Inflation Investment Ideas

Inflation Investment Ideas

Inflation continues to shock the Global economy and has become a major concern when we discuss investment ideas. This week’s data showed the Consumer Price Index up 9.1% over last year, and the Producer Price Index is up over 11%. These are numbers not seen since 1981.

Today, I’m going to share some thoughts on inflation and get into how we want to respond to this situation. But first, here is an inside look at the government response to inflation.

Federal Reserve Hitting the Brakes

Last week, I attended a breakfast meeting for the Arkansas CFA Society at the Federal Reserve office in Little Rock. Our guest speaker was James Bullard, president of the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank and voting member of the Open Market Committee which sets interest rates.

Bullard said that we were at a profound regime switching moment today, and that this is not just a blip in inflation but a “stunning amount of inflation”. He stated that the Fed would move aggressively to reduce inflation and that they were committed to their inflation target of 2%. He thinks the Fed will continue to raise rates until policy rates are greater than the inflation rate and may need to hold those high rates for years to come to bring inflation down.

Bullard felt that the current inflation levels are not simply a temporary supply shock from the Ukraine War. Output is actually up. In March 2020, the Fed responded very quickly to support an economy crashing from COVID-19 shutdowns. 60 days later, markets recovered and housing boomed. He wishes that they had reduced their asset purchases sooner. Instead, the Fed is only now ceasing to buy bonds and is allowing their holdings to run-off as they mature. The global stimulus response was correct, but has overheated.

He was less concerned about the possibility of a recession. Bullard said that recessions are difficult to predict and that the Fed is going to focus on getting inflation under control first. Inflation remains a global problem, but the US Federal Reserve will lead the way on fighting inflation, as the European Central Bank has other issues making them slower to respond.

Inflation, Rising Rates, Recession

It’s important to understand that even if inflation remains elevated for a couple of years, the impact of inflation may only be part of the story. Our investment ideas cannot simply assume high inflation as the only factor. We have to also consider the likelihood of rising interest rates and a recession. We’d love it if the Federal Reserve can orchestrate a soft landing as they apply brakes to this runaway economy. But they have not been very good at soft landings in the past.

The Fed policies are starting to work. Since the June inflation numbers, we’ve already seen the price of oil down by 20%. Mortgage applications are down and we should start to see housing inventories normalize and home prices stop their double digit increases. Interest rates have doubled compared to last year – 5.5% versus 2.75% for a 30-year mortgage – and this will impact how much home buyers can afford to pay. The Bloomberg Commodity Index was at 130 on June 16th and is now at 113, a drop of 13% in one month.

It is hard to imagine additional inflation shocks or surprises at this point. Despite the headlines, markets already know we have inflation. Inflation remains high, but may have peaked and should be starting to come down. The question is what is next? How will the markets respond to the Fed actions? Here are five thoughts about where to go from here.

Five Inflation Investment Ideas

  1. Rising Rates. Bond investors beware. The Fed is going to continue to raise interest rates for an extended period. Keep your duration short on bonds. Consider floating rate bonds, if you don’t have any. Stay high quality – rising rates may cause defaults in weaker credits.
  2. I-Bonds. These are inflation linked US savings bonds. They’ve been in the news this year, but I’ve been writing about them since 2016. Limited to $10,000 in purchases a year. These could do great for a couple of years.
  3. Recession and Stocks. We might already be in a recession today, but won’t know it until later economic data shows a negative GDP for two quarters. Please resist the temptation to try to time the stock market. Recessions are a lagging indicator; stocks are a leading indicator and stocks will bounce back sooner. If you try to get out of stocks, it will be very difficult to get back in successfully. Instead, focus on diversification, with Value and Quality stocks. Avoid the high-flying growth names, we are already seeing those stocks get pummelled.
  4. Roth Conversions. We are in a Bear Market, with the S&P 500 Index down 20%. This could be a good time to look at Roth Conversions, if you believe as I do that stocks will come back at some point in the future. An index fund that used to be $50,000 is now trading for $40,000. Do the Roth Conversion, pay taxes on the $40,000 and then it will grow tax-free from here. This works best if you anticipate being in a similar tax bracket in retirement as today.
  5. Cash is Trash. Inflation is reducing your purchasing power. Thankfully, rising interest rates means we can now earn some money on Bonds and CDs. We can build laddered bond portfolios from 1-5 years with yields of 3-5%. And we have CDs at 3% as short as 13 months. Those are a lot better than earning 0% on cash. If you don’t need 100% liquidity, short-term bonds, CDs, and T-Bills are back.

Perseverance and Planning

I believe in long-term investing. Times like these will challenge investors to have the perseverance to stay the course. Rising rates and a possible recession in the months ahead may pose additional losses to our investment portfolios. If I thought we could successfully avoid the losses and step away from the market, I’d do that in a heartbeat. But all the evidence I have seen on market timing suggest it is unlikely to add any value, and would probably make things worse. We will stay invested, continue to rebalance, tax loss harvest, and carefully consider our options and best course of action.

With higher inflation, the cost of living in retirement increases, and so we have to aim for equity-like returns to make plans work. For our clients who are in retirement or close to retirement, we typically have a bucket with 5-years of expenses set aside in short-term bonds. And that bucket is still there and we won’t need to touch their equities for five years. In many cases, we have bonds which will mature in 2023, 2024, etc. in place to fund your spending or RMD needs. So, I am happy we have the bucket strategy in place, it is working as we had planned.

We have shared some inflation investment ideas, but I think the risks to investors may be greater from the Fed. Rising rates and recession are likely in the cards as they look to slow the economy. In spite of the headlines, this will undoubtedly be different than 1981, so I’m not sure we have an exact road map of what will happen. But, I will be your guide to continue to monitor, evaluate, and recommend what steps we want to take with our investments.

How to Reduce IRMAA

How to Reduce IRMAA

Many retirees want to find ways to avoid or reduce IRMAA. Why do retirees hate Irma? No, not a person, IRMAA is Income Related Monthly Adjustment Amount. That means that your Medicare Part B and D premiums are increased because of your income. We are going to show how IRMAA is calculated and then share ways you can reduce IRMAA.

Medicare Part A is generally free at age 65, and most people enroll immediately. Part A provides hospital insurance for inpatient care. Part B is medical insurance for outpatient care, doctor visits, check ups, lab work, etc. And Part D is for prescription drugs. When you enroll in Parts B and D, you are required to pay a monthly premium. How much? Well, it depends on IRMAA.

IRMAA Levels for 2022

IRMAA increases your Medicare Part B and D premiums based on your income. There is a two year lag, so your 2022 Medicare premiums are based on your 2020 income tax return. Here are the 2022 premiums, based on your Modified Adjusted Gross Income, or MAGI.

2020 Single MAGI

$91,000 or less

$91,001 to $114,000

$114,001 to $142,000

$142,001 to $170,000

$170,001 to $500,000

$500,001 and higher

2020 Married/Joint MAGI

$182,000 or less

$182,001 to $228,000

$228,001 to $284,000

$284,001 to $340,000

$340,001 to $750,000

$750,001 and higher

2022 Monthly Part B / Part D

$170.10 / Plan Premium (PP)

$238.10 / PP + $12.40

$340.20 / PP + $32.10

$442.30 / PP + $51.70

$544.30 / PP + $71.30

$578.30 / PP + $77.90

How to Calculate MAGI

I have written previously about how the IRS uses a figure called Modified Adjusted Gross Income or MAGI. MAGI is not the same as AGI and does not appear anywhere on your tax return. Even more maddening, there is no one definition of MAGI. Are you calculating MAGI for IRA Eligibility, the Premium Tax Credit, or for Medicare? All three use different calculations and can vary. It’s crazy, but our government seems to like making things complex. So, here is the MAGI calculation for Medicare:

MAGI starts with the Adjusted Gross Income on your tax return. For Medicare IRMAA, you then need to add back four items, which you may or may not have:

  • Tax-exempt interest from municipal bonds
  • Interest from US Savings Bonds used for higher education expenses
  • Income earned abroad which was excluded from AGI
  • Income from US territories (Puerto Rico, Guam, etc.) which was non-taxable

Add back those items to your AGI and the new number is your MAGI for Medicare.

Why Retirees Hate IRMAA

The IRMAA levels are a “Cliff” tax. Make one dollar over these levels and your premiums jump up. Many retirees plan on a comfortable retirement and find out that their Social Security benefits are much less than they expected because of Medicare Premiums. For a married couple, if your MAGI increases from $182,000 to $228,001, you will see your premiums double. And while young people think it must be so nice to get “free” health insurance for retirees, this couple is actually paying $8,164.80 just for their Part B Premiums every year! And then there are still deductibles, co-pays, prescriptions, etc.

Sure, $228,001 in income sounds a lot for a retiree, right? Well, that amount includes pensions, 85% of Social Security, Required Minimum Distributions, capital gains from houses or stocks, interest, etc. There are a lot of retirees who do get hit with IRMAA. And this is after having paid 2.9% of every single paycheck for Medicare over your entire working career. That’s why many want to understand how to reduce IRMAA.

10 Ways to Reduce MAGI for IRMAA

The key to reducing IRMAA is to understand the income thresholds and then carefully plan out your MAGI. Here is what you need to know.

  1. Watch your IRA/401(k) distributions. Avoid taking a large distribution in one year. It’s better to smooth out distributions or just take RMDs.
  2. Good news, Roth distributions are non-taxable. IRMAA is another reason that pre-retirees should be building up their Roth accounts. And there are no RMDs on Roth IRAs.
  3. Be careful of Roth Conversions. Conversions are included in MAGI and could trigger IRMAA.
  4. If you are still working, keep contributing to a Traditional IRA or 401(k) to reduce MAGI. If you are self-employed, consider a SEP or Individual 401(k). The age limit on Traditional IRAs has been eliminated.
  5. Itemized Deductions do NOT lower AGI. While State and Local Taxes, Mortgage Interest, Charitable Donations, and Medical Expenses could lower taxable income, they will not help with MAGI for IRMAA.
  6. However, if you are 70 1/2, Qualified Charitable Distributions (QCDs) do reduce MAGI. If you are younger than 70 1/2, donating appreciated securities can avoid capital gains.
  7. Avoid large capital gains from sales in any one year. Be sure to harvest losses annually in taxable accounts to reduce capital gains. Use ETFs rather than mutual funds in taxable accounts for better tax efficiency. Place income-generating investments such as bonds into tax-deferred accounts rather than taxable accounts. Consider non-qualified annuities to defer income.
  8. If you still have a high income at age 65, consider delaying Social Security benefits until age 70.
  9. Once you are 65, you cannot contribute to a Health Savings Account (HSA). However, you may be able to contribute to an FSA (Flexible Spending Account), if your employer offers one. The maximum contribution for 2022 is $2,850 and you may be able to rollover $570 in unused funds to the next year.
  10. Avoid Married filing separately. File jointly.

Life-Changing Event

Medicare does recognize that situations change and your income from two years ago may not represent your current financial situation. Under specific circumstances, you can request IRMAA be reduced or waived if you have a drop in income. This is filed using form SSA-44, as a “Life Changing Event”. Reasons for the request include:

  • Marriage, Divorce, or Death of a Spouse
  • You stopped working or reduced your hours
  • You lost income-producing property due to a disaster
  • An employer pension planned stopped or was reduced
  • You received an employer settlement due to bankruptcy or closure

Outside of the “Life-Changing Event” process, you can also appeal IRMAA within 60 days if there was an error in the calculation. For example, if you filed an amended tax return, and Social Security did not use the most recent return, that would be grounds for an appeal.

A few other tips: If you are subject to IRMAA and have Part D, Prescription Drug, coverage, consider Part C. Medicare Part C is Medicare Advantage. Many Part C plans include prescription drug coverage, so you will not need Part D. And there is no IRMAA for Part C. Lastly, while you can delay Part B if you work past 65, be sure to sign up immediately when you become eligible to avoid penalties.

IRMAA catches a lot of retirees, even though they don’t have any wages or traditional “income”. Between RMDs, capital gains, and other retirement income, it’s common for retirees to end up paying extra for their Medicare premiums. If you want to learn how to reduce IRMAA, talk with your financial advisor and analyze your individual situation. I’m here to help with these types of questions and planning for clients.

Backdoor Roth Going Away

Backdoor Roth Going Away?

Under the current proposals in Washington, the Backdoor Roth is going away. If approved, investors would not be allowed to convert any after-tax money in IRAs to a Roth IRA as of January 1, 2022. This would eliminate the Backdoor Roth strategy and also kill the “Mega-Backdoor Roth” used by funding after-tax contributions to a 401(k) plan.

We have been big fans of the Backdoor Roth IRA and have used the strategy for a number of clients. We will discuss what to do if the Backdoor Roth does indeed go away. But first, here’s some background on Roth IRAs.

The Backdoor Roth Strategy

There are two ways to get money into a Roth: through making a contribution or by doing a conversion. Contributions are limited to $6,000 a year, or $7,000 if you are 50 or older. For Roth IRAs, there are also income limits on who can contribute. For 2021, you can make a full Roth contribution if your Modified Adjusted Gross Income is below $125,000 (single) or $198,000 (married).

If your income is above these levels, the Backdoor Roth may be an option. Let’s say you made too much to contribute to a Roth. You could still make an after-tax contribution to a Traditional IRA and then convert it to your Roth. You would owe taxes on any gains. But, if you put in $6,000, after-tax, and immediately converted it, there would be zero gains. And zero taxes. Yeah, it’s a loophole to get around the income restrictions. But the IRS determined that it was legal and people have been doing it for years.

This change won’t happen until January 1. So, you can still complete a Backdoor Roth now through the end of the year. I have some clients who wait until April to do their IRAs, but this year, you had better do the Backdoor by December 31. If you are eligible for the Backdoor, you should do it. Why would you not put $6,000 into an account that will grow Tax-Free for the rest of your life? Couples could do $12,000 or up to $14,000 if they’re over 50.

Instead of the Backdoor Roth…

Your 401(k) Plan may offer a Roth option. Many people are not maximizing their 401(k) contributions. You can contribute $19,500 to your 401(k), or $26,000 if over 50. Let’s say you are currently contributing $12,000 to your 401(k) and $6,000 to a Backdoor Roth. Change that to $12,000 to your Traditional 401(k) and $6,000 to your Roth 401(k). You can split up your $19,500 in contributions however you want between the Traditional and Roth buckets. I often find that with couples that there is room to increase contributions for one or both spouses.

Self-employed? Me, too. I do a Self-Employed 401(k) through TD Ameritrade. Through my plan, I can also make Traditional and Roth Contributions. And I can do Profit-Sharing contributions on top of the $19,500. It’s better than a SEP-IRA, and there is no annual fee. I can set up a Self-Employed 401(k) for you, too.

What if you have both W-2 and Self-Employment Income? In this case, you can maximize your 401(k) at your W-2 job and then contribute to a SEP for your self-employment. Contact me for details.

Health Savings Accounts. HSAs are the only account where you get both an upfront tax-deduction and the money grows tax-free for qualified expenses. And there’s no income limit on an HSA. As long as you are participating in an HSA-compatible high deductible plan, you are eligible. If you are in the plan for all 12 months, you can contribute $3,600 (individual) or $7,200 (family) to an HSA this year.

529 Plans. You want to grow investments tax-free with no income limits and very high contribution limits? Well, that sounds like a 529 College Savings Plan. If your kids, grand-kids, or even great-grand-kids will go to college, you could be growing that money tax-free. They don’t even have to be born yet, you can change the beneficiary later. We can use 529 plans like an inter-generational educational trust that also grows tax-free. And 529s will pass outside of your Estate, if you are also following the current proposals to cut the Estate Tax Exemption from $11.7 million to $5 million.

ETFs in a Taxable Account. Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) are very tax-efficient. Hold for over a year and you could qualify for long-term capital gains treatment. Today, long-term capital gains taxes are 15%, whereas your traditional IRA or 401(k) money will be taxed as ordinary income when withdrawn, which is 22% to 37% for most of my clients. Some clients will drop to the 12% tax bracket in retirement, which means their long-term capital gains rate will be 0%. A married couple can have taxable income of up to $81,050 and pay zero long-term capital gains! (Taxable income is after deductions. If a couple is taking the standard deduction of $25,100, that means they could have gross income of up to $106,150 and be paying zero capital gains.)

Tax-Deferred Annuity. Instead of holding bonds in a taxable account and paying taxes annually, consider a Fixed Annuity. Today, I saw the rates on 5-year annuities are back to 3%. An annuity will defer the payment of interest until withdrawn. There are no RMDs on Annuities, so you could defer these gains for a long-time, potentially. And if you are in a high tax bracket now, you could hold off on taking your interest until you are in a lower bracket in retirement.

Save on Taxes

If Congress does away with the Backdoor Roth, we will let you know. There are a lot of moving parts in this 2,400 page bill and some will change. Whatever happens, my job will remain to help investors achieve their goals. We invest for growth, but we know that it is the after-tax returns that matter most. So, my job remains to help you find the most efficient and effective methods to keep more of your investment return.

Stretch IRA Rules

Stretch IRA Rules

What are the Stretch IRA Rules? The SECURE Act changed the Stretch IRA rules as of January 1, 2020. While this was a proposal, I wrote 7 Strategies If The Stretch IRA Is Eliminated, which continues to get read numerous times every month. Today, we are going to dive into the new rules for IRA Beneficiaries. This is important because if you are leaving a large retirement account to your heirs, there could be a large tax bill! And if you don’t know these rules, you could make it even worse.

First, old Stretch IRAs are unchanged and are grandfathered under the old rules. So, for anyone who passed away by December 31, 2019, their beneficiaries could still inherit the account into a Stretch IRA. That means that they only have to take Required Minimum Distributions each year. They can leave the money invested in a tax-deferred account. For many of my clients with inherited IRAs, their Stretch IRAs have grown even though they are taking annual withdrawals!

Under the new rules, there are three classes of IRA Beneficiaries. First, there are Eligible Designated Beneficiaries (EDBs) who will still be able to use the Stretch IRA Rules. Second, there are non-Eligible Designated Beneficiaries (non-EDBs), who are now going to have to withdraw all the money within 10 years. This is called the “10 Year Rule”. Third, there could be a Non-Designated Beneficiary.

Eligible Designated Beneficiaries

There are six situations where an IRA Beneficiary today could use the old Stretch IRA rules.

  1. A Spouse
  2. Minor Children (see below)
  3. Disabled Persons
  4. Chronically Ill Individuals
  5. Persons Not more than 10 years younger than the IRA owner
  6. Certain See-Through Trusts

These individuals could inherit an IRA and use the old Stretch IRA rules. For example, if you left money to your sister who is 8 years younger than you, she could do a Stretch. Or to a friend who was disabled. The old rules and benefits will still apply in these cases!

Spouses and Children

Minor Children are not given an unlimited Stretch IRA, unlike in the past. Today, Minor Children can stretch the IRA until the age of majority, 18 or 21, depending on the state. If they are a full-time college student they can stretch until age 26. When they reach that age, then the 10 Year Rule kicks in and they must withdraw the remainder of the IRA within 10 years.

Spousal beneficiaries have a choice in how they treat the inherited IRA. They can roll it into their own IRA and treat it as their own. This is helpful if they are younger than the decedent and want to have smaller RMDs. However, if they are younger than 59 1/2, they might prefer to put it into a Stretch IRA. That way they can take withdrawals now and avoid the 10% pre-mature distribution penalty. If a surviving spouse is older than the decedent, they could use the Stretch IRA so they can put off RMDs until the decedent would have been 72.

Non-Eligible Designated Beneficiaries

Any person who is not one of the six EDBs is a non-Eligible Designated Beneficiary. Non-EDBs are must withdraw their entire IRA within 10 years. This would include adult children, grandchildren, or any other relative or friend who is more than 10 years younger than the IRA owner. Most non-spouse beneficiaries will be non-EDBs.

The IRS created some confusion this year as to what the 10 Year Rule Means. One document suggested that beneficiaries would still be required to take out some of the inherited IRA annually. That turns out not to be the case, as the IRS clarified in publication 590-B, Distributions from IRAs. Under the 10 year rule, there is no RMD or annual requirement. Beneficiaries have complete choice in when they withdraw from the IRA. The only requirement is that the whole account is withdrawn in 10 years.

For most beneficiaries, you will still want to draw down a large account gradually. Taking small withdrawals each year is likely to result in lower taxes than if you wait until the 10th year. For example, it would be better to take $100,000 a year for 10 years than $1 million all at once. This does give us some room for customization. If you have a low earning year, that could be a better year to take out a larger amount. If your tax rate will go up in 2022 or 2026, you might want to accelerate withdrawals while under a lower rate.

Non-Designated Beneficiaries

The third category is Non-Designated Beneficiaries. An NDB could occur if you don’t name a beneficiary, if you name your Estate as the beneficiary, or a charity or certain trusts. NDBs have the worst outcome, the old 5-year Rule. NDBs must withdraw the entire IRA within 5 years. Many people who established Trusts prior to 2020 named their trusts as the beneficiary of their retirement accounts. This will backfire now because the Trust cannot Stretch the distributions. And with Trust tax rates higher than for individual beneficiaries, this could hurt your beneficiaries quite a bit. If you have a Trust from before 2020, it should be revisited.

It is important that we review your beneficiaries from time to time to make sure they are up to date. It is also a good idea to have contingent beneficiaries in case your primary beneficiary pre-deceases you. IRAs do not have to go through probate. But if there are no beneficiaries, then this money could be tied up from months to more than a year as the Probate Court decides how to distribute your money.

Roth IRA Stretch Rules

Roth IRAs are inherited tax-free. So, on day one, any beneficiary can withdraw the entire Roth IRA balance and owe zero taxes. However, there are some options available for Roth Beneficiaries, too. And these also changed under the SECURE Act.

First, for spouses. A spousal beneficiary of a Roth IRA could take a lump sum distribution. Or they could roll the inherited Roth into their own Roth. Third, they could roll the Roth into an Inherited Roth account. In an Inherited Roth, they have two options for distributions. They can take annual Required Minimum Distributions based on their own age. Or, they can use the 5-year rule and withdraw the entire amount in 5 years. For most spouses, rolling the inherited Roth into their own will be a good course of action.

Non spouse beneficiaries also have an option to continue tax-free growth of a Roth. For Roth owners who passed away before 2020, beneficiaries could have elected to take RMDs. Under the new rules (owners who passed away after January 1, 2020), Roth Beneficiaries can use the 10 year rule. They have up to 10 years to take money out of their inherited Roth IRA.

Other Considerations

An inherited IRA also has a beneficiary. What happens then? Let say Mom left her IRA to her son years ago. Son has a Stretch IRA. Son passes away and leaves the inherited IRA to his wife. What now? You don’t get to Stretch twice. So the wife, in this case, is going to be under the 10-Year Rule. This is called a Successor Beneficiary.

A second example: Mom passes away in 2020 and leaves her IRA to her son. Son is under the 10-Year Rule. Son passes away in 2025 and names his wife as Successor Beneficiary. Does she get to restart the 10-Year Rule? No, the old rule applies, and she must withdraw the full account by 2030.

If you have a Beneficiary IRA, and are over age 70 1/2, you can also do Qualified Charitable Distributions. Most people don’t realize that QCDs could count towards their RMDs from an inherited IRA, too.

While I often only have one or two clients who inherit an IRA each year, every IRA owner should understand what will happen when they pass away. That’s why I am writing this somewhat technical article on the new Stretch IRA rules. By planning ahead, we can determine the best course of action for your situation. It could involve leaving a your IRA to charity, to a spouse, to children, grandchildren, or a trust. It may make sense to convert your IRA to a Roth.

For many of my clients, their largest accounts are IRAs. And there is a significant tax liability attached to those IRAs, for the owners, spouses, and heirs. If we plan well, we can help reduce those taxes!