I Had $562 in Unclaimed Property

Several years ago, I changed firms, and in the process of moving, apparently my old firm did not forward a check for an insurance commission they had received. With the $562 check going unprocessed for more than one year, the insurance company filed an “Unclaimed Property Report” and turned the funds over to the State Comptroller of Texas.

To my surprise, I found my name on a list of unclaimed property and was able to receive this $562 from the state last year. Here in Texas, the Comptroller has returned more than $2 Billion in unclaimed property. Maybe you moved and missed a check? Maybe you had an old bank account that you forgot about? Maybe a company owed you a credit and was unable to reach you?

Here’s how you can find if there is any unclaimed property under your name. You will need to check for each state where you have lived. You can start by going to the website of the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators and clicking on your state. Search for your name and city.

For Texas residents, you can go directly to the Texas Site here.

It’s worth spending two minutes doing this, even if you believe as I did, that no one owes you any money. Let me know if you have any success. I hope you do!

Advantages of Equal Weight Investing

The four largest stocks in the United States are all tech companies today: Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook. For 2017, these stocks are up significantly more than the overall market, 49%, 38%, 55%, and 52% respectively.

These are undoubtedly great companies, but as a student of the markets, I know you can look at the top companies of previous decades and notice two things. First, top companies don’t stay at the top forever, and second, the market goes through phases where it loves one sector or industry more than it should. (Until it doesn’t…)

And this is the knock on index funds. Because they are weighted by market capitalization, an index will tend to own a great deal of the over-valued companies and very little of the under-valued companies. The top 10 stocks of the S&P 500 Index comprise nearly 20% of its weight today. If you go back to 1999 and look at the valuation of the largest tech companies like Cisco, you can see how those shares were set up for a subsequent period of substantial and prolonged under-performance.

In spite of this supposed flaw in index funds, the fact remains that typically 80% of all actively managed funds perform worse than their benchmark over any period of five years or longer. If the index is hampered by all these over-valued companies, why is it so difficult for fund managers to find the under-valued shares? One possible reason is that the higher expense ratio of an active fund, often one percent or more, eats up the entire value added by the manager.

But there is an interesting alternative to market cap weighting, which avoids over-weighting the expensive stocks. It’s equal weighting. If you have 500 stocks, you invest 0.2% in each company. Your performance then equals that of the average stock, rather than being dependent on the largest companies. To remain equal weight, the fund will have to rebalance positions back to their 0.2% weight from time to time.

There have been extensive studies of the equal weight process, most notably by Standard and Poors which calculates an equal weight version of their S&P 500 Index, and by Rob Arnott, of Research Affiliates, who wrote about equal weighting in various papers and in his 2008 book “The Fundamental Index.”

But even better than studies, there has been an Equal Weight ETF available to investors since April 2003, a 14-year track record through Bull and Bear Markets. The results have been compelling.

– Since inception in 2003, the S&P 500 equal weight fund has had an annual return of 11.21% versus 9.53% for the cap-weighted S&P 500 Index.
– Equal Weight beat Market Cap over 57% of the one-year periods, on a rolling monthly basis since the fund started in 2003. However, the fund out performed over 84% of the five-year periods and 100% of the 10-year periods.
– You might think that by reducing the supposedly over-valued companies, the fund would have lower volatility, but that has not been the case. Instead, the fund has had a slightly higher standard deviation and actually lost more in 2008 than the cap weighted index. It’s no magic bullet; it’s primary benefit appears to be return enhancement rather than risk reduction.

We plan to add an Equal Weight fund to our portfolio models for 2018. Although some of our concern is that today’s tech stocks dominating the index are over-valued, we should point out that there is no guarantee that Equal Weight will be better than the Cap Weighted approach in 2018 or in any given year. However, for investors with a long-term outlook, the approach does appear to offer some benefits in performance and that’s the reason we are adding it to our portfolios.

Before August, the cheapest fund offering an equal weight strategy had an expense ratio of 0.40%. However, there is a new ETF that offers the strategy at an ultra-low cost of only 0.09%, which makes it very competitive with even the cheapest cap weighted ETFs.

If you have any questions on the approach, please feel free to email or call me. For positions in taxable accounts, we have significant gains in many portfolios. In those cases, we will not be selling and creating a taxable event. But we will be purchasing the new fund in IRAs and for purchases going forward.

Source of data: Morningstar.com and from Guggenheim Investments All Things Being Equal dated 9/30/2017.

Investment Themes for 2018

Each year, we look closely at trends and valuations to create themes which will be incorporated into our Investment Porfolios. In addition to the Defensive Managers Select portfolio which we highlighted last week, our Premiere Wealth Portfolios are tactical asset allocation models with 10-15 funds or ETFs, at five risk levels: Conservative, with a benchmark of 35% Stocks/65% Bonds, Balanced (50/50), Moderate (60/40), Growth (70/30), and Aggressive (85/15). We are also rolling out a new allocation, Ultra Equity, which will be 100/0.

We will always remain broadly diversified, invested both in Core Assets, which we believe should always be in a portfolio, and in Satellite Assets, which are typically in a more narrow category which we feel offers a benefit to the portfolio at the present time. The Satellite holdings may be changed from year to year, and while the Core funds are “permanent”, their size and weighting in the portfolio will change each year based on their relative valuations and attractiveness of other categories.

We always start with the overall asset allocation in our process, and then choose funds which we think will accurately represent each category. With our themes each year, I think you will see that we are far from being entirely passive. Here are our big picture thoughts for 2018.

1) Foreign over Domestic Stocks. US Equities are quite expensive relative to the rest of the world. The strong performance in 2017 has stretched those valuations even further. We are presently overweight US stocks relative to our benchmark (the MSCI All-Country World Index), but will reduce our weighting to US stocks to an underweight.

2) Overweight Emerging Markets. For 2017, we increased our allocation to Emerging Markets Equities to two-times the level of the index, approximately 17% compared to 8.5%. EM had a phenomenal year in 2017, currently up nearly 30%. When we rebalance, these postions may be trimmed, but please note that we are not reducing our target allocation!

3) Reduce Risk in Fixed Income. While short-term rates rose nicely in 2017, long-term interest rates did not. This was our “low for longer” theme from last year. We sold our high-yield bond ETF over the summer, but will continue to look to reduce the duration of our bond holdings and increase the credit quality. When we do eventually get a correction in the stock portfolio, we want to have high quality bonds to provide support to the portfolio.

4) Increased Volatility. We don’t have a crystal ball and believe that trying to make predictions is not only futile but damaging to your returns. However, we have gone an exceptionally long time without any sort of correction. I don’t know when it will occur, but just as autumn turns to winter, I think investors must not forget that there will be down periods, and be prepared to weather potential storms in 2018 and beyond.

We published Four Investment Themes for 2017 in November of 2016. Click the link if you’d like to see how we did. I think we were generally successful in identifying themes for this year, except that I was expecting Value stocks to take the lead from Growth stocks, which did not occur. However, we saw the gap in valuation between Value and Growth widen in 2017, so I believe that Value offers less risk and potentially a higher long-term return than Growth.

2017 was the first full year to include a 10% allocation to Alternatives within each portfolio. With the stock market producing double digit returns in many categories, our investment in Alternatives was a drag on performance. Still, I think many investors will appreciate that we are looking for more stable sources of returns than just being in stocks and bonds. With high valuations in domestic stocks, and low bonds yields globally, risks remain elevated.

Overall, we will be making only small adjustments to our portfolios for 2018. But compared to two or three years ago, we have already made significant changes to reduce risk and further diversify our portfolios. As always, I am happy to discuss our investing approach in greater detail with anyone who is interested.

Can You Contribute to an HSA After 65?

[For a primer on HSAs, start here: Health Savings Accounts, 220,000 Reasons Why You Need One.]

If you are working past age 65 and covered by an employer-sponsored health plan that is HSA compatible (a high deductible health plan or HDHP), you could in theory continue to fund a Health Savings Account with employee or employer contributions. However, an HSA contribution is only allowable if you do not have any other type of insurance. So, if you sign up for Medicare Part A (or any other Part), you would be disallowed from continuing to make new HSA contributions. Many health plans require coordination with Medicare at age 65, so be sure to check with your insurer.

If you choose to not sign up for Medicare at age 65, it is very important to maintain records that you were covered by an employer sponsored health plan. Otherwise you will pay permanently higher premiums for Part B when you do eventually enroll.

Luckily, if you have an existing HSA, there are lots of uses for your account. Just like before you started Medicare, you can use funds in an HSA to pay your out-of-pocket expenses like your doctor or hospital co-pays and prescription drug costs. You can use your HSA to pay for dental, vision, or other medical expenses not covered by Medicare.

Additionally, Medicare participants can use an HSA to pay for their premiums for Part B, Part D, or for a private Medicare Advantage plan. If your Medicare premiums are deducted from your Social Security check, just reimburse yourself from your HSA and keep detailed records as proof. Retirees may also use their HSA to pay a portion of their premiums towards a Long-Term Care policy, if they have one.

You can use an HSA to reimburse yourself for medical bills for past years, again providing you can document and prove these were qualified expenses. When you pass away, if you have listed your spouse as beneficiary, your spouse can inherit your HSA, and treat it as their own. Then they can also access the money tax-free for qualified medical expenses. However, if your HSA beneficiary is not a spouse (or one is not named), then the account will be distributed and that distribution will be taxable.

For Medicare participants interested in an HSA-like option, there is the Medicare MSA. This is a Medicare Advantage Plan which provides a cash account for expenses, but not fewer tax benefits than an HSA. Details from Medicare here.

Are Your Tax-Deductions Going Away?

Last week, we discussed the current tax reform proposal in Washington and discussed how it would reduce incentives for homeowners two ways: by increasing the standard deduction and by eliminating the deduction for state and local taxes, including the deduction for property taxes. Recall that itemized deductions only are a benefit if they exceed the amount of the standard deduction, currently $6,350 single or $12,700 married.

While the legislation has yet to be finalized, it appears increasingly likely that we are on the eve of the most significant tax changes in 30 years. The proposals are slated to take effect in 2018, which means that if they are approved, there is still several weeks in 2017 to make use of the old rules.

For many Americans, your taxes will be lower under the current proposal. The biggest tax cuts, however, would go to corporations, with a proposed reduction from 35% to a maximum of 20%. That’s the proposal, but the final version may be different. The advice below is based on the current GOP plan; we would not advocate taking any steps until the reforms are in their final version and passed.

1. Itemized Deductions. The proposal would increase the standard deduction from $6,350 (single) and $12,700 (married) to $12,000 and $24,000. As a result, it is believed that instead of 33%, the number of taxpayers who itemize will fall to only 10%. If you have itemized deductions below $12,000/$24,000, you will no longer receive any benefit from those expenses in 2018.

  • Consider accelerating any tax deductions into 2017, such as property taxes, charitable donations, or unreimbursed employee expenses.
  • Itemized deductions for casualty losses, gambling losses/expenses, and medical expenses will be repealed.
  • Many miscellaneous deductions will disappear, including: tax preparation fees, moving for work (over 50 miles), and unreimbursed employee expenses.
  • Investment advisory fees, such as those I charge to clients, will still be tax deductible. However, these miscellaneous deductions only count when they exceed 2% of AGI, which will be more difficult to achieve with so many other deductions disappearing.
  • The $7,500 tax credit for the purchase of a plug-in electric vehicle will be abolished. If you were thinking of buying a Chevy Bolt or Nissan Leaf, better do so now! If you are on the wait list for a Tesla Model 3, you probably will not receive one before the credit disappears. Read more: “Is Your Car Eligible for a $7,500 Tax Credit?”

2. Real Estate. The Senate version we discussed last week had completely eliminated the deduction for property taxes and state/local taxed paid. Luckily, this has been softened to a cap of $10,000 for property taxes.

  • If your property taxes exceed $10,000, you might want to pay those taxes in December as part of your 2017 tax year. If you pay in January 2018, you would not receive the full deduction.
  • The proposal also caps the mortgage interest deduction to $500,000, and for your primary residence only. This is a substantial reduction. Currently, you can deduct interest on a mortgage up to $1 million, and you can also deduct mortgage interest on a second home, including, in some cases, an RV or yacht.
  • Many owners of second homes will likely try to treat these as investment properties, if they are willing to rent them out. As a rental, you can deduct taxes and other costs as a business expense. See my article: “Can You Afford a Second Home?”

3. Tax Brackets. The proposal reduces the tax brackets to four levels: 12%, 25%, 35%, and 39.6% (the current top bracket remains). These brackets are shifted to slightly higher income levels, so many taxpayers will be in a lower bracket than today or pay less tax. Those in the top bracket, 39.6%, who also make over $1 million, will have their income in the 12% range boosted to the 39.6% level. So don’t think this proposal is excessively generous to high earners – many will see higher taxes.

The Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) will be abolished, so if you have any Minimum Tax Credit carryforwards, those credits will be released. The 3.8% Medicare Surtax will unfortunately remain in place, even though Trump has previously promised to repeal it. Capital Gains rates will remain at 0%, 15%, and 20% depending on your tax bracket, and curiously, these rates will be tied to the old income levels, and not to the new tax brackets.

If passed, the tax reform bill will substantially change how we deduct expenses from our taxes. Those with simple returns may find that their tax bill is lower, but for many investors with more complicated tax situations, the proposed changes may require that you rethink how you approach your taxes.

We will keep you posted of how this unfolds and will especially be looking for potential ways it may impact our financial plans. It has often been said that the definition of a “loophole” is a tax benefit that someone else gets. Unfortunately, simplifying the tax code and closing these deductions is bound to upset many people who will see their favorite tax benefits reduced or removed entirely.

Home Tax Deductions: Overrated and Getting Worse

If you ask virtually anyone about the benefits of home ownership, you will probably hear the phrase “great tax deductions” within 20 seconds. However, the reality is that for many taxpayers, owning real estate is not much of a tax deduction at all. And under the Trump-proposed tax reform bill currently in Congress, the actual tax benefits homeowners achieve will shrink vastly.

The two main tax benefits of being a homeowner are the mortgage interest deduction and the property tax deduction. These are claimed under “itemized deductions”, which also include charitable donations, medical expenses (exceeding 7.5% or 10% of income), and miscellaneous deductions such as unreimbursed employee expenses.

You have your choice of taking whichever is higher: the standard deduction or your itemized deductions (Schedule A). The standard deduction for 2017 is $6,350 (single) or $12,700 (married filing jointly). So, the first thing to realize about home tax deductions is that you only are getting a benefit if they exceed $6,350/$12,700.

If you are married and your mortgage interest, property tax, and other deductions only total $11,000, you will take the standard deduction. All those house expenses did not get you a penny of additional tax benefits. If your itemized deductions total $13,000, you would take the itemized deductions, but are only getting a benefit of $300 – the amount by which you exceeded the standard deduction.

The greatest proportion of tax benefits for homeowners go to those with very expensive homes and large mortgages. People with more modest homes may be getting little or no benefit relative to the standard deduction. But wealthy taxpayers can have their itemized deductions reduced by up to 80% under the Pease Restrictions. So, I have also seen high earning families who don’t get to count their home expenses either, and have to take the Standard Deduction!

The proposal in Congress today via President Trump would make two significant changes to tax deductions for homeowners:

1. The bill would almost double the standard deduction from $6,350 (single) and $12,700 (married) today to $12,000 and $24,000. This would reduce taxes and eliminate the need for itemized deductions for many American families. If you are married and your current itemized deductions are under $24,000, you would no longer be getting a deduction for those expenses.

2. Trump also proposes eliminating the deduction for State and Local Taxes (the so-called SALT deductions), which includes property taxes. Removing the SALT deduction from Schedule A would be devastating for high tax states like California, New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey. But it would also harm many homeowners right here in Texas, where our property taxes can be a significant expense.

While the increase in the standard deduction would offset the loss of SALT deductions for many Americans, it is still an elimination of a key benefit of being a homeowner. The current tax reform bill has narrowly passed in the House of Representatives and will be taken up by the Senate after November 6, where it requires only a simple majority to pass under budget reconciliation rules.

The fact is that real estate tax deductions were already overstated when you recognize that you only benefit when you exceed the Standard Deduction. The first $12,700 in itemized deductions achieve no reduction in taxes whatsoever. Now, if Congress acts to increase the Standard Deduction and to eliminate the ability to deduct property taxes, most people will not be getting any tax break from being a homeowner.

Depending on your situation, your overall tax bill may still go down. The current proposal will simplify the tax brackets to just three levels: 12%, 25%, and 35%. Your taxes may also go down because of the increase in the Standard Deduction, provided the Standard Deduction is higher than your Schedule A.

Tax policy has a profound influence on public behavior. If you know that you are not getting any additional tax benefit from being a homeowner, you may prefer to rent. If you are retired and see your income taxes go up, you may decide to sell your home and downsize to save money. This change in policy may have the unintended consequence of hurting home values, too, because it certainly make being a homeowner less appealing.

Big Changes to Ameritrade’s ETF Platform

Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) are a terrific vehicle for investors, offering an easy way to build diversified portfolios that are transparent, tax efficient, and low cost. We’ve written frequently about the advantages of ETFs and hold them as core positions within all of our portfolios.

This week, our custodian, TD Ameritrade, announced that it was expanding its platform of commission-free ETFs from 100 to nearly 300 funds. Wonderful, right? Not so fast… while the total number of ETFs will increase, they are actually dropping 84 low-cost ETFs, including ALL of the Vanguard ETFs we use for each and every client.

To say that we are disappointed and frustrated is an understatement. We are big fans of Vanguard and have used these funds since we opened three years ago. They are among our largest holdings. Why is TD Ameritrade dropping these funds? Distribution fees. Vanguard does not pay custodians to distribute their funds, but other companies will pay TD Ameritrade to be on their commission-free platform.

As a whole, the changes to the TD Ameritrade platform are appalling to me. We lose low cost ETFs from Vanguard and the iShares Core series, and instead are offered mainly niche ETFs with high expense ratios. Many of the new ETFs are focused on a very narrow area such as the “nasdaq smartphone index” or the “dynamic pharmaceuticals” ETF. This approach is antithetical to our process of diversification. Sometimes being given more options does not mean that you have better choices.

There is one bright spot: they are adding the new SPDR Portfolio Series from State Street. State Street is one of the three largest ETF providers, along with Vanguard and iShares, and is the creator of the original S&P 500 ETF, SPY,  which launched the whole ETF movement nearly 20 years ago.

In recent years, State Street has been struggling to keep up with lower cost competition from Vanguard, Schwab, iShares and others. The new Portfolio Series took a handful of their most diversified ETFs, many with track records of over 10 years, and slashed the expense ratios to levels at or below even Vanguard. These will be our new go-to funds.

We can of course, continue to buy and sell the Vanguard ETFs through TD Ameritrade. However, after November 16, those trades will incur a standard commission (as low as $6.95). And that is still a bargain. Should we drop our Vanguard funds in the next month, while they still trade for commission-free?

Here is our plan:

1. In taxable accounts, we may have significant capital gains in our Vanguard positions. It does not make sense to realize thousands of dollars in gains just to avoid a $6.95 commission. (If we had losses, we would harvest those losses, but the market is up nicely this year. I’m not complaining!)

2. Even when there is zero commission, there are still trading costs. Just like stocks, ETFs trade in an auction process where buyers offer a “bid” and sellers request an “ask” price. The Vanguard ETFs are heavily traded, sometimes with multiple trades in one second. The difference between the bid and ask price, the “spread”, is often only one cent.

However, on ETFs that trade less frequently, the spread can be much higher. I looked at a small-cap value ETF this week that had a 14 cent spread. So, even in non-taxable accounts like IRAs, there may still be a hidden cost if we were to sell Vanguard to buy the SPDRs. As trading volume increases, I anticipate bid-ask spreads will tighten on the newly added funds. But for larger positions, selling one ETF at the bid and buying another at the ask could certainly cost more than the $6.95 commission we are trying to avoid.

3. For new purchases, we will use the SPDR Portfolio Series, effective immediately. They trade commission-free and in many cases have a lower expense ratio than a comparable Vanguard Fund. Existing portfolios will continue to hold Vanguard Funds. This means that many portfolios will unfortunately now have some duplication, where for example, we might own a Vanguard International ETF and also own a similar SPDR International ETF. I try to avoid that sort of redundancy, but it does not really cause any harm.

4. In IRAs with smaller positions, we will look to sell Vanguard within the next few weeks and replace those positions with a new commission-free option. We will still be needing to rebalance portfolios annually, in which case, it is nice to be able to do so commission-free. These trades will be done on a case-by-case basis.

Please feel free to email or call me with any questions. This change at TD Ameritrade has created some temporary hassle, and received quite negative press on Wealth Management.com and in a scathing piece by Michael Kitces.

This change isn’t going to detract from our approach or impact our investment process. We start with a top down asset allocation and then choose the best fund to fulfill each segment of our allocation. We certainly don’t limit our search for investments to just commission-free ETFs, and have always also had mutual funds or ETFs that are not on the commission-free platform. As your Fiduciary, we take seriously our responsibility to keep fees as low as possible, but it’s not true that the lowest cost is always the best investment option.

How Exercise Can Make You a Better Investor

There are a lot of parallels between getting in shape and being a successful investor. Both take time and consistent effort to achieve results. We’d love to have overnight, instant results, but that isn’t how life works!

Here are five key factors to an effective exercise program that you can apply directly to helping you achieve your financial goals. If you are already doing great with your workout program, why not apply that same process to getting your finances in shape?

1. One pound at a time. Your goal may be to lose 30 pounds, but you can’t lose 30 pounds at once. You have to take it one day at a time and lose the first pound, then the second, and so on. In investing, everyone wants to be a millionaire, but you have to save that first thousand dollars, then the next thousand and so on. You can’t just wish for it, you have to work for it.

2. Set a goal. Having a specific goal such as “lose 20 pounds by March 1” or “achieve a BMI of 15 by January 1” is better than a vague goal such as “get in better shape”. Otherwise, how will you know if you achieve your goal? How will you know if you are on track? What is your motivation and sense of urgency?

A long-term goal creates short-term steps. If you want to lose X pounds in X weeks, you might use an app like myfitnesspal to calculate how much you need to workout and how many calories you can eat in a day. Your goal determines a path and mileposts. For investing, if your goal is to have $500,000 in your 401(k) at retirement, how much would you need to save from each paycheck to make that happen?

3. Make good choices. When you have a fitness goal, some decisions, like eating half of a cheesecake for dinner, will put you further away from your goals and negate all the hard work you have been doing. Similarly, if you have a financial goal, spending $15,000 on a European vacation may be inconsistent with that goal. When your goal is more important than the eating or spending, you learn to make better choices.

That’s not to say that you can’t indulge from time to time, but you can’t let those choices derail your progress. If you view these choices as a sacrifice or as deprivation, you will resent your fitness or financial goals. You may find it easier to stick to the plan when you observe and celebrate the positive results you are achieving.

4. Create new habits. For a workout program to get results, you have to stick to it and have it become an unchangeable part of your routine. Maybe you workout Monday through Friday at 7:30 am before work. Or maybe you spend your lunch hour on Tuesday and Thursdays at the Gym and then workout on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Maybe you learn to watch TV without eating food at the same time!

The point is that you create new habits that will help achieve your goals. For investors, people are more likely to be successful when they put their saving on autopilot. Have that money come directly out of your paycheck into your 401(k). Start a Roth IRA and establish a monthly draw of $400 from your checking account. Set up a 529 college savings plan and even if you only start with $50 a month, get going today!

5. Human support. You are more likely to succeed in your fitness goals if you are part of a group or have a coach to make sure you actually get to the gym! They can motivate you, applaud your progress, and help you regroup after the inevitable frustration of temporary set-backs. When you go it alone, your weekend choices may not be as good as someone who has a weigh-in on Monday morning with their trainer. Having someone who supports you, who can lend an ear, and can also provide objective guidance will help you get there faster.

When it comes to investing, many people make the same excuses as they have for fitness: I am too busy, exercise is too expensive, it’s so boring, my career/family/hobby is takes all my time… And yet, many of the busiest, most successful people I know manage to find time to workout and stay in shape. When it is an important priority, you figure out how to make it happen.

If you want to get in better shape financially, apply what you know works for exercise. We can help you identify realistic goals and put into motion new habits to help you achieve your objectives. You will learn about finances and you might even find that you enjoy yourself! But most of all, you will know that you are doing the right thing today and that your future self will thank you for not waiting another year to get started. You can schedule your call online here.

Beware: 2017 Fund Capital Gains Distributions

We are starting to receive estimates for year-end 2017 Capital Gains distributions from Mutual Funds, and no surprise, many funds are having large distributions to their shareholders this year. As a refresher, when a mutual fund sells a stock within its portfolio, the gain on that sale is passed through to the fund owners at the end of the year as a taxable event.

When you invest in a 401(k), IRA, or other qualified account, these capital gains distributions don’t create any additional taxes for you. If you reinvest your distributions, your dollar value of the fund remains the same, and you are unaffected by the capital gain. However, if you are investing in a taxable account, these distributions will cost you money in the form of increased taxes.

A quick look at estimates from American FundsColumbia, and Franklin-Templeton shows that many equity funds are having capital gains distributions of 3-10% this year. A few are even higher, such as the Columbia Acorn (17-21%) and Acorn USA (23-28%). Imagine if you made a $100,000 investment at the beginning of the year, your fund is up 16% and then you get a distribution for $28,000 in capital gains! Yes, capital gains distributions can exceed what a fund made in a year, when the fund sells positions which it owned for longer.

Capital Gains Distributions create a number of problems:

  • Even if you are a long-term shareholder, when the fund distributes short-term gains, you are taxed at the higher short-term tax rate.
  • If you didn’t sell any of your shares, you will need to find other money to pay the tax bill, which can run into the thousands each year if you have even just a $50,000 taxable portfolio.
  • If you are thinking of buying mutual fund shares in Q4 of this year, you could end up buying into a big December tax bill and paying for gains the fund had 6-12 months ago.
  • In addition to paying capital gains on fund distributions, you will still have to pay tax when you sell your shares.
  • Capital gains distributions are in addition to any dividends and interest a fund pays. In general, we want dividends and interest income as additions to our total return. Capital gains distributions, however, do not increase our return and are an unwelcome tax liability.

If you have a taxable account, or both taxable and retirement accounts, we may be able to save you a substantial amount of money on taxes. We can use tax-efficient investments like Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs), which typically have little or ZERO capital gains distributions at the end of the year. This puts us in control of when you want to sell and harvest your gains. When you have multiple types of accounts, we can place the investments into the best account to minimize your tax bill.

If you do presently have mutual funds in a taxable account, it may be a good idea to take a look at your potential exposure before the end of the year so you are not surprised. If you sell before the distribution is paid, you can avoid that distribution. Now that will mean paying capital gains based on the profit you have when you sell. But you definitely want to be planning ahead. When you’re ready to create a tax-managed portfolio that looks at all your accounts together, we can help you do that.

How Much Should You Contribute to Your 401(k)?

Answer: $18,000. If you are over age 50, $24,000.

Those are the maximum allowable contributions and it should be everyone’s goal to contribute the maximum, whenever possible. The more you save, the sooner you will reach your goals. The earlier you do this saving, the more likely you will reach or exceed your goals.

At a 4% withdrawal rate in retirement, a $1 million 401(k) account would provide only $40,000 a year or $3,333 a month in income. And since that income is taxable, you will probably need to withhold 10%, 15%, or maybe even 25% of that amount for income taxes. At 15% taxes, you’d be left with $2,833 a month in net income. That amount doesn’t strike me as especially extravagant, and that’s why we should all be trying to figure out how to get $1 million or more into our 401(k) before we do retire.

I’ve found that most people fall into four camps:
1) They don’t participate in the 401(k) at all.
2) They put in just enough to get the company match, maybe 4% or 5% of their income.
3) They contribute 10% because they heard it was a good rule of thumb to save 10%.
4) They put in the maximum every year.

How does that work over the duration of a career? If you could invest $18,000 a year for 30 years, and earn 8%, you’d end with $2,039,000 in your account. Drop that to $8,000 a year, and you’d only have $906,000 after 30 years. That seems pretty good, but what if you are getting a late start – or end up retiring early – and only put in 20 years of contributions to the 401(k)? At $8,000 a year in contributions, you’d only accumulate $366,000 after 20 years. Contribute the maximum of $18,000 and you’d finish with $823,000 at an 8% return.

I have yet to meet anyone who felt that they had accumulated too much money in their 401(k), but I certainly know many who wish they had more, had started earlier, or had made bigger contributions. Some people will ignore their 401(k) or just do the bare minimum. If their employer doesn’t match, many won’t participate at all.

Accumulators recognize the benefits of maximizing their contributions and find a way to make it happen.

  • Become financially independent sooner.
  • Bigger tax deduction today, pay less tax.
  • Have their investments growing tax deferred.
  • Enjoy a better lifestyle when they do retire. Or retire early!
  • Live within their means today.
  • 401(k)’s have higher contribution limits than IRAs and no income limits or restrictions.

Saving is the road to wealth. The investing part ends up being pretty straightforward once you have made the commitment to saving enough money. Make your goal to contribute as much as you can to your 401(k). Your future self will thank you for it!