Home Mortgage Strategies

Home Mortgage Strategies

With the 30 year mortgage rate at 7.50% today, it’s time we revisit home mortgage strategies. Loving your home is an undeniable part of the Good Life. In the past couple of months, we’ve had several clients who have moved or looked at buying a second home.

Understandably, the 7.5% mortgage rate is giving many people anxiety about this decision. And that is exactly what the Federal Reserve wants. To slow housing inflation, they needed to drive out buyers and reduce speculation to cool an overheated market. With home affordability problems in many areas, it may be a good thing to slow the rapidly rising house prices of recent years.

In the past, we might have seen real estate prices plummet given how quickly the Fed has raised interest rates. Prices today are not dropping, but at least the prices have stabilized and are no longer growing at double digit rates. We have an under-supply of housing, and there is relatively little construction of single family homes occurring, given the nationwide need. What is unique for 2023 is that sellers are disappearing, unwilling to move out of a home with a 3% mortgage (you will see why, below). There were 300,000 fewer homes on the market in September 2023 compared to one year earlier. Inventory remains very thin and that is why prices do not appear likely to drop anytime soon.

2023 versus 2021

We’re going to look through some mortgage examples and share some of the numbers that are typical today. We will go over a couple of home mortgage strategies that still make sense today. And we will revisit our philosophy and beliefs about home ownership.

The median home price was recently $412,000. For our examples, we are rounding that to $400,000 and putting down 20%, or $80,000, for a mortgage of $320,000. With a 7.5% 30-year mortgage, your monthly payment including taxes and insurance would be around $2,671 depending on your location.

For the rest of our examples, we are going to strip our taxes and insurance from the monthly costs and only look at the principal and interest payments. Your mortgage-only payment would be $2,237.49 a month. Over 30 years, you will pay a total of $805,495.11, in payments. That will repay your $320,000 loan plus $485,495.11 in interest payments. You will, in effect, be paying 150% more in interest than you borrowed. Borrow $320 thousand, pay back $805 thousand. It is just obscene, although not without precedent. Your parents may have had a similar mortgage rate at some point in the previous century.

Staying Put

If you had made the same purchase in 2021 with a 3% mortgage, or refinanced, it is a very different story. Your principal/interest payment would have been only $1349.13 a month, almost $900 less a month. Over 30 years, you would pay total payments of $485,687.85. That is only $165,687.85 in interest plus $320,000 in principal. And it seems much nicer to know that you are primarily paying principal and the interest payments are much less.

If you have that 3% mortgage, you probably don’t want to move to a new house. The 7.5% rates are keeping you out of the market, which again, is just as the Fed wants. There’s no doubt it can be preferable to stay put and enjoy your low mortgage rate. A few thoughts about your 3% mortgage:

  • Don’t send additional payments to a 3% mortgage. There are money markets, CDs, and government bonds yielding 5-6% today. Only send the minimum mortgage payment. Talk to me if you have extra cash.
  • Will it cash-flow? Rather than selling, have you considered turning your house into a rental or Airbnb? It is a lot of work and not for everyone. However, if you have a 3% mortgage, you have a much better possibility to turn a profit than a new investor who is going to have a 7.5% mortgage (or higher).
  • Downsize. If you have built a lot of equity into your home and have more space than you need, I would not hesitate to downsize. If you can take your tax-free gains and buy a small house for cash, this can improve your retirement readiness. Having no mortgage at all can be very freeing.

Jump Starting Your Amortization

Back to our $320,000 mortgage at 7.5%. You’ve just bought this house and now have a monthly payment of $2,237.49. In the first month, that payment includes $2,000.00 in interest and only $237.49 in principal. In the second month, your payment would consist of $1998.52 in interest and $238.97 principal. These high interest rates have a horrible, ugly amortization schedule. Your initial years of payments are primarily interest and you hardly make a dent on your principal.

After three years of payments, you will have made $80,550 in mortgage payments, but only paid $9,555 in principal. If you go to move, you would still owe $310,455 on the mortgage. All this money spent on interest is gone.

Now, let’s take a look at what would happen if you could make a one-time extra payment of $10,000 in the first month. This is probably the last thing any new homeowner is thinking of doing, but let’s run the numbers and talk about why it might be a good idea.

That one early payment of $10,000 will reduce your loan by 37 months, saving you $73,452 in interest over the life of the loan. And it jump starts your amortization, shifting $62 from interest payments to principal payments every month.

Mortgage Strategies:

  • If you have a 7.5% mortgage, try to make prepayments as early as you can. This can dramatically shorten your loan. Every dollar of principal will save you a multiple of interest in the years ahead.
  • Evaluate your cash levels. Keeping a ton of money in the bank at 0% while you have a 7.5% loan isn’t helping. Make those prepayments now and avoid excess cash. Here is a Prepayment Calculator to estimate your situation.

15-Year Mortgage

I’ve long been a fan of the 15-year mortgage and have written about it previously. I’ve used 15-year mortgages previously on primary residences and been very happy with the decision.

Back to our example, we buy a $400,000 house and put down $80,000 leaving us with a $320,000 mortgage. With a 15-year mortgage, the interest rate today is 6.75% rather than 7.50% for the 30-year. Yes, the 15-year mortgage is going to be more expensive. It will be $2,831.71 a month, versus $2,237.49 for a 30-year. For less than $600 extra per month, you can cut your mortgage in half, from 30 years to 15 years. I like that, and it will help reduce expenses for retirement.

The 15 year mortgage also allows you to more rapidly build equity in the house, with more of each payment going towards principal. Remember for the 30-year, the first payment of $2,237.49 consisted of $2,000 in interest and $237.49 principal. With the 15-year, your first payment of $2,831.71 consists of $1,800 in interest and $1,031.71 of principal. I prefer this quicker amortization – the payment is $600 more, but $800 more is going towards principal.

After 15 years, you own a house outright with a 15-year mortgage. You might think that after 15-years, you would be halfway through a 30-year mortgage, but that isn’t the case. You would still have a balance of $241,365 of your original $320,000 loan. In the first 15 years, you paid less than 25% of the principal, and will pay 75% in the second 15-years. So, if you decide to move after 15 years on a 30-year mortgage, you have not accumulated a lot of equity to put towards the next home.

Home Perspectives

No doubt that a home is a key to building wealth. Oh no, I don’t mean that a home is a good investment. Not at all. Rather, a home is an expense, your largest liability. Choose poorly and a house can consume all your income and leave nothing left to save and invest. Living beneath your means remains the way to accumulate wealth. Consider House Hacking if you really want to minimize your expenses. So, a few more thoughts, most of which I have shared previously.

  • Don’t wait for a housing crash. The supply of homes may be well under the demand for many years. I think we are unlikely to have a repeat of the 2008 housing sell-off, at least on the nationwide level. You can buy now, and potentially refinance in a couple of years if interest rates drop. But we also might see house prices rise again with lower interest rates as houses become more affordable. So, waiting for lower house prices or lower mortgage rates is not guaranteed to be beneficial. If you can find a great long-term home today, maybe it still makes sense long-term.
  • Renting has become more attractive. In most of the country, renting is now much cheaper than buying. Renting gives you fixed expenses, few surprise repair costs, and the flexibility to move. There is too much pressure to own a home in the US. For many people, renting is preferable, especially if you plan to be there for less than 5-10 years.
  • Your home is not an investment. Over the long-term, house prices only have done a little better than inflation. And that statistic is highly misleading because it doesn’t account for expenses. Don’t buy a home hoping for substantial appreciation. Buy it as a place to live and for your family.
  • Tax benefits. Sorry, most people are not getting a tax benefit from their homes anymore. And yet, I still see realtors talking about tax benefits. The standard deduction for 2024 will be $14,600, or $29,200 for a married couple. Very few people will actually have enough in mortgage interest and property taxes to take an itemized deduction. Also, there are caps on what you can deduct: State and Local taxes up to $10,000 and interest only up to $750,000 of a mortgage. Most of my clients used to itemize before 2017 and almost none of them do today.

Financial Planning

Financial Planning is more than just investing well, and that is why we talk about things like Home Mortgage Strategies. The 7.5% mortgage rates are hurting home affordability. If you have to buy a house, understand what your amortization looks like and try to be sure to refi if you can save one percent or more. Back in 2020, I saw people who were looking at paying off a 3% mortgage because cash yields were so low. We discussed the opportunity cost of paying off a mortgage, and that still applies today. Unfortunately now in 2023, the expected 10-year return of stocks have not changed as much as mortgage rates have, and so today the weight of leverage at 7.5% is too great to ignore.

If you are thinking about moving, carefully consider the home mortgage strategies we discussed. Staying put can make sense. If you have an expensive mortgage, consider making prepayments in the early years. If you can afford it, choose a 15-year mortgage. I worry a lot about housing because it has become so much more expensive that people risk being House Rich and Cash Poor. And then, there is nothing left to invest. A home is often the biggest purchase of your life, so choose carefully! Think about how will this help to maximize your future net worth.

Taxes Living Abroad

Taxes Living Abroad

Since we moved to Paris in February, we’ve become much more familiar with taxes living abroad. This may be of interest to anyone who is thinking of living or retiring to another country. I will share the situation for me as a US citizen living in France, but the basics will apply to most countries.

If you thought US taxes were complex, things get really difficult when you add in a foreign tax system and then have to figure out how they will interact together. Given this complexity, this article should be considered just a primer on basic terms and not used as individual tax advice. You need a tax professional who has experience with US clients living abroad.

In general, US citizens have to pay US income taxes on their global income, regardless of where you live. You don’t get out of US taxes by going abroad. But you may be able to reduce your US taxes and that is what we will discuss. Also, there are many other tax considerations besides the annual income tax bill to understand.

Tax Residency

If you spend more than one-half of the year in France (183 days), they will likely consider you a Tax Resident of France. This makes you subject to full France income taxes, which is levied on your global income. If you live in France less than half the year and are not a tax resident, you would still be subject to France taxes on any French derived income.

If all your income sources are from the US, you could potentially live abroad for just under half of the year and not become a Tax Resident. And then you would only have to file US taxes. Currently, as a US tourist, you can stay in the European Union for up to 90 days out of the rolling previous 180 days. Make sure you fully understand the “rolling 180 days” part – it is not based on a calendar year. If you can stay a tourist and not become a tax resident, this will make your life much simpler!

Avoiding Double Taxation

For a US citizen living abroad, you have the problem of double taxation. Your income will be taxed by your resident country and then it will be taxed again by the US. Thankfully, there are tax treaties with 70 countries which provide some benefit and there are several ways to reduce or eliminate the double taxation. Still, you will need to file a US tax return even if you don’t end up owing any US taxes.

Foreign Earned Income Exclusion

The US tax code allows for a citizen to exclude up to $120,000 (2023) in Foreign Earned Income from being taxable on your US taxes. This is doubled to $240,000 for couples who are married filing jointly and who both have foreign wages. You must live abroad for 330 out of the past 365 days. For someone whose income is below the FEIE threshold, you could end up with zero taxable income for the US. You would calculate this exclusion on IRS form 2555 “Foreign Earned Income”.

The FEIE does not apply to any US wages or to any US capital gains, dividends, interest, rent, or other US sourced income. So if you have US wages or income, those earnings are still taxable outside of the FEIE amounts.

In addition to the FEIE, there is also a US tax exclusion for foreign housing expenses, which has a cap of 30% of the FEIE, or $36,000 for 2023. If you reduce your US taxable income to zero through the FEIE and/or housing exclusion, please note that you will be ineligible to make any IRA contributions. (Because your taxable income is zero.)

Foreign Tax Credit

Alternatively, you may be able to claim a credit on your US tax return for foreign taxes paid. The FEIE may take many people’s taxable income to zero and you can stop right there. However, US citizens who make more than the FEIE thresholds, or who have some US-sourced income, may still owe US taxes. And in those situations, applying the Foreign Tax Credit may be preferable. Please note that you have to choose either the FEIE or the Foreign Tax Credit, but cannot do both.

In my situation, we will probably end up using the Foreign Tax Credit. That’s because we have both US and France sources of income (US for me and France for my wife). And since the French taxes will likely be higher than the US taxes, it may take our US tax bill to zero.

Except for one thing: although France taxes us on global income, they exclude Real Estate income. They believe that all real estate income should be taxed locally. And indeed, if you buy a rental property in France, they will charge you income tax on that property even if you never set foot in the country or become a tax resident. As a result, our AirBnb Properties in Hot Springs will remain solely taxed in the US.

One challenge with using the Foreign Tax Credit is that it requires that you finish your foreign taxes before you complete your US tax return. For many, this will require filing a US tax extension past April 15th. And once you are beyond April 15th, you have passed the window to make Traditional or Roth IRA contributions or to calculate 401(k) profit sharing amounts. You may not be able to determine your eligibility until you complete your tax return, so you might miss out on some opportunities.

Social Security

In France, the payroll tax for Social Security is 20%. That is much higher than the US contribution of 7.65% for Social Security and Medicare. However, the French contribution includes all social programs, including Health Insurance, unemployment, maternity leave, as well as “retirement” Social Security.

Although 20% is 12% more than what we would pay in the US, we don’t have any health insurance expenses in France. And so it may be fairly comparable to what we would pay in the US for total costs. As a self-employed person in the US, we might pay $1,200 a month for a family plan with a $5,000 deductible. That’s a $19,400 annual expense we don’t have in France. And the medical system here is excellent.

We just had a baby girl a month ago, and I have no complaints about the value we have received. I will say that the social charges here are a great deal if you have a modest income, but if you have a very high income, you may feel that you are paying in more than you are getting back.

Social Security Vesting

There is one problem for us, however, with social security taxes abroad. Just like the US Social Security, the French retirement system has a 10-year vesting period. Only after you have contributed for 10 years do you become eligible to receive a retirement pension. We do not plan to stay in France for 10 years, so all the money we will pay into their Social Security will not come back to us later in retirement.

Our French earnings are not credited toward the US Social Security system either. US Social Security benefits are calculated based on your highest 35 years of inflation adjusted earnings. We are effectively losing these years of contributions. We are paying in France for no future benefit, while losing the years that could have been added to the US benefits. There’s no 401(k) in France, so no other employer retirement contributions, either.

If you are considering working abroad, make sure you understand its impact on your future benefits! We have enough in ongoing savings and investments for this not to be a major problem, but it is an opportunity cost that we are missing by working outside the US.

Pitfalls Abroad

Besides wages, there are other tax events which could become major pitfalls when living abroad. Here are a few things which could become huge tax bills for US citizens in other countries.

  1. Home capital gains. In the US, we have a $250,000 capital gains exclusion on the sale of your primary residency. France does not. If your US house sale closes a week after moving to France, it occurred while you are a tax resident of France! Maybe you have a $100,000 capital gain which is ignored in the US but now taxable in France. Sell your house before you move! Or keep it.
  2. Gift Taxes. Large gifts to children or others are fine in the US with a lifetime Gift/Estate tax exemption of $12.92 million. Not so in France. Gift taxes could be 20% and apply with thresholds dependent on the relationship. There are even gift taxes between spouses! The French gift tax exemption is only 31,865 Euros per 15 years.
  3. Trusts not recognized. Based on Civil, not Common Law, France does not recognize trusts for tax purposes. Don’t set up US Trusts before becoming a tax resident abroad.
  4. Inheritance Taxes. If you are in France for more than six years, you are subject to inheritance taxes. These are paid by the recipient, unlike US Estate Taxes, which is paid by the Estate. The US threshold is $12,920,000 before any Estate taxes are due. In France, inheritance taxes start at 5% at 8072 euros, but steps up to 45% tax on amounts above 1,805,677 euros (2023).

Get Help

If you are contemplating working or retiring outside the US, taxes living abroad can be complex. Luckily, you’re not the first one to do this. You will want to have tax advisors in the US and in your new country who have experience navigating these complex rules. And having a Wealth Manager who understands the tax implications of your portfolio construction is very important, too.

When my wife’s employer offered her a position in their Paris office, it was an offer we could not refuse! It has been a remarkable opportunity. If you could have the chance to live or work overseas, I would encourage you to see if it is possible. The taxes are a headache and will take a bit more time, but I do think it will be worth it for the experience. Certainly part of achieving the Good Life is being able to fearlessly make the choices to live your life as you dream it could be!

Growth The Big Picture

Growth, The Big Picture

With all the noise in today’s markets, it is easy to miss the big picture about growth. 2022 and 2023 have been two of the strangest years in a generation for investors. As a result, it is easy to feel uncertain about investing right now. And that uncertainty often leads investors to make bad choices. So, we are going to step back and look at the 30,000 foot view of what really matters for investors.

In 2022, we saw inflation rise to 9% and the Federal Reserve start the process of slowing the economy. As the Fed raised interest rates, stocks dropped 20%, briefly entering Bear Market territory. In the bond market, rising interest rates snipped the price of bonds, sending the US Aggregate bond index down double digits. For diversified investors, 2022 was a perfect storm where diversification failed and both stocks and bonds were down an uncomfortable level.

Now in 2023, we have seen the Federal Reserve continue to raise rates up to the present moment. At the start of the year, I saw one report that said the probability of a recession in the next 12 months was 100%. 100%, a certainty! And while the full 12 months are not up yet, we have not had a recession. In fact, the S&P 500 Index is up 15.83% this year. While the yield curve remains inverted, a favorite predictor of recessions, it now appears that the likelihood of a 2023 recession is diminished and might not happen at all.

Don’t Time The Market

Comparing 2022 and 2023 doesn’t make sense. The market “should” not be up 15% this year. And yet here we are, with a very welcome gift of an amazing performance in the first seven and a half months of the year. The consensus economic forecasts at the start of 2023 were lousy. If we had listened to them, we would have sold our stocks and hid out in cash. We would have missed out on the gains that we have had for 2023!

There are often compelling historical precedents to entice investors to think we can predict what is going to happen over the next 12 months. Making changes to your investments feels obvious, a smart choice, and low-risk. Unfortunately, history shows us that it is hubris to try to time the market and more often detrimental than beneficial.

It is a challenge to actually stay the course and maintain your discipline. It is difficult to ignore the forecasters and not think that there is an opportunity for you to either protect your principal or rotate into a better performing investment.

Timing the market continues to be a bad idea. I didn’t hear any forecasters in January predict that stocks would be up 15% by August. If we had listened to their predictions, although well-intentioned, we would have made a mistake. Thankfully, we didn’t try to time the market this year. Here is how we manage a portfolio:

  • Establish a target asset allocation for each client’s individual needs and risk tolerance.
  • Rebalance portfolios when they drift from the targets.
  • Adjust our portfolio models annually based on the valuation and expected returns of each category.
  • Use Index Funds and manage each client’s portfolio to keep costs down and minimize taxes.

Rebalancing

The funny thing about rebalancing is that it often means doing the opposite of what you might expect. When stocks were down 20% last year or in 2020, we were buying stocks. Now, when stocks are up 15-20% and there is a lot of optimism for a soft landing, we are trimming stocks and buying bonds. In hindsight, this looks pretty logical. However, in real time, rebalancing often feels like not such a good idea. And sometimes it isn’t – there’s no guarantee that rebalancing will improve returns. But, what it does offer is a disciplined process to managing an investment portfolio, versus the behavioral traps of trying to time the market. The bizarre markets of 2022-2023 certainly reinforce the potential benefits of rebalancing.

Average Versus Median

Do you remember from high school algebra the difference between Average and Median? Average is the total sum divided by the number of items. Median is the data point in the middle. And there can be a big difference between Average and Median. Stock markets are cap weighted, so the larger stocks move the index more than the smaller stocks. Still, let’s consider how the “average” return of an index can be quite different from the median returns of its component stocks.

The year to date return of the S&P 500 Index ETF (SPY) is 15.83% as of August 16. But that is not the median return of the stocks. Of 504 components of the S&P 500, only 135 have done better than 15.83% YTD and 369 have done worse than the overall index. If you had picked a random stock from the S&P, there was a 73% chance that you would have done worse than “average” this year.

And what is the Median performance of the S&P 500 this year? Only 3.36%, an under-performance of more than 12% than the overall index. Even worse, 212 stocks in the S&P 500 are down, negative for the year.

What is the big picture of growth in stocks? Trying to pick individual stocks is extremely difficult. Don’t think that using an index fund means “settling for average”, the reality is that over time, the index return has done much better than the median stock.

This year has been such a frustrating year for investors because stocks are all over the place. If you don’t own a few of the top performers, you are likely lagging the benchmark by a wide margin. What is a way to make sure you own the winners today and tomorrow? Own the whole market with an Index Fund.  Realize that if you pick a stock from the S&P 500, it is not a 50/50 coin toss that you will beat the market average. The chance is lower than 50% because the market average typically does better than the median stock. The stocks which do outperform will move the index disproportionately and they will be fewer in number.

There is a lot of noise and confusion in the markets today, and that’s okay. We are in uncharted waters and seem to be going from one “unprecedented” event to another. Thankfully, I don’t think we need to have a crystal ball to be successful as long-term investors. What I believe can help is stepping back to remember the big picture: don’t time the market, stick to an allocation and rebalance, and use index funds. That’s our roadmap. When in doubt, we can recheck our directions and keep going.

What You Can Control

In the short-term, stock markets can be very volatile. As a result, I believe a lot of inexperienced investors mistakenly think that their success depends on their ability to game the markets. They think that growth is achieved through trading or superior returns.

Unfortunately, trying to outsmart the market often makes your performance worse, rather than better. Active management doesn’t work, at least not consistently over 10 or more years. We stick to passive, low-cost index funds or ETFs for our stock market exposure. And we remain invested in a long-term asset allocation.

Once that investment decision is out of the way, the main determinant of success is your savings rate. How much are you investing each month? That is what you can control. If you want to be more successful in accumulating your wealth, you don’t need to worry about the Jobs Report this week, or what was in the Federal Reserve meeting notes. You need to focus on how can you can save an extra $100, $500, or $1000 a month and make that a habit.

Instead of worrying about your YTD performance, calculate how much wealth you will have in 10 or 20 years, with an average rate of return. Because in the long-run, an average rate of return is excellent. And then what you can control – your savings – is what actually matters more. Growing your wealth is largely a factor of savings and time. Chasing investment performance is a distraction.

Develop Your Saving Habits

  1. Make savings automatic. Put your investing on autopilot with monthly contributions to your 401K, IRA, and investment accounts.
  2. Save More. Don’t just do the 401(k) match, try to put in the maximum to each account. And then ask where else can you invest? Do the math of how much money you want to accumulate. (I can help with that.)
  3. Keep the big expenses down. Living beneath your means is easy if you are smart about your housing costs and your cars. Many Americans who are not frugal in those areas do not have anything leftover to invest.
  4. Develop your career. If you can expand your income without increasing your expenditures, your savings can increase dramatically. If you ever have a chance to work for a company with stock options, go there. I have seen over the years, tremendous wealth accumulated from stock options.
  5. Be an Entrepreneur. This can be high risk, but when they are successful, entrepreneurs earn and save much more than employees. Besides a salary, an entrepreneur is growing a business that has value.

As a financial planner over the past 19 years, I’ve gotten to look at a lot of families’ finances. The difference between those who were struggling and those who were wealthy was seldom just income. I’ve seen a lot of high income folks who were living hand to mouth. Other families who had similar incomes were millionaires or well on their way. The difference was their saving rate. You can’t grow what you don’t save.

There is no substitute for saving. We have to make savings automatic and increase our savings whenever possible. It may help to work backwards: start with your goal and determine how much you need to save and for how long. Then you can see saving as the solution and beneficial process rather than as a sacrifice. Some Americans are saving very well. But the Big Picture is that the average American isn’t saving enough. We need to be talking more about saving, because for too many families, it is the step that they cannot get past.

Our recipe for Growth is simple. Save monthly and dollar cost average into Index funds. You can do this in your 401(k), IRA, or taxable account. The account is less important than the process. The more you save, the more wealth you can accumulate. The younger you start, the better. The faster you increase your saving, the sooner you can reach your goals. Saving is growth and investing is secondary.

Investment Taxes Eat Your Growth

Taxes matter. We work hard to establish a good portfolio and get a respectable rate of return. And then the government wants their cut. How about 37% for Federal Income Taxes (increasing to 39.6% in two years). And another 5% for state taxes. Don’t forget 15.3% for self employment taxes for Social Security and Medicare (or half that number if you’re an employee). Then, if you do well, how about an extra 3.8% in Medicare surtax (“Net Investment Income Tax”).

Once you have your “after-tax” money, it’s all yours, right? Well, not quite. You get to give the government another $5,000, $10,000, or more in property taxes. And when you want to buy something with your after-tax money, you get to pay 8% in sales tax.

The point is that it doesn’t matter how much you make, it matters how much you keep. That is why tax planning is such a big part of our wealth management process. As your portfolio grows, the tax implications can become a significant annual expense and a drag on returns.

What continues to shock me is how many Advisors are making huge mistakes with client portfolios and creating tens of thousands of dollars in unnecessary taxes. Taxes which could have been avoided or reduced substantially through better planning. Sometimes this is because they use a model portfolio that doesn’t attempt to have any tax efficiency. But other times, it is laziness and having too many clients to manage individual portfolios in a tax-efficient way. It’s easier to stick people into a model and let the computer automatically rebalance the portfolio.

This is the big picture for wealthy Americans: Your after tax-return matters more than your pre-tax returns. You have very little control over taxes on a monthly basis, but a great deal of control over taxes in the long run. Here are the mistakes we often see and how we can do better:

Portfolio Tax Efficiency

Mistake 1: Mutual Funds in Taxable Accounts. Mutual Funds have to distribute capital gains annually. Each December, many investors get a surprise tax bill from their funds. BETTER: hold Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) in taxable accounts. ETFs rarely, if ever, have capital gains distributions.

Mistake 2: Short-Term Capital Gains. Short-Term Capital Gains (less than 1 year) are taxed as Ordinary Income, up to 37%. BETTER: Hold for Long-Term Capital Gains (more than 1 year), which are taxed at lower rates (0, 15 , or 20 percent). Trading which creates ST Gains should be avoided in a taxable account. We are very careful about the tax implications of our rebalancing trades, as well.

Mistake 3: Bonds and REITs in Taxable Accounts. Bond income is taxed as ordinary income (up to 37%). BETTER: Hold bonds in IRAs, which are tax-deferred. Also, IRA distributions will be taxed as ordinary income, so bond income isn’t treated worse in an IRA, unlike capital gains. When you have a LTCG on a stock ETF in an IRA, all that growth will be taxed as Ordinary Income. Traditional IRAs will have the highest tax rate, so it is better to allocate the low growth bonds to IRAs and high growth stocks to Roths and taxable accounts. This process is called Asset Location.

Mistake 4: Not harvesting losses. BETTER: Harvest losses annually in taxable accounts. Losses can be used to offset gains that year, and $3,000 of losses can be applied against ordinary income. Unused losses will be carried forward without expiration.

Mistake 5: Not asking about charitable giving. 90% of Americans are not itemizing and not getting any tax benefit from charitable donations. BETTER: We can get a tax benefit two ways, without itemizing: A) make donations of appreciated securities from a taxable account. Or B), if over age 70 1/2, make Qualified Charitable Distributions (QCDs) from your IRA.

Mistake 6: No Plan for Managing IRA Distributions. BETTER: Do Roth Conversions in low income years before RMDs start at age 73.

Mistake 7: Not understanding Taxes that will be owed by Beneficiaries. BETTER: Working with your Advisor to consider inter-generational taxes in your Estate Plan. For example, taxation of trusts, step-up in cost basis, charitable giving, and Beneficiary IRAs.

Mistake 8: Not doing a Backdoor Roth IRA. I’ve had advisors tell me it’s not worth their time to move $13,000 to $15,000 into a TAX-FREE account each year for a married couple. Not worth it for the advisor, I guess (no additional revenue). BETTER: Although the numbers are small annually, we have been doing back-door contributions for clients for many years, and it does add up.

The Changing Retirement Picture

Did your parents retire with a Pension? Maybe they worked for 30-40 years for the big company in town, or for a municipality, school district, military branch, or government agency. When they retired, they had a pension and Social Security which fully covered their expenses. They might have also had retirement health benefits which paid for deductibles and co-pays which were not covered by Medicare.

You probably don’t have the same benefits. How much is a Pension worth? Well, we can easily compare a Pension to the cost of a Single Premium Immediate Annuity, or SPIA. A SPIA works the same way as a Pension – it is a guaranteed monthly payment for life. For example, let’s consider a 65 year old female who has a pension which guarantees her $2500 a month for the rest of her life. We could buy a SPIA with the same guaranteed $2,500 a month for life, for a cost $437,063. So, a $2,500/month pension is worth $437,063.

To have the same retirement funding as your parents, you may need $400,000 or more in assets than they had. And that is just to replace one modest pension. If your parents had two pensions or had a bigger pension, you might need much more than $400,000 to get the same retirement income.

And you probably won’t buy a SPIA and would prefer to keep your money in an IRA. At a 4% withdrawal rate, you would need $750,000 in your IRA to get $2,500 a month. So maybe you need $750,000 more than your parents, not $437,000, to replace their pension! These pensions were worth a lot. It will take a worker 30 years of saving to build up their 401(k) to $750,000. It’s not impossible, but the big picture is that most Americans aren’t doing a good job of saving. The average 401(k) balance for workers age 55-64 is $207,874. The median balance at 55-64 is only $71,168, meaning that half of all 401(k) accounts are less than $71,168.

I’m afraid the promise of becoming wealthy through your 401(k)s has proved elusive for the average American. It’s a wedge that is driving wealth inequality in our country. But I don’t think Pensions are coming back – retirement preparation rests squarely on the individual’s shoulders. You certainly can get to $500,000 to $1 million in a retirement account, but you have to aim to put in the maximum, not just get the company match. Then you have to not withdraw it and let it compound for 30 to 40 years. That recipe will work, but it’s not easy, it requires some sacrifice and a lot of discipline.

Counting on Social Security

The Social Security Trust Fund will be depleted by 2033. After that, revenues will only cover about 70% of promised benefits. After kicking the can down the road for 20 years, Washington needs to get its act together soon. We can either reduce benefits or increase taxes. It may be a combination of both, but one thing is for sure: keeping the status quo is not going to be an option. The Social Security budget for 2023 is $1.30 Trillion. The Department of Health and Human Services (Medicare, Medicaid, and other health agencies) have a budget of $2.10 Trillion for this year. These two programs, largely for Retirees, have become the biggest portion of government spending.

There will have to be a reckoning in the years ahead about these programs. Something has to change, they are unsustainable in their present form. I think there will be changes in inflation adjustments, a gradual increase in the full retirement age, and probably some means testing which will reduce benefits for high net worth families. Or there could be a whole new system. As difficult as it is to imagine, the system is so broken that starting over from scratch might be better than continuing to try to put new band-aids on this fiscal cancer.

The big picture for the future of government retirement programs is very uncertain. These are not the only issues facing the government. Our debt is growing. This year, the interest payments alone on US Treasury Debt will be $964 Billion. We may top $1 Trillion in interest payments next year. And there is no plan to ever repay this debt, only to grow it every single year. When you look at debt projections, it only reinforces the need to reign in the expenses which are growing the fastest.

In our planning process, we include Social Security projections. But we had better be prepared for benefits to potentially be a bit less than promised. So, once again, it may be that more of your retirement income needs to be self-funded. If you don’t have a pension, the burden of funding your retirement has been shifted to you. Have you calculated what that will cost? That’s what we do with our retirement planning software, MoneyGuidePro. We create an ongoing plan for your retirement needs, which adjusts over time, and where we can continue to refine assumptions and expectations.

I hate to be such a downer, it’s really not my nature. But a lot of Americans are going to have worse retirements than their parents, because they don’t have a pension. The burden of saving for retirement has shifted from the employer to the employee. Now instead of everyone getting a good outcome, many Americans are under-prepared for retirement. And then we have to look ahead at the uncertainty that is facing Social Security and Medicare. It looks like we will have more individual responsibility for our outcomes and less universal assistance.

The Forest For The Trees

The Big Picture for Growth can be hard to see because the fog of current events makes it hard to see the long-term horizon. Here are our four pillars of The Big Picture:

  1. Don’t time the market. Stick to your asset allocation and rebalance. Use index funds.
  2. Once you’ve made the shift away from performance chasing, focus on what really matters: how much you save.
  3. Taxes hurt returns. Tax planning helps.
  4. You are responsible for your own retirement savings and financial security.

I’m sure things are going to change. We don’t really know how, when, or why they will change. While some may find uncertainty to be paralyzing, it doesn’t have to be. Even if the future is a moving target, planning is not a waste of time. Not at all! Being well prepared also includes the flexibility to adapt and evolve.

A lot of my day to day work is focused on the small details of implementing our plans. But the growth is created when we step back and take a long, hard look at The Big Picture. We should all be having more of those conversations, with our spouses and children, our bosses and colleagues, and especially with your financial professional.

Cash Back Credit Cards

Cash Back Credit Cards

I am a big fan of cash back credit cards for good reason: this past year I’ve gotten back $1,294.18 from my two personal credit cards. Both cards have no annual fee and I pay my balances off every month and pay no interest charges. We are moving away from cash payments with our spending today and so it makes sense to get cash back on money you would have spent anyways.

This has certainly been a big spending year, with our wedding last October and a trip to Europe this August. Additionally, we spent over $20,000 in renovations and furnishings for our two new Airbnb properties in Hot Springs. You can check out our listings here: The Owl House and The Boho Loft. So, all the spending adds up.

Two Percent Cash Back

There are a lot of cards that offer 1 to 1.5% cash back, and those should be pretty easy to find. Today’s top cards offer 2% cash back, and there’s a good list of 2% cards on the Nerdwallet site. I’ve had the Fidelity Rewards Visa Card for years. It has no annual fee and gives me 2% cash back, deposited automatically into a Fidelity brokerage account each month. I can then transfer the cash out to my checking at any time. (My brokerage accounts are all at TD Ameritrade – I only keep the cash back at Fidelity.)

I don’t really worry about the interest rates on these cards since I never carry a balance. If you do have a balance, you’re probably better off finding a zero-interest balance transfer card and working on paying off your principal. I do prefer a card with no annual fee. And I’m not a big fan of hotel points or airline miles. I know others who are loyal to one airline and prefer an airline credit card, but I believe the airlines have made it harder to redeem points in recent years. (If you’ve had a great – or a terrible – experience with airline cards, I’d love to hear about it. Please send me a message.)

Discover 5%

I’ve also had a Discover Card since 1999. It provides 1% cash back on everything and 5% cash back on a category that changes each quarter. So, I use my Visa for most purchases and the Discover card for the 5% categories. Here is the 5% Cashback calendar for 2022:

  • January-March: Grocery Stores and Gym Memberships
  • April-June: Gas Stations and Target
  • July-September: Restaurants and PayPal
  • October-December: Amazon and Digital Wallets

I don’t spend as much on Discover, except for the 5% categories. Customer service at Discover has been excellent.

Store 5% Cards

There are a number of store-branded credit cards which offer 5% discounts or credits. These may not be cash back, but if you frequent these stores, they may be a better deal than your 2% cash back credit card. Presently, the only one I have is the Target Red Card. The Red Card gives me an instant 5% discount off my purchases at Target. I set up the card to autopay from my checking each month and don’t think about it after that.

I’m also looking at three other 5% store cards. The Lowe’s Advantage Card gives a 5% discount on purchases. That’s definitely worth it if you are doing some big projects. Please note that if you get the 10% Military discount at Lowe’s (like my Dad), you cannot stack the 5% on top of the Military discount. However the 5% discount will apply to appliances, unlike the Military discount.

The second card I would consider is the TJX Rewards Card which offers 5% back in certificates to use at the store on future purchases. The card and rewards can be used at TJ Maxx, HomeGoods, or Marshalls. We’ve spent a bit there in the past year, but I’m not sure we need it going forward.

And third is the Amazon Prime Rewards Visa. It offers 5% back at Amazon and Whole Foods, plus 2% back on restaurants, gas stations, and drug stores. There’s 1% back on everything else, and no annual fee as long as you are already an Amazon Prime member. This one may make the most sense for us, given how much we use Amazon.

Spend Wisely

Cash Back Credit Cards are a good deal for consumers. I’ve been getting 2-5% cash back on my spending for years, and it helps. I’ve also added a 1.5% cash back card for my business this year, which I probably should have done years ago! Some people are worried that opening new credit cards will hurt their credit score, but this will probably have little or no effect. And if you aren’t planning to buy a house soon, you shouldn’t worry at all.

It pays to do a little research and find the right card for you. Over time, cash back cards put money back into your wallet. And then you can contribute more to your Roth IRA like I’ve been suggesting, right? Helping you become intentional with your money goals is important to me, even if it is something as small as which credit card you use. Little decisions create good habits that keep you moving forward.

Why Index Funds Are Better

Why Index Funds Are Better

Twice a year, Standard and Poor’s provides an analysis of why index funds are better than actively managed mutual funds. Their report is known as SPIVA, S&P Index Versus Active. It is compelling evidence that investors would be better off using index funds. We’re going to look at the most recent data, discuss the perils of fund benchmarks, and then explain our approach of using Factor-based strategies.

Most Funds Lag Their Benchmark

Looking at 2021, 79.6% of US stock funds did worse than the overall market, as measured by the S&P 1500 Composite Index. It was a spectacularly bad year for active managers, even worse than most years. I focus on the long-term results, which are fairly consistent from year to year. For the 10 years ending 12/31/2021, 86% of US stock funds under-performed the market. Some of the funds which did out-perform did so by taking on much more risk. When we consider risk-adjusted returns, 93% of funds lagged.

The data is compelling and persistent. 80% or more of actively managed funds cannot keep up with their index over 10 or 20 years. And since that is the time frame that matters for long-term investors, the odds are in your favor if you use index strategies rather than active funds. It is extremely difficult for active managers to beat the index. There are many thoughts why this is the case:

  • Higher expenses. The cost of running a fund seems to wipe out any value they create through research and active management. Overall, market participants add up to the entire return of the stock market. That is the benchmark. But instead of being average (or actually Median) at 50%, the additional costs mean that 80% of funds trail the benchmark
  • Chasing performance. Active managers pay too much for hot stocks and ignore cheap stocks which are out of favor. Or they miss the handful of top performing stocks which are often the biggest drivers of market returns. Stocks, categories, and sectors go in and out of favor.
  • No information advantage. Today, analysts are smarter than ever and information is disseminated instantly online. The markets may have become so efficient that there are no “secret” stocks for active managers to uncover.
  • The 10-20% of managers who do outperform may have done so through luck, as they are typically unable to sustain out-performance from one period to another. Do we have data for that? Yes. It’s the S&P Persistence Scorecard.

Which Benchmark?

There are a lot of benchmarks and unfortunately, this can be confusing for investors. Sometimes, we might be comparing a fund to the wrong benchmark and not be making the most accurate comparison. Consider, for example, the Fidelity Contrafund. At $126 Billion in assets, it is one of the most successful active funds in history. And over the last 10 years, it has slightly beat the S&P 500 Index: FCNTX is up 282% through April 22, 2022, compared to 279% for the Vanguard 500 (VOO).

Unfortunately, that’s not the most accurate benchmark, because the Contrafund is a Growth Fund. As a better benchmark, you could have been invested in the Vanguard 500 Growth Index (VOOG). And VOOG was up 333% over the past 10 years. In this case, the active fund actually trailed the correct benchmark by 50% over 10 years. With Growth strategies dominating over the past 10 years, a lot of Growth funds look good compared to the S&P 500. But when we consider a Growth benchmark, you probably would have been better off in the index fund. (And for taxable accounts, the after-tax return of active funds are very often much lower than an ETF.)

Here’s another poor benchmark situation. This week, I was comparing two US Low Volatility ETFs with very similar strategies: the SPDR Large Cap Low Volatility (LGLV) and the Invesco S&P 500 Low Volatility (SPLV). Looking at a Morningstar report of 5-year performance, it showed that LGLV was in the 60th percentile while SPLV was better, at the 40th percentile. Unfortunately, the report was using two different benchmarks: large blend for LGLV and large value for SPLV. Their actual 5-year annualized returns were 14.01% for LGLV and 11.36% for SPLV. With different benchmarks, LGLV looked worse (60th percentile), even though it had actually out-performed SPLV by 2.65% a year! Which benchmark you use matters.

Using Factors To Look Forward

Although SPIVA shows why index funds are better, the harder part is deciding which index fund you want to invest in. You could just choose a World Index stock fund, like the Vanguard Total World Stock ETF (VT). And I am confident you would do better than most active managers over the next 10 or 20 years.

But, we don’t invest in an “all-in-one” fund.

Rather, my role as a portfolio manager is to determine the asset allocation for each model and level of risk. We decide which categories we want to own (large growth, small value, emerging markets, etc.) and what percentage to invest in each category. And rather than looking backwards at performance, we use today’s valuations to evaluate future performance. Once we have an asset allocation model, I can select an index fund to use to fulfill each category. It starts with the blueprint, not the funds themselves.

Rather than using generic index funds like a Total World Index fund, we buy 5-8 Index funds that invest using a “factor” strategy. This is a quantitative way of sorting stocks, using a characteristic such as Value, Size, Quality, or Low Volatility. They represent an Index or Benchmark, but have an additional screen to create a portfolio with specific qualities. There is evidence that Factors can outperform a benchmark over time, but clearly, they do not do so every year.

Today, we are concerned about some stocks’ high valuations. We have tilted our portfolios away from the large cap growth and technology names which have had such terrific performance that their values are so expensive today. Some of these stocks, such as Facebook (now called “Meta”) are down 45% year to date. That’s what can happen when a stock becomes too expensive and the market winds change direction.

Instead, we are looking ahead in anticipation of a reversion to the mean in categories such as Value, Small Cap Value, International and Emerging Markets. That’s no prediction that any of these will be up this year, it’s a long-term proposition. When I look at the S&P 500 Index today and see how expensive some of the names have become, I find it hard to stomach. And so, we are looking for ways to take advantage of passive, low cost, tax-efficiency of ETFs, but in a smarter manner than just throwing it all in a generic, market cap weighted index fund.

Once we understand why index funds are better, we are still left with two questions. Which benchmark to use and how do we want to invest? We are fortunate today to have easy access to many low cost index funds. Factor-based funds can help us establish potentially positive characteristics to our portfolios even compared to regular index funds.

We Bought An Airbnb

We Bought An Airbnb

In January, we bought a house in Hot Springs, Arkansas and have listed it on Airbnb. This is a new venture for us and I wanted to share my evolving thoughts about debt, inflation, cash, and real estate. Although the stock market has been down so far in 2022, don’t think that this means I am giving up on stocks as an investment. Not at all!

If you want to check out our property, here is the listing on Airbnb. My wife, Luiza, has done a great job of decorating and furnishing the house. And I owe a big thank you to my parents who spent three weeks helping us with renovations. It has been live for one week now, and we have eight bookings in April and May. Let me know what you think about the listing!

We Went Into Debt

Prior to this purchase, we were debt free and we purchased our new property with a mortgage. I could have sold investments and paid cash for the house, but I think that would have been a bad idea. Taking a mortgage is the better choice.

Leverage can be a tremendous tool, when used properly. Taking on debt to buy appreciating assets and cash flowing investments can have a multiplier effect. This is “good” debt. Bad debt would be spending on depreciating assets like cars, or using credit card debt to fund a lifestyle. I eventually realized that being debt-free would actually slow down our growth versus taking on some smart debt.

For Airbnb investors, a property evaluation is often based on the “Cash on Cash” return. What does that mean? Let’s consider a $200,000 house which produces a hypothetical $14,000 a year in profit. If you purchase the property with $200,000 cash, your Cash on Cash return is 7%. But if you put only 20% down ($40,000) and make $8,000 (net of the monthly mortgage), your cash on cash return is 20%. In other words, it can be a fairly attractive investment because of the leverage. Without the debt, the returns are not that compelling compared to stocks, for example. And if you use mortgages, you can buy $1 million of properties with $200,000 down. That could grow your wealth much faster than just buying one property for $200,000.

Debt, Inflation, and Government Spending

Beyond the numbers for this particular house, I think the world is now favoring debtors. Our government spending has been growing for years. And then when the pandemic hit, spending shot up dramatically and shows little sign of returning to its previous trajectory.

Our government, and many others, are running massive deficits and have no intention or ability to reduce spending. They will simply never pay off this debt. It will only grow. (See: the US Debt Clock.) We now have inflation of over 7%. I don’t think inflation will stay this high, but I also don’t think it will go back to 2%. Governments will have to inflate their way out of debt. There is an excellent video from billionaire hedge fund manager Ray Dalio: the Changing World Order. He documents historical civilizations who expanded debt and saw resultant inflation. It is a brilliant piece if you want to understand today’s economy.

Inflation favors debtors and penalizes holders of cash and bonds. 7 percent inflation over 5 years will reduce the purchasing power of $1000 to $600. The holder of a bond will see a 40% depreciation of the real value of their bond. And the debtor, such as the US government or a mortgage holder, will benefit on the other side.

I reached the conclusion that I should be a debtor like our government. Staying in cash and a lot of bonds, would be a poor choice long term. I didn’t sell any stocks to buy our investment property, but I did reduce cash and bonds. Today, we can borrow at 3-5% while inflation is at 7%. And if interest rates do come back down to 2%, I can always refinance the mortgage.

Read more: Inflation Investments

Thoughts on Real Estate Investing

  1. Real Estate is a business, not a passive investment. Managing an Airbnb is time consuming and can have headaches of dealing with people and problems. We have spent a huge amount of time (and about $14,000) improving our property and furnishing it for Airbnb. Buying an Index Fund does not carry as much risk or time commitment!
  2. It is the leverage which makes real estate attractive. Without the mortgage, not so much. (Imagine if we could buy $100,000 of an S&P 500 Index fund with only 20% down. That would be incredible over the long term.)
  3. Higher inflation can help real estate prices and rent prices, while our mortgage stays fixed. Besides the cash flow, we also benefit from: 1. Paying down the mortgage and building equity. 2. Increasing home value over time. 3. Some tax benefits such as depreciation.
  4. Your personal residence is still an expense, not an investment. More pre-retirees should be looking into House Hacking. This will enable many to retire years earlier.
  5. I like the returns on short-term rentals. With elevated prices today, many long term rentals have mediocre cash flow potential. Especially if we have some repair expenses and vacancy.

So far, we are happy to have bought an Airbnb. It fits well with our willingness to take risks, start a business, and do repairs ourselves. We are looking to buy another. But we know it’s not for everyone. If this is something which interests you, I am happy to discuss it with you and share what I know.

Investment Themes for 2022

Investment Themes for 2022

Let’s look ahead to 2022 and consider what investment themes we believe should be incorporated into our portfolio models. This process is not meant to be a prediction of whether markets will be up or down. I don’t think anyone can time the market successfully. (Here is my letter to clients from March 21, 2020 for reference.) Rather, my goal is to add value to our investment process in three ways.

One, we want to tilt towards areas of relative value. That means when one category is cheap and another is expensive, we want to have more of the cheap stocks and less of the expensive stocks. This sounds obvious, but many investors chase performance without regard to valuation. Inadvertently, they load up on expensive stocks. Tilting towards cheaper categories is inherently contrarian as we are often buying what has recently lagged.

Two, we aim to identify Satellite categories which are attractive under the current market environment. Unlike our Core positions, Satellite positions are temporary and may be removed in future years. Satellite investments are stocks or bonds in a smaller, more focused niche than our core funds. For example, a Floating Rate Bond fund would be a satellite fund, whereas an Investment Grade Bond Index fund would be a core position. We select satellite funds with the goal of enhancing returns.

Three, to diversify our portfolios better, we include Alternative investments. We are looking for investments outside of the usual stock and bond categories which might offer an acceptable return, but with low correlation to the risks of stock markets or interest rates. This could include Real Estate, Hedge Fund Strategies, Preferred Stocks, Convertible Bonds, Commodities, Managed Futures, etc. Typically, these provide some ballast when stocks have a Bear Market, so their primary purpose is to reduce risk, rather than to increase return.

Stocks in 2022

Today, we are looking at our investment themes for stocks for 2022; next week we will cover bonds and alternative investments. Needless to say, there is a lot of uncertainty about the stock market going into 2022. As investors, we have to come to terms with the fact that markets do not always provide us with a clear and obvious direction. Uncertainty is the normal state.

No one knows what will happen with the virus or with the Federal Reserve trying to slow inflation without hurting the economy. Those are the two big questions facing stock investors at the end of 2021. However, those are known unknowns. Often, markets are surprised more by the unknown unknowns – the risks we aren’t even considering right now.

Over the past 50 years, the S&P 500 Index was down 12 years, up 37 years, and exactly at 0% in 2011. The 10-year return of the S&P 500 is 16% a year. Being negative on stocks has proven to be a losing bet over time. Yes, you can lose money on stocks and past performance is no guarantee of future results. With that disclaimer, I see no reason to attempt to try to time the market today and withdraw from stocks.

Tilts: Value, International, Small

Here is what I am doing for 2022: weighing relative valuations between stock categories. There are stocks which have gone way up and are probably overvalued. But there are also stocks which have lagged and are relatively cheap. We can break this down three ways: Growth versus Value stocks, US versus International Stocks, and Large versus Small companies.

Growth has lead the markets for more than a decade. As a result, the spread between value and growth categories has widened to historic levels. In fact, the difference today between Value and Growth is equal to what it was during the Tech bubble in 1999. For 2022, we are increasing our tilt towards Value. While we have little in pure Growth funds, we will be reducing our cap weighted index funds, which have become concentrated in Growth names.

US Stocks have led international for a long-time and there is now a wide gap in valuations. US stocks, especially Growth, are expensive. Most US investors have a significant home bias. For 2022, we will shift a small percentage from US to International. We are already overweight in Emerging Markets, and are not adding to our positions in EM.

Small versus Large has been very interesting in 2021. In the US, Small Value has had a great year and looks promising for 2022. US Small Growth, however, lagged Large Growth by more than 20%. In other developed markets, small cap lagged large cap by a small amount. In Emerging Markets, small cap outperformed large cap by more than 20% year to date. There is not a uniform trend here, except that Small Value has done better than Small Growth. In terms of diversifying and looking for cheap stocks, our small cap selection will lean towards value rather than core or growth.

Taxes Matter

We will be making trades to our portfolios for 2022. Even after these trades, a 60/40 portfolio is still going to have about 60% in stocks and 40% in bonds. But the weightings of the positions will change slightly and some of the funds used may change. Our goal is to reduce risk and stay broadly diversified, while using low-cost investments that are transparent and have a good track record.

Throughout the process, we aim for tax efficiency. Changes are easy to incorporate in IRAs and that is always our first choice. In taxable accounts, we harvested losses in March of 2020, which carried forward to 2021. That can also allow us to make some changes without creating additional taxes for the year. And while I could automate the trading process, I am looking at this one client at a time, to do what is best for you, not easiest for me.

Next week, we will discuss our investment themes for 2022 for bonds and alternatives. Then we will be placing trades at the end of December and into January for most clients. I should note that even without making any changes to the portfolio models, we would still be looking to rebalance here at the end of the year. We will do both steps at the same time – rebalancing and any changes to the model – to avoid any unnecessary trades.

I examine investments all year round, but try to limit changes to once a year to avoid short-term trading. Each year, in the fourth quarter, I go through a process of reviewing all our holdings and our allocations. Here is what I wrote last year, looking ahead to 2021: Investment Themes for 2021

Have concerns about your investment portfolio or specific investments? Will your portfolio be sufficient to achieve your goals? How will you transition your accumulation portfolio to spending it down? These are uniquely individual questions and where our conversations can be the most valuable.