Top 5 Strategies to Protect Your Portfolio from Inflation

Top 5 Strategies to Protect Your Portfolio from Inflation

Protecting Your Portfolio from Inflation

The 2016 election revived the hopes of some market participants for higher interest rates and higher inflation. Indeed, the 10-year Treasury rate went from 1.45% in July to 2.5% in December before settling at around 2.35-2.40% at the end of February 2017. Simultaneously, the Consumer Price Index, which is one of the leading inflation indicators, hit a five-year high level at 2.5% in January 2017. As many investors are becoming more concerned, we will discuss our top 5 strategies to protect your portfolio from inflation.

Higher interest and inflation rates can hurt the ability of fixed income investors to finance their retirement. Bonds and other fixed-income instruments lose value when interest rates go up and gain value when interest rate come down.

There were numerous articles in popular media about the “great rotation” and how investors will switch from fixed to equity investments in search for higher return. None of that has happened yet, and the related news has seemed to disappear.

However, the prospects for higher inflation are still present. So, in this article, I would like to discuss several asset classes that are popular among individual investors. I will explain see how they perform in the environment of rising inflation.

Cash

Cash is by far one of the worst vehicles to offer protection against inflation. Money automatically loses purchasing power with the rise of inflation. Roughly speaking, if this year’s inflation is 3%, $100 worth of goods and services will be worth $103 in a year from now. Therefore, someone who kept cash in the checking account or at home will need extra $3 to buy the same goods and services he could buy for $100 a year ago.

A better way to protect from inflation, while not ideal, is using saving accounts and CDs. Some online banks and credit unions offer rates above 1%. This rate is still less than the CPI but at least preserves some of the purchasing power.

Equities

Stocks are often considered protection tools against inflation. They offer a tangible claim over company’s assets, which will rise in value with inflation. However, historical data has shown that equities perform better only when inflation rates are around 2-3%. To understand this relationship, we have to look at both Real and Nominal Inflation-Adjusted Returns. As you can see from the chart below, both real and nominal stock returns have suffered during periods of inflation that is over 5% annually. Moreover, stocks performed very well in real and nominal terms when inflation rates were between 0% and 3%.

High inflation deteriorates firms’ earnings by increasing the cost of goods and services, labor and overhead expenses. Elevated levels of inflation have the function to suppress demand as consumers are adjusting to the new price levels.

While it might look tempting to think that certain sectors can cope with inflation better than others, the success rate will come down to the individual companies’ business model. As such, firms with strong price power and inelastic product demand can pass the higher cost to their customers. Additionally, companies with strong balance sheet, low debt, high-profit margins and steady cash flows tend to perform better in high inflation environment.

 Real estate

Real Estate very often comes up as a popular inflation protection vehicle. However, historical data and research performed the Nobel laureate Robert Shiller show otherwise.

According to Shiller “Housing traditionally is not viewed as a great investment. It takes maintenance, it depreciates, it goes out of style. All of those are problems. And there’s technical progress in housing. So, the new ones are better….So, why was it considered an investment? That was a fad. That was an idea that took hold in the early 2000’s. And I don’t expect it to come back. Not with the same force. So people might just decide, ‘yeah, I’ll diversify my portfolio. I’ll live in a rental.’ That is a very sensible thing for many people to do”.

Shiller continues “…From 1890 to 1990 the appreciation in US housing was just about zero.  That amazes people, but it shouldn’t be so amazing because the cost of construction and labor has been going down.”  Rising inflation will lead to higher overhead and maintenance costs, potential renter’s delinquency and high vacancy rates.

To continue Shiller’s argument, investors seeking an inflation protection with Real Estate must consider their liquidity needs. Real Estate is not a liquid asset class. It takes a longer time to sell it. “Every transaction involves paying fees to banks, lawyers, and real-estate agents. There are also maintenance costs and property taxes. The price of a single house also can be quite volatile.”  Just ask the people who bought their homes in 2007, just before the housing bubble.

Commodities

Commodities and particularly gold tend to provide some short-term protection against inflation. However, this is a very volatile asset class. Gold’s volatility measured by its 42-year standard deviation is 33% higher than that of stocks and 3.5 times greater the volatility of the 10-year treasury.  Short-term inflation protection benefits are often overshadowed by other market-related events and speculative trading.

Not to mention the fact that the gold and other commodities are not easily available to retail investors outside the form of ETFs, ETNs, and futures. Buying actual commodities can incur significant transaction and storage cost which makes it almost prohibitive for individuals to physically own them.

Bonds

According to a many industry “experts” bonds are a terrible tool to protect for inflation. The last several years after the great recession were very good to bonds since rates gradually went down and the 10-year treasury rate reached 1.47% in July 2017.  The low rates were supported by quantitate easing at home and abroad and higher demand from foreign entities due to near zero or negative rates in several developed economies. As the rates went up in the second half of 2016, bonds, bonds ETFs and mutual funds lost value. While bonds may have some short-term volatility with rising inflation, they have shown a strong long-term resilience. The 42-year annualized return of the 10-year Treasury is 7.21% versus 10.11% for large Cap Stocks. The Inflation adjusted rate of return narrows the gap between two asset groups, 3.07% for bonds and 5.85% for stocks.

For bond investors seeking inflation protection, there are several tools available in the arsenal. As seen in the first chart, corporate bonds due to their stronger correlation to the equities market have reported much higher real returns compared to treasuries. Moving to short-term duration bonds, inflation-protected bonds (TIPS), floating rate bonds, are banks loan are some of the other sub-classes to consider

Municipal Bond Investing

Municipal Bond Investing

What is a Municipal Bond?

Municipal bond investing is a popular income choice for many Americans.  The muni bonds are debt securities issued by municipal authorities like States, Counties, Cities, and related businesses. Municipal bonds or “munis” are issued to fund general activities or capital projects like building schools, roads, hospitals, and sewer systems. The size of the muni bond market has reached 3.7 trillion dollars. There are about $350 billion of Muni bond issuance available every year.

To encourage Americans to invest in Municipal Bonds, US authorities had exempted the muni bonds’ interest (coupon income) from Federal taxes. In some cases, when the bondholders reside in the same state where the bond was issued, they can also be exempted from state taxes.

Types of Municipal Bonds

Municipal entities issue general obligation bonds to finance various public projects like roads, bridges, and parks. General obligation bonds are backed by the full faith and credit of the issuing municipality.  Usually, they do not have a dedicated revenue source. The local authorities commit their abundant resources to pay off the bonds. Municipals rely on their unlimited power to tax residents to pay back bondholders.

Revenue bonds are backed by income from a particular project or source. There is a wide diversity of types of revenue bonds, each with unique credit characteristics. Municipal entities frequently issue securities on behalf of borrowers such as water and sewer services, toll bridges, non-profit colleges, or hospitals. These underlying borrowers typically agree to repay the issuer, who pays the interest and principal on the securities solely from the revenue provided by the conduit borrower.

Taxable Bonds. There is a smaller but growing niche of taxable municipal bonds. These bonds exist because the federal government will not subsidize the financing of certain activities, which do not significantly benefit the general public. Investor-led housing, local sports facilities, refunding of a refunded issue, and borrowing to replenish a municipality’s underfunded pension plan, Build America Bonds (BABs) are types of bond issues that are federally taxable. Taxable municipals offer higher yields than those of other taxable sectors, such as corporate or government agency bonds.

Investment and Tax Considerations

Tax-Exempt Status

With their tax-exempt status, muni bonds are a powerful tool to optimize your portfolio return on an after-tax basis.

Muni Tax Adjusted Yield

So why are certain investors flocking into buying muni bonds? Let’s have an example:

An individual investor with a 35% tax rate is considering an AA-rated corporate bond offering a 4% annual yield and an AA-rated municipal bond offering a 3% annual yield. All else equal, which investment will be more financially attractive?

Since the investors pays 35% on the received interest from the corporate bonds she will pay 1.4% of the 4% yield to taxes (4% x 0.35% = 1.4%) having an effective after-tax interest of 2.6% (4% – 1.4% = 2.6%). In other words, the investor will only be able to take 2.6% of the 4% as the remaining 1.4% will go for taxes. With the muni bond at 3% and no federal taxes, the investor will be better off buying the muni bond.

Another way to make the comparison is by adjusting the muni yield by the tax rate. Here is the formula.

Muni Tax Adjusted Yield = Muni Yield / (1 – tax rate) = 4% / (1 – 0.35%) = 4.615%

The result provides the tax-adjusted interest of the muni bond as if it was a regular taxable bond. In this case, the muni bond has 4.615% tax-adjusted interest, which is higher than the 4% offered by the corporate bond.

 The effective state tax rate

Another consideration for municipal bond investors is the state tax rate. Most in-state municipal bonds are exempt from state taxes, while out-of-state bonds are taxable at the state tax level. Investors from states with higher state tax rates will be interested in comparing the yields of both in and out-of-state bonds to achieve the highest after-tax net return. Since under federal tax law, taxes paid at the state level are deductible on a federal income tax return, investors should, in fact, consider their effective state tax rate instead of their actual tax rate. The formula is:

Effective state tax rate = State Income Tax rate x (1 – Federal Income Tax Rate)

Example, if an investor resides in a state with 9% state tax and has 35% federal tax rate, what is the effective tax rate:

Effective state tax rate = 9% x (1 – .35) = 5.85%

If that same investor is comparing two in- and out-of-state bonds, all else equal, she is more likely to pick the bond with the highest yield on net tax bases.

AMT status

One important consideration when purchasing muni bonds is their Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) status. The most municipal bond will be AMT-free. However, the interest from private activity bonds, which are issued to fund stadiums, hospitals, and housing projects, is included in the AMT calculation. If an investor is subject to AMT, the bond interest income could be taxable at a rate of 28%.

Social Security Benefits

If investors receive Medicare and Social Security benefits, their municipal bond tax-free interest could be taxable. The IRS considers the muni bond interest as part of the “modified adjusted gross income” for determining how much of their Social Security benefits, if any, are taxable. For instance, if a couple earns half of their Social Security benefits plus other income, including tax-exempt muni bond interest, above $44,000 ($34,000 for single filers), up to 85% of their Social Security benefits are taxable.

Diversification

Muni bonds are a good choice to boost diversification to the investment portfolio.  Historically they have a very low correlation with the other asset classes. Therefore,  municipal bonds returns have observed a smaller impact by developments in the broader stock and bond markets.

For example, municipal bonds’ correlation to the stock market is at 0.03%. Their correlation to the 10-year Treasury is at 0.37%.

Interest Rate Risk

Municipal bonds are sensitive to interest rate fluctuations. There is an inverse relationship between bond prices and interest rates. As the rate goes up, muni bond prices will go down. And reversely, as the interest rates decline, the bond prices will rise. When you invest in muni bonds, you have to consider your overall interest rate sensitivity and risk tolerance.

Credit Risk

Like the corporate world, municipal bonds and bond issuers receive a credit rating from major credit agencies like Moody’s, S&P 500, and Fitch. The credit rating shows the ability of the municipality to pay off the issued debt. The bonds receive a rating between AAA and C, with AAA being the highest possible and C the lowest. BBB is the lowest investment-grade rating, while all issuance under BBB is known as high-yield or “junk” bonds. The major credit agencies have different methodologies to determine the credit rating of each issuance. However, historically the ratings tend to be similar.

Unlike corporations, which can go bankrupt and disappear, municipals cannot go away. They have to continue serving their constituents. Therefore, many defaults end up with debt restructuring followed by continued debt service. Between 1970 and 2014, there were 95 municipal defaults. The vast majority of them belong to housing and health care projects.

In general, many investors consider municipal debt to be less risky. The historical default rates among municipal issuances are a lot smaller than those for comparable corporate bonds.

Limited secondary market

The secondary market for municipal bonds sets a lot of limitations for the individual investor. While institutional investors dominate the primary market, the secondary market for municipal bonds offers limited investment inventory and real-time pricing. Municipal bonds are less liquid than Treasury and corporate bonds. Municipal bond investing tends to be part of a buy-and-hold strategy as most investors seek their tax-exempt coupon.

Fragmentation

The municipal bond market is very fragmented due to issuances by different states and local authorities. MUB, the largest Municipal ETF, holds 2,852 muni bonds with the highest individual bond weight at.45%. The top 5% holdings of the ETF make 1.84% of the total assets under management. For comparison, TLT, a 20-year old Treasury ETF, has 32 holdings with the largest individual weight at 8.88%. The top 5% make up 38.14% of the assets under management.

14 Effective ways to take control of your taxes

In this blog post, I will go over several popular and some not so obvious tax deductions and strategies that can help you decrease your annual tax burden. Let’s be honest.  Nobody wants to pay taxes. However, taxes are necessary to pay for pensions, social services, Medicaid, roads, police, law enforcement and so on. Most people will earn a higher income and grow their investments portfolios as their approach retirement. Thus they will gradually move to higher tax brackets and face a higher tax bill at the end of the year. IRS provides many tax deductions and breaks that can help you manage your tax burden. Taking advantage of these tax rules can help you reduce your current or future your tax bill.

These are general rules. I realize that we all face different circumstances. Use them as a broad guideline. Your particular situation may require a second opinion by an accountant, a tax lawyer or an investment advisor.

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1. Primary residence mortgage deductions

Buying a first home is a big decision. Your new neighborhood, school district, nearby services are all critical factors you need to consider before making your choice. If you own a primary residence (sorry, a vacation home in Hawaii doesn’t count), you can deduct the interest on your mortgage loan from your taxable income for the year. Your property taxes are also deductible. These incentives are provided by the Federal and state governments to encourage more families to buy their home.

There are two additional benefits of having a mortgage and being a responsible borrower. First, your credit score will increase. Making regular payments on your mortgage (or any loan) improves your credit history, increases your FICO score and boosts your creditworthiness. Your ability to take future loans at a lower rate will significantly improve. Second, your personal equity (wealth) will increase as you pay off your mortgage loan. Your personal equity is a measure of assets minus your liabilities.  Higher equity will boost your credit score. It is also a significant factor in your retirement planning.

Buying a home and applying for a mortgage is a long and tedious process. It requires a lot of legwork and documentation. After the financial crisis in 2008 banks became a lot stricter in their requirements for providing mortgage loans to first buyers. Nevertheless, mortgage interest on a primary residence is one of the biggest tax breaks available to taxpayers.

 

2. Home office deductions

Owning a home versus renting is a dilemma for many young professionals. While paying rent offers flexibility and lower monthly cash payments it doesn’t allow you to deduct your rent from your taxes. Rent is usually the highest expense in your monthly budget. It makes up between 25% and 35% of your total income. The only time you can apply your rent as a tax deduction is if you have a home office.

A home office is a dedicated space in your apartment or house to use for the sole purpose of conduction your private business. It’s usually a separate room, basement or attic designated for your business purposes.

The portion of your office to the total size of your home can be deductible for business purposes. If your office takes 20% of your home, you can deduct 20% of the rent and utility bills for business expense purposes.

 

3. Charitable donations

Monetary and non-monetary contributions to religious, educational or charitable organization approved by IRS are tax deductible. The annual limit is 50% of your AGI (aggregate gross income) for most donations and 30% of AGI for appreciated assets.

Most often people choose to give money. However, you can also donate household items, clothes, cars, and airline miles. The fair value of the donated items decreases your taxable income and therefore will reduce the amount of taxes due to IRS.

Another alternative is giving appreciated assets including stocks and real estate. This is one of the best ways to avoid paying significant capital gain tax on low-cost investments. For one, you are supporting a noble cause. Second, you are not paying taxes for the difference between the market value and purchase cost of your stock. Also, the fair market value of the stock at the time of donation will reduce your taxable income, subject to 30% of AGI rule. If you were to sell your appreciated assets and donate the proceeds to your charity of choice, you would have to pay a capital gain tax on the difference between market value and acquisition cost at the time of sale. However, if you donate the investments directly to the charity, you avoid paying the tax and use the market value of the investment to reduce your taxable income.

 

4. Gifts

Making a gift is not a standard tax deduction. However, making gifts can be a way to manage your future tax payments and pass on the tax bill to family members who pay a lower tax rate. You can give up to $14,000 to any number of people every year without any tax implications. Amounts over $14,000 are subject to the combined gift and estate tax exemption of $5.49 million for 2017.  You can give your child or any person within the annual limits without creating create any tax implications.

Another great opportunity is giving appreciated assets as a gift. If you want to give your children or grandchildren a gift, it is always wise to consider between giving them cash or an appreciated asset directly.  Giving appreciated assets to family members who pay a lower tax rate doesn’t create an immediate tax event. It transfers the tax burden from the higher rate tax giver to the lower tax rate receiver.

 

5. 529 Plans

One of the best examples of how gifts can minimize future tax payments is the 529 college tuition plan. Parents and grandparents can contribute up to $14,000 annually per person, $28,000 per married couple into their child college education fund. The plan even allows a one–time lump sum payment of $70,000 (5 years x $14,000).

529 contributions are not tax deductible on a federal level. However, many states like New York, Massachusetts, Illinois, etc. allow for state tax deductions up to a certain amount. The plan allows your contributions (gifts) to grow tax-free. Withdrawals are also tax-free when using the money to pay qualified college expenses.

 

6. Tax-deferred contributions to 401k, 403b, and IRA

One of my favorite tax deductions is the tax-deferred contribution to 401k and 403b plans. In 2017 the allowed maximum contribution per person is $18,000 plus an additional $6,000 catch-up for investors at age 50 and older. In addition to that, your employer can contribute up to $36,000 for a total annual contribution of $54,000 or $60,000 if you are older than 50.

Most companies offer a matching contribution of 5%-6% of your salary and dollar limit of $4,000 – $5,000. At a very minimum, you should contribute enough to take advantage of your company matching plan. However, I strongly recommend you to set aside the entire allowed annual contribution.

The contributions to your retirement plan are tax deductible. They decrease your taxable income if you use itemized deductions on your tax filing form. Not only that, the investments in your 401k portfolio grow tax-free. You will owe taxes upon withdrawal at your current tax rate at that time.

If you invest $18,000 for 30 years, a total of $540,000 contributions, your portfolio can potentially rise to $1.5m in 30 years at 6% growth rate. You will benefit from the accumulative return on your assets year after year.  Your investments will grow depending on your risk tolerance and asset allocation. You will be able to withdraw your money at once or periodically when you retire.

 

7. Commuter benefits

You are allowed to use tax-free dollars to pay for transit commuting and parking costs through your employer-sponsored program.  For 2017, you can save up to $255 per month per person for transit expenses and up to $255 per month for qualified parking. Qualified parking is defined as parking at or near an employer’s worksite, or at a facility from which employee commutes via transit, vanpool or carpool. You can receive both the transit and parking benefits.

If you regularly commute to work by a bike you are eligible for $20 of tax-free reimbursement per month.

By maximizing the monthly limit for both transportation and parking expenses, your annual cost will be $6,120 ($255*2*12). If you are in the 28% tax bracket, by using the commuter benefits program, you will save $1,714 per year. Your total out of pocket expenses will be $ 4,406 annually and $367 per month.

 

8. Employer-sponsored health insurance premiums

The medical insurance plan sponsored by your employer offers discounted premiums for one or several health plans.  If you are self-employed and not eligible for an employer-sponsored health plan through your spouse or domestic partner, you may be able to deduct your health insurance premiums.  With the rising costs of health care having a health insurance is almost mandatory.  Employer-sponsored health insurance premiums can average between $2,000 for a single person and 5,000 for a family per year. At a 28% tax rate, this is equal to savings between $560 and $1,400. Apart from the tax savings, having a health insurance allows you to have medical services at discounted prices, previously negotiated by your health insurance company. In the case of emergency, the benefits can significantly outweigh the cost of your insurance premium.

 

9. Flexible Spending Account

Flexible Spending Account (FSA) is a special tax-advantaged account where you put money aside to pay for certain out-of-pocket health care costs. You don’t pay taxes on these contributions. This means you will save an amount equal to the taxes you would have paid on the money you set aside. The annual limit per person is $2,600. For a married couple, the amount can double to $5,200. The money in this account can be used for copayments, new glasses, prescription medications and other medical and dental expenses not covered by your insurance.  FSA accounts are arranged and managed by your employer and subtracted from your paycheck.

Let’s assume that you are contributing the full amount of $2,600 per year and your tax rate is 28%. You effectively save $728 from taxes, $2,550 * 28%. Your actual out-of-pocket expense is $1,872.

One drawback of the FSA is that you must use the entire amount in the same tax year. Otherwise, you can lose your savings. Some employers may allow up to 2.5 months of grace period or $500 of rollover in the next year. With that in mind, if you plan for significant medical expenses, medication purchases or surgery, the FSA is a great way to make some savings.

 

10. Health Spending Account

A health savings account (HSA) is a tax-exempt medical savings account available to taxpayers who are enrolled in a high-deductible health plan (HDHP) The funds contributed to this account are not subject to federal income tax at the time of deposit. Unlike a flexible spending account (FSA), HSA funds roll over and accumulate year over year if not spent. HSA owners can use the funds to pay for qualified medical expenses at any time without tax liability or penalty. The annual contribution limits are $3,350 per person, $6,750 per family and an additional $1,000 if 55 or older. The owner of HSA can invest the funds similarly to IRA account and withdraw without penalty when used for medical expenses.

 

11. Disability  insurance

Disability premiums are generally not deductible from your tax return. They are paid with after-tax dollars. Therefore, any proceeds received as a result of disability are tax-free. The only time your benefits are taxable is when your employer pays your disability insurance and does not include it in your gross income.


12. Life insurance

Life insurance premiums are typically not deductible from your tax return if you are using after-tax dollars. Therefore, any proceeds received by your beneficiaries are tax-free.

Life insurance benefits can be tax deductible under an employer-provided group term life insurance plan. In that case, the company pays fully or partially life insurance premiums for its employees.  In that scenario, amounts more than $50,000 paid by your employer will trigger a taxable income for the “economic value” of the coverage provided to you.

If you are the owner of your insurance policy, you should make sure your life insurance policy won’t have an impact on your estate’s tax liability. In order to avoid having your life insurance policy affecting your taxes, you can either transfer the policy to someone else or put it into a trust.

13. Student Loan interest

If you have student loans and you can deduct up to $2,500 of loan interest.  To use this deduction, you must earn up to $80,000 for a single person or $165,000 for a couple filing jointly. This rule includes you,  your spouse or a dependent. You must use the loan money for qualified education expenses such as tuition and fees, room and board, books, supplies, and equipment and other necessary expenses (such as transportation)

14. Accounting and Investment advice expenses

You may deduct your investment advisory fees associated with your taxable account on your tax return.  You can list them on Schedule A under the section “Job Expenses and Certain Miscellaneous Deductions.” Other expenditures in this category are unreimbursed employee expenses, tax preparation fees, safe deposit boxes and other qualifying expenses like professional dues, required uniforms, subscriptions to professional journals, safety equipment, tools, and supplies. They may also include the business use of part of your home and certain educational expenses. Investment advisory fees are a part of the miscellaneous deduction.  The entire category is tax deductible if they exceed 2% of your adjusted gross income for the amount in excess.

 

About the Author: Stoyan Panayotov, CFA is a fee-only financial advisor based in Walnut Creek, CA. His firm Babylon Wealth Management offers fiduciary investment management and financial planning services to individuals and families.

Disclaimer: Past performance does not guarantee future performance. Nothing in this article should be construed as a solicitation or offer, or recommendation, to buy or sell any security. The content of this article is a sole opinion of the author and Babylon Wealth Management. The opinion and information provided are only valid at the time of publishing this article. Investing in these asset classes may not be appropriate for your investment portfolio. If you decide to invest in any of the instruments discussed in the posting, you have to consider your risk tolerance, investment objectives, asset allocation and overall financial situation. Different investors have different financial circumstances, and not all recommendations apply to everybody. Seek advice from your investment advisor before proceeding with any investment decisions. Various sources may provide different figures due to variations in methodology and timing,  Image Copyright: www.123rf.com

Incentive Stock Options

Incentive Stock Options

What is an Incentive Stock Option?

Incentive stock options (ISOs) are a type of equity compensation used by companies to reward and retain their employees. ISOs have more favorable tax treatment than non-qualified stock options. While similar to NQSOs, they have a few major differences:

  • ISOs are only granted to company employees.
  • They can only be vested for up to $100,000 of underlying stock value each year
  • ISO must expire after ten years
  • They are not transferrable
  • Long-term capital gain tax is due on the difference between the selling price and exercise price under certain conditions. To receive this tax benefit, ISO holder has to keep the stock for one year and one day after the exercise date and at least two years and one day from the grant date.
  • If the sale date does not meet the above requirements, ISO is disqualified as such and treated as NSO. In that case, you will owe ordinary income tax and short / long-term capital gain taxes
  • Options granted to shareholders with 10% or more ownership must be priced at least at 110% of the Fair Market Value and not be vested for five years from the date of the grant.
  • Alternative Minimum Tax is applicable on the difference between market price and exercise price in the year of exercise. You have to report the difference (also known as the bargain element) to IRS. This may have an impact on your final tax at the end of the year, depending on various other deductions.

Key dates

if you own ISOs, you need to keep track of these important dates:

Grant Date – the date when the options were awarded to you
Vesting Date – the date from when the options can be exercised
Exercise Date – the date when the options are actually exercised
Expiration Date – the date after which the options can no longer be exercised

Important price levels

In addition, you also need to keep a record of the following prices:

Exercise price or strike price – the value at which you can buy the options
Market price at exercise date – the stock value on the exercise date
Sell price – stock value when held and sold after the exercise date
Bargain element – the difference between market price and exercise price at the time of exercise

Tax Considerations of Incentive Stock Options

The granting event of ISOs does not trigger taxes. Receivers of incentive stock options do not have to pay taxes upon their receipt.

Taxes are not due on the vesting date, either. The vesting date opens a window for up to 10 years by which you will be allowed to exercise the ISO.

ISO exercise is not a tax event from the IRS perspective if you meet the holding period requirements by selling your stock after one year and a day after exercise and two years and a day after the grant date. Depending on when you sell the stock after the exercise date, six main scenarios can occur:

Scenario 1

You exercise your options and keep them. No tax due; however, you will have to make an adjustment for Alternative Minimum Tax for the amount of your bargain element.

Example: Let’s assume that you are granted ISO equal to 1,000 shares at the exercise price of $10. Your tax rate is 25%. On the exercise date, you exercise the options and decide to keep the shares indefinitely. The market price on that day is $15.

You are not required to report any additional ordinary income.

However, you must adjust your AMT for $5,000.

(15 – 10) x 1,000 = $5,000.

Scenario 2

You exercise your options and sell them in the same year, less than 12 months from the exercise date. This disqualifies your ISO and converts it to NSO. You will have to report ordinary income on your bargain element and short-term capital gain or loss taxes on the difference between the selling price and the market price at the exercise date. You do not need to adjust for AMT if you sell your ISO within the same calendar year.

Example: Let’s assume that you are granted ISO equal to 1,000 shares at an exercise price of $10. On the exercise date, the market price is $15. You decide to keep the shares for three months in the same calendar when the price goes up to $18 and then sell all your shares.

You are required to report your bargain element of $5,000 as an additional ordinary income.

(15 – 10) x 1,000 = $5,000.

Since your tax rate is 25%, you will owe an additional $1,250 for taxes on $5,000 of extra income.

$5,000 x 25% = $1,250

You will also owe $750 on your $3,000 of short-term capital gains at your ordinary income level (See my posting about short and long term capital gains and losses)

(18 – 15) x 1,000 = $3,000

$3,000 x 25% = $750

Your total due to IRS will be $2,000

No AMT adjustment is due since you sold your shares in the same calendar year.

Scenario 3

You exercise your options and sell them in the next year, but less than 12 months from the exercise date. Your selling price is less than the market price at exercise. Since you sell less than a year after the exercise, your ISO is disqualified. Because your selling price is lower, IRS allows you to adjust your bargain element to the lower price

Example: Let’s assume that you are granted 1,000 shares at the exercise price of $10. On the exercise date, the market price is $15. You decide to keep the shares for five months until the next calendar year when the price drops to $12 and then sell all your shares.

Your original bargain element is $5,000

(15 – 10) x 1,000 = $5,000.

Since the price dropped from $15 to $12, you are allowed to adjust down your bargain element to $2,000 and add it as additional ordinary income.

(12 – 10) x 1,000 = $2,000.

Since your tax rate is 25%, you will owe an additional $500 for taxes on $2,000 of extra income.

$2,000 x 25% = $500

Your total due to IRS will be $500.

You will also have to report an adjustment of -$3,000 ([12 – 15] x 1,000) for AMT in the new calendar year. This will “modify” your prior year AMT adjustment, which was equal to the original bargain element of $5,000.

Scenario 4

You exercise your options and sell them in the next year, but less than 12 months from the exercise date. Your sell price is higher than the market price at exercise. Since you sell less than a year after exercise, your ISO is disqualified.

Example: Let’s assume that you are granted ISO equal to 1,000 shares at an exercise price of $10. On the exercise date, the market price is $15. You decide to keep the shares for 11 months in the next year…when the price goes up to $18 and then sell all your shares. Since you sold the shares before the 24-month mark, ISO shares are disqualified.

You are required to report your bargain element of $5,000 as an additional ordinary income.

(15 – 10) x 1,000 = $5,000.

Since your tax rate is 25%, you will owe an additional $1,250 for taxes on $5,000 of extra income.

$5,000 x 25% = $1,250

You will also owe $750 on your $3,000 of short-term capital gains at your ordinary income level (See my posting about short and long term capital gains and losses)

(18 – 15) x 1,000 = $3,000

$3,000 x 25% = $750

Your total due to IRS will be $2,000

 

You will also have to report an adjustment of $3,000 ([18 – 15] x 1,000) for AMT in the new calendar year. This will “modify” your prior year AMT adjustment, which was equal to the original bargain element of $5,000.

Scenario 5

You exercise your options and sell them after one year from the exercise date, but less than 24 months from the grant date. Since you sell less than two years after the grant date, your ISO is disqualified.

You will owe ordinary income and long-term capital gain taxes. Your total due to IRS will be $1,700

Example: Let’s assume that you are granted ISO equal to 1,000 shares at an exercise price of $10. On the exercise date, the market price is $15. You decide to keep the shares for 18 months in the next year when the price goes up to $18 and then sell all your shares. Since you sold the shares before the 24-month mark, ISO shares are disqualified.

You are required to report your bargain element of $5,000 as an additional ordinary income.

(15 – 10) x 1,000 = $5,000.

Since your tax rate is 25%, you will owe an additional $1,250 for taxes on $5,000 of extra income.

$5,000 x 25% = $1,250

You will also owe $750 on your $3,000 of short-term capital gains at your ordinary income level (See my posting about short and long term capital gains and losses)

(18 – 15) x 1,000 = $3,000

$3,000 x 15% = $450

Your total due to IRS will be $1,700

You will also have to report an adjustment of $3,000 ([18 – 15] x 1,000) for AMT in the new calendar year. This will “modify” your prior year AMT adjustment, which was equal to the original bargain element of $5,000.

Scenario 6 

You exercise your options and sell them after one year from the exercise date, and after 24 months from the grant date. Since you meet the requirements for ISO, your sale is qualified.

Example: Let’s assume that you are granted ISO equal to 1,000 shares at an exercise price of $10. On the exercise date, the market price is $15. You decide to keep the shares for twelve months after the exercise date and 24 months after the grant date when the price goes up to $18 and then sell all your shares.

You are allowed to report $8,000 of long term capital gain.

(18 – 10) x 1,000 = $8,000.

You will also owe $1,250 on your $8,000 of long-term capital gains at either 0, 15%, or 20%. Most people will have to pay 15% (See my posting about short and long term capital gains and losses)

$8,000 x 15% = $1,250

Your total due to IRS will be $1,250.

You will also have to report an adjustment of $3,000 ([18 – 15] x 1,000) for AMT in the new calendar year. This will “modify” your prior year AMT adjustment, which was equal to the original bargain element of $5,000.

How to minimize the tax impact of Incentive Stock Options?

  1. Meet the holding period requirements for one year after exercise and two years after the grant date. This will give you the most favorable tax treatment.
  2. Watch your tax bracket. Your tax rate increases as your income grow. Depending on the vesting and expiry conditions, you may want to consider exercising your options in phases to avoid crossing over the higher tax bracket. Keep in mind that tax brackets are adjusted every year for inflation and cost of living.
  3. AMT breakeven – you can exercise just the right number of shares to remain below the AMT tax level. Most accounting software will be able to calculate the exact amount.
  4. Use AMT credits when applicable. In the years when you pay AMT, you can rollover the difference between your AMT and regular tax due as a credit for futures years. The caveat is that AMT credit can only be used in the years when you pay regular taxes.
  5. You can donate or give as a gift your low-cost base stocks acquired through the exercise of ESO. You have to follow the holding period requirement to get the most favorable tax treatment.

Non-Qualified Stock Options

Non-qualified stock options

What are Non-qualified stock options?

Non-qualified Stock Options (NSOS) are a popular type of Employee Stock Options (ESO) and a favorite tool by employers to reward and retain workers. NSOs are a contract between the employee and the employer giving the employee the right but not the obligation to purchase company stocks at a pre-determined price in a set period.

Non-qualified Stock Options are similar to exchange-traded call options (ETO) in the way they allow their owner to benefit from the rise of the company stock. However, there are significant differences. There is no public market for NSOs. They can be extended for up to 10 years, while most exchange-traded options expire within a year or two. Additionally,  the employer sometimes can change the strike price of the NSOS while this is not possible for ETO.

Another popular equity compensation is an Incentive Stock Option. Click here to learn more about ISOs

Who gets Non-qualified stock options?

Non-qualified stock options are usually granted to company employees, but they can also be given to vendors, clients, and the board of directors. They can be exercised at any time between their vesting date and expiration date. They offer more flexibility than Incentive Stock Options but have less favorable tax treatment. The key requirement set by the IRS for NSOs is that the exercise price can never be less than the fair market value of the stock as of the grant date. While that can be pretty straightforward for publicly traded corporations, there are several valuation caveats for privately held companies.

Keep track of these important dates

If you own Non-qualified Stock Options, you have to be very strategic and keep track of all dates associated with the contract. You should get a copy of your option agreement and read it carefully. The devil is in the details.

The dates you need to remember are:

  • Grant Date – the date when the options were awarded to you
  • Vesting Date – the date from when the options can be exercised
  • Exercise Date – the date when the options are actually exercised
  • Expiration Date – the date after which the options can no longer be exercised

In addition, you also need to keep a record of the following prices:

  • Exercise price or strike price – the value at which you can buy the options
  • Market price at exercise date – the stock value on the exercise date
  • Sell price – stock value when held and sold after the exercise date
  • Bargain element – the difference between market price and exercise price at the time of exercise

 

 Taxes for Non-qualified stock options

The granting event of NSO does not trigger taxes. Therefore, receivers of non-qualified stock options do not have to pay taxes upon their receipt.

Taxes are not due on the vesting date either. The vesting date opens a window up to the expiration date by when you will be allowed to exercise the NSO.

NSO exercise is the first tax event from an IRS perspective. Depending on when you sell the stock after exercise three main scenarios can occur:

Scenario 1

You exercise your options and sell them immediately at the market price. You owe taxes on the difference between the market price and exercise price multiplied by the number of shares

Example: Let’s assume that you are granted NSO equal to 1,000 shares at an exercise price of $10. Your tax rate is 25%. On the exercise date, you sell your shares immediately. The market price on that day is $15.

You are required to report your bargain element of $5,000 as an additional ordinary income.

(15 – 10) x 1,000 = $5,000.

Since your tax rate is 25% you will owe an additional $1,250 for taxes on $5,000 of additional income.

5,000 x 25% = $1,250

Your total due to IRS will be $1,250

Scenario 2

You exercise your options and sell your company share a few months later (but less than 12 months) at the current price on that day.

First, you owe taxes on the difference between the market price and exercise price multiplied by the number of shares. Second, you also owe short-term capital gain taxes on the difference between the selling price and the market price on the exercise date multiplied by the number of shares.

Example: Let’s assume that you are granted NSO equal to 1,000 shares at the exercise price of $10. On the exercise date, the market price is $15. You decide to keep the shares for three months when the price goes up to $18 and then sell all your shares.

You are required to report your bargain element of $5,000 as an additional ordinary income.

(15 – 10) x 1,000 = $5,000.

Since your tax rate is 25% you will owe an additional $1,250 for taxes on $5,000 of additional income.

$5,000 x 25% = $1,250

You will also owe $750 dollars on your $3,000 of short-term capital gains at your ordinary income level (See my posting about short and long term capital gains and losses)

(18 – 15) x 1,000 = $3,000

$3,000 x 25% = $750

Your total due to IRS will be $2,000

Scenario 3

You exercise your options and sell your company shares one year later at the current price on that day.

First, you owe taxes on the difference between the market price and exercise price multiplied by the number of shares $5,000 ((15 – 10) x 1,000) as additional ordinary income. Second, you also owe long-term capital gain taxes on the difference between the sale price and the market price on the exercise date multiplied by the number of shares.

Example: Let’s assume that you are granted NSO equal to 1,000 shares at the exercise price of $10. On the exercise date, the market price is $15. You decide to keep the shares for twelve months when the price goes up to $18 and then sell all your shares.

You are required to report your bargain element of $5,000 as an additional ordinary income.

(15 – 10) x 1,000 = $5,000.

Since your tax rate is 25% you will owe an additional $1,250 for taxes on $5,000 of additional income.

$5,000 x 25% = $1,250

You will also owe $450 dollars on your $3,000 of long-term capital gains at either 0, 15% or 20%. Most people will have to pay 15% (See my posting about short and long term capital gains and losses)

(18 – 15) x 1,000 = $3,000

$3,000 x 15% = $450

Your total due to IRS will be $1,700

Tax Impact Summary

  • The receiver of non-qualified stock options will pay taxes on the difference between the stock market value and exercise price at the time of NSO exercise. The value has to be reported as an additional ordinary income.
  • If stocks are sold immediately after exercise at the current market value, you only owe taxes on the difference between market and exercise value.
  • In case you decide to keep the stocks you will owe long-term or short-term capital gains taxes depending on your holding period.
  • If the stock goes down after exercise and you choose to sell, you can report a short-term or long-term capital loss. You can use this loss to offset other capital gains. You can also use up to $3,000 of capital losses to offset ordinary income (like salary, commissions, interest). The remainder of the loss in excess of $3,000 can be rolled over in future years.

IRC § 83(b) election

IRC § 83(b) election allows companies to offer an early exercise of stock options. When making this election employees will pay income taxes on the fair value of their stock options. The early election is especially lucrative for founders and employers of early-stage startups with low fair market value.

This election is rarely done due to the difficulty in calculating the value of the options. If you can determine the value at the time of the grant and decide to pursue this road, you will owe taxes on the fair market value of your options at the grant date. But no income tax will be due at the time of vesting. Another disadvantage of this strategy is the risk of the employee stock price falling below the level at the time of the grant. In this scenario, it would have been advantageous to wait until the vesting period.

What can you do to minimize your tax impact?

  1. Prioritize long-term vs. short-term holding period. Selling shares after holding them for more than 12 months will trigger long-term capital gains which have favorable tax rates over short-term capital gain rates.
  2. Exercise your options as close to the exercise price as possible. However, companies often set very low exercise price, and this strategy may not be viable.
  3. Watch your tax bracket. Your tax rate increases as your income grow. Depending on the vesting and expiry conditions, you may want to consider exercising your options in phases to avoid crossing over the higher tax bracket. Keep in mind that tax brackets are adjusted every year for inflation and cost of living.
  4. You can also donate or give as a gift your low-cost base stocks acquired through the exercise of NSO
  5. If the NSO options are transferable, usually restricted to family members, you can consider giving them away as a donation or a gift

11 Effective financial strategies for business owners

Financial strategies for business owners

Eleven ways to boost and protect your wealth

Small and mid-size businesses are the backbone of the US economy. Entrepreneurship and creativity have been moving the American economy for centuries. In fact, the US has one of the best grooming environments for start-ups and small businesses.  Many flagship consumer brands like McDonald’s, Starbucks, and Apple started very small with one restaurant, a coffee shop, and a garage workshop to become international leaders in their industry.

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Digital Strategies for Busines Owners During and Post Coronavirus

Business owners spend several years building up their business. They invest a significant amount of personal time and capital to grow their companies.  Almost always these entrepreneurs will have their family fortune locked in their business. Those who succeed can go public or pass their wealth to the next generation.

Entrepreneurs are a special breed. Many have a vision or a single idea that that drives their pursuit for success. Others have unique skills or talent that make them stand out from their competitors. They are independent, self-driven, and bold.

Focused on their business, more often than not entrepreneurs ignore or delay their personal financial planning.  In this post, I would like to discuss several practical steps that business owners can follow to establish their successful financial plan.

Balance your business and personal goals

The first and most crucial step in the personal financial planning process is setting your short and long-term financial goals. In many cases, the business goals can interfere and clash over personal financial goals. Business goals to expand into a new market or purchase a new factory can negatively interfere with your personal goals such as saving for retirement or college education for your children. Striking the right balance between your business and personal goals is key to achieving them.  Prioritizing one over the other may hurt your long-term financial success.

 

Explore different financing alternatives

Every new business idea requires capital to start. The success of the venture depends on the owner’s ability to secure financing. Sometimes, the funding comes from personal savings or the sale of a property. Other times, the owner needs to look for external funding within his or her social circle or even approach a financial institution. The external financing can be in the form of a loan or equity stake.

Both debt and equity financing come with embedded costs. The cost can vary depending on the company’s size, industry, history, economic conditions, etc. One of the main advantages of debt financing is that the interest on the loan is tax deductible. One the other hand equity financing may allow for more flexibility.

Another great way of financing your idea is your customers. Indeed, your clients are one of the best and inexpensive sources of financing. If your customers love your product, they will be willing to give you an advance payment, subscribe to your platform or consider a product/service exchange.

In any case, the entrepreneurs should seek to minimize the overall cost of capital of its business by exploring multiple financing channels.

Control cost

Even the best idea can fail if it doesn’t generate profit. In simple numerical terms, the company revenue should be higher than its expenses. Many ventures do not succeed because the company cannot generate enough revenue to cover all costs. Clearly, the first answer will be to generate more revenue. However, many successful companies are notorious with their focus on cost control. Business owners must stay on top of their expenses. They must track and analyze your cost. Owners should look for operational deficiencies and overlaps, result-based compensation, economies of scale and ways to increase productivity.

 

Manage liquidity

Businesses need cash to maintain healthy growth. Not surprisingly, the prominent investor Warrant Buffet prefers to invest in companies generating significant cash flows. The capacity to produce cash from its operations will determine the company’s ability to pay its employees, creditors, and vendors. Building a disciplined system of managing receivables and payables and maintaining a cash buffer for emergencies are keys for effective cash flow management.

 

Manage your taxes

Filing and paying taxes is a long and painful process. Tax law is very complex. Many hidden threats can trigger tax events for you. There are also many opportunities to save on taxes. Often, your tax bill depends on your company’s legal status. Sole proprietors have different taxation rules from c-corporation. Speak to an accountant or tax lawyer to find out what legal status works best for you. To avoid missed opportunities and last-minute mistakes, you have to prepare for the filing process in advance. Start early. Keep a clean record of all your expenses. Track all tax filing dates. Remember to pay all federal and state taxes, social security, Medicare, local permits, and fees. Consider using professional bookkeeping software and working with a CPA.

 

Manage risk

Risk comes in all shapes and forms – business risk, operational risk, financial risk, disability risk and so on. Managing the risk from different sources is a mandatory skill for any successful business owner and executive.  External threats can impose significant obstacles to profitability and expansion but if managed successfully can create substantial opportunities for long-term growth.

Business threats can come from new competitors, new technology, changes in consumer demand, new regulatory requirements, and so on. Business owners have to be on top of these changes and often even drive the change.

Operational risk impacts the companies’ ability to serve their customers.

Financial risk can come from interest rates, volatile stock markets, and liquidity crunches. Macroeconomic factors can affect your clients’ ability to pay off their debt. Having a solid financial strategy, building buffers and managing cash will allow the business to withstand unexpected financial turbulence.

Short-term and long-term disability will prohibit the owners and key employees to perform their duties. Injuries and sickness of key personnel can significantly hurt any business. Prolonged disability can limit owners’ ability to make a living, support their families, and grow their business. Having disability insurance can help bridge the financial gap during a time of recovery. Moreover, having a disaster plan can save your business at times of emergencies and unforeseen circumstances.

 

Establish a retirement plan

Having a company retirement plan is an excellent way to save money in the long run. A pension plan contributions could reduce current taxes and boost employee’s loyalty.

While there are few alternatives – 401k, SEP IRA, and SIMPLE IRA. I am a big supporter of 401k plans. Although they are a little more expensive to establish and run, they provide the highest contribution allowance over all other options.

The maximum employee contribution for 2016 is  $18,000. The employer can match up to $35,000 for a total of $53,000. Individuals over 50 can add a catch-up contribution of $6,000 for a total of $59,000 annual contribution.

Self-employed individuals can also take advantage of this option by setting up a solo 401k plan. Moreover, they can contribute up to $53,000, $18,000 as an employee of your company, and $35,000 as an employer.

 

Build a safety net

Creating a safety net is a critical step to protecting your wealth. Many business owners hold a substantial amount of their assets tied up to their personal business. By doing it, they expose themselves to a concentrated risk in one company or industry. Any economic developments that can adversely impact that particular sector can also hurt their personal wealth.

The best way to build a strong safety net is asset diversification. Owners can significantly decrease the overall risk of their portfolio when investing in a broad and uncorrelated range of assets, sectors, and regions.

 

Start your estate planning

Estate planning is the process of arranging the disposal of your assets after your passing. It further involves your family members, other individuals, and charitable organizations. Estate planning starts with setting up a family trust and personal will and can also affect financial, tax, medical and business planning. Additionally, you can use estate planning to eliminate uncertainties over the administration of a probate and to maximize the value of the estate by reducing taxes and other expenses. The ultimate goal of estate planning can be determined by your specific goals and may be as simple or complex as your needs dictate.

 

Plan for business succession

A successful business can impact various parties such as owners, employees, contractors, vendors, clients, landlords, and suppliers. Therefore, creating a business succession plan will ensure that all parties’ interests are met in the event you decide to discontinue your business or pass it to another person.  Moreover, a robust plan will address numerous tax and financial issues that will result from the succession. The complexity of the succession plan will depend on the size, industry, and legal status of your business.