Small Businesses Can Help Employees Save for Retirement, too.

Many small business owners run their companies as leanly as possible. This often means not offering what are considered standard fringe benefits for midsize or larger companies, such as a retirement plan. If this is the case for your small business, don’t give up on the idea of helping your employees save for retirement in a tax-advantaged manner. When you’re ready, there are a couple account-based options that are relatively simple and inexpensive to launch and administrate. SEP IRAs Simplified Employee Pension IRAs (SEP IRAs) are individual accounts that small businesses establish on behalf of each participant. (Self-employed individuals can also establish SEP IRAs.) Participants own their accounts, so they’re immediately 100% vested. If a participant decides to leave your company, the account balance goes with them — most people roll it over into a new employer’s qualified plan or traditional IRA.

What are the advantages for you?

SEP IRAs don’t require annual employer contributions. That means you can choose to contribute only when cash flow allows. In addition, there are typically no setup fees for SEP IRAs, though participants generally must pay trading commissions and fund expense ratios (a fee typically set as a percentage of the fund’s average net assets). In 2024, the contribution limit is $69,000 (up from $66,000 in 2023) or up to 25% of a participant’s compensation. That amount is much higher than the 2024 limit for 401(k)s, which is $23,000 (up from $22,500 in 2023). What’s more, employer contributions are tax-deductible. Meanwhile, participants won’t pay taxes on their SEP IRA funds until they’re withdrawn.

There are some disadvantages to consider.

Although participants own their accounts, only employers can make SEP IRA contributions. And if you contribute sparsely or sporadically, participants may see little value in the accounts. Also, unlike many other qualified plans, SEP IRAs don’t permit participants age 50 or over to make additional “catch-up” contributions.


Another strategy is to offer employees SIMPLE IRAs. (“SIMPLE” stands for “Savings Incentive Match Plan for Employees.”) As is the case with SEP IRAs, your business creates a SIMPLE IRA for each participant, who’s immediately 100% vested in the account. Unlike SEP IRAs, SIMPLE IRAs allow participants to contribute to their accounts if they so choose. SIMPLE IRAs are indeed relatively simple to set up and administer. They don’t require the sponsoring business to file IRS Form 5500, “Annual Return/Report of Employee Benefit Plan.” Nor must you submit the plan to nondiscrimination testing, which is generally required for 401(k)s. Meanwhile, participants face no setup fees and enjoy tax-deferred growth on their account funds. Best of all, they can contribute more to a SIMPLE IRA than they can to a self-owned traditional or Roth IRA. The 2024 contribution limit for SIMPLE IRAs is $16,000 (up from $15,500 in 2023), and participants age 50 or over can make catch-up contributions to the tune of $3,500 this year (unchanged from last year). On the downside, that contribution limit is lower than the limit for 401(k)s. Also, because contributions are made pretax, participants can’t deduct them, nor can they take out plan loans. Then again, making pretax contributions does lower their taxable income. Perhaps most important is that employer contributions to SIMPLE IRAs are mandatory — you can’t skip them if cash flow gets tight. However, generally, you may deduct contributions as a business expense.

Is now the time?

Overall, the job market remains somewhat tight and, in some industries, the competition for skilled labor is fierce. Offering one of these IRA types may enable you to attract and retain quality employees more readily. Some small businesses may even qualify for a tax credit if they start a SEP IRA, SIMPLE IRA or other eligible plan. We can help you decide whether now is the right time to do so. © 2024


New Option for Unused Funds in a 529 College Savings Plan

With the high cost of college, many parents begin saving with 529 plans when their children are babies. Contributions to these plans aren’t tax deductible, but they grow tax deferred. Earnings used to pay qualified education expenses can be withdrawn tax-free. However, earnings used for other purposes may be subject to income tax plus a 10% penalty.

What if you have a substantial balance in a 529 plan but your child doesn’t need all the money for college? Perhaps your child decided not to attend college or received a scholarship. Or maybe you saved for private college, but your child attended a lower-priced state university. What should you do with unused funds? One option is to pay the tax and penalties and spend the money on whatever you wish. But there are more tax-efficient options, including a new 529-to-Roth IRA transfer.

Nuts and bolts Beginning in 2024, you can transfer unused funds in a 529 plan to a Roth IRA for the same beneficiary, without tax or penalties. These rollovers are subject to several rules and limits: Transfers have a lifetime maximum of $35,000 per beneficiary. The 529 plan must have existed for at least 15 years. The rollover must be through a direct trustee-to-trustee transfer. Transferred funds can’t include contributions made within the preceding five years or earnings on those contributions. Transfers are subject to the annual limits on contributions to Roth IRAs (without regard to income limits). For example, let’s say you opened a 529 plan for your son after he was born in 2001.

When your son graduated from college in 2023, there was $30,000 left in the account. In 2024, under the new option, you can begin transferring funds into your son’s Roth IRA. Since the 529 plan was opened at least 15 years ago (and no contributions were made in the last five years), the only restriction on rollover is the annual Roth IRA contribution limit. Assuming your son hasn’t made any other IRA contributions for 2024, you can roll over up to $7,000 (if your son has at least that much earned income for the year). If your son’s earned income for 2024 is less than $7,000, the amount eligible for a rollover will be reduced.

For example, if he takes an unpaid internship and earns $4,000 during the year from a part-time job, the most you can roll over for the year is $4,000. A 529-to-Roth IRA rollover is an appealing option to avoid tax and penalties on unused funds, while helping the beneficiaries start saving for retirement. Roth IRAs are a great savings vehicle for young people because they’ll enjoy tax-free withdrawals decades later. Other options Roth IRA rollovers aren’t the only option for avoiding tax and penalties on unused 529 plan funds.

You can also change a plan’s beneficiary to another family member. Or you can use 529 plans for continuing education, certain trade schools, or even up to $10,000 per year of elementary through high school tuition. In addition, you can withdraw funds tax-free to pay down student loan debt, up to $10,000 per beneficiary. It’s not unusual for parents to end up with unused 529 funds.

Contact us if you have questions about the most tax-wise way to handle them. © 2024



Medical Expense “Bunching”: Maximize Your 2024 Savings

As you file your 2023 tax return, start thinking about how you can boost itemized deductions for 2024. You may be able to “bunch” medical expenses so you exceed the 7.5% of adjusted gross income necessary to deduct some costs.

Say, for example, you’ve already scheduled surgery that will involve out-of-pocket expenses but still fall short of the deductible threshold. Think about scheduling elective procedures, such as dental work or Lasik surgery, and making qualified purchases ( ) that will push you over the threshold. Note that only the expenses over that amount and that aren’t covered by insurance or paid through a tax-advantaged account will be deductible.

Contact one of our experts for more tax planning help!


Get ready for the 2023 gift tax return deadline

Did you make large gifts to your children, grandchildren or others last year? If so, it’s important to determine if you’re required to file a 2023 gift tax return. In some cases, it might be beneficial to file one — even if it’s not required.

Who must file?

The annual gift tax exclusion has increased in 2024 to $18,000 but was $17,000 for 2023. Generally, you must file a gift tax return for 2023 if, during the tax year, you made gifts:

  • That exceeded the $17,000-per-recipient gift tax annual exclusion for 2023 (other than to your U.S. citizen spouse), that you wish to split with your spouse to take advantage of your combined $34,000 annual exclusion for 2023,
  • That exceeded the $175,000 annual exclusion in 2023 for gifts to a noncitizen spouse,
  • To a Section 529 college savings plan and wish to accelerate up to five years’ worth of annual exclusions ($85,000) into 2023,
  • Of future interests — such as remainder interests in a trust — regardless of the amount, or
  • Of jointly held or community property.

Keep in mind that you’ll owe gift tax only to the extent that an exclusion doesn’t apply and you’ve used up your lifetime gift and estate tax exemption ($12.92 million for 2023). As you can see, some transfers require a return even if you don’t owe tax.

Who might want to file?

No gift tax return is required if your gifts for 2023 consisted solely of gifts that are tax-free because they qualify as:

  • Annual exclusion gifts,
  • Present interest gifts to a U.S. citizen spouse,
  • Educational or medical expenses paid directly to a school or health care provider,
  • Political or charitable contributions.

But if you transferred hard-to-value property, such as artwork or interests in a family-owned business, you should consider filing a gift tax return even if you’re not required to. Adequate disclosure of the transfer in a return triggers the statute of limitations, generally preventing the IRS from challenging your valuation more than three years after you file.

The deadline is April 15 The gift tax return deadline is the same as the income tax filing deadline. For 2023 returns, it’s Monday, April 15, 2024 — or Tuesday, October 15, 2024, if you file for an extension.

But keep in mind that, if you owe gift tax, the payment deadline is April 15, regardless of whether you file for an extension. If you’re not sure whether you must (or should) file a 2023 gift tax return on IRS Form 709, contact us. © 2024


Financial Institutions and Banking

Bank Wire

Regulators focusing on liquidity risk management

Liquidity risk is in the spotlight, given last year’s notable bank failures and federal banking regulators’ explanations of the underlying causes. As regulators focus on liquidity risk management, they’re reminding banks that their 2010 “Interagency Policy Statement on Funding and Liquidity Risk Management (SR 10-06)” continues to be the primary guidance on the subject.

The policy statement discusses eight critical elements of sound liquidity risk management:

  1. Effective corporate governance,
  2. Appropriate strategies, policies, procedures, and limits used to manage and mitigate liquidity risk,
  3. Comprehensive liquidity risk measurement and monitoring systems that are commensurate with the bank’s complexity and business activities,
  4. Active management of intraday liquidity and collateral,
  5. An appropriately diverse mix of existing and potential future funding sources,
  6. Adequate levels of highly liquid marketable securities free of legal, regulatory or operational impediments that can be used to meet liquidity needs in stressful situations,
  7. Comprehensive contingency funding plans that sufficiently address potential adverse liquidity events and emergency cash flow requirements, and
  8. Internal controls and internal audit processes sufficient to determine the adequacy of the bank’s liquidity risk management process.

Banks need to follow these guidelines to ensure appropriate liquidity risk management.

Junk fees in the crosshairs

Federal agencies, including the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), are cracking down on so-called “junk fees” charged by banks and other businesses. Recently, the FTC issued a proposed “Rule on Unfair or Deceptive Fees,” which would prohibit businesses from misrepresenting the total cost of goods or services by omitting mandatory fees from advertised prices and misrepresenting, or failing to disclose, the nature and purpose of fees. Although the FTC has no authority over banks, the CFPB has indicated that it will enforce the rule against violators in the financial industry.

Watch out for pig butchering scam

In a recent alert, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) warned banks about a dangerous virtual currency investment scam known as “pig butchering.” Given the devastating impact of this scam, FinCEN has asked banks to report suspicious activities indicative of this scheme. According to FinCEN, the scam resembles “the practice of fattening a hog before slaughter.” Criminals use fake identities, elaborate storylines and other techniques to convince victims they’re in a trusted partnership before defrauding them of their assets.

The alert explains the scheme and provides a detailed list of behavioral, financial, and technical red flags to help banks identify and report suspicious activity. It also reminds banks of their reporting obligations under the Bank Secrecy Act and reviews the filing instructions for suspicious activity reports.

© 2023

Financial Institutions and Banking

What Can Visual Analytics Do For Your Bank?

Criminals are continuously looking for ways to use rapidly advancing technology for their own nefarious purposes. This is an ongoing issue for many community banks as they try to prevent money laundering and other crimes from happening within their operations. To protect your bank from criminal infiltration and ensure your bank remains in compliance with Bank Secrecy Act/Anti-Money Laundering (BSA/AML) laws and regulations, it’s best to fight fire with fire. Consider using data visualization software to help detect possible crimes before they can take hold.

How to comply with BSA/AML

Banks that fail to take reasonable steps to detect and prevent money-laundering activity risk government fines. They also may receive severe negative publicity that harms their reputations.

Several developments over the past few years reflect the federal banking agencies’ increasing concern about BSA/AML compliance efforts. For one thing, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) introduced customer due diligence (CDD) rules that require institutions to incorporate beneficial ownership identification requirements into existing CDD policies and procedures.

Within the past few years, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) alerted banks to increasing BSA/AML risks associated with technological developments and new product offerings in the banking industry. In addition, regulators increasingly have been scrutinizing automated monitoring systems used by banks to detect suspicious activity to ensure that they’re configured properly.

Regulators haven’t limited their heightened scrutiny to larger banks. In fact, some large banks have restricted certain customers’ activities or closed their accounts because of BSA/AML concerns. As a result, higher-risk customers often have moved to smaller banks with less experience managing the associated BSA/AML risks.

How to use visual analytics

Data visualization software — also known as visual analytics — can be a powerful AML tool. Traditional AML software products and methods do a good job of detecting known AML issues. But data visualization software, which is commonly used as an antifraud weapon, excels at spotting new or unknown AML activity.

As criminal activity becomes more sophisticated and more difficult to detect, traditional AML software or methods may no longer be enough. Data visualization software creates visual representations of data. These representations may take many different forms, from pie charts and bar graphs to scatter plots, decision trees and geospatial maps. Visualization helps banks identify suspicious patterns, relationships, trends or anomalies that are difficult to spot using traditional tools alone. It’s particularly useful in identifying new or emerging risks before they do lasting damage.

Criminal enterprises that wish to launder money typically use multiple entities and multiple bank accounts, both domestic and foreign. Using data visualization software, banks can map out the flow of funds across various accounts, identifying relationships between accounts and the entities associated with them. Data visualization can reveal clusters of interrelated entities that would be difficult and time-consuming to spot using traditional methods.

These clusters or other relationships don’t necessarily indicate criminal activity. But they help focus a bank’s AML efforts by pinpointing suspicious activities that warrant further investigation.

Use all the tools at your disposal

Money-laundering is an insidious and ever-present risk, and fraudsters are increasingly technology-savvy. Your bank needs to be alert to the potential dangers and use every analytic tool available to head them off, including data visualization software mapping.

© 2024

Financial Institutions and Banking

7 Ways AI is Transforming the Banking Industry

Abstract:   Artificial intelligence (AI) is impacting businesses in virtually every industry today, and banking is no exception. This article notes that banks of all sizes increasingly recognize AI’s potential to help them improve efficiency, reduce costs, enhance the customer experience and combat fraud. It offers seven examples of how banks are using AI, including in customer service, fraud prevention and underwriting decisions.

7 ways AI is transforming the banking industry

Artificial intelligence (AI) is impacting businesses in virtually every industry today, and banking is no exception. Banks of all sizes increasingly recognize AI’s potential to help them improve efficiency, reduce costs, enhance the customer experience and combat fraud. Here are seven examples of how banks are using AI:

  1. Customer service. Banks are using natural language processing and other AI applications to create conversational interfaces, or “chatbots,” that can improve the customer experience. These applications are available to customers 24/7. Plus, with access to troves of data and the ability to learn about specific customers’ behavior and usage patterns, they can offer highly personalized customer support at a fraction of the cost, and often more effectively, than humans.

Among other things, chatbots can answer account inquiries, reset passwords, assist with fund transfers and automatic payments, and assist with loan applications. Some banks also are using AI to recommend financial services and products, though the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has been critical of the use of AI and chatbots in underwriting in some instances.

  1. Fraud prevention and detection. Traditional approaches to combating fraud are becoming more challenging due to the number of daily transactions and the many customer behaviors that need to be monitored to identify anomalies. AI applications can quickly detect even subtle deviations from customers’ usual account activity and behavior patterns. These trends can alert bank personnel to potentially fraudulent activities that warrant further investigation.

AI also has the ability to monitor bank systems and provide early warnings of cyberthreats, enabling bank personnel to respond quickly and minimize the damage. Examples of cyberattacks include phishing scams, ransomware and other malware, and identity theft.

  1. Underwriting decisions. Banks are beginning to use AI to improve their loan and credit decisions. AI-based systems are able to sift through vast amounts of data to analyze customer behavior and activity patterns that evince creditworthiness. They can also help spot, and flag, behaviors or characteristics that might increase the chances an applicant will default.
  2. Collections. By analyzing customer data, AI can spot warning signs that indicate potential delinquencies or defaults. It also can communicate with customers and offer personalized solutions for helping them get current on their payments and avoid default.
  3. Automation. Strictly speaking, robotic process automation (RPA) isn’t AI, but it has a similar impact on banking processes. RPA refers to software tools that automate time-consuming, repetitive tasks.

Not only does RPA free up bank personnel to focus on higher-value activities, but it also can improve productivity and reduce errors. Examples of the many uses of RPA include inputting data and documents, opening accounts, and processing address changes. In addition, it can be used to automate and standardize many tasks related to customer communications and regulatory compliance.

  1. BSA/AML compliance. AI can be invaluable to Bank Secrecy Act/Anti-Money Laundering (BSA/AML) compliance efforts. It can sift through enormous amounts of transaction data and identify suspicious activities that would be difficult, if not impossible, to detect using traditional methods.
  2. Marketing. By processing and analyzing huge amounts of data, AI can help banks track and even predict market trends. And by collecting data about a bank’s customers, it can reveal untapped sales and cross-selling opportunities.

Here to stay

For banks interested in taking advantage of AI, significant challenges remain, including implementing and maintaining the systems and the extensive data needed to support it. However, as this technology becomes more commonplace and cheaper, its benefits will be difficult to ignore.

© 2023

Financial Institutions and Banking

Learn From Past Mistakes

 “Postmortems” on failed institutions are instructive for community banks

In the aftermath of three notable bank failures in 2023, federal banking regulators issued comprehensive reports detailing the underlying causes of those failures. These postmortems are must-reads for banks of all sizes because they point out management shortcomings that led to the bank failures — as well as regulators’ plans to become more proactive in addressing bank risks. Here are some highlights of the three reports.

  1. Silicon Valley Bank

According to the Federal Reserve (Fed) report, Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) was “a textbook case” of bank mismanagement. Its senior leadership failed to manage basic interest rate and liquidity risk, which led to a run by depositors. The causes of SVB’s failure were tied to 1) its business model, which was highly concentrated in early-stage and start-up technology companies and relied heavily on uninsured deposits, and 2) its failure to sufficiently address interest rate and liquidity risk. These factors left SVB “acutely exposed to the specific combination of rising interest rates and slowing activity in the technology sector that materialized in 2022 and early 2023,” observed the Fed. Also, SVB had accumulated substantial unrealized losses on available-for-sale (AFS) securities.

In addition to the fact that SVB’s directors didn’t receive adequate risk-related information from management, SVB:

  • Didn’t hold management accountable for effective risk management,
  • Failed its own internal liquidity stress tests and had no workable plan to access liquidity in times of stress, and
  • Managed interest rate risk with a focus on short-term profits, rather than on managing long-term risks and the risk of rising rates.

The Fed also took some of the blame, noting that supervisors didn’t fully appreciate the extent of SVB’s vulnerabilities as it grew rapidly in size and complexity. Thus, it failed to take sufficient steps to ensure that SVB addressed those problems quickly.

  1. Signature Bank

According to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) postmortem, the primary cause of Signature Bank’s failure was “illiquidity precipitated by contagion effects in the wake of” deposit runs that led to the failure of SVB and the self-liquidation of Silvergate Bank. The FDIC noted other causes of Signature Bank’s failure included its:

  • Pursuit of “rapid, unrestrained growth” without developing risk management practices and controls appropriate for its size and complexity,
  • Failure to prioritize good corporate governance and heed FDIC examiner concerns,
  • Overreliance on uninsured deposits to fund its rapid growth, without implementing fundamental liquidity risk management practices and controls, and
  • Failure to understand the risks associated with reliance on cryptocurrency deposits.

Like the Fed, the FDIC accepted some responsibility for Signature Bank’s failure, noting that it “could have escalated supervisory actions sooner,” its “examination work products could have been timelier,” and it could have communicated more effectively with the bank’s board and management.

  1. First Republic Bank

According to the FDIC, First Republic Bank failed primarily because of “a loss of market and depositor confidence” in the wake of the SVB and Signature Bank failures, resulting in a bank run. Notably, the FDIC found that First Republic Bank was well run, responsive to supervisory feedback, and implemented appropriate infrastructure, controls and risk management processes as it grew. Nevertheless, specific attributes of its business model and management strategies made it vulnerable to interest rate changes and the contagion effects of previous bank failures, including:

  • Rapid growth,
  • Loan and funding concentrations,
  • Overreliance on uninsured deposits and depositor loyalty, and
  • Failure to sufficiently mitigate interest rate risk.

Again, the FDIC examined its own possible role in First Republic Bank’s failure. Although it was unclear whether earlier supervisory action would have made a difference, the report noted that “meaningful action to mitigate interest rate risk and address funding concentrations would have made the bank more resilient and less vulnerable.”

Stay tuned

To help avoid future bank failures, regulators are considering several changes, including rethinking stress testing requirements; imposing additional capital or liquidity requirements on banks with inadequate capital planning, liquidity risk management, or governance and controls; incorporating unrealized losses and gains into regulatory capital rules; and encouraging banks to avoid concentrations on both sides of the balance sheet.

The extent to which these changes will trickle down to community banks is uncertain. But expect greater regulatory scrutiny in the future, particularly with respect to capital, liquidity risk and interest rate risk.

Sidebar: Role of social media in liquidity risk

An interesting takeaway from the regulators’ postmortems (see main article) is the role that social media, together with banking technology, plays in liquidity risk. In its postmortem on Silicon Valley Bank (SVB), the Federal Reserve (Fed) commented that “social media enabled depositors to instantly spread concerns about a bank run, and technology enabled immediate withdrawals of funding.”

On March 8, 2023, for example, SVB announced a balance sheet restructuring, including a sale of certain securities and an intention to raise capital. The next day, SVB experienced deposit outflows totaling over $40 billion, as uninsured depositors, interpreting the announcement as a signal of financial distress, began withdrawing their funds “in a coordinated manner with unprecedented speed.” According to the Fed, the run appeared to be fueled by social media and the bank’s concentrated network of venture capital investors and technology firms.

© 2023


A Reminder for Businesses:

A reminder for businesses: Use IRS Form 8300 to report cash transactions of $10,000 or more within 15 days of a transaction. If you file electronically, forms are delivered to the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network. Paper forms are submitted to the IRS.

You also generally should provide written statements to parties whose names you’ve reported by January 31 of the year following the transactions. However, if a transaction you report is suspicious, don’t provide a statement to the individual involved.

Although you aren’t required to file Form 8300 for cash transactions of less than $10,000, the IRS encourages you to report suspicious transactions of any amount.

Contact us if you have any questions.