 widgets @ $4/widget = $800

For a total of $1,400 in remaining inventory.

Considerations Between LIFO and FIFO

One important consideration when choosing between LIFO or FIFO is that more likely than not input costs rise over time. Therefore, valuations can change based on the type of method.

Looking at the LIFO method, taking out inventory that’s been produced most recently does not always reflect market prices of the remaining inventory, especially if remaining stock is a few years old. Along with Costs of Goods Sold lowering net income, if older inventory is obsolete and it can’t be sold, it’ll render the inventory’s value far below market prices.

When it comes to the FIFO method, you get a better indication of the remaining inventory’s value. However, using this method increases a business’ net income since remaining inventory can be older and is valued by the Cost of Goods Sold. Similarly, if net income increases, there’s also a good chance of greater tax obligations for the company.

These scenarios account for rising prices. However, if prices are falling, then these scenarios would be reversed.

Tax Changes 2019

With the start of the fourth quarter of 2019 underway, it’s time to see what the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) will expect of filers for their 2019 taxes. The following are a list of major changes that filers need to be aware of:

1. Removal of the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) Individual Mandate Penalty

With the passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), filers and households who failed to carry adequate health insurance according to the ACA’s minimum coverage requirements will no longer have to pay the penalty on their 2019 taxes. This is because the TCJA lowered the penalty to zero dollars permanently. In previous years, households not meeting ACA health insurance requirements were mandated to pay either 2.5 percent of household income or $347.50 per child and $695 per adult, up to $2,085.

2. Greater Medical Expense Deduction Requirements

2019 filers are only able to deduct out-of-pocket medical expenses that exceed 10 percent of their adjusted gross income (AGI). The threshold was lowered to 7.5 percent for the 2017 and 2018 tax years by the TCJA, but will revert to the original 10 percent threshold in 2019.  

3. Changes to Treatment of Alimony

The TCJA removed the ability for those paying alimony to their former spouse to deduct these payments for the 2019 tax year. The IRS also removed deductibility for alimony or separate maintenance payments for divorce or separation agreements signed off after Dec. 31, 2018. If a divorce or separation agreement that provides for alimony or separate maintenance payments was agreed to before Dec. 31, 2018, and is then modified after Dec. 31, 2018, such payments lose deductibility. Former spouses receiving alimony or separate maintenance payments from an agreement created or modified after Dec. 31, 2018, are not required to report such payments on their tax return.  

4. Contribution Limits Raised for Retirement Accounts

Those with 401(k), almost all 457 plans, the federal government’s Thrift Savings Plan and 403(b) account plans can contribute $19,000 in 2019, an increase of $500 from 2018’s $18,500 limit. Taxpayers 50 and older can still contribute another $6,000 for 2019, a catch-up contribution. Taxpayers with Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs) can contribute $6,000 in 2019, $500 more than 2018’s $5,500 limit. Those 50 years or older can add another $1,000 to their IRA accounts in 2019. The increase in IRA contribution limits is the first increase since 2013.     

5. Increased HSA Contribution Limits

Health Savings Accounts’ contribution limits for 2019 have increased, according to the IRS. For an individual or a self-only High Deductible Health Plan, 2019’s contribution limit is raised to $3,500, or $50 more than 2018’s contribution limit of $3,450. For a family high deductible health plan, 2019’s contribution limit is raised to $7,000, $100 more than 2018’s contribution limit of $6,900. The catch-up contribution is an extra $1,000 for account holders age 55 or older.

6. Increasing Standard Deduction Allowances

For those choosing not to itemize their deductions in 2019, the IRS has increased standard deduction amounts for filers. For single filers and those filing as married filing separately, the standard deduction increased by $200, to $12,200. For those filing as head of household, the standard deduction increased by $350, to $18,350. For those choosing to file married filing jointly, there’s an increased allowance of $400, to $24,400.

7. 2019 Income Brackets

With the new tax year comes higher income tax brackets. Depending on how much taxpayers made in 2019, the following are the new income level brackets:

  • 37 percent: Individual single taxpayers making more than $510,300 or married couples filing jointly making $612,350.
  • 35 percent: Individuals making more than $204,100, or $408,200 for married couples filing jointly.
  • 32 percent: Individuals making more than $160,725, or $321,450 for married couples filing jointly.
  • 24 percent: Individuals making more than $84,200, or $168,400 for married couples filing jointly.
  • 22 percent: Individuals making more than $39,475, or $78,950 for married couples filing jointly.
  • 12 percent: Individuals making more than $9,700, or $19,400 for married couples filing jointly.
  • 10 percent: Individuals making up to $9,700, or $19,400 for married couples filing jointly.