Month: September 2018

Mortgage Rates Soar to 7-year High

Five consecutive weeks of increases pushed mortgage rates to their highest level since April 2011.

According to the latest data released Thursday by Freddie Mac, the 30-year fixed-rate average climbed to 4.72 percent with an average 0.5 point. (Points are fees paid to a lender equal to 1 percent of the loan amount.) It was 4.65 percent a week ago and 3.83 percent a year ago.

The 15-year fixed-rate average jumped to 4.16 percent with an average 0.5 point. It was 4.11 percent a week ago and 3.13 percent a year ago. The five-year adjustable rate average rose to 3.97 percent with an average 0.3 point. It was 3.92 percent a week ago and 3.20 percent a year ago.

“The robust economy, rising Treasury yields and the anticipation of more short-term rate hikes caused mortgage rates to move up,” Sam Khater, Freddie Mac’s chief economist, said in a statement.

Although the Federal Reserve raised its benchmark rate Wednesday, the news came too late in the week to be factored into Freddie Mac’s survey. Freddie Mac, the government-allied mortgage-backer, aggregates rates weekly from 125 lenders from across the country to compile national average mortgage rates.

Meanwhile, mortgage applications picked up again this week, according to the latest data from the Mortgage Bankers Association. The market composite index – a measure of total loan application volume – increased 2.9 percent from a week earlier. The refinance index rose 3 percent from the previous week, while the purchase index also grew 3 percent.

The refinance share of mortgage activity accounted for 39.4 percent of all applications.

Tax Foundation Ranks Wisconsin 32nd for Business Tax Climate

A new report from the Tax Foundation ranks Wisconsin 32nd in the nation for state business tax climate, an improvement of three spots from last year but also a return to the state’s ranking in 2016.

Jared Walczak, the report’s lead author, said Wisconsin’s improvement was primarily the result of changes by other states. He added that over the last five to ten years the state has seen a reduced reliance on property taxes and “a modest improvement” in its ranking.

The report from the Washington D.C.-based nonprofit seeks to measure how effectively a state raises revenue using 100 different variables. It evaluates a state’s taxation in five major areas based on each area’s variability compared to the national average.

Wisconsin performed best on the sales tax portion of the index, ranking 8th in the country. The index rewards states that allow exclusions for business inputs and have low general rates and a broad base. The report included Wisconsin among the state’s as having “well-structured sales taxes and modest excise tax rates.”

The property tax component takes into account property tax rates using U.S. Census data and each state’s tax base. The rates component includes per capita collections, property tax collections as a percent of personal income and capital stock taxes. The base element includes variables on whether a state levies inheritance, estate, gift, inventory, or intangible property taxes. Wisconsin ranks 21st on the property tax measure.

Wisconsin ranks 35th in the country on the corporate tax rate component. The index penalizes states that have high or complex rate systems and those that rely on business tax credits.

Wisconsin ranks 39th on individual income tax, in the largest component of the index. States with no income tax generally receive a perfect score while the report also rewards those with flat, low-tax systems with few deductions or exemptions. Complex, multi-rate systems typically score lower.

The smallest component of the index is unemployment insurance tax, where Wisconsin ranks 41st.

The top ranked business tax states overall include Wyoming, Alaska, South Dakota, Montana and Florida. The worst are Arkansas, Connecticut, New York, California and New Jersey.

Among neighboring states, only Michigan outranks Wisconsin at 13th. Illinois is 36th, Minnesota is 43rd and Iowa is 45th.


FBI: Hackers Target HR, Payroll in Phishing Scam

Cybercriminals posing as HR staff have set their sights on a new target: online payroll accounts, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) warned.

Hackers are attempting to dupe unsuspecting employees into giving up their payroll information, such as their bank account number and passcode, through a phishing scam, authorities from the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) said.

The phishing scam starts off as an email from HR personnel asking the account owner to update or verify their direct deposit credentials.

The fake message prompts the account owner to click on a link to a dummy website – presumably a mock-up of a company’s employee portal – where the account owner will be forced to enter their username and password.

“Once the cybercriminal has obtained an employee’s credentials, the credentials are used to access the employee’s payroll account in order to change their bank account information,” the FBI said

Cybercriminals take the extra step of locking out employees from their own account.

“Rules are added by the cybercriminal to the employee’s account preventing the employee from receiving alerts regarding direct deposit changes,” investigators said. “Direct deposits are then changed and redirected to an account controlled by the cybercriminal, which is often a prepaid card.”

The FBI is urging HR personnel to alert their workforce to the phishing scam. Employees should also refrain from supplying account details in response to email prompts, and should set up two-factor authentication on their account.

Authorities said employees from the education, health care, and transport sectors have been affected.

Wisconsin Ranks Among Top U.S. States for Health Care Access and Patient Safety

Today, the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) issued its State Snapshots ranking, naming Wisconsin fourth in the nation for highest overall health care quality among all 50 states – and Wisconsin ranks first in the Midwest.

AHRQ’s State  Snapshots web tool helps state health leaders, researchers, consumers, and others understand the status of health care quality in states, including each state’s strengths. The AHRQ uses more than 120 statistical measures to evaluate health care performance across care settings, including access to care and patient safety. AHRQ began issuing its State Snapshots in 2006, and Wisconsin has consistently ranked in the top four states in 10 of 12 years (AHRQ did not issue a report in 2012) – and was ranked first in the nation in 2006, 2008, and 2017. Wisconsin was ranked second in the U.S. in 2007, 2009, 2011, and 2015.

“Providers, administrators, patients, and families are working together in effective partnerships, across care settings locally and regionally – and that shows,” said WHA President and CEO Eric Borgerding. “Wisconsin is a national leader and is known for its high quality, high-value health care. These rankings reflect not only outstanding performance today, but more importantly, a trend spanning over a decade demonstrating a sustained commitment to affordable, accessible, quality health care that our members deliver each and every day.”

Earlier this year, the federal Health Resources and Services Administration announced that Wisconsin’s Critical Access Hospitals were named fourth in the nation, according to the Medicare Beneficiary Quality Improvement Program. The program ranks states based on quality data reporting and performance. A Critical Access Hospital (CAH) is often located in a rural part of the state, and it provides short-term hospital stays when someone has a severe injury or illness, an urgent medical condition, or is recovering from surgery. CAHs help provide essential health care services locally, particularly in areas of the state where the next town may be 35 miles or so away.

New Federal Law Puts Credit Freeze Fees on Ice

Good news for anyone looking to lock down their credit to protect their identities: starting today, a new federal law makes all credit freezes free and extends fraud alerts from 90 days to one year.

“A freeze on your credit account is one of the strongest tools we have to protect against financial identity theft,” said Michelle Reinen, Director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection with the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP).

“We hope all Wisconsin consumers consider taking the time to lock down their accounts.”
To simplify the process of establishing these protections, each of the three major credit bureaus
– TransUnion, Equifax, and Experian – were required to create a webpage for requesting fraud
alerts and credit freezes.

The law will provide a number of services including:

Free account freezes: Placing a credit freeze with the major credit bureaus restricts most access to your credit file, locking out identity thieves who may try to open new accounts in your name. You will receive a PIN number when you place the freeze and it will remain in place until you lift it. Before this new law was signed, freezing an account with a credit bureau required fees that varied by state, plus an additional fee to unfreeze an account.

Free account freezes for minors: The new law will also allow parents and legal guardians nationwide to freeze the credit file for a child under age 16. Prior to the new federal law, Wisconsin had a law to allow guardians to create and immediately freeze a credit report for minors.

Extended fraud alerts: For consumers who want to protect their credit histories without completely locking down the account, a fraud alert is a special message on a credit file that states the consumer is or may be a potential identity theft victim. It requires businesses to take extra steps to verify the identity of an applicant before issuing lines of credit or service. Fraud alerts will be extended to a year (from 90 days) and remain free to place.

Credit monitoring for military members: Within one year, the credit reporting agencies must offer free electronic credit monitoring to all active duty military members.



Federal Tax Threatens to Remove $30 Million from BadgerCare Plus; AG Schimel Files New Lawsuit Seeking a Restraining Order Against Trump Administration

Yesterday, Attorney General Brad Schimel announced that the Wisconsin Department of Justice (DOJ) has filed a new lawsuit, along with a motion for a temporary restraining order,  to prevent President Trump’s Administration from taking more than $30 million from the Wisconsin Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program (also known together as BadgerCare Plus). The filing is joined by Texas, Louisiana, Indiana, Kansas, and Nebraska.

“On behalf of Wisconsin, I will continue to fight to protect our healthcare dollars,” said Attorney General Schimel. “Our healthcare programs should not be overburdened with this illegal tax that threatens Wisconsin’s ability to care for those who need medical services the most.”

Wisconsin’s new lawsuit relates to the Health Insurance Providers Fee (“HIP Fee”), which is a tax imposed as part of the Affordable Care Act. Congress specifically exempted the states from paying the tax, yet the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) have imposed the tax in such a way as to illegally require the states to pay it.

In 2016, Attorney General Schimel and five other states successfully sued to strike down a rule that allowed the HIP fee to be imposed upon the states. As a result of that ruling, the U.S. District Court recently ordered the federal government to repay $89 million to Wisconsin as a result of the HIP Fee imposed in years 2014, 2015, and 2016. Congress imposed a moratorium on the fee for 2017.

Despite this ruling, the IRS and HHS seeks to impose the tax again in 2018. For Wisconsin, the tax is due on September 25, 2018, and amounts to more than $30 million.


US, China Tariffs May Become the ‘New Normal’

The path to peace in a trade war between the United States and China is getting harder to find as the world’s two biggest economies pile ever more taxes on each other’s products.

The United States is scheduled to slap tariffs on $200 billion in Chinese imports Monday, adding to the more than $50 billion worth that already face U.S. import taxes. China has vowed to counterpunch with tariffs on $60 billion in U.S. goods.

President Donald Trump is ready to up the ante, threatening to tax just about everything China ships to the United States.

The Americans and Chinese haven’t held high-level talks since June, raising doubts about whether a resolution can be reached anytime soon.

“Both sides believe they can outlast the other, fearing any conciliatory move will be viewed as weakness and reduce negotiating leverage,” said Wendy Cutler, a former U.S. trade negotiator who is a vice president at the Asia Society Policy Institute.

The tariff exchange is creating casualties in the United States. Companies that import Chinese materials and parts are facing higher prices. So are the consumers who buy everything from burglar alarms to baseball gloves. U.S. farmers are being hurt by China’s retaliatory tariffs on soybeans and other agricultural products.

The administration says its demands are clear: Stop stealing trade secrets. Stop coercing technology transfers. Stop favoring Chinese companies over U.S. and other foreign competitors.

But China’s leaders have ambitious plans to turn their country from the world’s low-cost manufacturer into a technological power in fields from robotics to quantum computing. They are likely to balk at meeting any U.S. demands that would slow the high-tech drive.

National Report: Half of Wisconsin’s Major Roads are in Poor or Mediocre Condition

Half of Wisconsin’s major roads are in poor or mediocre shape, with Madison, Milwaukee and Wausau roads in the worst condition, according to a national report released Tuesday.

The report, “Wisconsin Transportation by the Numbers” was compiled by TRIP, a national nonprofit transportation research group funded by a variety of road-building business interests, including equipment manufacturers, distributors, suppliers, transit engineers and labor unions.

The group used 2016 data the state Department of Transportation provides annually to the Federal Highway Administration in its analysis of road and pavement conditions.

According to that data, 55 percent of Wisconsin’s major locally and state-maintained roads have pavement that is in poor condition and 19 percent in mediocre condition. Milwaukee fares the worst, with poorly rated pavement on 54 percent of the city’s major roads. In Madison, 49 percent of roads have pavement in poor condition, according to federal highway data cited in the report.

The report blames “inadequate state and local funding” for worsening conditions and estimates that drivers in some Wisconsin cities spend nearly $1,000 a year on repairs due to driving their vehicles on deteriorating roads.

“This is yet another report confirming the poor condition of Wisconsin’s roads and the impact on motorists. While people may immediately think about the muffler they had to replace, this report shows that safety and congestion concerns make up a considerable portion of the cost of driving on deficient roads,” said Craig Thompson, executive director of the Wisconsin Transportation Development Association, which has lobbied for more state road funding.

Scott Walker, Tony Evers Tout Budget Proposals in Midst of Campaign

Gov. Scott Walker and his Democratic challenger Tony Evers are touting proposals for the next state budget in their hotly contested race for governor, trying to score points by highlighting measures that would dramatically increase funding for schools and cut taxes.

Walker revealed details Monday for $200 million in tax relief he wants to enact over the next two years, while Evers is calling for a staggering $1.4 billion more for public schools. Neither proposal will be voted on by the Legislature until sometime next year, long after the November election.

Monday was the deadline for state agencies to submit their requests to Walker’s administration for funding, giving Walker and Evers a chance to spell out their spending priorities.

Whoever is elected governor in November will use those requests as the starting point for submitting a budget plan to the Legislature in early 2019. The Legislature then takes months rewriting the budget in the face of a July 1 deadline to pass a two-year spending plan.

Governor Announces $4 Million in New Direct Assistance Available to Businesses, Homeowners Impacted by Flooding

Wisconsin homeowners and businesses impacted by the recent flooding will be eligible for financial assistance for repair, cleanup and other costs under two new programs that will provide up to $4 million in funding, Governor Scott Walker announced today.

The Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority (WHEDA) is launching a new $2 million Flood Relief Loan program that will provide no-interest loans of up to $10,000 for repairing homes damaged by flooding.

The Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC), in conjunction with its regional partners, is unveiling a $2 million Disaster Recovery Microloan Program aimed at small businesses that will provide an immediate source of funds for necessary restoration work and related expenses.

The two programs are being announced as businesses and homes in 21 counties were damaged last month after heavy rains caused widespread flooding. More than 4,300 homes and 140 businesses have sustained more than $150 million in damage, according to preliminary estimates from Wisconsin Emergency Management.

Homeowners interested in applying for a WHEDA Flood Relief Loan can call 1-800-562-5546. For more information about the WEDC small business microloan program, visit