When the COVID-19 crisis exploded in March, among the many concerns was the state of the nation’s supply chains. Business owners are no strangers to such worry. It’s long been known that, if too much of a company’s supply chain is concentrated (that is, dependent) on one thing, that business is in danger. The pandemic has only complicated matters.

To guard against this risk, you’ve got to maintain a constant awareness of the state of your supply chain and be prepared to adjust as necessary and feasible.

Products or services

The term “concentration” can be applied to both customers and suppliers. Generally, concentration risks become significant when a business relies on a customer or supplier for 10% or more of its revenue or materials, or on several customers or suppliers located in the same geographic region.

Concentration related to your specific products or services is something to keep a close eye on. If your company’s most profitable product or service line depends on a few key customers, you’re essentially at their mercy. If just one or two decide to make budget cuts or switch to a competitor, it could significantly lower your revenues.

Similarly, if a major supplier suddenly increases prices or becomes lax in quality control, your profit margin could narrow considerably. This is especially problematic if your number of alternative suppliers is limited.

To cope, do your research. Regularly look into what suppliers might best serve your business and whether new ones have emerged that might allow you to offset your dependence on one or two providers. Technology can be of great help in this effort — for example, monitor trusted news sources online, follow social media accounts of experts and use artificial intelligence to target the best deals.

Geography

A second type of concentration risk is geographic. When gauging it, assess whether many of your customers or suppliers are in one geographic region. Operating near supply chain partners offers advantages such as lower transportation costs and faster delivery. Conversely, overseas locales may enable you to cut labor and raw materials expenses.

But there are also risks associated with geographic centricity. Local weather conditions, tax rate hikes and regulatory changes can have a substantial impact. As we’ve unfortunately encountered this year, the severity of COVID-19 in different regions of the country is affecting the operational ability and capacity of suppliers in those areas.

These same threats apply when dealing with global partners, with the added complexity of greater physical distances and longer shipping times. Geopolitical uncertainty and exchange rate volatility may also negatively affect overseas suppliers.

Challenges and opportunities

Business owners — particularly those who run smaller companies — have always faced daunting challenges in maintaining strong supply chains. The pandemic has added a new and difficult dimension. Our firm can help you assess your supply chain and identify opportunities for cost-effective improvements.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

Many business owners — particularly those who own smaller companies — spend so much time trying to eliminate weaknesses that they never fully capitalize on their strengths. One way to do so is to identify and explicate your unique selling proposition (USP).

Give it some thought

In a nutshell, a USP states why customers should buy your product or service rather than a similar one offered by a competitor. A USP might be rather obvious if you offer a type of state-of-the-art technology or specialize in a certain kind of service that’s not widely available. Many businesses, however, will need to dedicate some serious thought and discussion to identifying their USP — and they may need to do so every year or two to adapt to market changes.

Ask the right questions

Involve employees from every level of your company in brainstorming sessions to develop your USP. During these meetings, consider the answers to questions such as:

  • What makes our products or services distinctive?
  • What aspect of our business is most important to its growth?
  • Which elements of what we do are the most difficult for competitors to copy?
  • Why should customers buy from us instead of the competition?

As you might have noticed, knowledge of your competitors is critical to developing a strong USP. You can’t differentiate your business from theirs unless you’re familiar with what competitors are selling, how they sell their products or services, and how they support those sales in terms of customer service. To this end, you may need to undertake some “competitive intelligence” efforts to gather needed information.

Integrate it into the sales process

Your USP should be a powerful, concise statement that customers and prospects will immediately understand and recognize as fulfilling their wants or needs. Among the most commonly cited examples is package delivery giant FedEx’s “When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight.” Although the company doesn’t use this slogan anymore, it remains a perfect example of a USP that’s clear and memorable.

Of course, your USP must be more than just words. Once established, it should serve as a sort of “mantra” for your sales team. That is, after identifying your customers’ needs during the sales process, they should use the USP (or an iteration of it) to explain to customers why your product or service is the right choice. Just be careful not to overuse your USP in sales and marketing materials, including on your website.

Now may be the time

Given the monumental changes that have occurred in the U.S. economy and in many industries because of the COVID-19 pandemic, now may be an imperative time to reconsider and relaunch your USP. We can help you evaluate your sales numbers, as well as return on investment in marketing efforts, to carefully craft the right approach.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

There’s a new IRS form for business taxpayers that pay or receive nonemployee compensation.

Beginning with tax year 2020, payers must complete Form 1099-NEC, Nonemployee Compensation, to report any payment of $600 or more to a payee.

Why the new form?

Prior to 2020, Form 1099-MISC was filed to report payments totaling at least $600 in a calendar year for services performed in a trade or business by someone who isn’t treated as an employee. These payments are referred to as nonemployee compensation (NEC) and the payment amount was reported in box 7.

Form 1099-NEC was reintroduced to alleviate the confusion caused by separate deadlines for Form 1099-MISC that report NEC in box 7 and all other Form 1099-MISC for paper filers and electronic filers. The IRS announced in July 2019 that, for 2020 and thereafter, it will reintroduce the previously retired Form 1099-NEC, which was last used in the 1980s.

What businesses will file?

Payers of nonemployee compensation will now use Form 1099-NEC to report those payments.

Generally, payers must file Form 1099-NEC by January 31. For 2020 tax returns, the due date will be February 1, 2021, because January 31, 2021, is on a Sunday. There’s no automatic 30-day extension to file Form 1099-NEC. However, an extension to file may be available under certain hardship conditions.

Can a business get an extension?

Form 8809 is used to file for an extension for all types of Forms 1099, as well as for other forms. The IRS recently released a draft of Form 8809. The instructions note that there are no automatic extension requests for Form 1099-NEC. Instead, the IRS will grant only one 30-day extension, and only for certain reasons.

Requests must be submitted on paper. Line 7 lists reasons for requesting an extension. The reasons that an extension to file a Form 1099-NEC (and also a Form W-2, Wage and Tax Statement) will be granted are:

  • The filer suffered a catastrophic event in a federally declared disaster area that made the filer unable to resume operations or made necessary records unavailable.
  • A filer’s operation was affected by the death, serious illness or unavoidable absence of the individual responsible for filing information returns.
  • The operation of the filer was affected by fire, casualty or natural disaster.
  • The filer was “in the first year of establishment.”
  • The filer didn’t receive data on a payee statement such as Schedule K-1, Form 1042-S, or the statement of sick pay required under IRS regulations in time to prepare an accurate information return.

Need help?

If you have questions about filing Form 1099-NEC or any tax forms, contact us. We can assist you in staying in compliance with all rules.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

The sudden shutdown of the economy in March because of the COVID-19 pandemic forced many businesses to rely more heavily on technology. Some companies fared better than others.

Many businesses that had been taking an informal approach to IT strategy discovered their systems weren’t as robust and scalable as they’d hoped. Some may have lost ground competitively as fires were put out and employees got back up to speed in an altered working environment.

To keep your approach to technology relevant, you’ve got to regularly reassess processes and assets. Doing so is even more important in the new normal. Here are six key questions to ask:

1. What are our users saying? Every successful IT strategy is built on a foundation of plentiful user feedback. Talk with (or survey) your employees about what’s happened over the last few months from a technology perspective. Find out what’s working, what isn’t and why.

2. Do we have information silos? Most companies today use multiple applications. If these solutions can’t “talk” to each other, you may suffer from information silos — when different people and teams keep data to themselves. Shifting to a more remote workforce may have worsened this problem or made it more obvious. If it’s happening, determine how to integrate critical systems.

3. Do we have a digital file-sharing policy? Businesses used to generate tremendous amounts of paperwork. Sharing documents electronically is much more common now but, without a formal approach to file sharing, things can still get lost or various versions of files can cause confusion. Implement (or improve) a digital file-sharing policy to better manage system access, network procedures and version control.

4. Has our technology become outdated? Along with being an incredible tragedy and ongoing problem, the pandemic is accelerating change. Technology that may have been at least passable before the crisis may now be falling far short of optimal functionality. Look closely at whether your business may need to upgrade hardware, software or platforms sooner than you previously anticipated.

5. Do employees need more training? You may have implemented IT changes over the past few months that employees haven’t fully understood or have adjusted to in problematic ways. Consider mandatory training and ongoing refresher sessions to ensure users are taking full advantage of available technology and following proper procedures.

6. Are your security protocols being followed? Changes made to facilitate working during the pandemic may have exposed your systems and data to threats from disgruntled employees, outside hackers and ever-present viruses. Make sure you have a closely followed policy for critical actions such as regularly changing passwords, removing inactive users and installing security updates.

Technology has played a critical role in enabling businesses to stay connected internally, communicate with customers and remain operational during the COVID-19 crisis. Our firm can help you assess your IT strategy in today’s economy and identify cost-effective process changes and budget-conscious asset upgrades.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

The COVID-19 crisis is affecting not only the way many businesses operate, but also how they assess productivity. How can you tell whether you’re getting enough done when so much has changed? There’s no easy, one-size-fits-all answer, but business owners should ask the question so you can adjust expectations and objectives accordingly.

Impact of remote work

Heading into the crisis, concerns about productivity were certainly on the minds of many in leadership positions. In March, research firm Gartner conducted a snap poll that found 76% of HR leaders reported their organizations’ managers were concerned about “productivity or engagement of their teams when remote.”

Many of these fears may well have been alleviated after a month or two. News provider USA Today collaborated with researchers YouGov and social media platform LinkedIn to conduct a poll in April that found 54% of respondents (professionals ages 18-74) said that working remotely has positively affected their productivity. They cited factors such as time saved by not having to commute and fewer distractions from co-workers.

The bottom line is that allowing — or, in recent months, requiring — employees to work remotely shouldn’t drastically alter your expectations of their productivity. Every employee must continue to fulfill his or her job duties and meet annual performance management objectives (as perhaps adjusted in light of the pandemic and altered economy).

However, it’s unrealistic to expect anyone to accomplish markedly more just because he or she is no longer subject to a long commute and regular office hours. In fact, when assessing productivity, business owners should bear in mind the dual challenge of work-life balance while working remotely (childcare obligations, etc.) and the mental health component of living through a pandemic.

Solid metrics

If remote work isn’t a major concern for your company — either because your employees were already doing it, adapted to it readily or simply cannot work from home — there remain some tried-and-true ways to evaluate productivity. Metrics can be useful.

For example, one broad measurement of productivity is revenue per employee. To calculate it, you’ll need to check your financial statements to see how much revenue your business brought in during a defined period. Then, you divide that dollar figure by your total number of employees. The idea is that every worker should generally bring in enough revenue to rationalize his or her paycheck.

It’s not a “be all, end all” metric by any means, but revenue per employee can help accurately shape your understanding of productivity and cash flow. And, as mentioned, you’ll need to think about how this year’s economic conditions have altered your productivity needs and what employees can reasonably accomplish.

Careful calibration

When the subject of productivity arises, many business owners’ instinctive answer is “more, more, more!” Carefully calibrating your expectations and goals, however, can lead to more sustainable results. We can help you choose and calculate the right metrics and set realistic productivity objectives.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

If you operate a small business, or you’re starting a new one, you probably know you need to keep records of your income and expenses. In particular, you should carefully record your expenses in order to claim the full amount of the tax deductions to which you’re entitled. And you want to make sure you can defend the amounts reported on your tax returns if you’re ever audited by the IRS or state tax agencies.

Certain types of expenses, such as automobile, travel, meals and office-at-home expenses, require special attention because they’re subject to special recordkeeping requirements or limitations on deductibility.

It’s interesting to note that there’s not one way to keep business records. In its publication “Starting a Business and Keeping Records,” the IRS states: “Except in a few cases, the law does not require any specific kind of records. You can choose any recordkeeping system suited to your business that clearly shows your income and expenses.”

That being said, many taxpayers don’t make the grade when it comes to recordkeeping. Here are three court cases to illustrate some of the issues.

Case 1: Without records, the IRS can reconstruct your income

If a taxpayer is audited and doesn’t have good records, the IRS can perform a “bank-deposits analysis” to reconstruct income. It assumes that all money deposited in accounts during a given period is taxable income. That’s what happened in the case of the business owner of a coin shop and precious metals business. The owner didn’t agree with the amount of income the IRS attributed to him after it conducted a bank-deposits analysis.

But the U.S. Tax Court noted that if the taxpayer kept adequate records, “he could have avoided the bank-deposits analysis altogether.” Because he didn’t, the court found the bank analysis was appropriate and the owner underreported his business income for the year. (TC Memo 2020-4)

Case 2: Expenses must be business related

In another case, an independent insurance agent’s claims for a variety of business deductions were largely denied. The Tax Court found that he had documentation in the form of cancelled checks and credit card statements that showed expenses were paid. But there was no proof of a business purpose.

For example, he made utility payments for natural gas, electricity, water and sewer, but the records didn’t show whether the services were for his business or his home. (TC Memo 2020-25)

Case number 3: No records could mean no deductions

In this case, married taxpayers were partners in a travel agency and owners of a marketing company. The IRS denied their deductions involving auto expenses, gifts, meals and travel because of insufficient documentation. The couple produced no evidence about the business purpose of gifts they had given. In addition, their credit card statements and other information didn’t detail the time, place, and business relationship for meal expenses or indicate that travel was conducted for business purposes.

“The disallowed deductions in this case are directly attributable to (the taxpayer’s) failure to maintain adequate records,“ the court stated. (TC Memo 2020-7)

We can help

Contact us if you need assistance retaining adequate business records. Taking a meticulous, proactive approach to how you keep records can protect your deductions and help make an audit much less painful.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

Machine learning increasingly is being used to discover fraud schemes. With this type of artificial intelligence (AI), the technology learns or improves in accuracy through experience, rather than through additional programming. If you already use AI in your business, you’re probably somewhat familiar with how machine learning works. But here’s a quick overview of its application in fraud detection.

New approaches needed

More and more, businesses rely on digitization to deliver the goods and services their customers want. Unfortunately, digitization also makes it easier both for cybercriminals and stakeholders, such as employees, vendors and customers, to steal. Preventing fraud in the digital age requires new approaches.

Machine learning is one such approach. Traditional rules-based fraud detection software flags transactions — such as purchase orders of a certain type or over a certain amount — that are suspicious according to static rules. On the other hand, fraud detection software that includes machine learning uses large sets of historical data to “learn,” or create algorithms about the patterns associated with new fraud schemes, enabling it to detect fraud in the future.

Step by step

For a machine to learn, its users must follow certain procedures. After the software is enabled to capture historical transaction data — and the more data, the better — the company using it reviews the data to ensure it presents an accurate picture of transactions. The software then applies algorithms to identify potentially suspicious items. This process creates the first fraud detection model. The software analyzes the same set of data repeatedly and produces new models for the company to review. The company provides feedback on each model to help the software develop better algorithms.

Through this process, the model learns what constitutes fraud and the number of false positives should drop significantly. In the end, the company selects the most accurate fraud detection model to put into production. 

Getting started

If you have the technical capabilities, you may be able to develop a customized machine learning program for fraud detection in-house. We can help if you don’t. Contact us.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

Transferring a family business to the next generation requires a delicate balancing act. Estate and succession planning strategies aren’t always compatible, and family members often have conflicting interests. By starting early and planning carefully, however, it’s possible to resolve these conflicts and transfer the business in a tax-efficient manner.

Ownership vs. management succession

One reason transferring a family business is such a challenge is the distinction between ownership and management succession. From an estate planning perspective, transferring assets to the younger generation as early as possible allows you to remove future appreciation from your estate, minimizing estate taxes. However, you may not be ready to hand over the reins of your business or you may feel that your children aren’t yet ready to take over.

There are several ways owners can transfer ownership without immediately giving up control, including:

  • Using a family limited partnership (FLP),
  • Transferring nonvoting stock, or
  • Establishing an employee stock ownership plan.

Another reason to separate ownership and management succession is to deal with family members who aren’t involved in the business. It’s not unusual for a family business owner to have substantially all of his or her wealth tied up in the business.

Providing heirs outside the business with nonvoting stock or other equity interests that don’t confer control can be an effective way to share the wealth with them while allowing those who work in the business to take over management.

Conflicting financial needs

Another challenge presented by family businesses is that the older and younger generations may have conflicting financial needs. Fortunately, strategies are available to generate cash flow for the owner while minimizing the burden on the next generation. They include:

An installment sale. This provides liquidity for the owner while improving the chances that the younger generation’s purchase can be funded by cash flows from the business. Plus, so long as the price and terms are comparable to arm’s-length transactions between unrelated parties, the sale shouldn’t trigger gift or estate taxes.

A grantor retained annuity trust (GRAT). By transferring business interests to a GRAT, the owner obtains a variety of gift and estate tax benefits (provided he or she survives the trust term) while enjoying a fixed income stream for a period of years. At the end of the term, the business is transferred to the owner’s children or other beneficiaries. GRATs are typically designed to be gift-tax-free.

An installment sale to an intentionally defective grantor trust (IDGT). Essentially a properly structured IDGT allows an owner to sell the business on a tax-advantaged basis while enjoying an income stream and retaining control during the trust term. Once the installment payments are complete, the business passes to the owner’s beneficiaries free of gift taxes.

Each family business is different, so it’s important to identify appropriate strategies in light of your objectives and resources. We’d be pleased to help.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

Restaurants and entertainment venues have been hard hit by the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. One of the tax breaks that President Trump has proposed to help them is an increase in the amount that can be deducted for business meals and entertainment.

It’s unclear whether Congress would go along with enhanced business meal and entertainment deductions. But in the meantime, let’s review the current rules.

Before the pandemic hit, many businesses spent money “wining and dining” current or potential customers, vendors and employees. The rules for deducting these expenses changed under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), but you can still claim some valuable write-offs. And keep in mind that deductions are available for business meal takeout and delivery.

One of the biggest changes is that you can no longer deduct most business-related entertainment expenses. Beginning in 2018, the TCJA disallows deductions for entertainment expenses, including those for sports events, theater productions, golf outings and fishing trips.

50% meal deductions

Currently, you can deduct 50% of the cost of food and beverages for meals conducted with business associates. However, you need to follow three basic rules in order to prove that your expenses are business related:

  1. The expenses must be “ordinary and necessary” in carrying on your business. This means your food and beverage costs are customary and appropriate. They shouldn’t be lavish or extravagant.
  2. The expenses must be directly related or associated with your business. This means that you expect to receive a concrete business benefit from them. The principal purpose for the meal must be business. You can’t go out with a group of friends for the evening, discuss business with one of them for a few minutes, and then write off the check.
  3. You must be able to substantiate the expenses. There are requirements for proving that meal and beverage expenses qualify for a deduction. You must be able to establish the amount spent, the date and place where the meals took place, the business purpose and the business relationship of the people involved.

It’s a good idea to set up detailed recordkeeping procedures to keep track of business meal costs. That way, you can prove them and the business connection in the event of an IRS audit.

Other considerations

What if you spend money on food and beverages at an entertainment event? The IRS has clarified that taxpayers can still deduct 50% of food and drink expenses incurred at entertainment events, but only if business was conducted during the event or shortly before or after. The food-and-drink expenses should also be “stated separately from the cost of the entertainment on one or more bills, invoices or receipts,” according to the guidance.

Another related tax law change involves meals provided to employees on the business premises. Before the TCJA, these meals provided to an employee for the convenience of the employer were 100% deductible by the employer. Beginning in 2018, meals provided for the convenience of an employer in an on-premises cafeteria or elsewhere on the business property are only 50% deductible. After 2025, these meals won’t be deductible at all.

Plan ahead

As you can see, the treatment of meal and entertainment expenses became more complicated after the TCJA. It’s possible the deductions could increase substantially under a new stimulus law, if Congress passes one. We’ll keep you updated. In the meantime, we can answer any questions you may have concerning business meal and entertainment deductions.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

Economists will look back on 2020 as a year with a distinct before and after. In early March, most companies’ sales projections looked a certain way. Just a few weeks later, those projections had changed significantly — and not for the better.

Because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, businesses across a variety of industries are revising their sales compensation models. Nonprofit workforce researchers WorldatWork released a report in late April indicating that 36% of organizations had begun addressing sales compensation in light of the crisis, and another 49% were developing plans to do so.

If your company is considering changes to how it compensates sales staff in a drastically changed economy, here are three of the most common actions being implemented according to the survey:

1. Adjusting sales quotas. Of the organizations surveyed, 46% were adjusting their quotas to account for the pandemic’s impact. For many businesses, this means providing “quota relief” to salespeople who find themselves in a reluctant buying environment. Of course, any adjustment should be based on a realistic and detailed forecast of what your sales will likely look like for the current period and upcoming ones.

2. Modifying performance measures. The report indicates that 44% of organizations will modify how they measure the performance of their sales staffs. Whereas a sales quota is a time-bound target assigned to an individual, performance measures encompass much wider metrics.

For example, you might want to amend your average deal size to account for more conservative buying during the pandemic. This metric is typically calculated by dividing your total number of deals by the total dollar amount of those deals. Also look at conversion rate (or win rate), which measures what percentage of leads ultimately become customers. Scarcer leads will likely lead to a lower rate.

3. Lowering plan thresholds. Survey results showed 36% of organizations intend to lower the plan thresholds for their sales teams. From a compensation plan perspective, a threshold describes what performance level qualifies the employee for a specified payout. This includes a max threshold to identify outstanding sales performances during a given period.

The pandemic-triggered economic downturn serves as a prime, even extreme, example of the kinds of external, macroeconomic factors that can alter the effectiveness of a plan threshold. When looking into corrective action, it’s critical to go beyond the usual adjustments and conduct analyses specific to your company’s size, market and industry outlook.

Setting sales compensation has never been a particularly straightforward endeavor. Businesses often tweak their approaches over time or even implement completely new ways when competitively necessary — and this is during normal times. Our firm can help you assess your sales figures since the pandemic hit, forecast upcoming ones and design a compensation model that’s right for you.

© 2020 Covenant CPA