Small Business Reorganization Act of 2019 (HR 3311) – Scheduled to take effect starting in February 2020, this new law offers small businesses more agreeable terms when filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy status. The bill gives owners:
- More time (90 days) to file a reorganization plan with easier rules for extension
- The ability to retain ownership of the company even if debts are not paid in full
- A new formula for debt payments based on projected disposable income over three to five years
- Reduced red tape through the appointment of a “standing trustee” (instead of a credit committee) to oversee the reorganization process
- A more “fair and equitable” process to determine owner and creditor equity interests
- More protection against creditor ability to take away personal assets, such as a home
This bill was introduced by Rep. Ben Cline (R-VA) on June 18 and signed into law by the president on Aug. 23.
HAVEN Act (HR 2938) – Introduced on May 23 by Rep. Lucy McBath (D-GA), this legislation was enacted on Aug. 23. It stands for “Honoring American Veterans in Extreme Need.” The new bill eliminates veterans’ disability benefits (joining the status of Social Security payouts) from being included as income for the purpose of determining how much a veteran who files for personal bankruptcy must pay creditors.
National Guard and Reservists Debt Relief Extension Act of 2019 (HR 3304) – This bill was introduced by Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) on June 18 and signed into law on Aug. 23. The legislation reauthorizes an exemption to certain bankruptcy means-testing for members of the National Guard and Reserves (serving on active duty or in a homeland defense activity for at least 90 days) who file for bankruptcy.
Family Farmer Relief Act of 2019 (HR 2366) – This legislation increases the Chapter 12 operating debt cap to $10 million, which will enable more family farmers to seek relief under the U.S. Bankruptcy Code. The bill was introduced on April 3 by Rep. Antonio Delgado (D-NY) and was signed into law by the president on Aug. 23.
Creating Advanced Streamlined Electronic Services for Constituents Act of 2019 (HR 1079) – This bill mandates the Office of Management and Budget to create a private, secure electronic submission process to request assistance for government services such as Social Security, Medicare, Veterans Affairs or any other federal agency. The legislation was introduced on Feb. 7 by Rep. Garrett Graves (R-LA). The president signed the bill into law on Aug. 22.
Emergency Medical Services for Children Program Reauthorization Act of 2019 (HR 776) – This bill reauthorizes (through fiscal year 2024) the Emergency Medical Services for Children Program. This is a grant program administered by the Health Resources and Services Administration that works to improve emergency healthcare for children who are seriously ill or injured. The legislation was sponsored by Rep. Peter King (R-NY). It was introduced on Jan. 24 and signed into law by the president on Aug. 22.
The rise in the number of data breaches reported every other day has become a major concern – even to the ordinary internet user. As a result, we have all become aware of the need to maintain privacy while online. One of the measures promising to keep you safe on the internet is the use of a virtual private network (VPN). But before rushing to install one of the many VPNs available, it’s important to understand what a VPN is, why you need it, if it is foolproof and other ways to stay safe on the internet.
What is a VPN?
The VPN service lets you browse the internet privately by masking your IP address – the unique address identifying your device on the web. It also encrypts your internet traffic as it passes through a secure tunnel created from your device to a remote server. Your data appears to be coming from the remote server. This means that a VPN can hide your geographical location, personal data, web browsing history, spending habits and mobile phone activities.
Initially, VPNs were built for business environments to help a business operate a secure network connection. But with today’s cyber security concerns, they have become popular and more widespread.
Why Would You Need to Use a VPN?
There are numerous reasons why a person would need to enlist the services of a VPN company. Here are some situations that require the use of a VPN:
- Since Congress cleared the way for ISPs to sell users’ browsing history without their consent, privacy is a thing of the past. This means that an internet service provider can sell your browsing data to third parties. A VPN can mask your IP address from your service provider.
- The encryption offered by VPNs guards against digital threats, hacking, malware attacks and identify theft.
- VPNs help keep hackers and marketers from tracking your movement online.
- If you travel to a country where you can’t access some sites, for instance in China where Facebook is not allowed, a VPN will help you stay in touch on any of these blocked sites.
- When using public Wi-Fi in airports or any other place that offers free Wi-Fi, a VPN comes in handy.
- Employers who have workers going out for field work or working remotely can set up a VPN to help access company networks securely.
- Used by whistleblowers, law enforcement agencies, investigative journalists and others who want to shield their identities or location.
- For user with Voice over IP (VOIP) for making calls, a VPN will help prevent your phone conversations from being tracked or intercepted.
- When you need to visit questionable websites but want to be safe. For instance, when your identity is stolen and you want to find the website selling your data.
The Bad Side of Using a VPN
Although a VPN service may sound perfect for internet security, it also has some disadvantages. Keep in mind that your internet service provider may no longer have your data, but the VPN provider now has access to it.
A VPN is not 100 percent guaranteed. The VPN provider could be disconnected or there could be a Domain Name Server (DNS) leak. Even with advanced features such as kill switch, VPN data can still leak through software, hardware or other means.
If you fail to use the right VPN, you’ll be in more problems than you are running from. Some VPNs (especially the free services) keep log files. There is no telling where your private data will end up. They could end up selling your data to third parties or supplying your information to the government.
These services also slow down your internet access speed due to the process of data encryption and tunneling network traffic to a remote server that is used to connect you to the internet.
A VPN doesn’t protect you from viruses and malware.
Other Security Measures
Since a VPN is not foolproof, it is important that you also observe other security measures to protect your privacy.
It is crucial that you practice digital privacy hygiene. In other words, when online you should limit the amount of personal information that you share. This will help minimize your digital footprint.
Investing in quality antivirus software will protect your device from malware and viruses.
Regularly check if your data has been compromised. Check for strange activity in your emails, social media accounts and even in your bank account.
Use strong passwords or other security features such as biometrics to secure your accounts.
You may come across many different types of products and services that promise to keep you safe on the internet. The bottom line is, it’s up to you to protect yourself. A combination of several security measures is a good starting point – the use of a VPN, strong passwords and antivirus programs.
No matter how old your children are, it’s always a good idea to start saving for college as soon as possible. (Yes, even when they’re still in diapers.) This might sound overwhelming, especially if you haven’t started, but take heart, it’s never too late. Here are a few things to do before you start saving, as well as smart ways to gather the resources you’ll need.
Figure Out How Much College Will Cost
Is your child interested in a state school? A small private university? Or a trade school? Create a list of schools, do the math and figure out a ballpark number of how much you’ll need. When you do this, you can calculate how much per month or year you need to set aside. The truth is that state schools are generally a lot less expensive. However, because private universities rely heavily on private donations, they also have a healthy number of scholarships available. If your child is more interested in a trade school, these can be even more affordable, depending on what they want to study.
Create a Long-Term Spreadsheet for All Your Expenses
You may want your children to go to college, but that’s not the only goal for a family. There’s saving for your own retirement, paying your mortgage and credit card bills. You’ll also want to save for emergencies. A good rule of thumb is to save up for three to six months of expenses. All of this might sound tough, but if you create a priority list, it’s absolutely possible.
Start an Education Savings Account (ESA)
Also known as an Education IRA, this fund allows you to save $2,000 (after taxes) per child, per year. And here’s the best part: it grows tax-free! You’ll also most likely earn a higher rate of return than you would with a regular savings account. But know this: you must be within the income limit to qualify; contributions are limited to $2,000 a year; and the money must be used by the time your child is 30.
Consider a 529 Plan
If the ESA sounds too limiting or you don’t meet the income limits, then a 529 Plan is a great option. You can contribute up to $300,000, but this varies by state. What’s more, most of the time there aren’t any income limits or restrictions based on age. And again, the cherry on top: it grows tax-free. But something to be mindful of when you’re shopping for a plan is whether you want to choose the funds you invest in through the account. Some 529s offer preselected funds or automatically change your investments based on the age of your child. Also, restrictions may apply if you choose to transfer your 529 Plan to another child.
Look into a UTMA or UGMA
Otherwise known as Uniform Transfer/Gift to Minors Act, this option is different because it is not created just for college savings. The account will be set up in your child’s name, but it will be controlled by a custodian, which is usually a parent or grandparent. When your child turns 21, the control of the account transfers to the child. While there are tax advantages for you, a significant downside is that your child can use the funds any way she wants. (College or trip to Vegas?)
Saving for college, especially these days, might seem daunting. But it’s not impossible. In fact, if you chart a course and stick to it, you’ll be in good shape when those little ones of yours become all grown up.
Statistics indicate that the average life expectancy is longer than it used to be, but empirically we see this every day among elderly people who have lived much longer than they probably expected. This phenomenon spotlights a particular component of retirement planning that was not as significant in the past as it is now: long-term inflation.
While we’ve not experienced annual inflation rates this century as high as the latter part of the 20th century, inflation can balloon at any time. But what can be even more devastating to a retiree on a fixed income is cumulative inflation over time. It’s also important to recognize that specific consumer product inflation rates can differ substantially from the averages.
For example, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the cost (not always the price a consumer pays) of an oil change in 2000 was about $20. However, motor oil, coolant and fluids have experienced an average inflation rate of 5.66 percent per year – so in 2019 the cost of providing an oil change was about $56.89. That’s a 184.45 percent increase in less than 20 years for a common household expense during a normal retirement timeframe.
To build a portfolio designed to provide inflation-adjusted income throughout a long retirement, consider the following tactics.
Optimize Your Social Security Benefits
Social Security benefits receive periodic cost of living adjustments (COLA) based on the Consumer Price Index (CPI), which is a weighted average of prices of common goods and services purchased by all urban consumers. However, retirees spend more of their household income on goods and services that experience higher levels of inflation, such as medical services. Therefore, Social Security benefit increases might not keep up with a retiree’s actual cost of living – especially over time.
That’s why it’s important to consider inflation in order to optimize your Social Security benefits. In other words, except for people in exceedingly poor health (expected to die within a few years) or in dire circumstances, it’s a good idea to delay starting Social Security benefits as long as you can. If you can wait until age 70, benefits will increase by as much as 8 percent each 12-month period past your full retirement age. Delaying not only increases the level of income you’ll receive each month, but it also gives you more time to save money for retirement and allows your investments more time to grow.
Another way to inflation-proof your retirement portfolio is to allocate a portion of assets to investments that tend to increase at the same pace as inflation. The following are some options you might want to consider.
- Series I Savings Bond – The I-Bond, guaranteed by the federal government, helps protect an investor from creeping inflation in a couple of ways. First, the I-Bond credits the holder’s account with a fixed interest rate plus the annualized inflation rate from the preceding six months. Second, the account value does not drop when prices fall.
- TIPS – Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS) are marketable securities whose principal increases and decreases in tandem with the inflation rate (adjusted every six months). However, the coupon rate is fixed, so payouts vary based only on the inflation-adjusted principal. Upon maturity, the investor receives the greater of the adjusted principal or the original principal.
- CIPS – Corporate Inflation Protected Securities (CIPS) are similar to TIPS, but they invest in corporate bonds and typically pay a higher yield that combines a fixed payout plus the variable CPI rate. Unlike TIPS, they are not guaranteed by the U.S. government but are backed by the financial strength of the issuing company.
- REITS – A Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT) pays out reliable dividend income that tends to rise with inflation. REITS own or finance a diversified portfolio of income-producing real estate, such as office buildings, apartment buildings, warehouses, retail centers or hotels. REIT dividends have outpaced inflation in all but two of the past 20 years, according to the National Association of Real Estate Investment Trusts.
- IPA – With an inflation-protected annuity (IPA), initial income payouts are low but rise over time to align with long-term inflation, based on a formula linked to the CPI. A differentiating benefit of an IPA is that it offers issuer-guaranteed income for life, so the retiree doesn’t have to worry about reinvesting assets during later stages of retirement.
It is a good idea to work with a financial advisor to incorporate inflation-resistant investments for your retirement portfolio based on your individual objectives, tolerance for risk and timeline.
With the United States Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agriculture Service announcing a purchase of 204,000 metric tons of U.S. soybeans by private Chinese importers, there are hopes that the trade war is beginning to dissipate.
Seeing that the last significant purchase of U.S. soybeans by China was in June, professional traders see the September acquisitions as a potential weakening of the U.S.-China trade war. With the USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service announcing more than 600,000 tons of U.S. soybeans purchased by private Chinese operators on Sept. 13, 16 and 17, there are signs of positive movement between the two nations.
The shipments are expected to leave between October and December from ports in the Pacific Northwest. Looking at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, soybean futures hit monthly highs on Sept. 16. Coupled with November futures contracts well off their lows, this shows renewed promise. The purchase of soybeans is part of China’s gesture of goodwill to buy other agricultural products, such as pork, during ongoing trade negotiations.
These recent developments are important because China increased tariffs on American soybeans by 25 percent in July 2018 in response to the Trump Administration’s tariffs. On Sept. 1, 2019, U.S. soybeans were subject to another 5 percent in import tariffs by China.
The Context of Soybean Sales
Based on data from the United States International Trade Commission (USITC), there was a drop in soy exports from the U.S. to China to $3.1 billion, or 18 percent of U.S. soybean exports for 2018.
The 2018 U.S. soybean export figure to China represents a drop of 75 percent, compared to 2017’s U.S. sales exports of soybeans worth $12.2 billion to China. The large drop in 2018 is also noteworthy against U.S. exports of soybeans to China in 2016 of $10.5 billion. This drop was directly attributable to trade tensions.
It’s important to note that soybeans are America’s biggest agricultural export (16 percent of all agricultural exports) – $20.9 billion annually on average between 2014 and 2018. With China importing more than 50 percent of U.S. soy over the past 60 months, it illustrates why the trade war has been so impactful. In response to the sharp drop in exports to China, 2018 began the quest for U.S. growers of soybeans to counteract the $9.1 billion drop in soy exports to China by finding new buyers in Mexico, the European Union and Egypt.
Similarly, as the Congressional Research Service points out, trade talks are working toward building upon an existing $12.9 billion of U.S. agricultural exports to Japan, as of 2018. Current talks have expectations for an additional $7 billion in U.S. agricultural exports to Japan. Soybeans, along with dairy, wine, beef and pork, are examples of agricultural imports Japan is willing to buy, based on soon-to-be released details from finalized U.S.-Japanese trade talks.
However, despite maintaining a competitive or even subpar price against competitor nations such as Brazil, it didn’t sway the Chinese to buy more American soy. Much like American farmers and with China’s state-influenced help, there may be long-term, structural changes for future Chinese soybean purchases even if trade tensions subside. However, China also has established new suppliers of soybeans from Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Russia.
While many do expect a trade deal between the United States and China, there could very well be structural and long-lasting changes on how both countries conduct trade for years to come.