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

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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

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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?

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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

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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.

5 Cities Rank as Ideal Locations for Remote Workers

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According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, in late spring of 2020 about half of American workers were working from home. Not surprisingly, many researchers believe that this pattern will continue after the pandemic is over. With this in mind, SmartAsset has examined the best cities to work from home in 2021 and evaluated them across seven metrics: percentage of those who worked at home; estimated percentage of those who can work at home; five-year change of percentage of those who worked at home; October 2020 unemployment rate; poverty rate; housing costs as a percentage of earnings; and percentage of residences with two or more bedrooms. Here’s what they learned:

  1. Scottsdale, Arizona. In 2019, Census Bureau data shows that about 18 percent of people worked from home, a 6.7 percent increase from 2014. This sunny city also has the fourth-highest estimated percentage of workforce who can work from home and the third-lowest 2019 poverty rate, which is 6 percent. When you’re not inside at your computer, you can enjoy the desert tranquility of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve, restaurants and shops of Old Town Scottsdale, and the largest model train display in North America at McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park.
  2. Raleigh, North Carolina. Even before COVID-19, a large percentage of people worked from home here, much like Scottsdale. In 2019, 10.5 percent of the workforce did so remotely, which is the fourth-highest for this metric. Raleigh also ranks in the top quartile for two other metrics: it has the 18th-lowest October 2020 unemployment rate (5.3 percent) and 21st-lowest poverty rate (10.9 percent). Raleigh is known as the “city of oaks,” which makes it a beautiful place to live. Even better, you can celebrate all four seasons and it’s only a few hours from the mountains. Plus, homes are some of the most affordable in the nation.
  3. Plano, Texas. Just north of Dallas, Plano ranks in the top 10 percent for three metrics: percentage of people who worked from home in 2019 (9.6 percent), estimated percentage of people who are able to work from home (35.44 percent) and 2019 poverty rate (7.5 percent). Also, Plano has the 14th-lowest October 2020 unemployment rate, at 5.2 percent. Best thing about Plano: it has all the restaurants, shops and amenities of Dallas without the traffic. And, there are numerous parks for walking, hiking, biking and swimming.
  4. Gilbert, Arizona. This locale ranks as one of the best places to buy an affordable home. In fact, data from the Census Bureau shows that 96.3 percent of apartments and homes in Gilbert have two or more bedrooms, which is the highest percentage for this metric. Additionally, it has a relatively low poverty rate (4.6 percent). Main attractions include bird watching at the Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch, holiday shows at the Hale Centre Theatre, and delicious produce at the Gilbert Farmer’s Market.
  5. St. Petersburg, Florida. As of October 2020, the greater Pinellas County unemployment rate was just 5.2 percent. That’s 1.5 percentage points below the national average. What’s more, the percentage of people working from home grew by 4.6 percent in St. Petersburg from 2014 to 2019, the third-highest increase in the study. If you love sugar-sand beaches, you’re in luck: there are many to fall in love with. But you can also enjoy cultural outings like a visit to the Dali Museum and the Chihuly Collection.

Some of the other best cities for working remotely include Durham and Charlotte, North Carolina; Colorado Springs, Colorado; Austin, Texas; and Fremont, California. These days, working from home is the rule, rather than the exception it was years ago. In these challenging, uncertain times, it’s nice to know there are places you can thrive.

Sources

https://smartasset.com/checking-account/best-cities-to-work-from-home-2021

https://www.tripadvisor.com/Attractions-g31350-Activities-Scottsdale_Arizona.html

https://www.raleighrealtyhomes.com/blog/moving-to-raleigh.html

How AI Chatbots are Transforming Businesses

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When a business moves its services online, it runs the risk of losing the close connection it had with customers. This affects customer loyalty and sometimes means lost revenue. Thanks to technology, some businesses have deployed artificial intelligence (AI) chatbots to keep customers engaged in a two-way conversation. 

What is an AI Chatbot?

An AI chatbot is a piece of software powered by artificial intelligence that is placed on websites and other applications to interact with humans.

Chatbots are not a new technology, and it’s worth noting that there is a difference between AI chatbots and flow chatbots. Flow chatbots follow a pre-determined path defined by a developer; AI chatbots are self-trained, meaning they give feedback depending on the information supplied by the customer. They use natural language processing and machine learning technology to turn complex business interactions into simple conversations through text or voice.

This makes AI chatbots smarter because they learn over time.

According to a report by Markets and Markets, the conversational AI market is expected to grow from $4.8 billion in the year 2020 to $13.9 billion by 2025.   

AI Chatbots in Business

AI is no longer reserved for large enterprises only. Small businesses can now leverage conversational chatbots on applications such as Facebook.

The demand for chatbots has been driven by customers who need round-the-clock assistance from businesses. In most cases, businesses are slow to adapt to new technologies – especially because of the related costs. But the many benefits of AI chatbots make it worth adopting. Below are some of the ways that AI chatbots are being used in businesses:

  • Customer inquiries – The bots help reduce customer service workload and can serve customers outside typical working hours. This means there is no need to struggle to manually respond to inquiries as the AI chatbots can be used to automate customer feedback, including in emails. The customers also no longer have to wait a long time to connect with a customer care representative.
  • Personalizing interactions – conversational AI helps personalize interactions relevant to each user. AI chatbots learn the behavior of a client to provide personalized conversations.
  • Data analysis – Businesses have a greater understanding of their clientele once the conversational data is analyzed.
  • Sales representatives – they offer product suggestions for customers who are not sure what they are looking for.
  • Lead qualifying – instant feedback helps keep a prospect interested and eventually turn them into a paying customer.
  • Candidate vetting – Interested applicants converse with the AI chatbot, which then helps to filter for new hires.
  • Free HR staff time – for businesses that have many employees, the conversational chatbots help answer employee questions depending on their job function, geographical location and date. It’s also useful in reminding employees of tasks that need to be completed. This frees time for the HR staff to concentrate on other tasks that help improve job satisfaction and reduce staff turnover.
  • Increased engagement – the ability to answer emails and queries instantly helps keep the customer engaged. This enhances a business brand differentiation.
  • Fast information retrieval – a human can take a long time to retrieve information, especially for an e-commerce or real estate business. AI chatbots easily connect to the database and provide feedback in real-time as they serve as an internal knowledge base.
  •  Integration with other applications – AI chatbots are integrated with robotic process automation, enterprise resource planning or customer relationship management systems to carry out further tasks. Such tasks include booking appointments, filling out forms and making recommendations.
  • Easy scalability – chatbots handle multiple conversations simultaneously. This means that even when a business grows, the bots still handle large volumes of chats without affecting business costs.
  • In digital marketing – businesses are using AI chatbots to support the collection of customer data, new product launches, lead generation, and to increase brand loyalty.

Conclusion

AI technology is continuously progressing and no doubt chatbots will also keep changing.

As with every technology, there are some limitations, such as lack of emotional intelligence that affects the depth and scope of a conversation. This means that there are still complex communications that will require humans.

Nonetheless, having AI chatbots as an additional resource to run a business is a sure way to help boost revenue, improve customer experience, and provide a competitive advantage.

However, before jumping on the bandwagon, it is best to first identify areas in your business where you can deploy AI chatbots.

 

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