What’s Going on in the Markets September 9 2016

On Friday September 9 2016, the S&P 500 index fell 2.4%, while the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 2.1%.  This was the first “greater than 1%” sell-off since June, its worst single-session loss in more than two months. The drop ended a relatively quiet summer for U.S. stocks, which had touched new highs in mid-August. But despite Friday’s jarring downdraft, market internals remain solid and equity markets are within stones throw of their recent peaks. Of course, the press reports are describing it as a full-blown market panic.

Even if the short-term pullback in stocks persists, we do not believe the longer-term bull market—which has been underway since 2009—is dead. U.S. economic data has generally shown signs of strength, and an improving economy should support the stock market over the long term.

So what’s going on?  Efforts to trace the reason why quick-twitch traders scattered for the hills on Friday turned up two suspects.  The first was Boston Federal Reserve President Eric Rosengren, who sits at the table of Fed policy makers who decide when (and how much) to raise the Federal Funds rate.  On Friday, he announced that there was a “reasonable case” for raising interest rates in the U.S. economy.  According to a number of observers, traders had previously believed there was a 12% chance of a September rate hike by the Fed; now, they think there’s a 24% chance that the rates will go up after the Fed’s September 21-22 meeting. Oh the horror of a less than 1 in 4 chance of a quarter-point (0.25%) rise in short-term interest rates–sell everything!

If the Fed decides the economy is healthy enough to sustain another rise in interest rates—from rates that are still at historic lows—why would that be bad for stocks?  Any rise in bond rates would make bond investments more attractive compared with stocks, and therefore might entice some investors to sell stocks and buy bonds.  However, with dividends from the S&P 500 stocks averaging 2.09%, compared with a 1.67% yield from 10-year Treasury bonds, this might not be a money-making trade.

If the possibility of a 0.25% rise in short-term interest rates doesn’t send you into a panic, maybe a pronouncement by bond guru Jeffrey Gundlach, of DoubleLine Capital Management, will make you quiver.  Gundlach’s exact words, which are said to have helped send Friday’s markets into a tailspin, were: “Interest rates have bottomed.  They may not rise in the near term as I’ve talked about for years.  But I think it’s the beginning of something, and you’re supposed to be defensive.” My thoughts on this: pundits have been declaring the end of the bull market in bonds for many years and have been proven wrong time and time again. Statements like this are pretty worthless in my opinion. Could he be right? Sure, there’s a 50/50 chance.

Short-term traders appear to have decided that Gundlach was telling them to retreat to the sidelines, and some have speculated that a small exodus caused automatic program trading—that is, money management algorithms that are programmed to sell stocks whenever they sense that there are others selling.  After the computers had taken the market down by 1%, human investors noticed and began selling as well.

Uncertainty about central bank policy outside the U.S. was another potential cause for Friday’s volatility. On Thursday, the European Central Bank opted for no new easing moves and Japanese bond yields have continued to rise. The two events have sent a message to markets that quantitative easing (bond buying and other monetary stimulus) may have lost some of its efficacy and will not continue indefinitely.

For seasoned investors, a 2% drop after a very long market calm simply means a return to normal volatility.  This is generally good news for investors, because volatility has historically provided more upside than downside, and because these occasional downdrafts provide a chance to add to your stock holdings at bargain prices. I’ve been telling clients all summer long to expect a volatile and rocky September and October. Does that make me smart? Nope, historically, periods of calm like we’ve seen are always followed by volatility. September and October tend to be more volatile than other months of the year.  Markets have been unusually calm this summer, and prolonged periods of low volatility can make markets susceptible to news and rumors. Given the emphasis the market is now placing on Fed policy—and the uncertainty surrounding it—we wouldn’t be surprised to see markets continue to experience volatile swings when news or economic data suggest the Fed may, or may not, raise interest rates.

That doesn’t, of course, mean that we know what will happen when the exchanges open back up on Monday, or whether the trend will be up or down next week or for the remainder of the month.  Nor do we know whether the Fed will raise rates in late September, or how THAT will affect the market.

As for bonds, while rising interest rates can translate into falling bond prices—bond yields typically move inversely to bond prices—it’s important to remember that yields generally don’t move in tandem all along the yield curve. The Fed influences short-term interest rates, but long-term interest rates are generally affected by other factors, such as economic growth and inflation expectations. And even if the Fed does raise short-term interest rates again this year, I would anticipate that future rate hikes would be gradual, as inflation remains low and the U.S. economy is only growing moderately.

That said, periods of market volatility are a good time to review your risk tolerance and make sure your portfolio is aligned with your time horizon and investing goals. A well-diversified portfolio, with a mix of stocks, bonds and cash allocated appropriately based on your goals and risk tolerance, can help you weather periods of market turbulence.

All we can say with certainty is that there have been quite a number of temporary panics during the bull market that started in March 2009, and selling out at any of them would have been a mistake.  You must resist overreacting to swings in the market. Stock market fluctuations are a normal part of investing; panicking and pulling money out of the market may mean missing out on a potential rebound.

The U.S. economy is showing no sign of collapse, job creation is stable and a rise in interest rates from near-negative levels would probably be good for long-term economic growth.  The Institute for Supply Management survey for the manufacturing sector recently showed an unexpected decline, and the service sector moved down by more than economists had expected, so I will be monitoring upcoming survey results closely to see if this develops into a trend. The employment situation remains firm; new job openings hit a record high in July and new claims for unemployment remain near recent lows.

While it may be prudent to trim some profits, panic is seldom a good recipe for making money in the markets, and our best guess is that Friday will prove to have been no exception. Market volatility is unnerving, but it’s a normal—and normally short-lived—part of investing. If you’ve built a solid financial plan and a well-diversified portfolio, it’s best to ignore the noise and focus on your long-term goals.

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.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-09-08/gundlach-says-it-s-time-to-get-defensive-as-rates-may-rise

http://www.forbes.com/sites/laurengensler/2016/09/09/stocks-fall-worst-day-since-brexit/#3a9ed7252961

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-09-09/split-among-fed-officials-leaves-september-rate-outlook-murky?utm_content=markets&utm

http://thereformedbroker.com/2016/09/09/dow-decline-signals-end-of-western-civilization/?utm

https://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/data-chart-center/interest-rates/Pages/TextView.aspx?data=yield

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

Learn to Embrace New Highs

It’s been an interesting start of the week for those of us watching the stock markets. In case you hadn’t noticed, the S&P 500 index reached record territory on Monday, and the NASDAQ briefly crossed over the 5,000 level before settling back with a more modest gain.  At 2,137.6, the S&P 500 finished above the previous high of 2,130.82, set on May 21, 2015.

We’ve waited more than a year for the markets to get back to where they were before the downturn this January, before Brexit, and before a lot of uncertainties in the last 12 months.  The market top itself is an uncertainty; after all, many investors regard market tops warily.  When stocks are more expensive than they’ve ever been (or so goes the thinking) it may be time to sell and take your profits.  However, if you followed this logic and sold every time the market hit a new high, you’d probably have been sitting on the sidelines during most of the long ride from the S&P at 13.55 in June 1949, which was the bull market high after the index started at 10.  New highs are a normal part of the market, and it is just as likely that tomorrow will set a new one as not.  In fact, overall, the market spends roughly 12% of its life at all-time highs.

We all know that the next bear market will start with an all-time high, but we can never know which one in advance.  That’s why in this business we say that there’s nothing better than a new high, except the one that marks “the top”.  But new market highs do not necessarily become market tops.  Let’s see if we can all celebrate this milestone without the usual dose of fear that often comes with new records.

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.forbes.com/sites/shreyaagarwal/2016/07/11/sp-500-closes-at-record-high/?utm_source=yahoo&utm_medium=partner&utm_campaign=yahootix&partner=yahootix#7f74bf29721d

http://www.marketwatch.com/story/us-stock-futures-climb-with-sp-near-record-high-2016-07-11?siteid=yhoof2

http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/columnist/waggoner/2014/06/19/new-highs-dont-mean-you-have-to-sell/10921973/

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

An Estate Plan for your Digital Assets

In recent years, a new category of assets has appeared on the scene, which can be more complicated to pass on at someone’s death than stocks, bonds and cash.  The list includes such valuable property as digital domain names, social media accounts, websites and blogs that you manage, and pretty much anything stored in the digital “cloud.”  In addition, if you were to die tomorrow, would your heirs know the pass-codes to access your iPad or smartphone?  Or, for that matter, your e-mail account or the Amazon.com or iTunes shopping accounts you’ve set up?  Would they know how to shut down your Facebook account, or would it live on after your death?

A service called Everplans has created a listing of these and other digital assets that you might consider in your estate plan, and recommends that you share your logins and passwords with a digital executor or heirs.  If the account or asset has value (airline miles or hotel rewards programs, domain names) these should be transferred to specific heirs—and you can include these bequests in your will.  Other assets should probably be shut down or discontinued, which means your digital executor should probably be a detail-oriented person with some technical familiarity.

The site also provides a guide to how to shut down accounts; click on “F,” select “Facebook,” and you’re taken to a site (https://www.everplans.com/articles/how-to-close-a-facebook-account-when-someone-dies) which tells you how to deactivate or delete the account.  Note that each option requires the digital executor to be able to log into the site first; otherwise that person would have to submit your birth and death certificates and proof of authority under local law that he/she is your lawful representative.  (The executor can also “memorialize” your account, which means freezing it from outside participation.)

The point here is that even if you know who would get your house and retirement assets if you were hit by a bus tomorrow, you could still be leaving a mess to your heirs unless you clean up your digital assets as well.

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.

Sources:

https://www.everplans.com/articles/a-helpful-overview-of-all-your-digital-property-and-digital-assets

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

How Do the Markets Really Work?

We all do it.  But what do we really know about investing?  A recent post about investing wisdom features a lot of interesting (and often overlooked) facts and figures, plus some insights from Warren Buffett, Jeremy Siegel, William Bernstein, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and a few economists you may have heard of.

Regarding market predictions, the post had this to say: The phrase “double-dip recession” was mentioned 10.8 million times in 2010 and 2011, according to Google. It never came. There were virtually no mentions of “financial collapse” in 2006 and 2007. It did come. A similar story can be told virtually every year.

According to Bloomberg, the 50 stocks in the S&P 500 that Wall Street rated the lowest at the end of 2011 outperformed the overall index by 7 percentage points over the following year.

Many of the items offered insight into how our investment markets actually work.  For instance:

  • Since 1871, the market has spent 40% of all years either rising or falling more than 20%. Roaring booms and crushing busts are perfectly normal.
  • Apple increased more than 6,000% from 2002 to 2012, but declined on 48% of all trading days during that time period. (Investing is never a straight path up.)
  • Polls show Americans for the last 25 years have said the economy is in a state of decline. Pessimism in the face of advancement is the norm.
  • A broad index of U.S. stocks increased 2,000-fold between 1928 and 2013, but lost at least 20% of its value 20 times during that period. People would be less scared of volatility if they knew how common it was.
  • There were 272 automobile companies in 1909. Through consolidation and failure, three emerged on top, two of which went bankrupt. Spotting a promising trend and identifying a winning investment are two different things.
  • According to economist Tim Duy, “As long as people have babies, as long as capital depreciates, technology evolves, and tastes and preferences change, there is a powerful underlying impetus for growth that is almost certain to reveal itself in any reasonably well-managed economy.”

The post had a few zingers about some of the best-paid executives in the financial and investment community:

  • Twenty-five hedge fund managers took home $21.2 billion in 2013 for delivering an average performance of 9.1%, versus the 32.4% you could have made in an index fund. Hedge funds are a great business to work in — not so much to invest in.
  • In 1989, the CEOs of the seven largest U.S. banks earned an average of 100 times what a typical household made. By 2007, that had risen to more than 500 times. By 2008, several of those banks no longer existed.

And finally, if you want to understand the difference between daily fluctuation and the underlying growth of value in the markets, consider this:

Investor Ralph Wagoner once explained how markets work, recalled by Bill Bernstein: “He likens the market to an excitable dog on a very long leash in New York City, darting randomly in every direction. The dog’s owner is walking from Columbus Circle, through Central Park, to the Metropolitan Museum. At any one moment, there is no predicting which way the pooch will lurch. But in the long run, you know he’s heading northeast at an average speed of three miles per hour. What is astonishing is that almost all of the market players, big and small, seem to have their eye on the dog, and not the owner.”

If you would like to discuss your current portfolio or any 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.

Source:

http://www.businessinsider.com/things-everyone-should-know-about-investing-and-the-economy-2014-12

Should We Fear—Or Cheer—Plunging Oil Prices?

Chances are, you’re celebrating today’s lower gas prices.  AAA reports that the national average price of gas is $2.48 today, the lowest since December 2009.  The result: an estimated $70 billion in direct savings for U.S. consumers over the next 12 months.  At previous prices, the average American was spending about $2,600 a year on gasoline, so the 20% price decline would result in $520 more to save or spend.

It gets better.  Even though gas prices (and, therefore, the cost of driving) have plummeted, the Internal Revenue Service is raising the standard mileage rates that people can deduct on their tax return for business travel, from 56 cents in 2014 to 57.5 cents per business mile driven next year.

Only the investment markets seem to think that cycling an extra $70 billion into the U.S. economy is a bad thing.  This past week, large cap stocks, represented by the S&P 500 index, saw their prices fall by 3.5%—their biggest drop since May 2012. Why?  The only possible explanation is that rapid Wall Street traders believe that lower oil prices will harm the economies of America’s trading partners, and therefore impact the U.S. economy indirectly.

So let’s take a closer look.  While U.S. consumers are cheering the decline in oil prices, and non-energy producing nations like Japan and countries in the Eurozone are seeing a boost in their economies, who’s NOT celebrating?

As it turns out, some of the biggest losers are American domestic shale oil producers, who basically break even when oil prices are at their current $50-$60 a barrel levels.  Any further drop in prices would slow down domestic energy production, and probably create a floor that would keep prices from falling much further.

Another big loser is the socialist government in Venezuela (remember Hugo Chavez?), which needs oil prices above $162 a barrel to pay for all of its social programs.  You can also sympathize with Iran, which reportedly needs oil prices to move up to $135 barrel to stay in the black, due to continuing sanctions from the world community over its nuclear program, and the high cost of supporting Hezbollah and its own military ventures in the Middle East.

The biggest loser is probably Russia, which requires oil prices of at least $100 a barrel for its budget to withstand international sanctions and finance its own military adventures against neighboring nations.  Economists are projecting that Russia will fall into a steep recession next year, when GDP could decline as much as 6%.  The nation is experiencing what economists call “capital outflows” of $125 billion a year—a fancy way of saying that wealthy Russians are taking money out of Russian banks and either investing abroad or putting their rubles in banks located in more stable foreign jurisdictions.  And in the process, they are exchanging their rubles for local currency, as a way to protect against the recent free-fall in Russia’s currency.  Bloomberg News recently published the below graphic which many Americans will find entertaining, but which is probably not happy news for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Fear or Cheer Plunging Oil Prices

It’s interesting that the markets seem to be worrying about low oil prices when the economies with the most to lose are not only less than minor trading partners, but actual political enemies of U.S. interests. Cheaper oil will eventually be regarded as a plus for our economic—and political—interests, but the downturn suggests that Wall Street traders are hair-trigger ready to be spooked by anything they regard as unusual.

If you would like to discuss your current portfolio or any 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.

Sources:

http://www.marketwatch.com/story/5-countries-that-will-be-the-biggest-losers-from-oils-slide-2014-11-20?page=2

http://blogs.piie.com/realtime/?p=4644

http://www.accountingtoday.com/news/irs-watch/irs-raises-standard-mileage-rate-for-businesses-72990-1.html?ET=webcpa:e3476082:a:&st=email&utm_content=buffer4179f&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer

http://www.forbes.com/sites/northwesternmutual/2014/11/27/lower-oil-prices-give-a-gift-to-consumers/

Investor Know Thyself

In an ideal world, emotions would play a very small role in the way people invest and manage their money. Everyone would thoroughly research their options, maintain realistic expectations, and keep counterproductive habits under control.

But in the real world, even well-informed investors sometimes make emotionally charged decisions that may threaten their ability to stay focused on important financial goals, such as accumulating enough money for retirement. In fact, such missteps are so common that many academics have done extensive research on “investor psychology” or “behavioral finance” to explain why some people tend to keep encountering the same obstacles in their financial lives.

Behavior Insights

As you might imagine, different financial attitudes can result in very different consequences. For example, the behavior known as “anchoring” is the tendency for investors to hold on to a belief based on their own limited experience, despite the availability of contradictory information.

For instance, someone who lived through the Great Depression might be more likely to be a conservative investor, while someone who did very well in the market during the 1990s might tend to be a more aggressive investor. Of course, history shows that that type of decline or growth experienced by such individuals, is more the exception than the norm. As such, one possible result of anchoring is making long-term investment decisions based on misguided performance expectations or incomplete facts.

Overconfidence in one’s own abilities is another mindset that could make it more difficult to achieve lasting financial security. Why? Because it may lead investors to ignore sound advice, misunderstand goals, and potentially implement inappropriate investment strategies. On the other hand, a lack of confidence may be to blame for the “fear of loss” (or “fear of regret”) that causes some nervous investors to adjust their portfolios too often — or not often enough.

You’ve Got Personality

It can also be insightful to think about what type of “financial personality” you have. “Impulsives,” for example, are prone to spending spontaneously and not saving enough. “Planners,” however, are in the habit of setting aside as much as possible and sticking to an appropriate investment strategy.

If you would like to discuss your financial personality or 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.

Why Losses Really Do Matter

Everybody who told us that the steep market drops earlier this month wouldn’t last can rightly claim they’re right.  When the S&P 500 was down 7.4% during a two-week sell off, there was no way to know whether we’d have to endure more of the same.  Staying the course turned out to be exactly the right strategy, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be concerned about downside risk.  In fact, during the downturn, all of us should have been working hard to keep our portfolios from falling as far and as fast as the American indices.

Isn’t this a contradiction?  There is no contradiction between holding on during market downturns and building portfolios that are unlikely to keep pace with a bear market free-fall.  You hold on because no living person knows when the stock markets will recover, but history tells us that they always do seem to recover and eventually deliver returns that are higher, on average, than the returns you get when the money is safely stored under your mattress.

But you also pay attention to downturns because the further your portfolio falls, the harder it is to recover.  There’s actually a rational reason why you tend to fear losses more than you enjoy your gains.

The mathematics show the asymmetrical effect of losses vs. gains.  If your $1 million portfolio loses 10%, falling to $900,000, then it requires an 11.11% gain to get you back where you started.  It doesn’t seem fair, but that’s how it is.  A 20% loss requires a 25% gain, and if your portfolio were to drop 40%, you’d need a subsequent 66.67% gain to climb back to your original $1 million nest egg.

Chances are, you know how we fortify portfolios against losses: we include a variety of different types of assets–including bonds which, against every single market prediction at the start of the year, are actually delivering positive returns almost all the way across the maturity spectrum.  We include foreign stocks, which haven’t exactly been knocking the lights out this year, but which will, someday, offer strong gains when the U.S. markets are weakening.  Also, we take profits on positions that have reached their price targets and hedge portfolios with inverse funds.  All of these different movements tend to have a calming effect on the portfolio’s returns, not always in every circumstance, but fairly reliably over time.

The result?  A smoother ride puts more money in your pocket.  If an investor experienced returns of +20% and -10% in alternate years over the next 20 years, a $100,000 portfolio would grow to just under $216,000.  If a more diversified investor experienced a smoother ride of 10% a year, her portfolio would grow to just under $673,000.  The power of steady compounding is a marvelous thing to see.  The drag of losses can be debilitating to a portfolio’s growth.

You won’t experience either of those trajectories exactly, of course.  But if you can somehow avoid the worst of the market’s falls, even if it means never beating the market during the up-cycles, you raise your chances of long-term success.  If you can do this and remain invested through a lot of uncertainty, like we experienced earlier this month, chances are you’ll enjoy better long-term returns than a lot of the “experts” you see screaming at you to buy or sell on the cable finance channels.

Oh, and that 7.4% drop?  The S&P 500 has to go up 8% to recover the ground it lost in that two-week period.  As of today, we’ve recovered that entire loss.

What, We Worry?

So far this year, the investment markets have held up pretty well, which doesn’t always happen after a year of big returns like we experienced in 2013.  But based on experience, you know that something will spook investors at some point this year, the way the markets took a dive when Congress decided to choke off the U.S. federal budget, or when investors realized that Greece had somehow managed to borrow ten times more than it could possibly pay back to its bondholders.

Professional investors have learned to create a mental “watch list” of possible market-shaking events, and they were helped recently when Noriel Roubini, chairman of Roubini Global Economics, former Senior Economist for International Affairs at the U.S. Council of Economic Advisors, compiled his own worry list.  Roubini said that we’re past the time when people should be fearful of a breakup of the Eurozone, or (for now) any Congressional tinkering with the debt ceiling.  The public debt crisis in Japan seems to be fading in the optimism of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s monetary easing and fiscal expansion, and the war between Israel and Iran over Iranian nuclear technology, once thought to be imminent, now appears to be on the back burner.

So what does today’s worry list look like?  Roubini starts off with China, which is trying to shift its growth away from exports toward private consumption.  Chinese leaders, he says, tend to panic whenever China’s economic growth slows toward 7% a year, at which time they throw more money at capital investment and infrastructure, creating more bad assets, a lot of industrial capacity that nobody can use, and a bunch of commercial and industrial buildings which sit empty along the skyline.  By the end of next year, something will have to be done about the growing debt at the same time that investors face a potential crash in inflated real estate prices.  Think: five or six 2008 real estate crises piled on top of each other, all of it happening in one country.

Numbers two and three on Roubini’s worry list involve the U.S. Federal Reserve, which could (worry #2) cease its massive purchases of real estate mortgages and government bonds too quickly, causing interest rates to rise and sending financial shockwaves around the world.  Or, on the other hand (worry #3) the Fed might keep rates low for so long that the U.S. experiences new bubbles in real estate, stocks and credit–and then experiences the consequences when the bubbles burst.

Roubini also worries about emerging market nations being able to manage their debt and capital inflows if interest rates go up, and of course the situation in the Ukraine has significant market-spooking potential.  Finally, he notes that China has significant unresolved territorial disputes with Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines, which could escalate into military conflict.  If the U.S. were drawn into a maritime confrontation, alongside Japan, with Chinese warships, investors might think it’s a good time to retreat to the sidelines.

None of these scenarios are guaranteed to happen, and some of them seem unlikely.  But these periodic, headline-related spookings come with the investment territory.  If and when one of these events grabs the global headlines, it might be helpful to remember that the stock markets have weathered far worse and have always come out ahead.  Think: World War II, a presidential assassination, two wars in the Middle East, 9/11 and a Wall Street-created global economic meltdown.  If we can survive and even profit, long-term, from a stay-the-course investment mentality through those events, then we might be able to weather the next big headline on (or off) the worry list.

If you have any financial planning questions you would like to discuss, please don’t hesitate to contact us at (734) 447-5305 or visit our website athttp://www.ydfs.com. We are a fee-only fiduciary financial planning and money management firm that always puts your interests first. Our first consultation is complimentary and free of any pressure or sales pitches.

Enjoy your weekend,
Sam

Sam H. Fawaz CPA, CFP
YDream Financial Services

Source:
http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/nouriel-roubini-warns-that-even-as-many-threats-to-the-world-economy-have-receded–new-ones-have-quickly-emerged#TA08zJsftAXboy7Y.99

Is myRA Your Next Retirement Plan?

Chances are, you’ve heard about the new myRA retirement savings program that was proposed by President Obama during his State of the Union speech.  But what is it, and how does it relate to the array of other retirement savings options you already have–including, of course, traditional and Roth IRAs, 401(k) or 403(b) plans?  Is this something you need to be looking at in addition to, or instead of one of these other options?
 
The new account, which is scheduled to be introduced later this year, will be offered to workers who currently don’t have access to any kind of retirement program through their employers.  Remarkably, this underserved population is actually about half of all workers, mostly those who work for small companies which have trouble affording the cost of creating and administering a 401(k) plan.  The idea is that a myRA would be so easy to install and implement (employers don’t have to administer the invested assets), and cost so little (virtually nothing), that all of these smaller companies would immediately give their employees this savings option.
 
Only some of the employees would be eligible, however.  Married couples earning more than $191,000, or singles earning more than $129,000, would be excluded from making myRA contributions.  And there is currently no law which says that employers would be required to offer these plans.
 
So the first thing to understand is that people who already have a retirement plan at work, or who earn more than the thresholds, shouldn’t give the myRA option a second thought.
 
Nor, frankly, would those people want to shift over to this option.  Why?  myRA functions much like a Roth IRA, which means that contributions are taxed before they go into the account just like the rest of a person’s salary, but the money will come out tax-free.
 
Anybody can make annual contributions to a Roth IRA; the 2014 maximum is $5,500 for persons under age 50; $6,500 if you’re 50 or older–and these are the same limits that will be imposed on the myRA.  BUT–and this is a big issue–the myRA is not really an investment account.  Any funds that are contributed to a myRA account earns interest from the federal government at the same rate that federal employees earn through the Thrift Savings Plan Government Securities Investment Fund–which is another way of saying that the money will be invested in government bonds.
 
Why does that matter?  Retirement accounts that invested solely in the stock market earned close to 30% from their stock investments last year.  The government bond investments that would have gone into a myRA earned 1.89% last year–which is below the inflation rate.  In real dollars, that was a losing investment.
 
Another big issue is the employer match.  Many workers who have a traditional 401(k) account get some of their contributions matched by their company, which effectively boosts their earnings.  myRA accounts will get no such match.
 
The Obama Administration clearly understands the difference between saving in a government bond account and actual investing.  Accordingly, there is a provision that whenever a myRA account reaches $15,000, it has to be rolled into a Roth IRA, where the money can be deployed in stocks, bonds or anywhere else the account holder chooses.  The program seems to be designed to encourage younger workers to start saving much earlier than they currently do.  Statistics show that the median retirement account for American workers age 25-32 is just $12,000, and 37% have less than $5,000. 
 
Will they be motivated to save when myRAs roll out at the end of the year?  Some commentators have noted that the money can be taken out of the account, for any reason, at any time, with no tax consequences.  That’s not a great formula for long-term savings.  But it does make the myRA account a convenient way for a worker just starting out to build up a cash reserve which could serve as a cushion against job loss or unexpected expenses like car repairs.  If it is not needed, the account could eventually grow into a retirement nest egg.
 
If you have any questions about the myRA or any other investment, retirement or financial planning matter, please don’t hesitate to ask.  We are a fee-only financial planning firm that always puts your interests first.

2013 Year-End Tax Planning Tips

As we approach year-end, it’s again time to focus on last-minute moves you can make to save taxes—both on your 2013 return and in future years.

For most individuals, the ordinary federal income tax rates for 2013 will be the same as last year: 10%, 15%, 25%, 28%, 33%, and 35%. However, the fiscal cliff legislation, passed early this year, increased the maximum rate for higher-income individuals to 39.6% (up from 35%). This change affects taxpayers with taxable income above $400,000 for singles, $450,000 for married joint-filing couples, and $425,000 for heads of households. In addition, the new 0.9% Medicare tax and 3.8% Net Investment Income Tax (NIIT) potentially kick in when modified adjusted gross income (or earned income in the case of the Medicare tax) goes over $200,000 for unmarried, $250,000 for married joint-filing couples, which can result in a higher-than-advertised federal tax rate for 2013.

Despite these tax increases, the current federal income tax environment remains relatively favorable by historical standards. This article presents several tax-saving ideas to get you started. As always, you can call on us to help you sort through the options and implement strategies that make sense for you.

Ideas for Maximizing Non-business Deductions

One way to reduce your 2013 tax liability is to look for additional deductions. Here’s a list of suggestions to get you started:

Make Charitable Gifts of Appreciated Stock. If you have appreciated stock that you’ve held more than a year and you plan to make significant charitable contributions before year-end, keep your cash and donate the stock (or mutual fund shares) instead. You’ll avoid paying tax on the appreciation, but will still be able to deduct the donated property’s full value. If you want to maintain a position in the donated securities, you can immediately buy back a like number of shares. (This idea works especially well with no load mutual or exchange traded funds because there are no transaction fees involved.)

However, if the stock is now worth less than when you acquired it, sell the stock, take the loss, and then give the cash to the charity. If you give the stock to the charity, your charitable deduction will equal the stock’s current depressed value and no capital loss will be available. Also, if you sell the stock at a loss, you can’t immediately buy it back as this will trigger the wash sale rules. This means your loss won’t be deductible, but instead will be added to the basis in the new shares. You must wait more than 30 days to buy back shares sold at a loss to avoid the wash sale rules.

Don’t Lose a Charitable Deduction for Lack of Paperwork. Charitable contributions are only deductible if you have proper documentation. For cash contributions of less than $250, this means you must have either a bank record that supports the donation (such as a cancelled check or credit card receipt) or a written statement from the charity that meets tax-law requirements. For cash donations of $250 or more, a bank record is not enough. You must obtain, by the time your tax return is filed, a charity-provided statement that shows the amount of the donation and lists any significant goods or services received in return for the donation (other than intangible religious benefits) or specifically states that you received no goods or services from the charity.

Maximize the Benefit of the Standard Deduction. For 2013, the standard deduction is $12,200 for married taxpayers filing joint returns. For single taxpayers, the amount is $6,100. Currently, it looks like these amounts will be about the same for 2014. If your total itemized deductions are normally close to these amounts, you may be able to leverage the benefit of your deductions by bunching deductions in every other year. This allows you to time your itemized deductions so that they are high in one year and low in the next. You claim actual expenses in the year they are bunched and take the standard deduction in the intervening years.

For instance, you might consider moving charitable donations you normally would make in early 2014 to the end of 2013. If you’re temporarily short on cash, charge the contribution to a credit card—it is deductible in the year charged, not when payment is made on the card. You can also accelerate payments of your real estate taxes or state income taxes otherwise due in early 2014. But, watch out for the AMT, as these taxes are not deductible for AMT purposes.

Manage Your Adjusted Gross Income (AGI). Many tax breaks are only available to taxpayers with AGI below certain levels. Some common AGI-based tax breaks include the child tax credit (phase-out begins at $110,000 for married couples and $75,000 for heads-of-households), the $25,000 rental real estate passive loss allowance (phase-out range of $100,000–$150,000 for most taxpayers), and the exclusion of social security benefits ($32,000 threshold for married filers; $25,000 for other filers). In addition, for 2013 taxpayers with AGI over $300,000 for married filers, $250,000 for singles, and $275,000 for heads-of-households begin losing part of their personal exemptions and itemized deductions. Accordingly, strategies that lower your income or increase certain deductions might not only reduce your taxable income, but also help increase some of your other tax deductions and credits.

Making the Most of Year-end Securities Transactions

For most individuals, the 2013 federal tax rates on long-term capital gains from sales of investments held over a year are the same as last year: either 0% or 15%. However, the maximum rate for higher-income individuals is now 20% (up from 15% last year). This change affects taxpayers with taxable income above $400,000 for singles, $450,000 for married joint-filing couples, $425,000 for heads-of-households, and $225,000 for married individuals who file separate returns. Higher-income individuals can also get hit by the new 3.8% NIIT on net investment income, which can result in a maximum 23.8% federal income tax rate on 2013 long-term gains.

As you evaluate investments held in your taxable brokerage firm accounts, consider the tax impact of selling appreciated securities (currently worth more than you paid for them). For most taxpayers, the federal tax rate on long-term capital gains is still much lower than the rate on short-term gains. Therefore, it often makes sense to hold appreciated securities for at least a year and a day before selling to qualify for the lower long-term gain tax rate.

But be smart about this and don’t let the tax “tail” wag the investment “dog”; you don’t want hold the investment long term just to gain tax benefits at the cost of a possible loss of the accumulated gain.

Biting the bullet and selling some loser securities (currently worth less than you paid for them) before year-end can also be a tax-smart idea. The resulting capital losses will offset capital gains from other sales this year, including high-taxed short-term gains from securities owned for one year or less. For 2013, the maximum rate on short-term gains is 39.6%, and the 3.8% NIIT may apply too, which can result in an effective rate of up to 43.4%. However, you don’t need to worry about paying a high rate on short-term gains that can be sheltered with capital losses (you will pay 0% on gains that can be sheltered).

If capital losses for this year exceed capital gains, you will have a net capital loss for 2013. You can use that net capital loss to shelter up to $3,000 of this year’s high-taxed ordinary income ($1,500 if you’re married and file separately). Any excess net capital loss is carried forward to next year.

Selling enough loser securities to create a bigger net capital loss that exceeds what you can use this year might also make sense. You can carry forward the excess capital loss to 2014 and beyond and use it to shelter both short-term gains and long-term gains recognized in those years.

Identify the Securities You Sell. When selling stock or mutual fund shares, the general rule is that the shares you acquired first are the ones you sell first. However, if you choose, you can specifically identify the shares you’re selling when you sell less than your entire holding of a stock or mutual fund. By notifying your broker of the shares you want sold at the time of the sale, your gain or loss from the sale is based on the identified shares. This sales strategy gives you better control over the amount of your gain or loss and whether it’s long-term or short-term.

Secure a Deduction for Nearly Worthless Securities. If you own any securities that are all but worthless with little hope of recovery, you might consider selling them before the end of the year so you can capitalize on the loss this year. You can deduct a loss on worthless securities only if you can prove the investment is completely worthless. Thus, a deduction is not available, as long as you own the security and it has any value at all. Total worthlessness can be very difficult to establish with any certainty. To avoid the issue, it may be easier just to sell the security if it has any marketable value. As long as the sale is not to a family member, this allows you to claim a loss for the difference between your tax basis and the proceeds (subject to the normal rules for capital losses and the wash sale rules restricting the recognition of loss if the security is repurchased within 30 days before or after the sale).

Ideas for Seniors Age 701/2 Plus

Make Charitable Donations from Your IRA. IRA owners and beneficiaries who have reached age 701/2 are permitted to make cash donations totaling up to $100,000 to IRS-approved public charities directly out of their IRAs. These so-called Qualified Charitable Distributions, or QCDs, are federal-income-tax-free to you, but you get no itemized charitable write-off on your Form 1040. That’s okay because the tax-free treatment of QCDs equates to an immediate 100% federal income tax deduction without having to worry about restrictions that can delay itemized charitable write-offs. QCDs have other tax advantages, too. Contact us if you want to hear about them.

Be careful—to qualify for this special tax break, the funds must be transferred directly from your IRA to the charity. Also, this favorable provision will expire at the end of this year unless Congress extends it. So, this could be your last chance.

Take Your Required Retirement Distributions. The tax laws generally require individuals with retirement accounts to take withdrawals based on the size of their account and their age every year after they reach age 701/2. Failure to take a required withdrawal can result in a penalty of 50% of the amount not withdrawn. There’s good news for 2013 though—QCDs discussed above count as payouts for purposes of the required distribution rules. This means, you can donate all or part of your 2013 required distribution amount (up to the $100,000 limit on QCDs) and convert taxable required distributions into tax-free QCDs.

Also, if you turned age 701/2 in 2013, you can delay your 2013 required distribution to 2014, if you choose. However, waiting until 2014 will result in two distributions in 2014—the amount required for 2013 plus the amount required for 2014. While deferring income is normally a sound tax strategy, here it results in bunching income into 2014. Thus, think twice before delaying your 2013 distribution to 2014—bunching income into 2014 might throw you into a higher tax bracket or have a detrimental impact on your other tax deductions in 2014.

Ideas for the Office

Maximize Contributions to 401(k) Plans. If you have a 401(k) plan at work, it’s just about time to tell your company how much you want to set aside on a tax-free basis for next year. Contribute as much as you can stand, especially if your employer makes matching contributions. You give up “free money” when you fail to participate to the max for the match.

Take Advantage of Flexible Spending Accounts (FSAs). If your company has a healthcare and/or dependent care FSA, before year-end you must specify how much of your 2014 salary to convert into tax-free contributions to the plan. You can then take tax-free withdrawals next year to reimburse yourself for out-of-pocket medical and dental expenses and qualifying dependent care costs. Watch out, though, FSAs are “use-it-or-lose-it” accounts—you don’t want to set aside more than what you’ll likely have in qualifying expenses for the year.

Married couples who both have access to FSAs will also need to decide whose FSA to use. If one spouse’s salary is likely to be higher than what’s known as the FICA wage limit (which is $113,700 for this year and will likely be somewhat higher next year) and the other spouse’s will be less, the one with the smaller salary should fund as much of the couple’s FSA needs as possible. The reason is that the 6.2% social security tax levy for 2014 is set to stop at the FICA wage limit (and doesn’t apply at all to money put into an FSA). Thus, for example, if one spouse earns $120,000 and the other $40,000 and they want to collectively set aside $5,000 in their FSAs, they can save $310 (6.2% of $5,000) by having the full amount taken from the lower-paid spouse’s salary versus having 100% taken from the other one’s wages. Of course, either way, the couple will also save approximately $1,400 in income and Medicare taxes because of the FSAs.

If you currently have a healthcare FSA, make sure you drain it by incurring eligible expenses before the deadline for this year. Otherwise, you’ll lose the remaining balance. It’s not that hard to drum some things up: new glasses or contacts, dental work you’ve been putting off, or prescriptions that can be filled early.

Adjust Your Federal Income Tax Withholding. As stated at the beginning of this article, higher-income individuals will likely see their taxes go up this year. This makes it more important than ever to do the calculations to see where you stand before the end of the year. If it looks like you are going to owe income taxes for 2013, consider bumping up the federal income taxes withheld from your paychecks now through the end of the year. When you file your return, you will still have to pay any taxes due less the amount paid in. However, as long as your total tax payments (estimated payments plus withholdings) equal at least 90% of your 2013 liability or, if smaller, 100% of your 2012 liability (110% if your 2012 adjusted gross income exceeded $150,000; $75,000 for married individuals who filed separate returns), penalties will be minimized, if not eliminated.

Watch Out for the Alternative Minimum Tax

Recent legislation slightly reduced the odds that you’ll owe the alternative minimum tax (AMT). Even so, it’s still critical to evaluate all tax planning strategies in light of the AMT rules before actually making any moves. Because the AMT rules are complicated, you may want our assistance.

Don’t Overlook Estate Planning

For 2013, the unified federal gift and estate tax exemption is a historically generous $5.25 million, and the federal estate tax rate is a historically reasonable 40%. Even if you already have an estate plan, it may need updating to reflect the current estate and gift tax rules. Also, you may need to make some changes for reasons that have nothing to do with taxes.

Ideas for Your Business

Take Advantage of Tax Breaks for Purchasing Equipment, Software, and Certain Real Property. If you have plans to buy a business computer, office furniture, equipment, vehicle, or other tangible business property or to make certain improvements to real property, you might consider doing so before year-end to capitalize on the following generous, but temporary tax breaks:

  • Bigger Section 179 Deduction. Your business may be able to take advantage of the temporarily increased Section 179 deduction. Under the Section 179 deduction privilege, an eligible business can often claim first-year depreciation write-offs for the entire cost of new and used equipment and software additions. (However, limits apply to the amount that can be deducted for most vehicles.) For tax years beginning in 2013, the maximum Section 179 deduction is $500,000. For tax years beginning in 2014, however, the maximum deduction is scheduled to drop to $25,000.
  • Section 179 Deduction for Real Estate. Real property costs are generally ineligible for the Section 179 deduction privilege. However, an exception applies to tax years beginning in 2013. Under the exception, your business can immediately deduct up to $250,000 of qualified costs for restaurant buildings and improvements to interiors of retail and leased nonresidential buildings. The $250,000 Section 179 allowance for these real estate expenditures is part of the overall $500,000 allowance. This temporary real estate break will not be available for tax years beginning after 2013 unless Congress extends it.

Note: Watch out if your business is already expected to have a tax loss for the year (or be close) before considering any Section 179 deduction, as you cannot claim a Section 179 write-off that would create or increase an overall business tax loss. Please contact us if you think this might be an issue for your operation.

  • 50% First-year Bonus Depreciation. Above and beyond the bumped-up Section 179 deduction, your business can also claim first-year bonus depreciation equal to 50% of the cost of most new (not used) equipment and software placed in service by December 31 of this year. For a new passenger auto or light truck that’s used for business and is subject to the luxury auto depreciation limitations, the 50% bonus depreciation break increases the maximum first-year depreciation deduction by $8,000 for vehicles placed in service this year. The 50% bonus depreciation break will expire at year-end unless Congress extends it.

Note:First-year bonus depreciation deductions can create or increase a Net Operating Loss (NOL) for your business’s 2013 tax year. You can then carry back a 2013 NOL to 2011 and 2012 and collect a refund of taxes paid in those years. Please contact us for details on the interaction between asset additions and NOLs.

Evaluate Inventory for Damaged or Obsolete Items. Inventory is normally valued for tax purposes at cost or the lower of cost or market value. Regardless of which of these methods is used, the end-of-the-year inventory should be reviewed to detect obsolete or damaged items. The carrying cost of any such items may be written down to their probable selling price (net of selling expenses). [This rule does not apply to businesses that use the Last in, First out (LIFO) method because LIFO does not distinguish between goods that have been written down and those that have not].

To claim a deduction for a write-down of obsolete inventory, you are not required to scrap the item. However, in a period ending not later than 30 days after the inventory date, the item must be actually offered for sale at the price to which the inventory is reduced.

Employ Your Child. If you are self-employed, don’t miss one last opportunity to employ your child before the end of the year. Doing so has tax benefits in that it shifts income (which is not subject to the Kiddie tax) from you to your child, who normally is in a lower tax bracket or may avoid tax entirely due to the standard deduction. There can also be payroll tax savings since wages paid by sole proprietors to their children age 17 and younger are exempt from both social security and unemployment taxes. Employing your children has the added benefit of providing them with earned income, which enables them to contribute to an IRA. Children with IRAs, particularly Roth IRAs, have a great start on retirement savings since the compounded growth of the funds can be significant.

Remember a couple of things when employing your child. First, the wages paid must be reasonable given the child’s age and work skills. Second, if the child is in college, or is entering soon, having too much earned income can have a detrimental impact on the student’s need-based financial aid eligibility.

Conclusion

Through careful planning, it’s possible your 2013 tax liability can still be significantly reduced, but don’t delay. The longer you wait, the less likely it is that you’ll be able to achieve a meaningful reduction. The ideas discussed in this article are a good way to get you started with year-end planning, but they’re no substitute for personalized professional assistance. Please don’t hesitate to contact us with questions or for additional strategies on reducing your tax bill. We’d be glad to set up a planning meeting or assist you in any other way that we can. You can find us at http://ydfs.com

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