Good morning. Millions of Americans will receive their stimulus payments any minute now, as the American Rescue Plan is up and running. Here’s what else you need to know in business and tech news for the week ahead. — Charlotte Cowles
What’s Up? (March 7-13)
The Checks Are Here
President Biden signed his hard-fought whopper of a stimulus package into law on Thursday. The bill will provide direct payments of up to $1,400 to qualifying Americans, who can expect to see direct deposits hit their bank accounts as soon as this weekend (as in, today). It will also extend unemployment benefits, give aid to ailing businesses like airlines, provide funding to speed up vaccinations and reopen schools, and give most parents a tax credit of up to $300 per child, per month. The president has embarked on a weekslong campaign to publicize the benefits offered in the package, which is popular with voters of both parties even though it received no Republican support in Congress.
An international group of hackers has claimed that it breached 150,000 surveillance cameras inside hospitals, companies, police departments, prisons and schools in the United States, all by accessing a trove of camera data collected by the Silicon Valley start-up Verkada. Tesla is among the companies whose internal footage was potentially compromised. In taking credit, one of the hackers said they were motivated by “lots of curiosity, fighting for freedom of information and against intellectual property, a huge dose of anticapitalism, a hint of anarchism — and it’s also just too much fun not to do it.”
New unemployment claims fell again last week, approaching their lowest numbers since the pandemic began. It’s a promising sign that the economy may be recovering in earnest after months of uneven improvement, but there’s a long way to go — joblessness still remains incredibly high by historical standards. Meanwhile, the stock market had a great week. The S&P 500 climbed to a record high on Thursday as investors salivated at the prospect of fresh stimulus cash boosting the economy.
What’s Next? (March 14-20)
Have Vaccine, Will Travel
Wondering what it will take to go on a serious vacation this summer — the kind where you fly through several time zones, cross at least one border and genuinely forget to check your email because real life seems so far away? Well, vaccine passports could be the answer. This Wednesday, the European Union Commission will announce its proposal for special documents that would allow vaccinated people to travel more freely. The United States, China and Britain are considering similar measures. The rules are intended to help the ailing travel and tourism industries while curbing virus transmission.
The stimulus payments would be $1,400 for most recipients. Those who are eligible would also receive an identical payment for each of their children. To qualify for the full $1,400, a single person would need an adjusted gross income of $75,000 or below. For heads of household, adjusted gross income would need to be $112,500 or below, and for married couples filing jointly that number would need to be $150,000 or below. To be eligible for a payment, a person must have a Social Security number. Read more.
Buying insurance through the government program known as COBRA would temporarily become a lot cheaper. COBRA, for the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, generally lets someone who loses a job buy coverage via the former employer. But it’s expensive: Under normal circumstances, a person may have to pay at least 102 percent of the cost of the premium. Under the relief bill, the government would pay the entire COBRA premium from April 1 through Sept. 30. A person who qualified for new, employer-based health insurance someplace else before Sept. 30 would lose eligibility for the no-cost coverage. And someone who left a job voluntarily would not be eligible, either. Read more
This credit, which helps working families offset the cost of care for children under 13 and other dependents, would be significantly expanded for a single year. More people would be eligible, and many recipients would get a bigger break. The bill would also make the credit fully refundable, which means you could collect the money as a refund even if your tax bill was zero. “That will be helpful to people at the lower end” of the income scale, said Mark Luscombe, principal federal tax analyst at Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting. Read more.
There would be a big one for people who already have debt. You wouldn’t have to pay income taxes on forgiven debt if you qualify for loan forgiveness or cancellation — for example, if you’ve been in an income-driven repayment plan for the requisite number of years, if your school defrauded you or if Congress or the president wipes away $10,000 of debt for large numbers of people. This would be the case for debt forgiven between Jan. 1, 2021, and the end of 2025. Read more.
The bill would provide billions of dollars in rental and utility assistance to people who are struggling and in danger of being evicted from their homes. About $27 billion would go toward emergency rental assistance. The vast majority of it would replenish the so-called Coronavirus Relief Fund, created by the CARES Act and distributed through state, local and tribal governments, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. That’s on top of the $25 billion in assistance provided by the relief package passed in December. To receive financial assistance — which could be used for rent, utilities and other housing expenses — households would have to meet several conditions. Household income could not exceed 80 percent of the area median income, at least one household member must be at risk of homelessness or housing instability, and individuals would have to qualify for unemployment benefits or have experienced financial hardship (directly or indirectly) because of the pandemic. Assistance could be provided for up to 18 months, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Lower-income families that have been unemployed for three months or more would be given priority for assistance. Read more.
China Trade Talks, Redux
President Biden has vowed to take a tough stance on China, but also to chart a more strategic approach than the Trump administration, which sparred with Beijing in a monthslong trade war with questionable results. This week, two top members of Mr. Biden’s team, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, will meet with their Chinese counterparts in Alaska. It will be the first high-level in-person contact between the two countries since Mr. Biden has taken office, and is expected to set the tone for relations moving forward.
A Pricey Pump
As the economy recovers and people start commuting, traveling and buying things again, oil prices are expected to go up — and up and up. Usually when this happens, the energy industry pumps more oil out of the ground to meet consumer demand. But not this time. Fuel companies have been reluctant to increase their supply, as many remain spooked by the pandemic’s destructive effect on oil markets in the past year. (Oil prices even turned negative at one point last April, when traders had to pay buyers to take barrels off their hands.) That’s a far cry from the $4 a gallon that some states could see this summer if demand continues apace.
The Manhattan mansion owned by Jeffrey Epstein, the financier who died in jail after being accused of sex trafficking, has sold for $51 million. The proceeds will go to a fund providing restitution for his abuse victims. On Wall Street, the share value of the gaming site Roblox soared on its first day of public trading, a sign of just how indispensable video games have become in the pandemic economy. And a Chinese bowl bought for $35 at a yard sale in Connecticut turned out to be a rare artifact from the Ming dynasty, and is expected to fetch up to $500,000 at auction this week.