Day: April 2, 2020

Personal Finance Daily: What daily life during the pandemic looks like to people across the U.S. and class of 2020 was to enter the strongest job market in 50 years

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Stay safe, MarketWatchers and don’t miss these top stories:

Personal Finance
A New Yorker’s guide to surviving grocery stores during the coronavirus pandemic — without losing your mind

A 5-point plan to food shopping in the epicenter of COVID-19 in the United States.

‘I’d probably tell my grandkids the story of how we met’: This couple got coronavirus on a first date — and they’ve been quarantining together ever since

Contracting COVID-19 on a first date sounds too improbable, even for Hollywood. ‘I don’t blame her at all, we both had a really fun time together,’ says Nick Crawford, 23.

Class of 2020 was to enter the strongest job market in 50 years — and now graduates’ earnings will lag peers’ for a decade

Researchers find that college graduates take jobs that pay less during a recession.

Amazon, Walmart, Lowe’s and others are hiring to fill 444,000 job openings amid coronavirus demand

Jobless claims jumped to 6.6 million last week, but several sectors are ramping up hiring even as the coronavirus pandemic creates layoffs.

What daily life during the pandemic looks like to people across the U.S., and beyond

MarketWatch asked readers to share pictures of what life during a pandemic looks like for them. Here are some of the images and stories they shared with us.

How to prevent spreading coronavirus: don’t nag your husband?

The Malaysian government has apologized for a COVID-19 PSA that’s being slammed as sexist

The shame of Premier League clubs cutting workers’ wages and asking for government cash while paying £100,000-a-week-plus stars in full

Premier League club Tottenham Hotspur has been criticized for leaning on government support to pay furloughed staff while continuing paying its £100,000-a-week-plus stars in full.

These gig-economy jobs can provide extra income without having to leave home during the coronavirus pandemic

As layoffs mount, Americans may be turning to gig work for quick money.

Elsewhere on MarketWatch
Lenders call on Washington for more clarity on small business rescue program a day before launch Friday

Lenders are still waiting on final rules from the U.S. government to help get its $350 billion rescue lending programs off the ground on Friday to shore up small businesses battered by the coronavirus pandemic.

Why Friday’s jobs report for March won’t tell the full story of a U.S. economy in crisis

Don’t expect more than a fraction of the damage done to the economy by the coronavirus pandemic to show up in the U.S. monthly jobs report for March due on Friday. The real shocker will come a month from now.

‘Fractional investment’ app backed by actor Will Smith and NFL star J.J. Watt surges in popularity as coronavirus fears roil financial markets

Will Smith backed Social-Investing App Public has seen a 70% increase in interaction among its members

Jobless claims leap record 6.6 million at end of March as coronavirus triggers mass layoffs

The number of Americans who applied for unemployment benefits last week soared by a record 6.6 million, bringing the increase in new jobless claims in the last two weeks of March to 10 million as the all-out effort to slow the coronavirus slammed the economy.

Family members with relatives in nursing homes share their stories — and some bright spots in these dark days

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The coronavirus, officially known as COVID-19, has put the elderly and sick at most risk of complications, or death, from infection. The virus has also placed the loved ones of these individuals in perpetual fear.

Government officials and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have strongly advised older Americans and the immunocompromised to stay at home and avoid contact with others. Public figures have also urged family members, friends, neighbors and anyone else to keep their distance from these members of society, in hopes to prevent contraction of the virus. Nursing homes, assisted living facilities and other senior-focused centers are restricting access to visitors.

These facilities house some of the most vulnerable people when it comes to the virus. These lockdowns are understandable, and in many cases, welcome, but they’re also distressing for certain family members, such as those who visit their spouses and parents every day or week, or who are worried the person they love won’t get the proper care or be the same when this is all over. Many residents of nursing homes suffer from Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia, forcing some families to find ways to keep their memories active during this time of quarantine. Other residents may have terminal diseases, leaving loved ones to fear the worst.

See: ‘I would rather him be lonely than dead’: How to manage when someone you love is in a nursing home

Eugene Skurnick, a former councilman in Englewood, N.J., visited his wife every day since she first moved to a nursing home in December, and only stopped when her facility began restricting access to visitors because of the coronavirus last month. His wife, Blanche, has dementia, as well as cervical cancer, and is in hospice care. While at the nursing home, his wife may not have remembered every detail or talked the way she did before her diagnosis, but they’d dance, and he’d help her with her lunch or befriend others at the facility. Now, neither he nor their three adult children can see her. “If I don’t see her for a week or a week and a half, it isn’t the end of the world,” he said. “The thing that concerns me and bothers me, when you have cancer, you could die any moment.”

“I was just thinking that while reading the Times,” he said. “I was thinking, what if Blanche just dies and I didn’t get a chance to see her?”

The question likely weighs on the minds of many family members, whether residents have a terminal illness or are at a center that could suffer an outbreak, like the nursing home in Kirkland, Wash. in February.

Skurnick, who has been married to his wife for 53 years, said he finds solace in knowing the CDC issued guidance that allows visitors in “certain compassionate care situations,” such as end of life. There is no clear definition for “end of life,” according to AARP, and it would be left to the facility or family to decide the timing.

This situation has been difficult for him and his family, Skurnick said, but he does try to find a few brighter moments during this crisis. Young neighbors came by to drop off Girl Scout Cookies — from a distance — but he said he made them smile when he told them he needed those cookies because he was starving. He keeps himself busy, by tending to his neighbor’s lawn, too.

Other family members try to keep as much contact with their relatives in facilities as possible. Hervé Damas, a doctor in Miami, talks to his 88-year-old father, who lives in a nursing home in New York, often — mostly because his dad calls to check up on him. “He actually is calling me to give me advice,” he said. “He’s still worried about me.”

Damas said one of the first things he wants to do when this crisis is over is hop on a plane with his family to visit his dad. The last time he saw him was in January when he made a surprise visit to his father’s facility. “I’m happy I did that,” he said.

As a doctor, Damas also offers advice on how to manage the difficult scenario of missing, and worrying about, a loved one: Stay proactive, and in communication with the facility. Sometimes, these centers will reach out first, but they may also be bogged down with operations and calls, so follow up if necessary. Having a good understanding of their protocols and procedures will mitigate some of the fear of how the site is caring for a family member.

Damas also said families should let their relatives express their feelings and be supportive as much as possible. Families should also be honest about the situation, and explain the measures they need to take to keep loved ones safe. “Things are spiraling out of control and you may be thinking you’re doing them some great favor by protecting them and keeping them in the dark,” he said. “If it were you, you’d probably want to know.”

The CDC recommends Americans also take care of their mental health, including taking breaks from the news or social media because hearing about the pandemic constantly can be stressful; taking deep breaths and meditating; eating well-balanced meals and exercising (although away from others); and “making time to unwind,” the agency said. “Try to do some other activities you enjoy.”

Life in a nursing home will be isolating during the coronavirus crisis, but there are ways family members can keep their relatives — and themselves — as content as can be during this difficult period. Visitors can’t go inside the facilities, but many families are heading to these sites anyway to chat through windows, or at least hold up signs. Some centers have teleconferencing set up so that residents can video chat with family and friends. In other cases, even a simple phone call can cheer someone up — and that’s whether they’re at a nursing home, assisted living facility or in their own homes.

Skurnick said thinking about his times with Blanche, and talking about her with others, is comforting. His wife was a board-certified internist with a Ph.D. in English from Columbia University. She often went to work with bags of books in the event patients came in with children.

“When people hear about Blanche, they remember how much Blanche did for people,” he said. “That makes me feel good.”

More from MarketWatch

Coinbase Invests Over $1 Million into DeFi Sites

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Coinbase

One of the major reasons behind the rapid development of the cryptocurrency space is the presence of crypto exchanges, and Coinbase is one of the most influential exchanges in the world. On Wednesday, the company further strengthened its bets in the decentralized finance (DeFi) applications space by announcing a fresh round of investments.

Major Investment

Coinbase announced that it has decided to invest a total of $1.1 million in two separate projects through its USDC Bootstrap Fund. This is a major development for the DeFi space and for the crypto space at large. It remains to be seen how the blockchain industry reacts to it.

The USDC Bootstrap Fund was launched by Coinbase in collaboration with Circle in 2019 and is part of the Centre Consortium. The fund is looking to boost development in the DeFi sector and is investing in projects denominated in stablecoins backed by the United States Dollar. The money is donated directly to the DeFi protocols.

However, that is not all. The crypto exchange has already committed as much as $100,000 to the USDC with regards to the daily prize that is awarded by PoolTogether. The first project is Uniswap, which is an Ethereum-powered decentralized exchange that runs without the aid of an actual order book.

The Uniswap exchange has also announced that in the second quarter of 2020, it is going to launch its second version, which will allow users to complete token to token swaps directly. The other project is PoolTogether and is regarded as a ‘lossless lottery’ by those in the industry.

>> Binance Enters South Korea, Gets Approval for OkCoin

The decision to invest in these projects reflects the fact that Coinbase is determined to build a true crypto ecosystem that can thrive in the long-term. To that end, it is making certain investments, and many crypto watchers will be following the company’s next moves quite keenly.

Featured image: DepositPhotos © artjazz

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Key Words: How to prevent spreading coronavirus: don’t nag your husband?

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This didn’t go over well.

Malaysia has the largest number of COVID-19 cases in Southeast Asia, with more than 2,900 and counting, NPR reported. So its government released a series of public service announcements directed toward the nation’s women this week on how to support the country’s partial lockdown.

But rather than advising the female heads of household on handwashing, or whether to wear face masks, or perhaps where to report mental health issues or instances of domestic violence, the Ministry for Women, Family and Community Development posted a few posters to Facebook FB, -0.76%   and Instagram that said women can do their part during this international crisis by … not nagging their husbands.

And ladies, the PSAs note that you also shouldn’t be “sarcastic” when asking for a man’s help with housework. And forget about working from home in your pajamas! The guidelines also said that women should keep dressing up and wearing makeup while they’re socially isolating at home.

You can imagine the response.

“(It) is extremely condescending both to women and men,” Nisha Sabanayagam, a manager at the advocacy group All Women’s Action Society, told Reuters. “These posters promote the concept of gender inequality and perpetuate the concept of patriarchy.”

The posters — which the ministry has since taken down — also fanned plenty of outrage among women and men alike on social media.

The furious backlash led the ministry to scrap the controversial campaign late Tuesday night, and to post a mea culpa on social media. The statement translated in English explained that while the PSAs were intended to “share the techniques and practices of painting a positive relationship” within families, it acknowledged that not everyone read the tips that way.

“We apologize if some of the tips shared [are] inappropriate and touch the sensitivity of certain groups,” the statement continued. The ministry also promised to “be more cautious in the future.”

Gender inequality is not just an issue in Malaysia, of course. Even as more women become breadwinners here in the U.S., they still shoulder the lion’s share of the housework over their male domestic partners. Many get stuck with similar household chores at the office, too.

Related: Already paid less than men, women are still asked to do the ‘office housework’

Related: Moms are major contributors to their families’ bottom lines, but our public policy hasn’t caught up

Related: Husbands stress out once their wives contribute this exact percentage of the family income, research shows

More from MarketWatch

The Moneyist: ‘Coronavirus has ruined everything. My IRA is a shambles and my husband refuses to work — he has bounced from job to job, and has finally landed on the couch’

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Dear Moneyist,

I have been working since my now-husband and I have been together. He has bounced from job to job and finally landed on the couch. I’ve pushed him to go to school, take online courses for an information technology (IT) certificate, etc. We’re entering into “year two” of our marriage, and I’m completely drained. What money I received from my inheritance is all but gone.

Dispatches from a pandemic: ‘Would you risk your life for a bagel?’ The Moneyist’s 5-point guide to surviving grocery stores without losing your mind during the coronavirus pandemic

Coronavirus has ruined everything. My IRA is a shambles due to the pandemic, and now I’m working from home. I see him everyday relaxing and taking it easy while I work. I’ve suggested jobs with car services and food-delivery services, but to no avail. He simply refuses to work, and now he has good reason not to. What are my options? Bills need to be paid. I need him to start working soon.

Am I asking too much now that the threat of COVID-19 has shutdown a lot of businesses?

Sincerely,

Frustrated

Dear Frustrated,

You can blame coronavirus for a lot of things. You can blame it for social distancing, for long lines outside the grocery store, the lack of toilet paper, hand sanitizer, the deaths of 5,148 people to date in the U.S., and 49,236 deaths worldwide, and you can blame it for the 3,000% jump in jobless claims between March 7 and last week. You and I could debate how much blame lies with COVID-19, plus how the lack of ventilators and available testing in the U.S., and action or lack thereof taken by governments around the world have contributed to this global health crisis. But let’s not do that.

Your husband was a job hopper and a couch surfer before the coronavirus pandemic paralyzed global economies, closed businesses and threatened the livelihoods and lives of millions of people. He is someone who appears to have no qualms about relying on his marriage as an ATM machine, providing him with free cable, a roof over his head and a comfortable armchair to settle into. While you see the contrasts in your lifestyles and work ethics, he appears to see a square box on the wall.

Dispatches from a pandemic: Dating during a global health crisis: This couple got coronavirus on a first date — and they’ve been quarantining (together) ever since

Unless he had a complete personality change when you got married, I’m guessing that you had a pretty good idea what you were getting before you got it. You read the description and you overlooked it. Perhaps you were convinced that the companionship and love you felt for each other would encourage him to be the best version of himself. Here’s the bad news: This could be the best version of himself and, if it’s not, he may not have the willingness to show it to you or, indeed, himself.

Love is not a feeling. Hollywood producers and 17th Century French romantic novelists wanted us to believe that romance is an antidote to life’s problems. Let’s hope we have a vaccine for coronavirus before next winter, assuming social distancing works, and together we burn this pandemic out. But there is no cure for what you are dealing with here. Do the opposite of what millions of people who are doing as they wait this crisis out; take action. Because love is an action.

Your husband can tell you what you want to hear, or whisper sweet nothings in your ear to soften your resolve, or opine about the state of the world, and buy himself another week, month or year on the couch. But my guess is that when this current pandemic has passed, you still won’t have to go to the store for potatoes, because you will already have one big uncooked potato sitting at home on the couch. Love is respect, first and foremost. A successful marriage requires that above all else.

The Moneyist: ‘Your boss is playing God’: My grocery store banned face masks for staff. How on earth can I stay safe from coronavirus now?

The good thing about extreme situations like death and divorce — and even a time such as this when the world seems to come to a standstill — is that it forces our hand. If we allow it to, it can bring us new strength and perspective, and the knowledge that we deserve to be happy, and the motivation to ensure that we invite positivity and good things into our lives. This is an opportunity for you to do that. Tell your husband what you need to happen and, if it does not happen, you have your answer.

By all means, do everything you can to make this marriage work. But he must join you in that quest. He must bring solutions, not problems. If you put his excuses for not wanting to work above your needs, you could spend a lifetime trying to fix something that doesn’t really want to be fixed. Do not merge your finances, do not buy property together, and do not blink and do nothing. Because if you blink, it will be 22 years from now, and you will look back at this letter and wonder, ‘What if?’

Would you like to sign up to an email newsletter of the Moneyist columns? If so, click here

Dispatches from the front lines of a pandemic: ‘Replace the term social distancing with spatial distancing.’ A behavioral economist on the psychological toll of endless waiting during the coronavirus pandemic

You can email The Moneyist with any financial and ethical questions related to coronavirus at qfottrell@marketwatch.com

Want to read more? Follow Quentin Fottrell on Twitter and read more of his columns here

Do you have questions about how the coronavirus is impacting your life and finances? Send them to MarketWatch’s Moneyist and please include the state where you live (no full names will be used). By submitting your story to Dow Jones & Company, the publisher of MarketWatch, you understand and agree that we may use your story, or versions of it, in all media and platforms, including via third parties.

Hello there, MarketWatchers. Check out the Moneyist private Facebook FB, -0.66%  group where we look for answers to life’s thorniest money issues. Post your questions, or weigh in on the latest Moneyist columns.

More from Quentin Fottrell

Retire Better: New blow to workers: Some companies are cutting 401(k) contributions

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As if a savage bear market hasn’t inflicted enough damage on retirement accounts held by millions of American workers, many are suffering from an additional body blow: companies hammered by the coronavirus are cutting contributions to employees’ 401(k) plans in a desperate bid to save cash.

Read MarketWatch’s coronavirus coverage

Hotel giant Marriott MAR, -6.44%, which began the year with some 174,000 workers, started delaying matching contributions last month, saying it would put off payments until September. Now, other companies are announcing similar moves. The Wall Street Journal reports that Amtrak, travel tech firm Sabre Corp. SABR, -2.02% and at least two national retailers—La-Z-Boy LZB, +1.74%  and Mattress Firm Inc.—have also announced plans to suspend or cut contributions to employees. They are the first ripple in what could be a tsunami of firms trying to shore up balance sheets, as the economic downturn rapidly worsens.

“I think it’s going to be widespread,” says Joy Napier-Joyce, head of the employee benefits practice at the law firm Jackson Lewis. ‘It’s not easy for companies to do this, but they’re looking at their business six to 12 months out and doing what they think is necessary.” She tells MarketWatch that In some cases, companies have had to make painful decisions between maintaining retirement contributions or the company health plan. “They’ve prioritized health care, and retirement plans have been put on the back burner,” she says.

Of course, companies aren’t required to make 401(k) contributions at all, but most do, says Pennsylvania-based investment giant Vanguard Group, which works with some 1,900 firms. And those contributions make up a sizable portion of what workers salt away. Rob Austin, director of research at record-keeper Alight Solutions, which manages more than two million 401(k) plans nationwide, tells the Journal that the average account contribution last year was $10,092. Employers contributed 35% of that, or $3,587.

From an investment standpoint, cutting back on 401(k) contributions couldn’t come at a worse time. With stock indexes SPX, +0.96%  down about a quarter from February highs, employees will have less money to buy low and enjoy greater gains in a potential rebound.

And it’s not like most workers have huge 401(k) balances to begin with. For all the talk about the number of Americans whose 401(k) plans crossed into millionaire territory during the now-departed bull market, the big picture is much less cheerful. Another asset management giant, Boston-based Fidelity Investments, said last year that Americans aged 50 to 59—perhaps on the cusp of retirement—had, on average, $179,100 in their 401(k). But the median amount was a far more grim: just $62,700. Median means that half have more than that—but half have less. The picture isn’t much better for the 60 to 69 crowd: the average balance was $198,600, but the median balance was only $300 more: $63,000.

These numbers came before 2019’s market surge—most of which has been wiped away since February. It suggests that older workers hoping to scale back or retire outright may have to rethink their plans.

More from MarketWatch Retirement

Brett Arends's ROI: ‘Quiet’ Warren Buffett has three ways to win in this market

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At times like this it must be a relief to have some of your retirement portfolio managed by Warren Buffett.

Granted, Buffett and Berkshire Hathaway Vice Chairman Charlie Munger aren’t the spring chickens they were during the dot-com crash or the global financial crisis, when they were spry youngsters in their 70s and early 80s.

Today, at 89 and 96, respectively, they are part of a population vulnerable to the coronavirus as well as time. The company press office says Buffett is not planning to speak in public before May.

At this juncture, their publicly traded investment vehicle, Berkshire Hathaway  BRK.A, +1.32% BRK.B, +0.38%  seems to offer investors three ways to win.

If the stock market goes up, that should be great for the stock. Berkshire has investments in Bank of America BAC, +2.68%, Goldman Sachs GS, +2.22%, various airlines, and other companies sensitive to the economy. Berkshire Hathaway held just over $250 billion in publicly traded stock as of Dec. 31, and is currently nursing about $100 billion in paper losses on these just from the recent crash.

So if there’s a quick recovery, you’d expect Berkshire stock, which has fallen from $230 to $176, to go back up quite quickly.

On the other hand, if the coronavirus crisis goes on, and economic distress gets worse and worse, the company has a gigantic cash hoard of $125 billion it can use to snap up investments at bargain basement prices. (That, for illustration, is worth about $50 for each Berkshire Hathaway “B” share.)

That’s how Buffett has made big money in the past, from the bear market of 1974 to the financial crisis of 2008. “Be fearful when others are greedy,” he famously advised, and “be greedy only when others are fearful.”

Then there’s the third way to win. If things don’t get much worse, or much better, but bounce around indefinitely, Buffett can always use some of that cash to buy back Berkshire stock.

“Over time, we want Berkshire’s share count to go down,” he reminded investors in his latest letter. The fewer the shares, the greater the proportionate interest of each one. But, he added, “Berkshire will buy back its stock only if…Charlie and I believe that it is selling for less than it is worth.”

Prices in 2019 were “modestly favorable at times,” he wrote, meaning the stock was trading for substantially less than the intrinsic worth.

Last year, Berkshire’s SEC filings reveal, the company bought back 4,440 of the older, and more expensive “A” shares and 17.6 million of the newer, cheaper “B” shares.

Total spent: $5 billion, at an average price equivalent to $207 per B share. The highest price paid was $222.

The price today: $176.

Financial advisers will typically warn ordinary investors not to dabble around in individual stocks, but to stick to mutual funds — especially, these days, “index funds” with very low expense ratios.

But Berkshire Hathaway isn’t really a regular stock, except in name. It’s a broadly diversified fund in all but name.

Consider the range of investments. It owns stock in American Express AXP, +0.33%, Apple AAPL, +0.41%, Bank of America, Bank of New York BK, +1.99%, Charter Communications CHTR, +1.35%, Coca-Cola KO, +1.98%, Delta Air Lines DAL, -1.28%, Goldman Sachs US:GS, J.P. Morgan JPM, +1.24%, Moody’s MCO, +1.42%, Southwest Airlines LUV, +1.15%, United Continental Airlines UAL, -4.95%, U.S. Bancorp USB, +1.66%, Visa V, +1.86%, Wells Fargo WFC, +1.43%, and Kraft Heinz KHC, +2.39%. The stock in Apple alone is worth $22 per Berkshire B share.

Then there are the wholly owned businesses, from car insurance giant GEICO and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad, to Duracell batteries and Benjamin Moore paints, not to mention National Indemnity Insurance, Dairy Queen and See’s Candies. Berkshire’s businesses include Clayton Homes, which made 52,000 trailer, tiny and other homes last year, McLane trucking, Jordan’s Furniture, and industrial operations like Lubrizol, Marmon and Precision Castparts.

There are plenty of risks and issues with the stock, naturally. Stephen Biggar, an analyst at Argus Research, says Berkshire faces a number of problems. Buffett made ill-timed bets on the airlines recently, he notes. He holds a large number of economically sensitive other stocks, particularly banking stocks. Buffett’s investment style, oriented toward traditional “value” stocks, has been out of fashion during the boom in recent years for more glamorous growth stocks. Buffett has been disposing of stock — as his charitable bequest to the Bill & Melissa Gates Foundation. Buffett (and Munger) are elderly. “What happens when he goes?,” asks Biggar. “There’s a fair amount of headline risk.”

Also, Biggar adds, Buffett didn’t seem to be active in the market when stocks crashed in recent weeks. That’s normally when he makes his big moves. “He’s been a bit quiet,” says Biggar.

All fair points. On the other hand, Berkshire’s stock performance has broadly kept up with the S&P 500 SPX, +1.47%  over the past five and ten years, despite its “value” bias and growing cash pile. It has widely outperformed the S&P 500 Value index SP500V, +1.71%  for most of that time.

One might reasonably expect it to do even better if and when the Wall Street fashion swings back to “value.” (The last time that happened, in 2000-2001, the stock nearly doubled in a year, even while the broader market tanked.)

And Berkshire need not replace your S&P 500 and other index funds. But it might be an addition to the portfolio. One that has a reasonable chance of zigging when others zag. And that might help you sleep a little better at night — something that’s proving a bit of a challenge for many people at the moment.

America’s housing market is showing the first signs of trouble because of the coronavirus pandemic

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March started out as a strong month for the U.S. housing market — but by the second half of the month, the first indications that the coronavirus pandemic would weigh on home-selling activity began to emerge, according to a new report from Realtor.com.

In the weeks ending March 21 and March 28, the number of newly-listed properties fell by 13.1% and 34% respectively when compared with the same period a year ago, Realtor.com found. This is an indication that home sellers may be holding off on listing their properties right now.

The pace of home-price growth also slowed notably in the latter half of the month, according to the report. Home list prices were only up 3.3% year-over-year for the week ending March 21, and 2.5% for the following week. This represented the slowest pace of listing price growth since Realtor.com started tracking this data in 2013.

Read more: These mortgage borrowers will be ‘the first canary in the coal mine’ for a coronavirus-fueled foreclosure crisis, regulator says

(Realtor.com is operated by News Corp NWSA, -2.72%   subsidiary Move Inc., and MarketWatch is a unit of Dow Jones, which is also a subsidiary of News Corp.)

“Our inventory and listing data can provide some early insight into how housing markets may be impacted by COVID-19, but the situation and reactions to it are still rapidly evolving,” Realtor.com chief economist Danielle Hale wrote in the report.

“The U.S. housing market had a good start to the year. Despite still-limited homes for sale, buyers were buying and builders were building,” she wrote. “The pandemic and virus-fighting measures appear to be disrupting that initial momentum as both buyers and sellers adopt a more cautious posture.”

Real-estate firms have taken steps to brace for the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. So-called iBuyers including Zillow ZG, -0.10%  and Redfin RDFN, -0.16%  that purchase homes from sellers and then sell them for a profit had wound down their home-buying operations in anticipation of an economic downturn. Real-estate brokers, incuding Redfin and Re/Max RMAX, -3.29%  , had also shifted toward virtual home tours as open houses became verboten in the wake of social-distancing recommendations.

And other recent reports have shown additional signs of a slowdown in the housing market. LendingTree TREE, -3.06%  released an analysis of Google GOOG, +0.39%   search data analyzing the popularity of the search term “homes for sale” across the country’s 50 largest metro areas. Searches for “homes for sale” have fallen across all 50 cities in the study from their peak levels in 2020 thus far.

LendingTree estimated that these Google searches could drop some 63% compared with last year if the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak remains substantial for the next two months. A drop in web searches could presage a decline in home sales.

Also see: ‘Landlords are just trying to pay bills like everyone else.’ The coronavirus could hit mom-and-pop landlords hard as tenants miss rent payments

Another sign that home sales will slump this spring: Mortgage applications. The volume of mortgage applications for loans used to purchase homes was down 24% compared with a year ago for the week ending March 27, according to data from the Mortgage Bankers Association. That’s in spite of mortgage rates being near historic lows. Comparatively, the volume of refinance applications was 168% higher than a year ago.

Before the coronavirus pandemic flared up, the U.S. housing market was on relatively solid footing. While the number of homes for sale remained low — constraining sales activity to an extent — demand among buyers was still quite high. Low mortgage rates had fueled an early start to the spring home-buying season, with homes selling four days faster in March when compared with 2019 levels, Realtor.com found.

The jump in jobless claims has stoked concerns of a repeat of the Great Recession and the foreclosure crisis that preceded it. But housing economists argue that this is unlikely to be the case.

Dispatches from a pandemic: ‘Would you risk your life for a bagel?’ A New Yorker’s 5-point guide to surviving grocery stores during the coronavirus pandemic

“While housing led the recession in 2008-2009, this time it may be poised to bring us out of it,” Mark Fleming, chief economist for title insurance company First American Financial Corporation FAF, +0.83%  , wrote in a report this week.

Unlike in the 2000s, the housing market in the U.S. is not overbuilt, Fleming argued, making it less likely that a large swath of vacant properties will crater the home values for homeowners. Rising home values and stricter lending standards have also meant that homeowners are sitting on historically high amounts of home equity.

“The housing market will not go unscathed, as consumer confidence and a strong labor market are essential in the decision to purchase a home,” Fleming wrote. “Yet, this time, housing is a casualty of a public health crisis turned economic, not the cause of an economic crisis.”

The IRS changed the tax filing rule for Social Security recipients — why that’s a good thing

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The Internal Revenue Service reversed a decision that would have required Social Security recipients and many senior citizens to file a tax return this year, even if they’re not required to do so, in order to get the $1,200 stimulus check. That might have saved millions of people from losing out on the money.

The rebate checks are part of the $2 trillion stimulus package President Donald Trump signed into law last week, intended to provide financial relief to Americans in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. People can receive a rebate check up to $1,200 per person. To be eligible, recipients cannot be nonresident alien individuals or a dependent for someone else. Anyone who earns less than $75,000 will receive the full $1,200, and that amount will decrease until the cap at $99,000. Taxpayers who are married filing jointly will receive $2,400 if they earn $150,000 or less, with the phase out range up to $198,000. Individuals can receive $500 per child under 17 years old.

The government said it would use 2019 tax returns to determine eligibility. If those returns have not yet been filed, it will use 2018. The Treasury Department will distribute money electronically with the bank information on file.

See: This is how the $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus affects retirees — and those who one day hope to retire

But there are people who are eligible and do not file tax returns. Over the weekend, experts said the government could use Social Security statements for those who claim any type of benefit, such as retirement or disability, but the IRS said in a FAQ on its site on Monday that people who do not normally file a tax return will need to do so this year to receive the check. On Wednesday, the agency changed the rule again, and said on its site Social Security recipients and railroad retirees will not have to file a tax return to claim the money.

The IRS will use Forms SSA-1099 or Form RRB-1099 to calculate and send the money to Social Security beneficiaries and railroad retirees, respectively, it said. Because no information is given about dependents on these documents, individuals will only receive up to $1,200 per person, and nothing for potential dependent children.

Low-income workers, some veterans and others who are not required to file a tax return will have to do so in order to receive the rebate check, the IRS said. People with income lower than the standard deduction — $12,200 for single people and $24,400 for married filing jointly in 2019 — are not required to file a tax return. They will not owe tax, the agency said.

Allowing Social Security beneficiaries to receive their checks without filing a tax return is a good thing, critics argue. Requiring people to file tax returns when they normally don’t do so would — and still will in certain cases — cause more confusion, and leave many eligible Americans with no stimulus check. “There is a risk they will fall through the cracks and they won’t get their payments,” said Chuck Marr, director of federal tax policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “Especially now — we’re in the middle of a pandemic.”

Approximately 3.5 million Social Security beneficiaries and veterans did not receive a stimulus check in 2008 during the financial crisis, even though they were eligible, according to Social Security Works, an advocacy group that supports expanding the program. The government said they would need to file a tax return even though they didn’t owe taxes. This raises concerns that people might not receive a stimulus check they’re entitled to, or it may be delayed at a time when they may need it most, the organization argued.

This year, more than 15 million Social Security recipients do not currently file tax returns, and are not required to do so, according to the CBPP.

The decision to require people to file a tax return sparks other questions, said Riley Adams, a Certified Public Accountant, author of the “Young and the Invested” website, and MarketWatch contributor. Such as, will recipients need to file another tax return next year, to claim the tax credit they received this year? (The stimulus check is nontaxable, but it is technically considered a credit.) And what will individuals do if they need face-to-face professional tax assistance but can’t go to a preparer in the midst of state and local quarantines and lockdowns? There are still many unanswered questions, though the government is expected to provide more guidance in the coming weeks. “A lot of details are still in motion,” Adams said.

Also see: Receiving Social Security disability benefits? Living abroad? How much — if any — of the $1,200 checks Americans in special situations will get

Requiring Americans who don’t normally file tax returns to start doing so for the rebate check could become problematic for the IRS, too, Marr said. The agency is already inundated with calls and questions, and this operation would make it worse. “Plus, you’re just inviting the risk of scam operations out there, and seniors are frequently the target of such things,” he said.

The IRS said this group will need to file a “simple tax return,” which includes information such as filing status (single, married filing jointly, married filing separately, head of household or widow/widower), number of dependents and direct deposit bank account information. The agency said more information on how to file will be available on its page dedicated to coronavirus updates. The government said it was creating a web-based portal for individuals who do not have direct deposit set up, so that they could receive payments “immediately” instead of waiting for the mail to arrive.

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The Margin: Zoom green screens, but not pants: Here are the new work from home essentials

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Who else is realizing that their home office is due for an upgrade?

Millions of Americans have recently shifted to working from home full-time as most states have adopted stay-at-home guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19 from getting worse. And they’re the lucky ones, as a record 10 million Americans filed for unemployment during the last two weeks of March as the coronavirus outbreak triggered mass layoffs.

But now that remote workers have spent a few weeks hunched over laptops on kitchen counters, dining tables and couches — and they are facing another month, at the very least, of working remotely — many are investing in products to be more productive while working in what can be an unprofessional (and pretty uncomfortable) setting.

Read more: MarketWatch’s latest news on the novel coronavirus

Take Jill Sanfilippo, a corporate paralegal in Montgomery, N.J., who bought a $150 padded stool/bench on Amazon AMZN, +0.26%  so that she has a cushier seat while toggling between two laptops. She also grabbed an external laptop mouse for $20 to ditch the tracking pad.

“I’m working at the kitchen counter while my son is schooling at the dining room table, so it’s a long day of standing!” Sanfilippo, 48, told MarketWatch. “And if this goes much longer, I’m going to get [my son] Charlie an actual desk.”

Jill Sanfilippo’s makeshift workstation.

She’s not alone. A Walmart WMT, +0.20%   representative told MarketWatch that more customers have been shopping for desks, folding tables and even TV trays to create more space to work or dine on now that people are spending so much more time at home. IKEA also shared that its $49 simple white MICKE desk and its $239 adjustable SKARSTA sit/stand desk are in high demand.

And some remote workers have been sharing their attempts to create standing desks and workstations at home on Twitter TWTR, +0.21%  — with some comical results.

Office Depot’s ODP, +0.63%  most popular products at the moment include desk chairs, as well as webcams, printers, laptops and display monitors. The office supply chain has even rolled out “work from anywhere” bundles, ranging from a $279.45 “furniture essentials” kit that includes a computer desk, desk chair, dry erase board and desk lamp, and running up to a “professional working bundle” that features a wireless printer and keyboard, LED monitor, USB mini dock and a headset for $758.95. And Best Buy BBY, -0.11%   has seen laptops, monitors and webcams flying off shelves, which are key in letting people do their work (including schoolwork) from home.

Read more: Best Buy sees surge in demand for items that help people work from home

Adobe Analytics reported this week that orders for computers, including laptops and desktops, increased 40% between March 11-25, compared with March 1-10. The industry analysts at NPD Group have also seen “historic sales increases” on computers and computer accessories. Notebook PC sales increased almost 30% year-over-year for the past week in February, and then spiked to a more than 50% increase in the first two weeks of March as the coronavirus was declared a global pandemic, and Americans began sheltering in place. Likewise, monitor sales were flat at the beginning of February, NPD said, but saw a 40% increase for the first two weeks of March.

This Statista chart also shows how online interest in external monitors has jumped 160% over the past 30 days (as of March 31), while online interest in a mouse for a laptop spiked 85%.

But there’s also been a run on some unexpected products for conducting business — particularly those related to the surge in videoconference calls as more meetings have been moved online. Zoom ZM, -8.39%  has seen its daily users more than quadruple, while Microsoft’s MSFT, +0.12%   Teams communications suite counted 44 million daily active users on March 19, which was up 12 million from just the week before. Microsoft has also reported more than 40 million daily active Skype users, up 70% from a month ago. [There’s been some recent Zoom backlash, however, stemming from growing security concerns as hackers have started “Zoom Bombing” videoconferences to post pornographic or hate images.]

Read more: Zoom Video lurches from boom to backlash amid privacy issues, ‘Zoom bombing’ attacks

So Natan Edelsburg, the COO of Muck Rack, dropped $90 (including shipping) on a green screen that attaches to his desk chair, which he can use to drop in digital background images rather than broadcast his one-bedroom Manhattan apartment. His Apple AAPL, +0.15%   MacBook Air doesn’t support Zoom’s virtual backgrounds during video chats, he explained to MarketWatch, so he bought this workaround. Now he doesn’t have to worry about whether his webcam is picking up any clutter or anything behind him — although he looks pretty ridiculous behind the scenes with a giant green bubble around him.

“My wife says I look like ‘The Wizard of Oz,’” he laughed. “It’s definitely brightened up my day a lot.”

Natan Edelsburg
Natan Edelsburg using Zoom with his new green screen.

Indeed, Zoom virtual backgrounds are taking off. Retailers like the Williams-Sonoma brand WSM, +3.51%  West Elm and the Masco-owned MAS, -0.54%  BEHR paint have created their own backgrounds — everything from patterned wallpaper to a St. Barts beach house or an Italian villa — for people to use during videoconferencing or virtual group hangouts if they’re not satisfied with Zoom’s options. (To drop them in, save the background to your desktop, and then click the “settings” gear while on Zoom, select “virtual background” and hit the “plus sign” to upload the photo you want to set as your backdrop.)

Edelsburg says it’s a conversation starter. “It’s a great way to lighten the mood and the room right now,” he said, admitting that he has projected himself standing in front of a Delorean, like in “Back to the Future,” and even used a virtual backdrop of Muck Rack’s own Soho office, which he says was his employees’ favorite.

Related: Do you miss the office and hate working from home? Give it a chance, you may end up loving it

Jeff Halevy, CEO of the HLVY Group family of fitness brands, also upgraded his workstation to put his best face forward on videoconferences. “I was getting tired of always having an unwelcome close-up courtesy of my MacBook’s native camera,” said Halevy, 41, from Manhattan. “I tried shopping for a better webcam that could zoom out, only to find out that the rest of the world had beaten me to it. Nearly every webcam was sold out. So instead, I improvised and added an Apple Magic Keyboard and Apple Magic Mouse to my setup, so I could position myself farther away from my laptop.”

Indeed, a Google GOOG, +0.00%   rep told MarketWatch that searches for “how to look good in video calls” spiked more than 80% in the U.S. during the week of March 23-27.

Related: Should you turn on your video during a Zoom call or take Slack breaks? How to keep your sanity while working from home

And Walmart’s EVP of corporate affairs, Dan Bartlett, recently told Yahoo Finance that the retail chain has noticed that the rise in videoconferencing has led to a pretty amusing sales trend.

“We’re seeing increased sales in tops, but not bottoms. So, people who are concerned, obviously, from the waist up,” he said. “These behaviors are going to continue to change and evolve as people get accustomed to this new lifestyle.”

Target TGT, -0.32% on the other hand, has seen clothing sales drop — well, except for leisure wear and pajamas. Both trends were perfectly embodied by John Krasinski in his new YouTube series “Some Good News” this week: when “The Office” star stood up at the end of his broadcast, viewers saw that he was actually wearing pajama bottoms below his otherwise professional-looking suit jacket, shirt and tie.

Related: Misunderstandings can be more common’ — the perils of working from home during the coronavirus pandemic