How to Save More Money

How to Save More Money

Growing your net worth is the product of saving and investing. Sometimes, we assume this means we have to slash our spending to be able to save more. Sure, you want to have awareness and planning regarding your spending. But it’s not much fun to give up coffee or never take a vacation. There has to be a balance between sensible spending and your saving goals.

Luckily, there is another way to increase your savings rate: earn more. Especially for younger investors, as your income grows you will find that you can easily save more. This may take a number of years. But, as your career takes off, your income may increase at a double digit rate during your twenties and thirties.

So, don’t despair if you cannot save as much as you would like today! Focus on growing your career and increasing your income. Saving will get easier.

Hold Your Spending Steady

As you get promotions and raises, avoid the temptation to keep up with the Joneses. You will see friends and classmates who are buying fancy cars and huge houses. Good for them! But what you might not see is how much debt they have, how little they save, or their net worth. You won’t know how stressed they are about their finances. They may be two paychecks away from being broke.

Hopefully, your current lifestyle is enjoyable and you find happiness in your relationships and the things you do. Getting more expensive things is not likely to create lasting satisfaction. The temporary, but fleeting, pleasure from consumption is known as The Hedonic Treadmill. If your priority is becoming financially independent, using a raise or bonus to save more is a better choice than spending it.

Put Your Savings On Autopilot

As your income grows, save your raises. Establish recurring deposits to your retirement plans and other accounts, and increase them annually. If take this step when you receive a raise, you will not miss the extra money. Skip increasing your monthly savings, and you probably aren’t going to have extra money leftover at the end of the year. If it’s in your checking account, you will spend it!

For couples, a joint income is a tremendous opportunity. If you can live off of one salary and save the second salary, you will grow your wealth at an amazing rate. In some cases, this could literally be saving one of your paychecks. Or, it may make more sense to participate in both of your 401(k) plans, and save the equivalent of one salary.

Multiple Sources of Income

Given the economic fallout from Coronavirus, many people aren’t getting a raise this year. A lot of us are seeing that our 2020 income will be lower than 2019. Hopefully, this will be temporary, but there are lessons to be learned. It is a risk to have all your eggs in one basket with one job. If you lose that job, you’re really in trouble.

As an entrepreneur, I have always had multiple sources of income. My financial planning business is diversified across a number of clients. I also sell insurance. I make music in a couple of orchestras and teach a few lessons on the side. Some of it is small, but having multiple sources of income gives me flexibility and safety.

Have you considered finding a side hustle, second income, part-time business, or online gig? Find something you enjoy and make it into a business. Find something people need and provide that service. You never know where that part-time work might take you. Maybe someday it will allow you to retire early or be your own boss! In the mean time, use your additional income to save more and build up your investment portfolio. Don’t give up your time just for the sake of buying more things.

How and Where to Save More

How much should you save? If you are saving 15% of your income, you’re doing way better than most people in America. Start at a young age, and a 15% savings rate will likely put you in a very comfortable position by retirement age. For those who are more ambitious, or just impatient like me, aim to save more than 15%. You could be putting $19,500 into your 401(k) each year ($26,000 if over age 50).

And you might be eligible for an IRA, too, depending on your income. Or, consider a taxable account, Health Savings Account (HSA), or 529 College Savings Plan. There are lots of places you could be saving! Put your savings on autopilot with recurring deposits to your retirement plans and other accounts. If take this step when you receive a raise, you will not miss the extra money, but you will be growing your wealth faster.

Do you need a reason to save more? The sooner you save, the faster you can achieve financial freedom. Even if you enjoy your work, it’s great to have the means to not have to worry about your job.

You can save more by spending less. That’s true, but you can only eliminate an expense once. Most people will have some tolerance for cutting costs, but austerity is no fun. Focus on increasing your income, hold your expenses steady, and increase your monthly savings. Put your energy into building your career, and aim for a high income. Couples have a great ability to save, if they can aim to live off one income. Look for creating a second or third income stream. A lot of the wealthy people I know have an entrepreneurial mindset. They have multiple income streams.

As your earnings grow, you will be able to save more and invest more. Most of my newsletters deal with investing, tax, or planning questions. But those benefits only accrue after you’ve done the first step of saving that money. It’s not how much you make that matters, but how much you keep!

Financial Strategies for Low Rates

Financial Strategies for Low Rates

Opportunities for a Low Yield World, Part 3

Today’s low rates are challenging for investors and may require changes not just to your investment portfolio, but also your overall financial strategies. In Part 1 of this series, we looked at the potential of rising defaults in high yield bonds and why it’s problematic to buy high yield bonds. Then in Part 2, we looked at four concrete ways to increase your yield today without radically changing your risk profile.

For Part 3, we looking at the broader ramifications of low interest rates on financial planning. My goal is always to explain and educate, but most importantly, to offer tangible solutions. Even in a crisis, there are opportunities.

But before we get into specific financial planning strategies, let’s consider two important points. First, low interest rates penalize savers. But low rates help borrowers. So, this is a great time to be a borrower, especially if you can lock in a low rate for 15, 20, or 30 years. Hopefully the current crisis will be short-lived, but borrowing at these low rates could be beneficial for decades to come.

Second, we should consider inflation. Bonds may be earning only 1%, but if inflation is zero, you would still have a real return of 1%. Your purchasing power is growing by 1%. Now, if bonds were yielding 6% and inflation was 5%, your real return would be the same, just 1%. While real returns are indeed quite low today, inflation is also below the historic average. So, your real returns aren’t as bad as they might appear.

Now, here are nine specific financial strategies to use today’s low rates to improve your situation.

Borrow for Appreciation

1) Refinance Mortgage. This is a great time to refinance your mortgage and lock in a low rate. Try to avoid lengthening the term of your loan and instead use low rates to pay off your mortgage sooner. If you can save 1% or more and plan to be in your home for several years, it will probably make sense to refi. I would be careful, however, of using low rates to buy the most expensive home possible. A home is largely an expense, rather than a great investment. Even better: use low rates to buy new investment properties. If you can borrow money to buy a business, investment property, or other appreciating asset, money is the cheapest it has ever been. Think long-term today!

2) Pay down debt. As long as you have a good emergency fund and a stable job, how much additional cash do you need? If you have student loans, a mortgage, car loans, or especially credit card debt, maybe it makes more sense to pay down your high-interest debt. Especially, debt that is not tied to an appreciating asset. Paying down 5% loans with cash earning 0% will save you interest costs.

Portfolio Adjustments

3) Reallocate away from bonds. With the 10-Year Treasury yielding under 1%, a lot of investment grade bonds and funds are going to have piddling returns over the next decade. Unless you really need to be defensive (maybe you are 5 years from retirement), having 40-50% earning 1% will likely be a drag on your portfolio. I have no idea what the stock market will do over the next 12-24 months. But, I do believe that a 90% equity allocation will probably outperform a 50% equity allocation over the next 30 years. Not everyone should take on more risk, but young people should invest for growth. The historical returns of a 60/40 portfolio are pretty much out the window with today’s low rates.

4) Alternative assets start to look more attractive when bonds are yielding 1%. Perhaps a 50% equity/30% alternative/20% bond portfolio could provide more return with less risk than a 60% equity/40% bond portfolio.

Retirement under Low Rates

5) Delay Social Security for 8% gains. When you delay your Social Security starting date, you can increase your monthly benefit by 8% a year (from age 66 to 70). Where else can you get a guaranteed 8% return today? No where. It may be better to spend down your bonds earning 1% from 62 or 66 until age 70 for the increase in SS benefits. The lower the rate of return from your portfolio, the more valuable the 8% Social Security increase becomes.

6) Take a pension, not a lump sum. If you have a pension from your employer, should you take the monthly payments or a lump sum? The answer will depend, in part, on your rate of return if you invest the lump sum option. Pension benefits have stayed up, but interest rates have moved down, which means that the pension is on the hook for very expensive benefits now. Companies are sweating this. But for a participant, it is tougher today to assume that you can do better by taking the lump sum. If your goal is lifetime income for you and your spouse, let’s run the numbers before making this decision. (We will also want to consider the credit quality of your Pension, its funded status, and your health and longevity profile.)

7) Immediate annuity. You can try to fund your retirement with bond income, but that’s more difficult with low interest rates. Immediate annuity payouts have not declined as much. So today, they are relatively attractive compared to bonds and eliminate the risk of outliving your money. With bonds, you have only two options under low rates: decrease the payout to yourself or start eating into your principal.

Estate Planning for Wealth Transfer

8) Trust Planning and intra-family loans. The Applicable Federal Rate and the 7520 rate are the lowest they have ever been. These low rates create opportunities for advanced financial strategies in estates and trusts. Intra-family loans: if you want to loan money to children or grandchildren for a mortgage, to buy your business, or to buy life insurance on your life, the interest rate required by the IRS is presently only 1.15%, for loans over 9 years.

9) Grantor Retained Annuity Trust. This is an irrevocable trust, which will shift assets outside of your lifetime gift and estate exemption. As the grantor, you receive income from the GRAT, and the remainder goes to your heirs (outside of your estate). The GRAT assumes the current 7520 rate of 0.80%, which is a low hurdle to beat. If your GRAT can do better than 0.80%, the heirs benefit.

Why do this Estate Planning now? The 2020 Estate Tax exemption of $11.58 million is set to sunset and revert to $5.49 million in 2026. If you are above these amounts, now is a great time to plan ahead. Placing assets into a GRAT now would remove their future growth from your estate. So, if you have assets which you think are undervalued today or which you expect will have significant growth going forward, removing them from your estate today could save tremendous future estate taxes for your heirs.

Low interest rates are problematic for savers and for bond holders, but also an opportunity for different financial strategies. Would some of these nine strategies enable you to benefit from low interest rates? I’m here to help you uncover ideas you haven’t considered, examine if they might be useful for you, and implement them effectively. Let’s take a look at your liabilities, your portfolio, your retirement income, and your estate goals and create a comprehensive plan for you.

The High Yield Trap

The High Yield Trap

Opportunities for a Low Yield World PART 1

Everyone wants their investments to make more money, but we have to be careful to avoid the High Yield Trap. Since the Coronavirus Crash, central banks have been lowering interest rates to near zero. Last year, I was buying CDs at 2-3%. This week, I’m looking at the same CDs with yields of 0.1% to 0.2%. To which, my client innocently asks: What can we buy that will make more than a couple of percent with low risk?

Nothing, today. The five-year Treasury Bond currently yields 0.22%. That’s unacceptable for most investors, and it will push them out of safe fixed income, like Treasuries, CDs, and high quality municipal and corporate bonds. The yields are just too darn low.

Where will they go in pursuit of higher yields? Oh, there are plenty of bonds and bond funds with higher yields today. Credit quality has been plunging, as rating agencies are trying to keep up with downgrading firms that are being devastated by the shutdown or low commodity prices. In fact, through June 16, $88 Billion in BBB-rated bonds were downgraded to Junk Bond status this year. Each downgrade causes selling, which lowers the price of the bond, and the yield goes up (at least for new buyers).

Why It’s Called Junk

Before you get too excited, there are reasons to be concerned about buying lower grade bonds. In an average year, 2% of BB bonds and 4% of single-B rated bonds will default. That’s why high yield bonds are called junk bonds.

When those companies file for bankruptcy, the bond holders won’t be getting paid back their full principal. They will have to wait for a bankruptcy court to approve a restructuring plan or to dissolve the company. According to Moody’s, the median recovery is only 24 cents on the dollar when a bond defaults.

And while a 2-4% default rate might not sound too bad, that’s in an average year. In a crisis, that might rise to 8-10% defaults. In 2009, global high yield bonds had a 13% default rate in that year alone. These are historical rates, and it could be worse than that in the future. Additionally, the possibility of default increases as a company gets downgraded. If your BB-rated bond gets cut to CCC-rated, the chance of default is now a lot higher than 2%. And the price will probably go down, which creates a difficult choice. Do you sell for a loss or hold on hoping that the company can pay off your bond?

Here in Dallas, we are seeing a lot of companies go bankrupt, pushed over the edge by the Coronavirus. Big names like J.C. Penney, Neiman Marcus, Pier One, Chuck E. Cheese, Bar Louie, and others have filed for bankruptcy in 2020. Most of these companies were issuers of high yield bonds and had a lot of debt. When they got into trouble, they could not keep up with their debt payments and had to fold. Expect more retailers, oil companies, and restaurants to go under before the end of 2020. Bond holders in those companies could lose a lot. (In all fairness, stock holders will do even worse. There is usually zero recovery for stock holders in bankruptcy.)

Funds versus Individual Bonds

If you are investing in a high yield bond fund, you may own hundreds or thousands of bonds. The fund may have a 7 percent yield, but don’t get too excited. A high yield fund is not a CD. You are not guaranteed to get your principal back. It’s likely (even more likely in the current crisis), that your return will get dinged by 2-4% in defaults and losses due to credit downgrades.

If you own individual high yield bonds, it can be even more precarious. Either the bond defaults or it doesn’t. Having the potential for an 75% loss, while earning an average 5-7% annual yield, is dangerous game. Everything is fine until you have a default. A single loss can wipe out years of interest payments. That’s why I generally don’t want to buy individual high yield bonds for my clients.

The quoted yield of 5-7% for high yield bonds does not reflect that some of those bonds will default. If you consider a 2-4% default rate, your net return might be more like 3-5%. That’s the High Yield Trap. Your actual returns often fall short of the quoted yield.

High Yield bonds are issued by companies. Stocks are companies. If companies do poorly – really poorly – both the stocks and bonds can get walloped at the same time. That’s the opposite of diversification. We want bonds to hold up well when our stocks are doing poorly. In finance jargon, we would say that there is a high correlation between high yield bonds and stocks. We want a low correlation.

Instead of High Yield?

What I would suggest, if suitable for an investor, would be a 5-year fixed annuity at 3% today. That would give you a guaranteed rate of return and a guaranteed return of your principal. That’s not super exciting, but it’s what investors need from fixed income: stability and dependable income. Don’t buy bonds for speculation. And above all else, Bonds should avoid the possibility of massive losses.

Be wary of the High Yield Trap. The yields appear attractive in today’s super low interest rate environment. But let’s be careful and not take unnecessary high risks. All bonds are not created equal. When you reach for yield, you are taking on more risk. Defaults have the potential to drag down your performance in a fund. In individual bonds, they could almost wipe out your original investment.

High Yield bonds are not inherently bad. If you bought at the bottom in 2009, they recovered very well. But I am very concerned that today’s yields are actually not high enough to compensate for the potential risk of defaults. We’ve already started to see corporate bankruptcies in 2020 and it’s possible we will have above average defaults in the near future. Until we have a real fire sale in high yield bonds, I’d rather stay away.

We will discuss ways of improving your yield next week. Yes, it’s a low interest rate world, but there are ways we can incrementally improve your portfolio while maintaining good credit quality. We will also discuss financial planning strategies for low rates in an upcoming post. If you’d like a free evaluation of your portfolio, to better understand your risks, please send me a message for an online meeting.

Have stocks risen too fast?

Have Stocks Risen Too Fast?

Many investors today are asking, Have stocks risen too fast? We’ve had a terrific rebound off the lows of March and US stock indices are largely back in positive territory for the year. It has been quite a roller-coaster ride.

Unfortunately, uncertainty about Coronavirus remains high. We have neither a cure nor do we have the contagion under control in the US. The economic fallout from unemployment, consumer spending, and falling corporate profits remains unknown. It’s easy to make a case that the stock market has gotten ahead of itself and is being too optimistic.

That could be the case. But we shouldn’t be surprised that stocks are up. The stock market is a leading economic indicator. Traders are betting on things that they expect to happen, not waiting to respond to things that have already happened. Yes, the market is pricing in things improving. And if the market is wrong, stocks could respond negatively.

What should investors do? Run for cover? Buy gold and guns? No, I don’t think we should attempt to time the market. Trades based on what we think might happen in the next 12 or 24 months are not likely to add any value, in my opinion.

While our approach is focused on long-term results, I do not think investors should be complacent today. There are steps we are taking, without trying to bet on the short-term direction of stocks. Here are six strategies:

Stock Strategies for Today

  1. Rebalance. When there’s a big move in the market, up or down, rebalance to your original allocation. This creates a process to buy low and sell high.
  2. Re-examine your risk profile. Did the March collapse make you realize that your portfolio is too aggressive? If so, let’s take a closer look at your overall risk profile. This shouldn’t be guesswork. We use FinaMetrica, a leading Psychometric evaluation tool, to measure each client’s risk tolerance. If you should be less aggressive, now is a good time to make trades. Not when there is panic like March.
  3. Consider your return requirement. Two people could have the same risk tolerance. But if one has $100,000 and the other has $2 million, it is possible that they need different returns to meet their goals. One might need growth and the other might favor more stability and income. You only need to get rich once.
  4. Add alternative sources of return. The more we can diversify your portfolio, the better. Investments that have a lower correlation to stocks and less volatility can help create a smoother overall performance. That’s why we have taken the time to educate our clients about investments such as Preferred Stocks and Convertible Bonds.
  5. Look to lagging parts of the stock market. US Large Cap Growth is leading the rebound since March. Other areas are not yet back to even. For example, international stocks, or US Mid Cap Value. Today, some parts of the market are more expensive than others. If all you are doing is buying the best recent performers, you are looking in the rear view mirror. Instead, look at the fundamentals. Which stocks are less expensive today and a better relative value going forward?
  6. Lower your expense ratio. If your expected return on stocks is less today, a lower expense ratio will help you keep more of the market’s returns. That’s a big advantage of Index Funds. But we also like actively managed funds from companies like Vanguard, who recognize the importance of low costs.

Fixed Income

As you are worrying if stocks have risen too fast, don’t neglect your fixed income. Yields are way down in 2020. The good news is that the price of bonds has risen, which has helped your portfolio. Now, the problem is that people aren’t looking at the current yields. Money markets are yielding 0.01%. The five year Treasury Bond was at 0.22% this week. Your Investment Grade bond fund may be at 1.25% or less.

What worked in fixed income over the last 1-2 years is unlikely to produce much return going forward. We have ideas to upgrade the yields on your fixed income – from cash to intermediate bonds – while maintaining your credit quality and risk. That won’t have any impact on what stocks do, but your fixed income can create safety and income that gives you a smoother portfolio result.

The fact is that no one knows if stocks have risen too fast. It’s unknowable. We should resist the temptation to try to time the market today. We prefer to focus on what we can control: our asset allocation, good diversification, implementing portfolio alternatives, and keeping expenses and taxes low.

Become a Wealth Builder

Become A Wealth Builder

Is this a terrible time to become a wealth builder? With market uncertainty from the Coronavirus, and the very real destruction of jobs and income, it’s easy to dispair. But you shouldn’t and here’s why.

There remains a unique opportunity in America to become financially independent. Building wealth is a slow process that requires patience, discipline, and smart decisions. But once that process has begun, it is simple. And by simple, I mean not complex. That’s not to say it is easy! Like running a marathon, it’s a long haul, but it is also just one step at a time.

You can begin those steps today. We offer two programs at Good Life Wealth Management. Our Premier Wealth Management program provides holistic financial planning and tactical asset management for investors with assets over $250,000. The Wealth Builder Program is designed for investors who are starting out and have less than $250,000 to invest. In fact, many of my clients in the program start with zero dollars to invest with me.

You can read more about the Wealth Builder Program here. Today, I want to share three reasons why now is a great time to start the process.

Long-term Expected Returns

Investing should be a 30+ year process, but people are so focused on the month to month volatility. Don’t! It’s noise that will distract from your goals. The Vanguard Capital Markets Model, projects the following expected annualized returns for the next 10 years (as of June 3, 2020):

  • US Large Cap 5.4% to 7.4%
  • US Small Cap 6.2% to 8.2%
  • International Equity 8.5% to 10.5%

That’s not bad. Will Vanguard be right? No one knows. But I do know that leaving your money in a bank account earning 0% won’t grow. If you have more than 10 years until retirement, history suggests you are likely to be wise to invest. And if the market does drop, that is often a great buying opportunity for investors in Index Funds. Stick with diversified funds, and Dollar Cost Average with monthly automatic contributions.

Consider Inflation

Right now, there is no inflation and the concern in the near months is deflation. However, globally, governments are expanding the supply of money and taking on new debt at an unbelievable pace. How will economies be able to repay all this debt?

There are a couple of possible scenarios. Some smaller countries will default and not repay their debt. Some will introduce austerity measures, slash spending, and raise taxes. This will be very unpopular. I think the preferred way for many developed economies will be to try to gradually inflate out of debt. That is to say, it is easier to repay a fixed dollar amount of debt as the GDP and taxes of a country grows. So, some inflation will be good and very welcome.

Inflation does not help consumers, as the cost of living increases. We also have very low interest rates today, which penalizes savers. But if the eventual scenario is modest inflation, it will benefit borrowers like the government. People who hold cash – nominal dollars – will see their purchasing power decline with inflation. Wealth Builders investing in stocks and real assets are more likely to see their net worth grow in times of inflation.

Positive Wealth Building Habits

Over the past 16 years as a Financial Advisor, I’ve met many people who are financially independent and observed their personal characteristics. Successful investors are not necessarily smarter than everyone else, but they usually are optimistically committed to good savings habits.

We’ve certainly had bad times in the past 20 years. It hasn’t been an easy road. We had the Tech bubble, followed by 9/11, and struggled with an unprecedented three down years in a row. The Death of Equities? No. We had the housing bubble and crash in 2008-2009. Was that the end of investing? No.

There are times when you have big drops and it’s ugly. Today, people may be thinking that the world is going to hell in a handbasket and that investing now would be pointless. But that is exactly what investors over the past 20 years faced, and it turned out fine. That’s why I think it’s important to educate yourself on history and think positive. Create wealth building habits now without worrying about what is going to happen in the rest of 2020.

  • Make automatic contributions to your accounts like a 401(k) or IRA. Dollar Cost Average and keep investing.
  • Diversify. Consider Index Funds as core holdings. Evidence shows that a majority of active funds underperform their benchmark over 5 or more years.
  • Don’t get greedy. Chasing performance can hurt returns. Avoid speculating on individual stocks, sectors, or countries.
  • You cannot control what the market does. Your goal should be to be a participant in the market, not to try to get in and out of the market.
  • Focus on what you can control: your mix of investments (asset allocation), and keeping taxes and expenses low. Rebalance.
  • Live beneath your means. Keep your housing and car expenses down and create the room in your budget to save. Increase your savings rate over the years, not your lifestyle expenses.

Conclusion

In spite of today’s uncertainty, there are reasons why young people need a plan to become a wealth builder. Long-term equity expected returns are still attractive, especially relative to cash and 10-year bonds. If you anticipate inflation picking up over the next several decades. you want to be invested for growth. Good savings and investing habits can create wealth over time. The more years you have, the earlier you start, the more chance to compound your returns. Eventually, your money will work for you.

In our Wealth Builder Program, we begin with a Balance Sheet to quantify all your assets and liabilities. For many young professionals, this often starts as a negative number. We will track your net worth and create a plan to save, invest, and grow your wealth. We will address risks to you and your family and develop a plan that’s unique to your situation.

Yes, you can always wait for tomorrow. A decade ago, we had just come out of a crash. As of May 31, 2020 the 10-year annualized return of an S&P 500 fund (SPY) is 13%. Were people wildly optimistic 10 years ago about the opportunity to invest? No. There’s never that degree of confidence and certainty. You just have to get started and commit to making it work. Ready to become a wealth builder? Email me for information.

Past performance is no guarantee of future results. Investing involves risk of loss of capital. Dollar cost averaging cannot guarantee against a loss.

Coronavirus Market

Coronavirus Market Update

As we enter the seventh week of shut-downs, we are going to share our Coronavirus Market Update. Let’s look at the numbers and talk about stocks, unemployment, interest rates, oil prices, and government assistance programs.

1. Market rebound

From a low of 2237 on the S&P 500 Index on March 23, we are up 27% to 2836 as of Friday’s close. This is a remarkable bounce. Now the market is down only 12% year to date. I have a couple of thoughts on this:

  • The rebalancing trades I placed in March consisted of selling bonds and buying stocks. Overall, those trades have been profitable and beneficial for clients. At the time, it did not feel good to buy stocks in the midst of such carnage. Rebalancing is usually a contrarian action; we buy when markets are down and sell when markets are up.
  • If you thought the best move in March was to bail out and increase cash, it didn’t work. The market bottom will often be significantly ahead of an economic bottom. The market is a leading indicator. You won’t get an All-Clear to come back into the market.
  • Was that THE bottom? Will we retest lows? I don’t know and it is not predictable. We have up come very far, very fast and as I will discuss below, we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg of the economic fallout. The market has had a 26% move in a month and I am going to rebalance again. Because we made deliberate trades in March, some portfolios may now be overweighted in stocks after this quick rebound. Those trades will happen this week.

2. Unemployment

There have been 26 million unemployment claims since the start of the Coronavirus. Approximately one out of six workers have been laid off and this number excludes most independent contractors. A report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston projects that 18% of homeowners and 36% of renters in New England will be unable to make their housing payments.

These levels of unemployment have not been seen since the Great Depression, when unemployment reached 24% in 1933. This will have a ripple effect on consumer spending, defaults on loans, mortgages, and credit cards, the auto industry, real estate prices, and so on. For the economy, this will likely have an impact for at least 12-18 months.

Markets go up when there are more buyers than sellers. That’s it. So, the action over the past month tells you that there is money on the sidelines, in spite of rising unemployment. The wealthy are less wealthy, but they are rebalancing and looking for profits in a strong market. They are also bargain shopping for great companies which may have been trading at multi-year lows in the past month.

3. Oil prices

This week, massive options selling coupled with no buyers caused the May futures contracts for Crude Oil to sink into negative prices. With people not travelling, demand for oil has plummeted. A few countries have flooded the market with oil and current daily production exceeds demand by 20 million barrels a day. Luckily, Texas is more diversified today than just oil companies, but oil companies are taking a hit.

Oil Companies which have borrowed a lot of money for expansion or acquisition are in trouble and may fail. This is creating fear in the bond market, where the spreads on corporate bonds have widened significantly. At the beginning of the year, corporate bonds were trading at yields very close to Treasuries. Not so today, and that creates opportunity to buy bonds of companies with strong balance sheets.

4. Interest Rates

Treasury bill interest rates fell to zero last month, to match zero rates in Europe and Japan. Today, those levels have increased slightly, but remain around 0.13% to 0.20% for maturities of two years or less. Take aways:

  • You can’t fund your retirement with Treasury bonds today – the returns are too low. These rates are way below historical inflation, and even if we are in deflation for the next year, the returns just don’t work with most people’s required rate of return in their retirement projections.
  • You can move from Treasuries to CDs to Fixed Annuities to increase your yield while maintaining a guaranteed, safe return. Treasury rates are being manipulated by Central Banks. As governments take on trillions of new debt, they somehow become a safer credit and their interest rate falls to zero? This is not what a free-market looks like and it is penalizing the heck out of savers and retirees.
  • Individual investors will choose not to own Treasuries. The Fed wants to push investors out of risk-free assets and into risky assets like stocks or real estate.

5. Government Programs

Individuals have been receiving their $1200 stimulus checks. Many small businesses who applied for the Paycheck Protection Program have been shut out as demand for those loans greatly exceeded the $349 Billion allocated. I’ve heard that only companies who applied on the very first day received funds. Apparently, the Treasury favored community banks and therefore you were actually less likely to receive the loan if you applied through one of the large national banks. However, if you have an application pending, Congress is going to fund further loans. Thank you to everyone who reached out to me to discuss their PPP application.

The SBA also offered the Emergency Income Disaster Loans (EIDL). They announced a week ago that they were no longer accepting applications. I applied for this program about 18 days ago and still have not received a reply. They originally said applicants would receive the money in three days. I sent an email about my application and received back a form letter saying they were still processing applications in the order received. Hopefully, this will work! If you applied for any government assistance for your business, please shoot me an email and let me know where things stand for you.

Final Thoughts

The market has had a great rebound in April and it is a big relief. Losses have been cut by 2/3 and many investors have been buying. From my perspective, investors seem less panicked this year than they were in 2000 or 2008. As a result, most have understood that they need to ride things out and that this will pass.

We rebalanced in March and that worked well. It is part of our discipline and we will look at rebalancing again now that we have recovered 26%. This will be done on a portfolio by portfolio basis and will include a careful examination of the tax implications of any trades. Most of the March trades harvested losses, so we can now realize short-term gains up to those levels.

The economy clearly isn’t out of the woods. Unemployment will probably increase in May. These numbers will grow and many families are going to have to tighten their belts. There is a tremendous amount of government support being directed at impacted industries and small businesses. Hopefully, those funds will start to reach companies soon. Investors need to be patient and have a disciplined plan. We will continue to focus on your long-term success and look at ways to reduce unnecessary risk.

Stimulus Payments to Business Owners

Stimulus Payments to Business Owners

As part of the $2 Trillion CARES Act, there are three programs to provide Stimulus payments to business owners. Unlike the 2008 crisis, this time the government is not bailing out the big banks and Wall Street. Instead, Washington is sending cash to self-employed people and small business owners. They are shoveling money out the door to help you pay your bills, keep your workers paid, and still have a business when we eventually emerge from the Coronavirus shutdown. The scale of this is unprecedented and you should make sure to get your share.

We are going to look at three specific programs and give you links to find more information and apply. The three stimulus payments to business owners include: the Paycheck Protection Program, Employee Retention Tax Credit, and the SBA Disaster Grant. You may be eligible for some or all of these programs.

What if you are self-employed or an Independent Contractor, but not a corporation, LLC, or other entity? You are still a business even if you are the only employee. If you file a Schedule C, you have a business. If you have questions, here’s my contact info.

Paycheck Protection Program

The Paycheck Protection Program is providing $349 Billion in loans to small businesses. These loans are designed to keep employees on the payroll and off unemployment. The loans are forgivable. The government doesn’t want you to pay them back, as long as you spend the money to pay employee salaries and benefits in the next eight weeks.

The PPP is available to businesses from 1 to 500 employees. The Small Business Administration (SBA) guarantees the loans, which will be provided through 1700 Banks and Credit Unions. Your bank is probably already an SBA lender. Technically, the PPP is a 2-year loan at 0.50% interest. Payments are not required for six months. If you spend the loan on allowable expenses within 8 weeks, then the loan will be forgiven. You also have to keep the same number of employees and not reduce payroll during this period. The loan forgiveness will be non-taxable. Steps:

  1. Apply for the loan at your bank using Model Application (link below).
  2. Spend the loan in the following eight weeks on payroll, benefits, and rent.
  3. Apply for loan forgiveness and document that the funds were spent as intended.

You must state on the application that your business was impacted by the Coronavirus and you need this money to meet payroll and expenses. This is easy. Most businesses are “non-essential” and were required to close in your area due to the shelter in place rules. Even if you stayed open, you may have had supply disruptions, or other negative impacts to you business.

Loan Amount and Application

The application provides instructions to calculate your loan amount. You are eligible to borrow two and one-half months of payroll, up to $10 million. Payroll includes gross pay plus taxes. Salary eligible for loan forgiveness is capped to $100,000 per person annually.

Then over the next eight weeks, you can spend the loan on payroll, payroll taxes, employee benefits, including health insurance premiums, retirement plan contributions, and sick leave or vacation. You can also spend the money on rent or mortgage interest for your business property (if you have a store or office, for example). Non-payroll expenses cannot exceed 25% of the total.

Eligible businesses includes corporations and LLCs, but also includes non-profit organizations, sole proprietors, and those who are self-employed or independent contractors. Many businesses can apply for the loan starting on April 3, 2020, and Independent Contractors can apply starting April 10. The program will close once the $349 Billion is gone. Don’t delay!

Here is the required application for the Paycheck Protection Program. Your bank should accept this paperwork for the loan. The SBA is paying all the application or service fees for the loan, so it costs you nothing. If you have a business account at Chase, apply here to get in their queue.

Employee Retention Credit

If you own a business with multiple employees, such you should also know about the Employee Retention Tax Credit. It’s another part of the CARES Act. To qualify, you must have either been temporarily closed down due to local regulations or have your gross receipts fall by 50% this quarter versus last year. For business owners with lower income or part time workers, it may be better to use the Employee Retention Credit rather than the PPP. You have to choose one or the other: if you take the PPP you are ineligible for the Employee Retention Credit.

The Employee Retention Credit is for 50% of income per employee up to $10,000 a year. So the maximum tax credit is $5,000 per employee for 2020. Now if your employees will make less than $5,000 in 2.5 months but more than $10,000 for the rest of the year, you would be better off with the ERC versus the PPP. The ERC is not available to self-employed individuals and will apply to income from March 12, 2020 to the end of the year. Full details and eligiblity here on the IRS Website.

In general, I think the PPP is the better option for most businesses, but it would not hurt to run the numbers. Calculate if the Employee Retention Credit would provide you with more funds. Of course, you won’t get the tax credit until you file your 2020 taxes next year. If you need the funds to meet payroll now, then you need the PPP. The ERC is not available to self-employed or sole proprietors.

SBA $10,000 Disaster Grant

The third of the stimulus payments to business owners from the CARES Act is the SBA Disaster Loan program. The full name is the COVID-19 Economic Injury Disaster Loan Application. They have expanded the eligibility to all businesses. You are technically applying for a loan. As part of the loan application, they will advance your business $10,000 of the loan. This is not called a “grant” on the SBA application, even though the CARES Act calls it a grant, so it can be confusing. They will direct deposit the funds into your business account within a week. The $10,000 Grant does not have to be repaid, but if you borrow more than the $10,000, the rest would have to be repaid. You’re not going to believe this, but even if the SBA does not approve your loan, you still get to keep the $10,000.

You can apply online at the SBA website here; it should take less than 20 minutes. On page one, they ask questions about your business eligibility for the Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program. Most will check the first line: “Applicant is a business with not more then 500 employees.” That qualifies you for the grant, even if you are the only employee.

Next, you will certify that you are not in a disqualifying business (i.e. porn). Third, you will give information about your business, including EIN, gross revenues and cost of goods sold for the 12 months to January 31, 2020. Fourth, information about the owner and the bank information for the deposit. Towards the end of the application, there is a box to check if you want to be considered for a $10,000 advance on the loan. CHECK THIS BOX. This advance is the $10,000 grant under the CARES Act. After you submit, it will give you an application number. Print this page or write it down. You do not receive an email confirmation, but you will be notified of the decision by email.

Which to Choose?

Technically, you can apply for both the SBA disaster grant and the PPP. However, they will subtract the disaster grant from your PPP forgiveness amount. The primary reason to do the disaster grant instead of the PPP is if your PPP would be under $10,000. If you need additional loans beyond the PPP’s two months of funding, do both applications. Also, you can apply for the Disaster Grant right now online whereas most banks are struggling to get ready for the PPP application.

Don’t delay in applying for stimulus payments for business owners. There are limited funds in place and some of these programs are first come, first served. I’ve spoken with some clients who are reluctant to take a bailout of their business and are prepared to tough it out. With everyone going to shelter in place, the economy is grinding to a halt. And when you have a service economy, that’s a catastrophic problem. So, please take the money and use it. Pay your employees. Keep buying stuff. Keep funding your retirement accounts. And of course, replenish your emergency fund or increase it. If you don’t need the money, make a donation to your favorite local charity, because they are also hurting from the shutdown.

CARES Act RMD Relief

CARES Act RMD Relief for 2020

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security CARES Act approved this weekend eliminates Required Minimum Distributions from retirement accounts for 2020. If you have an inherited IRA, also known as a Stretch or Beneficiary IRA, there is also no RMD for this year. We are going dive into ideas from the CARES Act RMD changes and also look at its impact on charitable giving rules.

Of course, you can still take any distribution that you want from your retirement account and pay the usual taxes. Additionally, people who take a premature distribution from their IRA this year will not have to pay a 10% penalty. And they will be able to spread that income over three years.

RMDs for 2020

Many of my clients have already begun taking their RMDs for 2020. (No one would have anticipated the RMD requirement would be waived!) Can you reverse a distribution that already occurred? Not always. However, using the 60-day rollover rule, you can put back any IRA distribution within 60 days.

If you had taxes withheld, we cannot get those back from the IRS until next year. However, you can put back the full amount of your original distribution using your cash and undo the taxable distribution. You can only do one 60-day rollover per year.

For distributions in February and March, we still have time to put those distributions back if you don’t need them. Be sure to also cancel any upcoming automatic distributions if you do not need them for 2020.

If you are in a low tax bracket this year, it may still make sense to take the distribution. Especially if you think you might be in a higher tax bracket in future years. An intriguing option this year is to do a Roth Conversion instead of the RMD. With no RMD, and stocks down in value, it seems like a ideal year to consider a Conversion. Once in the Roth, the money will grow tax-free, reducing your future RMDs from what is left in your Traditional IRA. We always prefer tax-free to tax-deferred.

Charitable Giving under the CARES Act

Congress also thought about how to help charities this year. Although RMDs are waived for 2020, you can still do Qualified Charitable Distributions (QCDs) from your IRA. And for everyone who does not itemize in 2020: You can take up to $300 as an above-the-line deduction for a charitable contribution.

Also part of the CARES Act: the 50% limit on cash contributions is suspended for 2020. This means you could donate up to 100% of your income for the year. This is a great opportunity to establish a Donor Advised Fund, if significant charitable giving is a goal.

Above the $300 amount, most people don’t have enough itemized deductions to get a tax benefit from their donations. Do a QCD. The QCD lets you make donations with pre-tax money. Of course, you could do zero charitable donations in 2020 and then resume in 2021 when the QCD will count towards your next RMD. But I’m sure your charities have great needs for 2020 and are hoping you don’t skip this year.

The Government was willing to forgo RMDs this year to help investors who are suffering large drops in their accounts. To have to sell now and take a distribution is painful. However, if you already took a distribution, you are not required to spend it. You can invest that money right back into a taxable account. In a taxable account, the future growth could receive long-term capital gains status versus ordinary income in an IRA. I’ll be reaching out to my clients this week to explain the 2020 CARES Act RMD rules. Feel free to email me if you’d like our help.

SECURE Act Abolishes Stretch IRA

The SECURE Act passed in December and will take effect for 2020. I’m glad the government is helping Americans better face the challenge of retirement readiness. As a nation, we are falling behind and need to plan better for our retirement income. 

It’s highly likely that the SECURE Act will directly impact you and your family. Six of the changes are positive, but there’s one big problem: the elimination of the Stretch IRA. We’re going to briefly share the six beneficial new rules, then consider the impact of eliminating the Stretch IRA.

Changes to RMDs and IRAs

1. RMDs pushed to age 72. Currently, you have to begin Required Minimum Distributions from your IRA or 401(k) in the year in which you turn 70 1/2. Starting in 2020, RMDs will begin at 72. This is going to be helpful for people who have other sources of income or don’t need to take money from their retirement accounts. People are living longer and working for longer, so this is a welcome change.

2. You can contribute to a Traditional IRA after age 70 1/2. Previously, you could no longer make a Traditional IRA contribution once you turned 70 1/2. Now there are no age limits to IRAs. Good news for people who continue to work into their seventies!

3. Stipends, fellowships, and home healthcare payments will be considered eligible income for an IRA. This will allow more people to fund their retirement accounts, even if they don’t have a traditional job.

529 and 401(k) Enhancements

4. 529 College Savings Plans. You can now take $10,000 in qualified distributions to pay student loans or for registered apprenticeship programs.

5. 401(k) plans will cover more employees. Small companies can join together to form multi-employer plans and part-time employees can be included

6. 401(k) plans can offer Income Annuities. Retiring participants can create a guaranteed monthly payout from their 401(k). 

No More Stretch IRAs

7. The elimination of the Stretch IRA. This is a problem for a lot of families who have done a good job building their retirement accounts. As a spouse, you will still be allowed to roll over an inherited IRA into your own account. However, a non-spousal beneficiary (daughter, son, etc.) will be required to pay taxes on the entire IRA within 10 years.

Existing Beneficiary IRAs (also known as Inherited IRAs or Stretch IRAs) will be grandfathered under the old rules. For anyone who passes away in 2020 going forward, their IRA beneficiaries will not be eligible for a Stretch.

If you have a $1 million IRA, your beneficiaries will have to withdraw the full amount within 10 years. And those IRA distributions will be taxed as ordinary income. If you do inherit a large IRA, try to spread out the distributions over many years to stay in a lower income tax bracket. 

For current IRA owners, there are a number of strategies to reduce this future tax liability on your heirs.
Read more: 7 Strategies If The Stretch IRA Is Eliminated

If you established a trust as the beneficiary of your IRA, the SECURE Act might negate the value and efficacy of your plan. See your attorney and financial planner immediately.

IRA Owners Need to Plan Ahead

The elimination of the Stretch IRA is how Congress is going to pay for the other benefits of the SECURE Act. I understand there is not a lot of sympathy for people who inherit a $1 million IRA. Still, this is a big tax increase for upper-middle class families. It won’t impact Billionaires at all. For the average millionaire next door, their retirement account is often their largest asset, and it’s a huge change. 

If you want to reduce this future tax liability on your beneficiaries, it will require a gradual, multi-year strategy. It may be possible to save your family hundreds of thousands of dollars in income taxes. To create an efficient pre and post-inheritance distribution plan, you need to start now.

Otherwise, Uncle Sam will be happy to take 37% of your IRA (plus possible state income taxes, too!). Also, that top tax rate is set to go back to 39.6% after 2025. That’s why the elimination of the Stretch IRA is so significant. Many middle class beneficiaries will be taxed at the top rate with the elimination of the Stretch IRA. 

From a behavioral perspective, most Stretch IRA beneficiaries limit their withdrawals to just their RMD. As a result, their inheritance can last them for decades. I’m afraid that by forcing beneficiaries to withdraw the funds quickly, many will squander the money. There will be a lot of consequences from the SECURE Act. We are here to help you unpack these changes and move forward with an informed plan.

Your Home Is Like A Bond

You’re doing well: you’ve got your emergency fund, you’re maxing out your 401(k), and you don’t have any credit card debt. At this point, a common question is: Should I send extra payments to my mortgage? And with markets near their highs, maybe you’re even wondering, Should I pay off my mortgage?

There are a lot of emotional reasons to do this: to own your house free and clear, to never have to worry about a mortgage again, or to reduce your bills in retirement. Investments carry uncertainty, whereas paying down a debt is a sure thing. Those are typical thoughts, but that’s not necessarily a rational answer.

In financial planning, our goal is to determine the solution which maximizes utility. Will I have a higher net worth if I pay off my mortgage or invest the money?

The answer, then, is it depends. It depends on the rate of return on your investments compared to the rate you are paying on your mortgage. If your mortgage is 3% but your cash is earning 0.5%, you would be better off paying down the mortgage (assuming you still kept sufficient liquidity for emergencies). On the other hand, if your mortgage is 3% and you could be making 7%, you would maximize your net worth by staying invested and just paying your mortgage at the expected rate.

While most people would prefer to be debt free, the fact is that if you can borrow at a low cost and invest at a higher return, you will grow your net worth faster. I don’t think of a home as being a great investment. Houses generally keep up with inflation, but have returns similar or less than bonds.

Looking at the Case-Shiller 20 City Home Price Index (which includes Dallas), the overall rate of return since 2000 was 4.02%. Looking at actual bond funds, not just hypothetical indexes, I see that an investor could have earned 5.15% a year in the Vanguard Intermediate Term Bond Index fund, since the fund inception in 2001. 

The money you put into your house, will likely behave like a bond, although possibly with more volatility. Over a long period, it should keep up with inflation, or if you are lucky, do a little better than inflation. (See below for my concerns about home prices, or thinking of a home as an investment.)
I do believe it is realistic, based both on historical returns and projected returns, to anticipate a return of 5-8% from a diversified portfolio containing 60% or more in stocks. That’s not guaranteed, but if your time horizon is twenty or thirty years for a mortgage, it’s a reasonable assumption. And the longer the time period we consider, the greater likelihood of a positive outcome from stocks.

While I think it is important to consider your portfolio as a whole entity, with total levels of risk and return, a portfolio is made up of specific segments. Today, the yields on high quality bonds are very low. With the 10-year treasury yielding only 1.7%, there’s not much return to be had in bonds.

Let’s consider an example, using round numbers for simplicity. Let’s say you have a $1 million portfolio in a 60/40 portfolio: $600,000 in stocks and $400,000 in bonds. You also have a $200,000 mortgage at 3.5%. The expected returns (hypothetical) for stocks is 7% and for bonds 2.5% today. That would give the overall portfolio an expected return of 5.2%, which is higher than your mortgage rate.

On the bonds, though, the expected return of 2.5% is less than your mortgage cost of 3.5%. If you believe that today’s low yield environment is likely to persist for a long time, it might make sense to take $200,000 from your bonds to pay off the mortgage. That would leave you with a portfolio containing $600,000 of equities and $200,000 in bonds, a 75/25 portfolio. 

The new portfolio would be more volatile than the original 60/40 portfolio, but the dollar value of your stock holdings will remain the same. And your net worth will grow faster, since we paid off debt at 3.5% with bonds that would have yielded only 2.5%.

Provided you are comfortable with having a more volatile portfolio, you might maximize your net worth by withdrawing from bonds but not from your equities, and therefore increasing your equity percentage allocation. However, if you are considering selling stocks to pay down a long dated mortgage, I think we should go through the math on that decision more carefully.

There’s a lot to consider here, so it is important we discuss your individual situation and not try to simplify this to some type of universal advice or rule of thumb.

Here are some additional considerations:

  1. If your choices are to send in extra mortgage payments or do nothing (spend that money), then yes, send in extra payments.
  2. If you are choosing between extra payments versus another investment, consider the long-term expected rate of return of the investment versus the cost of the mortgage.
  3. While bond yields are low today, it is possible they could rise in the future. If you have short-term bonds you might gradually reset your yields to higher levels. If you have a fixed mortgage, however, it’s guaranteed to stay at the same rate for the full term of 15 to 30 years. Now is a great time to borrow very cheaply. If we have higher inflation in the future, it will benefit borrowers and penalize savers.
  4. You can invest outside of a retirement account. In fact, if your goal is to retire early, become a millionaire, or create a family trust, you need to do a lot more than just a 401(k). Some people stop after funding a 401(k) and think they don’t need to make any additional investments. Paying down a mortgage is not your only option; consider a taxable account.
  5. A mortgage is a form of forced savings. If you have a monthly mortgage of $1,500, maybe $500 of that is interest and the remaining $1,000 is building equity in your home. If you pay off your mortgage from investments, you will save $1,500 a month, and you will feel wealthier because you improved your cash flow. But if you don’t create an automatic savings plan to invest that $1,500 a month, you will likely just increase your discretionary spending. Be careful to not miss that opportunity to increase your saving.

On house values:

  • Your home price will increase the same whether you have a mortgage or own it free and clear.
  • There are significant expenses in being a home owner which make it a poor investment, including property taxes, insurance, utilities, and repairs or improvements. These costs are not included in a home price index. Read more: Tracking Your Home Improvements.
  • Selling costs can also be significant, such as a 6% realtor commission. I bought a house for $375,000 in 2006 and sold it in 2017. After paying closing expenses, I received $376,000. That’s not a good return, and those amounts do not even include any of the improvements I made to the house. 
  • If your primary goal is to grow your net worth, consider your home an expense and not an investment. If you aren’t going to stay for at least five years, rent.
  • After the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, you are less likely to be able to deduct your property taxes and mortgage interest, especially for married couples. So, forget about having a home as a great tax deduction; most people will take the standard deduction.

At best, you might consider home equity to be a substitute for a bond investment. Given today’s very low yields, if you want to reduce bond holdings to pay off a mortgage, that may be something to consider. Certainly, your home is significant part of your net worth statement, and it is often one of your biggest assets, liabilities, and expenses. It’s worth thinking carefully about how you manage those costs, looking to genuinely analyze how different decisions could impact your net worth over ten or more years.