Tax Season: Important Actions to Take

Bookkeeper.Tax season is upon us! As you know, that means you must file your taxes by April 15, unless you file for an extension. However, April 15 is also an important deadline for other financial matters.

April 15 is the deadline for making contributions to a Traditional or Roth Individual Retirement Account (IRA) for the tax year — in this case, 2015. If you did not make a contribution by December 31, 2015, you still have time. Unless you are subject to contribution phase outs*, you may contribute up to $5,500 (and an additional $1,000 if you are over the age of 50) to a Traditional or Roth IRA as long as you do it before the April 15 deadline.

Traditional and Roth IRAs have their tax benefits, but they differ from one another. With a Traditional IRA, you are able to defer taxes paid on earned income today and allow that money to grow tax-deferred. This can be beneficial especially if you expect your tax rates to decrease when you are older and in your retirement phase. As for a Roth IRA, you do not receive the tax deduction on today’s earned income, but the benefit is that your contributions grow tax-free. Roth IRAs are the better choice if you expect your tax rates to increase when you are in retirement and need to access the funds. The one caveat with IRAs, like most retirement accounts, is that you cannot gain access to the funds penalty-free before the age of 59½, with a few exceptions*. Before you make a contribution for 2015, be sure that you do not need that money for your current living expenses.

The tax benefits of contributing to a Traditional or Roth IRA are great, especially over a long-term horizon and if you are making regular annual contributions. So when you are filing your taxes for the April 15 deadline, do not forget to consider contributing to an IRA for 2015.

*If you have questions regarding the contribution phase outs,
exceptions to withdrawing funds from an IRA, or any other tax issue,
please contact your CPA.

2016 Politics and Central Banks

2016 has brought into focus politics and central banks simultaneously. The 2016 U.S. presidential primary campaign is unprecedented, according to many of the pundits, and central banks in Europe and Japan are experimenting with negative interest rates. The February 20 issue of The Economist raises the question of whether or not central banks are out of ammunition. Because economic recoveries from the 2008/2009 collapse are weak and inflation is low, the concern arises whether central bank actions work at all.

The Economist points out that central banks are not designed to do all the work. Central banks control monetary policy, which relates to money supply, inflation targets, and interest rates. Monetary policy has a sister named fiscal policy, which is the responsibility of governments (politicians) who control government spending and tax rates. Currently, central banks are doing all the work, and politicians are not carrying their weight. Fiscal and monetary policies can be very effective when they work together.

With borrowing costs at historic lows, U.S. politicians need to have the guts to lock in low interest rates and borrow to build strategic infrastructure, create jobs, and increase public asset values through investment. Central banks have had to act because politicians are weak and incapable. Politicians need to work together on comprehensive tax reform and productive, job-creating deficit spending. The national debt is not so onerous when long-term interest rates can be locked in at 2% to 3%. Not only is it not onerous, it is opportunistic.

TRIP, an American transport think tank, estimates that potholed roads in 25 American cities cost more than $700 annually per vehicle. This largely defeats the benefit of low gas prices that are saving U.S. households at least $1,000 per year. Partisan mud-slinging has rendered the U.S. government ineffective, which is why this presidential primary season is so bizarre and alarming.

Australia is experimenting with selling nautical ports and airports to private interests and using the money for other infrastructure improvements, creating jobs and improving asset values. One result is that the privately-run ports and airports are much improved, more productive, and more profitable.

Politicians in the U.S. and abroad need to engage in constructive actions with central banks, reform taxes, and invest in infrastructure. If the current partisan conflict and timidity continues, we may experience a devolution into fascism.

The United States’ Obsession with China

The main headline on the cover of the January 16, 2016 issue of The Economist reads: Everything’s under control: China, the yuan and the market. However, the accompanying cartoon image of a dragon plummeting downward with President Xi Ping holding the reins is far from reassuring. Why have the stock market, economic shifts, and currency in China come under so much scrutiny lately?

The tumultuous start to the year in the global markets has had many searching for its causation, and China has become a target. According to Liz Ann Sonders, Senior Vice President, Chief Investment Strategist, at Charles Schwab, in the Schwab 2016 Market Outlook webinar of February 2: the link between the action on the Shanghai Stock Exchange and the U.S. markets is the strongest it has been since 2008. (The U.S. markets have also been closely correlated to the rise and fall in the price of oil, but that is fodder for another blog.)

The tight link between the Chinese and U.S. markets has been extremely detrimental to the U.S., given that the Shanghai Stock Exchange has fallen more than 20% in 2016 as of February 1. Also, we should mention the unfortunate shutdown of the Shanghai exchange on two days in January, which correlated with steep declines in the U.S. markets on those days. Trading halted for the remainder of each day when a 7% decline triggered circuit breakers. The People’s Bank of China (PBOC) is adapting to their role running the exchange, learning when to intervene and when not to, and although government intervention is very unlikely to cease, the circuit breakers have since been removed. This should relieve some of the market pressure on the Shanghai Exchange and, hopefully, reaction in the United States as well.

Many are concerned that the days of high single-digit or even double-digit growth in China are long gone and that this could result in a global meltdown. According to a CNBC article dated January 18, 2016, “China’s economic growth rate slowed to a 25-year low of 6.9 percent in 2015, as the world’s second-largest economy continues to shift away from its manufacturing roots.” As referenced, China is experiencing some transitional pains as it attempts to move from a manufacturing-based economy to a more service-based one like our own.

Are these concerns about the impact of China on global markets realistic? While a slowdown in China has some impact on the U.S. economy because multinational companies like Apple and Nike sell products there, the U.S. economy thrives largely because Americans are buying goods and services here in the United States. Outside of the multinational companies, the effect of a slowdown triggered by China’s economy is considerably muted. As James Surowiecki (staff writer for the New Yorker and author of the regular New Yorker column, “The Financial Page”) reports, U.S. exports to China are less than 1% of our GDP. Thus, the economic link between the U.S. and China is virtually absent, a fact which may come as a pleasant surprise to panicking minds.

We do not dismiss concerns about China not discussed here, including the weakening of China’s currency (the renminbi) and high levels of debt. All things considered, however, we believe that the reaction here in the U.S. is overblown. Certainly unwarranted is a reaction so strong that January marks the strongest link between our two markets since 2008.

Did You Make the Social Security Cut Before the Loopholes Closed?

You may have heard the chatter about some Social Security loopholes being closed as part of the budget deal struck by House Republicans and President Obama. This is a basic summary of what these changes are and how they might affect you.

The two key Social Security strategies that will no longer be available to most are “File and Suspend” and “Restricted Application”, which have been used by married couples for years to increase their lifetime Social Security benefits. Because these unintended loopholes have become very expensive for the Social Security Administration, particularly as more and more people have been taking advantage of them, the strategies are being dropped.

File and Suspend allows one partner to file for Social Security but then immediately suspend collecting it, thereby accruing a higher benefit for later and making the lower-earning partner eligible to receive spousal benefits during the period prior to reaching age 70 when the full benefit becomes available. The new ruling makes this strategy unavailable starting May 1, 2016 (180 days after the passing of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015). However, if a person turns 66 on or before April 30, 2016, they will be able to file and suspend and have their spouse claim a spousal benefit (given the spouse is 62 before December 31, 2015.)

Restricted Application allows the spouse with a lower benefit to restrict collecting their own benefits, which allows them to receive the spousal benefit instead. The new ruling makes this strategy unavailable for any spouse not reaching age 62 by December 31, 2015. A person turning 62 by or on December 31, 2015 will be able to file a restricted application for spousal benefits when he or she reaches age 66.

Act Now!
If you are within six months of reaching your full retirement age and your spouse turned 62 by the end of 2015, there may be action you need to take ASAP — before you miss out on what could mean thousands of dollars in spousal benefits.

Talk to your financial planner today if you are not sure of your eligibility or how this change in ruling affects you. We are reaching out to our eligible clients to take action before the April 30, 2016 deadline.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words: The Visit of China’s President Xi Jinping to America

President Xi Jinping of China arrived in America the week of September 22 (during the same time that Pope Francis and India’s Prime Minister Narena Modi were touring the U.S.) His first stop was Seattle to meet with 25 major U.S. business leaders, including Warren Buffett, Tim Cook, Mark Zuckerberg, and Satya Nadella. The September 19 issue of The Economist previewed the meeting between Xi and Obama as “nothing to smile about.”

Growing Tensions
From the U.S. point of view, there are several growing tensions with China:

  1. The alleged hacking by Chinese cyber spies in April of 22 million personal records of U.S. government employees’ (including CIA) from the Office of Personnel Management
  2. Accusations that China is manipulating its currency to make Chinese exports cheaper
  3. China’s island building for military purposes in the disputed territory of the South China Sea
  4. The U.S. presidential election candidates contributing to a rise in “China-bashing”
  5. The botched attempts in August by the Chinese government to prop up the Chinese stock market
  6. Americans worrying about the excesses and deceptions of Chinese state capitalism, making the term “state capitalism” an oxymoron.

When Xi met with U.S. business leaders in Seattle, they confronted him about the rampant theft of intellectual property that continues to take place; they complained about the Chinese demand that U.S. companies doing business in China transfer their technology to their Chinese partners; and they protested the many ways China unfairly discriminates against U.S. business. The main services of Google and Facebook are blocked in China, which is why Mark Zuckerberg met with Xi in Seattle and was seated next to him at the White House state dinner. (Incidentally, Zuckerberg’s wife is a Chinese physician, and both he and his wife speak Mandarin.)

Xi and Modi contrasts/Internet
In his meeting with U.S. business leaders, Xi was unwavering on China’s tough internet control and censorship. The contrast with India’s prime minister could not have been more striking: Modi regularly uses Twitter and Facebook, and he is taking the world by storm with his “Digital India” campaign. He implores U.S. business to help make India an “Internet powerhouse.” Like China, the Indian government engages in censorship, but it pales by comparison with China’s complete blackout of many services.

Although U.S. business still covets access to China’s huge market, when Modi and Xi are side-by-side, India shows up as more attractive. U.S. business is beginning to realize that India today is like China five years ago, and with a progressive leader like Modi, India looks very positive with less political baggage than China.

Unfortunately, Xi refused to admit to any hacking and cyber theft by the Chinese government, in spite of compelling evidence, but he did pledge to cooperate with the U.S. on cybersecurity issues with a signed agreement that “neither country’s government will conduct or knowingly support cyber-enabled theft of intellectual property.” Xi agreed to informational exchanges and legal cooperation for investigating cyber-crimes, including regularly scheduled meetings between U.S. and Chinese officials on cyber security violations. The agreement also established a hotline between the two nations should there be an escalation of issues. Xi also agreed to participate in the United Nations effort to establish appropriate norms of state behavior in cyberspace.

All this is well and good, but the editorial staff of The Wall Street Journal, September 28, 2015, is right to point out that all these agreements are tied to each country’s “respective national laws.” From the U.S. perspective, the Chinese Communist Party is above the law as it regularly invents interpretations to advance its power and control.

On the Bright Side
On the positive side of the ledger:

  1. China helped broker the nuclear deal with Iran in April (not everyone agrees that this is positive).
  2. China is supportive of America’s concerns about North Korea.
  3. President Xi is waging a strong campaign against corruption in China.
  4. Beijing has agreed to put a cap on carbon emissions and put a price on carbon for Chinese industries (virtually every country is now offering to pitch in to help limit carbon emissions).

The U.S. Government and the Obama Administration should exercise and pursue to the max the informational exchanges and legal cooperation China has agreed to regarding breaches of U.S. cybersecurity and the theft of intellectual property, as well as participate fully in regular scheduled meetings.

  1. The U.S. should impose sanctions on Chinese business if cybersecurity violations are not resolved appropriately.
  2. The U.S. should check and monitor the Chinese territorial grab in the South China Sea by practicing international maritime access standards.

The overriding question is:  Will Chinese actions follow Chinese words?

Planning for Market Volatility and the Trouble with Target-Date Funds

As part of our ongoing financial planning work, we assist our clients by recommending an allocation for their retirement plan accounts (401k, 403b, etc.) that cannot be directly managed by us because of plan regulations. We analyze the fund options within the plan and recommend an allocation to ensure the asset breakdown of the account is in line with their managed accounts and the optimal investment strategy advised by the client’s financial plan.

We recently completed this analysis and annual recommendation for a client who later asked us why we avoided all the target-date funds at his disposal. We have always been wary of target-date funds, primarily due to the lack of individual customization. Every person invested in the same target-date fund is assumed to carry the same risk tolerance, return objectives and time horizon. This, of course, will never be the case.

An August 31, 2015 article issued by CNBC, Some Target-Date Funds Miss in the Market Turmoil, details another concern we have with this type of fund. Each target-date fund (even those associated with the same retirement date) has a different makeup of bonds and stocks that is governed by the fund’s glide path. From that CNBC article: “Much of a target-date fund’s performance is determined by the fund’s ‘glide path’. That’s the formula a target-date fund uses to determine its mix of assets over time. All target-date funds get more conservative over time, shifting out of stocks and buying more bonds as they approach the target date.” Some funds have a glide path that ends, with no future allocation changes, at the retirement date, and others glide right past it and continue to get more conservative for years following. If you are invested in a target-date fund, it is important to understand the current allocation of the fund and the ultimate path it will take.

A fund’s unique glide path will determine exactly how conservative the fund will be upon reaching the target-date year. This makes for impactful allocation and performance differences between funds that one might otherwise misperceive to be quite similar. This concept is especially obvious during times of stock market volatility.  “For example, take two target-date funds designed for investors who retire this year: The Fidelity Freedom 2015 fund, which has more than 43 percent of its holdings in bonds and cash, lost 2.5 percent for the month through August 27, while the Wells Fargo Advantage Dow Jones Target 2015 fund, which has a nearly 71 percent stake in bonds and cash, lost only 0.87 percent over the same period.”

The Fidelity Freedom 2015 fund has 28% more exposure to equities than Dow Jones Target 2015 and, therefore, it experienced a more dramatic drop during the recent market correction than its counterpart. Losing 2.5% in less than a month can be devastating to someone who plans to retire this year and needs their retirement account to fund their lifestyle. If an individual has other sources of income, it may be less painful, but target-date funds have put the onus on the investor, or perhaps the investor’s Certified Financial Planner™, to know the fund’s equity exposure and whether that exposure makes sense for his or her retirement goals.

In summary, we prefer to customize retirement accounts to meet our client’s specific needs and reassess the appropriateness of the allocation on an annual basis. A person’s financial plan should be the investment guide rather than a fund family’s preconceived notion about how universally conservative a retiree should be.

From The Women’s Roundtable:
Four Tips for Women Investors
(that also work for men)

A study conducted by Fidelity last year showed that women are more cautious with their investing compared to men.  This more conservative mindset seems to make sense during weary economic periods, but remember: avoiding risk all together can jeopardize your ability to grow your savings.

A cautious approach has advantages, as well as disadvantages. How does one find the right balance and still achieve a risk-versus-reward strategy that is appropriate and less stressful? You can apply these four tips to your investing strategy to find the right conservative/risky balance:

1. Diversify.
Help dampen the impact of the market swing (up or down) with a well thought out and strategic investment mix.

2. Remember stocks offer the most growth potential.
U.S. stocks have consistently earned more than bonds over the long term, despite ups and downs.

3. Check In, but not too often.
Periodically check your investment mix and make changes when necessary. Make sure that you understand and you are comfortable with your stated risk/reward parameters.

4. Turn to a professional.
Work with a trusted advisor to help you understand the investments you own or any you need to add to your portfolio. Ask questions.

Following these four tips will help you find that investment target that is oriented toward long-term growth, yet does not make you nervous when the markets go up and down.


Is There an Opportunity in
Energy Stocks?

In our investment management experience, investors fall into one of two camps when looking at an investment that has dropped in price significantly. Investors in the first group steer clear, not wanting to “catch a falling knife” as the old Wall Street adage warns. They can be described as trend-following investors. However, the second group of investors sees opportunity in a depressed price. These are the value investors.

With the S&P Energy Sector off over -20% from its all-time high set just about a year ago, how should you view beaten-down energy stocks? Should you take the value approach and look for opportunity? Or should you stay away, expecting the sector to continue to underperform?

If you rely on history, you should expect the latter. According to Ned Davis Research, after major bottoms in the price of oil (which we believe occurred in March), oil prices tend to recover and continue upward, but energy stocks tend to outperform the broad stock market for a couple of months before starting to underperform again.

This time around, energy stocks have followed the historical pattern almost identically. After oil’s bottom in March, energy stocks outperformed the stock market for  one and a half months before underperforming again. As a result, we continue to recommend avoiding energy stocks despite the recovery in the price of oil.

Market Analysis Video –
March 2015

Stocks pulled back in in March. Despite two down months in the first quarter, stocks were able to produce a small positive return in the first three months of the year thanks to large gains in February.

Many of you have expressed concern about increased volatility in the stock market in 2015. This feeling is exacerbated by frequently-quoted statistics in the financial media like this one from Bloomberg on March 23: “The S&P 500 has gone 24 consecutive sessions without back-to-back advances, the longest since a 24-day stretch in 2008.” Statistics like these are interesting, but they represent just one data point. Upon reading it, one could assume that we are experiencing volatility comparable to the bear market in 2008, but that would be far from the truth…

Please watch the video below for our complete Market Analysis.

Click here to read our complete Market Analysis.

Consequences of a Strong Dollar

The value of the U.S. dollar relative to other world currencies has grown by approximately 22% in the past year. That means if the average investor outside the United States bought a U.S. stock in dollars one year ago and the stock purchased stayed flat (did not go up or down), that foreign investor would show a gain of 22% on average just because the U.S. dollar appreciated 22%. This demonstrates the principle that investors want to invest where the local currency is strong.

This dollar strength is helping exporters in weaker economies like Europe because the dollar goes a long way in purchasing goods and services denominated in Euros as the Euro gets weaker. It is common to hear people on Wall Street say that this is the time to book your vacation in Europe because the U.S. dollar will convert into many more Euros than it did a year ago.

Unfortunately for the emerging economies of the world, they are being hurt by dollar strength. The March 21 issue of The Economist reports that emerging market countries have borrowed $4.5 trillion in dollar-denominated debt. As the dollar gains in strength, emerging market currencies are growing weaker, and the debt in dollars becomes more and more expensive to service. This creates economic drag and uncertainty for emerging market countries.

The March 25 issue of The Wall Street Journal reports that African nations are being hit especially hard by the strengthening dollar and the decline in commodity prices. Shopkeepers throughout Africa cannot afford to import goods to stock their shelves.

The relative strength of America is highlighted by Europe and Japan being stuck in neutral or first gear and China, along with other emerging markets, slowing. The International Monetary Fund predicts that the U.S. economy will grow by 3.6% in 2015. With our Federal Reserve preparing to raise interest rates as other central banks are going the opposite direction, this all leads to the consequence that investors make higher returns in dollar-denominated assets.

25% of profits earned by S&P 500 firms are earned in foreign currencies. A stronger dollar causes these goods and services to be more expensive and less competitive. The stronger dollar will hurt foreign earnings by U.S. companies. Ironically, dollar strength mutes inflation because foreign goods and services are less expensive in dollar terms. Inflation is driven by goods and services becoming more expensive. Inflation in the U.S. year-over-year is -0.1%, while core inflation (excluding food and energy) is +1.6%. This is still well below the Federal Reserve target of 2% inflation as a cause for raising interest rates. The Fed may continue to talk about raising interest rates, but they may not act, because inflation under 2% does not call for higher rates.

Conclusion: Invest in the relative strength of the USA. Invest where the currency
is strong.