The Uncertain Future of the Medicare Trust Fund

https://www.commonwealthfund.org/blog/2020/uncertain-future-medicare-trust-fund

Medicare trust fund

The COVID-19 pandemic has increased pressures on an already-stressed public health care financing system. This is especially evident when it comes to the financial health of Medicare’s Hospital Insurance (HI) Trust Fund, which finances health care services related to hospital, skilled nursing facility, and hospice stays for Medicare beneficiaries.

In April, using pre-COVID-19 data, the Trustees of Social Security and Medicare projected that the HI Trust Fund would become insolvent in 2026 — meaning that Medicare Part A claims submitted by providers would not be fully reimbursed. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) made a similar projection when it issued its March 2020 baseline projections. In a September 2020 report, the CBO projected that the date of insolvency had moved up to 2024.

The pandemic has disrupted economic activity in the United States in several ways: a large and rapid rise in unemployment substantially reduced payments to the Trust Fund from payroll taxes, and hospitals experienced unprecedented financial stress from lost revenues because of a dramatic drop in admissions and procedures, along with new costs arising from the pandemic. One way that Congress provided relief to address these economic shocks was to make advance payments. Between $65 billion and $92 billion in advance payments were made to Medicare Part A providers that draw upon the HI Trust Fund. This increased claims on the Trust Fund in 2020 and lowers them for 2021 — assuming they are paid back in 2021. Together these economic dynamics create a situation that requires quick action to prevent insolvency; the margin for error is small.

The duration of the pandemic and the timing and size of an economic recovery remain highly uncertain. While unemployment has declined notably, from 14.7 percent in April to 8.4 percent in August, new spikes in COVID-19 cases across the country continue to dampen economic activity. The recent jobs report also suggested a slowing of employment recovery. Further, there is great uncertainty about the timing, availability, and effectiveness of a potential vaccine. As a result, we are quite unsure when payroll tax revenues will recover or to what degree hospital finances will recover.

The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis recently underscored the uncertainty when it issued the following assessment:

“The COVID-19 pandemic — like all pandemics — will come to an end. Of course, nobody knows when that will be. No one also knows whether there will be subsequent waves of the virus that trigger a nationwide resumption of strict social distancing protocols or whether a proven vaccine allows a swift return to pre-COVID norms. Thus, the trajectory of the recovery is the key unknown at this point.”

Together these forces create policy tensions. It is important to continue to support hospitals and nursing homes whose revenues have not yet recovered, and those that continue to incur unusual costs because they are still carrying heavy financial burdens stemming from COVID-19. At the same time state and federal health care financing programs are under extreme financial stress.

Recent legislation negotiated between Congress and the Trump administration would permit hospitals to request an extension for repaying advance payment loans and also reduce the interest rate. Together, these provisions recognize the continued financial stress and provide relief but also introduce new uncertainty. That is, by lengthening the repayment period and reducing the costs of carrying the loans it becomes less certain when they will be paid back in full and returned to the Trust Fund, making the solvency date of the Trust Fund less certain (as specified further in Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services guidance). In addition, this assumes that the full amounts of the loan will be paid back.

The timing of the COVID-19 pandemic has been especially unfortunate in terms of maintaining the Medicare HI Trust Fund’s solvency. The Trustees issued a warning that action was needed when insolvency was estimated to occur in 2026; it has now been pushed up to 2024. One way to address the uncertainty would be to make a fund transfer from general revenues to the Trust Fund in the amount of the outstanding loans, thereby removing any additional uncertainty around timing of repayment. This could help mitigate risks in a world with highly uncertain economic and epidemiological forecasts but would risk further increasing federal spending during an economic downturn.

Medical ethics in pandemic times

https://www.axios.com/medical-ethics-clinical-trials-pandemic-eb77f819-76f1-45b0-af8a-cf181bc1607b.html

The Importance of Medical Ethics | Medical Ethics – theMSAG

The COVID-19 pandemic is rife with scientific and medical uncertainty, including debates about the ethics of using experimental treatments.

The big picture: As the global pandemic continues, the tension between providing the best available care for patients and performing trials to determine whether that care is effective risks complicating the medical response.

The big question: Is it unethical to withhold a possible treatment from someone who instead receives a placebo, or to continue to administer that treatment without having collected data on whether it works?

Driving the news: President Trump received an experimental monoclonal antibody cocktail via expanded access or “compassionate use,” which allows someone to access a treatment outside of a clinical trial before it is approved, provided their doctor, the drug company and the FDA agree.

  • Experts say his subsequent claims of the treatment being a cure risks reducing enrollment in clinical trials, flooding companies with requests for access to a limited number of doses and creating false hope for patients.
  • And the president’s treatment raised questions about fairness — would other COVID-19 patients have similar access?
  • “It’s important that we not say the president got access to a beneficial experimental intervention because we don’t know if it is beneficial or if there are adverse events associated with it, says Alex John London, director of the Center for Ethics and Policy at Carnegie Mellon University. 

He and other ethicists say the president’s treatment highlights a broader question about the ethical obligation doctors have to the science needed to determine if those treatments are effective.

Between the lines: Offering patients experimental COVID-19 drugs via emergency use authorizations, expanded access programs and compassionate use can slow needed clinical trials.

  • Researchers have struggled to enroll people in clinical trials in which they may receive a placebo if patients can access a drug directly.
  • One example: “There’s been some hiccups with the expanded access use for convalescent plasma, because it was something that precluded people from enrolling in a randomized control trial, so it took longer, and we still don’t quite know how well convalescent plasma works,” says Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease physician and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

More than 100,000 COVID-19 patients at almost 2,800 U.S. hospitals received convalescent plasma from people who survived the virus and developed antibodies to it.

  • “It’s easy for people to say you enrolled 100,000 people, there should have been a trial. But a small number of those 2,800 hospitals would have been capable of doing those trials,” says the Mayo Clinic’s Michael Joyner, who leads the program.
  • There are now smaller trials taking place to answer questions about the effectiveness of plasma in treating the disease in different stages.
  • But if this happens again, Joyner says programs at academic medical centers should be peeled off earlier to form clinical trials run in parallel.

The gold standard for determining whether a treatment works is through randomized controlled trials in which people are randomly assigned to receive a treatment or to be in a control group.

  • In the uncertainty and urgency of a pandemic, some physicians argue randomizing people to receive a placebo goes against physicians’ ethics and that it is better to do something to help patients than do nothing.
  • “That’s a false dichotomy because the question is, what should we do?” says London.

From a doctor’s perspectiveit’s important to weigh the collective value of theearly drug data and the individual needs of the patient, Adalja says.

  • “I do think you have to be extra careful when you’re thinking about drugs that you don’t have strong randomized control trial data for, or the data is incomplete or inconclusive,” he adds.
  • “What people have to ask themselves is what constitutes evidence or proof and where do you want to make the bets in a pandemic?” says Joyner.
  • “There is a moral, legal and public health obligation to do those trials before people use those products,” says Alison Bateman-House, a professor of medical ethics at NYU’s Grossman School of Medicine who co-chairs an international working group on pre-approval access to treatments.
  • She says she understands the emotional pull on doctors to help patients whose health is quickly deteriorating, “but it is not evidence-based medicine.”

“There is no ethical obligation to give anyone an unproven substance.”

Alison Bateman-House, NYU Grossman School of Medicine

In a forthcoming paper, London argues that when medical professionals don’t have the knowledge they need to treat patients, it is their responsibility “to band together and run studies to get evidence to discharge [their] very ancient medical obligation.”

  • Medical ethics should be updated to include a responsibility to learn in the face of uncertainty, says London, who was part of a committee that called for research to be incorporated into the response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014.
  • The U.K.’s large randomized RECOVERY trial is based in part on the Ebola experience, says London. “Because of it, we know dexamethasone is effective and hydroxychloroquine is not.”

What to watch: How the FDA’s handling of treatments during the pandemic influences other drugs and diseases once the pandemic ends.

The bottom line: “Medicine doesn’t have a good handle on uncertainty, and that is a problem,” says London.

COVID-19 vaccine verdicts loom as next big market risk

https://finance.yahoo.com/news/covid-19-vaccine-verdicts-loom-050615809.html

Optimism that vaccines are on the way to end the coronavirus pandemic has been a major factor in this year’s U.S. stock resurgence. That will face a critical test in coming weeks, as investors await clinical data on whether they actually work.

A UBS analysis found that about 40% of the market’s gains since May can be pegged to hopes for vaccines to protect against COVID-19, which has killed over 960,000 worldwide and rocked the global economy.

Global efforts to develop a vaccine are coming to a head, with late-stage data on trials by companies such as Pfizer Inc <PFE.N> and Moderna Inc <MRNA.O> possible as soon as October or November. Disappointing results could further shake markets that have recently grown turbulent on worries over fiscal stimulus delays and uncertainty around the Nov. 3 U.S. presidential election.

“The anticipation is that this stuff is going to work,” said Walter Todd, chief investment officer at Greenwood Capital in South Carolina. “So any news to the contrary could be a risk to the market.”

The number of vaccines in development could blunt the negative market impact of any single setback. More than a half-dozen vaccines globally are in late-stage trials out of over 30 currently being tested in humans, according to the World Health Organization.

“We are setting ourselves up for success in the sense of if you throw enough spaghetti at the wall, hopefully at least one noodle sticks,” said Liz Young, director of market strategy at BNY Mellon Investment Management.

That could explain why stocks overall barely reacted earlier this month, when AstraZeneca Plc <AZN.L> and partner Oxford University paused global trials of one of the leading vaccine candidates after a participant in its U.K. trial became seriously ill. The trials have resumed in Britain, Brazil and South Africa, but remain on hold in the United States.

Some forecasts on vaccine availability have grown less optimistic. Good Judgment, a company whose forecasters make predictions based on publicly available evidence, put the chances that a vaccine will be widely distributed in the United States by the end of March at 54%. That is up from an estimate of less than 20% in early July, but down from above 70% earlier this month.

Pfizer and Moderna could report initial efficacy results in October or November based on an early read of data, followed by data from companies such as AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson <JNJ.N> and Novavax Inc <NVAX.O>.

An approval or emergency use authorization this year could lead to a surge in travel, leisure and other stocks that have been decimated by pandemic-related shutdowns, while also fueling a long-awaited shift into value stocks from tech and other growth names that have led the market for years.

Even if a vaccine is approved, questions persist about how easily and quickly it can be distributed. President Trump and his health officials have issued conflicting predictions about when the general public could have access.

“The potential for market disappointment will likely come from the realization that manufacturing and broad distribution will take longer,” said Art Hogan, chief market strategist at National Securities.

An approved, broadly distributed and accepted vaccine could result in a gain of about 300 points to the S&P 500, or more than 8% at the index’s current level, according to Keith Parker, head of U.S. and global equity strategy at UBS.

If a vaccine is widely distributed in the first quarter, BofA Global Research projects global gross domestic product (GDP) growth of 6.3% in 2021, compared with 5.6% if that does not occur until the third quarter.

Disappointing clinical trial news could result in a loss of 100 points from the S&P 500, or about 3%, Parker estimates.

While the market might be able to handle one vaccine setback “reasonably well,” several setbacks could cause a rethink of the vaccine race, he said.

 

 

 

 

U.S. Jobless Claims Fall, but Layoffs Continue: Live Updates

U.S. jobless claims fall in mid-September, but the economy still suffering  lots of layoffs - MarketWatch

New claims for state unemployment insurance fell last week, but layoffs continue to come at an extraordinarily high level by historical standards.

Initial claims for state benefits totaled 790,000 before adjusting for seasonal factors, the Labor Department reported Thursday. The weekly tally, down from 866,000 the previous week, is roughly four times what it was before the coronavirus pandemic shut down many businesses in March.

On a seasonally adjusted basis, the total was 860,000, down from 893,000 the previous week.

“It’s not a pretty picture,” said Beth Ann Bovino, chief U.S. economist at S&P Global. “We’ve got a long way to go, and there’s still a risk of a double-dip recession.”

The situation has been compounded by the failure of Congress to agree on new federal aid to the jobless.

A $600 weekly supplement established in March that had kept many families afloat expired at the end of July. The makeshift replacement mandated by President Trump last month has encountered processing delays in some states and has funds for only a few weeks.

“The labor market continues to heal from the viral recession, but unemployment remains extremely elevated and will remain a problem for at least a couple of years,” said Gus Faucher, chief economist at PNC Financial Services. “Initial claims have been roughly flat since early August, suggesting that the pace of improvement in layoffs is slowing.”

New claims for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, an emergency federal program for freelance workers, independent contractors and others not eligible for regular unemployment benefits, totaled 659,000, the Labor Department reported.

Federal data suggests that the program now has more beneficiaries than regular unemployment insurance. But there is evidence that both overcounting and fraud may have contributed to a jump in claims.

 

 

 

 

America Is Trapped in a Pandemic Spiral

https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2020/09/pandemic-intuition-nightmare-spiral-winter/616204/

America Is Trapped in a Pandemic Spiral - The Atlantic

As the U.S. heads toward the winter, the country is going round in circles, making the same conceptual errors that have plagued it since spring.

Army ants will sometimes walk in circles until they die. The workers navigate by smelling the pheromone trails of workers in front of them, while laying down pheromones for others to follow. If these trails accidentally loop back on themselves, the ants are trapped. They become a thick, swirling vortex of bodies that resembles a hurricane as viewed from space. They march endlessly until they’re felled by exhaustion or dehydration. The ants can sense no picture bigger than what’s immediately ahead. They have no coordinating force to guide them to safety. They are imprisoned by a wall of their own instincts. This phenomenon is called the death spiral. I can think of no better metaphor for the United States of America’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The U.S. enters the ninth month of the pandemic with more than 6.3 million confirmed cases and more than 189,000 confirmed deaths. The toll has been enormous because the country presented the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus with a smorgasbord of vulnerabilities to exploit. But the toll continues to be enormous—every day, the case count rises by around 40,000 and the death toll by around 800—because the country has consistently thought about the pandemic in the same unproductive ways.

Many Americans trusted intuition to help guide them through this disaster. They grabbed onto whatever solution was most prominent in the moment, and bounced from one (often false) hope to the next. They saw the actions that individual people were taking, and blamed and shamed their neighbors. They lapsed into magical thinking, and believed that the world would return to normal within months. Following these impulses was simpler than navigating a web of solutions, staring down broken systems, and accepting that the pandemic would rage for at least a year.

These conceptual errors were not egregious lies or conspiracy theories, but they were still dangerous. They manifested again and again, distorting the debate around whether to stay at home, wear masks, or open colleges. They prevented citizens from grasping the scope of the crisis and pushed leaders toward bad policies. And instead of overriding misleading intuitions with calm and considered communication, those leaders intensified them. The country is now trapped in an intuition nightmare: Like the spiraling ants, Americans are walled in by their own unhelpful instincts, which lead them round and round in self-destructive circles.

“The grand challenge now is, how can we adjust our thinking to match the problem before us?” says Lori Peek, a sociologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder who studies disasters. Here, then, are nine errors of intuition that still hamstring the U.S. pandemic response, and a glimpse at the future if they continue unchecked. The time to break free is now. Our pandemic summer is nearly over. Now come fall, the season of preparation, and winter, the season of survival. The U.S. must reset its mindset to accomplish both. Ant death spirals break only when enough workers accidentally blunder away, creating trails that lead the spiraling workers to safety. But humans don’t have to rely on luck; unlike ants, we have a capacity for introspection.

The spiral begins when people forget that controlling the pandemic means doing many things at once. The virus can spread before symptoms appear, and does so most easily through five P’s: people in prolonged, poorly ventilated, protection-free proximity. To stop that spread, this country could use measures that other nations did, to great effect: close nonessential businesses and spaces that allow crowds to congregate indoors; improve ventilation; encourage mask use; test widely to identify contagious people; trace their contacts; help them isolate themselves; and provide a social safety net so that people can protect others without sacrificing their livelihood. None of these other nations did everything, but all did enough things right—and did them simultaneously. By contrast, the U.S. engaged in …

1. A Serial Monogamy of Solutions

Stay-at-home orders dominated March. Masks were fiercely debated in April. Contact tracing took its turn in May. Ventilation is having its moment now. “It’s like we only have attention for only one thing at a time,” says Natalie Dean, a biostatistician at the University of Florida.

As often happens, people sought easy technological fixes for complex societal problems. For months, President Donald Trump touted hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 cure, even as rigorous studies showed that it isn’t one. In August, he switched his attention to convalescent plasma—the liquid fraction of a COVID-19 survivor’s blood that might contain virus-blocking antibodies. There’s still no clear evidence that this century-old approach can treat COVID-19 either, despite grossly misstated claims from FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn (for which he later apologized). More generally, drugs might save some of the very sickest patients, as dexamethasone does, or shorten a hospital stay, as remdesivir does, but they are unlikely to offer outright cures. “It’s so reassuring to think that a magic-bullet treatment is out there and if we just wait, it’ll come and things will be normal,” Dean says.

Other strategies have merit, but are wrongly dismissed for being imperfect. In July, Carl Bergstrom, an epidemiologist and a sociologist of science at the University of Washington, argued that colleges cannot reopen safely without testing all students upon entry. “The gotcha question I’ve handled most from reporters since is: This school did entry testing, so why did they get an outbreak?” he says. It’s because such testing is necessary for a safe reopening, but not sufficient. “If you do it and screw everything else up, you’ll still have a big outbreak,” Bergstrom adds.

This brief attention span is understandable. Adherents of the scientific method are trained to isolate and change one variable at a time. Academics are walled off into different disciplines that rarely connect. Journalists constantly look for new stories, shifting attention to the next great idea. These factors prime the public to view solutions in isolation, which means imperfections become conflated with uselessness. For example, many critics of masks argued that they provide only partial protection against the virus, that they often don’t fit well, or that people wear them incorrectly. But some protection is clearly better than no protectionAs Dylan Morris of Princeton writes, “X won’t stop COVID on its own is not an argument against doing X.” Instead, it’s an argument for doing X along with other measures. Seat belts won’t prevent all fatal car crashes, but cars also come with airbags and crumple zones. “When we layer things, we give ourselves more wiggle room,” Dean says.

Several experts I’ve talked with have been asked: What now? The question assumes that the pandemic lingers because the U.S. simply hasn’t found the right solution yet. In fact, it lingers because the familiar solutions were never fully implemented. Despite claims from the White House, the U.S. is still not testing enough people. It still doesn’t have enough contact tracers. “We have the playbook, but I think there’s a confusion about what we’ve actually tried and what we’ve just talked about doing,” Dean says. A successful response “is never going to be one thing done perfectly. It’ll be a lot of different things done well enough.” That resilience disappears if we create…

2. False Dichotomies

A world of black and white is easier to handle than one awash with grays. But false dichotomies are dangerous. From the start, COVID-19 has been portrayed as a disease that mostly causes mild symptoms in people who quickly recover, and occasionally causes severe illness that leads to hospitalization and death. This two-sided caricature—severe or mild, sick or recovered—has erased the thousands of “long-haulers” who have endured months of debilitating symptoms at home with neither recognition nor care.

Meanwhile, as businesses closed and stay-at-home orders rolled out, “we presumed a trade-off between saving lives and saving the economy,” says Danielle Allen, a political scientist at Harvard. “That was foolishness of the most profound degree.” The two goals were actually aligned: Epidemiologists and economists largely agree that the economy cannot rebound while the pandemic is still raging. By treating the two as opposites, state leaders rushed to reopen, leading a barely contained virus to surge anew.  

Now, as winter looms and the pandemic continues, another dichotomy has emerged: enter another awful lockdown, or let the virus run free. This choice, too, is false. Public-health measures offer a middle road, and even “lockdowns” need not be as overbearing as they were in spring. A city could close higher-risk venues like bars and nightclubs while opening lower-risk ones like retail stores. There’s a “whole control panel of dials” on offer, but “it’s hard to have that conversation when people think of a light switch,” says Lindsay Wiley, a professor of public-health law at American University. “The term lockdown has done a lot of damage.” It exacerbated the false binary between shutting down and opening up, while offering …

3. The Comfort of Theatricality

Stay-at-home orders saved lives by curtailing COVID-19’s spread, and by giving hospitals some breathing room. But the orders were also meant to buy time for the nation to ramp up its public-health defenses. Instead, the White House treated months of physical distancing as a pandemic-ending strategy in itself. “We squandered that time in terms of scaling up testing and contact tracing, enacting policies to protect workers who get infected on the job, getting protective equipment to people in food-processing plants, finding places for people to isolate, offering paid sick leave … We still don’t have those things,” says Julia Marcus, an infectious-disease epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School and regular Atlantic contributor. The country is now facing the fall with many of the same problems that plagued it through the summer.

Showiness is often mistaken for effectiveness. The coronavirus mostly spreads through air rather than contaminated surfaces, but many businesses are nonetheless trying to scrub and bleach their way toward reopening. My colleague Derek Thompson calls this hygiene theater—dramatic moves that appear to offer safety without actually doing so. The same charge applies to temperature checks, which can’t detect the many COVID-19 patients who don’t have a fever. It also applies to the porous and inefficient travel bans that Trump and his allies still tout as policy successes. These tactics might do some good—let’s not conflate imperfect with useless—but they cause harm when they substitute for stronger measures. Theatricality breeds complacency. And by emphasizing solutions that can be easily seen, it exacerbated the American preference for …

4. Personal Blame Over Systemic Fixes

SARS-CoV-2 spread rapidly among America’s overstuffed prisons and understaffed nursing homes, in communities served by overstretched hospitals and underfunded public-health departments, and among Black, Latino, and Indigenous Americans who had been geographically and financially disconnected from health care by decades of racist policies. Without paid sick leave or a living wage, “essential workers” who earn a low, hourly income could not afford to quarantine themselves when they fell ill—and especially not if that would jeopardize the jobs to which their health care is tied. “The things I do to stay safe, they don’t have that as an option,” says Whitney Robinson, a social epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

But tattered social safety nets are less visible than crowded bars. Pushing for universal health care is harder than shaming an unmasked stranger. Fixing systemic problems is more difficult than spewing moralism, and Americans gravitated toward the latter. News outlets illustrated pandemic articles with (often distorted) photos of beaches, even though open-air spaces offer low-risk ways for people to enjoy themselves. Marcus attributes this tendency to America’s puritanical roots, which conflate pleasure with irresponsibility, and which prize shame over support. “The shaming gets codified into bad policy,” she says. Chicago fenced off a beach, and Honolulu closed beaches, parks, and hiking trails, while leaving riskier indoor businesses open.

Moralistic thinking jeopardizes health in two ways. First, people often oppose measures that reduce an individual’s risk—seat belts, condoms, HPV vaccines—because such protections might promote risky behavior. During the pandemic, some experts used such reasoning to question the value of masks, while the University of Michigan’s president argued that testing students widely would offer a “false sense of security.” These paternalistic false-assurance arguments are almost always false themselves. “There’s very little evidence for overcompensation to the point where safety measures do harm,” Bergstrom says.

Second, misplaced moralism can provide cover for bad policies. Many colleges started their semester with in-person teaching and inadequate testing, and are predictably dealing with large outbreaks. UNC Chapel Hill lasted just six days before reverting to remote classes. Administrators have chastised students for behaving irresponsibly, while taking no responsibility for setting them up to faila pattern that will likely continue through the fall as college clusters inevitably grow. “If you put 10,000 [students] in a small space, eating, sleeping, and socializing together, there’ll be an explosion of cases,” Robinson says. “I don’t know what [colleges] were expecting.” Perhaps they fell prey to …

5. The Normality Trap

In times of uncertainty and upheaval, “people crave a return to familiar, predictable rhythms,” says Monica Schoch-Spana, a medical anthropologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. That pull is especially strong now because the pandemic’s toll is largely invisible. There’s nothing as dramatic as ruined buildings or lapping floodwater to hint that the world has changed. In some circles, returning to normal has been valorized as an act of defiance. That’s a reasonable stance when resisting terrorists, who seek to stoke fear, but a dangerous one when fighting a virus, which doesn’t care.

The powerful desire to re-create an old world can obscure the trade-offs necessary for surviving the new one. Keeping high-risk indoor businesses open, for example, helps the virus spread within a community, which makes reopening schools harder. “If schools are a priority, you have to put them ahead of something. What is that something?” says Bill Hanage, an epidemiologist at Harvard. “In an ideal world, they would be the last to close and the first to open, but in many communities, casinos, bars, and tattoo parlors opened before them.” A world with COVID-19 is fundamentally different from one without it, and the former simply cannot include all the trappings of the latter. Cherished summer rituals like camps and baseball games have already been lost; back-to-school traditions and Thanksgiving now hang in the balance. Change is hard to accept, which predisposes people to …

6. Magical Thinking

Back in April, Trump imagined the pandemic’s quick end: “Maybe this goes away with heat and light,” he said. From the start, he and others wondered if hot, humid weather might curb the spread of COVID-19, as it does other coronavirus diseases. Many experts countered that seasonal effects wouldn’t stop the new virus, which was already spreading in the tropics. But, fueled by shaky science and speculative stories, people widely latched on to seasonality as a possible savior, before the virus proved that it could thrive in the Arizona, Texas, and Florida summer.

This brand of magical thinking, in which some factor naturally defuses the pandemic, has become a convenient excuse for inaction. Recently, some commentators have argued that the pandemic will imminently fizzle out for two reasons. First, 20 to 50 percent of people have defensive T-cells that recognize the new coronavirus, because they were previously exposed to its milder, common-cold-causing cousins. Second, some modeling studies claim that herd immunity—whereby the virus struggles to find new hosts, because enough people are immune—could kick in when just 20 percent of the population has been infected.

Neither claim is implausible, but neither should be grounds for complacency. No one yet knows if the “cross-reactive” T-cells actually protect against COVID-19, and even if they do, they’re unlikely to stop people from getting infected. Herd immunity, meanwhile, is not a perfect barrier. Even if the low thresholds are correct, a fast-growing and uncontrolled outbreak will still shoot past themPursuing this strategy will mean that, in the winter, many parts of the U.S. may suffer what New York City endured in the spring: thousands of deaths and an untold number of lingering disabilities. That alone should be an argument against …

7. The Complacency of Inexperience

When illness is averted and lives are spared, “nothing happens and all you have is the miracle of a normal, healthy day,” says Howard Koh, a public-health professor at Harvard. “People take that for granted.” Public-health departments are chronically underfunded because the suffering they prevent is invisible. Pandemic preparations are deprioritized in the peaceful years between outbreaks. Even now, many people who have been spared the ravages of COVID-19 argue that the disease wasn’t a big deal, or associate their woes with preventive measures. But the problem is still the disease those measures prevented: The economy is still hurtingmental-health problems are growing, and educational futures have been curtailed, not because of some fearmongering overreaction, but because an uncontrolled pandemic is still afoot.

If anything, the U.S. did not react swiftly or strongly enough. Nations that had previously dealt with emerging viral epidemics, including several in East Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, were quick to take the new coronavirus seriously. By contrast, America’s lack of similar firsthand experience, combined with its sense of exceptionalism, might have contributed to its initial sloppiness. “One of my colleagues went to Rwanda in February, and as soon as he hit the airport, they asked about symptoms, checked his temperature, and took his phone number,” says Abraar Karan, an internist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School. “In the U.S., I flew in July, and walked out of the airport, no questions asked.”

Even when the virus began spreading within the U.S., places that weren’t initially pummeled seemed to forget that viruses spread. “In April, I was seeing COVID patients in the ER every day,” Karan says. “In Texas, I had friends saying, ‘No one believes it here because we have no cases.’ In L.A., fellow physicians said, ‘Are you sure this is worse than the flu? We’re not seeing anything.’” Three months later, Texas and California saw COVID-19 all too closely. The tendency to ignore threats until they directly affect us has consigned the U.S. to …

8. A Reactive Rut

In March, Mike Ryan at the World Health Organization advised, “Be fast, have no regrets … The virus will always get you if you don’t move quickly.” The U.S. failed to heed that warning, and has repeatedly found itself several steps behind the coronavirus. That’s partly because exponential growth is counterintuitive, so “we don’t understand that things look fine until right before they’re very not fine,” says Beth Redbird, a sociologist at Northwestern. It’s also because the coronavirus spreads quickly but is slow to reveal itself: It can take a month for infections to lead to symptoms, for symptoms to warrant tests and hospitalizations, and for enough sick people to produce a noticeable spike. Pandemic data are like the light of distant stars, recording past events instead of present ones. This lag separates actions from their consequences by enough time to break our intuition for cause and effect. Policy makers end up acting only when it’s too late. Predictable surges get falsely cast as unexpected surprises.

This reactive rut also precludes long-term planning. In April, Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota, told me that “people haven’t understood that [the pandemic] isn’t about the next couple of weeks [but] about the next two years.” Leaders should have taken the long view then. “We should have been thinking about what it would take to ensure schools open in the fall, and prevent the long-term harms of lost children’s development,” Redbird says. Instead, we started working our way through a serial monogamy of solutions, and, like spiraling army ants, marched forward with no sense of the future beyond the next few footsteps.

These errors crop up in all disasters. But the COVID-19 pandemic has special qualities that have exacerbated them. The virus moved quickly enough to upend the status quo in a few months, deepening the allure of the hastily abandoned past. It also moved slowly enough to sweep the U.S. in a patchwork fashion, allowing as-yet-untouched communities to drop their guard. The pandemic grew huge in scope, entangling every aspect of society, and maxing out our capacity to deal with complexity. “People struggle to make rational decisions when they cannot see all the cogs,” says Njoki Mwarumba, an emergency-management professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Full of fear and anxiety, people furiously searched for more information, but because the virus is so new, they instead spiraled into more confusion and uncertainty. And tragically, all of this happened during the presidency of Donald Trump.

Trump embodied and amplified America’s intuition death spiral. Instead of rolling out a detailed, coordinated plan to control the pandemic, he ricocheted from one overhyped cure-all to another, while relying on theatrics such as travel bans. He ignored inequities and systemic failures in favor of blaming China, the WHO, governors, Anthony Fauci, and Barack Obama. He widened the false dichotomy between lockdowns and reopening by regularly tweeting in favor of the latter. He and his allies appealed to magical thinking and steered the U.S. straight into the normality trap by frequently lying that the virus would go away, that the pandemic was ending, that new waves weren’t happening, and that rising case numbers were solely due to increased testing. They have started talking about COVID-19 in the past tense as cases surge in the Midwest.

“It’s like mass gaslighting,” says Martha Lincoln, a medical anthropologist at San Francisco State University. “We were put in a situation where better solutions were closed off but a lot of people had that fact sneak up on them. In the absence of a robust federal response, we’re all left washing our hands and hoping for the best, which makes us more susceptible to magical thinking and individual-level fixes.” And if those fixes never come, “I think people are going to harden into a fatalistic sense that we have to accept whatever the risks are to continue with our everyday lives.”

That might, indeed, be Trump’s next solution. The Washington Post reports that Trump’s new adviser—the neuroradiologist Scott Atlas—is pushing a strategy that lets the virus rip through the non-elderly population in a bid to reach herd immunity. This policy was folly for Sweden, which is nowhere near herd immunity, had one of the world’s highest COVID-19 death rates, and has a regretful state epidemiologist. Although the White House has denied that a formal herd-immunity policy exists, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently changed its guidance to say that asymptomatic people “do not necessarily need a test” even after close contact with an infected personThis change makes no sense: People can still spread the virus before showing symptoms. By effectively recommending less testing, as Trump has specifically called for, the nation’s top public-health agency is depriving the U.S. of the data it needs to resist intuitive errors. “When there’s a refusal to take in the big picture, we are stuck,” Mwarumba says.

The pandemic is now in its ninth month. Uncertainties abound as fall and winter loom. In much of the country, colder weather will gradually pack people into indoor spaces, where the coronavirus more readily spreads. Winter also typically heralds the arrival of the flu and other respiratory viruses, and although the Southern Hemisphere enjoyed an unusually mild flu season, that’s “because of the severe precautions they were taking against COVID-19,” says Eleanor Murray, an epidemiologist at Boston University. “It’s not clear to me that our precautions will be successful enough to also prevent the flu.”

Schools are reopening, which will shape the path of the pandemic in still-uncertain ways. Universities are more predictable: Thanks to magical thinking and misplaced moralism, the U.S. already has at least 51,000 confirmed infections in more than 1,000 colleges across every state. These (underestimated) numbers will grow, because only 20 percent of colleges are doing regular testing, while almost half are not testing at all. As more are forced to stop in-person teaching, students will be sent back to their communities with COVID-19 in tow. “I expect this will blow up outbreaks in places that never had outbreaks, or in places that had outbreaks under control,” Murray says. Further spikes will likely occur after Thanksgiving and Christmas, as people who yearn to return to normal (or who think that the country overreacted) travel to see their family. Despite that risk, the CDC recently dropped its recommendation that out-of-state travelers should quarantine themselves for 14 days.

But many of the experts I spoke with thought it unlikely that “we’ll have cities going full New York,” as Bergstrom puts it. Doctors are getting better at treating the disease. States like Massachusetts, New York, and New Jersey have managed to avoid new surges over the summer, showing that local leadership can at least partly compensate for federal laxity. A new generation of cheap, rapid, paper-based tests will hit the market and make it easier to work out who is contagious. And despite the spiral of bad intuitions, many Americans are holding the line: Mask use and support for physical distancing are still high, according to Redbird, who has been tracking pandemic-related attitudes since March. “My feeling is that while things are going to get worse, I’m not sure they’ll be catastrophic, because of situational awareness,” Bill Hanage says.

Meanwhile, Trump seems to be teeing up a vaccine announcement in late October, shortly before the November 3 election. Moncef Slaoui, the scientific head of Operation Warp Speed, told NPR that it’s “extremely unlikely” a vaccine will be ready by then, and many scientists are concerned that the FDA will be pressured into approving a product that hasn’t been adequately tested, as Russia and China already have. Many Americans share this concern. A safe and effective vaccine could finally bring the pandemic under control, but its arrival will also test America’s ability to resist the intuitive errors that have trapped it so far. Vaccination has long been portrayed as the ultimate biomedical silver bullet, separating an era when masks and social distancing mattered from a world where normality has returned. This is yet another false dichotomy. “Everyone’s imagining this moment when all of a sudden, it’s all over, and they can go on vacation,” Natalie Dean says. “But the reality is going to be messier.”

This problem is not unique to COVID-19. It’s more compelling to hope that drug-resistant bacteria can be beaten with viruses than to stem the overuse of antibiotics, to hack the climate than to curb greenhouse-gas emissions, or to invest in a doomed oceanic plastic-catcher than to reduce the production of waste. Throughout its entire history, and more than any other nation, the U.S. has espoused “an almost blind faith in the power of technology as panacea,” writes the historian Howard Segal.* Instead of solving social problems, the U.S. uses techno-fixes to bypass them, plastering the wounds instead of removing the source of injury—and that’s if people even accept the solution on offer.

A third of Americans already say they would refuse a vaccine, whether because of existing anti-vaccine attitudes or more reasonable concerns about a rushed development process. Those who get the shot are unlikely to be fully protected; the FDA is prepared to approve a vaccine that’s at least 50 percent effective—a level comparable to current flu shots. An imperfect vaccine will still be useful. The risk is that the government goes all-in on this one theatrical countermeasure, without addressing the systemic problems that made the U.S. so vulnerable, or investing in the testing and tracing strategies that will still be necessary. “We’re still going to need those other things,” Dean says.

Between these reasons and the time needed for manufacturing and distribution, the pandemic is likely to drag on for months after a vaccine is approved. Already, the event is exacting a psychological toll that’s unlike the trauma of a hurricane or fire. “It’s not the type of disaster that Americans specifically are used to dealing with,” says Samantha Montano of Massachusetts Maritime Academy, who studies disasters. “Famines and complex humanitarian crises are closer approximations.” Health experts are burning outLong-haulers are struggling to find treatments or support. But many Americans are turning away from the pandemic. “People have stopped watching news about it as much, or talking to friends about it,” Redbird says. “I think we’re all exhausted.” Optimistically, this might mean that people are becoming less anxious and more resilient. More worryingly, it could also mean they are becoming inured to tragedy.

The most accurate model to date predicts that the U.S. will head into November with 220,000 confirmed deaths. More than 1,000 health-care workers have died. One in every 1,125 Black Americans has died, along with similarly disproportionate numbers of Indigenous people, Pacific Islanders, and Latinos. And yet, a recent poll found that 57 percent of Republican voters and 33 percent of independents think the number of deaths is acceptable. “In order for us to mobilize around a social problem, we all have to agree that it’s a problem,” Lori Peek says. “It’s shocking that we haven’t, because you really would have thought that with a pandemic it would be easy.” This is the final and perhaps most costly intuitive error …

9. The Habituation of Horror

The U.S. might stop treating the pandemic as the emergency that it is. Daily tragedy might become ambient noise. The desire for normality might render the unthinkable normal. Like poverty and racismschool shootings and police brutalitymass incarceration and sexual harassmentwidespread extinctions and changing climate, COVID-19 might become yet another unacceptable thing that America comes to accept.

 

 

 

 

Despite turbulence in H1, no avalanche of health systems downgrades

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“It’s new territory, which is why we’re taking that measured approach on rating actions,” Suzie Desai, senior director at S&P, said.

The healthcare sector has been bruised from the novel coronavirus and the effects are likely to linger for years, but the first half of 2020 has not resulted in an avalanche of hospital and health system downgrades.

At the outset of the pandemic, some hospitals warned of dire financial pressures as they burned through cash while revenue plunged. In response, the federal government unleashed $175 billion in bailout funds to help prop up the sector as providers battled the effects of the virus.

Still, across all of public finance — which includes hospitals — the second quarter saw downgrades outpacing upgrades for the first time since the second quarter of 2017.

S&P characterized the second quarter as a “historic low” for upgrades across its entire portfolio of public finance credits.

“While only partially driven by the coronavirus, the second quarter was the first since Q2 2017 with the number of downgrades surpassing upgrades and by the largest margin since Q3 2014,” according to a recent Moody’s Investors Service report.

Through the first six months of this year, Moody’s has recorded 164 downgrades throughout public finance and, more specifically, 27 downgrades among the nonprofit healthcare entities it rates.

By comparison, Fitch Ratings has recorded 14 nonprofit hospital and health system downgrades through July and just two upgrades, both of which occurred before COVID-19 hit.

“Is this a massive amount of rating changes? By no means,” Kevin Holloran, senior director of U.S. Public Finance for Fitch, said of the first half of 2020 for healthcare.

Also through July, S&P Global recorded 22 downgrades among nonprofit acute care hospitals and health systems, significantly outpacing the six healthcare upgrades recorded over the same period.

“It’s new territory, which is why we’re taking that measured approach on rating actions,” Suzie Desai, senior director at S&P, said.

Still, other parts of the economy lead healthcare in terms of downgrades. State and local governments and the housing sector are outpacing the healthcare sector in terms of downgrades, according to S&P.

Virus has not ‘wiped out the healthcare sector’

Earlier this year when the pandemic hit the U.S., some made dire predictions about the novel coronavirus and its potential effect on the healthcare sector.

Reports from the ratings agencies warned of the potential for rising covenant violations and an outlook for the second quarter that would result in the “worst on record, one Fitch analyst said during a webinar in May.

That was likely “too broad of a brushstroke,” Holloran said. “It has not come in and wiped out the healthcare sector,” he said. He attributes that in part to the billions in financial aid that the federal government earmarked for providers.

Though, what it has revealed is the gaps between the strongest and weakest systems, and that the disparities are only likely to widen, S&P analysts said during a recent webinar.

The nonprofit hospitals and health systems pegged with a downgrade have tended to be smaller in size in terms of scale, lower-rated already and light on cash, Holloran said.

Still, some of the larger health systems were downgraded in the first half of the year by either one of the three rating agencies, including Sutter Health, Bon Secours Mercy Health, Geisinger, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and Care New England.

“This is something that individual management of a hospital couldn’t control,” said Rick Gundling, senior vice president of Healthcare Financial Management Association, which has members from small and large organizations. “It wasn’t a bad strategy — that goes into a downgrade. This happened to everybody.”

Deteriorating payer mix

Looking forward, some analysts say they’re more concerned about the long-term effects for hospitals and health systems that were brought on by the downturn in the economy and the virus.

One major concern is the potential shift in payer mix for providers.

As millions of people lose their job they risk losing their employer-sponsored health insurance. They may transition to another private insurer, Medicaid or go uninsured.

For providers, commercial coverage typically reimburses at higher rates than government-sponsored coverage such as Medicare and Medicaid. Treating a greater share of privately insured patients is highly prized.

If providers experience a decline in the share of their privately insured patients and see a growth in patients covered with government-sponsored plans, it’s likely to put a squeeze on margins.

The shift also poses a serious strain for states, and ultimately providers. States are facing a potential influx of Medicaid members at the same time state budgets are under tremendous financial pressure. It raises concerns about whether states will cut rates to their Medicaid programs, which ultimately affects providers.

Some states have already started to re-examine and slash rates, including Ohio.

 

 

 

 

Unemployment Claims Are ‘Stubbornly High’ as Layoffs Persist

Rise in Unemployment Claims Signals an Economic Reversal - The New York  Times

Just over one million Americans filed new claims for state jobless benefits last week, the latest sign that the economy is losing momentum just as federal aid to the unemployed has been pulled away.

Weekly claims briefly dipped below the one million mark early this month, offering a glimmer of hope in an otherwise gloomy job market. But filings jumped to 1.1 million the next week, and stayed above one million last week, the Labor Department said Thursday.

“It’s devastating how stubbornly high initial claims are,” said Julia Pollak, a labor economist at the employment site ZipRecruiter. “There are still huge numbers of layoffs taking place.”

Another 608,000 people filed for benefits under the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, which offers aid to independent contractors, self-employed workers and others not covered by regular state programs. That number, unlike the figures for state claims, is not seasonally adjusted.

Other recent indicators also suggest that the recovery is faltering. Job growth slowed in July, and real-time data from private-sector sources suggests that hiring has slumped further in August. On Tuesday, American Airlines said it will furlough 19,000 workers on Oct. 1, the latest in a string of such announcements from major corporations.

“It is worrying because it does signal that these large companies are pessimistic about the state of the recovery and don’t think that we are going to be returning to normal anytime soon,” said Daniel Zhao, senior economist at the career site Glassdoor.

Unemployment filings have fallen sharply since early April, when 6.6 million applied for benefits in a single week. But even after that decline, weekly filings far exceed any previous period. Close to 30 million Americans are receiving benefits under various state and federal programs.

The rate of job losses remains high as government support for the unemployed is waning. A $600-a-week federal supplement to state unemployment benefits expired at the end of July, and efforts to replace it have stalled in Congress. President Trump announced this month that he was using his executive authority to give jobless workers an additional $300 or $400 a week, but few states have begun paying out the new benefit.

Economists warn that the loss of federal support could act as a brake on the recovery. Nancy Vanden Houten, lead economist for the forecasting firm Oxford Economics, estimated that the lapse in extra unemployment benefits would reduce household income by $45 billion in August. That could lead to a drop in consumer spending and further layoffs, she said.

The benefit initiated by Mr. Trump would use federal emergency funds to provide $300 a week in extra payments to most unemployed workers. (States can choose to chip in an additional $100 a week, but few are doing so.) As of Wednesday, 34 states had been approved for grants under the program, known as Lost Wages Assistance.

Arizona, the first state to turn the grants into payments, sent $252.6 million to about 400,000 recipients last week, a sum that included retroactive payments for the first two weeks of August. Texas this week has paid out $424 million and expects to deliver nearly $1 billion more to cover the first three weeks of benefits. A handful of other states are paying benefits or expect to begin doing so within days.

Most, however, said it could take until mid-September or later.

Once the money starts flowing, it may not last long. Mr. Trump’s order authorized spending up to $44 billion, which federal officials said last week would cover four or five weeks of payments. That means jobless workers in many states may receive a lump sum covering several weeks of retroactive benefits, but nothing more without congressional action.

A crowd thronged a temporary unemployment office in Kentucky in June. Adapting computer systems to new benefits has been a crucial factor in processing claims.

On the surface, the new lost wages program looks like the earlier $600-a-week federal supplement, just cut in half. But there are subtle differences: The program has a different funding source (the Federal Emergency Management Agency instead of the Labor Department) and new restrictions (people receiving less than $100 a week in regular benefits don’t qualify).

Those kinds of adjustments would be trivial on a modern computer system. But many state unemployment systems are running on computers that are anything but modern.

In Oklahoma, for example, the unemployment system uses a 40-year-old mainframe computer that turns even minor adjustments into a major programming task. As a result, even though the state was among the first to apply for the $300 benefit this month, it doesn’t expect to begin paying the new benefit until late September.

“The fact that I’m working with a mainframe from 1978 to process claims is just crippling to the agency,” said Shelley Zumwalt, interim executive director of the agency that oversees Oklahoma’s unemployment system. “We are just holding that system together with masking tape and chewing gum.”

When the pandemic hit, Arizona, too, was stuck with archaic computer systems. It built a new system virtually from scratch to begin paying out federally funded emergency benefits, and it was among the last states to do so.

But the approach left Arizona better able to handle curveballs like the new $300 benefit.

“Through that chaos, we created a pandemic unemployment system,” said Michael Wisehart, director of the Arizona Department of Economic Security.

Christy Miller says there are three things that shape her identity: making people laugh, making people strong and lifting heavy objects. She can’t do any of those right now, and she isn’t sure when she will be able to again.

Ms. Miller, 49, is a standup comedian in New York, where comedy clubs have been closed since March. She is also a personal trainer and an amateur power lifter — activities she has had to give up because gyms, too, remain closed in the city.

The $600-a-week supplement to her unemployment pay didn’t just allow her to pay rent and buy food. It also freed up the time and mental energy for her to learn video production, podcasting and other skills to help her survive the pandemic-driven shutdown of her industry.

“I would give up the $600 a week any day for this coronavirus to go away and get back to work,” she said. “But the $600 has allowed me not to be homeless, to learn more computer stuff that I never would have learned or had the time to learn.”

None of those ventures are producing much income yet, though. She saved as much of her unemployment benefits as she could, and has enough to cover rent through the end of the year. But other bills are another matter. And there is little guarantee that her business will bounce back before her savings run out.

“If they don’t fix this pandemic thing, I may have to leave New York because I can’t afford to stay here,” she said.

Kris Fusco is finally back at work. That doesn’t mean her coronavirus worries are behind her.

When Ms. Fusco’s employer — a small, family-owned business in Massachusetts that rents musical instruments to students — laid her off in March, she expected to be out of work for a couple of weeks. That got extended to April, then to June. Eventually one of the owners called her to tell her they didn’t know when they could reopen.

“I said, ‘You do what you need to do to keep your business afloat, and I’m just going to hold on as long as I can,’” she said. Fortunately, her employer called her back shortly after the $600 supplement expired. She returned to work last week, and, despite some nervousness about going into the office with the virus still spreading, she said she was grateful for the paycheck.

But Ms. Fusco, 50, doesn’t know how long her good fortune will last. With many schools still teaching remotely or canceling activities like band, she worries that her company’s business will suffer. Already, she has noticed a large number of instruments being returned.

“It’s very worrisome for me because I can see the snowball effect from Covid-19 all around me,” she said. “It’s always lurking right behind my eyeballs that in six months I might be out of a job again.”

 

 

 

Recovery Through Resilience: Considerations of Top CFOs

Recovery Through Resilience: Considerations of Top CFOs

Recovery Through Resilience: Considerations of Top CFOs - CFO

As the pandemic continues to cause global economic disparity, experts scramble to forecast economic recovery. While no one can predict with precision what lies ahead for the economy, CFOs’ expectations and actions can be a helpful barometer. On a recent Resilient Podcast episode, Mike Kearney, Deloitte Risk & Financial Advisory CMO, and I discussed CFOs’ expectations for the economy, how they are handling hiring and retention, and how they can position their companies for growth. Here are the top takeaways.

1. CFOs Remain on the Defensive

CFOs’ economic expectations have plummeted. Our Q2 CFO Signals Survey marked the lowest readings on business expectation metrics since the first survey 41 quarters ago. Just 1% of CFOs rated conditions in North America as good, compared with 80% in the first quarter. A separate poll of 118 Fortune 500 CFOs conducted at the end of June echoed the sentiments of our Q2 Signals Survey and found that most respondents expect slow to moderate recovery. Over half expect they will not reach pre-crisis operating levels until 2021 and with 17% expecting 2022 or later.

Right now, a foremost priority for resilient CFOs is to ensure enough cash and liquidity for their company to operate. The focus on cost reduction outweighed revenue growth for the first time in the history of the Signals survey. As such, CFOs are doubling down on investing cash rather than returning it to shareholders, staying in existing geographies rather than moving to new ones, and focusing on organic growth as opposed to inorganic growth like mergers and acquisitions.

 2. Navigating New Frontiers

Rest assured that the news isn’t all bad. The Q2 Signals Survey did find that 585 of CFOs see the North American economy rebounding a year from now. Notably, when asked whether they felt their company was in response or recovery mode, or already in a position to thrive, only about a quarter of CFOs said they were still responding to the pandemic. In fact, 37% of CFOs believe their companies are already in “thrive” mode. In the meantime, CFOs are reimagining company configurations, diversifying supply chains, and accelerating automation.

One obvious example of how CFOs are taking a resilient approach to navigate uncertainties is the widespread adoption of virtual work.

According to the Q2 Signals Survey, while just under half say they will resume on-site work as soon as governments allow it, about 70% of CFOs say those who can continue to work remotely will have the option of doing so. This will likely become a critical component to retaining top talent—a longtime concern for CFOs—particularly in a challenging economy. Resilient CFOs will continue to shift underlying business processes to accommodate routine remote work, including investing in new technologies for an efficient and effective virtual workforce, moving platforms to the cloud, and even adjusting internal control mechanisms to allow for off-site collaboration, budgeting, and financial planning.

3. The Role the CFO Can Play

Over the past decade or so, CFOs have evolved to become business strategists, but never has their role as stewards been more important as they grapple with how to navigate a business landscape that changes by the hour. In the coming months, CFOs should consider focusing on:

  • Revisiting their financing and liquidity strategies, centralizing cash release decisions with the treasurer, and leveraging tax planning to reduce cash outlays and preserve budget. Deliver a balance sheet with headroom, flexibility, and liquidity to take advantage of once-in-a-lifetime market opportunities that could present themselves.
  • Exploring different recovery scenarios, keeping an eye on important risk metrics that may signal a time to innovate. Evolve business models, processes, and technologies to maximize current performance and position companies to be able to seize new opportunities.
  • Keeping top talent by embracing a company’s best people, whether it is offering work-from-home capabilities, or nurturing followership through trust. Organizations that can retain their top people may be best positioned in recovery.

During recovery, a critical benchmark to track will be CFOs’ risk appetite. In the Q2 Signals Survey, the proportion of CFOs saying it is a good time to be taking greater risk plummeted to 27%. An upward tick of this finding may signal a greater focus on revenue growth, a willingness to expand into new markets, and an appetite for deal-making. Until then, by taking a resilient approach in the coming months, CFOs can position their companies for strong performance, future growth, and market-moving success as the economy starts to recover.

 

 

 

The Sudden Departures of CFOs

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The Sudden Departures of CFOs

Though critical to operations, chief financial officers are finding new roles or retiring at a blistering pace. What that means to firms.

Rewriting corporate budgets seemingly daily. Bargaining with banks over broken loan covenants. Answering constant calls from investors and board directors. And, in extreme cases, figuring out how to make payroll. All while working with no colleagues around. Is it any wonder now that so many chief financial officers have recently said, “It’s time to do something else”?

The number of CFOs—usually the second in command at a corporation—who are leaving their current job or looking for something new has surged over the summer. In just one week in early August, the high-profile CFOs at General Motors, Cisco Systems, and Avis Budget Group announced they were departing. According to one survey, 80 finance chiefs of S&P 500- or Fortune 500-listed firms left their positions through the start of August, compared with 84 at this point last year–a remarkable figure, experts say, because there was a period of about six weeks during the spring when there were almost no CFO changes.

It’s a trend that experts believe will likely continue as the pandemic continues to disrupt the finances of organizations in every industry everywhere. “This crisis will create a demand for radical, creative thinking that has often been lacking from finance leaders,” says Beau Lambert, a Korn Ferry senior client partner in the firm’s Financial Officers practice.

Experts attribute the surge in movement to a variety of reasons. Some CFOs, after helping their companies get through the period where lockdowns crippled revenues, have decided they’ve had enough. “They’re saying, ‘I have an amazing career—I’m taking the chips off the table and going home,’” Lambert says.

The lockdown period was a time when CFOs were working nonstop just to keep their organizations afloat, or if that was impossible, guide them into bankruptcy. Now these top finance leaders have had a chance to self-reflect, something they may have never done before because they’ve always been “knee-deep in the mess,” says Barry Toren, leader of Korn Ferry’s Financial Officers practice. The process has left some energized and looking for a new challenge at a different organization.

That recent career decision hasn’t always been in the CFO’s hands, however. Some company CEOs, recognizing that the financial road ahead is not going to look like it did before the pandemic, are looking for new financial talent they think is better suited to the task. “We see seasoned CFOs stepping down—of their own volition or otherwise—in order to allow a new, perhaps better-equipped, generation of finance leaders to navigate through the uncertain present and future,” says Katie Gleber, an associate in Korn Ferry’s Financial Officers practice.

Experts say the pandemic has accelerated some trends impacting CFOs that were already in place. Organizations were already looking for CFOs who could do more than just sit in the back office and handle the money. Modern-day CFOs need to be as well or more skilled in business partnering as they are in financial engineering, Lambert says. Today’s CFOs also need to have a much higher tolerance for ambiguity and the ability to inspire others.

One of the offshoots of the pandemic pushing millions to work remotely is that it has made it easier for CFOs to explore the job market. In the past, CFOs usually had to travel for a couple of days to their prospective employer to meet the senior leaders of the organization. Now, Toren says, those job-hunting CFOs can talk to CEOs and directors at two organizations in one day without leaving their house.