Tax Blog

Tax-Free Student Loan Forgiveness is Part of the Latest Covid-19 Relief Bill

Tax-Free Student Loan ForgivenessThe recently passed American Rescue Plan (ARP) Act of 2021 includes a provision making nearly all student loan forgiveness tax-free, at least temporarily. Before the ARP, student loan forgiveness was tax-free only under special programs. Before we look at the changes to come under the ARP, let’s look back at what the previous law provided.

The Old Rules

Under the earlier measure, student loan forgiveness was tax-free under certain circumstances. These special programs included working in certain public sectors, some types of teachers as well as some programs for nurses, doctors, veterinarians, etc. Essentially, you had to work in a specific field under certain conditions for a minimum length of time and some or all your student loans would be forgiven or discharged. There are also other technical qualifications, such as death and disability, closed school, or false certification discharges, but these aren’t widely applicable.

Because student loans are not dischargeable in bankruptcy, income-driven repayment plans were the other main type of program that could result in forgiveness or discharge. Typically, borrowers repaid an amount indexed to their income over a 20-to 25-year period; whatever was leftover at the end was discharged. The forgiven loan amounts under income-driven repayment programs were considered a discharge of indebtedness and tax as ordinary income (although there are exclusions for insolvent taxpayers).

The New Rules

Under the new law in the ARP, the forgiveness of all federal student and parent loans are tax-free. This includes Direct Loans, Family Federal Education Loans (FFEL), Perkins Loans, and federal consolidation loans. Additionally, non-federal loans such as state education loans, institutional loans direct from colleges and universities, and even private student loans also qualify.

The essential criteria for the loan discharge to qualify for tax-free treatment is that it must have been made expressly for post-secondary educational expenses and be insured or guaranteed by the federal government (this includes federal agencies).

This all means that the debt discharged under income-driven forgiveness programs will now be tax-free as well, but there’s a catch. The discharge of student loan debt needs to happen within the next five years because the provision expires at the end of 2025. There could be an extension, but that’s uncertain now.

Why this Change May Really Matter

The change in rules making income-driven student loan forgiveness tax-free isn’t a huge deal for most people. The new law really matters because it sets the stage for broader student loan forgiveness. The program currently being floated by President Biden to forgive $10,000 in student loan debt or the even larger $50,000 proposal by some Senate Democrats will qualify for tax-free treatment.

How Companies Can Become More Nimble During the Product Lifecycle

Product LifecycleThe majority of U.S. industrial product company CFOs have shared concerns that COVID-19 would impact their businesses negatively. For companies that develop and manufacture products, understanding the product lifecycle and how to work around crises like the COVID-19 pandemic can be effective to help improve the longevity and success of companies.

Market Development Stage

According to the Harvard Business Review (HBR), the first stage of the product lifecycle is market development. This normally happens when a company introduces a new product for sale. There is usually little demand at this point; instead, demand has to be cultivated among consumers.

Factors that impact the rate of introduction include the product’s novelty; how practical it is for consumers’ existing problems; and how the new product impacts the demand of existing products. For example, if there’s a proven cure for a chronic medical condition, the product would have a more effective ability to penetrate the market versus an unproven product – be it a medical device, cell phone, etc.

Market Growth Stage

HBR calls the second stage the market growth stage or takeoff stage. When a product is successful, it enters this stage because demand begins to grow exponentially due to consumers expressing interest in the new product.

From there, competitors looking to leverage the “used apple policy” will produce either knock-offs or improved versions of the new product. Businesses competing in this product category begin standing apart – via their product and/or brand. Ongoing adaptation is fluid and contingent based on what competitors are doing, normally through balancing pricing or optimizing distribution channels.

Market Maturity Stage

This stage sees equilibrium in consumer demand. The best way to understand when this is achieved is when the target demographics are consuming the intended products. Competing companies will focus on standing out in the market by providing niche solutions through customer service, comprehensive warranties, etc. Producers are maintaining relationships with distribution outlets for in-store product promotion and shelf space; also, more favorable distribution agreements normally occur during this stage.

Market Decline Stage

This stage is evident when consumers fall out of love with an item and stop buying it. As too much capacity for the product floods the market and fewer and fewer producers survive, businesses might propose mergers for survival.

Ways to Extend the Product Lifecycle

While the Covid-19 pandemic has taught everyone how to live and work as safely as possible, it’s also shown that businesses need to be constantly reviewing how they can make their product lifecycles more agile.

One way to extend the product lifecycle for a new product is by creating a positive, memorable first impression. An unfavorable first experience might create negative repercussions beyond what would be normal.

For example, how the product was delivered to the customer can make an impact on the customer’s experience. HBR gives the example of companies that produce home appliances. If a small, independent network of family-run appliance stores can deliver white glove service for customers (going above and beyond to make a lasting, positive first impression, including implementing COVID-19 safe practices), they can make a positive first impression. This will increase the likelihood of customers wanting to share their good experience with others.

However, when it comes to merchandising the product, using a more segmented distribution channel via independent appliance stores will take a lot more effort compared to larger, corporate resellers with turnkey distribution capabilities.

Another way, especially to be mindful of COVID-19 safety precautions, is to remove the chance for miscommunication. When working remotely and using chat and/or video conferencing tools, it is important to document all processes, including sample layouts and designs, to ensure different departments are on the same page.

Staying in communication with existing and potential clients is crucial for product launches – either new or enhanced versions. Looking at the next 90 days ahead, evaluate how each customer’s business is doing – are they fighting for survival or is it nearly business as usual? If a customer is all-hands-on-deck to get cashflow to stay in business, it might not be the right time for deployment. But if the new product or enhancement can increase efficiency, it might be right to contact them ASAP.

While every product lifecycle is unique, taking steps to become more nimble can potentially make the difference between a company surviving or thriving during a crisis.

Sources

https://www.pwc.com/us/en/library/covid-19/manufacturing-operations-strategy-coronavirus.html

https://www.pwc.com/us/en/library/covid-19/pwc-covid-19-cfo-pulse-survey.html

https://hbr.org/1965/11/exploit-the-product-life-cycle

How Will the Projected Commodity Super-Cycle Impact Investors in 2021?

Commodity Super-CycleAs the January 2021 World Bank Pink Sheet documented, prices increased month-over-month from November 2020 to December 2020. Highlights include the price of oil jumping by 15 percent. The cost of fertilizer jumped 2.2 percent, grains increased by 3.8 percent and iron ore jumped by 25 percent. While there’s been no official “commodity super-cycle,” according to economists or financial analysts, the trend certainly shows commodity prices increasing.

2020 caught the world off-guard with the coronavirus pandemic, sending the price of oil negative. According to Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, on April 20, 2020, “the prompt contract price” or how much a barrel of West Texas Intermediate (WTI) cost for May 2020 deliveries went negative, falling $50. It eventually rebounded to $45 per barrel in November as vaccine optimism began to take hold.

For other commodities, the story was not as bad, signaling what might be another commodity super-cycle. On Aug. 4, 2020, gold broke the $2,000 mark. With central banks and governments spending to support the economy due to the pandemic, it put pressure on global currencies. For example, with the U.S. dollar index dropping nearly 10 percent from March 2020 to August 2020, precious metals such as gold became a hedge against inflation.

Many would assume that commodities surged in part from the economic damage of COVID-19 but, looking at the data, commodities were seeing a resurgence at the start of 2020 – well before the pandemic negatively impacted the global economy.

With data as recent as March 5, the International Monetary Fund shows how commodities changed before the pandemic, during, and as the recovery is underway for the first two months of 2021. Looking at the IMF’s “Actual Market Prices for Non-Fuel and Fuel Commodities” chart, one can see how commodities bottomed out during the pandemic and are showing signs of significant growth.

One metric ton of wheat was $186.10 in 2018, $163.30 in 2019, $185.50 in 2020. In Q1 of 2020, it was $173.80, Q2 was $174.80, Q3 was $183.00, Q4 of 2020 was $210.5. Then the first two months of 2021, one metric ton of wheat was $237.90 and $240.80, respectively.

For metals, one metric ton of copper was $6,529.80 in 2018, $6,010.10 in 2019, $6,174.60 in 2020. In Q1 of 2020, it was $5,633.90, Q2 was $5,350.80, Q3 was $6,528.60, Q4 of 2020 was $7,185.0. The first two months of 2021, the price was $7,972.10 and $8,470.90, respectively.

Spot Crude priced per barrel in U.S. dollars was $68.30 in 2018, $61.40 in 2019, $41.30 in 2020. In Q1 of 2020, it was $49.10, Q2 was $30.30, Q3 was $42.00, and Q4 of 2020 was $43.70. Then the first two months of 2021, Spot Crude was $53.50 and $60.50, respectively.

For the Spot Crude figures, the IMF uses the Average Petroleum Spot Price (APSP), which averages equally three crudes: West Texas Intermediate, Dubai, and Brent.

Will China Lead the Globe’s Super-Cycle?

As the United Nations defines it, a super-cycle is when there’s a paradigm shift toward increased demand, lasting at least a decade and up to 35 years “in a wide range of base material prices.” It focuses on “industrial production and urban development of an emerging economy.”

Looking at China could signal what the globe will follow economically. According to Refinitiv, China saw a positive growth of 2.3 percent of its GDP in 2020, compared to the global average of -3.5 percent. As the world emerges from the pandemic, it will undoubtedly consume more commodities. When it comes to 2021 GDP expectations for China, the World Bank expects the country to grow by 8 percent to 9 percent.

Looking forward to 2022, Eikon predicts that China’s GDP will grow by 1.6 percent more than the rest of the world, and 3.1 percent higher than America’s GDP expected growth rate in 2022.

Much like the pandemic was not in anyone’s economic forecast, if the global economy is in a commodity super-cycle, savvy investors will be ahead of the curve if a super-cycle materializes. 

Roth Conversion in 2021?

Roth Conversion in 2021?In 2020, a year when all income brackets benefited from lower tax rates, the stock market took a nosedive at the beginning of the pandemic. For investors sharp enough to see the opportunity, this was an ideal time to convert a traditional IRA into a Roth IRA.

When you conduct a Roth conversion, the assets are taxed at ordinary income tax rates in the year of the conversion. So, the best time to do this is when your current income tax rate is low and when your IRA account balance loses money due to declining market performance. Once you convert the account to a Roth, those assets continue to grow tax free and are no longer subject to taxes when withdrawn later.

If you believe those stocks will rebound, you can direct the traditional and new Roth IRA custodians to move the shares as they are, rather than selling them for cash. Or, if you are converting the entire account and choose to remain with the same brokerage, you can simply instruct the custodian to change the account type. This way you can keep the same investments, pay applicable taxes on the account balance at the time of the conversion, and then never have to pay taxes on future gains.

While the stock market did recover in 2020, many market analysts believe equities are currently overpriced and could experience another correction this year. On top of that, with Democrats now in control of the White House and both houses of Congress, many expect legislation that will increase income taxes, at least among wealthier households.

Therefore, in order to avoid higher taxes on a long-accumulated traditional IRA, 2021 might be a good year to conduct a Roth conversion. The key is to try to time that conversion with a market loss. By conducting a conversion before income taxes increase, you’ll pay a lower rate, and all future earnings can grow tax-free and be distributed tax-free. Bear in mind, too, that a Roth does not mandate required minimum distributions at any age. The full account balance of a Roth has the opportunity to continue growing for the rest of the owner’s life.

A Roth conversion is not the best strategy for everyone. Consider the following scenarios that are not ideal for conversion.

  • An investor under age 59½ will be assessed a penalty on newly converted Roth funds withdrawn in less than five years, so this might not work for an early retiree who needs immediate income.
  • If you expect to be in a lower tax bracket during retirement, you should wait until then to pay taxes on distributions of your traditional IRA. Also, if you think you might relocate to a state with lower or no state income tax during retirement, not converting eliminates state taxes on that money entirely.
  • Watch out for a bump in income taxes on a Roth conversion. You might not want to convert if those assets put you in a higher tax bracket during the year of conversion.
  • Also note that if you convert after age 65, higher income reported that year could increase premiums for Medicare Part B benefits, as well as taxes on Social Security benefits.
  • If the non-spousal IRA beneficiary is likely to remain in a lower tax bracket than the owner, he might as well leave the assets in the traditional IRA. Otherwise, the owner will waste more of his estate’s assets to pay taxes on the conversion.
  • If you don’t have available cash outside the traditional IRA to pay the taxes on the conversion, the money will come out of the account and substantially drop the value. Consider whether or not your investment timeline is long enough to make up for that loss.
  • If your goal is to leave that IRA money to a charity, don’t bother to convert. Qualified charities are exempt from taxes on donations.

If you’re planning to leave a Roth IRA to your heirs, they also enjoy tax-free distributions as long as that Roth was opened and funded for at least five years before you pass away. This is another reason why it might be better to convert to a Roth IRA sooner rather than later.

3 Best Ways to Save for College

Save for CollegeWhat if you could save enough for your child to go to college debt-free? It might sound impossible, but with dedication, hard work, and careful planning, you can do just that. According to Dave Ramsey, American personal finance advisor, here are the top three tax-favored plans to get started.

The Education Savings Account (ESA)

Otherwise known as the Education IRA, this plan allows you to save $2,000 (after tax) per year, per child. Let’s do that math. If you begin saving when your child is born and put away $2,000 a year until they’re 18, you’ll be investing $36,000. Not too shabby. And the good news is that qualified distributions are tax-free, which means you won’t have to pay anything when you withdraw the funds to pay for college. The other upside is, depending on the rate of growth, you’ll earn more than you would in a regular savings account. However, there are some caveats. You can’t contribute if you make more than $110,000 (single) or $220,000 (married filing jointly); the contribution cap is $2,000 a year; and the money must be used by the time your child is 30.

The 529 Plan

If you want to save more for your child’s education or you don’t qualify for the income limits of the ESA, then this might be a better fit because you can contribute up to $300,000, depending on what state you live in. Ramsey recommends you look for a 529 Plan that allows you to choose your investment funds. Also, he says most of the time there aren’t any income restrictions based on your child’s age; however, there are some limits, so choose wisely. This plan also grows tax-free. One thing to note: restrictions may apply if you want to transfer your funds to another child.

The UTMA or UGMA (Uniform Transfer/Gift to Minors Act)

One of the best things about these plans is they’re not just designed to save for education. For example, if your kiddo wants to take a gap year, this can cover living expenses. The account is set up in your child’s name but it’s controlled by a custodian (usually a parent or grandparent). The custodian manages the account until the child is 21 (18 for the UGMA). One of the pluses of this plan is that since the account is owned by the child, the earnings are usually taxed at the child’s rate, which is generally lower than that of the parents. For some people, the savings can be significant. However, there are two important things to know: (1) once your child is of legal age, she can use the funds however she likes (a trip to Europe, a sports car…or college?) and, (2) the beneficiary can’t be changed after selected.

While setting up a college fund is a smart goal, it’s not the only one. Prior to starting down these paths, Ramsey recommends that you consider paying off your mortgage, credit cards, and your own student loans. He also suggests setting up an emergency fund of three to six months and allocating 15 percent of your salary to retirement through a 401(k) and/or a Roth IRA. For more help, he recommends both parents and children read “Debt-Free Degree.” This book walks you through how to go to college without student loans.

Saving for an education might feel completely overwhelming, but if you start early enough, do your homework and create a solid plan, it’s absolutely possible.

Sources

https://www.daveramsey.com/blog/saving-for-college-is-easier-than-you-think

https://www.troweprice.com/personal-investing/accounts/general-investing/ugma-utma.html#:~:text=Because%20money%20placed%20in%20an,this%20savings%20can%20be%20significant.&text=Up%20to%20%241%2C050%20in%20earnings%20tax%2Dfree.&text=Any%20earnings%20over%20%242%2C100%20are%20taxed%20at%20the%20parent’s%20rate

Economic Stimulus, Making the Post Office Solvent Again, Gun Control, Voting Rights and Restricting China’s Influence

Gun Control, Voting RightsAmerican Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (HR 1319) – This $1.9 trillion relief bill provides stimulus money to address the continued impact of COVID-19. Provisions include issuing $1,400 checks to taxpayers, increasing the Child Tax Credit up to $3,000 and the dependent care credit to $4,000, and providing funds for schools, small businesses, renters and landlords, increased subsidies for Americans who buy individual health insurance, and $160 billion allocated toward vaccine development and distribution. The bill was introduced by Rep. John Yarmuth (D-KY) on Jan. 15, first passed in the House on Feb. 27 and in the Senate on March 6, and was signed into law by President Biden on March 11.

SAVE LIVES Act (HR 1276) – This bill was introduced by Rep. Mark Takano (D-CA) on Feb. 24. The legislation would authorize the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to furnish a COVID-19 vaccine to veterans ineligible for the VA health care system, who live abroad, and family caregivers of veterans, among others. The bill passed in the House on March 9 and in the Senate on March 17. It has been returned to the House for approval of changes.

USPS Fairness Act (HR 695) – This act would repeal the requirement that the U.S. Postal Service annually prepay future retiree benefits, decades in advance. The current mandate, which was signed into law in 2006, has since threatened the viability of the USPS. While the Post Office generates enough revenue to cover its operating costs, this prepayment of pension and retiree healthcare benefits has pushed its bottom line into the red. The bill was introduced by Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) on Feb. 2 and enjoys bipartisan support.

Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2021 (HR 1620) – This is a reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act of 1994, a popular law that protects and provides resources for victims of domestic abuse and sexual violence. The bill expired at the end of 2018 after Congress failed to act due to partisan disputes over guns and transgender issues. It was re-introduced by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) on March 8 and passed in the House on March 17. It is currently under consideration in the Senate.

Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2021 (HR 8) – This bill establishes new background check requirements for every firearm sale. It prohibits a firearm transfer between private parties unless a licensed gun dealer, manufacturer or importer first takes possession of the firearm to conduct a background check. The bill was introduced by Rep. Mike Thompson (D-CA) on March 1 and passed in the House on March 11. This bill is currently under review in the Senate.

For the People Act of 2021 (HR 1) – This bill was introduced by Rep. John Sarbanes (D-MD) on Jan. 4 and passed in the House on March 3. It is currently under consideration in the Senate. The purpose of this legislation is to protect and expand voter rights. Specifically, the bill:

  • Expands voter registration (automatic and same-day registration)
  • Increases voting access (vote-by-mail and early voting)
  • Prohibits removing voters from voter rolls
  • Requires states to establish an independent commission to deploy congressional redistricting
  • Establishes provisions related to election security, including sharing intelligence information with state election officials and supporting states in securing their election systems
  • Prohibits campaign spending by foreign nationals, requires additional disclosure of campaign-related fundraising and spending, mandates additional disclaimers in political advertising, and establishes an alternative campaign funding system for certain federal offices
  • Establishes additional conflict-of-interest and ethics provisions for personnel who work in the three branches of government
  • Requires the president, the vice president, and certain candidates for those offices to disclose 10 years of tax returns

CONFUCIUS Act (S 590) – This bill, also referred to as the Concerns Over Nations Funding University Campus Institutes in the United States Act, is designed to mitigate China’s influence on U.S. post-secondary educational institutions that are directly or indirectly funded by the Chinese government. Specifically, educational institutions contracted with Confucius Institutes that also receive federal funding must include provisions in those agreements that prohibit the application of foreign law on those campuses and grant full control over teaching plans, activities, research grants and employment decisions to the U.S. university. The act was introduced by Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) on March 4 and passed in the Senate on the same day. It is currently under consideration in the House.

Four Essential Questions You Should Ask Your Tax Professional This Season Related to COVID-19

Good tax professionals ask the right questions to ensure they understand your situation and can help you to the best extent the law allows. Given the host of pandemic-related tax changes for 2020, it’s good to keep these four questions below in mind. If your tax preparer doesn’t ask these questions in your tax organizer or during a meeting, raise them yourself.

1. Did you receive your stimulus payment?

Not everyone received all the stimulus they were entitled to. As a result, the amount of your stimulus payments needs to be reconciled on your 2020 tax return to calculate if you qualify for the Recovery Rebate Credit.

The way the Recovery Rebate Credit works is that if you qualified for stimulus payments but didn’t receive them, then you’ll receive a credit on your 2020 tax return. On the other hand, if you received too much, there is no impact to your refund or balance due. You can’t lose here, so make sure you discuss your stimulus payments.

2. Did you work remotely? If so, when and where?

As a result of the pandemic, a lot of people worked from home for all or part of the year. If you lived in the same state you worked in, then there’s no cause for concern or further investigation. In situations where workers lived and therefore worked remotely in a different state than they normally would have commuted to when going into the office, then there could be an issue.

If you worked from another state for any part of the year, make sure you ask your tax preparer about this so you can understand the filing requirements in each state and any nexus issues. Just remember that if you are a W-2 employee, it doesn’t matter if you worked from your home, there is no home office deduction unless you’re self-employed.

3. Did you take any distributions from your retirement accounts in 2020 due to COVID-related circumstances?

Typically, early distributions from tax-advantaged retirement accounts such as 401(k) and IRAs are subject to a 10 percent penalty. There are provisions in the law that allowed penalty-free distributions in 2020 under certain circumstances related to COVID-19. Also, the income from distributions is spread over three years, which can further reduce the overall tax rate (unless you elected to tax it all in the year of distribution).

If you took distributions from a retirement account and were impacted by COVID-19, make sure your tax professional is aware of these exceptions; and ask the right questions to see if you qualify for any of the preferential treatment.

4. Are you self-employed and missed work because you were sick with the coronavirus or needed to care for someone who was ill with it?

Under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), those who are self-employed can be eligible for sick and family leave credits if they or a family member had coronavirus and couldn’t work between April 1 and Dec. 31, 2020, as a result. If eligible, your tax preparer will file Form 7202 with your Form 1040 to make the claim.

Conclusion

Doing the best as a tax preparer means knowing your client’s situation and circumstances. There’s a good chance your tax professional is already on top of the COVID-19 changes, but it’s good to keep the questions above in mind just in case.

Some Businesses Rely on Line of Credit to Escape Damages Caused by Pandemic

As businesses attempt to work their way through to a post-pandemic world, there are various means to bridge the financial gap. As recommended by the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), some companies can use a line of credit to reach international customers or opportunities outside the United States to make up for the damage COVID-19 caused with fewer domestic sales. How can businesses use a line of credit to increase their chance of survival and pivot to profitability as we move through 2021?

According to Debt.org, a business line of credit functions like any other line of credit that uses revolving debt. Businesses use a portion of their line of credit to meet financial obligations and repay based on the lender’s terms. Common lines of credit borrowing limits can range from $1,000 to $250,000 and are generally not secured against the business’ assets, accounts receivables, etc.

As a U.S. Bank study found, via the National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB), 82 percent of companies that go out of business do so because of inadequate cash flow management. The NFIB and U.S. Bank study explains that an inability to purchase inventory, satisfy employee payroll, on-board workers, or obtain some sort of financing increases the likelihood of a business failing.

However, businesses that are approved for and use a line of credit for meeting payroll, purchasing raw materials and items necessary to keep their business running (including rent or lease payments), greatly increases the business’s chance of survival. So, as revenues and profits shrink, employers can tap their line of credit to increase the chances of surviving.

Business Survivability Considerations

Continuous access to funds allows owners to have greater control over a business’s finances and helps them make better growth-driven decisions. For example, Noam Wasserman, a Harvard Business School professor, explains that oftentimes outside investors force founders out of their company – only half of founders were still the CEO three years after the business’s inception. If a line of credit gives the business enough financial flexibility, then the founders can stay in control.

Another way to leverage a line of credit is highlighted in the SBA export assistance programs due to COVID-19-related losses. Small business owners that export products directly, or indirectly to a third party that does the exporting, may be eligible.

Prior to a company completing a sale to an international client, or for prospecting for new international export markets, businesses can apply for a line of credit or a term note, up to $500,000, under the SBA’s Export Express loan program.

Through the SBA’s Export Working Capital loan program, approved applicants can obtain as much as $5 million in financing or a revolving line of credit related to the firm’s export-related business. This assistance also can help businesses better fulfill export orders as well as provide financial assistance for additional ex-U.S. sales. The financing can assist in keeping international orders through more favorable payment options for their foreign customers.

While there is never a guarantee that a business will survive, today’s companies that take advantage of different lending options, such as a line of credit, have a better chance to set themselves up for the post-COVID-19 recovery.

Sources

https://www.sba.gov/page/coronavirus-covid-19-small-business-guidance-loan-resources

Personal Lines of Credit

Why Do Small Businesses Fail?

https://hbr.org/2008/02/the-founders-dilemma

How Will Surging Oil Prices Impact the Economy in 2021?

Now that the Keystone XL pipeline is being shut down and southern parts of the United States are experiencing extremely cold weather, how will increasing oil prices impact the economy as the COVID-19 vaccine is being rolled out?

With West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude closing at $58.22 per barrel on Feb. 11, 2021, and likely higher due to the cold snap in the United States, the price of oil is expected to impact the U.S. and global economy.

Consumer Demand

One of the major impacts of increasing oil prices is the rising price of gasoline. With higher oil prices rippling throughout the economy, understanding how it impacts consumers is one way to see how the economy in 2021 is likely to perform.

As the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco points out, there’s a close correlation in pricing between gasoline and crude oil pricing. They point out that WTI and what American consumers pay for gasoline to fill up their car track each other quite closely — as oil prices increase, so do consumer prices for gasoline.

Historic Price Trends in Relation to Today

When it comes to looking at how oil prices impact inflation, looking at historical prices gives helpful insight. In the 1970s, the price of oil increased tenfold, from $3 in 1973 (pre-oil crisis) to more than $30, due to Middle East tensions in 1978-1979 resulting from the Iranian Revolution, according to The Federal Reserve and the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).

However, as time progressed beyond the two oil crises of the 1970s, this correlation became weaker. When the 1980s began, so did the association between oil prices and rising inflation. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) explains this rapid increase in the cost of oil drove the consumer price index (CPI), one way to measure inflation, from 41.20 in the beginning of 1972 to 86.30 as 1980 came to a close. As the BLS illustrates how the 1970s experienced high inflation, it took three times as long (24 years) for the CPI to double between 1941-1971.

With the two Oil Shocks passed, the 1980s and the 1990s ushered in a new divergence of how oil prices ultimately impacted what consumers paid for oil and oil-dependent products. This is illustrated by looking at the impact of the Producer Price Index (PPI), or wholesale cost, versus how consumers ultimately felt, or the Consumer Price Index (CPI).

CPI and PPI Data and Oil Prices

Looking at the CPI, especially in the 1990s, statistics from the EIA show that the price per barrel of crude oil went from $14 to $30 in six months. However, data from the BLS shows that CPI started at 134.6 in January 1991, eventually reaching 137.9 in December 1991.

Later, from 1999 to 2005, the EIA’s data shows the price of a barrel of oil jumped from $16.50 to $50. While the price nearly tripled, the BLS’ CPI jumped from 164.30 in January 1999 to 196.80 in December 2005, an increase of 33.5 over nearly six years.   

Looking at the Producer Price Index (PPI) data, per the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, from 1970 to 2017, the correlation was 0.71. For the CPI, during the same time frame, it was only 0.27. The difference between the CPI and PPI, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, is due to the higher proportion of services provided in the United States, which are less oil-reliant for raw materials.

External Factors

With the expected relief payment of $1,400 per individual and additional money allotted for dependents, coupled with continuing vaccinations and the reopening on the U.S. and global economies, there’s much stimulus expected to provide consumers with a financial cushion. However, with the increased spending by the federal government and pressure on the U.S. dollar, only time will tell how the price of crude oil will impact consumer spending and company earnings.

The Impact of COVID on Life Insurance

If someone you know died from COVID-19 and had an existing life insurance policy, there should be no problem receiving the death benefit. The terms of a life insurance contract cannot be changed after purchase, so anyone with a policy before the pandemic will continue to be covered as long as premiums are paid.

However, the life insurance industry is in a quandary right now when it comes to new applicants applying for policies.

Some insurers have placed an age limit on applicants to whom they will sell policies. Travelers who have recently visited countries with a significant outbreak and people currently infected with the virus are generally asked to wait until after they have quarantined or recovered to apply for life insurance. While the coronavirus has had a high fatality rate among people age 65 and older, the death rate has fluctuated among demographics over the past year as the virus spread from metropolitan areas to more rural parts of the country.

With this in mind, now is probably one of the most challenging times to apply for a life insurance policy. In the past, applicants have had to answer standard questions regarding their medical history. Today, most also will have to disclose if they have been treated for COVID-19. Bear in mind that even people who did not become severely ill could suffer medical conditions in the future resulting from the infection. However, it is best to answer that question honestly, because any future claims could be denied if it is found the applicant lied about his or her COVID experience on the application.

As the data continues to be assessed, it is likely that insurers will adjust their terms and rates in response to the recent pandemic. It is possible, in fact quite probable, that data pointing to enduring effects of COVID-19 will be included in life insurance underwriting standards in the future. This could increase premiums for COVID-19 survivors – or result in denial of coverage altogether.

In the past, there were life insurers that sold low-cost, low-payout policies without a medical exam or extensive health questions. But these days, given how quickly the coronavirus can take a life, applicants age 60 and older would be hard-pressed to qualify for one of those “guaranteed issue” policies.

In fact, pre-existing health conditions such as diabetes and asthma – which are highly susceptible to the ravages of the coronavirus – may undergo more scrutiny in the future. While pre-existing conditions are no longer a qualifying issue for health insurance, they are very much a part of the life insurance underwriting process and do increase individual premiums.

There is one silver lining for life insurance applicants: Some insurers have eliminated the normally required physical exam due to social distancing restrictions. Others have opted to postpone the in-person exam but offer immediate temporary coverage with a limited death benefit. A couple of life insurers in Connecticut and Massachusetts even offer a free, three-year term life policy to frontline workers in appreciation for their work during the pandemic. Eligible applicants include in-hospital personnel and first responders who have the greatest risk of exposure to the coronavirus.

Anyone who has lost their income due to the pandemic and is in danger of not being able to pay life insurance premiums should call their carrier to see if there are options to continue coverage. Some companies have agreed to defer premiums for up to 90 days rather than cancel coverage for people likely to find employment soon. It’s a good idea to call and find out rather than miss payments and hope your insurance company chooses not to notice.