Broker Check

Looking Beyond the Abyss

April 15, 2020

We vividly recall the financial crisis of 2008. The economy was quickly contracting, several financial institutions required bailouts, layoffs abounded, and the stock market plunged.

But we weren’t grappling with fear tied to a health crisis then. We could attend the theater, eat at a restaurant, travel, or enjoy a live sports event. The roots of today’s crisis are different, and nowadays we are in the midst of both an economic and health crisis. Activities outside the home have been greatly curtailed.

It’s unsettling for everyone.

As we are all aware, the speed of the decline in stocks has been swift. Since the February 19 peak, the S&P 500 Index shed 34%, plummeting to its most recent low on March 23 (St. Louis Federal Reserve data).

The pace of the sell-off can be traced to the enormous amount of uncertainty tied to shutting down major portions of the economy. What will its ultimate impact be? The brightest minds continue to debate this.

I strenuously counsel against trying to time the market. Many analysts are experts at their craft, but they don’t have a lock on the future. There are too many unknown variables.

Unless your financial situation and short-term needs have materially changed, it is important that you stick with your long-term plan as your guide, as the plan is likely rooted in the precept that the U.S. and global economy expands over time…and with it, so do equities.

Nobody truly knows what will happen next year, but the long-term historical trend has been favorable.  Try to keep your long-term financial goals in mind and ignore the noise, even during these trying times.

A bounce off the bottom

Since last month’s low, the S&P 500 Index rallied 25% through April 9. Technically, a 20% rally from the market’s bottom constitutes a new bull market–technically. As of April 9, the S&P 500 Index was a modest 16% below its February 19 peak (St. Louis Fed data). The recovery has been cautiously encouraging, and I believe there are three variables that can be cited.

First, the federal government passed the CARES Act. The bill includes over $2 trillion in spending, generous jobless benefits, loans and grants to businesses, stimulus checks, and more. It offers a much more aggressive response than in 2008. More will be needed, but it’s a good start.

Second, the Federal Reserve has aggressively responded. Pre-crisis, there were questions whether the Fed had the necessary tools in its tool kit, given that interest rates were already low. Apparently, they do.

With much greater speed than in 2008, the Fed has launched numerous programs aimed at propping up the economy–from big business to Main Street.

The two-pronged attack has not been executed flawlessly, but it has cautiously encouraged investors to dip their toes back into stocks. While the economic outlook remains fluid, investors are trying to discern some form of an economic recovery in the second half of the year.

Third, there are signs the virus may be peaking. An April 12 headline in Bloomberg News offered a cautiously upbeat headline: “CDC Says U.S. Near Peak; 70 Vaccines in Pipeline.” With signs that new cases may be peaking, talk is surfacing over how to best reopen shuttered industries.

Q2 will be ugly

The St. Louis Federal Reserve estimates that GDP, the largest measure of economic activity, could contract at an annualized pace of 50% in Q2. That’s unprecedented. Yet, forecasts vary widely. In reality, we don’t know how steep the downturn may be during the April-June period.

In just a three-week period, the number of first time claims for jobless benefits totaled an astounding 17 million (Dept. of Labor). For perspective, during the 18-month long 2007-09 recession (as defined by the NBER), first-time claims totaled 9.6 million.

A sharp contraction in the economy in Q2 is expected, and layoffs are the first, bitter fruits of the economic crisis.

However–and I believe this is important–the discouraging number of layoffs was brushed aside by investors. The more familiar Dow Jones Industrial Average added 2,107 points over the three days (respective Thursdays) when the massive number of new claims was released (St. Louis Fed).

It’s not that bad news for Main Street is a reason for Wall Street to celebrate; far from it.

We are in uncharted economic territory, and the future is quite opaque. But the rally in stocks is an attempt by investors to sniff out an economic bottom and eventual economic recovery.

Remember, no one rings a bell that sounds the all-clear signal. Collectively, markets attempt to price in future events. I would expect large daily swings, both to the upside and downside, to continue amid the uncertainty.

We don’t know if we’ll see an uptick in new cases this summer when the economy reopens. We don’t know if an effective treatment will be developed or how quickly a vaccine might come online.

And, for that matter, we don’t know how quickly most folks will venture back into restaurants, airplanes or the public square.

Final thoughts & hope

I don’t want to downplay the havoc created by COVID-19. We are living in a world that nobody could possibly have envisioned a few months ago. The impact caused by the virus has disrupted life around the globe. We have friends and loved ones who are dealing with this disease. It’s incredibly unpleasant.

Yet, unexpected blessings have surfaced. People are reaching out to family and friends via texting and emails. Some are even connecting the old-fashioned way–by phone.

Families are closer than they have ever been before. Activities and jobs around the country have been suspended but not ended. And I am confident we will see an economic recovery take root and the pandemic will subside.

We are a resilient people. Together we will get through this dark night, and we will be stronger for it.

Tapping your IRA during the COVID-19 recession

First, let me say that this is general advice. Your situation is unique, and I will tailor my guidance around your particular circumstances.

Did you know that the CARES Act waives the 10% penalty for withdrawing from an IRA or an employer-sponsored plan prior to turning 59½? It does, and it goes further.

Taxes on a COVID-19 distribution may be paid in 2020 or over three years, but there is no mandatory withholding on the distribution.  As long as the distribution is repaid within three years (single repayment or multiple repayments), the taxes paid can be refunded via an amended return.

Circumstances that allow for favorable treatment include the following:

  1. You, your spouse, or dependent, has been diagnosed with the coronavirus.
  2. You have lost income because you have been quarantined, laid off, or have had work hours reduced due to the coronavirus.
  3. Your business has closed or you’ve reduced your hours because of COVID-19.
  4. You can’t work because you lack childcare due to the disease.
  5. The maximum withdrawal in 2020 is $100,000. There are no limitations on how the money may be used.

It’s the equivalent of an interest-free loan from your retirement plan, as long as you pay it back. Does it sound too good to be true? It might be.

Let’s consider some risks, which must not be ignored.

  1. You are forced to sell assets in your retirement account at a lower price. When you repay the distribution, you may be forced to repurchase securities at a higher price.
  2. Will you really pay it back? I know it is your intent to roll the cash back into your IRA, continue saving for retirement, and avoid the taxes, but given human nature, many won’t. And they’ll sacrifice longer-term goals and pay a steep price in taxes.

Think about it this way. If you take a $50,000 distribution and you are in the 24% tax bracket, you’ll pay $12,000 in federal income taxes (plus state income taxes).

When might it make sense to dip into your retirement fund? Well, you’ve exhausted all other sources, including unemployment benefits, government grants and loans, and even forbearance on your mortgage.

I recognized this is a difficult time. If you are the victim of an unexpected financial hardship, you are not alone. Let’s talk and put together a plan of action. I can help you tap sources of assistance that may make sense before digging into your retirement savings. Just talking about it and putting a plan in place will be empowering and help reduce stress.

The IRS will provide additional guidance, and there are details that may need to be managed, but I am are here to provide you with options. It is important to also note that you should present the above and any other tax-related options to your tax professional or CPA before going forward.

If you have any questions or would just like to talk, please feel free to reach out to me anytime.

As always, I’m wishing you and your family peace and good health.