The Paris Attacks

Most of us watched news coverage of the multiple terrorist acts against the city of Paris, France, with a mixture of horror and dread. The horror was our usual response to terrorism, the feeling that arises when we ask ourselves: how can people think this way? And when we realize that, somehow, there ARE people who think that way, which is so far from our own reality, that the realization triggers deep emotions somewhere far on the opposite end of the spectrum from inspirational.

The dread, of course, comes from the realization that these attacks could have, and might still, happen here—that is, wherever we happen to be sitting, whatever concert venue or restaurant we might be planning to visit.

Hard on these emotions comes outrage, and that helps illustrate something that is seldom realized about terrorism. In a recently published book entitled The Better Angels of Our Nature, author Steven Pinker points out that terrorism is far from a new phenomenon. After the Roman conquest, resistance fighters in Judea—who called themselves zealots—would stab unguarded Roman officials whenever the opportunity arose. In the 11th century, Shia muslims launched furtive assassinations on officials who practiced a different version of their belief system. For 200 years, a cult in India strangled tens of thousands of people traveling through their country. The assassination of President William McKinley was executed by a particularly ugly breed of terrorist known at the time as anarchists. Most of us remember days when London and Belfast were routinely rocked by Irish Republican Army terror strikes, and in the U.S., the Weather Underground of the 1960s had a terrible habit of setting off explosives in public places.

The book lists many other instances of terrorist organizations, but all of them prove a point: eventually, each of these groups will go too far, provoke the consciousness of the general public in the wrong way, and turn sympathy to their cause into outrage. Pinker cites statistics that show that virtually zero terrorist organizations ever accomplish their aims, and they tend to die out after their most visible credibility-destroying “success.” One has only to think of the fate of Al Qaeda after 9/11 as an example of a terrorist organization whose relevance declined to near zero in the messy aftermath.

No doubt, the ISIS leaders who planned the attacks on Paris believed that this bloodletting would cause all Western nations to recoil in fear, and back off of their military efforts to contain the new caliphate so it wouldn’t strike again. You and I know that this is pure nonsense. The inevitable outcome will be a new resolve, a hardening, a coming-together of the Western nations in a display of solidarity with France. Countries that were inclined not to get involved in the Middle Eastern messiness are now motivated to sign on for an international military campaign that will contain and perhaps completely destroy ISIS. Leaders who feared that their citizens would revolt at the thought of military intervention can now count on the support of their outraged voters. The next year or two will almost certainly reveal the ISIS attacks on Paris to have been a fatal mistake for those who dream of an Islamic, Sharia-governed caliphate in Syria and Iraq.

Today, you will see the world’s investment markets open lower, and probably close lower, as the horror of the events in Paris are translated into uncertainty about the world we live in—and, therefore, the safety of our assets, reflected in our stocks. The markets always respond reflexively and negatively to threats to our safety.

But as the year proceeds through its last few weeks, the smart money always tells us that these downturns are temporary. Fears that global enterprises are somehow worth less because blood was spilled overseas will prove to be overblown. More importantly, after the events in Paris, the object of our horror and fear—the terrorist organization known as ISIS—is about to confront an opponent more powerful than its leaders have the ability to imagine: the resolve of the Western nations. At the same time, it will have to endure the disgust and repudiation of moderate members of the muslim faith, in the Middle East and elsewhere.

The world changed over the weekend, but not in a way that affects the value of your investments. The change will be felt most powerfully in the failed dreams of a caliphate whose leaders have made a grave and awful miscalculation, who are destined to pay dearly for their malicious stupidity.

TheMoneyGeek thanks guest writer Bob Veres for writing this post

Towards Better Social Security Income Planning

As you approach your social security retirement age, your thoughts turn to deciding when you should begin receiving social security benefits. With over 2,700 rules in the social security manual, you’d be forgiven (and, for that matter, so would most social security case workers) for being bewildered and confused about all of the options available to claim social security. In this article, I attempt to distill the most frequently asked questions and help reduce confusion about claiming social security benefits (SSB).

The crux of this article is to discuss the advantages of planning the payout of your (or your spouse’s) benefits to maximize your ultimate financial payoff. Coordinating your benefits with your spouse’s benefits introduces complexities that must be understood to maximize your overall benefits. Combined with the ability to file for benefits, then suspend them or filing for benefits using your ex-spouse’s earnings records, planning for social security benefits can be quite complex.

I realize that, as a financial planner, it’s somewhat self-serving to say that each person’s situation is unique and requires a personalized and thorough analysis of the facts and circumstances to determine the optimal timeframe to claim SSB. Nonetheless, no article, however detailed, can take into account all individual situations.

Note that this article doesn’t attempt to discuss the viability of the social security system or whether benefits will be available in the future (I believe that they will be, perhaps on a somewhat reduced basis).

Social Security Basics

In general, if you’ve worked and sufficiently paid into the social security system for at least 40 quarters of work in your lifetime, you probably have some SSB coming to you when you retire. Calculation of the level of your benefit is quite complicated, but mostly affected by your lifetime earnings.

Even if you’ve never worked a day in your life, your spouse’s (or ex-spouse’s) earnings and qualifications may be your “ticket” to qualify for benefits. If you’ve earned little money in your lifetime (as is the case for a stay-at-home spouse), you can often qualify for a much higher benefit if you file based on your spouse’s (or ex-spouse’s) earnings.

There are three dates in which to begin drawing social security: early retirement age (ERA), full retirement age (FRA) and deferred retirement age (DRA), each one being a later date in life than the previous. Your ERA and FRA vary depending on your birthday, and are generally higher for younger retirees (for anyone born after 1959, their FRA is 67).  For general discussion purposes, let’s assume that age 62, 67, and 70 are the ERA, FRA, and DRA respectively.

Deferring the date that you begin receiving benefits obviously means that you (and your spouse) may receive higher benefits per month until your date of death. Currently, less than 50% of filers wait until their FRA to claim benefits, and less than 6% wait until their DRA to claim benefits, despite the much higher DRA benefit (about 75% higher). The DRA benefit is generally about 30% higher than the FRA benefit. Reasons people cite for not deferring benefits include financial need, bad health, fear of social security insolvency, dying early, or plain ignorance about the overall benefits of waiting.

Once you begin receiving benefits, you may have options to suspend them within 12 months of starting them to qualify for a higher later benefit. This mostly involves repaying all of the benefits received. As more fully described below, there may be circumstances where you might want to file for SSB and immediately suspend them at FRA (without receiving payments) to allow your spouse to receive a higher (spousal) benefit or to receive a higher benefit at DRA.

Deferring Benefits

In general, deferring SSB as long as possible makes a lot of sense if you can afford to do so. The significant increase in benefits is primarily due to the additional years of compounding that occurs when you defer benefits.

At its very core, social security is exactly like taking the sums that you contributed into the system over your working years and continuing to invest it. Just like any investment, the primary factors that affect the payout are the length of time for compounding and the rate of return applied. The longer you wait for benefits, the larger the invested sum grows.

Making a decision to begin or defer benefits is an exercise in making a best guess on how long you (and your spouse if you’re married) will live. “Gaming” social security is about maximizing the benefits you collect over your lifetime. Deciding to defer social security until age 70 is a losing proposition if you’re in bad health and don’t have much of a chance to make it to or much past that age. Conversely, if you’re healthy and your family has a past history of living well into their nineties, deferring benefits may or may not lead to a higher overall lifetime payout. Obviously, the “game” ends when you die, since your benefits cease then. So just like investing, the outcome of the decision to defer isn’t known until the investing and disbursement period is over.

Essential Rules/Facts

Given the forgoing background, here are some of the essential rules/facts to know about filing for SSB and some potential tax planning points:

1.    At full retirement age (FRA), one may receive the higher of their own retirement benefit or a spousal benefit equal to 50% of their spouse’s retirement benefit.  Many do not realize that in order to claim that spousal benefit, the spouse on whose record the 50% payment is based must be receiving or have filed for (and perhaps suspended) retirement benefits.

2.    If a worker starts benefits prior to his/her FRA, and his/her spouse is receiving retirement benefits, the worker does not get to choose between their retirement benefit and a spousal benefit. They are automatically deemed to have begun their retirement benefit, and if their spouse is receiving retirement benefits, a supplement is added to reach the spousal benefit amount.  All this is reduced for starting early. The total will be less than half the normal retirement benefit.If you start your retirement early and your spouse has not claimed or suspended his/her retirement benefit, you cannot get a spousal supplement until they do file.

3.    A person needs to have been married to an ex-spouse for at least ten years immediately before a divorce is final, in order to be eligible to receive a spousal benefit based on a former spouse’s record. The ex-spouse need not approve this and may never know this is the benefit being claimed.If you marry again, you are no longer eligible for a spousal benefit on your ex’s record and a new 10-year clock starts on the marriage to your new spouse. If you are over 60 when you get married again, you will still be able to claim survivor benefits on your ex.

4.    If you take your retirement early, it not only reduces your retirement benefits, benefits for your survivor (if any) are also based on that permanently reduced amount.

5.    If you have claimed your retirement benefit early, when you reach your FRA, if your spouse then files for his/her retirement and you want to switch to a spousal benefit, you will not get 50 percent. The formula is (A-B) + C where A= ½ the worker’s Primary Insurance Amount (PIA, their benefit at their FRA), B= 100 percent of the spouse’s PIA, and C= the spouse’s EARLY retirement benefit. Since starting early means C is less than B, the total is less than 50%.  One only gets half their spouse’s benefit if the spousal benefit is claimed at FRA.

6.    Spousal benefits do not receive delayed credits. In other words, if taking the spousal benefit is good for a couple, delaying the claim for spousal benefits past the recipient’s FRA has no additional benefit.  The same applies for widow/widower benefits. They can be started early but there is no benefit to delaying past FRA as no delayed credits apply. Before a worker dies, delaying does increase the potential survivor’s benefit.

7.    Taxpayers whose income is low can find that some forms of tax planning can result in higher than expected taxation. Many retirees will make distributions from IRAs or qualified retirement plans prior to age 70½ to have a low tax rate applied. Roth conversions are often done for the same reason. A relatively small amount of taxable income can cause up to 85% of Social Security payments to become taxable.

8.    Because the income thresholds that determine how much of one’s Social Security is taxable are not indexed for inflation, over time, more and more of the benefits can become taxable.

9.    New this year, an increase in taxable income as just described can also cause a reduction or elimination of subsidies available to lower income households under the new health insurance law. Social Security payments, even the tax-exempt portions, are included in this evaluation. Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is excluded.

10.    With today’s mobile workforce, it is not unusual to find some taxpayers that worked at a job and earned a pension benefit but were not subject to withholding for Social Security taxes and another job that was subject to Social Security taxes. Many such folks are unpleasantly surprised that their Social Security benefits may be reduced due to the Windfall Elimination Provision.

11.    If you “file and suspend” for SSB, Medicare premiums cannot be paid automatically from Social Security income and must be paid directly to the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS). Affected taxpayers should be sure to get billed properly by CMS. If it is not paid timely, you can lose your Medicare Part B coverage.

12.    When collecting retirement benefits, increases in Medicare Part B premiums are capped to the same rate of increase of the retirement benefits under a “hold harmless” provision.  This is tied to actual receipts so while delaying past your FRA earns delayed credits, there is no cap on the Medicare increases. Worse yet, the uncapped increase is locked into every future premium. This hold harmless quirk is not relevant to high income taxpayers. Hold harmless does not apply to high income taxpayers paying income-related Medicare B premiums.

13.    Because it used to be allowable to pay back all of your retirement benefits and start over, many people think that they can change their minds about starting SSB early. Withdrawing your claim this way basically erased the claim as though it never happened and future benefits would therefore be higher. Today, if you regret your choice, you can only withdraw your claim and pay back benefits within 12 months of your early start. After 12 months, you are stuck with your choice until your FRA, at which point you can suspend and earn delayed credits up to age 70. The credits are applied to your reduced benefit.

Some Strategies and Conclusion

Here are some final considerations to make when deciding to file a claim for SSB (by necessity, these are generalities that must take into account each individual’s/couple’s facts and circumstances):

•    Assess your own life expectancy, and, if married, your joint life expectancy.
•    If married, and either spouse is healthy, delay the higher earner’s benefits as long as possible.
•    If married and one spouse is unhealthy, get the lower payout as soon as possible.
•    Supplement benefits with spousal amounts, if within FRA.

As mentioned above, the decision of when to file for social security benefits can become very complex and requires assessment of many factors. Since the determination can involve differences of thousands of dollars per person, per year, it’s worthwhile to carefully assess and model all of the facts and circumstances before starting benefits.  Even though a total SSB re-do is no longer available, there are some options still available to modify benefit payouts.

It may be tempting or convenient to utilize a simplified web-based social security calculator to help you make an estimate, but be wary of any program that doesn’t model multiple scenarios or doesn’t require entry of many variables that may ultimately affect your optimum benefit. In the end, there’s no perfect answer, but perhaps a “best fit” for your situation is good enough.

If you have any questions about social security planning or any other financial planning matter, please don’t hesitate to contact me or visit our website at http://www.ydfs.com. We are a fee-only fiduciary financial planning firm that always puts your interests first.

Evidence for Time Diversification

One area where many professional advisors disagree with academics is whether stock investments tend to become less risky as you go out in time. Advisors say that the longer you hold stocks, the more the ups and downs tend to cancel each other out, so you end up with a smaller band of outcomes than you get in any one, two or five year period. Academics beg to disagree. They have argued that, just as it is possible to flip a coin and get 20 consecutive “heads” or “tails,” so too can an unlucky investor get a 20-year sequence of returns that crams together a series of difficult years into one unending parade of losses, something like 1917 (-18.62%), 2000 (-9.1%), 1907 (-24.21%), 2008 (-37.22%), 1876 (-14.15%), 1941 (-9.09%), 1974 (-26.95%), 1946 (-12.05%), 2002 (-22.27%), 1931 (-44.20%), 1940 (-8.91%), 1884 (-12.32%), 1920 (-13.95%), 1973 (-15.03%), 1903 (-17.09%), 1966 (-10.36%), 1930 (-22.72%), 2001 (-11.98%), 1893 (-18.79%), and 1957 (-9.30%).

Based purely on U.S. data, the professional advisors seem to be getting the better of the debate, as you can see in the below chart, which shows rolling returns from 1973 through mid-2009.

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The outcomes in any one year have been frighteningly hard to predict, ranging anywhere from a 60% gain to a 40% loss. But if you hold that stock portfolio for three years, the best and worst are less dramatic than the best and worst returns over one year, and the returns are flattening out gradually over 10, 15 and 20 years. No 20-year time period in this study showed a negative annual rate of return.

But this is a fairly limited data set. What happens if you look at other countries and extend this research over longer time periods? This is exactly what David Blanchett at Morningstar, Michael Finke at Texas Tech University and Wade Pfau at the American College did in a new paper, as yet unpublished, which you can find here:
http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2320828.

The authors examined real (inflation-adjusted) historical return patterns for stocks, bonds and cash in 20 industrialized countries, each over a 113-year time period. The sample size thus represents 2,260 return years, and the authors parsed the data by individual time periods and a variety of rolling time periods, which certainly expands the sample size beyond 87 years of U.S. market behavior.

What did they find? Looking at investors with different propensities for risk, they found that in general, people experienced less risk holding more stocks over longer time periods. The only exceptions were short periods of time for investors in Italy and Australia. The effect of time-dampened returns was particularly robust in the United Kingdom, Japan, Denmark, Austria, New Zealand, South Africa and the U.S.

Overall, the authors found that a timid investor with a long-term time horizon should increase his/her equity allocation by about 2.7% for each year of that time horizon, from whatever the optimal allocation would have been for one year. The adventurous investor with low risk aversion should raise equity allocation by 1.3% a year. If that sounds backwards, consider that the timid investor started out with a much lower stock allocation than the dare-devil investor–what the authors call the “intercept” of the Y axis where the slope begins.

Does that mean that returns in the future are guaranteed to follow this pattern? Of course not. But there seems to be some mechanism that brings security prices back to some kind of “normal” long-term return. It could be explained by the fact that investors tend to be more risk-averse when valuations (represented by the P/E ratios) are most attractive (when stocks, in other words, are on sale, but investors are smarting from recent market losses), and most tolerant of risk during the later stages of bull markets (when people are sitting on significant gains). In other words, market sentiment seems to view the future opportunity backwards.

Is it possible that stocks are not really fairly priced at all times, but instead are constantly fluctuating above and below some hard-to-discern “true” or “intrinsic” value, which is rising far more steadily below the waves? That underlying growth would represent the long-term geometric investment return, more or less–or, at least, it might have a relationship with it that is not well-explored. The old saw that stocks eventually return to their real values, that the market, long-term, is a weighing machine, might be valid after all.

If you have any questions about financial or investment planning and management, please don’t hesitate to contact us or visit our website at http://www.ydfs.com. We are a fee-only fiduciary financial planning firm that always puts your interests first.

Should You Consider a Health Savings Account?

As health care costs continue to rise, consumers must find ways to ensure that they have the funds to pay for medical expenses not covered through their insurance. One way to save specifically for health care costs is to fund a health savings account, or HSA.

HSAs are tax-advantaged savings accounts set up in conjunction with high-deductible health insurance policies. Enrollees or their employers make tax-free (pre-tax) contributions to an HSA and typically use the funds to pay for qualified medical care until they reach their policy’s deductible. The contribution made to the health savings plan is made in addition to your health insurance premium.

HSAs are not for everyone, and it is important to understand how they work before considering them to help fund health care costs.

Understanding HSAs

You are eligible for an HSA if you meet all four of the following qualifying criteria:

  1. You are enrolled in a qualified high-deductible health insurance plan (known as an “HDHP”).
  2. You are not covered by any additional health plan(s).
  3. You are not eligible for Medicare benefits.
  4. You are not a dependent of another person for tax purposes.

HSAs are generally available through insurance companies that offer HDHPs. Many employer-sponsored health care plans also offer HSA options. Although most major insurance companies and large employers now offer an HSA option under their health plan, it’s important to remember that most health insurance policies are not considered HSA-qualified HDHPs, so you should check with your insurance company or employer to see how an HSA plan might differ from your current plan.

There are maximum contribution limits that are adjusted annually. Contributions are made on a before-tax basis, meaning they reduce your taxable income. Note that unlike IRAs and certain other tax-deferred investment vehicles, no income limits apply to HSAs.

HSAs offer investment options that differ from plan to plan, depending upon the provider, and allow users to carry account balances over from year to year. Earnings on HSAs are not subject to income taxes.

Any medical, dental, or ordinary health care expense that would qualify as a tax-deductible item under IRS rules can be covered by an HSA. A doctor’s bill, dental procedure, and most prescriptions are examples of covered items. See IRS Publication 502 for a definitive guide of covered costs. If funds are withdrawn for any purposes other than qualifying health care expenses, you will be required to pay ordinary income taxes on amounts withdrawn plus a 10% additional federal tax.

Here are some pros and cons of this product.

Pros

  • HSAs offer a significant annual tax deduction, making them particularly appealing to individuals in higher tax brackets.
  • Withdrawals for qualifying health care costs (including long-term care insurance) are tax free.
  • Investment income in HSAs also accumulates tax free.

Cons

  • Since HSAs must be tied to HDHPs, their ultimate savings must be weighed against how such plans stack up against more traditional plans, which may offer significantly better coverage.
  • HSAs may not offer the flexibility and portability that today’s mobile American family requires, especially given that health plan offerings differ significantly from employer to employer, and many smaller institutions have yet to offer an HSA option.
  • For more information on HSAs, see the U.S. Treasury’s Health Savings Account resource page.

If you have any questions about Health Savings Accounts or any other financial planning matters, please don’t hesitate to contact us or visit http://www.ydfs.com

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