Life comes at you fast. Two months ago, the Dow was flirting with 30,000, unemployment was at 3.5%, and the economy was looking forward to spring with the rest of us. Today, of course, we've put the economy in a medically-induced coma. People who are trapped at home with cranky partners and children are wondering what it takes to declare their loved ones "nonessential." And trillions of dollars that used to slosh through our fingers have dried up like our social lives after the onslaught of the Coronavirus Shutdown Machine.
Late last month, Washington rushed out the CARES Act to start replacing those dollars. It's like one of those one-man-band machines with all the instruments firing at once. The IRS is paying out billions in tax refunds and "Economic Impact Payment" stimulus checks. The Small Business Administration is shoveling out billions more in Paycheck Protection Program and Economic Injury Disaster Loans to mom-and-pop businesses (and an occasional cliched steakhouse chain). The Federal Reserve is about to launch a $600 million "Main Street" business lending program.
How is all that money playing out on the street? Mostly slow and creaky. But not always! A couple of weeks ago, an Indiana firefighter named Charles Calvin went to an ATM to withdraw rent money and see if he had gotten his stimulus check. He expected to find $1,700. But when he checked his receipt, he was stunned to see there was $8.2 million in his account.
And what did Calvin do with his windfall? Did he unleash his best Bobby Axelrod impression and snap his finger for a helicopter or a Bentley? Did he channel his inner Logan Roy and start scheming to pit his ungrateful kids against each other?
Sadly for Calvin, life came at him fast, too. When he checked with his bank the next Monday morning, his balance was $13.69. In fact, they told him, the money was never there in the first place. They blamed the ATM for the problem, which sounds like a poor attempt at shooting the messenger. As for Calvin, he was philosophical about the whole thing: "It kind of sucks you go from being a millionaire on paper one second then back to being broke again, but I guess once you're poor you ain't got nowhere else to go but up."
(Just between us, we're wishing he had tried blowing at least some of the bogus cash. It would have made a better story. Any halfway ambitious lottery winner in his shoes would have used the weekend to get a jump start on bankruptcy.)
If Calvin's millions were real, would he have owed taxes on them? According to the CARES Act, arguably not. Those payments are a "refundable credit" against your 2020 tax (which means they won't come out of your 2020 refund). However, the money hitting bank accounts now is based on your 2019 return (if you've filed), your 2018 return (if not), or your latest Social Security benefits statement (if you don't file at all). The new law pretends you made a payment now equal to whatever stimulus you get. Most importantly, there's no provision for clawing back any excess.
Recovering from the coronavirus is probably going to be the financial challenge of our time. It's not going to be easy for anyone. But we will get through it, and there will even be opportunities for some. So stay safe while the cases rage, and let us help you recover when the time is right!