Tax Reform or Accountant’s Re-employment Act?

For as long as I can remember, tax reduction and simplification have been on the table for congress and past presidents. So why not President Trump? File your next tax return on a postcard (not likely)? I might be a bit cynical, but the only result of the next tax act I see will be extending my employment as a tax planner and preparer for the foreseeable future.

I sincerely doubt I’ll see significant tax simplification in my lifetime, so my fellow CPA’s and Turbotax employees can probably breathe a sigh of relief-their jobs are likely safe for years to come.

You can be forgiven if you’re skeptical that Congress will be able to completely overhaul our tax system after multiple failures to overhaul our health care system, but professional advisors are studying the newly-released nine-page proposal closely nonetheless. We only have the bare outlines of what the initial plan might look like before it goes through the Congressional sausage grinder:

First, we would see the current seven tax brackets for individuals reduced to three — a 12% rate for lower-income people (up from 10% currently), 25% in the middle and a top bracket of 35%. The proposal doesn’t include the income “cutoffs” for the three brackets, but if they end up as suggested in President Trump’s tax plan from the campaign, the 25% rate would start at $75,000 (for married couples–currently $75,900), and joint filers would start paying 35% at $225,000 of income (currently $416,700).

The dreaded alternative minimum tax, which was created to ensure that upper-income Americans would not be able to finesse away their tax obligations altogether, would be eliminated under the proposal. But there is a mysterious notation that Congress might impose an additional rate for the highest-income taxpayers, to ensure that wealthier Americans don’t contribute a lower share than they pay today.

The initial proposal would nearly double the standard deduction to $12,000 for individuals and $24,000 for married couples, and increase the child tax credit, now set at $1,000 per child under age 17. (No actual figure was given.)

At the same time, the new tax plan promises to eliminate many itemized deductions, without telling us which ones other than a promise to keep deductions for home mortgage interest and charitable contributions. The plan mentions tax benefits that would encourage work, higher education and retirement savings, but gives no details of what might change in these areas.

The most interesting part of the proposal is a full repeal of the estate tax and generation-skipping estate tax, which affects only a small percentage of the population but results in an enormous amount of planning and calculations for those who ARE affected. Anyone with enough money to be subject to the estate tax, has probably paid lawyers and accountants enough for planning to avoid paying a single dollar of it.

The plan would also limit the maximum tax rate for pass-through business entities like partnerships and limited liability companies (LLC’s) to 25%, which might allow high-income business owners to take their gains through the entity, rather than as personal (1040) income and avoid the highest personal tax brackets.

Finally, the tax plan would lower America’s maximum corporate (C-Corporation) tax rate from the current 35% to 20%. To encourage companies to repatriate profits held overseas, the proposal would introduce a 100% exemption for dividends from foreign subsidiaries in which the U.S. parent owns at least a 10% stake, and imposes a one-time “low” (not specified) tax rate on wealth already accumulated overseas.

What are the implications of this bare-bones proposal? The most obvious, and most remarked-upon, is the drop that many high-income taxpayers would experience, from the current 39.6% top tax rate to 35%. That, plus the elimination of the estate tax, in addition to the lowering of the corporate tax (potentially leading to higher dividends) has been described as a huge relief for upper-income American investors, which could fuel the notion that the entire exercise is a big giveaway to large donors. But the mysterious “surcharge” on wealthier taxpayers might taketh away what the rest of the plan giveth.

But many Americans with S corporations, LLCs or partnership entities (known as pass-through entities because their income is reported on the owners’ personal returns and therefore no company level tax is paid) would potentially receive a much greater windfall, if they could choose to pay taxes on their corporate earnings at 25% rather than nearly 40% currently. (No big surprise: The Trump organization is a pass-through entity.)

A huge unknown is which itemized deductions would be eliminated in return for the higher standard deduction. Would the plan eliminate the deduction for state and local property and income taxes, which is especially valuable to people in high-tax states such as New York, New Jersey and California, and in general to higher-income taxpayers who pay state taxes at the highest rate? Note that on average, only about 35% of Americans itemize their deductions on Schedule A, most of them higher income taxpayers.

Currently, about one-third of the 145 million households filing a tax return — or roughly 48 million filers — claim state and local tax deductions. Among households with income of $100,000 or more, the average deduction for state and local taxes is around $12,300. Some economists have speculated that people earning between $100,000 and around $300,000 might wind up paying more in taxes under the proposal than they do now. Taxpayers with incomes above $730,000 would hypothetically see their after-tax income increase an average of 8.5 percent.

Big picture, economists are in the early stages of debating how much the plan might add to America’s soaring $20 trillion national debt. One back-of-the-envelope estimate by a Washington budget watchdog estimated that the tax cuts might add $5.8 trillion to the debt load over the next 10 years. According to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget analysis, Republican economists have identified about $3.6 trillion in offsetting revenues (mostly an assumption of increased economic growth), so by the most conservative calculation the tax plan would cost the federal deficit somewhere in the $2.2 trillion range over the next decade.

Others, notably the Brookings Tax Policy Center (see graph) see the new proposals actually raising tax revenues for individuals (blue bars), while mostly reducing the flow to Uncle Sam from corporations.

CA - 2017-9-30 - Tax Reform Proposal_2

These cost estimates have huge political implications for whether a tax bill will ever be passed. Under a prior agreement, the Senate can pass tax cuts with a simple majority of 51 votes — avoiding a filibuster that might sink the effort — only if the bill adds no more than $1.5 trillion to the national debt during the next decade.

That means compromise. To get the impact on the national debt below $1.5 trillion, Congressional Republicans might decide on a smaller cut to the corporate rate, to something closer to 25-28%, while giving typical families a smaller 1-percentage point tax cut (gee…thanks?). Under that scenario, multi-national corporations might be able to bring back $1 trillion or more in profit at unusually low tax rates, and most families might see a modest tax cut that will put a few hundred extra bucks in their pockets.

Alternatively, Congress could pass tax cuts of more than $1.5 trillion if the Republicans could flip enough Democratic Senators to get to 60 votes. The Democrats would almost certainly demand large tax cuts for lower and middle earners, potentially lower taxes on corporations and higher taxes on the wealthy. Would you bet on that sort of compromise?

We shall see, and I’ll keep you posted on tax developments. For now, put away that post card–you’re probably going to need an envelope and more postage.

If you would like to review your current investment portfolio or discuss any other financial planning matters, 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. If you are not a client yet, an initial consultation is complimentary and there is never any pressure or hidden sales pitch. We start with a specific assessment of your personal situation. There is no rush and no cookie-cutter approach. Each client is different, and so is your financial plan and investment objectives.

Sources:
https://www.yahoo.com/finance/news/trump-overpromising-tax-cuts-205013012.html
https://www.aei.org/publication/the-big-six-tax-reform-framework-can-you-dynamically-score-a-question-mark/
https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/plum-line/wp/2017/09/27/trumps-new-tax-plan-shows-how-unserious-republicans-are-about-governing/?tid=sm_tw&utm_term=.d37e0bcf718d
https://www.yahoo.com/finance/news/hidden-tax-hikes-trumps-tax-cut-plan-202041809.html
https://www.yahoo.com/finance/news/republicans-700-million-problem-could-173027048.html
https://www.yahoo.com/finance/news/trumps-tax-plan-just-got-180000645.html
The MoneyGeek thanks guest writer Bob Veres for his contribution to this post

 

Can Any Monkey Make Money in an Uptrending Stock Market?

Looking back in history at a chart of the stock markets, in hindsight, it seems so simple to make money in the markets. Buy some index funds, periodically add to them, and “voila”, your money grows over time. Buy Amazon shares at $4.00 and sell them several years later at $1,000. Easy peasy, right?

You probably didn’t notice, but Monday, September 11 marked a milestone: the S&P 500 index’s bull (up-trending) market became the second-longest and the second-best performing in the modern economic era. Stock prices are up 270% from their low point after the Great Recession in March 2009—up 340% if you include dividends. That beats the 267% gain that investors experienced from June 1949 to August 1956. (The raging bull that lasted from October 1990 to March 2000 is still the winning-est ever, and may never be topped.) Any diversification, trimming of positions or risk management over this period of time cost you profits and reduced your returns. Nonetheless, it’s what any prudent investor should do.

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to think that the long eight-year ride was easy money; you just put your chips on the table when the market hit bottom and let them ride the long bull all the way to where we are today. We tend to forget that staying invested is actually pretty difficult, due to all the white noise that tries to distract us from sound investing principles, not to mention some gut wrenching declines that test our meddle.

Consider, for example, that initial decision to invest in stocks that March in 2009. We had just experienced the worst bear market since the Great Depression (S&P 500 index down 57.7% from the peak in October 2007), and were being told many plausible reasons why prices could go lower still. After all, corporate earnings were dropping from already-negative territory. Was that the time to buy, or should you respond by waiting out the next couple of years until a clear upward pattern emerged?

The following year, investors were spooked by the so-called “Flash Crash,” which represented the worst single-day decline for the S&P 500 since April 2009. Then came 2011, two to three years into the bull, when the S&P 500 declined almost 20% from its peak in May through a low in October. Remember the double-dip recession we were in for? The pundits and touts proclaimed that another recession was looming on the horizon, which would take stocks down still further. Surely THAT was a good time to take your winnings and retreat to the sidelines.

By the time 2012 rolled around, there was a new reason to take your chips off the table: the markets were hitting all-time highs. Of course, historically, all-time highs are not indicative of anything other than a market that has been going up. If you decided to take your gains and get out of the market when the S&P 500 hit its first all-time high in 2012, you would have missed an additional 98% gain.

The headline distraction in 2013 was rising interest rates, which were said to be the “death knell” of the bull market. Low rates [it was declared] were the “reason” for the incredible run-up from 2009-2012, so surely higher rates would have the opposite effect. (The “experts” were wrong. The S&P 500 would advance 32% in 2013, its best year since 1997.)

In 2014, the U.S. dollar index experienced a strong advance, as markets began to expect the U.S. Fed to end its quantitative easing (bond buying) program. A falling dollar and easy Fed money were said to be responsible for the “aging” bull market, so this surely meant that it was time to head for the exits. Instead, the index ended 2014 with a 13.7% gain.

The following year, a sharp decline in crude oil prices was said to be evidence of a weakening global economy. The first Fed rate hike (in December 2015) since 2006 led many institutional investors to sell their stocks in the worst sell-off to start a year in market history. The 52-week lows in January and February were said to be extremely bearish; the market, we were told, was going much lower. Instead, the S&P 500 ended 2016 up 12% after being roughly “flat” for 2015.

Today, you’ll hear that the bull market is “running out of steam,” and is “long in the tooth.” New record highs mean that there is nowhere to go but down. In other words, you are, at this moment, subject to the same noise—in the form of extreme forecasts, groundless predictions, prophesies and extrapolation from yesterday’s headlines—that has bombarded us throughout the second-longest market upturn in history.

This is not to say that those dire predictions won’t someday come true; there is definitely a bear market in our future, and several more after that. But investors who tune out the noise generally fare much better, and capture more of the returns that the market gives us, than the hyperactive traders who jump out of stocks every time there’s a scary headline. This is also not to say that prudent risk management should not be part of your investing plan (trimming shares, re-balancing, hedging). As I like to say, making money in up-trending markets is not terribly hard if you don’t get scared out; keeping your profits (risk management) before a big decline is much harder.

As we look back fondly at the yellow line in the middle of the graph below, let’s recognize that holding tight through big market advances and allowing your investments to compound, is never easy. But it can be extremely profitable in the long run.

Bull Markets_3

If you would like to review your current investment portfolio or discuss any other financial planning matters, 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. If you are not a client yet, an initial consultation is complimentary and there is never any pressure or hidden sales pitch. We start with a specific assessment of your personal situation. There is no rush and no cookie-cutter approach. Each client is different, and so is your financial plan and investment objectives.

Sources:
https://pensionpartners.com/myths-markets-and-easy-money/
http://www.businessinsider.com/stocks-bull-market-is-2nd-best-since-wwii-2017-9
The MoneyGeek thanks guest writer Bob Veres for his contribution to this post

Equifax Data Breach Requires Action

While most of us have been watching the path of Hurricane Irma, another big news story this past week warrants your attention.  Last week, Equifax announced that a “Cybersecurity Incident” had exposed names, Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses and, in some cases, driver’s license and credit card numbers, from a whopping 143 million Americans.  We have already received e-mails from clients who have been affected, and expect to receive more since this will likely affect about half of the country.

In fact, this is another massive data breach reminding us how vulnerable we are to thieves seeking our personal information and identity. “Incident” sounds a bit tepid for the magnitude of this particular breach.

Are You Impacted?

To find out if your information has been compromised, check the potential impact on the Equifax website: https://www.equifaxsecurity2017.com/potential-impact/

You should do so for all of your household members, including your underage kids.  In the event that you or one of your family members are affected, Equifax offers to enroll you for free credit monitoring, which they will provide for one year.  I’m generally not a fan of paying for identity theft insurance or credit monitoring services, but there’s no reason not to take advantage of Equifax’s free offer. A credit monitoring service won’t prevent fraud from happening, but WILL alert you when your personal information is being used or requested.  The service includes identity theft insurance, and it will also scan the Internet for use of your Social Security number—assuming you trust Equifax with this information after the breach.

It may take a few weeks before the service becomes effective.  In the meantime, I recommend you plan to monitor transactions on your bank accounts and credit cards.  The credit card companies typically do a pretty good job of catching fraudulent activity quickly and shutting it down, but your own diligence is essential.

Unfortunately, the free credit monitoring service has issues.  According to credit expert John Ulzheimer “You’re only going to get it free for one year” and chances are, your liability is going to last longer. Additionally, it “only applies to your Equifax credit report, and not your credit reports at Experian and TransUnion. That’s like locking one of the three doors to your house.”

I suspect that once the extent of the breach is ultimately revealed, Equifax will highly likely extend the free credit monitoring service period.

How Are YDFS Clients Protected?

Withdrawing funds from a custodian (such as Charles Schwab) account is not possible simply with your login.  This set-up provides higher security than a retail bank or other brokerage account, where a thief could hack your username/password and access your funds.

Without signed documentation and verbal confirmation, funds withdrawn from custodian accounts can only be sent via check to the address of record on the account, or via an electronic transfer to a bank account that has been authorized with previously signed documentation. All wire transfer requests require verbal confirmation before any funds leave your account.

Also, all withdrawals from custodian accounts are seen on the same or next business day by your YDFS team so we can be on the lookout for unusual activity.

If You’re a Victim of Identity Theft

If you’re a victim of this (or any) breach, here’s what to do. The whole process takes about an hour to complete:

  • Contact one of the three credit bureaus Equifax (800-766-0008), Experian (888-397-3742) and TransUnion (800-680-7289) to put a free fraud alert on your credit report. Under Federal law, each is obligated to notify the other two. The alert makes it harder for an identity thief to open more accounts in your name, but experts note that alerts usually just slow down the process of criminals opening accounts in your name; they don’t prevent it. The alert lasts 90 days, but you can renew it, and the alert entitles you to a free credit report from each of the three companies.
  • File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission and print your Identity Theft Affidavit. Use that to file a police report and create your Identity Theft Report.
  • Place a credit-freeze on your credit file, which generally stops all access to your credit report. Unfortunately, you need to contact all three companies to freeze your file. Here are the links: Equifax; ExperianTransUnion. Important note about a freeze: If you need to access credit, you have to unfreeze your records, which can take a few days. The availability of a credit freeze depends on state law or a consumer reporting company’s policies. Some states charge a fee for placing or removing a credit freeze, but it’s free to place or remove a fraud alert. You can sometimes get this service for free if you supply a copy of a police report (which you can probably file and obtain online) or affidavit stating that you believe you are likely to be the victim of identity theft.
    Another advantage: each credit inquiry from a creditor has the potential to lower your credit score, so a freeze helps to protect your score from scammers who file inquiries.

Best Practices to Employ

According to pros like Ulzheimer and professional hacker Kevin Mitnick, the question is not if your information will be compromised, but when. Criminals are actively stealing your passwords, buying and selling your data and reading your emails. There is no single way to protect your coveted identity, but here are eight best practices to employ to keep the criminals at bay.

1) Protect your information:

  • Refrain from providing businesses with your social security number (SSN) just because they ask for it. Give it only when required. In an antiquated practice, doctors, dentists and some lawyers routinely request your social security number for billing (and collection) purposes. Refuse to do business with professionals who insist on supplying your social security number without a true need to know. Medicare recipients take note: your SSN is printed on your current Medicare card, so be careful with it! The process of changing the cards will take some time, but it is in the works.
  • Don’t give personal information over the phone, through the mail or on the Internet unless you have initiated the contact or you know with whom you are dealing. This is especially important to communicate to older relatives or friends, who are prime targets of fraudsters.
  • Beware of over-sharing on social media, where criminals are finding treasure troves of information. Because they are explicitly targeting children under the age of 18, it’s important for parents to talk to their kids and explain why it is so dangerous to share too much personal information online. Share your vacation photos & experiences AFTER you’ve returned home.
  • Update your passwords so they are difficult to hack. NY Daily News found the top ten worst passwords to include: 123456, password, baseball, football, etc. Others have started to use encrypted password managers where you enter one login/password and they manage all your other passwords for you.
  • Review your banking transactions online or on your statements to look for transactions you didn’t make. Report any suspicious activity to your bank promptly.

2) Protect your Password: You know the drill; you should be changing logins and passwords every few months, and sign up for two-factor authentication (where your cell phone is your 2nd device used to authorize access) for those sites that are used frequently.

3) Shop carefully: Stop sending your credit card information over unsecured wireless networks, and when making purchases, use a credit card, which has more fraud protections under federal law than debit cards or online payment services. Free (public) Wi-Fi hotspots are prime targets for banking and credit card information theft. Never do your personal or business banking over these hotspots.

4) Review credit card statements: Before you pay, be sure to spend a few minutes to verify that there are no fraudulent charges. While you’re at it, enroll in your credit card’s notification program, where the company alerts you to charges over a set amount.

5) Review your (and your kids’, for reasons mentioned above) credit report (free) every 12 months at annualcreditreport.com. You want to make sure that nothing fishy has cropped up. If you find an error, report it immediately and stay on top of the process.

6) Protect your Social Security account from identity theft by claiming your record at https://www.ssa.gov/myaccount/. Two-factor authentication will prevent others from attempting to steal your social security identity and records. Do it before they do.

7) Avoid maintaining large balances in checking or savings accounts with a debit card attached: Keep larger account balances in brokerage accounts or accounts without debit and/or check writing features.

8) Opt out of pre-approved credit card offers: ID thieves like to intercept offers of new credit sent via postal mail.  If you don’t want to receive pre-screened offers of credit and insurance, you have two choices: You can opt out of receiving them for five years by calling toll-free 1-888-5-OPT-OUT (1-888-567-8688) or visiting www.optoutprescreen.com. Or you can opt out permanently online at www.optoutprescreen.com.  To complete your request, you must return a signed Permanent Opt-Out Election form, which will be provided after you initiate your online request.

It’s important to remember that breaches like these have happened before and will happen again.  Taking preventative measures like those listed above limit the potential damage of such events.  Please contact us if you have any further questions or concerns regarding this topic.

If you would like to review your current investment portfolio or discuss any other financial planning matters, 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. If you are not a client yet, an initial consultation is complimentary and there is never any pressure or hidden sales pitch. We start with a specific assessment of your personal situation. There is no rush and no cookie-cutter approach. Each client is different, and so is your financial plan and investment objectives.

Crypto-Currency: The Next Tulip Craze?

Imagine transacting business or buying goods and services one day without using a single dollar bill or other country currency.  Imagine further that no one country or organization controls the currency and no one can create further units to dilute the value of your buying power. That’s the promise of crypto-currencies, which, since the first one was introduced in 2009, have been gaining much attention and buying.

In fact, one candidate for the greatest bull market run (uptrend) in financial history is the recent run-up in price of the Bitcoin—the crypto-currency favored by international arms dealers and drug cartels, but also gaining acceptance at some retail locations. The so-called “internet of money” is not backed by any government, which its promoters say is a good thing, because the currency is not subject to quantitative easing, better known as the over-caffeinated money printing presses in Washington, the U.K., Brussels or Tokyo. Ironically, to acquire bitcoins, you’ll have to exchange your dollars, pounds, euros or yen.

Of course, these are not actual coins; the currency exists in “wallets” that are tracked through a global system that updates everyone’s holdings; your “wallet” is on your computer, and sophisticated computers can “mine” new “coins” by solving complex algorithms that also help keep the money tracked. In the early days, there were lurid stories of peoples’ wallets getting hacked, but the crypto-processing seems to be safer now.

As recently as 2011, you could have bought any number of bitcoins for practically $0. In fact, seven years ago, a programmer spent 10,000 bitcoins to purchase two Papa John’s pizzas. Today, a single “coin” is selling for about $2,513, no doubt causing the programmer to wish that he’d held onto his coins for a few more years. But as you can see on the chart, the ride for bitcoin holders has been bumpy, and much of the price run-up has been recent. If you’ve ever experienced a market bubble, you know this is what they look like (and two inquiries about buying bitcoin at my office in the last two weeks tells me that a “correction” in the price is likely not too far off).

CA - 2017-6-8 - Crypto-Bubble

But why would the price ever drop? For one thing, the Bitcoin currency now has crypto-currency rivals, among them a similar technology and market system called Ethereum. For the first time, Bitcoins actually make up less than 50% of the crypto-marketplace. For another, costs per transaction—which are supposed to be zero—have risen to an average of $4.75, and it sometimes takes a month for the transaction to settle.

Beyond that, there’s a long-running dispute between the developers of Bitcoin who process transactions, and the “miners” who create the coins, which doesn’t look likely to be settled any time soon. It’s been speculated that Bitcoin will split into two factions, which users will have to choose between. A possible glimpse into the future happened when a new startup called Coinbase was touted as the marketplace that would finally bring Bitcoin to the mainstream. Coinbase was backed by the New York Stock Exchange. After considering its options, Coinbase decided to create a new currency alternative to Bitcoin, called Token—which will be built on Ethereum technology.

The conclusion: This is not a bandwagon you want to jump on at current prices. While prices might work their way higher in the short term, you’ll want to wait for more clarity on which ones will survive, and how governments will respond and attempt to regulate the exchanges. Our traditional currencies aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.

If you would like to review your current investment portfolio or discuss any other financial planning matters, 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. If you are not a client yet, an initial consultation is complimentary and there is never any pressure or hidden sales pitch. We start with a specific assessment of your personal situation. There is no rush and no cookie-cutter approach. Each client is different, and so is your financial plan and investment objectives.

sources:

http://www.coindesk.com/price/

http://www.cnbc.com/2017/05/22/bitcoin-price-hits-fresh-record-high-above-2100.html

https://www.forbes.com/sites/laurashin/2017/06/07/bitcoin-is-at-an-all-time-high-but-is-it-about-to-self-destruct/?utm_source=TWITTER&utm_medium=social&utm_content=929485744&utm_campaign=sprinklrForbesMainTwitter#4fa5a25dcb31

The MoneyGeek thanks guest writer Bob Veres for his contribution to this post

Why Short-term Investment Performance Doesn’t Matter

The phone rings from a prospect looking for a new advisor and, after exchanging a bit of information on how financial planning and investment planning are long term endeavors that go hand in hand, the prospect inevitably asks about performance. Do we beat the S&P 500 index? What kind of returns can he expect as a client? What have been my historical rates of return? How often will I report on portfolio performance?

After explaining that every client is unique, and past performance has no bearing on the future, the prospect persists in pursuing performance information. I then emphasize the perils of a focus on short-term performance, the superior benefits of a focus on goals & dreams, risk tolerance, asset allocation and time frame.  Mostly I then get a thank you and don’t hear from the prospect ever again.

If you’re a client of a financial planner, you probably receive portfolio reports every three months—a form of transparency that financial planning professionals introduced at a time when the typical brokerage statement was impossible to decipher. But it might surprise you to know that most professionals think there is actually little value to any quarterly reporting or performance information, other than to reassure you that you actually do own a diversified portfolio of investments. It’s very difficult to know if you’re staying abreast of the market, and for most of us, that’s not really relevant anyway.

Why?

The only way to know if your investments are “beating the market” is to compare their performance to “the market,” which is not easy. You can compare your return to the Dow Jones Industrial Average, but that index represents only 30 stocks, all of them large companies. Most people’s investment portfolios include a much larger variety of assets: U.S. stocks and bonds, foreign stocks and bonds, both including stocks of large companies (large cap), companies that are medium-sized (midcap) and smaller firms (small cap). There may be stocks from companies in emerging market countries like Sri Lanka and Mexico. There may be real estate investments in the form of REITs and investment exposure to shifting commodities prices, like wheat, gold, oil and live cattle.

In order to know for sure that your particular batch of investments out-performed or under-performed “the market,” you would need to assemble a “benchmark” portfolio made up of index funds in each of these asset categories, in the exact mix that is in your own portfolio. Even if you could do that precisely, daily, weekly and monthly, market movements would distort the original portfolio mix by causing some of your investments to gain value (and become larger pieces of the overall mix) and others to lose value (and become smaller pieces), and those movements could be different from the movements inside the benchmark. After a month, your portfolio would be less comparable to the benchmark you so painstakingly created and would be rendered virtually useless.

Many professionals believe that there are several keys to evaluating portfolio performance in a meaningful way—and the approach is very different from comparing your returns with the Dow’s.

1) Take a long view: What your investments did last month or last quarter is purely the result of random movements in the market, what professionals call “white noise.” But you might be surprised to know that even one-year returns fall into the “white noise” category. It’s better to look at your performance over five years or more; better still to evaluate through a full market cycle, from, say, the start of a bull (up-trending) market, through a bear (down-trending) market, and to the start of a new bull market. However, you should remember that there are no clear markers on the roadside that say: “This line marks the start of a new bull market.”

2) Compare your performance to your goals, not to your friends’ portfolio: Let’s suppose that our financial plan indicated that your investments needed to generate 5% returns above the rate of inflation in order for you to have a great chance of affording a long, comfortable retirement. If that’s your goal, then chances are, your portfolio is not designed to beat the market; it represents a best guess as to which investments have the best chance of achieving that target return, through all the inevitable market ups and downs between now and your retirement date. If your returns are negative over three to five years, that means you’re probably falling behind on your goals—and you might be taking too much risk in your portfolio.

3) Recognize that some of your investments will go down, even in strong bull markets:  The concept of diversification means that some of your holdings will inevitably move in opposite directions, return-wise, from others (believe it or not, this is a good thing!). If all of your investments are going up in a strong market, chances are they will all be going down in a weak one. Ideally, the overall trend will be upward—the investments are participating in the growth of the global economy, but not all at the same rate and with a variety of setbacks along the way. If you see some negative returns, understand that those are the investments you’re counting on to give you positive returns if/when other parts of your investment mix are suddenly, probably unexpectedly, turning downward.

A focus on under-performing funds or stocks in the short-term can cause you to make short-term detrimental moves with your portfolio. If the underlying fundamentals of the stock or fund are intact, just perhaps out-of-favor in the short term (1-3 years), you shouldn’t tinker with them (assuming your reason for buying hasn’t changed). Treat your portfolio as a combination of ingredients that individually come together to make a tasty treat. Removing or focusing on one or more individual ingredients (say because it’s too salty or sour) can turn a tasty treat into a bland dish.

Too often I see clients focus on individual funds or sectors that are under-performing in the short term, and they want to sell them at what may turn out to be the bottom.  This is one reason why numerous Dalbar studies of individual investor behavior show that most of them under-perform even the funds they own (let alone the markets overall).  I try to explain that markets, industries and sectors are cyclical. They come in and out of favor as large portfolio managers make decisions based on their perception of the stage of the economic cycle. You shouldn’t try and emulate them.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t look at your portfolio statement when it comes out. Make sure the investments listed are what you expected them to be, and let your eye drift toward the longer time periods. Notice which investments rose the most and which were down and you’ll have an indication of the overall economic climate. And if your overall portfolio beat the Dow this quarter, or over longer periods of time, well, that probably only represents “white noise” …

If you would like to review your current investment portfolio or discuss any other financial planning matters, 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. If you are not a client yet, an initial consultation is complimentary and there is never any pressure or hidden sales pitch.

The MoneyGeek thanks guest writer Bob Veres for his contribution to this post.

What’s the Government Buying with your Money?

Tax time is over for another year for millions of Americans (who didn’t ask for an extension), and as you look over your tax payments for calendar 2016, you’re undoubtedly wondering where those dollars are being spent by Uncle Sam.

The Wall Street Journal recently published a chart which breaks down spending for every $100 of tax receipts—and concludes that the U.S. government is actually a very large insurance company, that also happens to have an army. Chances are, the check or checks that you wrote for the year barely keep the government running for a fraction of a second.

For every $100 you pay in taxes, $23.61 goes to Social Security payments and administration—basically old age insurance for retirees.  Another $15.26 goes to Medicare, the government health insurance program.  Medicaid, the health insurance program for the poor, accounts for another $9.55 of that $100 tax bill—bringing the total costs for various civilian insurance programs to 48% of the total budget.  And that army?  It costs $15.24 of every $100 the government collects in taxes, not counting veterans benefits.

In all, the 2016 federal budget fell $15.24 out of every $100 short of revenues equaling expenses.  Where would you cut?

Things like federal expenditures and grants for education ($2.08), food stamps ($1.89), affordable housing ($1.27) and foreign aid ($1.14) actually make up a very small part of the budget, smaller than interest payments on the national debt ($6.25).

There has been talk about helping reduce the budget by lowering expenditures on the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, which together represent eight tenths of one cent of that $100 tax bill.  This would be comparable to someone trying to pay off his mortgage by looking for coins under the sofa cushions.

As for us, we’re just glad that we survived another very busy tax season, with more compliance requirements imposed on preparers and taxpayers than ever before. Tax simplification? Doesn’t seem to ever be in the cards.

If you would like to review your current investment portfolio or discuss any other tax or financial planning matters, 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.  If you are not a client yet, an initial consultation is complimentary and there is never any pressure or hidden sales pitch. We start with a specific assessment of your personal situation. There is no rush and no cookie-cutter approach. Each client is different, and so is your financial plan and investment objectives.

Source:

https://www.wsj.com/articles/how-100-of-your-taxes-are-spent-8-cents-on-national-parks-and-15-on-medicare-1492175921

The MoneyGeek thanks guest writer Bob Veres for his contribution to this post

First Quarter 2017 YDFS Market Review

Are we in the early stages of a bear market given that we’ve had over eight years of an up-trending market that may be growing tired? Or are we in the late stages of a bull market—that time when the market suddenly takes off like a rocket for no apparent reason?

Over the last eight years, the S&P 500 stock market index has returned more than 300%. But the tail end of this run (if indeed it’s the tail end) seems to have accelerated the trend.  The first quarter of 2017 provided the highest returns for U.S. large-cap stocks since the last three months of 2013.  The NASDAQ index has booked its 21st record close of the year so far, and the indices have recorded a 30% rise over the past six quarters, marking the fastest advance since 2006.

The first quarter of 2017 has seen the Wilshire 5000 Total Market Index—the broadest measure of U.S. stocks—rise 5.72%, while the comparable Russell 3000 index gained 5.91% in the first quarter.

Looking at large cap stocks, the Wilshire U.S. Large Cap index gained 6.01% in the first quarter.  The Russell 1000 large-cap index finished the first quarter with a 6.23% performance, while the widely-quoted S&P 500 index of large company stocks was up 5.53% in the first three months of 2017.

Meanwhile, the Russell Midcap Index gained 5.15% in the first quarter.

As measured by the Wilshire U.S. Small-Cap index, investors in smaller companies posted a relatively modest 2.26% gain over the first three months of the year.  The comparable Russell 2000 Small-Cap Index finished the quarter up 2.20%, while the technology-heavy NASDAQ Composite Index rose 9.83% in the first quarter, continuing its record-breaking climb.

Even the international investments were finally soaring through the start of the year.  The broad-based EAFE index of companies in developed foreign economies gained 6.47% in the first three months of calendar 2017.  In aggregate, European stocks gained 6.74% for the quarter, while EAFE’s Far East Index gained 5.13%.  Emerging market stocks of less developed countries, as represented by the EAFE EM index, rose 11.14%.

Looking over the other investment categories, real estate investments, as measured by the Wilshire U.S. REIT index, eked out a 0.03% gain during the year’s first quarter.  The S&P GSCI index, which measures commodities returns, lost 2.51%, in part due to a 5.81% drop in the S&P crude oil index.  Gold prices shot up 8.64% for the quarter and silver gained 14.18%.

In the bond markets, rates are incrementally rising from practically zero to not much more than zero. Coupon rates on 10-year Treasury bonds now stand at 2.39% a year (otherwise known as the risk-free rate), while 30-year government bond yields have risen to 3.01%.

The pundits on Wall Street have been telling us that the market’s sudden meteoric rise—which really accelerated starting in December of last year—is the result of the so-called “Trump Trade,” shorthand for an expectation that companies and individuals will soon be paying fewer taxes and be burdened by fewer regulations, leading to higher profits and greater overall prosperity.  Add in a trillion dollars of promised infrastructure spending, and the expectation was an economic boom across virtually all sectors.

However, there is, as yet, no sign of that boom; just a continuation of the slow, steady recovery that the U.S. has experienced since 2009.  The latest reports show that the U.S. gross domestic product—a broad measure of economic activity—grew just 1.6% last year, the most sluggish performance since 2011.  The U.S. trade deficit widened in January, and both consumer spending and construction activities are weakening from slower-than-average growth rates.

The good news is that corporate profits increased at an annual rate of 2.3% in the fourth quarter, which shows at least incremental improvement.  However, the previous three months saw a 6.7% rise in profits, suggesting that the trend may be downward going forward. Expectations for the first quarter of 2017 earnings are even higher, which would help stretched valuations in many stocks and in the overall market.

It’s possible to read too much into the recent failure of health care legislation, and imagine that we’re in for four years of ineffective leadership.  There will almost certainly be a tax reform debate in Congress in the coming months, but the surprising aspect—as with the healthcare legislation—is that there seems to have been no prepared plan for Congress to vote on.  We know that the Republican President and Congress want to lower corporate tax rates and simplify the tax code—which, in the past, has meant adding thousands of new pages to it.  We know that there is general opposition to any form of estate taxes, but nobody is proposing which deductions would be eliminated in order to make this package revenue-neutral. I have no illusions that tax reform will ultimately amount to any measure of tax simplification (cue the collective sigh from overworked tax preparers).

Similarly, there have been no details about the infrastructure package, which means we don’t know yet whether it would be a budget-busting package of pork barrel projects or a real contribution to America’s global competitiveness.

We can, however, be certain of one thing: as the bull market ages, we are moving ever closer to a period when stock prices will go down, perhaps as dramatically as 20%, which would qualify as a bear market, perhaps more or less.  While bull markets don’t die of old age alone, this is still a good time to ask yourself: how much of a downturn would I be able to stomach either before panic sets in or my lifestyle is endangered?  If your answer is less than 20%, or close to that figure, this might be a good time to revisit your stock and bond allocations. It’s never too soon to trim profits on some positions to lighten exposure and take advantage of any coming sell-off.

On the other hand, if you’re not fearful of a downturn, then you should look at the next bear market the way the most successful investors do, and envision a terrific buying opportunity, a time when stocks go on sale for the first time in the better part of a decade.  For some reason, people go to the shopping mall to buy when items go on sale, and do the opposite when the investment markets go down.  Knowing this can be an unfair advantage to your future wealth, and even make you look forward to the end of this long, unusually steady, increasingly frantic bull run in stocks.  After all, if history is any indication, the next downturn will be followed by another bull run.

If you would like to review your current investment portfolio or discuss any other financial planning matters, 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.  If you are not a client yet, an initial consultation is complimentary and there is never any pressure or hidden sales pitch. We start with a specific assessment of your personal situation. There is no rush and no cookie-cutter approach. Each client is different, and so is your financial plan and investment objectives.

Sources:

Wilshire index data: http://www.wilshire.com/Indexes/calculator/

Russell index data: http://www.russell.com/indexes/data/daily_total_returns_us.asp

S&P index data: http://www.standardandpoors.com/indices/sp-500/en/us/?indexId=spusa-500-usduf–p-us-l–

Nasdaq index data:

http://quotes.morningstar.com/indexquote/quote.html?t=COMP

http://www.nasdaq.com/markets/indices/nasdaq-total-returns.aspx

International indices: https://www.msci.com/end-of-day-data-search

Commodities index data: http://us.spindices.com/index-family/commodities/sp-gsci

Treasury market rates: http://www.bloomberg.com/markets/rates-bonds/government-bonds/us/

Bond rates:

http://www.bloomberg.com/markets/rates-bonds/corporate-bonds/

General:

http://www.marketwatch.com/story/debate-about-path-for-stock-market-rages-as-dow-rallies-4440-points-in-year-and-a-half-2017-03-31?siteid=yhoof2&yptr=yahoo

http://www.marketwatch.com/story/how-investors-can-learn-to-stop-worrying-and-love-a-stock-market-correction-2017-03-30

http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-economy-gdp-idUSKBN1711MX?feedType=RSS&feedName=domesticNews

The MoneyGeek thanks guest writer Bob Veres for his contribution to this post