With Interest: The Week in Business: Amazon Breaks Up With New York, and Warren Buffett Takes Stock

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Do you have Presidents’ Day off? I hope so, and that you’re spending it someplace warm and dry, even if that’s just a nest of pillows your living room. The third week of February is the peak of winter drear, in my opinion, and we could all use a break from the gray skies and interminable drama in Washington. Whether you’re heading into a short workweek or not, here’s what to know when it starts, from the latest on President Trump and the wall to the market outlook from the billionaire investor Warren Buffett, and other business and tech news.

FEB. 10-16

So much for negotiating. Congress passed a spending bill to keep the government open before the deadline on Friday, but the legislation only includes $1.375 billion for 55 miles of steel-post fencing along the southern border. That’s a fraction of the $5.7 billion for more than 200 miles of steel or concrete barriers that President Trump has been demanding for months. Mr. Trump responded by declaring a national emergency to tap into billions of dollars originally earmarked for other government projects. Critics view this action as an attempt to save face on his wall promises. But the move also raises questions about his executive powers, and will most likely be challenged in the courts.

Alexa, we hardly knew thee. Amazon abruptly canceled its plan to build a sprawling corporate campus (also known as HQ2) in New York City, citing backlash from government leaders, unions and residents. Although the company promised to bring 25,000 new jobs to the area, that wasn’t enough to drown out critics who opposed the cushy tax breaks and other financial incentives that New York lawmakers used to lure the tech giant to Long Island City, Queens. “A number of state and local politicians have made it clear that they oppose our presence and will not work with us to build the type of relationships that are required to go forward,’’ Amazon said in a statement on Thursday. It still plans to build another campus in Virginia.

Oh look, the dreaded tax forms in your mailbox: It’s that time again. To make this season even more painful, millions of Americans will get smaller tax refunds this year, or find that they owe money despite no changes in their salaries. Yes, the Trump administration’s tax overhaul was supposed to keep more money in your pocket, but the average refund for early filers was down 8.4 percent. What’s going on? For some taxpayers, it’s that certain deductions no longer apply. For others, it’s that less money was withheld from their pay last year. Either way, this isn’t what you want to hear from your accountant, and it could dampen consumer spending in the coming months.

FEB. 17-23

If you’re in the market for some corny investment jokes, look no further than Warren Buffett’s annual shareholder letter, which he will post on Saturday along with financial results for his company, Berkshire Hathaway. The third-richest man in the world, Mr. Buffett, 88, has used his yearly letters to deliver dad humor, nuggets of financial wisdom and insights into his big-picture view of the economy since 1965. Many people pore over his words for stock tips, but they’re also worth a gander if you’re interested in learning from one of the most successful and experienced private investors in history.

Remember when the Federal Reserve suddenly changed its mind about raising interest rates at its January policy meeting and adopted a more hands-off approach that sent markets into fits of glee? The Fed may offer more clues about its flip-flop when the minutes from that meeting become public on Wednesday. The Fed’s chairman, Jerome H. Powell, has now indicated that the Fed won’t raise rates again until inflation accelerates — a reversal of previous policy. Higher rates are intended to keep the economy steady as it grows, so it’ll be interesting to learn why Fed officials felt compelled to take their hands off the levers.

If you hoped that American and Chinese officials might start making some real progress in resolving their trade war, sorry. Yet another round of talks concluded this past week with no resolution in sight, although they will continue this coming week in Washington. Mr. Trump is supposedly considering a 60-day extension to the looming March 2 deadline for a deal. If the world’s two largest economic powers can’t come to an agreement, the United States has threatened to impose punitive tariffs against Chinese goods, hurting consumers in both countries. The upside to giving negotiators more time is obvious: The tariffs could be avoided, or at least put off. The downside is that it leaves companies — and even entire industries, like soybean farming — in limbo for even longer.

Surprise, surprise: Prime Minister Theresa May hit another setback over Britain’s fraught exit from the European Union when her own party splintered on Thursday. Speaking of hot water, Facebook may have earned itself a multibillion-dollar fine from the Federal Trade Commission over privacy violations. Elsewhere in big money: JPMorgan will be the first major American bank to roll out its own cryptocurrency, even though its chief executive called bitcoin “a fraud” back in 2017. And finally, can’t afford an engagement ring for your loved one? Consider this $1.30 plastic version.

This article is from NYT – go to source

Payless Shoes to Shut All U.S. Stores and Wind Down Online Operation

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anastasios pallis

Payless ShoeSource, a once-popular seller of inexpensive women’s footwear and a staple in many suburban shopping malls, is closing all of its American stores.

The company said on Saturday that it would begin liquidating all 2,100 of its stores in the United States and Puerto Rico. Payless is also winding down its online business.

The retailer, which filed for bankruptcy two years ago, had already closed hundreds of stores in recent years as its brand lost luster among women searching for deals on shoes. It is the latest mass-market retailer to vanish from the retail landscape.

The liquidation of Payless, based in Topeka, Kan., is another example of how bankruptcy has helped retailers shed their debt, but it has not helped many of them restructure their businesses and regain sales.

Toys “R” Us and Bon-Ton, a department store chain, liquidated last summer, after failing to come up viable reorganization plans. Sears narrowly escaped liquidation this month after a judge allowed its chairman and largest lender, the hedge fund manager Edward S. Lampert, to buy the company and keep its stores open.

The Payless liquidation comes as more people are opting to shop online rather than in stores, which were at the core of the shoe company’s strategy. But e-commerce explains only part of Payless’s challenges. While Payless struggled to stay relevant with shoppers, other retailers catering to bargain conscious shoppers, like TJ Maxx and Nordstrom Rack, are thriving.

Keeping up with emerging fashion trends and creating attractive stores requires constant investment, which was a challenge for Payless. Some of the company’s stores have also been hurt by their location in struggling suburban malls that are anchored by Sears and J. C. Penney, another listing retailer. As hundreds of those anchor stores have closed, traffic to nearby retailers in the malls has slowed.

A Payless spokeswoman said that liquidation sales would start on Sunday and that the stores would remain open through the end of March, with many open until May.

This article is from NYT – go to source

For Some 2020 Democrats, Rejection of Amazon Aligns With Far-Left Policy Views

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The decision by Amazon this week to abandon its planned headquarters in New York City tapped into one of the major themes of left-wing Democrats: that giant corporations — and in some cases the billionaires who run them — must be held to account for wage inequality, corporate greed and middle-class stagnation.

And some contenders and would-be contenders for the party’s 2020 presidential nomination were quick to take a victory lap over the retailer’s sudden reversal.

The economic incentives offered the company amounted to no more than “taxpayer bribes,” said Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who accused Amazon of holding American democracy “hostage.”

Their blunt condemnation of Amazon underscores the extent to which this has become an animating issue for the far left. And their reaction is one act in a broader set of 2020 issues for progressive Democrats that includes the Green New Deal, which proposes far-reaching federal intervention in the economy to tackle climate change, and the determination to rein in leviathan tech companies, whose founders have lost their luster as heroes of a new economy.

Candidates and potential candidates perceived as more centrist did not immediately weigh in, reflecting one of the fault lines in a Democratic Party wrestling over who is the best standard-bearer to suit up for a coming titanic struggle with President Trump. Some candidates, like Senators Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California, have deeper connections to tech companies.

The views of centrists may have been channeled by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York, who slammed fellow Democrats for putting “their own narrow political interests above their community.”

[Check out the Democratic field withourcandidatetracker.]

The sudden unraveling of the Amazon deal on Thursday meant the company’s promise of 25,000 jobs in New York City would be unfulfilled over opposition to the city and state’s offer of $3 billion in tax incentives, which highlighted the practice of luring businesses to states and cities with promises of big tax breaks.

“There are large questions philosophically about whether taxpayers should give billions of dollars to billionaires,” said Gordon Hintz, the Democratic minority leader of the Wisconsin State Assembly, who is a critic of a state deal in 2017 to lure the electronics giant Foxconn with $4 billion in taxpayer subsidies.

“There’s frustration in the public right now where wealth is being concentrated, the opportunities for economic mobility are lower, and they see the people who receive these deals seemingly unconcerned with their reality,” he added.

Wisconsin, a battleground state that Mr. Trump narrowly won in 2016 as part of his appeal to white blue-collar voters, is certain to be a crossroads of national Democratic contenders ahead of 2020, as they try to win back some of those voters and excite others who stayed home. That Mr. Trump played a role in the Foxconn deal — and jumped in again recently when the Taiwan-based company wavered — is a ready-made target for Democrats inclined to criticize corporate giveaways.

Mr. Hintz said the issue played a role in the re-election loss last year of Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican.

Even as New York sent Amazon packing, other cities and regions renewed their courtship of the company. On Thursday, Newark officials sent a courier in red to deliver a giant heart-shaped card to the company bearing the Valentine’s Day message that the city and New Jersey “still love u, Amazon!”

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Mr. Booker, who is seeking the Democratic nomination, has made no comment on the deal. A Democratic county chairman in Iowa, Kurt Meyer, who put Mr. Booker up overnight on a recent swing through the state, predicted that criticisms of large corporations would feature in appeals to the party base there, which is more progressive than in many states. Iowa’s $208 million in incentives for an Apple data center near Des Moines with just 50 jobs was debated in last year’s midterm elections.

“I suspect the issue will be exploited extensively in Iowa, due in part to our vague but distinct sense of economic insecurity, which, while unrelated to Amazon and Apple, is pretty dry tinder,” Mr. Meyer said.

At a CNN town hall in Iowa last month, Ms. Harris was asked if the existence of multibillionaires was “morally defensible.” She replied that the 2017 Republican tax cut bill was “unconscionable” for giving breaks to corporations and those in the top 1 percent but excluding working families.

Amazon’s decision to cancel its deal with New York also comes at a time when prominent Democratic lawmakers in Washington are crafting legislation and advocating policies that could constrain or even break up large technology companies.

In the past two years, big scandals in the technology sector have made privacy and the security of social media networks hotly debated issues. Russian entities used Facebook’s network to try and influence the 2016 presidential election. The Cambridge Analytica scandal revealed that Facebook users’ data had been misused.

Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat and candidate for president, is sponsoring a bill that would require disclosure about who is paying for online political advertising. Ms. Warren supports antitrust policies. Mr. Sanders’s Stop BEZOS Act, named for the chief executive of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, would tax corporations whose low-wage workers find it necessary to rely on food stamps and government health care benefits.

The push to step up regulation may have support among the public. In a Pew Research poll last year, 55 percent of the respondents said technology companies had too much power and influence, compared with 37 percent who said the firms had the right amount.

But not every party official believes in shaming corporate chieftains and corporations.

In northeast Ohio, Representative Tim Ryan, a Democrat whose district recently lost 1,600 jobs with the shutdown of a plant making the Chevrolet Cruze, wrote a letter on Friday imploring Amazon to build a second headquarters there.

Mr. Ryan, in an interview, predicted that everyone at the basketball game he planned to attend Friday night at Howland High School, where his daughter is a cheerleader, would be talking about how to lure Amazon and its jobs to the area.

Ohio is a swing state that Democrats, including Senator Sherrod Brown, who is weighing a presidential bid, would like to win back in 2020.

“It doesn’t serve us well to be hostile to business in general,” Mr. Ryan said. “We need them. We can’t reverse climate change. We can’t rebuild manufacturing. We can’t retool work force development without a partnership with the free enterprise system.”

This article is from NYT – go to source

In Amazon Fight, Progressives Showed What They Want: A New Economic Agenda

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The political opposition that prompted Amazon to walk away from building a corporate headquarters in New York City featured a touchstone of the progressives’ economic agenda: ending tax policies that unfairly reward and pamper the wealthy.

But it also exposed a political vulnerability, leaving unclear what alternative strategy they are offering to encourage growth and create the thousands of jobs that Amazon promised to bring to the city.

The clash has consequences far beyond New York, going to the heart of a national debate that is likely to dominate the 2020 presidential race: What is the best way to spread prosperity?

As Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo fumed that some of his fellow Democrats put “the state’s economic future” at risk, others inside and outside the party saw the scuttled project as evidence that the left doesn’t understand how to generate growth. In a tweet, Lloyd Blankfein, senior chairman of Goldman Sachs, lashed out at progressive Democrats, labeling them as both “anti-progress” and “anti-Democratic.”

Those views feed into a powerful, long-held narrative popularized by Ronald Reagan that Democratic policymakers had — as then-Senator Barack Obama put it in 2006 — become “more obsessed with slicing the economic pie than with growing the pie.”

For Republicans, Amazon’s retreat is an opportunity to revive beloved barbs and brand Democrats as “job killers” who are all too eager to “tax-and-spend.” Lower taxes for investors and business owners, they argue, is what spurs entrepreneurs to create jobs and spread the wealth.

A protest last November outside an Amazon store in Manhattan. New York had offered the company nearly $3 billion in subsidies to build a second headquarters in the city.CreditJeenah Moon for The New York Times

For progressives, defeating a plan that handed tax incentives to a trillion-dollar tech titan is part of a broader effort to discredit what they see as bankrupt economic policies. They argue that workers and the government — two players that have been relegated to the background — should be treated as important engines of growth.

Many objections raised in New York by critics like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the freshman congresswoman whose Queens district borders the neighborhood where Amazon was headed, align with economic critiques offered by Democratic presidential contenders. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, for example, have frequently railed against the outsize power of corporations and lopsided tax cuts and incentives that favor the wealthy.

Ms. Warren called the state subsidies in the Amazon deal “taxpayer bribes,” while Mr. Sanders said, “This is what the rigged economy is all about.” New York was offering nearly $3 billion in subsidies to Amazon, a company that last year effectively paid half the 21 percent federal corporate tax rate.

At the same time, presidential hopefuls have supported policies that bolster workers and the middle class, like an increased minimum wage and rules that ensure overtime pay, as well as substantial public investment. Democrats on the left are also floating ambitious proposals like free college for all, a federal job guarantee, an industrial plan to retool the country’s energy use and higher taxes on the wealthy.

The groundwork for these ideas was prepared in recent years by a network of liberal economists, thinkers and activists at research organizations and universities interested in developing a set of policies to displace supply-side economics and trickle-down theory.

“The interaction between market and collective action is what leads to our prosperity,” said Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel-prize winning economist who is coming out with a book about growing the economy in the 21st century. Advances in science and technology, for example, rest on basic research that was first funded by the government and then brought to market by the private sector.

Mr. Stiglitz argues this is the kind of alternative explanation of how growth occurs that the Democratic Party needs to offer more vocally. Souped-up competition, lower taxes on the wealthy and hands-off financial regulation, he maintains, have failed to deliver on their promise to supercharge the economy and broadly lift incomes.

Amazon supporters on the steps of the City Hall in New York in late January.CreditHiroko Masuike/The New York Times

Nick Hanauer, a Seattle venture capitalist who was an early investor in Amazon and is now a progressive activist and writer, argues that trickle-down theory should be replaced with what he and Eric Liu, a former adviser in Bill Clinton’s administration, call “middle-out economics.”

“I believe capitalism is the greatest social technology ever created for generating wealth and prosperity,” he said, “but we’ve confused what’s good for the narrow-short-term interest of a few capitalists for what’s good for capitalism.”

The notion that tax cuts for the rich are what cause economic growth and create a thriving middle class is “both wrong and backwards,” Mr. Hanauer said. “The thriving middle class is the cause of economic growth.”

The ideas that are capturing attention, particularly in the run-up to the 2020 election, focus more directly on the fortunes of workers and give the government a much more central role in spurring economic growth and distributing wealth.

The approach reaches back to the era of Franklin D. Roosevelt for inspiration. The major effort to alter the course of climate change was purposely named the “Green New Deal” — after Roosevelt’s signature policy — precisely for that reason. Several versions of the program exist, but the one introduced by Representative Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts includes “a job guarantee program to assure a living wage job to every person who wants one.”

During the recession’s grimmest months, President Obama pushed to fast-track a multibillion-dollar stimulus package — the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 — aimed at creating jobs and spending money on transportation, technology and energy projects. Although the plan was smaller than several left-leaning Democrats wanted, it rested on a shared assumption that cranking up public investment would get the economy moving and put people back to work.

How such policies will play out at a time when the unemployment rate has settled in at a low 4 percent will be a source of tension among the party’s various factions. In the past, Democrats have pushed such stimulants during periods of economic weakness. And specific proposals offered by progressives, whether free college or a wealth tax, cause some Democrats to blanch.

A New York City Council finance committee hearing on the Amazon headquarters in January.CreditHiroko Masuike/The New York Times

Nonetheless, many Democrats acknowledge that political and business leaders have tended to focus too narrowly on the winners of pro-growth policies like free trade without paying sufficient attention to losers like laid-off factory workers. It’s a theme that President Trump successfully pushed on the campaign trail in 2016.

“You organize the economy so workers have more power that allows them to get fair wages and safe living standards” so they’re not outgunned by corporate power, said Jacob Leibenluft, who led Hillary Clinton’s economic policy team during her presidential campaign and is now executive vice president for policy at the Center for American Progress, a liberal research institute.

Democratic centrists and self-described pragmatists now also widely subscribe to critiques of the dominant economic policies of the last couple of decades — particularly that tax policy has not produced vigorous growth. A consensus has also taken shape that the government needs to play a larger role in the economy, raising taxes, investing in public institutions and, to some degree, redistributing income.

Two pillars of the Democratic establishment — Lawrence Summers, Treasury secretary during the Clinton administration and the director of President Obama’s National Economic Council, and Jason Furman, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers during the Obama administration — have called for significant public spending on infrastructure, education, health care and more to address slow economic growth and sidelined workers.

“Government has to play an important role,” said Mr. Furman, who wrote an article with Mr. Summers last month about putting such policies ahead of reducing the deficit. “If you’re spending more, you have to tax more.”

For many Democrats, the shift to a more activist role is overdue. Yet it also comes at a time when the public’s trust in government has dropped to historic lows, according to a December 2017 report from the Pew Research Center.

Only 18 percent of Americans said they trust the federal government to do the right thing “just about always” or “most of the time.”

This article is from NYT – go to source

A Man in Florida Mistakenly Received a $980,000 Tax Refund, and Officials Say He Tried to Keep It

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anastasios pallis

The average tax refund is usually a couple of thousand dollars, but a man in Florida who earned less than $3,500 mistakenly received a check for a much higher amount: $980,000.


He filed his taxes.

The man, 29-year-old Ramon C. Blanchett, filed a 2016 income tax return in February 2017 that included a W-2 from Bridges Nursing and Rehabilitation in Tampa, Fla., showing $17,098 in wages and $1 million of federal income tax withholding, according to a forfeiture complaint filed last month by the United States government in federal court in Tampa, Fla.

But Mr. Blanchett was actually paid $2,098 and no tax was withheld, according to the complaint, which was first reported by The Tampa Bay Times.

Mr. Blanchett submitted a 1040 form that also said $1 million in taxes had been withheld, and that led the Internal Revenue Service to issue a refund for $980,000, according to the complaint.

And he kept the money, the complaint said — until the I.R.S. found out about the error.

The complaint did not mention how the W2 came to include incorrect information. Representatives for Bridges Nursing and Rehabilitation did not respond to a request for comment this week.

Mr. Blanchett also submitted another W2, which was accurate, showing $1,399 in income from Sizzling Platter, a restaurant in Murray, Utah, and no withholding, the complaint said.

Robert Marvin, a spokesman for the I.R.S., declined to answer questions about the case, citing a section of the Internal Revenue Code that prohibits the I.R.S. from commenting on a specific taxpayer’s situation, and he did not immediately respond to queries about the systems in place to detect fraud on Friday.

Mr. Blanchett could not be reached for comment on Friday, and it was unclear whether he had retained a lawyer.

The I.R.S.’s refund processing systems should have flagged a refund this large, said Chuck Pine, who used to be the third-ranking criminal enforcement officer at the agency and now oversees the risk and regulatory advisory practice at BDO USA, a global assurance, tax and financial advisory services firm.

Taxpayer refunds are sent out in batches via an expedited electronic system, Mr. Pine explained. If a refund is red flagged, it ought to prompt a closer examination by an I.R.S. employee who “should have immediately and proactively stopped the refund from being issued based on the obvious discrepancy between the income reported of $18,497 and the refund generated of $980,000.”

Mr. Blanchett has not been charged in federal court, Amy H. Filjones, a spokeswoman for the United States attorney’s office in Tampa, Fla., said on Friday. A date for the next hearing has not been set, said a spokesman at the United States attorney’s office.

According to court records, Mr. Blanchett pleaded guilty in 2016 to possession of drug paraphernalia and resisting an officer without violence, both misdemeanors of the first degree. In 2014, he was charged with possession of marijuana, also a first-degree misdemeanor, but the judge withheld adjudication, so he was not convicted of a crime.

SunTrust Bank, where Mr. Blanchett initially deposited the funds, suspected fraud and initially froze the funds, the court documents said, but later returned them to Mr. Blanchett via cashier’s check. He then put the money into an account at Grow Financial, telling the bank that the money came from the estate of his deceased father, the documents said.

Mr. Blanchett shifted the money around, transferring it among different bank accounts within Grow Financial, the complaint said, eventually using some of it to purchase a silver Lexus last August. On Friday, a spokeswoman for SunTrust and a spokesman for Grow Financial declined to comment.

The complaint didn’t specify when the I.R.S. first learned about the inaccurate refund check. But in August, Grow Financial sent the I.R.S. the funds in Mr. Blanchett’s account in accordance with a federal seizure warrant, the complaint said. The I.R.S. also seized the Lexus, and the government is seeking a car insurance premium of about $809 that was refunded to Mr. Blanchett when he no longer had possession of the Lexus.

During 2011 to 2013, when Mr. Pine served as the director of field operations for the eastern half of the United States, and in the years before, refund fraud was “out of control” in Tampa, he said, primarily because of identity theft.

“Refund crimes may no longer be at such a high priority,” he said, adding that the number of criminal investigation special agents in the I.R.S. was “significantly” lower than it used to be.

“Special agents aren’t on the front line of refund processing,” he said, but they play “a key role” in preventing fraudulent refunds from ultimately being negotiated.

In recent years the I.R.S. has cut refund fraud drastically, said Jim Buttonow, a certified public accountant who worked for 19 years as a large case team audit coordinator for the I.R.S. until leaving in 2006. “It was a mountain to climb.”

Refund fraud is a continual challenge, he added, but Mr. Blanchett’s case was “an absolute anomaly.”

This article is from NYT – go to source

Watch Out. Tax Season Is Even More Stressful Than Usual.

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Take a deep breath, a drink, whatever calms you: It’s tax season.

If you have already filed your return and received a satisfying refund, congratulations! You are a lucky person, because many people are having a hard time this year.

Oddly, much of the pain comes from a shift that might seem pleasant: sweeping changes that, while providing a windfall for the rich, still amount to a tax cut for most Americans. But, combined with the longest government shutdown in history, the short-term effects of these changes have been surprisingly disruptive.

Early returns indicate that fewer people than usual have been getting the refunds they expected. That has created an excruciating spectacle: Many people who paid less in taxes every week are discovering that they owe money to the Internal Revenue Service. On top of that, residents of states like New York, New Jersey and California face a new cap on federal deductions for state and local taxes, and won’t know whether their federal tax bill has gone up until they have slogged through their returns. What’s more, many tax preparers aren’t up to speed on all of the new breaks and burdens.

Good luck! It may be a rougher ride than usual. We can’t eliminate glitches, fatten your refund or make tax-filing a total pleasure. But we have covered the tax mayhem extensively, and prepared articles and tax software reviews, all in the hope that with our help, the ordeal will be easier and, at the very least, more comprehensible.

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CreditPablo Delcan & Company

The most important changes to the tax code in decades have taken effect — and filers are confused. Plenty of people who counted on fat tax refunds are disconcerted when they learn that they are not getting them. For some thorny issues, especially those concerning small businesses, professional tax preparers are perplexed as well. We asked certified public accountants and other tax-prep pros to do their best and give taxpayers some clear answers.


If you’re preparing your own tax return, you may benefit from expert help conveyed by top-notch tax software. The Wirecutter, a division of The New York Times Company that rigorously tests products, surveyed the offerings for this season. The reviewers made several recommendations, depending on factors like whether you run your own business and whether your financial situation is complex or fairly simple. If it’s very simple, they say, try H&R Block Free.


Phones are fabulous for playing games and reading news apps. But are they effective at filing tax returns? Millions of people think so. Our reporter Tara Siegel Bernard gave phone-filing a test run, but she wasn’t impressed. She found the experience unpleasant, in parts, and had unanswered questions about how to fill out a model return. For her own family’s taxes, she will rely on a human accountant again this year.


“In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes,” Ben Franklin once said. Given those alternatives, the tax man usually looks good. Yet the particular tortures exacted this year may make the choice less obvious.

The wholesale overhaul of the tax law that is in place for people filing their returns would, on its own, have required the I.R.S. and tax experts to make many adjustments and give a great deal of new guidance this year. The partial government shutdown slowed the process considerably. And the early returns are including a larger number of unpleasant surprises for taxpayers — who owe money when they expected to receive refunds — than was the case in the past.


CreditPablo Delcan & Company + Saad Moosajee

Only a year after sweeping changes took place, proposals to revamp the tax code — yet again — are rampant. From the Democratic side come calls for a more progressive system, requiring wealthy people to pay more, reversing the rise in income inequality that has been underway. Republicans, on the other hand, want to make the current tax rates — which are set to expire at the end of 2025 — permanent. The division of power in place in Washington means that you shouldn’t count on big changes this year. But the heated debates in Congress and on the 2020 campaign trail will give clues about legislation to come.


CreditPablo Delcan & Company + Saad Moosajee

Wealthy people are reaping the richest benefits from the changes in the tax code, and many of them are rejoicing, as you might expect. But an affluent few are raging against a so-called reform that has put more money — a lot more — in their pockets. They were already doing quite well, they say, and don’t need extra help from the tax system: Poorer people need the money more. Some millionaires and billionaires, however, resent this kind of talk. Friends of the wealthy tax critics call them “traitors to their class.”


CreditPablo Delcan & Company + Saad Moosajee

The 2017 tax bill provides a 20 percent deduction for “qualified business income,” which is a great boon for those who can get it. But who, exactly, qualifies? The rules are arcane, and I.R.S. guidance has been changing. Health, law, financial services, entertainment and consulting businesses don’t qualify, for example, but architecture and engineering do. In some cases, eligibility hinges on small details. Read on for some pointers.


CreditPablo Delcan & Company + Saad Moosajee

By enabling affluent investors to postpone paying the tax man, new opportunity zone funds are starting to attract substantial sums. The funds are a tax break that was included in the 2017 tax law as a way of drawing money into distressed communities.

The idea is that investors get tax breaks, while the neighborhoods get new businesses and upgraded apartment buildings, shops and the like. But the areas that have been designated as distressed are not always really needy. The vibrant Long Island City neighborhood where Amazon proposed placing its campus, a plan it has abandoned, was designated an opportunity zone, for example. And even when neighborhoods are truly distressed, providing tax breaks for the rich may be an awkward way of redeveloping them.


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A Mother Learns the Identity of Her Child’s Grandmother. A Sperm Bank Threatens to Sue.

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Danielle Teuscher decided to give DNA tests as presents last Christmas to her father, close friends and 5-year-old daughter, joining the growing number of people taking advantage of low-cost, accessible genetic testing.

But the 23andMe test produced an unexpected result. Ms. Teuscher, 30, a nanny in Portland, Ore., said she unintentionally discovered the identity of the sperm donor she had used to conceive her young child.

The mother of the donor was identified on her daughter’s test results as her grandmother. Excited and curious, Ms. Teuscher decided to reach out.

“I wrote her and said, ‘Hi, I think your son may be my daughter’s donor. I don’t want to invade your privacy, but we’re open to contact with you or your son,’” she recalled. “I thought it was a cool thing.”

Growing interest in DNA testing already has upended families across the country. Even as long-lost relatives discover one another, individuals have learned that their biological fathers are not the men they believed, that their ethnic backgrounds are not what they were told.

So perhaps it’s no surprise that the fertility industry is facing questions, too. For decades, the business relied on the idea that sperm banks can guarantee anonymity to donors, and promised that there wouldn’t be any relationship with offspring unless the donors wanted.

But now? “Donor anonymity will suffer the same fate as the cassette tape,” said Andrew Vorzimer, an attorney in Woodland Hills, Calif., who specializes in reproductive law.

In Ms. Teuscher’s case, NW Cryobank, the sperm bank in Spokane, Wash., from which she had bought the donated sperm, sent her a stern letter.

It threatened Ms. Teuscher with penalties of $20,000 for “flagrantly” violating the agreement she’d signed by seeking the identity of the donor and contacting his family. The bank also said it would deny her access to four vials of sperm from the same donor that she had hoped to use.

“Upon further investigation, we may be entitled to additional monetary damages if you have used other ancestry DNA programs, facial recognition tools on the internet or any other means, directly or indirectly, to contact or seek the identity of the donor,” said the letter, written by the sperm bank’s general counsel, Margaret Howell Benson.

“We will seek a restraining order or injunction if you continue with this course of action in any manner.”

NW Cryobank is known to be aggressive in enforcing its privacy provisions, Mr. Vorzimer added. “But now we’ve reached a point where it’s become impossible to protect the privacy of clients and sperm donors.”

Donor sperm is sold anonymously, but NW Cryobank and its affiliate California Cryobank — the largest sperm bank in the country — now only accept “ID disclosure” donors. The donor is required to agree that when a donor-conceived child turns 18, he or she is entitled to know the donor’s identity.

Leora Westbrook, general manager and vice president of NW Cryobank, said in an email that the bank does not prohibit clients or their offspring from taking a DNA test. But “we seek to prevent the use of that information to identify a donor who has made a donation in reliance upon anonymity.”

Once the child is no longer a minor, Ms. Westbrook added, he or she may not only take the DNA test but may also contact the bank to determine if the donor is open to being contacted.

Ms. Teuscher said she would fight to regain access to four vials of sperm withheld by NW Cryobank. If she decides to have additional children, she wants for them to be full siblings to Zoe.CreditMoriah Ratner for The New York Times

Ms. Teuscher didn’t remember reading that fine print when she signed the papers. She was devastated, she said, to receive the letter.

“I thought, wow, I just messed this up for my daughter. The letter was awful. I was angry with the bank, and I was upset about the donor,” she said.

Ms. Teuscher said she will fight to get back the four vials of donated sperm now withheld from her. In case she ever wants to have additional children, she wants for them to be full siblings.

Legal experts called the bank’s position precarious. While Ms. Teuscher may be constrained by an agreement, they doubted that her child could be.

You can’t sign away the rights of a child who hasn’t been born, said Dov Fox, a law professor at the University of San Diego who specializes in bioethics and the regulation of technology.

“Even if they could stop parents from reaching out, there’s no way they can keep offspring from trying to find their genetic donors,” said Dr. Fox. “If a sperm bank asks prospective parents to sign away their not-yet-existing child’s ability to test her own DNA, a court shouldn’t enforce a provision like that.”

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I. Glenn Cohen, a professor and bioethicist at Harvard Law School, agreed and questioned whether such a contract is “contrary to public policy” and thus unenforceable.

The mother of a child conceived with donated sperm might well argue that in trying to determine whether the child has any inherited medical issues, she inadvertently discovered a donor’s identity. A sperm bank likely can’t prevent her from obtaining that medical information, he said.

“One overarching question is whether in a world of whole-genome sequencing and entities like the Donor Sibling Registry that are sharing information, these clinics have to reset expectations for would-be parents and donors as to what anonymity means,” said Mr. Cohen.

The popularity of genetic testing is challenging the sperm donor industry in other ways, too.

The Donor Sibling Registry is a website that connects sperm or egg donors and donor-conceived people with one another. In dozens of cases, families using the site have learned that sperm used to create their children was not provided by the donor they had selected, said Wendy Kramer, director of the registry.

“This number will most certainly increase over time,” she said.

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All Oscars Will Be Shown Live, Academy Says in a Reversal

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LOS ANGELES — So much for a three-hour Oscar telecast.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences said Friday that it would abandon its contentious plan to award four of its 24 trophies during commercial breaks, with the winning moments edited and aired later in the broadcast. The organization, which has become an internet punch line for its whipsawing decisions and frequent brouhahas, said in a statement that it had “heard feedback from its membership.”

“All Academy Awards will be presented without edits, in our traditional format,” the statement said.

The four categories were cinematography, editing, live-action short film and makeup and hairstyling. Next year, they were to return to the live show, with other categories rotated into the breaks.

Nothing was to be cut from the winning moments except the time spent walking to and from the stage — assuming the acceptance speeches did not go over the standard 90 seconds, the academy promised.

The academy’s 54-member board of governors, which includes luminaries like Steven Spielberg, Laura Dern and Rory Kennedy, had approved the plan as part of an effort to keep the show to three hours instead of four.

“We sincerely believe you will be pleased,” the academy’s seven elected officers said in a letter to members on Wednesday.

But by then, the academy was facing a mutiny. The American Society of Cinematographers rebuked the organization in an open letter signed by dozens of industry figures, including the directors Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino. As movie fans blasted the academy on Twitter, stars joined in.

For an organization filled with public relations experts — its marketing and P.R. branch has more than 400 members — the academy has found itself in nonstop tempests in recent years.

Its responses to the #OscarsSoWhite uproars of 2015 and 2016 drew criticism. On a smaller scale, it has been roughed up over its coming museum, the adoption of a code of conduct, leaks about an internal sexual harassment investigation, the creation and dissolution of a popular-film award, a stumble over whether to invite back Oscar winners from last year as presenters, a brouhaha over who will sing what nominated songs during the ceremony and the implosion of Kevin Hart as host of this year’s show.

The 91st Academy Awards will be broadcast on Feb. 24. There will be no host.

Whether its remedies are correct or not, the academy’s leaders know they have to take some kind of drastic action: A record low of 26.5 million people watched last year’s telecast, a drop of nearly 20 percent from a year earlier. As recently as four years ago, the Academy Awards had an audience of 43.7 million viewers. Traditions are wonderful, the organization’s leaders have said, but the television ratings may fall so low that the organization cannot meet its financial obligations.

The Oscars telecast is a big business, generating 83 percent of the academy’s $148 million in annual revenue. ABC controls broadcast rights until 2028 at a cost of roughly $75 million a year. The network sought as much as $2.8 million per 30-second commercial for last year’s telecast.

A nose-dive in the ratings threatens all of that income, not to mention an erosion of the position of the Oscars in comparison with the more freewheeling Golden Globe Awards. After a few more years of declines, the Grammys and the Golden Globes will be higher-rated shows.

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Big Investors Shed Tech Stocks as Markets Tumbled Last Quarter

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Bets on Big Tech became, in Wall Street parlance, crowded last year.

The belief that shares of the world’s tech giants — Alibaba, Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Baidu, Facebook, Netflix and Tencent — would continue to rise became universally popular among some of the biggest names in investing.

Last quarter, sentiment reversed, and those same investors dumped their shares.

Investment firms run by George Soros and David Tepper unloaded their shares of Apple during the fourth quarter, according to filings Thursday with the Securities and Exchange Commission. The hedge fund Jana Partners also reduced its stake in the iPhone maker last quarter.

Even Berkshire Hathaway, which has spent the past three years gobbling up shares of Apple, cut back its holdings in the company.

And Apple was not the only tech titan that big investors were selling last quarter.

Jana, along with Third Point, sold all its shares in Alibaba, the Chinese e-commerce giant. Third Point exited its position in Netflix. Leon Cooperman’s firm, Omega Advisors, sold its stake in Facebook and reduced its holdings in Alphabet. And Tiger Global Management decreased its holdings in Amazon.

The filings are the latest evidence of how quickly investors soured on Big Tech late last year as the industry’s woes mounted. A stream of revelations about privacy lapses and security issues had raised the specter of increased regulation on both sides of the Atlantic. But of more immediate concern for investors late last year was whether these companies could continue to grow amid a slowing global economy and an escalating trade war between China and the United States.

Over the final three months of last year, tech shares dropped 13 percent to 30 percent, erasing more than $1 trillion in market value. By comparison, the S&P 500 fell 14 percent.

The selling signaled a swift shift in sentiment among big hedge funds. Many of these fund managers had struggled to beat the broader market in recent years. So as tech stocks soared and drove much of the broader market’s gains, hedge funds crammed their portfolios with their shares.

The selling caught the hedge fund industry off guard, and their losses mounted during the fourth-quarter tumult in the stock market.

So far this year, shares of the tech companies have recovered, but most have not fared as well as the S&P 500.

Earnings for the final three months of 2018 were better than investors feared, but they did not inspire confidence that Big Tech would weather a global economic slowdown well, particularly in China.

Whether investors will pile back into tech stocks will probably depend on the outcome of trade talks between China and the United States. Until then, many investors may stay on the sidelines.

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Trump Sings Praises of Hannity and Limbaugh in Rose Garden

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President Trump reeled off a list of his favorite media personalities on Friday when asked who might have influenced his decision to declare a national emergency after Congress refused to give him money for a border wall.

Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham — a powerful bloc of conservative voices who have railed against any budget compromise on wall funding — all received shout-outs in a Rose Garden news conference.

“Sean Hannity has been a terrific, terrific supporter of what I do,” Mr. Trump said of the Fox News commentator.

He praised Mr. Limbaugh for his ability to command an audience. “He can speak for three hours without a phone call,” Mr. Trump said. “Try doing that sometime. For three hours he speaks. He’s got one of the biggest audiences in the history of the world. I mean, this guy is unbelievable.”

The president added that none of the favorites he mentioned, most of whom work for Fox News, drove his decisions: “They don’t decide policy,” he said.

The question that got Mr. Trump to discuss his cable and radio cheering squad came from the NBC News reporter Kelly O’Donnell. It seemed apt after what had occurred in December, when the presidency seemed perhaps more entwined than usual with prominent figures in conservative media.

At the time, Mr. Trump appeared willing to sign a continuing resolution to prevent a government shutdown, even without money for the wall. Then a few of his most influential supporters, including Mr. Hannity and Mr. Limbaugh, lasered in on the lack of wall funding and pleaded with Mr. Trump to refuse to sign the bill. He did exactly that, leading to a 35-day shutdown, the longest in the government’s history.

This week, as the deadline on the temporary spending measure that ended the shutdown loomed, the president was willing to go ahead with a newly proposed budget, even though it had less money for a border wall than was on the table at one point last year.

In contrast to December, Mr. Trump reached out to a synod of conservative commentators in an effort to assuage their concerns.

He talked with Mr. Hannity and Lou Dobbs, the Fox Business Network host. The purpose was to politick the right-wing media with the message that Mr. Trump deserved support for the new bill because he had forced concessions.

He also would declare a national emergency as a way to get around Congress and provide dollars for the wall, a move conservatives championed.

“We’re going to confront the national security crisis on our southern border, and we’re going to do it one way or the other,” Mr. Trump said in the Rose Garden. “It’s an invasion. We have an invasion of drugs and criminals coming into our country.”

But not everyone in the right-wing punditocracy endorsed Mr. Trump. Ann Coulter, who was an early supporter of the president, has now become a thorn in his side.

In December, she published a blistering column on her website calling Mr. Trump a “gigantic douchebag” for not having made headway on a border wall. This week, as many anticipated Mr. Trump’s willingness to approve the spending bill, she didn’t let up, saying on Twitter that the goal of the national emergency “is for Trump to scam the stupidest people in his base for 2 more years.”

The president spoke of Ms. Coulter on Friday, but not in the most glowing terms.

“I don’t know her,” the president said Friday. “I haven’t spoken to her in way over a year. But the press loves saying ‘Ann Coulter.’”

He continued: “I have nothing against her. In fact, I like her for one reason. When they asked her, right at the beginning, who is going to win the election? She said, ‘Donald Trump.’ And the two people that asked her that question smiled. They said, ‘You’re kidding, aren’t you?’ ‘Nope, Donald Trump.’ So I like her.”

A few seconds later, he added, “But she’s off the reservation, but anybody who knows her understands that.”

After the news conference, Ms. Coulter tweeted: “He seems to think ‘the reservation’ is HIM, not his campaign promises.”

Three minutes later, she posted another, this time about the constitutional provision allowing for the removal of a president from office: “No. 1 trending topic on Twitter: 25th Amendment.”

Mr. Trump also cued up one of his old anti-press hits during the news conference. When Jim Acosta, the CNN reporter whose White House credentials he suspended late last year, asked about “critics who say you’re creating a national emergency in order to get your wall,” the president was ready.

“Your question is a very political question, because you have an agenda,” he said. “You’re CNN. You’re fake news.”

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