Big Four Accounting Firms Come Under Regulator’s Scrutiny

Link: https://www.wsj.com/articles/big-four-accounting-firms-come-under-regulators-scrutiny-11647364574?st=e3o5412th5mqg7m&reflink=desktopwebshare_linkedin

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Regulators are carrying out a sweeping investigation of conflicts of interest at the nation’s largest accounting firms, asking whether consulting and other nonaudit services they sell undermine their ability to conduct independent reviews of public companies’ financials, according to people familiar with the matter.

The Securities and Exchange Commission probe highlights the agency’s new focus on financial-market gatekeepers such as accountants, bankers and lawyers. These firms help companies raise capital and communicate with shareholders, but also have duties under federal investor-protection laws. Auditors are a shareholder’s first line of defense against sloppy or dodgy accounting.

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The Big Four audit 66% of all public companies with a market capitalization over $75 million, according to Audit Analytics. All four have paid fines to the SEC since 2014 to settle prior regulatory investigations of audit independence violations.

Author(s): Dave Michaels

Publication Date: 15 Mar 2022

Publication Site: WSJ

Rise in Non-Covid-19 Deaths Hits Life Insurers

Link: https://www.wsj.com/articles/rise-in-non-covid-19-deaths-hits-life-insurers-11645576252

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In earnings calls for the past two quarters, Globe Life Inc.,Hartford Financial Services Group Inc., Primerica Inc. andReinsurance Group of America Inc. were among insurers noting higher non-Covid-19 deaths, compared with pre-pandemic baselines.

“The losses we are seeing continue to be elevated over 2019 levels due at least in part, we believe, to the pandemic and the existence of either delayed or unavailable healthcare,” Globe Life finance chief Frank Svoboda told analysts and investors earlier this month.

Among the non-coronavirus-specific claims are deaths from heart and circulatory issues and neurological disorders, he said. “We anticipate that they’ll start to be less impactful over the course of 2022 but we do anticipate that we’ll still at least see some elevated levels throughout the year,” he said.

Primerica executives similarly cautioned in their fourth-quarter call about outsize numbers of non-Covid-19 deaths in 2022. “Some of these will be the result of delayed medical care or the increased incidence of societal-related issues, such as the increased prevalence of substance abuse,” Chief Financial Officer Alison Rand said in an email interview.

From early stages of the pandemic, many medical professionals have raised concerns about Americans’ untreated health problems, as Covid-19 put stress on the nation’s healthcare system.

Author(s): Leslie Scism

Publication Date: 23 Feb 2022

Publication Site: WSJ

Investors Sour on Muni Funds

Link:https://www.wsj.com/articles/investors-sour-on-muni-funds-11643568253

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Investors pulled $1.4 billion from municipal-bond funds in the week ended last Wednesday, the biggest weekly outflow since the early days of the pandemic, according to Refinitiv Lipper.

Municipal-bond yields, which rise as prices fall, climbed last week after the Federal Reserve signaled it would begin steadily raising interest rates in mid-March, reducing the appeal of outstanding debt. Yields on the highest-rated state and local bonds jumped to 1.55% Monday from 1.34% last Tuesday, according to Refinitiv MMD.

Returns on the S&P Municipal Bond Index have fallen to minus 2.33% this year through Jan. 28, counting price changes and interest payments, the lowest year-to-date returns in at least 16 years.

Author(s): Heather Gillers

Publication Date: 31 Jan 2022

Publication Site: WSJ

Developing Countries Brace for Impact From Fed Rate Increases

Link:https://www.wsj.com/articles/developing-countries-brace-for-impact-from-fed-rate-increases-11644321780

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Central bankers in developing countries have been ratcheting up interest rates for months, seeking to stay ahead of a rise in U.S. rates that could destabilize their economies by pushing up their own cost of debt, weakening their currencies and driving capital out of their markets and into higher-yielding U.S. securities.

Now, the Fed is expected to raise rates anywhere from four to seven times this year. If successful in taming inflation, the Fed could help central banks everywhere, because a turbocharged U.S. economy, huge government stimulus and a splurge by Americans on everything from toys and household appliances have snarled supply chains and driven inflation higher world-wide.

Until now, overseas central banks have found it difficult to get on top of the inflation surge withthe Fed sitting on the sidelines. But with the Fed now poised to join the battle, some say the prospects of success are greater.

Author(s): Paul Hannon

Publication Date: 8 Feb 2022

Publication Site: WSJ

Covid-19 Pandemic Led to Smaller-Than-Expected Baby Bust, New Data Suggest

Link:https://www.wsj.com/articles/covid-19-pandemic-led-to-smaller-than-expected-baby-bust-new-data-suggest-11644328800

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New data on U.S. births suggest that the Covid-19 pandemic has led to a smaller-than-expected baby bust.

The U.S. saw about 7,000 fewer births through the first nine months of 2021 compared with the same period the year prior, according to provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics. The numbers reflect conceptions that occurred roughly from April through December 2020, a period that includes the first part of last winter’s Covid-19 case surge, which started in October 2020 and waned by February 2021.

Author(s): Janet Adamy and Anthony DeBarros

Publication Date: 8 Feb 2022

Publication Site: WSJ

Climate Scientists Encounter Limits of Computer Models, Bedeviling Policy

Link:https://www.wsj.com/articles/climate-change-global-warming-computer-model-11642191155?mod=hp_lead_pos10

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At least 20 older climate models disagreed with the new one at NCAR, an open-source model called the Community Earth System Model 2, or CESM2, funded mainly by the U.S. National Science Foundation and arguably the world’s most influential. Then, one by one, a dozen climate-modeling groups around the world produced similar forecasts.

The scientists soon concluded their new calculations had been thrown off kilter by the physics of clouds in a warming world, which may amplify or damp climate change. “The old way is just wrong, we know that,” said Andrew Gettelman, a physicist at NCAR who specializes in clouds and helped develop the CESM2 model. “I think our higher sensitivity is wrong too. It’s probably a consequence of other things we did by making clouds better and more realistic. You solve one problem and create another.”

Since then the CESM2 scientists have been reworking their algorithms using a deluge of new information about the effects of rising temperatures to better understand the physics at work. They have abandoned their most extreme calculations of climate sensitivity, but their more recent projections of future global warming are still dire — and still in flux.

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Skeptics have scoffed at climate models for decades, saying they overstate hazards. But a growing body of research shows many climate models have been uncannily accurate. For one recent study, scientists at NASA, the Breakthrough Institute in Berkeley, Calif., and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology evaluated 17 models used between 1970 and 2007 and found most predicted climate shifts were “indistinguishable from what actually occurred.”

Still, models remain prone to technical glitches and are hampered by an incomplete understanding of the variables that control how our planet responds to heat-trapping gases.

Author(s): Robert Lee Hotz

Publication Date: 6 Feb 2022

Publication Site: WSJ

A Politicized Fed Endangers the Economy

Link:https://www.wsj.com/articles/a-politicized-fed-endangers-economy-monetary-federal-reserve-powell-balance-sheet-climate-stress-test-social-justice-11642448983

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It is time to depoliticize monetary policy. First, instead of making the Fed’s mandate broader, Congress should consider narrowing it to one of price stability. The Fed’s contribution to achieving full employment should be through focusing on long-term price stability. Next, as we learn to live with Covid and as the economy continues to recover, the Fed must go beyond merely tapering its bond purchases. It must set out a credible process and timetable to unwind its balance sheet.

Should the Fed be called on again to exercise emergency powers, Congress must ensure those powers are of limited duration and that any credit facilities created are quickly transferred to the Treasury Department. Finally, the more improvisational and discretionary the Fed’s conduct of monetary policy, the more difficult it is to withstand political pressures. The Fed should move to a monetary-policy framework that is more systematic, predictable and transparent.

If politicized monetary policy doesn’t prove transitory, it is doubtful the Fed will be able to deliver either stable prices or maximum employment.

Author(s): Jeb Hensarling

Publication Date: 17 Jan 2021

Publication Site: WSJ

Covid-19, Endemic or Not, Will Still Make Us Poorer

Link: https://www.wsj.com/articles/covid-19-endemic-or-not-will-still-make-us-poorer-11642608213

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Endemic Covid-19 could thus become a lasting “supply shock” that degrades how much economies can produce, similar to the surge in oil prices in the 1970s. In October, the International Monetary Fund estimated global output this year would still be 3% lower than it had projected in 2019, with Western Europe and Latin America showing much bigger hits than China and Japan, where Covid-19’s toll has been much lower.

The U.S. is an exception: Output in the last quarter of 2021 was roughly back to its pre-pandemic trend. But the economy, distorted and disrupted by Covid-19, is struggling to sustain this level of output, as the surge in inflation to 7% demonstrates.

Covid-19 might have boosted efficiency in some industries by speeding up digitization and adoption of remote work. Goldman Sachs economists estimate this delivered a 3% to 4% boost to U.S. productivity.

But some of the shift to remote operations is involuntary, and some of the rise in productivity might reflect an overworked workforce. Indeed, the pandemic has left the labor force smaller, sicker and less happy. Absences due to illness among employed workers have averaged 50% higher in the last two years. In early January, nearly 12 million people weren’t working because they were sick with Covid-19, caring for someone with coronavirus, or concerned about getting or spreading the disease, according to a regular Census Bureau survey. The figure hasn’t been below 4 million since June 2020.

In the past year, workers have reported declining satisfaction with their wages and a rising “reservation wage,” that is, how much they would have to be paid to accept a new job, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. This might reflect inflation, changed expectations, or stress due to Covid-19 testing, masks and vaccine mandates, or their absence.

For employers, this makes it much harder to attract the necessary staff. Nursing homes have boosted hourly wages 14% since the start of the pandemic, yet staffing has plummeted 12%, impairing their ability to accept new patients. Such shortages impose a cost that doesn’t show up in gross domestic product.

Author(s): Greg Ip

Publication Date: 19 Jan 2022

Publication Site: WSJ

Iowa’s Bold Tax Reform

Link:https://www.wsj.com/amp/articles/iowas-bold-tax-reform-kim-reynolds-11642614230

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Gov. Reynolds is proposing a bold tax reform that would increase the incentives to work and invest in the Hawkeye State. Her proposal unveiled last week would reshape the state income tax, gradually consolidating brackets en route to a flat 4% rate by 2026. “When the bill’s fully implemented,” she said, “an average Iowa family will pay more than $1,300 less in taxes.”

The flat 4% levy would drop the state’s top rate by more than a third. Under current law Iowans are set to pay 6.5% on earnings above about $80,000, a threshold that catches much of the middle class. That and three other income-tax brackets would be swept away by Gov. Reynolds’s reform.

The plan would also slash the state’s corporate tax, which is even more punishing. Iowa-based companies pay 9.8% of their earnings above $250,000 in state tax. Ms. Reynolds’s reform would gradually reduce the top rate to 5.5%, capping corporate-tax revenue at $700 million a year and using excess revenue to offset annual rate cuts. An immediate rate cut would be better economically, providing more clarity for corporate investment decisions. But the revenue target should be met if the economy continues to grow.

Author(s): WSJ Editorial Board

Publication Date: 19 Jan 2022

Publication Site: WSJ

Puerto Rico Released From Bankruptcy as Economic Problems Persist

Link:https://www.wsj.com/articles/puerto-rico-released-from-bankruptcy-as-economic-problems-persist-11642537090

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Puerto Rico received court approval to leave bankruptcy through the largest restructuring of U.S. municipal debt ever, ending years of conflict with creditors as the U.S. territory confronts other stubborn economic problems.

Tuesday’s court ruling approved a write-down of $30.5 billion in public debts built up during an economic decline marked by high joblessness, outward migration and unsustainable borrowing that tipped Puerto Rico into bankruptcy in 2017. The restructuring plan calms tension between Puerto Rico and its Wall Street creditors dating to its debt default, the largest ever on bonds backed by the full faith and credit of a U.S. municipality.

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The territory entered bankruptcy with $74 billion in bond debt and a $55 billion gap between the pension benefits promised to employees and retirees and the funding set aside to pay for them. Public agencies were beset by cronyism and failed for years to draw up accurate budgets or account for expenses, according to a 2018 investigation commissioned by the board.

Sprawling bureaucracy and a high cost of doing business discouraged investment, especially after the expiration of some corporate tax breaks in 2006 pushed some pharmaceutical and other manufacturers to depart. To make up for a shrinking tax base, officials borrowed to paper over deficits and skimped on pension contributions.

Many residents of Puerto Rico, political leaders, and some investors have called for an independent audit of how the huge debt was built up, according to Judge Swain’s decision.

Author(s): Andrew Scurria and Soma Biswas

Publication Date: 18 Jan 2022

Publication Site: WSJ

Want to Be an Actuary? Odds Are, You’ll Fail the Test

Link:https://www.wsj.com/articles/actuary-credential-test-exam-bad-odds-11640706082?st=52aicn5y38okulw&reflink=article_email_share

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(the answer: B — I’ll leave it to you to verify the calculations)

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Actuaries quantify risk. One of their riskiest endeavors is trying to become one.

Among people taking at least one exam from the Society of Actuaries—the field’s biggest U.S. credentialing body—15% eventually pass the multiple tests required to become an Associate, one of two designations allowing them to practice. Just 10% pass those and additional tests to become a Fellow, the group’s higher designation, which affords bigger responsibilities and salaries.

It’s such an arduous process that the number of test-takers has been declining in recent years, and the society is making changes to keep candidates from dropping out of the gantlet. It is also adding new “predictive analytics” tests to adjust to the massive amounts of data insurers now have.

There is no limit to how many times a candidate can take the tests. It took one man 50 years to become a Fellow, says Stuart Klugman, an official at the society. The society says a candidate typically takes seven to 10 years to become a Fellow. They must pass 10 exams plus other coursework and requirements.

Author(s): Neal Templin

Publication Date: 28 Dec 2021

Publication Site: WSJ

Covid Spurs Biggest Rise in Life-Insurance Payouts in a Century

Link:https://www.wsj.com/articles/covid-spurs-biggest-rise-in-life-insurance-payouts-in-a-century-11639045802

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The Covid-19 pandemic last year drove the biggest increase in death benefits paid by U.S. life insurers since the 1918 influenza epidemic, an industry trade group said.

Death-benefit payments rose 15.4% in 2020 to $90.43 billion, mostly due to the pandemic, according to the American Council of Life Insurers. In 1918, payments surged 41%.

The hit to the insurance industry was less than expected early in the pandemic because many of the victims were older people who typically have smaller policies. The industry paid out $78.36 billion in 2019, and payouts have typically increased modestly each year.

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In the 1918 flu pandemic, the number of U.S. deaths reached about 675,000, with mortality high in people younger than 5 years old, 20 to 40 years old, and 65 years and older, according to the CDC’s website.

The ACLI’s data show two other years, both in the 1920s, when year-over-year increases topped 15%, when there also were influenza epidemics, said Andrew Melnyk, the ACLI’s vice president of research and chief economist.

Author(s): Leslie Scism

Publication Date: 9 Dec 2021

Publication Site: Wall Street Journal