The Federal Reserve’s Toolkit + Market Hangover

Federal Reserve

The Federal Reserve’s toolkit consist of two blunt tools: the fed funds rate + quantitative easing. In this month’s contribution we’ll discuss the potential short and long-tail impacts of both.

On Wednesday (5/4/2022), in an effort to bring down rising inflation without disrupting economic activity, the Federal Reserve boosted interest rates by 50 basis points (.50%).

Like downing a Pedialyte following a three-day bender, the markets initially reacted positively. However, nausea quickly set in and the previous day gains were quickly reversed. By the end of the following trading day, ol’ S&P 500 and it’s tech pal Nasdaq were both sitting on the toilet holding trashcans, down 3.6% and 5% respectively. The single worst day for the market since June 2020.

In fact, last week marked the fifth consecutive weekly decline in the S&P 500, it’s longest losing streak since June 2011.

April CPI data released the following Wednesday (5/11/2022) showed another upward inflation surprise (above analyst expectations) and suggests that the deceleration is going to be painstakingly slow.

What’s going on?

In short: A lot.

  • Covid Supply & Demand Constraints: Domestically, although things are beginning to look better, the dust has still not settled from the logjams created by Covid. Internationally, China’s most recent bout of Covid-19 lockdowns has reduced the supply of Chinese exports and dampened demand for imports.
  • Oil Shock: Sanctions against Russia are forcing countries reliant on Russian oil to explore other energy suppliers/solutions which has driven up global oil prices.
  • Inflation: No matter how transitory the Fed believes inflation may be, they’re no longer sitting around and waiting for the situation to rectify itself. They are now deploying their limited arsenal of blunt tools to bring this down.

This last point re: inflation/Fed tools deserves some extra attention.

Federal Reserve: The Bartender

As already mentioned, the primary tools in the Federal Reserve’s toolkit are:

  1. controlling the federal funds rates (which impacts interest rates)
  2. quantitative easing (QE) which introduces new money into the money supply.

In another alcohol analogy, imagine the Fed as our bartender.

Interest rates:

If the bartender wanted to incentivize drinking (helllllllo happy hour!), the bartender could lower the prices which might increase consumption. The drink servers (banks) would let all the patrons (individuals/investors etc.) know that drink prices are down – get ‘em while you can! This is, in effect, what lowering the fed funds rate does for our economy – it lowers the cost of borrowing and incentivizes investment.

Conversely, perhaps the party is really hoppin’ and there’s a line around the corner to get in, the bartender might then increase drink prices (i.e. increase the fed funds rate) to slow down the debauchery (i.e. irrational exuberance).

 Quantitative Easing:

QE is the other strategy that the bartender (Fed) deploys to get a dreadfully boring party (i.e. crashing economy) poppin’ again.

In this scenario, you can only order drinks (i.e. do business) with the drink servers (banks). During happy hour, the bartender notices that the servers (banks) aren’t hawking drinks (lending), they have empty trays. To get them up and active again, the bartender loads up the drink trays (i.e. Fed buys long term securities from the open market) but lowers the amount of alcohol in each cup (i.e. the fed’s asset purchases increase the banks’ reserves which results in lowers yields + more money in circulation).

This action results in the drink servers (banks) being flush with heavy trays of drinks (excess reserves) and incentivized to get back out to doing business (lending).

Ugh, yes – monetary policy is nuanced and there are some obvious holes in these oversimplified analogies but hopefully this is kinda helpful?!

A Recent History of Fed Interventions

While the Fed has deployed it’s influence on interest rates by increasing/decreasing the federal funds rate in the past, this tool had traditionally been reserved to rein in inflation and/or unemployment.

However, beginning with Alan Greenspan following the 1987 stock market crash, Federal Reserve chairs began lowering interest rates for one additional reason besides controlling inflation/unemployment: to proactively halt excessive stock market declines. This “Greenspan Put,” as it became known, acted as a form of insurance against market losses.

Since then, the Fed has intervened with lowering interest rates on a number of occasions to minimize stock market volatility/losses: the savings and loan crisis, the Gulf War, Mexican peso crisis, Asian financial crisis, Long-Term Capital Management (LTCM) crisis, Y2K, dotcom bubble, and 2008 financial crisis.

Quantitative easing (QE), on the other hand, is a more recent monetary policy first deployed by Japan in 2001 to stymie the collapse of their financial market. In the US, QE was deployed following the 2008 crisis in three separate waves: in 2009, 2010, and 2012.

As mentioned earlier, QE is when central banks introduce new money into the money supply. In practice, this is done by central banks purchasing longer-term securities from the open market. This action drives up money supply and encourages institutions to keep lending (and investing!).

While it’s the Treasury that controls the printing of money, it’s the Federal Reserve that effectively decides how much money is created (in the form of actual paper money + credit).

What the Fed is doing now

Most recently, as global financial markets began nosediving due to Covid-19 lockdowns, the Federal Reserve stepped in with a broad array of actions to limit the damage.

First, they reduced the fed funds rate to ground zero (0.0%-0.25%) which brought the cost of borrowing to historic lows. They also pursued quantitative easing (QE) which included large purchases of U.S. government and mortgage-backed securities as well as lending to support households, employers, financial market participants, and state and local governments.

Through quantitative easing (QE), the Fed’s balance sheet has now swelled to nearly $9T (nearly double that following the ’08 financial crisis).

The Hangover

The combination of lower interest rates and $9T of QE is like a shot of adrenaline, or a Red Bull Vodka – it gives an immediate bump but a potentially painful come-down.

At wHealth Advisors, while we’re rationally optimistic that the long-term return potential in the stock market remains strong, there a number of hurdles facing the short/medium term:

  • Increasing National Deficit: The current national deficit is approaching $30T. The 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act resulted in record corporate profits and strong stock market performance. However, the cuts essentially 1) borrowed economic growth from the future and 2) are expected to add $2-2.2T to the national deficit over the next six years. The 2017 tax cuts + QE response to Covid-19 have swelled the deficit and put the US on a “fiscally unsustainable” path, to quote the Government Accountability Office (GAO).
  • Tax Hikes Likely: There seems to be little interest in reducing federal expenditures. As such, without extreme austerity, the only other solution to combat rising deficits is increasing taxes (likely impacting both individual/corporate rates).
  • Slower Growth: Economists expect 2.3% GDP growth per year, on average, over the next 10 years, even after accounting for expectations of increased economic activity in the near term. This compares to historical average GDP growth of 3.1% per year since 1948.
  • Muted 10yr Equity Outlook: A lower economic outlook combined with record high equity valuations has many fund companies bracing investors for lower expected returns going forward. Vanguard forecasts US equities to have a 10yr annualized return between 2.0-4.0% and international equities to range between 5.1-7.1%.

 Final Thoughts:

The Fed’s QE actions, creating $9T more or less out of thin air, is somewhat uncharted territory. It will take time to fully understand the ramifications of this. For the time being, we’ve got inflation and a choppy stock market.

In the immediate future, the Fed has made clear that they are willing to increase unemployment to slow down inflation. To do this, the Fed is targeting a 2.25% fed funds rate and aiming to reduce their $9T balance sheet by $1T over next 12 months.

Over the short-medium term, continued stock market volatility will be inescapable. Actively reducing equity allocations in anticipation of, or in reaction to, fed funds rate increases is unlikely to lead to better investment outcomes.

Over the longer-term, investors who maintain a broadly diversified portfolio and use information in market prices to systematically focus on higher expected returns (i.e. exactly what we do for our clients at wHealth Advisors) should be better positioned for long-term investment success.

Resilient financial plans are designed with unpredictable, gloomy outlooks in mind. Please be in touch if you have any questions or concerns regarding your plan’s resiliency for the road ahead.

The SEC Finally Enforces ESG

SEC enforces ESG disclosure

With Earth Month upon us, we’re happy to report one small, incremental bit of progress in finance:

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) will finally enforce ESG disclosure and begin requiring public companies to share their greenhouse gas pollution and climate risks.

Pressure Has Mounted – The SEC Finally Enforces ESG Disclosure

Back in a 2019 blog post we wrote about our key takeaways from three finance-focused climate events we attended.

The events had confirmed our understanding that ESG investing – that is, investing in funds that claim to prioritize environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors – was subjective and, at best, financial industry greenwashing.” 

Reason: Up until now, the SEC has not required public companies to disclose any ESG metrics. Without metrics, ESG fund managers were forced to make subjective judgement calls about their fund’s holdings (note: unless explicitly stated, ESG funds rarely divested from any specific companies or asset classes). Despite this reality, fund companies marketed these funds as fuzzy, feel-good environmentally-socially-conscious investment solutions.

At the time, the SEC defended it’s position by claiming that ESG metrics were nonmaterial to shareholders/investors.

Since then, and considering that there is now over $40 trillion in assets globally invested in ESG funds, there has been significant pushback from nearly all corners of the investment world. Individual and institutional investors, state pension funds, endowments, and even sovereign wealth funds have all pushed for more ESG disclosure.

Why Do Investors Want More ESG Disclosure?

One possible answer is, for the same reason they want good consistent financial disclosure: They want to be able to understand how companies work, so that they can buy the good ones and avoid the risky ones.

And most of the SEC’s proposal is about that sort of thing: Climate risks can affect a company’s business and financial results, so investors need to understand those risks to understand the business.

In other words, an about-face:

Emissions + climate risks = material information for shareholders/investors

Major Shift

This marks a major shift in how corporations must show they are dealing with climate change.

For the first time ever, the SEC finally enforces ESG and plans to require businesses to outline the risks a warming planet poses to their operations. In fact, some large companies will have to provide information on emissions they don’t make themselves, but come from other firms in their supply chain.

The rules will require companies to:

  • describe what climate-related risks they face and how they manage those risks
  • disclose, if applicable, a “transition plan” to adapt to a warming world, or whether they “use scenario analysis to assess the resilience of their business strategy to climate-related risks,”
  • disclose and quantify the use of carbon offsets
  • disclose how their financials are affected by climate risk

In essence, the SEC is proposing a complex accounting regime for ESG, a legally approved set of Generally Accepted Climate Principles, with its own body of technical standards and its own set of climate attestation professionals.

Takeaway:

While we’re optimistic that these new disclosure requirements will improve ESG investing, do note that it will take time. Implementation will take place between fiscal year 2023 and 2026 (depending on the size of company).

While increased disclosure of public companies is good, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) latest climate report suggested that ESG investing “does not yield meaningful social or environmental outcomes.”

Instead, the report cited, in order to avert the increasingly likely scenario of catastrophic global warming, the world needs stronger government policy and enhanced regulation.

Happy Earth Month. 

How will you do your small part to honor Mother Earth this year?

Let us know!

When Worlds Collide

Micro vs Macro

Investors need to be prepared for when worlds collide. Collisions – whether they be on a macro level (like war, famine, geopolitical strife etc.) or on the micro level (a professional transition, the loss of a loved one, a disability etc.) – can disorient even the most emotionally stable.

In this piece, a contribution from our March 2022 newsletter, we share our thoughts on what we’re seeing from the 30,000ft, global viewpoint. We also narrow our scope and discuss what you – personal finance investors – can do in light of all the noise, volatility, and events that are beyond your control.

The Macro

Russia-Ukraine:

The events in Ukraine are heartbreaking. We’re certainly not qualified to speak about the political implications of this invasion, but anytime there is aggression and loss of life, it is a tragedy.

From a financial perspective, markets had been bracing for a possible Russian invasion for much of February. Leading up to the invasion there was increased market volatility and a drop in the major indexes.

Oil Ban:

Just yesterday, the Biden administration announced an executive order halting all imports of Russian oil.

Roughly 8% of US imports of crude oil and petroleum products came from Russia in 2021, representing just 1% of Russia’s total oil exports globally. However, some US allies have indicated they may follow our lead with similar embargos.

These oil bans will impact global oil supply and inevitably result in gas prices continuing their steady incline (which have already climbed more than 60% this year).

Macro Movers and Market Impact:

Between the growing Russia-Ukraine crisis, continued inflation, rising commodity/metal prices, and the anticipated Federal Reserve interest rate hikes, it’s anyone’s guess just how much corporate profits (and your portfolios) will be impacted.

The image (below) shows how the market has fared during previous global events.

Our advice: Ignore the Macro

As we look ahead, from a personal finance standpoint, we encourage you to not react emotionally (i.e. buying/selling in a panic) based on macro events that are beyond your control. Reacting to events is, in essence, just another form of market timing.

If you flee the market after a major crisis, you are faced with yet another market timing dilemma: when to reenter. In many cases, the decision to reinvest comes after a rebound has already begun, resulting in missed opportunity (think back to March 2020).

Moving in and out of the market can also incur additional costs and have potential tax implications for investors.

The Micro

Instead, we encourage you to focus on the micro – that is, the levers that are within your control:

  • Saving at least 15% (ideally 20%) of income
  • Controlling your household expenses
  • Maximizing tax savings and tax-efficiency
  • Having a globally diversified portfolio for long-term resiliency

Parting Thoughts:

Let us all reflect on how much we do have during these times of crisis. Out of all the hands we could have been dealt, we got ours. We made it through a global pandemic, we have safety/security, and our physiological needs are met (i.e. clean air, food, water, shelter, clothing). Many of us are especially lucky and also have meaningful relationships, connection, and love with friends and family.

To quote Viktor Frankl:

“For the world is in a bad state, but everything will become still worse unless each of us does his best.”

Have gratitude for what you have, ignore what’s beyond your control, and give it your best.

Finances for Fathers: Episode 64 of the Dad.Work Podcast

Dennis McNamara had the opportunity to connect with Curt Storring, the host of the Dad.Work podcast, in a wide ranging conversation focused on finances for fathers.

Some highlights from the finances for fathers discussion:

  • The fundamentals of fiscal fitness and why fathers need to figure this stuff out
  • Finding a balance between time, money and health
  • The return on investment (ROI) of doing men’s work
  • Dennis’ quarantine struggles and doubling down on health protocols to come out the other side stronger
  • Being confident, living with intention and having a more deep and more engaged relationship with those around you
  • The importance of an emergency fund
  • And way more depth than you’d usually find in a conversation about finances for fathers!

Dennis’ Dad.Work Bio:

Dennis McNamara is a dad to a three year old, a husband to his college sweetheart, and a comprehensive financial planner at, and co-founder of, wHealth (pronounced “wealth”) Advisors in Red Bank, NJ.

After graduating university in 2011 Dennis was teetering on a mental and emotional breakdown. With $7,000 to his name, Dennis spent a year exchanging his physical labor for a roof over his head on permaculture farms in Portugal and Costa Rica. After learning more about himself through these experiences he dedicated himself to rigorously pursuing purposeful work instead of job titles.

Since then, he’s been the US Director of Business Development at a social enterprise firm, a financial analyst at the private wealth management arm of Goldman Sachs, and most recently – in 2019 – made the leap to establish his own financial planning firm – wHealth Advisors.

Dennis has been mentioned in Forbes, US News & World Report, and Financial Advisor Magazine. He holds the financial designations of Certified Financial Planner (CFP), Chartered Financial Consultant (ChFC), Accredited Investment Fiduciary (AIF), and is a Certified Student Loan Professional (CSLP).

Outside of wHealth Advisors he is passionate about compounding healthy habits so that he can show up as the best version of himself – whether that be as a parent, a partner, or a professional.

You can follow along his Instagram @thewhealthadvisor or find more about the work he does with wHealth Advisors at whealthfa.com. There, you can also subscribe to his monthly newsletter which is as much about finances as it is about wellness, personal optimization, and taking meaningful steps to upgrading your life.

Streaming:

The podcast streams on Apple, Spotify, or directly from Dad.Work.

The 101 on I Bonds

Before diving into a 101 on I Bonds, let’s first acknowledge that they’re the most boring investment that we’re recommending to… just about everyone*. If inflation is something that’s top of mind, they may be a good addition to your portfolio. For more on our thoughts on inflation, see our piece from a few months back.

What are I bonds?

I Bonds are a type of U.S. savings bond designed to protect the value of your cash from a rise in inflation. They are meant to give investors a return + inflation protection on their purchasing power. An I bond earns interest monthly from the first day of the month in the issue date.

Interest is paid in two components: a fixed rate of return plus a semi-annual variable rate which fluctuates with inflation.

How is interest calculated?

Currently, I bonds provide an interest rate of 7.12%, and this rate is good through April 30, 2022. A portion of this rate is tied to inflation, so the rate adjusts every six months, on May 1 and November 1.

How do I bonds work?

When you purchase an I bond, you pay the full face value of the bond. Bonds can be purchased two ways: paper I Bond certificates or electronically registered I bonds through the TreasuryDirect.gov website.

I bonds earn interest each month, and the interest is compounded every six months. However, you don’t get access to the interest until you cash out the bond. Interest that you earn gets added to the value of the bond twice per year.

How much can I purchase?

Investors can buy up to $10,000 worth of I bonds annually through the TreasuryDirect website. In addition, you can purchase another $5,000 by applying your federal tax refund towards a paper certificate purchase. For instance, a family of four would be able to purchase $40,000 in I bonds annually via TreasuryDirect.gov, and up to an additional $5,000 (per SSN, per year) if they had a federal tax refund in at least that amount.

When do I bonds mature?

I bonds have a maturity of 30 years, so you can earn interest on them for 30 years. NOTE: You cannot cash out of your I bond during the first 12 months of ownership. If the bond is cashed out between years 1 and 5, the most recent three months’ worth of interest is forfeited.

Do I have to pay taxes on I bonds?

I bonds are exempt from both state and local tax, but you do have to pay federal tax on the interest. However, if used to pay for college, the interest is completely tax exempt. For reporting taxes, there are two options: report interest annually or at maturity when the bond is sold.

How do I cash in my I bond?

This will depend on whether you own a paper bond or an electronic bond:

  • Paper Bond
    • Bring physical bond and proof of identity to a bank or financial institution that will cash it in (recommendation: call in advance, not all institutions accept).
  • Electronic Bond
    • Can cash out directly through the TreasuryDirect website.

Should I bonds be a part of my portfolio?

Although purchase amounts are quite limited, there are a few advantages to I bonds that make them a consideration for any portfolio:

  • Inflation protection
  • Less volatile than equities
  • Essentially no default risk, they are backed by the US Treasury
  • Interest is exempt from state and local taxes
  • Interest is exempt from federal tax if bonds are used to pay for college

*Disclosure: Everyone’s situation is unique. Please speak with a financial professional before following any of this advice.

End of Year Planning

Some end-of-year housekeeping and planning strategies to close out the year on a good note:

Review your portfolio:

  • with upcoming transitions in mind. Are allocation changes needed to begin preparing for an upcoming milestone (i.e. retirement) or transition (i.e. job change, relocation etc.)?
  • for (in)appropriate risk. Has your risk tolerance or risk capacity (i.e. how much risk you can take without interrupting other goals/priorities) changed? Can you now take on more/less risk?
  • for rebalancing opportunities. Is your portfolio properly allocated based on a target model? Or has your overall allocation drifted due to outsized gains/losses?
  • for gain/loss harvesting. If you invest in a taxable brokerage account, and depending on your tax bracket, there may be opportunities to realize additional capital gains (while in a lower tax) bracket or offset capital gains with losses.

Required Minimum Distributions (RMD)

  • What they are: The minimum amount that must be withdrawn from pre-tax retirement accounts annually once reaching age 72. This does not apply to post-tax Roth IRAs.
  • Inherited IRAs: Have their own rules.
  • Deadline: All RMDs must be taken by December 31st.

Contribute to a Roth or Traditional IRA

  • Roth IRAs: Contributions grow tax-free and qualified distributions come out tax free. Income limitations apply.
  • Traditional IRA: Contributions may be fully, partially, or non-deductible, depending on your income and circumstances.
  • Annual contribution limit (per person): For 2020, 2021, and 2022 is $6,000, or $7,000 if you’re age 50 or older. This limit applies to all IRAs. Example: An individual could fund a Roth IRA with $6k, or fund a traditional IRA with $6k, or fund each with $3k. You (or your spouse) must have taxable income in order to make a contribution.
  • Deadline: You can make 2021 IRA contributions until April 15, 2022.
  • Backdoor Roth: Depending on your circumstances, and for those who exceed the contribution/deduction income limits, you may be eligible to make a “backdoor” Roth contribution. Read more about it here and be sure to do it under the guidance of your financial planner and/or tax advisor.
  • Roth Conversions: If you are currently in a low tax bracket and expect your tax bracket to increase in future years, you may consider converting some pre-tax funds to your post-tax Roth. Essentially, paying taxes now so that your retirement funds can grow tax-free into the future. Deadline: 12/31/2021.

Charitable Donations

  • Deadline: All 2021 cash/non-cash donations must be completed by December 31st.
  • Deduction: Those that do not itemize their taxes can still deduct donations: up to $300 for single filers and $600 for joint filers.
  • Donor Advised Funds: Gifting appreciated stock to a Donor Advised Fund avoids recognizing capital gains and potentially pre-funds future year gifting.
  • QCDs: If over age 70.5, you can avoid recognizing IRA RMD income by directing some/all of your distribution to go directly to charity via a Qualified Charitable Distribution.

All advice listed here is for informational purposes. Please consult your financial planner or tax advisor before implementing.

The Role of Alternative Investments in Your Portfolio

Alternative Investments

For decades, pundits have taken a stab at writing the obituary for the traditional 60/40 portfolio (i.e. 60% stocks/40% bonds).

At first glance, this seems laughable. Over the last 90 years, a traditional 60/40 portfolio returned over 8% per year – like the S&P 500 which returned 9.5% over that period – but… with 40% less volatility!

However, these days, when accounting for historically low interest rates and rising inflation (which may or may not be transitory), the 60/40 bears may have their strongest case in recent memory.

This then begs the question: what now?

For a variety of reasons, there is still plenty of merit to 60/40 portfolios. However, we do appreciate the potential of certain investments to increase portfolio diversification. For investment opportunities beyond that of traditional stocks and bonds, we classify these in the portfolio as Alternative Investments (or, alts).

What are alternative investments?

Alts are essentially a catchall for any investment besides stocks, bonds, and cash (or cash equivalents). They provide an opportunity to gain exposure to areas not traditionally captured in a stock/bond portfolio that may or may not offer above market returns. Some of the more common types of alternative investments include:

  • Real Estate – crowdsourced or private commercial/residential property ownership, private/public Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs)
  • Commodities – such as crude oil, corn, soy, wheat, and coffee
  • Precious metals – such as gold, silver, and lithium
  • Cryptocurrency – purchasing coins, NFTs, or investing in public companies at the fore of crypto/blockchain/web3
  • Private Equity – locking up funds with a private equity firm to invest in non-public, private companies often via leveraged buyouts and/or venture capital
  • Collectibles – tangible assets such as art, fine wine, and vehicles

What are the benefits of alternative investments?

  • Diversification. This is the primary benefit. Alternative investments are typically a counterweight to conventional stock/bond assets and may perform well even if stock/bond returns are poor due to low correlations.
  • May have greater upside. Alternative investments, often due to their concentrated positions, can potentially offer outsized returns compared to traditional mutual fund/ETF investments.
  • Expertise can be an edge. An example of this would be an experienced real estate fix-and-flipper who can spot an opportunity and has the team/know-how to carry out the vision. Another example might be an art collector that knows how to spot undervalued works of art. All this to say, unique skills/interests in niche areas can set you apart.

What are the drawback of alternative investments?

  • Illiquidity. Many alternative investments may be illiquid and difficult to exit. In the case of most non-tradable private REITs, your investment might be tied up for 7+ years before you can access the funds.
  • Lack of regulation. Reporting requirements for many alternative investments are minimal compared to those of public companies in the stock market. This can create difficulty when valuing the alt’s underlying assets, which can make pricing and price transparency less straightforward.
  • Investment platforms can fail. Many online platforms for alternative investing are start-ups that may or may not succeed. You need to understand how your funds will be handled should the company fail or be acquired.
  • Investment minimums may apply. High investments minimums are common and may make certain alts impractical/inaccessible for smaller investors.
  • High fees. Alternatives can have many fees that are unique to the investment. Private equity typically charges large asset management fees. Real estate can have many unplanned repair/maintenance/legal expenses. Wine collecting through Vinovest charges 2.5%-2.85% for climate-controlled and insured wine storage! Compare those fees to traditional index funds which have small expense ratios, no purchase fees, no redemption fees, and no 12b-1 fees.
  • Complexity. Alternative investments are often complex instruments and may require a higher level of due diligence. If you are considering alternative investments, you also want to be sure that you research and understand the potential tax implications associated with them.

Takeaway

Ultimately, investors need to be aware of both the upside and downside potential of any investment. The suitability of any given alternative investment should be considered against an individual investor’s:

  1. time horizon
  2. appetite for risk
  3. ability/capacity to take on outsized risk, and
  4. any unique skills/interests that strengthen the odds of making a profitable investment.

 Federal Tax Proposal – A Summary

TAX

The Biden administration recently announced a number of tax proposals to fund new government investments. The current version may not be the final form, but many of its features are likely to become law. Below is a summary of what is most likely to impact families.

Income Tax Rates

  • Increase in the marginal tax rate: The top marginal tax rate would increase from 37% to 39.6% for income greater than $400,000 if you file as single and $450,000 if filed as married filing jointly (MFJ). These changes would go into effect for the 2022 tax year.

 

  • Increase in the top long-term capital gains rate: The highest marginal long-term capital gains rate would increase from 20% to 25% for incomes higher than $400,000 (single) or $450,000 (married filing jointly). The change in rate to 25% would be effective as of September 13, 2021 unless a sale was already under contract prior to that date.

 

  • S Corporations: Business profits from S corporations will be subject to a 3.8% surtax for taxpayers with Modified Adjusted Gross Income (MAGI) above $400,000 (single) and $500,000 (MFJ).

 

  • Section 199A QBI Deduction: To be phased out for those earning over $400,000 (single) or $500,000 (MFJ).

 

  • Additional 3% surtax on ultra-high income: An additional flat tax of 3% would be applied on any MAGI above $2,500,000 for individuals filing as married filing separately or above $5,000,000 for MFJ or single.

Retirement Strategies and Plans

  • Roth conversions will no longer be allowed for high income individuals:
    • New rules would prohibit all Roth conversions for taxpayers in the highest ordinary income tax bracket (39.6%) beginning January 1, 2032.
    • Roth conversions of after-tax funds will be prohibited for ALL taxpayers beginning January 1, 2022. This would eliminate backdoor Roth as a planning strategy.

 

  • Restricts contributions to IRAs or Roth IRAs for high net worth individuals if:
    • Taxable income is greater than $400,000 (single) or $450,000 (MFJ) AND the total value of IRA and defined contribution plans exceed $10,000,000.
    • The limitation does not apply to contributions of employer plans such as a 401(k), SEP IRA, or pension plan.

 

  • Change in Required Minimum Distributions (RMD) for individuals whose aggregate retirement account size exceeds $10,000,000:
    • Imposes RMDs on large retirement account balances if:
      • Taxable income is greater than $400,000 (single) or $450,000 (MFJ), AND
      • The total value of IRA and defined contribution plans exceed $10,000,000

 

  • If combined balance is between $10,000,000 and $20,000,000, the owner must distribute 50% of the amount of the account balances in excess of $10,000,000.
  • If the balance is greater than $20,000,000, the RMD would be 100% in excess of $20,000,000, plus 50% of any amount over $10,000,000.

Additional Changes

  • Wash Sale rule: This will be expanded to include cryptocurrency and other digital assets, commodities, and foreign currencies.

 

  • Estate Tax Exemption would be reduced: Would revert back to $5,850,000 per person and $11,700,000 per couple. This was scheduled to happen in 2026, but under the new proposal, it would get accelerated to 2022.

 

  • Increased child tax credit and monthly advance payment extended until 2025: Monthly advance payments of $250 per qualifying child aged 6-17 and $300 per child below the age of 6 would continue.

 

  • Assets held within grantor trusts may become part of taxable estate: This would potentially eliminate the benefit of certain estate planning techniques, namely Irrevocable Life Insurance Trusts (ILITs).

S&P Gains 100% from March 2020 Low: Now what?

S&P 500 marks 100% gain since March 2020

After hitting “rock bottom” following global shutdowns related to the coronavirus in March 2020, the S&P 500 has roared ever since delivering a 100% return. You read that right: 100%.

SIDEBAR: Someone out there is highlighting this past 18 month window in their investing masterclass, illustrating that in times of financial crisis, the best action for your portfolio is inaction. Don’t sell. Be patient. Ride it out. But we digress…

What now?

After living through the shortest bear market in history, we’re now witnessing company valuations being pushed to new heights only surpassed by the dot-com bubble of the late 1990s. While this may sound unsettling, also consider that with interest rates so low, it would be equally worrying if equities weren’t expensive (reason: low interest rate yields push investors to equities).

So, at this juncture and with cash to invest, should you a) lean towards low interest fixed income that’s not (or barely) keeping up with inflation, or b) buy potentially overvalued equities? Pick your poison.

From our vantage point, choosing low interest debt or expensive equities is not an either/or proposition – everything comes back to diversification. Instead of chasing returns, we prefer the approach of aligning portfolio decisions to your unique life: your upcoming cash needs (and/or life transitions), your tax bracket, and your tolerance + ability to take risk.

While we’re not ones for reading the tea leaves, we did appreciate reviewing the latest JP Morgan Long-Term Capital Market Assumptions report. In it, they had a stark quote that stuck out:

“The price for dealing with the pandemic today comes at the cost of tomorrow’s returns in many conventional asset markets.”

Not exactly a glass half-full outlook for the road ahead.

The biggest challenges outlined by the report included:

  • Whether governments/business can rise to the climate challenge
  • Increased sovereign debt balances and an expectation for fiscal stimulus to continue
  • Stagnating globalization, companies shortening their supply chains
  • Era of US “exceptionalism” possibly coming to an end, leading to a weaker dollar

While we certainly believe that all challenges present opportunities, we feel equally strong that investors should prepare for muted annual returns over the next decade. We touched on this topic not long ago.

According to the same JP Morgan LTCMA report, over the next 10-15 years, inflation is anticipated to flatten at an overall rate of 2.0%. This is a tough pill to swallow when the same report projects compound return rates for the same period to be 1.10% for cash, 1.50% for intermediate Treasuries, and 2.50% for US investment grade corporate bonds.

For equities, the LTCMA report outlined the following predictions for the next 10-15 year investment time horizon:

  • 4.10% for US Large Cap
  • 4.60% for US Small Cap
  • 6.20% for US Value
  • 6.50% for US REITS
  • 5.20% for Euro equities
  • 6.10% for UK equities
  • 5.10% for Japanese equities
  • 6.80% for emerging market equity

Compare these expected returns to the 10% average annual return that the stock market has delivered over the last century. Not ideal.

Instead of guessing which asset class will perform best, or searching for the next Amazon to invest in, legendary investor and founder of Vanguard, John Bogle (who’s 3-fund “boring” portfolio outperformed the largest endowments in 2020, yet again), said it best:

“Don’t look for the needle in the haystack. Just buy the haystack.”

As evidence-based investors, we wholeheartedly agree with this approach.

Beware of Financial Scams

Scam Alert

A personal contact shared a story with us regarding their friend who recently fell victim to an online gift card scam.

The friend received an email from “Target” and was prompted to provide certain information to “verify their gift cards.” Unfortunately, the friend fell for the scam and within a few days had money withdrawn directly from their bank account. The impacted individual is now in the process of working with their bank to recover the stolen funds.

The State of Fraud

Scamming shows no signs of letting up. In its most recent report from the Internet Crime Complaint Center, the FBI saw the largest number of complaints, and the highest dollar losses, since the center was established 20 years ago. According to the FBI, the costliest scams involved business email compromise, romance or confidence fraud, and mimicking the account of a person or vendor known to the victim to gather personal or financial information.

How to avoid

  1. Beware of suspicious email address and fake invoices/attachments: Fraudsters are masters of deception. It’s not uncommon for them to send emails from addresses that might look familiar to you but which contain one spelling difference, or end in .net instead of .com. Never open links or attachments from email addresses that are unfamiliar. Additionally, if you receive a link or attachment that you weren’t expecting from what appears to be recognizable/legitimate email address, it never hurts to send a quick call or text to the sender to confirm.
  2. Ignore scammers pretending to be from the government: Most of us have probably received one of these phone calls. Someone reaches out on a phone call claiming to be from the IRS. In some cases, most recently, the caller will claim you are eligible for an “additional stimulus check.” In others, they’ll say you owe money and will warn that non-payment will result in legal recourse and penalties. Take note: the IRS will never make first contact via a phone call or request payment details for money-owed over the phone. If you receive a call, simply hang up the phone. The same goes for calls from the Social Security Administration and other government organizations.
  3. Be aware of the Social Security scam: Also done via phone call, the caller says your Social Security number has been linked to a crime involving drugs and/or sending money out of the country illegally. They inform you that your Social Security number is blocked and that by simply confirming your SSN and paying a small fee, it can be reactivated. Again: Hang up! The Social Security Administration will never call you on the phone and ask for your Social Security number.
  4. Scammers will tell you how to pay: All successful scams entail coercing the victim to part with sensitive information or to pay the scammer. Scammers may insist that you pay by sending money through a money transfer company. Others may suggest putting money on a gift card and then giving them the number on the back. Some will send you a check (that will later turn out to be fake), tell you to deposit it, and then send them money.
  5. Don’t fall for online pop-up warnings: Tech support scammers may try to lure you with a pop-up window that appears on your computer screen. It might look like an error message from your operating system or antivirus software. It may also use logos from trusted companies or websites. The message in the window warns of a security issue on your computer and directs you to call a phone number to get help. Simply ignore. If you are unsure of whether the message was legitimate, you can use your antivirus software to run a scan or contact the soliciting organization directly.

What to do if you are scammed

Anyone can fall victim to these scams. If you have paid someone, call your bank, money transfer app, or credit card company and see if they can reverse the charges. The Federal Reserve Board notes that if you report the fraud within two business days, liability is limited to $50. If you report it after that, you could face liability of up to $500, and if you report it after the 60-day window, subsequent fraudulent charges can wipe out your account entirely.

Final thoughts

Whether online or via phone, stay vigilant. Avoid clicking on suspicious links, and never give out personal information to a stranger over the phone. For online accounts, steer away from using short passwords which can be easily hacked by password cracker software. Instead, use strong passwords that are at least 12 digits long and contain numbers, letters, special characters, and a mix of lowercase and uppercase letters.

If you know someone who has been impacted, Identitytheft.gov is a great resource for mapping out a recovery plan.

Estimating Returns: Hope for the Best, Plan for the Worst

Between 1926-2020, the US stock market return was basically 10% per year.

While it’d be great to bank on 10% per year, it unfortunately does not work that way. For those that want consistency over the long haul, they will have to accept lower returns (think: CDs, bonds). For those that truly want higher returns over the long haul, they’ll have to accept more volatility (i.e. the stock market, other speculative investments). Either way, you can never fully escape risk.

Interestingly, though, is how infrequent annual US stock market returns actually fall within the long-term 10% average.

If we look at the calendar year returns +/- 2% from the 10% average (so 8% to 12%), this has happened in just five calendar years (1926-2020). So around 5% of all years since 1926 have seen what would be considered “average” returns. In fact, there have been just as many yearly returns above 40% as returns in the 8% to 12% range. Just 18% of returns have been between 5% to 15% in any given year.

The only way to truly take the randomness out of the stock market is to have a multi-decade time horizon. The best 30 year return was 13.6% per year from 1975-2004. And the worst 30 year return was 8.0% per year from 1929-1958.

 What you can do about it:

It’s impossible to say if the next 30 years will be as kind to investors as the previous 30 were. For those that are still on the journey towards financial independence, it would be best to assume lower returns going forward. Instead of relying on continued 8-10%+ average annual returns (something beyond your control), personal savings and frugality are parts of the money equation that are more in your control and have a 100% chance of being as effective in the future as they are today.

As Morgan Housel, author of the “Psychology of Money” writes, “You can build wealth without a high income, but have no chance of building wealth without a high savings rates, it’s clear which one matters more.”

Lessons from 2020

Lessons from 2020

2020 will be a year we will never forget. From a global pandemic and civil unrest, to an economic downfall that we continue to battle through today, it has been a challenging year that has impacted millions of individuals around the world. For investors, as we reflect on the past year, it’s critical we revisit some lessons learned to better ourselves moving forward. While it’s unlikely we’ll ever experience a year like 2020 again, many of the principles outlined below are timeless, and can serve as foundational reminders that are applicable every year.

 Having an investment philosophy you can stick with is paramount

While there is no silver bullet, understanding how markets work and trusting market prices are good starting points. By adhering to a well-thought out investment plan, ideally agreed upon in advance of periods of volatility, investors may be better able to remain calm during periods of short-term uncertainty. 

Create an investment plan that aligns with your risk tolerance

You want to have a plan in place that gives you peace of mind regardless of the market conditions. Over time, capital markets have rewarded investors who have taken a long-term perspective and remained disciplined in the face of short-term noise.

Don’t try and time the market

The 2020 market downturn offers an example of how the cycle of fear and greed can drive an investor’s reactive decisions. Back in March, there was widespread agreement that COVID-19 would have a negative impact on the economy, but to what extent? Who would’ve guessed we would’ve experienced the fastest bear market in history in which it took just 16 trading days for the S&P 500 to close down 20% from a peak only to be followed by the best 50-day rally in history?

Stay disciplined through market highs and lows

Financial downturns are unpleasant for all market participants. When faced with short-term noise, it is easy to lose sight of the potential long-term benefits of staying invested. While no one has a crystal ball, adopting a long-term perspective can help change how investors view market volatility.

Focus on what you can control

To have a better investment experience, people should focus on the things they can control. It starts with creating an investment plan based on market principles, informed by financial science, and tailored to your specific needs and goals.

This One Change to Financial Aid Could Negatively Impact Many Families

Apple on Book

At the end of 2020, Congress passed the Consolidated Appropriations Act. Most of the attention around this act, a $2.3 trillion spending bill, was focused on the COVID-19 relief provisions. However, also buried in that massive document were dramatic changes to student financial aid rules.  These changes will go into effect during the 2023-2024 school year when the FAFSA becomes available on October 1, 2022.  Some of these changes are long overdue and will be a benefit to families.  However, not all changes will be beneficial.

First, here is a brief rundown on some of the changes you can expect in the future: 

The FAFSA will be shorter and easier to fill out

The FAFSA currently has over 100 questions included in the application and many of them are confusing.  The new simplified version will have approximately 36 questions.  It also allows applicants to have both their taxed and untaxed income transferred to the FAFSA automatically, as opposed to manually entering it or having to self-report it.

“Expected Family Contribution” will be renamed “Student Aid Index”

The Expected Family Contribution, or EFC, is an index that schools use to determine a family’s eligibility for financial aid.  The formula includes such things as a family’s income, non-retirement assets, marital status, number of dependents, and how many children will be attending college at the same time.  Theoretically, the lower the EFC, the more aid could be available to a family.  This will get renamed to Student Aid Index, or SAI, but will operate similar to the EFC so there will be no impact to families financially.

Change in Custodial Parent

Under the current rules, the custodial parent in two household families (as a result of divorce or separation for instance) is the parent whose financial information is supplied.  The custodial parent is defined as the parent with whom the child lives with for the majority of the year.  As of 2022, the parent who supplies the most financial support will be required to fill out the FAFSA application, and this may not necessarily be the custodial parent.  The result – a higher EFC and less financial aid available to the family.

Pell Grant Eligibility

Pell Grants are a form of need-based financial aid that are awarded to low-income students to help offset college costs.  These typically do not need to be repaid.  This change is one of the positives of the new legislation. Under the current method, Pell eligibility is determined by a family’s EFC, the cost of attendance at the chosen school, and whether the enrollment status is part time or full time.  With the new rules, the size of the student’s family and their adjusted gross income will determine their Pell eligibility and size of the award.  Families that make less than the 175% federal poverty level will receive the maximum award, which is $6,495.

The above summarizes some of the changes you can expect to see in the 2023-24 school year. Now let’s focus on one that will negatively impact many families.  Currently, financial aid eligibility increases for families with more than one student enrolled in college at the same time.  Under the new law, the aid eligible to families will significantly decrease.

Let me explain with a fictitious family that includes two children who are two years apart. The first child will be in college by himself for his freshman and sophomore year, but the younger child will start college when the older one begins his junior year.  Therefore, the family will have two kids in college at the same time for two years. Both parents work and their combined income is $150,000.  The family also has assets of $150,000 which include cash and savings, taxable investment assets, and 529 plans.   The calculated expected family contribution (EFC) for this family is $40,000.

Before we dive deeper into the above family’s college financial situation, I would like to explain how the EFC is utilized by schools.  Your EFC is an indexed number that college financial aid offices use to determine how much financial aid a family is eligible for.  The formula for financial need is the Cost of Attendance (COA) less the Expected Family Contribution (EFC).  For example, if your EFC is $30,000 and you are applying to a school that costs $70,000, you will be eligible for $40,000 of need based aid.  ($70,000 COA – $30,000 EFC = $40,000 need).  It is important to point out – just because you are eligible for $40,000 in need-based aid, it does not mean you will receive this from the school your child applied to.  All schools vary in the determination of financial aid, so this will be solely dependent on the individual institution.

Now back to our fictitious family.  Under current guidelines with two students in college at the same time, this family’s EFC would be cut roughly in half for each student.  When this family has only one child in college for the first two years, the EFC that the college will use is $40,000.  However, once the second child starts school, the EFC will be roughly be cut in half to $20,000 per student.  The total EFC does not change, but the distribution of it does.  Therefore, the school that the older child attends will factor in the following EFC numbers for the four years he/she is in college as $40,000, $40,000, $20,000 and $20,000 and adjust the need based financial aid package accordingly, with more aid from the school being distributed in the last two years.  End result: the family is still expected to pay a total of $40,000 annually.

Under the new bill, the EFC no longer will be reduced with multiple kids in college at the same time.  Therefore, the above family’s EFC contribution would be $40,000 in year one and two for the oldest child and then $40,000 per child for the next two years.  That reduction is eliminated and so is the additional need-based aid that would come with it.  This will significantly increase the financial strain on families with two children attending college simultaneously.

The Expected Family Contribution index was designed to give insight to colleges on what a family could afford to pay each year. For families who have, or will have, multiple children attending college at the same time, this new rule is a major setback. Instead of being more accommodating to families facing the rising cost of college, this new rule essentially doubles a family’s expected contribution, which would decrease the amount of aid they’re eligible for.  We encourage all families who will be adversely impacted by this change to consider writing your Congressman or Congresswoman and requesting action to repeal this part of the bill.

2020: Market Review

Market Review 2020 Cover

The year 2020 proved to be one of the most tumultuous in modern history, marked by a number of developments that were historically… wait for it… unprecedented. But the year also demonstrated the resilience of people, institutions, and financial markets.

The novel coronavirus was already in the news early in the year, and concerns grew as more countries began reporting their first cases of COVID-19. Infections multiplied around the world through February, and by early March, when the outbreak was labeled a pandemic, it was clear that the crisis would affect nearly every area of our lives. The spring would see a spike in cases and a global economic contraction as people stayed closer to home, and another surge of infections would come during the summer. Governments and central banks worked to cushion the blow, providing financial support for individuals and businesses and adjusting lending rates.

On top of the health crisis, there was widespread civil unrest over the summer in the US tied to policing and racial justice. In August, Americans increasingly focused on the US presidential race in this unusual year. Politicians, supporters, and voting officials wrestled with the challenges of a campaign that at times was conducted virtually and with an election in the fall that would include a heightened level of mail-in and early voting. In the end, the results of the election would be disputed well into December. As autumn turned to winter, 2020 would end with both troubling and hopeful news: yet another spike in COVID-19 cases, along with the first deliveries of vaccines in the US and elsewhere.

For investors, the year was characterized by sharp swings for stocks. March saw the S&P 500 Index’s1 decline reach 33.79% from the previous high as the pandemic worsened. This was followed by a rally in April, and stocks reached their previous highs by August. Ultimately, despite a sequence of epic events and continued concerns over the pandemic, global stock market returns in 2020 were above their historical norm. The US market finished the year in record territory and with an 18.40% annual return for the S&P 500 Index. Non-US developed markets, as measured by the MSCI World ex USA Index,2 returned 7.59%. Emerging markets, as measured by the MSCI Emerging Markets Index, returned 18.31% for the year.

EXHIBIT 1 – Highs and Lows

MSCI All Country World Index with selected headlines from 2020

2020 Market Review

As always, past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Fixed income markets mirrored the extremity of equity behavior, with nearly unprecedented dispersion in returns during the first half of 2020. For example, in the first quarter, US corporate bonds underperformed US Treasuries by more than 11%, the most negative quarterly return difference in data going back a half century. But they soon swapped places: the second quarter was the second-most positive one on record for corporates over Treasuries, with a 7.74% advantage.3 Large return deviations were also observed between US and non-US fixed income as well as between inflation-protected and nominal bonds.

Global yield curves finished the year generally lower than at the start. US Treasury yields, for example, fell across the board, with drops of more than 1% on the short and intermediate portions of the curve.4 The US Treasury curve ended relatively flat in the short-term segment but upwardly sloped from the intermediate- to long-term segment. For 2020, the Bloomberg Barclays Global Aggregate Bond Indexreturned 5.58%.

EXHIBIT 2 – Sharp Shifts

US Credit minus US Treasury: Quarterly Returns, March 1973–December 2020

Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

 

Uncertainty remains about the pandemic and the broad impact of the new vaccines, continued lockdowns, and social distancing. But the events of 2020 provided investors with many lessons, affirming that following a disciplined and broadly diversified investment approach is a reliable way to pursue long-term investment goals.

 

Market Prices Quickly Reflect New Information about the Future

The fluctuating markets in the spring and summer were also a lesson in how markets incorporate new information and changes in expectations. From its peak on February 19, 2020, the S&P 500 Index fell 33.79% in less than five weeks as the news headlines suggested more extreme outcomes from the pandemic. But the recovery would be swift as well. Market participants were watching for news that would provide insights into the pandemic and the economy, such as daily infection and mortality rates, effective therapeutic treatments, and the potential for vaccine development. As more information became available, the S&P 500 Index jumped 17.57% from its March 23 low in just three trading sessions, one of the fastest snapbacks on record. This period highlighted the vital role of data in setting market expectations and underscored how quickly prices adjust to new information.

One major theme of the year was the perceived disconnect between markets and the economy. How could the equity markets recover and reach new highs when the economic news remained so bleak? The market’s behavior suggests investors were looking past the short-term impact of the pandemic to assess the expected rebound of business activity and an eventual return to more-normal conditions. Seen through that lens, the rebound in share prices reflected a market that is always looking ahead, incorporating both current news and expectations of the future into stock prices.

Owning the Winners and Losers

The 2020 economy and market also underscored the importance of staying broadly diversified across companies and industries. The downturn in stocks impacted some segments of the market more than others in ways that were consistent with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on certain types of businesses or industries. For example, airline, hospitality, and retail industries tended to suffer disproportionately with people around the world staying at home, whereas companies in communications, online shopping, and technology emerged as relative winners during the crisis. However, predicting at the beginning of 2020 exactly how this might play out would likely have proved challenging.

In the end, the economic turmoil inflicted great hardship on some firms while creating economic and social conditions that provided growth opportunities for other companies. In any market, there will be winners and losers—and investors have historically been well served by owning a broad range of companies rather than trying to pick winners and losers.

Sticking with Your Plan

Many news reports rightly emphasized the unprecedented nature of the health crisis, the emergency financial actions, and other extraordinary events during 2020. The year saw many “firsts”—and subsequent years will undoubtedly usher in many more. Yet 2020’s outcomes remind us that a consistent investment approach is a reliable path regardless of the market events we encounter. Investors who made moves by reacting to the moment may have missed opportunities. In March, spooked investors fled the stock and bond markets, as money-market funds experienced net flows for the month totaling $684 billion. Then, over the six-month period from April 1 to September 30, global equities and fixed income returned 29.54% and 3.16%, respectively. A move to cash in March may have been a costly decision for anxious investors.

 

EXHIBIT 3 – Cash Concerns + Global Equity Returns

Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

 

It was important for investors to avoid reacting to the dispersion in performance between asset classes, too, lest they miss out on turnarounds from early in the year to later. For example, small cap stocks on the whole fared better in the second half of the year than the first. The stark difference in performance between the first and second quarters across bond classes also drives home this point.

 

A Welcome Turn of the Calendar

Moving into 2021, many questions remain about the pandemic, new vaccines, business activity, changes in how people work and socialize, and the direction of global markets. Yet 2020’s economic and market tumult demonstrated that markets continue to function and that people can adapt to difficult circumstances. The year’s positive equity and fixed income returns remind that, with a solid investment approach and a commitment to staying the course, investors can focus on building long-term wealth, even in challenging times.

FOOTNOTES

  1. 1S&P data © 2021 S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC, a division of S&P Global. All rights reserved. Indices are not available for direct investment.
  2. 2MSCI data © MSCI 2021, all rights reserved. Indices are not available for direct investment.
  3. 3US corporate bonds represented by the Bloomberg Barclays US Credit Bond Index. US Treasuries represented by the Bloomberg Barclays US Treasury Bond Index. Bloomberg Barclays data provided by Bloomberg. Indices are not available for direct investment.
  4. 4ICE BofA government yield. ICE BofA index data © 2021 ICE Data Indices, LLC.
  5. 5Bloomberg Barclays data provided by Bloomberg. All rights reserved. Indices are not available for direct investment.

DISCLOSURES

The information in this document is provided in good faith without any warranty and is intended for the recipient’s background information only. It does not constitute investment advice, recommendation, or an offer of any services or products for sale and is not intended to provide a sufficient basis on which to make an investment decision. It is the responsibility of any persons wishing to make a purchase to inform themselves of and observe all applicable laws and regulations. Unauthorized copying, reproducing, duplicating, or transmitting of this document are strictly prohibited. wHealth Advisors accepts no responsibility for loss arising from the use of the information contained herein.

 

The Coronavirus and Market Volatility

Coronavirus

The world is watching with concern the spread of the new coronavirus. The uncertainty is being felt around the globe, and it is unsettling on a human level as well as from the perspective of how markets respond.

At wHealth Advisors, we accept the fundamental principle that markets are designed to handle uncertainty, processing information in real-time as it becomes available. We’ve witnessed this volatility over the past 3-4 weeks. Such declines can be distressing to any investor, but they are also a demonstration that the market is functioning as we would expect.

Market declines can occur when investors are forced to reassess expectations for the future. The expansion of the outbreak is causing worry among governments, companies, and individuals about the impact on the global economy. As an example, last month Apple announced that it expected revenue to take a hit from problems making and selling products in China. Airlines are preparing for the toll it will take on travel. Local businesses are worrying how their bottom lines will be impacted from preventive measures such as self-quarantines and social distancing. From the largest companies in the world down to our corner coffee shops, these are just a few examples of how the impact of the coronavirus is being assessed.

The market is clearly responding to new information as it becomes known, but the market is pricing in unknowns, too. As risk increases during a time of heightened uncertainty, so do the returns investors demand for bearing that risk, which pushes prices lower. Our investing approach is based on the principle that prices are set to deliver positive future expected returns for holding risky assets.

We can’t tell you when things will turn or by how much, but our expectation is that bearing today’s risk will be compensated with positive expected returns. That’s been a lesson of past health crises, such as the Ebola and swine-flu outbreaks earlier this century, and of market disruptions, such as the global financial crisis of 2008–2009. Additionally, history has shown no reliable way to identify a market peak or bottom. These beliefs argue against making market moves based on fear or speculation, even as difficult and traumatic events transpire.

When it comes to managing your portfolio, it’s prudent to develop (and stick with!) a long-term plan than can be maintained in a variety of conditions. For our clients, we consider a wide range of possible outcomes, both good and bad, when helping to establish an asset allocation and plan. Those preparations include the possibility, even the inevitability, of a downturn. Amid the anxiety that accompanies developments surrounding the coronavirus, decades of financial science and long-term investing principles remain a strong guide.

We send our best to you and yours. Wash your hands, avoid touching your eyes/nose/mouth, and, as always, feel free to contact us at hello@whealthfa.com.

10/16/2020 Editor Note: Our co-founder, Dennis McNamara, was featured as a financial expert on Dr. Wealth where he weighed in on investing in a post-COVID world. Link to contribution here: https://www.drwealth.com/investing-in-post-covid19-world/ 

Doctors Get Shafted When It Comes To Finances

Doctor Finance

Written by: Dennis McNamara

In a profession where it is expected that the practitioners embody the highest degrees of empathy, intellect, and work ethic – all for the benefit of others (and really, society at large) – why is it that doctors get the shaft when it comes to their finances?

Answering this question requires us to look at both the personal/financial circumstances many doctors face after graduating and the financial industry’s systemic shortcomings (or, outright inability) to provide fair service offerings to new doctors.

The Triple Whammy: Doctors Playing Catch-up

Let’s begin with the most significant financial circumstances that doctors are faced with, also known as the “Triple Whammy” – a term coined by author Dr. James M. Dahle MD of The White Coat Investor. The triple whammy is comprised of three factors that set doctors behind their non-doctor peers:

  • Significantly higher-than-average student loan balances
  • Delayed earnings due to schooling and residency/fellowship
  • Higher-than-average income tax brackets once finally earning

Dr. Dahle illustrates this uphill battle faced by doctors by describing a one-on-one race towards financial independence between a physician and their non-doctor peer:

If you compared the earnings/savings race between a physician and his college roommate to a 400-yard dash, the physician might be the faster runner, but he has to start fifty yards behind the starting line (student loans), he has to give his roommate a 15-second head start (lost earning years), and he has to run with a parachute tied to his waist (higher tax burden). It turns out the doctor has to be REALLY FAST (high earner with a very high savings rate) to still win.

Outside of the infrequent cases where medical school costs are paid for via family and/or scholarship, this triple whammy is inevitable for most doctors.

Burnout

A fourth circumstance faced by doctors is burnout – we might as well amend the “Triple Whammy” to be a “Quadruple Whammy” – it’s that significant. In fact, a survey of 15,000 physicians cited in a Wall St. Journal article (Abbott, 2020) noted that 42% of the physicians surveyed across 29 specialties reported feeling some sense of burnout.

It is not uncommon for doctors to lose interest in working in medicine. This is understandable as doctors are constantly asked to do more and more with less and less. Over time, this overloading can have significant consequences. Besides the impact on personal well-being, patient care, and the health care system, burnout can derail doctors’ financial futures (decreased productivity, increased risk of malpractice, higher rates of divorce, early/forced retirement).

By acknowledging both the a) high likelihood and b) personal/financial consequences of burnout, doctors need to plan accordingly. By living intentionally during peak earning years, doctors can aggressively repay their student loans, build a nest egg, and craft a lifestyle that can be sustained if/when there’s ever the desire/need to shift into a lower paying career.

Being handcuffed to a job simply for the pay, despite feeling drained, disenchanted, and possibly depressed, is a not a recipe for personal fulfillment or success.

Perhaps at some point a doctor wants to teach, work part-time, or spend some years on the “mommy/daddy track.” Others may desire working in a location that doesn’t pay as well, volunteering more, or walking away from medicine as a whole. While money is not the key to happiness, it can be an empowering tool for pivoting toward a role that is more fulfilling.

Getting finances on the right track early in a medical career is a great defense to combatting burnout and can make nearly any conceivable career transition more realistic.

So, what is a newly minted doctor to do?

Our best recommendation is to begin with education, some personal finance 101. For starters, whether it’s student loans, retirement planning, or being tax-savvy with your hard-earned dollars, The White Coat Investor is a quick read and great primer for getting familiarized with personal finance. If interested in scratching beyond the surface, the whitecoatinvestor.com has forums, articles, and vetted guest contributions that weigh-in and expound on additional topics. If reading and learning about finance feels like learning another language, that’s understandable – but do know that taking this time to understand the basics may be one of your better long-term investments.

Besides getting familiarized with finances, a newly minted doctor should invest in a professional consultation on their student loans. For many doctors just entering their residency, a student loan analysis may result in pursuing an income based repayment strategy and/or Public Service Loan Forgiveness. For doctors who have already completed their residency (or dentists who have shorter residencies), it may mean refinancing.

Questioning how much a student loan analysis could save you? Assuming you don’t qualify for any loan forgiveness, consider a basic refinancing scenario. If a doctor with $200k of student loan debt with an interest rate of 6.8% and a 10-year repayment schedule was able to refinance to a rate of 4.8%, their monthly payments would be reduced by $200. Over the 10 year repayment schedule this would save nearly $24,000 in interest payments.

The Financial Industry’s Shortcomings: Doctor beware!

This brings us to the next obstacle for doctors – the finance and insurance industries. Bill Bernstein, author of The Intelligent Asset Allocator, once noted, “If you assume that every financial professional you interact with is a hardened criminal, you’ll do okay.” As a financial planner, and it pains me to say, Bill’s quote is accurate. All investors, not just doctors, should approach the financial and insurance industries with antennas up. In many fields there is a code of conduct or standard of ethics to adhere to. In medicine, the common example of this is the Hippocratic Oath. Thought to have originated in c.a. 500 BCE, the Hippocratic Oath was a response to the charlatans who posed as doctors to swindle patients and make a quick buck. Though many medical institutions have moved away from the original Hippocratic Oath, many modern versions maintain the same theme: putting patients’ best interests first.

When it comes to the financial industry, like Bernstein’s quote alludes, Caveat Emptor – “let the buyer beware.” In a field saturated with mutual fund salespeople, insurance salespeople, and stockbrokers – how does one find a financial professional they can trust?

The F-word: “Fiduciary”

Similar to the Hippocratic Oath, the financial professional that you choose to work with should be one who, at a minimum, adheres to the National Association of Personal Financial Advisor’s (NAPFA) fiduciary oath. According to NAPFA, this oath means that the professional shall:

  • Always act in good faith and with candor.
  • Be proactive in disclosing any conflicts of interest that may impact the client.
  • Not accept any referral fees or compensation contingent upon the purchase or sale of a financial product.

To know for sure whether the financial professional you’re working with, or the person that you’re interviewing to hire, is a fiduciary, ask that they put in writing and sign a statement that they will always put your financial interests ahead of their own and the firm they work for. If they are unwilling (or “unable”) to sign this, they are not a true fiduciary.

NOTE: Financial professionals are legally required to act as a fiduciary in ERISA plans such as 401ks, 403bs, IRAs, and pensions. So, if a financial advisor tells you, “Yes, of course, I act as a fiduciary in insert ERISA retirement plan” just know that this is nothing special. You want a professional that always acts as a fiduciary.

However, despite adhering to heightened code of ethics, many of the advisors that you can search for on NAPFA.org charge their clients by a percentage of the assets under management (or, AUM). That is, if you have $500,000 of investable assets and are seeking the advisor to manage those assets, you may be charged 1% (i.e. $5,000), on $1 million of investable assets you might pay that same 1%, or $10,000. These fees also do not account for the underlying expense ratios of the investments you’ll be placed in (oftentimes as high as another 1%).

Hiring an advisor when you have negative net worth

While we could take time to debate whether or not the AUM fee structure holds up under deeper ethical scrutiny when compared to a fixed/flat-fee which is not tied to investable assets (hint: it doesn’t), let’s get back to the point! For most doctors, even if they do their homework on NAPFA.org and find an advisor that acts as a fiduciary, will a young doctor meet the asset minimums to qualify as a client? Perhaps, but probably not.

When it comes to medical/dental school, roughly 80% of students will take on loans to pay for tuition. Out of those who borrow, the largest cohort (27%) take on between $200-300k of student debt (not including any undergraduate debt). Despite earning money during residency/fellowship, it’s likely that most doctors will become an attending while still having a negative net worth. That is, they may be a great saver and were able to accumulate $50,000 of cash/investments during residency, however they still have $200,000 of student debt – or a negative net worth of $150,000. For an advisor that charges their fee as a percentage of the assets they’re managing, there is no way to be compensated for working with a young doctor.

Here’s when the charlatans of the finance and insurance industries begin rearing their ugly heads. When you hear that they’ll provide you anything for “free” – RUN AWAY!

Some of the worst places to get financial advice:

  • Unsolicited emails
  • Stock-picking internet forums
  • Your TV (turn off Jim Cramer!)
  • Your insurance agent
  • Your local brokerage shop (Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch, Edward Jones, UBS etc.)
  • Your bank or credit union

With a negative net worth and no (or minimal) assets to manage, the most unsavory financial and insurance reps capitalize on the opportunity to make a one-time sale of a product that can earn them a commission, score them a kickback, or help them hit a quota (behind the curtain: “one more sale and I win a trip to the Bahamas!”).

One more time for the people in back: DOCTOR BEWARE!

Final Thoughts: Who should doctors work with?

The top qualities that a doctor should consider in a financial planner are as follows:

  • Fiduciary: As discussed – someone legally sworn and obligated to always place your interests ahead of their own.
  • CFP® Credential: Certified Financial Planner™ marks are the gold standard. Advisors are required to complete extensive coursework and to pass a board administered exam.
  • Fee-only: Advisor is compensated only by the client and never earns commissions for product sales or referrals. NOTE: Fee-only and fee-based are not the same!
  • Independent: Not affiliated with or hired by any brokerage firm, bank, or insurance company.

Unfortunately, it can sometimes be a challenge finding advisors that check off all four of these. Luckily, there are sites such as FeeOnlyNetwork.com and ACPlanners.org that offer search functions based on your location. As the name suggests, FeeOnlyNetwork.com offers listings of fee-only advisors. On ACPlanners.org, the website for the Alliance of Comprehensive Planners (or, ACP), you can also search for advisors based on geography. While both organizations are reputable and their advisors meet most (often all) of the aforementioned qualities, it’s worth exploring ACP if you want an advisor who offers a broader scope of services (i.e. navigating student loans, starting a solo-401k, preparing you annual taxes etc.).

At wHealth Advisors, working with medical professionals is personal. Having a wife, a brother-in-law, and numerous relatives that have pursued the path of medicine we recognize the nuances of the journey, the challenges, and the endless opportunities – all while upholding the industry’s highest standards. The Ongoing Financial Planning of our website highlights our offerings for doctors in all stages of their careers ranging from residents to retirees. For those still pursuing the search for an advisor: Godspeed, good luck, and we hope to hear from you.

Related:

Podcast: Not A Medical Marvel (feat. Dennis McNamara CFP®)

Abbott, B. (2020). Physician Burnout is Widespread, Especially Those in Midcareer. The Wall Street Journal.

For any questions or clarifications please feel free to contact us at hello@whealthfa.com.