All you need to know about Restricted Stock Units (RSUs)

Restricted Stock Units (RSU)

Restricted Stock Units are a popular equity compensation for both start-up and public companies. Employers, especially many startups, use a variety of compensation options to attract and keep top-performing employees. Receiving RSUs allows employees to share in the ownership and the profits of the company. Equity compensation takes different forms such as stock options, restricted stock units, and deferred compensation. If you are fortunate to receive RSU from your employer, you should understand the basics of this corporate perk. Here are some essential tips on how to manage them.

What are RSUs?

A restricted stock unit is a type of equity compensation by companies to employees in the form of company stock. Employees receive RSUs through a vesting plan and distribution schedule after achieving required performance milestones or upon remaining with their employer for a particular length of time. RSUs give an employee interest in company stock but they have no tangible value until vesting is complete.

Vesting Schedule

Companies issue restricted stock units according to a vesting schedule.
The vesting schedule outlines the rules by which employees receive full ownership of their company stock. The restricted stock units are assigned a fair market value when they vest. Upon vesting, they are considered income, and often a portion of the shares is withheld to pay income taxes. The employees receive the remaining shares and can sell them at their discretion.

As an employee, you should keep track of these essential dates and figures.

Grant Date

The grant date is the date when the company pledges the shares to you. You will be able to see them in your corporate account.

Vesting Date

You only own the shares when the granted RSUs are fully ‘vested’.  On the vesting date, your employer will transfer the full ownership of the shares to you. Upon vesting, you will become the owner of the shares.

Fair Market Value

When vesting is complete, the restricted stock units are valued according to the fair market value (FMV)  at that time. Your employer will provide you with the FMV based on public price or private assessment.

Selling your RSU

Once the RSUs are converted to company stock, you become a shareholder in your firm. You will be able to sell all or some of these shares subject to companies’ holding period restrictions. Many firms impose trading windows and limits for employees and senior executives.

How are RSUs taxed?

You do not pay taxes on your restricted stock units when you first receive them.  Typically you will owe ordinary income tax on the fair market value of your shares as soon as they vest.

The fair market value of your vested RSUs is taxable as personal income in the year of vesting. This is a compensation income and will be subject to federal and local taxes as well as Social Security and Medicare charges.

Typically, companies withhold part of the shares to cover all taxes. They will give employees the remaining shares. At this point, you can decide to keep or sell them at your wish. If your employer doesn’t withhold taxes for your vested shares, you will be responsible for paying these taxes during the tax season.

Double Trigger RSUs

Many private Pre-IPO companies would offer double-trigger RSUs. These types of RSUs become taxable under two conditions:
1. Your RSU are vested
2. You experience a liquidity event such as an IPO, tender offer, or acquisition.

You will not owe taxes on any double-trigger RSUs at your vesting date. However, you will all taxes on ALL your vested shares in the day of your liquidity event.

Capital gain taxes

When you decide to sell your shares, you will pay capital gain taxes on the difference between the current market price and the original purchase price.

You will need to pay short-term capital gain taxes for shares held less than a year from the vesting date.  Short-term capital gains are taxable as ordinary income.

You will owe long-term capital gains taxes for shares that you held for longer than one year. Long-term capital gains have a preferential tax treatment with rates between 0%, 15%, and 20% depending on your income.

Investment risk with RSUs

Being a shareholder in your firm could be very exciting. If your company is in great health and growing solidly, this could be an enormous boost to your personal finances.

However, here is the other side of the story. Owning too much of your company stock could impose significant risks to your investment portfolio and retirement goals. You are already earning a salary from your employer. Concentrating your entire wealth and income from the same source could jeopardize your financial health if your employer fails to succeed in its business ventures. Many of you remember the fall of Enron and Lehman Brothers. Many of their employees lost not only their jobs but a significant portion of their retirement savings.

As a fiduciary advisor, I always recommend diversification and caution. Try to limit your exposure to your employer and sell your shares periodically. Sometimes paying taxes is worth the peace of mind and safety.

Key takeaways

Receiving RSUs is an excellent way to acquire company stock and become part of your company’s future. While risky owning RSUs often comes with a huge financial upside. Realizing some of these gains could help you build a strong foundation for retirement and financial freedom. When managed properly, they can help you achieve your financial goals, whether they are buying a home, taking your kids to college, or early retirement.

The December market meltdown explained

S&P 500 is down almost -16% so far in the last quarter of 2018. The market rout which started in October continued with a powerful selloff in December. The technology-heavy NASDAQ is down -20%, while the small-cap Russell 2000 dropped nearly -22%.

Despite our strong economy major buyers remain on the sideline and retail investors are looking for a bottom..

In my previous article, I talked about the perfect storm that started the market drop in October. Since then more negative news continued to bombard the markets. The markets do not like uncertainty.

Here are some of the factors that triggered fears across the sellers.

  1. Apple stopping to report iPhone sales
  2. FedEx reporting lower guidance for 2019
  3. The resignation of General Mattis
  4. Government shutdown
  5. Failing Brexit negotiations
  6. Trump criticizing the Fed
  7. The recent arrest of Huawei CFO and three Canadians in China
  8. The price of oil dropping to $43.
  9. Yield curve inversion
  10. Growin fears for an upcoming recession
  11. The dominance of electronic and algorithm trading
  12. Low trading volumes due to the holiday season

The combination of more negative news and low trading volumes created yet another perfect storm for what we observed in December 2018.

The asset classes performance

2018 will remain in history as the year when holding cash was the only profitable strategy.  Almost all major asset classes are in the red for 2018.

Future Outlook

As I mentioned earlier, all major macroeconomic factors are in a positive territory.

  • Highest corporate earnings growth since 2010
  • GDP growth over 3%
  • Record high consumer sentiment
  • End of year holiday shopping is expected to beat all records
  • Record low unemployment
  • Highest wage growth since 2008
  • Business activity remains high
  • Interest rates stay under historical levels
  • Low oil prices will temper inflation and business cost

Many economists believe that we are in the last leg of economic expansion. Moreover, some are even predicting a market recession in 2020. However, there is an old joke that the markets have predicted 9 out of the past 5 recessions. In spite the fact that equity markets are forward-looking, they have not been an accurate indicator for an economic recession.

Realistically speaking it would be very hard to enter recession from where we are today unless we see a very steep deterioration in 2019.

The law of mean reversion.

Everything reverts to the mean sooner or later. Last year we had one of the least volatile markets in our recent history. As a result, the S&P 500 standard deviation, a measure of risk, dropped to 3.8% well below average historical levels of 13%. This year’s market volatility is back to these average levels.

Diversify

In any market environment, volatile or not, diversification is essential way to reduce portfolio risk.

Think long term

The best long-term investment strategy has always been buy-and-hold. Trying to time the market is a bad idea. There are many studies that show timing the market would underperform a buy and hold strategy in the long run.

Don’t watch the market every day.

Media skews the news to what is trendy and get more readership.

Use your best judgement.

Panicking has never helped anyone. If you are uncertain seek advice from a fiduciary advisor who has your best interest in mind. 

About the author:

Stoyan Panayotov, CFA is the founder and CEO of Babylon Wealth Management, a fee-only investment advisory firm based in Walnut Creek, CA. Babylon Wealth Management offers personalized wealth management and financial planning services to individuals and families.  To learn more visit our Private Client Services page here. Additionally, we offer Outsourced Chief Investment Officer services to professional advisors (RIAs), family offices, endowments, defined benefit plans, and other institutional clients. To find out more visit our OCIO page here.

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,

The recent market volatility – the tale of the perfect storm

The recent market volatility – the tale of the perfect storm

The recent market volatility – the tale of the perfect storm

October is traditionally a rough month for stocks. And October 2018 proved it.

S&P 500 went down -6.9% in October after gaining as much as 10.37% in the first nine months of the year. Despite recouping some its losses in early November, the market continues to be volatile with large daily swings in both directions. On top of that, Small Cap stocks which were leading the way till late September went down almost 10% in the span of a few weeks.

So what lead to this rout?

The market outlook in September was very positive. Consumer sentiment and business optimism were at a record high. Unemployment hit a record low. And the market didn’t really worry about tariffs.

I compiled a list of factors which had a meaningful impact on the recent market volatility. As the headline suggested, I don’t believe there was a single catalyst that drove the market down but a sequence of events creating a perfect storm for the equities to go down.

Index Q1 2018 Q2 2018 Q3 2018 Q3 YTD 2018 Oct – Nov 2018 Nov 2018 YTD
S&P 500 Large-Cap (SPY) -1.00% 3.55% 7.65% 10.37% -4.91% 5.45%
S&P 600 Small-Cap (IJR) 0.57% 8.69% 4.87% 14.64% -9.54% 5.09%
MSCI EAFE (VEA) -0.90% -1.96% 1.23% -1.62% -7.06% -8.68%
Barclays US Aggregate Bond (AGG) -1.47% -0.18% -0.08% -1.73% -0.81% -2.54%
Gold (GLD) 1.73% -5.68% -4.96% -8.81% 1.39% -7.42%
Source: Morningstar

1. Share buybacks

The month of October is earnings season. Companies are not allowed to buy back shares as they announce their earnings. The rationale is that they possess significant insider information that could influence the market in each direction. As it turned out, 2018 was a big year for share buybacks. Earlier in the year, S&P estimated $1 trillion worth of share buybacks to be returned to shareholders. So, in October, the market lost a big buyer – the companies who were buying their own shares. And no one stepped in to take their place.

The explosion of share buyback was prompted by the TCJA law last year which lowered the tax rate of US companies from 35% to 21%. Additionally, the new law imposed a one-time tax on pre-2018 profits of foreign affiliates at rates of 15.5% for cash and 8% for non-cash assets. Within a few months, many US mega-cap corporations brought billions of cash from overseas and became buyers of their stock.

2. High valuations

With the bull market is going on its ninth year, equity valuations remain high even after the October market selloff.

Currently, the S&P 500 is trading at 22.2, above the average level of 15.7. Its dividend yield is 1.9%, well below the historical average of 4.34%.

Furthermore, the current Shiller PE Ratio stands at 30.73, one of the highest levels in history. While the traditional Price to Earnings ratio is calculated based on current or estimated earning levels, the Schiller ratio calculates average inflation-adjusted earnings from the previous ten years. The ratio is also known as the Cyclically Adjusted PE Ratio (CAPE Ratio) or PE10.

Current Shiller PE Ratio: 2:00 PM EST, Tue Nov 13
Current Shiller PE Ratio:
2:00 PM EST, Tue Nov 13

Source: https://www.multpl.com/shiller-pe/ 

While a coordinated global growth and low-interest rate environment had previously supported the thesis that high valuation ratios were justified, this may not be the case for much longer.

3. The divergence between US and international stocks

The performance of International Developed and Emerging Market remains disappointing. While the US markets are still in positive territory, International Developed and EM stocks have plunged by -8% and -15% respectively so far in 2018.  Higher tariffs imposed by the US, negative Brexit news, growing domestic debt in China, and slower GDP growth in both the Eurozone and China have spurred fears of an upcoming recession. Despite attractive valuations, international markets remain in correction territory, The dividend yield of MSCI EAFE is 3.34%, while MSCI EM is paying 2.5%, both higher than 1.9% for S&P 500.

4. The gap between growth and value stocks

The performance gap between growth and value stocks is still huge. Growths stocks like Apple, Amazon, Google, Visa, MasterCard, UnitedHealth, Boeing, Nvidia, Adobe, Salesforce, and Netflix have delivered 10% return so far this year. At the same time value strategies dominated by Financials, Consumer Staples and Energy companies are barely breaking even.

Index Q1 2018 Q2 2018 Q3 2018 Q3 YTD 2018 Oct – Nov 2018 Nov 2018 YTD  P/E Ratio
S&P 500 Large Cap Growth (IVW) 1.81% 5.17% 9.25% 16.97% -6.95% 10.01% 29.90
S&P 500 Large Cap Value (IVE) -3.53% 1.38% 5.80% 3.26% -2.59% 0.67% 19.44

 

5. Tempering earnings growth

So far in Q3 2018, 90% of the companies have announced earnings. 78% of them have reported better than expected actual earnings with an average earnings growth rate of 25.2%. 61% of the companies have reported a positive sales surprise. However, 58 companies in the S&P 500 (12%) have issued negative earnings guidance for Q4 2018. And the list of stocks that tumbled due to cautious outlook keeps growing – JP Morgan, Facebook, Home Depot, Sysco, DR Horton, United Rentals, Texas Instruments, Carvana, Zillow, Shake Shack, Skyworks Solutions, Michael Kors, Oracle, GE, Cerner, Activision, etc.

Despite the high consumer optimism and growing earnings, most companies’ CFOs are taking a defensive approach. Business investment grew at a 0.8% annual rate in the third quarter, down from 8.7% in the second quarter. This was the slowest pace since the fourth quarter of 2016.

The investment bank Nomura also came out with the forecast expecting global growth to slow down. Their economists predicted that global growth in 2019 would hit 3.7% and temper to 3.5% in 2020 from 3.9% in 2018. According to Nomura, the drivers for the slowdown include waning fiscal stimulus in the U.S., tighter monetary policy from the Federal Reserve, increased supply constraints and elevated risk of a partial government shutdown.

 

6. Inflation is creeping up

Almost a decade since the Credit Crisis in 2008-2009, inflation has been hovering below 2%. However, in 2018, the inflation has finally made a comeback. In September 2018, monthly inflation was 2.3% down from 2.9% in July and 2.7% in August.

One winner of the higher prices is the consumer staples like Procter & Gamble, Unilever, and Kimberly-Clark. Most of these companies took advantage of higher consumer confidence and rising wages to pass the cost of higher commodity prices to their customers.

7. Higher interests are starting to bite

After years of near-zero levels, interest rates are starting to go higher. 10-year treasury rate reached 3.2%, while the 2-year rate is slowly approaching the 3% level. While savers are finally beginning to receive a decent interest on their cash, CDs and saving accounts, higher interest rates will hurt other areas of the economy.

10 year versus 2 year treasury rate

With household debt approaching $13.4 trillion, borrowers will pay higher interest for home, auto and student loans and credit card debt. At the same time, US government debt is approaching $1.4 trillion. Soon, the US government will pay more for interest than it is spending on the military.  The total annual interest payment will hit $390 billion next year, nearly 50 percent more than in 2017, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

The higher interest rates are hurting the Financial sectors. Most big banks have enjoyed a long period of paying almost nothing on their client deposits and savings accounts. The rising interest rates though have increased the competition from smaller banks and online competitors offering attractive rates to their customers.

We are also monitoring the spread between 2 and 10-year treasury note, which is coming very close together. The scenario when two-year interest rates go above ten-year rates causes an inverted yield curve, which has often signaled an upcoming recession.

8. The housing market is slowing down

Both existing and new home sales have come down this year.  Rising interest rates, higher cost of materials, labor shortage and high real estate prices in major urban areas have led to a housing market slow down.  Existing home sales dropped 3.4% in September coming down for six months in a row this year. New building permits are down 5.5% over 2017.

Markets have taken a negative view on the housing market. As a result, most homebuilders are trading at a 52-week low.

9. Fear of trade war

Some 33% of the public companies have mentioned tariffs in their earnings announcements in Q3.  9% of them have negatively mentioned tariffs. According to the chart below, Industrials, Information Technology, Consumer Dictionary, and Materials are the leading sectors showing some level of concern about tariffs.

Companies Citing Tariffs Compared to Q2 2018

10. Strong dollar

Fed’s hiking of interest rates in the US has not been matched by its counterparts in the Eurozone, the UK, and Japan. The German 10-year bund now yields 0.4%, while Japanese 10-year government bond pays 0.11%. Combining the higher rates with negative Brexit talks, Italian budget crisis and trade war fears have led to a strong US dollar reaching a 17-month high versus other major currencies.

Given that 40% of S&P 500 companies’ revenue comes from foreign countries, the strong dollar is making Americans goods and services more expensive and less competitive abroad. Furthermore, US companies generating earnings in foreign currency will report lower US-dollar denominated numbers.

11. Consumer debt is at a record high

The US consumer debt is reaching 4 trillion dollars. Consumer debt includes non-mortgage debts such as credit cards, personal loans, auto loans, and student loans. Student loans are equal to $1.5 trillion while auto debt is $1.1 trillion and credit card debt is close to $1.05 trillion. Furthermore, the US housing dent also hit a record high. In June, the combined mortgage and home equity debt were equal to $9.43 trillion, according to the NY Fed.

The rising debt has been supported by low delinquencies, high property values, rising wages, and low unemployment. However, a slowdown in the economy and the increasing inflation and interest rates can hurt US consumer spending.

12. High Yield and BBB-rated debt is growing

The size of the US corporate debt market has reached $7.5 trillion. The size of the BBB rated debt now exceeds 50% of the entire investment grade market. The BBB-rated debt is just one notch above junk status. Bloomberg explains that, in 2000, when BBB bonds were a mere third of the market, net leverage (total debt minus cash and short-term investments divided by earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization) was 1.7 times. By the end of last year, the ratio had ballooned to 2.9 times. Source: Bloomberg

Further on, the bond powerhouse PIMCO commented: “This suggests a greater tolerance from the credit rating agencies for higher leverage, which in turn warrants extra caution when investing in lower-rated IG names, especially in sectors where earnings are more closely tied to the business cycle.”

13. Oil remains volatile

After reaching $74.15 per barrel in October, US crude oil tumbled to $55, a 24% drop. While lower crude prices are pushing down on inflation, they are hurting energy companies, which are already trading in value territory.

According to WSJ, the oil’s rapid decline is fueling fears for global oversupply and slowing economic growth. Furthermore, the outlook for supply and demand shifted last month as top oil producers, began ramping up output to offset the expected drop in Iranian exports. However, earlier this month Washington decided to soften its sanctions on Iran and grant waivers to some buyers of Iranian crude—driving oil prices down. Another factor pushing down on oil was the strong dollar.

14. Global political uncertainty

The Brexit negotiations, Italian budget crisis, Trump’s threats to pull out of WTO, the EU immigrant crisis, higher tariffs, new elections in Brazil, Malaysian corruption scandal and alleged Saudi Arabia killing of a journalist have kept the global markets on their toes. Foreign markets have underperformed the US since the beginning of the year with no sign of hope coming soon.

15. The US Election results

A lot has been said about the US elections results, so I will not dig in further. In the next two year, we will have a divided Congress. The Democrats will control the house, while the Republicans will control the Senate and the executive branch. The initial market reaction was positive. Most investors are predicting a gridlock with no major legislature until 2020. Furthermore, we could have intense budget negotiations and even another government shutdown. Few potential areas where parties could try to work together are infrastructure and healthcare. However, any bi-partisan efforts might be clouded by the upcoming presidential elections and Mueller investigation results.

In Conclusion

There is never a right time to get in the market, start investing and saving for retirement. While market volatility will continue to prevail the news, there is also an opportunity for diligent investors to capitalize on their long-term view and patience. For these investors, it is essential to diversify and rebalance your portfolio.

In the near term, consumer confidence in the economy remains strong. Rising wages and low unemployment will drive consumer spending. My prediction is that we will see a record high shopping season. Many of these fifteen headwinds will remain. Some will soften while others will stay in the headlines.

If you have any questions about your existing investment portfolio or how to start investing for retirement and other financial goals, reach out to me at [email protected] or +925-448-9880.

You can also visit our Insights page where you can find helpful articles and resources on how to make better financial and investment decisions.

About the author:

Stoyan Panayotov, CFA is the founder and CEO of Babylon Wealth Management, a fee-only investment advisory firm based in Walnut Creek, CA. Babylon Wealth Management offers personalized wealth management and financial planning services to individuals and families.  To learn more visit our Private Client Services page here. Additionally, we offer Outsourced Chief Investment Officer services to professional advisors (RIAs), family offices, endowments, defined benefit plans, and other institutional clients. To find out more visit our OCIO page here.

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,

Market Outlook October 2018

Overview

The US stock market was on an absolute tear this summer. S&P 500 went up by 7.65% and completed its best 3rd quarter since 2013. Despite the February correction, the US stocks managed to recover from the 10% drop. All major indices reached a series of record highs at the end of August and September.

Index Q1 2018 Q2 2018 Q3 2018 YTD 2018
S&P 500 Large-Cap (SPY) -1.00% 3.55% 7.65% 10.37%
S&P 600 Small-Cap (IJR) 0.57% 8.69% 4.87% 14.64%
MSCI EAFE (VEA) -0.90% -1.96% 1.23% -1.62%
Barclays US Aggregate Bond (AGG) -1.47% -0.18% -0.08% -1.73%
Gold (GLD) 1.73% -5.68% -4.96% -8.81%
Source: Morningstar

 

The US Economy remains strong

Markets have largely shrugged off the trade war fears benefiting from a strong economy and high corporate earnings.

US Unemployment remains low at 3.9% in July and August, levels not seen since the late 1960s and 2000.

Consumer sentiment is at a multi-year high. The University of Michigan Consumer Sentiment Index hit 100.1 in September, passing 100 for the third time since the January of 2004.

Business optimism hit another record high in August.  The National Federation of Independent Business’ small business optimism index reached the highest level in the survey’s 45-year history. According to NFIB, small business owners are planning to hire more workers, raise compensation for current employees, add inventory, and spend more on capital investments.

A hypothetical 60/40 portfolio

A hypothetical 60/40 index portfolio consisting of 30% US Large Cap Stocks, 10% US Small Cap Stocks, 20% International Stocks, 33% US Fixed Income and 7% Gold would have returned 3.06% by the end of September.

Index Allocation Return
S&P 500 30% 3.11%
S&P 600 10% 1.46%
MSCI EAFE 20% -0.32%
Barclays USAgg Bond 33% -0.57%
Gold 7% -0.62%
Hypothetical Performance 3.06%

 

US Equity

I expect a strong Q4 of 2018 with a record high holiday consumer and business spending. While stock valuations remain elevated, robust revenue and consumer demand will continue to drive economic growth.

After lagging large-cap stocks in 2017, small-cap stocks are having a comeback in 2018. Many domestically focused publicly traded businesses benefited massively from the recent corporate tax cuts, higher taxes on imported goods and healthy domestic demand.

This year’s rally was primarily driven by Technology, Healthcare and Consumer Discretionary stocks, up 20.8%, 16.7%, and 13.7% respectively. However, other sectors like Materials, Real Estate, Consumer Staples, Financials and Utilities are either flat or negative for the year. Keep in mind of the recent reshuffle in the sector classification where Google, Facebook, Netflix and Twitter along with the old telecommunication stocks were added to a new sector called Communication services.

Sector performance

Sector Performance Price per Price to Dividend
YTD Earnings Sales Yield
as of 10/3/2018 (TTM)  (TTM) (%)
Communication Services -1.91% 22.6x 1.3x 4.83%
Consumer Discretionary 13.72% 16.5x 1.0x 1.27%
Consumer Staples -5.50% 15.1x 1.0x 2.86%
Energy 8.67% 14.0x 1.2x 1.74%
Financials 0.29% 15.2x 2.1x 1.91%
Health Care 16.71% 18.2x 1.2x 1.86%
Industrials 4.73% 15.7x 1.1x 1.85%
Information Technology 20.86% 14.8x 2.1x 0.90%
Materials -3.56% 13.2x 1.1x 1.79%
Utilities 0.77% 17.1x 1.3x 3.70%
Source: Bloomberg

 

I believe that we are in the last few innings of the longest bull market. However, a wide range of sectors and companies that have largely remained on the sidelines. Some of them could potentially benefit from the continued economic growth and low tax rates.

International Equity

The performance gap between US and foreign stocks continues to grow. After a negative Q1 and Q2, foreign stocks recouped some of the losses in Q3. Furthermore, emerging market stocks are down close to -9% for the year.

Bad economic data coming from Turkey, Italy, Argentina, Brazil, Indonesia, South Africa, and China along with trade war fears put downward pressure on foreign equity markets. Additionally, rising right-wing sentiments in Italy, Austria, Sweden, Hungary, and even Germany puts doubts on the stability of the European Union and its pro-immigration policies.

In my view, the risk that the financial crisis in Turkey, Argentina, and Italy will spread to other countries is somewhat limited. However, the short-term headwinds remain, and we will continue to monitor these markets.

Brexit

Another major headline for European stocks is the progress of the Brexit negotiation. While soft Brexit would benefit both sides, a hard exit could have a higher negative impact on the UK.

I remain cautiously positive on international stocks. According to WSJ, foreign stocks are trading at a 12% discount over US equity on price to earnings basis. This year created value opportunities in several counters. However, the issue with European and Japanese stocks is not so much in valuations but the search for growth catalysts in conservative economies with an aging population.

Fixed Income

Rising Fed rates and higher inflation have driven bond prices lower so far this year. With inflation rate hovering at 2%, strong employment figures, rising commodity cost, and robust GDP growth, the Fed will continue to hike interest rates. I am expecting one more rate hike in December and three additional hikes in 2019.

I will also continue to monitor the spread between 2-year and 10-year treasury. This spread is currently at 0.23%, the lowest level since 2005.  Normally, a negative spread, i..e 2-year treasury rare higher than 10-year is a sign of a troubled economy.

While modest, individual pockets of the fixed-income market are generating positive performance this year. For instance, short duration fixed income products are now yielding in the range of 1.5% to 2%. The higher interest is now a compelling reason for many investors to keep some of their holdings in cash, CDs or short-term instruments.

With 10-year treasury closing above 3% and moving higher, fixed income investors will continue to see soft returns on their portfolio.

Gold

Gold is one of the big market losers this year. The strong dollar and robust US economy have led to the precious metal sell-off.  While the rise cryptocurrency might have reduced some of the popularity of Gold, I still believe that a small position in Gold can offer a buffer and reduce the overall long-term portfolio volatility. The investors tend to shift to Gold during times of uncertainty.

Navigating market highs

With S&P 500, NASDAQ and Dow Jones hitting all-time highs, how should investors manage their portfolio?

Rebalance

End of the year is an excellent opportunity for reconciliation and rebalancing to your target asset allocation. S&P 500 has returned 16.65% in the past five years, and the chance that equities are taking a big chunk of your portfolio is very high. Realizing some long-term gains and reinvesting your proceeds into other asset classes will ensure that your portfolio is reset to your desired risk tolerance level as well as adequately diversified.

Think long-term

In late January and early February, we experienced a market sell-offs while S&P 500 dropped more than 10%. Investors in the index who did not panic and sold at the bottom recouped their losses and ended up with 10% return as of September 30, 2018. Taking a long-term view will help you avoid the stress during market downturns and allow you to have a durable long-term strategy

 

If you have any questions about your existing investment portfolio or how to start investing for retirement and other financial goals, reach out to me at [email protected] or +925-448-9880.

You can also visit our Insights page where you can find helpful articles and resources on how to make better financial and investment decisions.

About the author:

Stoyan Panayotov, CFA is the founder and CEO of Babylon Wealth Management, a fee-only investment advisory firm based in Walnut Creek, CA. Babylon Wealth Management offers personalized wealth management and financial planning services to individuals and families.  To learn more visit our Private Client Services page here. Additionally, we offer Outsourced Chief Investment Officer services to professional advisors (RIAs), family offices, endowments, defined benefit plans, and other institutional clients. To find out more visit our OCIO page here.

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,

9 Smart Tax Saving Strategies for High Net Worth Individuals

9 Smart Tax Saving Strategies for High Net Worth Individuals

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) voted by Congress in late 2017 introduced significant changes to the way high net worth individuals and families file and pay their taxes. The key changes included the doubling of the standard deduction to $12,000 for singles and $24,000 for married couples filing jointly, the elimination of personal exemptions, limiting the SALT deduction to $10,000, limiting the home mortgage interest deduction to loans of up to $750,000 versus $1,000,000 as well as comprehensive changes to itemized deductions and Alternative Minimum Tax.

Many high net worth individuals and families, especially from high tax states like California, New York, and New Jersey, will see substantial changes in their tax returns. The real impact won’t be completely revealed until the first tax filing in 2019. Many areas remain ambiguous and will require further clarification by the IRS.

Most strategies discussed in this article were popular even before the TCJA. However, their use will vary significantly from person to person.  I strongly encourage you to speak with your accountant, tax advisor, or investment advisor to better address your concerns.

1. Home mortgage deduction

While a mortgage tax deduction is rarely the primary reason to buy a home, many new home buyers will have to be mindful of the new tax rule limiting mortgage deductions to loans of up to $750,000. The interest on second home mortgages is no longer tax-deductible.  The interest on Home Equity Loans or HELOCs could be tax-deductible in some instances where proceeds are utilized to acquire or improve a property

2. Get Incorporated

If you own a business, you may qualify for a 20 percent deduction for qualified business income. This break is available to pass-through entities, including S-corporations and limited liability companies. In general, to qualify for the full deduction, your taxable income must be below $157,500 if you’re single or $315,000 if you’re married and file jointly. Beyond those thresholds, the TJLA sets limits on what professions can qualify for this deduction. Entrepreneurs with service businesses — including doctors, attorneys, and financial advisors — may not be able to take advantage of the deduction if their income is too high.

Furthermore, if you own a second home, you may want to convert it to a rental and run it as a side business. This could allow you to use certain tax deductions that are otherwise not available.

Running your business from home is another way to deduct certain expenses (internet, rent, phone, etc.). In our digital age, technology makes it easy to reach out to potential customers and run a successful business out of your home office.

3. Charitable donations

All contributions to religious, educational, or charitable organizations approved by the 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.

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

The TCJA made the tax planning for donations a little bit trickier. The new tax rules raised the standard deduction to $12,000 for singles and $24,000 for married couples filing jointly. In effect, the rule will reduce the number of people who are itemizing their taxes and make charitable donations a less attractive tax strategy.

For philanthropic high net worth individuals making charitable donations could require a little more planning to achieve the highest possible tax benefit. One viable strategy is to consolidate annual contributions into a single large payment. This strategy will ensure that your donations will go above the yearly standard deduction threshold.

Another approach is to donate appreciated investments, including stocks and real estate. This strategy allows philanthropic investors to avoid paying significant capital gain tax on low-cost basis investments. To learn more about the benefits of charitable donations, check out my prior post here.

4. Gifts

The TCJA doubled the gift and estate tax exemption to almost $11.18 million per person and $22.36 per married couple. Furthermore, you can give up to $15,000 to any number of people every year without any tax implications. Amounts over $15,000 are subject to the combined gift and estate tax exemption of $11 million.  You can give your child or any person within the annual limits without creating create any tax implications.

Making a gift will not reduce your current year taxes. However, making gifts of appreciated assets with a lower cost basis 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.

5. 529 Plans

The TCJA of 2017 expanded the use of 529 plans to cover qualifying expenses for private, public, and religious kindergarten through 12th grade. Previously parents and grandparents could only use 529 funds for qualified college expenses.

The use of 529 plans is one of the best examples of how gifts can minimize your future tax burden. Parents and grandparents can contribute up to $15,000 annually per person, $30,000 per married couple into their child college education fund. The plan even allows a one–time lump-sum payment of $75,000 (5 years x $15,000).

Parents can choose to invest their contributions through a variety of investment vehicles.  While 529 contributions are not tax-deductible on a federal level, many states like New York, Massachusetts, Illinois, etc. allow for state tax deductions for up to a certain amount. The 529 investments grow tax-free. Withdrawals are also tax-free when used to pay cover qualified college and educational expenses. 

6. 401k Contributions

One of the most popular tax deductions is the tax-deferred contribution to 401k and 403b plans. In 2020 the allowed maximum contribution per person is $19,500 plus an additional $6,500 catch-up for investors at age 50 and older. Also, your employer can contribute up to $36,500 for a maximum annual contribution of $57,000 or $63,500 if you are older than 50.

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, but the investments in your 401k portfolio also grow tax-free. You will owe taxes upon withdrawal at your current tax rate at that time.

7. Roth IRA

Roth IRA is a great investment vehicle. Investors can contribute up to $6,000 per year. All contributions to the account are after-tax.  The investments in the Roth IRA can grow tax-free. And the withdrawals will be tax-exempt if held till retirement. IRS has limited the direct contributions to individuals making up to $124,000 per year with a phase-out at $139,000. Married couples can make contributions if their income is up to $196,000 per year with a phase-out at $206,000.

Fortunately, recent IRS rulings made it possible for high net worth individuals to make Roth Contributions.  Using the two-step process known as backdoor Roth you can take advantage of the long-term tax-exempt benefits of Roth IRA. Learn more about Roth IRA in our previous post here. 

8. Health Spending Account

A health savings account (HSA) is a tax-exempt saving account available to taxpayers who are enrolled in a high-deductible health plan (HDHP) The funds contributed to this account are tax-deductible. 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 for 2018 are $3,450 per person, $6,900 per family, and an additional $1,000 if 55 or older. The owner of HSA can invest the funds similar to the IRA account.

In effect, HSAs have a triple tax benefit. All contributions are tax-deductible. Investments grow tax-free and. HSA owners can make tax-free withdrawals for qualified medical expenses.

9. Municipal bonds

Old fashioned municipal bonds continue to be an attractive investment choice of high net worth individuals. The interest income from municipal bonds is still tax-exempt on a federal level. When the bondholders reside in the same state as the bond issuer, they can be exempted from state income taxes as well.

Final words

If you have any questions about your existing investment portfolio, reach out to me at [email protected] or +925-448-9880.

You can also visit our Insights page where you can find helpful articles and resources on how to make better financial and investment decisions.

Market Outlook April 2018

Market Outlook April 2018

Market Outlook April 2018

After a record high 2017, the volatility has finally returned. Last year the market experienced one of the highest risk-adjusted performances in recent history. In 2017 there were only 10 trading where the S&P 500 moved by more than 1% in either direction, with not a single trading day when it moved by more than 2%. In contrast, in the 61 trading days of Q1 of 2018, we had 26 days when the S&P 500 moved by more than 1% and 8 days where it changed by more than 2%.

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VIX Index Q1 2018

Market Outlook April 2018
VIX index Q1 2018. Source Yahoo Finance

The VIX Index, which measures the volatility of the S&P 500 started the year ar 9.77. It peaked at 37.33 and ended the quarter at 19.97.

Markets do not like uncertainty, and so far, Q1 had plenty of that. In the first 3 months of the year market landscape was dominated by news about rising inflation and higher interest rates, the Toys R Us bankruptcy, trade war talks and tariffs against China, and scandals related to Facebook user data privacy.

Except for Gold, all major market indices finished in the negative territory.

Index Q1 2018
S&P 500 -1.00%
Russell 2000 -0.18%
MSCI EAFE -0.90%
Barclays US Aggregate Bond Index -1.47%
Gold +1.73%

 

Fixed Income

Traditionally bonds have served as an anchor for equity markets. Over time stocks and US Treasury bond have shown a negative correlation. Usually, bonds would rise when stocks prices are falling as investors are moving to safer investments. However, in 2018 we observed a weakening of this relationship. There were numerous trading days when stocks and bonds were moving in the same direction.

On the other hand, despite rising interest rates, we see the lowest 10-year/2-year treasury spread since the October of 2007. The spread between the two treasury maturities was 0.47 as of March 29, 2018. While not definite, historically negative or flat spreads have preceded an economic recession.

Momentum

Momentum remained one of the most successful strategies of 2018 and reported +2.97%. Currently, this strategy is dominated by Technology, Financials, Industrials, and Consumer Cyclical stocks. Some of the big names include Microsoft, JP Morgan, Amazon, Intel, Bank of America, Boeing, CISCO, and Mastercard.

Value

Value stocks continued to disappoint and reported -3.73% return in the Q1 of 2018. Some of the biggest names in this strategy like Exxon Mobile, Wells Fargo, AT&T, Chevron, Verizon, Citigroup, Johnson & Johnson, DowDuPont and Wall-Mart fell close to or more than -10%. As many of these companies are high dividend payers, rising interest rates have decreased the interest of income-seeking investors in this segment of the market.

Small Cap

As small-cap stocks stayed on the sideline of the last year’s market rally, they were mostly unaffected by the recent market volatility.  Given that most small-cap stocks derive their revenue domestically, we expect them to benefit significantly from the lower tax rates and intensified trade war concerns.

Gold

Gold remained a solid investment choice in the Q1 of 2018. It was one of the few asset classes that reported modest gains. If the market continues to b volatile, we anticipate more upside potential for Gold.

 

Outlook

  • We anticipate that the market volatility will continue in the second quarter until many of the above issues get some level of clarification or resolution.
  • We expect that small and large-cap stocks with a strong domestic focus to benefit from the trade tariffs tension with China and other international partners
  • The actual impact of lower taxes on corporate earnings will be revealed in the second half of 2018 as Q3 and Q4 earnings will provide a clear picture of earnings net of accounting and tax adjustments.
  • Strong corporate earnings and revenue growth have the ability to decrease the current market volatility. However, weaker than expected earnings can have a dramatically opposite effect and drive down the already unstable markets.
  • If the Fed continues to hike their short-term lending rates and inflation rises permanently above 2%, we could see a further decline in bond prices.
  • Our strategy is to remain diversified across asset classes and focus on long-term risk-adjusted performance

 

If you have any questions about your existing investment portfolio or how to start investing for retirement and other financial goals, reach out to me at [email protected] or +925-448-9880.

About the author:

Stoyan Panayotov, CFA is the founder and CEO of Babylon Wealth Management, a fee-only investment advisory firm based in Walnut Creek, CA. Babylon Wealth Management offers personalized wealth management and financial planning services to individuals and families.  To learn more visit our Private Client Services page here. Additionally, we offer Outsourced Chief Investment Officer services to professional advisors (RIAs), family offices, endowments, defined benefit plans, and other institutional clients. To find out more visit our OCIO page here.

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,

 

Biggest Risks for the Markets in 2018

Biggest Risks for the Markets in 2018

Biggest Risks for the Markets in 2018

Wall Street is gearing for another record year on the equity market. On January 2nd Nasdaq crossed 7,000. A day later S&P 500 reached 2,700. Dow Jones followed by passing over 25,000. Who can ask for a better start?

However, with S&P 500 earning +22% and Nasdaq gaining 32% in 2017, many are wondering if the equity market has any fuel left for another big run. With momentum on its side, the recent corporate tax cuts, and president’s promises for deregulation we have the foundation for another record high year. But not everything is perfect. In times of market euphoria, investors tend to ignore warning signals.

Surely, there is no shortage of potential threats that can trigger another significant market correction or an economic recession. In my view, here are the biggest risks for the market in 2018 and beyond.

Learn more about our Private Wealth Management services

Government shutdown

With the start of the year, both Republicans and Democrats are gearing for a battle as the current government funding bill expires on January 19.

Republicans are invigorated after winning their most important battle of 2017. The GOP voted for the most extensive tax overhaul in 30 years which promises to cut taxes for corporations and middle class but also introduces additional $1.5 trillion to the budget deficit in 10 years without counting for growth. Their 2018 agenda includes cutting entitlements, building a border wall, financing a new infrastructure plan, increasing the military budget and maybe repealing Obamacare.

On the opposite end, after their win in the Alabama senate race, Democrats are slowly recovering from their knockdown phase after the US 2016 Presidential election.  Democrats will try to push their agenda on the Dreamers Act and save the government healthcare subsidies.

With a slim Senate majority and traitorous rifts inside the party, the GOP will have a hard time passing any significant legislation. The Senate leadership already expressed their desire to work with Democrats on the next bill on avoiding a government shutdown. While the public may appreciate a bi-partisan agreement, both parties have shown an enormous resistance to compromise on any level.

Geopolitical crisis

There is a growing number of geopolitical threats that can compromise the global growth. The world is becoming a treacherous place where one miscalculation can lead to a human disaster. From cyber-war with Russia to nuclear tension with North Korea, ongoing unrest in the Middle East, shutting down NAFTA, populist governments taking over Europe, and hard Brexit negotiations.

China is looking to fill the vacuum left by the US after scrapping the Trans-Pacific Trade Agreement.  Russia and President Putin want to play a bigger role in the world affairs. The remnants of ISIS are spread around the world and planning the next terrorist attack. The 16-year war in Afghanistan is still going with no resolution in sight. The tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia is on its highest level for years. The president must maneuver carefully in the dangerous waters of world politics where governments are becoming more and more protectionist and populist.

Health Care Chaos

The GOP was unsuccessful in repealing the Affordable Care Act. However, they were able to remove the individual mandate as part of the recent tax cut bill.

With the penalty going away in 2019, there will be no incentive for healthier individuals to sign up for health insurance.  Furthermore, this will lead to a lower number of insured participants and drive higher their cost of health care.

US has already the most expensive health care among all OECD counties. The average cost per individual in the USA is $10,000 versus $6,700 for Switzerland and $5,100k for Germany. The Congress and Senate must find a solution to address the climbing health care cost. The alternative will lead to more healthy people dropping from the system, skyrocketing medical bills, social unrest,  and even economic slowdown.

Retail meltdown

US retail is in danger. In 2017, 19 retailers including Toys R US, Aerosoles, Perfumania, True Religions and Gymboree filed for bankruptcy protection. Many others like Teavana, Bebe, and Kenneth Cole closed all their physical locations to focus on online expansion. Despite rising consumer confidence and record-high holiday shopping spree, traditional brick-and-mortar retailers are struggling to stay afloat.

Apart from a few big names, US retailers are loaded with debt. According to Bloomberg, $100 million of high-yield retail debt was set to mature in 2017. Furthermore, this figure will rise to $1.9 billion in 2018 and will average $5 billion between 2019 to 2025. With rising interest rates and permanent drift towards online shopping, many retailers will continue to close down unprofitable locations. Local economies relying heavily on retail jobs will suffer high unemployment rates in the coming years.

Consumer debt crunch

The US household debt has reached $13 trillion in the third quarter of 2017, according to the New York Fed. Driven by low-interest rates, the mortgage debt increased to $8.7 trillion. Student debt has reached $1.36 trillion. Auto loan debt is $1.2 trillion. While mortgage delinquencies are stable at 1.2%, bad auto loans have risen to 2.4%, and student debt delinquencies have reached 9.6%.  The rising interest rates can lead to more people failing on their loans, which can potentially trigger another crisis similar to 2008.

Interest hikes and hyperinflation

The US fed is planning for three rate hikes in 2018. Oil has slowly passed $60 a barrel. And US dollar reached 1.20 against the euro. Moreover, U.S. manufacturing expanded in 2017, as gains in orders and production capped the strongest year for factories since 2004.  While around the world factories have warned they are finding it increasingly hard to keep up with demand, potentially forcing them to raise prices.

While CPI hovers around 1.7%, global markets have not priced in the prospects for higher inflation. Therefore, unexpected spike in prices can lead to more Fed rate hikes.

Additionally, the lost corporate tax revenue can jeopardize the ability of the US Treasury to issue debt at lower rates, which can drive the budget deficit even further. Historically, uncontrolled inflation combined with growing budget deficit has led to periods of hyperinflation, higher credit cost and loss of purchasing power.

Retirement savings going down

Only half of US families have a retirement account. The 401k plan patriation is only 43%. Of those with retirement savings, the average balance is just $60,000. Social Security ran $39 billion deficit in 2014 and will be entirely depleted by 2035.

With rising interest rates and GOP plans to cut entitlements, many Americans will face enormous retirement risk and suffer substantial income loss during their non-working years. Without an urgent reform, the US social security system is a time-ticking bomb that can hurt both businesses and families.

Mueller investigation

The former FBI chief investigation is at full speed as more revelations about the Trump campaign appear almost on a daily basis. You might need a crystal ball to predict what will be the exact outcome. However, it is virtually certain that there were people in the Trump circle who were pursuing their own personal interests. The initial theory of collusion and obstruction of justice is leading to allegations about money laundering. If the Mueller investigation proves those accusations, we could experience a political crisis not seen since Watergate.

 

About the author: Stoyan Panayotov, CFA is the founder and CEO of Babylon Wealth Management, a fee-only investment advisory firm. Babylon Wealth Management offers highly customized Outsourced Chief Investment Officer services to professional advisors (RIAs), family offices, endowments, defined benefit plans and other institutional clients. To learn more visit our OCIO page here.

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, Photo copyright: <a href=’https://www.123rf.com/profile_bacho12345′>bacho12345 / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

Market Outlook December 2017

Market Outlook December 2017

Market Outlook December 2017

As we approach 2018, it‘s time to reconcile the past 365 days of 2017. We are sending off a very exciting and tempestuous year. The stock market is at an all-time high. Volatility is at a record low. Consumer spending and confidence have passed pre-recession levels.

I would like to wish all my readers and friends a happy and prosperous 2018. I guarantee you that the coming year will be as electrifying and eventful as the previous one.

 

The new tax plan

The new tax plan is finally here. After heated debates and speculations, president Trump and the GOP achieved their biggest win of 2017. In late December, they introduced the largest tax overhaul in 30 years. The new plan will reduce the corporate tax rate to 21% and add significant deductions to pass-through entities. It is also estimated to add $1.5 trillion to the budget deficit in 10 years before accounting for economic growth.

The impact on the individual taxes, however, remains to be seen. The new law reduces the State and Local Tax (SALT) deductions to $10,000. Also, it limits the deductible mortgage interest for loans up to $750,000 (from $1m). The plan introduces new tax brackets and softens the marriage penalty for couples making less than $500k a year. The exact scale of changes will depend on a blend of factors including marital status, the number of dependents, state of residency, homeownership, employment versus self-employment status. While most people are expected to receive a tax-break, certain families and individuals from high tax states such as New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and California may see their taxes higher.

 

Affordable Care Act

The future of Obamacare remains uncertain. The new GOP tax bill removes the individual mandate, which is at the core of the Affordable Care Act. We hope to see a bi-partisan agreement that will address the flaws of ACA and the ever-rising cost of healthcare. However, political battles between republicans and democrats and various fractions can lead to another year of chaos in the healthcare system.

 

Equity Markets

The euphoria around the new corporate tax cuts will continue to drive the markets in 2018. Many US-based firms with domestic revenue will see a boost in their earnings per share due to lower taxes.

We expect the impact of the new tax law to unfold fully in the next two years. However, in the long run, the primary driver for returns will continue to be a robust business model, revenue growth, and a strong balance sheet.

Momentum

Momentum was the king of the markets in 2017. The strategy brought +38% gain in one of its best years ever. While we still believe in the merits of momentum investing, we are expecting more modest returns in 2018.

Value

Value stocks were the big laggard in 2017 with a return of 15%. While their gain is still above average historical rates, it’s substantially lower than other equity strategies.  Value investing tends to come back with a big bang. In the light of the new tax bill, we believe that many value stocks will benefit from the lower corporate rate of 21%. And as S&P 500 P/E continues to hover above historical levels, we could see investors’ attention shifting to stocks with more attractive valuations.

Small Cap

With a return of 14%, small-cap stocks trailed the large and mega-cap stocks by a substantial margin. We think that their performance was negatively impacted by the instability in Washington. As most small-cap stocks derive their revenue domestically, many of them will see a boost in earnings from the lower corporate tax rate and the higher consumer income.

International Stocks

It was the first time since 2012 when International stocks (+25%) outperformed US stocks. After years of sluggish growth, bank crisis, Grexit (which did not happen), Brexit (which will probably happen), quantitative easing, and negative interest rates, the EU region and Japan are finally reporting healthy GDP growth.

It is also the first time in more than a decade that we experienced a coordinated global growth and synchronization between central banks. We hope to continue to see this trend and remain bullish on foreign markets.

Emerging Markets

If you had invested in Emerging Markets 10-years ago, you would have essentially earned zero return on your investments. Unfortunately, the last ten years were a lost decade for EM stocks. We believe that the tide is finally turning. This year emerging markets stocks brought a hefty 30% return and passed the zero mark. With their massive population under 30, growing middle class, and almost 5% annual GDP growth, EM will be the main driver of global consumption.

 

Fixed Income

It was a turbulent year for fixed income markets. The Fed increased its short-term interest rate three times in 2017 and promised to hike it three more times in 2018. The markets, however, did not respond positively to the higher rates. The yield curve continued to flatten in 2017. And inflation remained under the Fed target of 2%.

After a decade of low interest, the consumer and corporate indebtedness has reached record levels. While the Dodd-Frank Act imposed strict regulations on the mortgage market, there are many areas such as student and auto loans that have hit alarming levels. Our concern is that high-interest rates can trigger high default rates in those areas which can subsequently drive down the market.

 

Gold

2017 was the best year for gold since 2010. Gold reported 11% return and reached its lowest volatility in 10 years.  The shiny metal lost its momentum in Q4 as investors and speculators shifted their attention to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In our view gold continues to be a solid long-term investment with its low correlation to equities and fixed income assets.

 

Real Estate

It was a tough year for REITs and real estate in general. While demand for residential housing continues to climb at a modest pace, the retail-linked real estate is suffering permanent losses due to the bankruptcies of several major retailers. This trend is driven on one side by the growing digital economy and another side by the rising interest rates and the struggle of highly-leveraged retailers to refinance their debt. Many small and mid-size retail chains were acquired by Private Equity firms in the aftermath of the 2008-2009 credit crisis. Those acquisitions were financed with low-interest rate debt, which will gradually start to mature in 2019 and peak in 2023 as the credit market continues to tighten.

Market Outlook December 2017

In the long-run, we expect that most public retail REITs will expand and reposition themselves into the experiential economy by replacing poor performing retailers with restaurants and other forms of entertainment.

On a positive note, we believe that the new tax bill will boost the performance of many US-based real estate and pass-through entities.  Under the new law, investors in pass-through entities will benefit from a further 20% deduction and a shortened depreciation schedule.

 

What to expect in 2018

  • After passing the new tax bill, the Congress will turn its attention to other topics of its agenda – improving infrastructure, and amending entitlements. Further, we will continue to see more congressional budget deficit battles.
  • Talk to your CPA and find out how the new bill will impact your taxes.
  • With markets at a record high, we recommend that you take in some of your capital gains and look into diversifying your portfolio between major asset classes.
  • We might see a rotation into value and small-cap. However, the market is always unpredictable and can remain such for extended periods.
  • We will monitor the Treasury Yield curve. In December 2017 the spread between 10-year and 2-year treasury bonds reached a decade low at 50 bps. While not always a flattening yield has often predicted an upcoming recession.
  • Index and passive investing will continue to dominate as investment talent is evermore scarce. Mega large investment managers like iShares and Vanguard will continue to drop their fees.

 

Happy New Year!

 

Final words

If you have any questions about your existing investment portfolio, reach out to me at [email protected] or +925-448-9880.

You can also visit our Insights page where you can find helpful articles and resources on how to make better financial and investment decisions.

About the author:

Stoyan Panayotov, CFA is the founder and CEO of Babylon Wealth Management, a fee-only investment advisory firm based in Walnut Creek, CA. Babylon Wealth Management offers personalized wealth management and financial planning services to individuals and families.  To learn more visit our Private Client Services page here. Additionally, we offer Outsourced Chief Investment Officer services to professional advisors (RIAs), family offices, endowments, defined benefit plans, and other institutional clients. To find out more visit our OCIO page here.

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,

 

The Rise of Momentum Investing

The Rise of Momentum Investing

The Rise of Momentum Investing

While the momentum theory has been around for two decades, we had to wait until 2017 to see the rise of momentum investing. The largest momentum ETF (MTUM) is up 35% YTD. And unless something dramatic happens in the remaining few weeks, momentum will crush all major market-cap weighted indices and ETFs.

About this time last year, I posted my first article about momentum investing in Seeking Alpha. You can see my article here. At that time MTUM had only $1.8 billion of AUM and trailed the S&P 500 2016 returns in the range of 5% versus 12%. Eleven months later, MTUM is up 35% versus 16.5%. I can’t take any credit for calling this wide margin in performance, but it certainly grabbed the attention of investors. MTUM is currently at $4.8b AUM and possibly growing even more down the road.

Learn more about our Private Wealth Management services

What is momentum investing

So what is momentum and why do we keep hearing about it a lot more lately?

The momentum investing is a pure behavioral play. Not surprisingly the rise of momentum investing coincided with Richard Thaler’s Nobel award for his work on how human behavior and finance play out together.

Momentum investing exploits the theory that recent stock winners will continue to rise in the near-term. The strategy is based on the 1993 Journal of Finance research “Returns to Buying Winners and Selling Losers: Implications for Stock Market Efficiency” by Narasimhan Jegadeesh and Sheridan Titman

Their research discovers a pattern that buying stocks that have performed well in the past and selling stocks that have performed poorly generate significant positive returns over 3- to 12-month holding periods. Furthermore, the research discusses that the success of this strategy is due to behavioral finance factors.

Investors commonly overact on the news and therefore overbuy the winners and oversell the losers.

Many investors consider the momentum strategy as a substitute for growth investing. However, the momentum theory embraces both value and growth stocks as long as they have risen in the past 6 to 12 months.

While the momentum theory has been around for over 20 years, the strategy has not received a wide acceptance amongst investors. Despite its academic fundamentals, momentum strategy has experienced contradictory practical interpretations amongst fund managers, which has reported a massive variability of returns.

Fortunately, the growing popularity of market-cap and smart beta ETFs made the momentum strategy widely available to retail investors. Further down, I will discuss how to take advantage of the momentum theory by using MTUM – iShares Edge MSCI USA Momentum Factor ETF. This ETF has been around since April 2013. It has a dividend yield of 1.12% and an expense ratio of 0.15%.

MTUM replicates the MSCI USA Momentum Index. MSCI USA Momentum Index uses a multi-step process to filter for stocks that fit the momentum criteria. The composition process starts with selecting companies with the highest 6- and 12- month performance. The performance is later weighted by their 3-year standard deviation and given a momentum score. The final weight in the momentum index is given by multiplying the momentum score by the market capitalization weight in the parent index. In this case, the parent index is MSCI USA Index, which has 616 constituents and covers about 85% of the US market cap. Company weights for MSCI USA Momentum Index are capped at 5%. The index is rebalanced semiannually. However, spikes in market volatility can trigger ad-hoc rebalancing.

 

Performance and risk

MSCI USA Momentum Index has consistently outperformed MSCI USA and S&P 500 since its inception. The index has achieved a cumulative return of 531% versus 400% for MSCI USA and 423% for S&P 500 since October 2002.

In annualized terms, MSCI USA Momentum Index posted 9.07% 10-year return and 13.65% return since its inception in 1994.

The index beat its parent in 9 out of the past 15 years and underperformed in six – 2003, 2006, 2008, 2009, 2012 and 2016.

It is an interesting observation that the Momentum strategy underperformed in the years following a significant market pullback or sluggish return (02-03, 05-06, 08-09 and 11-12). It takes a two-year cycle for the Momentum Index to start outperforming again after experiencing a negative period. The composition of the index is somewhat reactive, which naturally doesn’t allow it to take advantage of market rallies in specific sectors.

MSCI USA Momentum Index Performance

Source: MSCI

 

Counterintuitively to what some may think, the MSCI Momentum Index has reported lower standard deviation (risk) than its parent index for the past 3-year and slightly higher standard deviation for the 5- and 10-year period. The risk-weighted methodology described earlier helps the index cap its volatility despite high turnover.

Higher returns and capped volatility has allowed the momentum index to report consistently high risk-adjusted returns. Its 10-year Sharpe ratio is 0.59 versus 0.51 for MSCI USA and 0.53 for S&P 500. Since inception, the Momentum Index posted the impressive 0.72 versus 0.54 MSCI USA and S&P 500.

MSCI USA Momentum Index Risk Adjusted Returns

Source: MSCI

 

MTUM ETF

Going back to the iShares Edge MSCI USA Momentum Factor ETF, it has been around since April 2013. Since inception, its performance has been consistent with the index. MTUM posted 17.3% return versus 13.4% for S&P 500 and 15.32% for IWF, Russell 1000 growth ETF.

MTUM Performance Since inception

MTUM has reported a Sharpe ratio of 1.61 vs. 1.33 for S&P 500 and 1.41 for IWF.

Few other interesting facts for investors looking to diversify. The US market correlation is equal to 0.87. Beta is 0.90. Alpha is 4.7%, and R2 is 73.7%. In other words, the momentum strategy achieved its return not only with less risk but a lot lower correlation to the total market, which is critical for portfolio diversification.

MTUM Holdings

Momentum investing is a dynamic strategy with quarterly rebalancing. Due to its 114% turnover, it is extremely cost ineffective for the average retail investor to replicate it

Currently, MTUM overweights Financials, Technology, and Industrials which have primarily driven the market since the beginning of 2017. Simultaneously, the ETF underweights Consumer Cyclical, Utilities, and Energy. Its main holdings include Microsoft, Bank of America, JP Morgan, Apple, United Health Group, NVIDIA, Home Depot, Comcast, and Boeing. Just to illustrate the dynamic nature of this strategy, a year ago its top holdings were in Technology and Utilities with leading names such as Facebook, Amazon, Google, and Nextera.

 

Final thoughts

  1. The momentum strategy has outperformed the broad market in the past 22 years.
  2. While being in the public eye for over two decades and posting impressive long-term absolute and risk-adjusted returns, the momentum strategy is still not a highly popular trade and has mostly been a theoretical exercise with conflicting practical results.
  3. Only lately, the rise of ETFs had made the strategy available to regular investors.
  4. The momentum strategy tends to lean towards sectors with a recent high
  5. Like any factor strategy, the momentum can underperform the broad market for extended periods

 

 

About the author: Stoyan Panayotov, CFA is the founder and CEO of Babylon Wealth Management, a fee-only investment advisory firm. Babylon Wealth Management offers highly customized Outsourced Chief Investment Officer services to professional advisors (RIAs), family offices, endowments, defined benefit plans and other institutional clients. To learn more visit our OCIO page here.

Holdings disclaimer: I own MTUM and we regularly invest MTUM for our clients

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,

 

Will Emerging Markets Continue to Rally

Will Emerging Markets Continue to Rally

Will Emerging Markets Continue to Rally

Emerging Markets are up 26% so far year. But can they sustain the rally?

If you invested in one of the large EM ETFs like EEM (iShares MSCI Emerging Markets ETF) or VWO (Vanguard FTSE Emerging Markets Index Fund ETF Shares) ten years ago, you would have earned nearly zero as of September 29, 2017. At the same time, you would have doubled your money if you invested in S&P 500 (SPY) as long as you stayed put during the market crisis of 2008 – 2009.

So is this just a fluke? Or maybe after a lost decade of volatile price swings, EM stocks are finally ready to turn the page. While we recognize the long-term opportunity in EM, we also understand this could be a bumpy ride.

Learn more about our Private Wealth Management services

 

What is an Emerging Market?

In the investment world, the countries are divided into three main categories – developed, emerging and frontier. Developed countries include countries with developed capital markets and relatively high GDP per capita. The list consists of USA, Canada, Japan, UK, Australia, Germany, Italy, France and several others. Emerging markets have some similarities with the developed economies including functioning capital markets and a banking system, but they lack certain characteristics including lower market liquidity and transparency. They also have more political influence and less strict accounting standards.

The list of Emerging economies includes Brazil, Chile, China, Colombia, Czech Republic, Egypt, Greece, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Korea, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Qatar, Russia, South Africa, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey, and UAE.

Just to make things a little more complicated, FTSE  indices classify Korea as a developed economy. However, other index providers such as MSCI and Dow Jones include Korea in the EM group.

What makes the emerging markets an attractive investment?

Economic growth

EM has been characterized by higher growth than most developed economies. According to IMF, emerging markets GDP is expected to grow by an average of 4.7% in 2017. Furthermore, despite the recent slowdown, next year projections are the first time in six years when we see an acceleration in the growth forecast.

For comparison, US GDP is expected to grow at 2.6% in the next two years, while EU is projected at 1.7%.

Also, according to World Bank consumption growth per capita in emerging is expected to grow by an average of 5.5% versus 1.5% for developed markets.

This growth differential provides an opportunity for companies with strong presence in these markets to benefit and increase their revenues as a result of the expected economic growth.

Population trends

According to Euromonitor, developing countries account for 90% of the world population under 30.  For instance, the average age of the Philippines is 24, India is 26, Mexico is 27, and Brazil is 31. For comparison, the median age in the USA is 37.2. Japan and Germany are at 46.1.  Emerging economies have a young population base which will help them support future economic and consumption growth. In fact, developing markets now account for more than 75% of global growth in output and consumption, almost double their share in just two decades.

Attractive Valuations

With US stocks equities almost fully priced, investors are starting to look for better opportunities abroad. At 16x current price-to-earnings, emerging market equities (EEM) are considerably cheaper than US large cap-equities.  For comparison, SPY currently trades at 23.7 times price-to-earnings. Furthermore, Emerging Market price-to-book ratio is 1.63x versus 2.85 for SPY.

Even with the 25% return so far this year, EM stocks are still trading at nearly 50% discount to US large cap stocks. This valuation gap creates opportunities for investors to transfer some of their assets to less expensive assets.

Diversification

For investors looking to diversify some of their risks, EM represents a compelling alternative. EM stocks traditionally have a lower correlation to the US equity markets.

For instance, a broad EM ETF such as EEM has a correlation of 0.80 to the S&P 500, while its R-squared (explained returns) ratio is 62.7%. As a comparison, a US Small Cap stocks (IJR) have a 0.92 correlation ratio and 78.7% R-squared to the large US cap index.

 

What are some of the risks?

Volatility of returns

Owning EM stocks comes with a lot of risks. The EM equity performance has been inconsistent for the past ten years. $1,000,000 invested in EEM ETF in Jan 1, 2007 would have produced $ 1,005,620 by Dec 2015 and $1,433,727 by Sep 2017. This is the equivalent of 0.06% and 3.45% annualized rate of return. As a comparison, the same one million invested in SPY would have made 1,735,171 in 2015 and 2,215,383 in Sep 2017 or an average of 6.31% and 7.68% respectively.

This return volatility shows the unpredictability and large swings of returns in EM stocks, which brings us to the next point.

Furthermore, investors who are willing to invest in EM have to stomach the higher volatility associated with these stock. To illustrate, EEM has a beta of 1.29 vs. 1 for S&P 500 and 10-year Standard deviation of 24.59% vs. 15.74% for S&P 500. The maximum drawdown of EEM was -60.44% versus -50% for SPY.

Company concentration

A handful of large corporations and conglomerates are consistently dominating all EM country indices. For example, the top 5 holdings in the China Large-Cap index make up 38% of the entire market. In Korea, top 5 companies make up 33%, with Samsung dominating the market with 20%. In India, top 5 companies’ weight is 36%, in Russia, 35% and Mexico, 40%.  As a comparison, top 5 stocks in the S&P 500 index (SPY) make up 11% of the total.

This high concentration leaves the Emerging markets exposed to the fortunes of the handful of companies dominating their markets.

Political instability

Another risk associated with emerging economies is their heavy dependence on local politics. Just in the past few years, we saw North Korea nuclear threats, political scandals in Brazil, sanctions against Russia, the war in Syria. Changes in political power or any geopolitical turmoil will significantly impact the emerging economies and their neighbors.

 

 

About the author: Stoyan Panayotov, CFA is the founder and CEO of Babylon Wealth Management, a fee-only investment advisory firm. Babylon Wealth Management offers highly customized Outsourced Chief Investment Officer services to professional advisors (RIAs), family offices, endowments, defined benefit plans and other institutional clients. To learn more visit our OCIO page here.

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, Copyright: www.123rf.com

 

6 Saving & Investment Practices All Business Owners Should Follow

6 Saving & Investment Practices All Business Owners Should Follow

In my practice, I often meet with small business owners who have the entire life savings and family fortune tied up to their company. For many of them, their business is the only way out to retirement. With this post, I would like to offer 6 saving & investment practices all business owners should follow.

Having all your eggs in one basket, however, may not be the best way to manage your finances and family fortune. Think about bookstores. If you owned one 20-30 years ago, you probably earned a decent living. Now, bookstores are luxuries even in major cities like New York and San Francisco. Technology, markets, consumer sentiments, and laws change all the time. And that is why it is vital that you build healthy saving and investment routines to grow your wealth, protect your loved ones, and prepare yourself for the years during retirement.

Start Early

I always advise my clients to start saving early and make it a habit. Saving 10-20 percent of your monthly income will help you build and grow your wealth. For instance, by starting with $20,000 today, with an average stock market return of 6 percent, your investments can potentially accumulate to $115,000 in 30 years or even $205,000 in 40 years.

Saving and investing early in your career can build a buffer to correct for any sidesteps or slip-ups. Starting to build your wealth early will provide the necessary protection against market drops and economic recessions and prepare you for large purchases like a new home, college tuition, a new car or even expanding your business.

Build a Safety Net

Life can often be unpredictable in good and bad ways. Having an emergency fund is the best way to guard your wealth and maintain liquidity for your business. I typically recommend keeping 6 to 12 months of basic living expenses in your savings account.

Even though my firm does not offer insurance, I often advise my clients especially those who are sole bread earners or work in industries prone to accidents to consider getting life and disability insurance. Good insurance will guarantee protection and supplemental income for yourself and your loved ones in case of unexpected work or life events.

Manage Your Debt

The last eight years of a friendly interest environment has brought record levels of debt in almost every single category. Americans now owe more than $8.26 trillion in mortgages, $1.14 trillion in auto loans, and $747 billion in credit cards debt. If you are like me, you probably don’t like owing money to anyone.

That’s great, however, taking loans is an essential part of any enterprise. Expanding your business, building a new facility or buying a competitor will often require external financing. Keeping track of your loans and prioritizing on paying off your high-interest debt can save you and your business a lot of money. It may also boost your credit score.

Set-up a Company Retirement Plan

The US Government provides a variety of options for businesses to create retirement plans for both employees and owners. Some of the most popular ones are employer-sponsored 401k, self-employed 401k, profit-sharing, SIMPLE IRA, and SEP IRA.

Having a company retirement plan is an excellent way to save money in the long run. Plan contributions could reduce current taxes and boost your employees’ loyalty and morale.

Of the many alternatives, I am a big supporter of 401(k) 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 to 401(k) plans for 2017 is $18,000. The employer can match up to $36,000 for a total of $54,000. Individuals over 50 can add a catch-up contribution of $6,000. Also, 401k and other ERISA Plans offer an added benefit. They have the highest protection to creditors.

Even if you already have an up-and-running 401k plan, your job is not done. Have your plan administrator or an independent advisor regularly review your investment options.

I frequently see old 401k plans that have been ignored and forgotten since they were first established. Some of these plans often contain high-fee mutual funds that have consistently underperformed their benchmarks for many consecutive years. I typically recommend replacing some of these funds with low-fee alternatives like index funds and ETFs. Paying low fees will keep more money in your pocket.

Diversify

Many business owners hold a substantial amount of their wealth locked in their business. By doing so, they expose themselves to what we call a concentrated risk. Any economic, legal and market developments that can adversely impact your industry can also hurt your personal wealth.

The best way to protect yourself is by diversification. Investing in uncorrelated assets can decrease the overall risk of your portfolio. A typical diversified portfolio may include large-, mid-, small-cap, and international stocks, real estate, gold, government, and corporate fixed income.

Plan Your Exit

Whether you are planning to transfer your business to the next generation in your family or cash it in, this can have serious tax and legal consequences. Sometimes it pays off to speak to a pro.

Partnering with someone who understands your industry and your particular needs and circumstances, can offer substantial value to your business and build a robust plan to execute your future financial strategy.

 

The article was previously published in HVACR Business Magazine on March 1, 2017

End of Summer Market Review

End of Summer Market Review

Happy Labor Day!

Our hearts are with the people of Texas! I wish them to remain strong and resilient against the catastrophic damages of Hurricane Harvey. As someone who experienced Sandy, I can emphasize with their struggles and hope for a swift recovery.

 

I know that this newsletter has been long past due. However, as wise people say, it is better late than never.

It has been a wild year so far. Both Main and Wall Street kept us occupied in an electrifying thriller of election meddling scandals, health reforms, political battles, tax cuts, interest rate hikes and debt ceiling fights (that one still to unfold).

Between all that, the stock market is at an all-time high. S&P 500 is up 11.7% year-to-date. Dow Jones is up 12.8%, and NASDAQ is up to the whopping 24%. GDP growth went up by 3% in the second quarter of 2017. Unemployment is at a 10-year low. 4.3%.

Moreover, despite record levels, very few Americans are feeling the joy of the market gains and feel optimistic about the future. US families are steadily sitting on the sideline and continuing to pile cash. As of June 2007, the amount of money in cash and time deposits (M2) was 70.1% of the GDP, an upward trend that has continued since the credit crisis in 2008.

End of Summer Market Review

Source: US Fed, https://fred.stlouisfed.org/graph/?g=dZn

Given that the same ratio of M2 as % of GDP is 251% in Japan, 193% in China, 91% in Germany, and 89% in the UK, US is still on the low end of the developed world. However, this is a persistent trend that can reshape the US economy for the years to come.

 

The Winners

This year’s rally was all about mega-cap and tech stocks. Among the biggest winners so far this year we have Apple (AAPL), up 42%, Amazon (AMZN), 27%, NVIDIA (NVDA), 54%, Adobe, 48%, PayPal, 55%. Netflix, 36%, and Visa (V), 33%,

Probably the biggest story out there is Amazon and its quest to disrupt the way Americans buy things. Despite years of fluctuating earnings, Amazon is still getting full support from its shareholders who believe in its long-term strategy. The recent acquisition of Whole Foods and announcement of price drops, only shows that Amazon is here to stay, and all the key retail players from Costco, Wall-Mart, Target, and Walgreens to Kroger’s, Home Depot, Blue Apron and AutoZone will have to adjust to the new reality and learn how to compete with Amazon.

The Laggards

Costco, Walgreens, and Target are bleeding from the Amazon effect as they reported- 0.49%, -0.74% and -21% year-to-date respectively. Their investors are become increasingly unresponsive to earnings surprises and massively punishing to earnings disappointments.

Starbucks, -0.74%, is still reviving itself after the departure of its long-time CEO, Howard Shultz, and will have to discover new revenue channels and jump-start its growth.

The energy giants, Chevron, -5%, Exxon, -12%, and Occidental Petroleum, -14.5% are still suffering from the low oil prices. With OPEC maintaining current production levels and surge in renewable energy, there is no light at the end of the tunnel. If these low levels continue, I will expect to see a wave of mergers and acquisitions in the sector. Those with a higher risk and yield appetite may want to look at some of the companies as they are paying a juicy dividend – Chevron, 4%, Exxon, 4%, and Occidental Petroleum, 5.4%

AT&T, -7% and Verizon, -5%, are coming out of big acquisitions, which down-the-road can potentially create new revenue channels and diversify away from the otherwise slow growing telecom business. In the near-term, they will continue to struggle in their effort to impress their investors. Currently, both companies are paying above average dividends, 5.15%, and 4.76%, respectively.

And finally, Wells Fargo, -4%. The bank is suffering from the account opening scandals last year and the departure of its CEO.  The stock has lagged its peers, which reported on average, 8% gains this year. While the long-term outlook remains positive, the short-term prospect remains uncertain.

 

Small Caps

Small Cap stocks as an asset class have not participated in this year’s market rally. Despite spectacular 2016 returns, small cap stocks have remained in the shadow of the uncertainty of the expected tax cuts and infrastructure program expansion. While I believe the Congress will come out with some tax reductions in the near term, the exact magnitude is still unclear. My long-term view of US small caps remains bullish with some near-term headwinds.

 

International Stocks

After several years of lagging behind US equity markets, international stocks are finally starting to catch up. The Eurozone reported 2% growth in GDP. MSCI EAFE is up 17.5% YTD, and MSCI Emerging Markets is up 28% YTD.

Despite the recent growth, International Developed and Emerging Market stocks remain cheap on a relative basis compared to US Stocks.  I maintain a long-term bullish view on international and EM stocks with some caution in the short-term.

Even though European Central Bank has kept the interest rates unchanged, I believe that its quantitative easing program will slow down towards the end of 2017 and beginning of 2018. The German bund rates will gradually rise above the negative levels. The EUR / USD will breach and remain above 1.20, a level not seen since 2014.

Interest Rates

I am expecting maximum one or may be even zero additional rate hikes this year. Under Janet Yellen, the Fed will continue to make extremely cautious and well-measured steps in raising short term rates and slowing down of its Quantitative Easing program. Bear in mind that the Fed has not achieved its 2% inflation target and any sharp rate hikes can ruin the already fragile balance in the fixed income space.

Real Estate

After eight years of undisrupted growth, US Real Estate has finally shown some signs of slow down. While demand for Real Estate in the primary markets like California and New York is still high, I expect to see some cooling off and normalization of year-over-year price growth

US REITs have reported 3.5% total return year-to-date, which is roughly the equivalent of -0.5% in price return and 4% in dividend yield.

Some retail REITs will continue to struggle in the near-term due to store closures and pressure from online retailers. I encourage investors to maintain a diversified REIT portfolio with a focus on strong management, sustainability of dividends and long-term growth prospects.

Gold

After several years of underperformance, Gold is making a quiet comeback. Gold was up 8% in 2016 and 14% year-to-date. Increasing market and political uncertainty and fear of inflation are driving many investors to safe havens such as gold. Traditionally, as an asset class, Gold has a minimal correlation to equities and fixed income. As such, I support a 1% to 5% exposure to Gold in a broadly diversified portfolio as a way to reduce long-term risk.

 

About the author: Stoyan Panayotov, CFA is a fee-only investment 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,

 

5 Myths and One True Fact about passive investing

5 Myths and One True Fact about passive investing

The passive investing in ETFs and index funds has experienced a massive influx of money in the past ten years. The US ETF market is quickly approaching $3 trillion in assets under management. As of March 29, 2017, the total AUM for US ETFs was equal to $2.78 trillion. The value is still dwarfing the $16-trillion mutual fund business. However, it is growing at a steady pace of $300-400 billion annually and slowly catching up. Inevitably, passive investing will continue to grow while active investing will shrink over time until they reach some equilibrium. A lot has been said and written in the media about the benefits of passive investing and indexing. However, I would like to point out 5 Myths and One True Fact about passive investing.

1. Passive investing is cheap

One of the main slogans of the passive investing campaign is that is cheaper than active investing i.e mutual funds. Indeed, the large US ETFs are now charging as low as 0.04% while many active managers are still asking for 1% – 1.5% in management fees.

However, some less obvious costs remain hidden and misunderstood by the average investor. ETFs have two large expense categories – transaction and holding costs.

Transaction costs include trade commissions, bid-ask spread, and market impact. Holding costs include management fees, index tracking error, and taxes.Without getting too technical, holding larger and more liquid ETFs like SPY and VTI will minimize these costs. While, trading smaller ETFs can drive higher hidden costs due to poor trade execution, higher fees, significant index tracking error, and even taxes.

2. Passive investing always beats active investing

According to a recent study by PIMCO, 46% of all active equity fund managers and 84% of all active bond managers over performed their median passive peers in the past five years. In practice, passive investing will perform very well in efficient market segments such as large cap stocks where most companies receive a good amount of publicity and research coverage. On the other hand, active managers will do better in less efficient asset classes like small-cap, emerging markets, and fixed income. These markets have a lot bigger room for mispricing and price discovery due to fragmentation of market players and lower research coverage.

3. Passive investing gives you control

Intuitively it makes sense to think that passive investing provides more control over your investment decisions. After all, you are not paying an active manager to pick and choose your stock holdings. But, and there is always but, most passive investment strategies are market cap weighted. That means whether you invest in S&P 500 (SPY) or Total Equity Market (VTI), a significant portion of your money will go to companies like Apple, Microsoft, Exxon Mobile, Amazon, Johnson and Johnson, General Electric, JP Morgan and Wells Fargo. In fact, you have no choice. The top 10 companies in S&P 500 make up 19% on the index and the remaining 490 stocks make up 81%. Indices are already set and you will follow their performance. 

4. Passive investing is less risky

Investing comes with risk.  And passive investing is as risky as any other form of investing. Passive investors are equally exposed to losses during bear markets, sudden market corrections or just following the wrong index.  In fact, many ETFs are becoming a popular tool amongst traders and hedge fund managers to park extra cash or quickly get in and out of certain positions. Sudden large inflows and selloffs can impose significant risks to smaller retail investors due to an imbalance of trading volume between ETFs and underlying securities.

I also want to point out the increasing presence of Exchange Traded Notes, leveraged, inverse, commodity and volatility ETFs. They carry significant risk to investors and should not be used for long-term retirement planning.

In contrast to that, many active managers use risk-adjusted measures like Sharpe ratio, information ratio, Treynor Ratio and Alpha when assessing their performance to their respective benchmark. Furthermore, many iconic active mutual funds lost a lot less than similar ETFs during the last bear market in 2008-2009 mainly because of their strong risk management policies.

5. Passive investing is efficient

ETFs trade daily and have intra-day pricing like any other stock on the exchange. Naturally, ETFs were designed as a vehicle to provide liquidity and transparency in the marketplace.

However, there have been numerous occasions of significant ETF market mispricing, On August 24, 2015, due to a flash sale, several ETFs lost more than 40% – 50% of their value in a matter of seconds before they recover.

More recently, on March 20, a computer glitch on the largest ETF Exchange, NYSE Arca, caused significant delays and mispricing of thousands of ETFs.

6. The act of choosing passive investing is, in fact, active investing

While the “passive” in the name implies a lack of involvement in the investment decision making, in reality, there is no true passive investing. Passive investing is a type of active investment management. Choosing between passive and active funds is an active choice. Selecting which index to follow is an active decision. Allocating between different asset classes is an act of investment election. Even, the process of deciding when to buy and when to sell an index fund or an ETF is an active decision.

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, Copyright: <a href=’https://www.123rf.com/profile_vadymvdrobot’>vadymvdrobot / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

Everything you need to know about your Target Retirement Fund

Everything you need to know about your Target Retirement Fund

Target Retirement Funds are a popular investment option in many workplace retirement plans such as 401k, 403b, 457, and TSP. They offer a relatively simple and straightforward way to invest your retirement savings as their investment approach is based on the individual target retirement dates.

Nowadays, almost all employers and 401k providers offer target retirement funds – from Fidelity to Vanguard, American Funds, Blackrock, and Schwab. Although employers and advisors have a choice amongst several fund families, they will typically select one of them for their plan. Multiple target fund families are readily available in individual brokerage accounts or self-directed IRAs.

Workplace plan participants typically have to choose one fund from a single family with target retirement dates in 5-year increments – 2025, 2030, 2035, 2040, 2045, and 2050. Often, plans with auto-enrollment features will automatically assign a target retirement fund based on the estimated year of retirement. Manual enrollment programs will have the fund series in their fund line-up, which could consist of a mix of index, actively managed and target retirement funds.

The base assumption of the target retirement funds is that younger investors have a long investment horizon and higher risk tolerance, therefore, they should have their target retirement assets in more risky investments such as stocks. Inversely, older investors will have a shorter investment horizon and lower risk tolerance. Therefore, the majority of their target retirement money will be in more low-risk investments such as bonds.

Despite their growing popularity, target retirement funds have some limitations and are not identical.  They have substantial differences that may not always appeal to everybody. In this post, I would like to explain some of those nuances.

Style

Target funds utilize two main investment styles – passive indexing and active management. Passive Target Retirement Funds like Vanguard and BlackRock LifePath primarily invest in a mix of index funds. The second groups including T. Rowe Price, Fidelity, American Century, and American Funds pursue an active strategy where investments are allocated in a mix of active mutual funds typically managed by the same firm.

Fees

The fund investment style will often impact the management fees charged by each fund. Passive funds tend to charge lower fees, usually around 0.15% – 0.20%. On the other hand, active funds typically range between 0.40% – 1%.

Name Ticker Morningstar Rating Morningstar Analyst Rating AUM Expense
Vanguard Target Retirement 2045 VTIVX 4-star Gold $18.1 bil 0.16%
T. Rowe Price Retirement 2045 TRRKX 5-Star Silver $10.2 bil 0.76%
American Funds 2045 Trgt Date Retire R6 RFHTX 5-Star Silver $4.8 bil 0.43%
Fidelity Freedom® 2045 FFFGX 3-Star Silver $3.5 bil 0.77%
American Century One Choice 2045 AROIX 4-star Bronze $1.7 bil 0.97%

If you have any doubts about how much you pay for your fund, double-check with your plan administrator or Human Resource. Not to sound alarming but I recently read about a case where a 401k plan contained a fund listed as “Vngd Tgt Retrmt 2045 Fund.” whose sole investment was Vanguard Target Retirement 2045 Fund. However, instead of charging an expense ratio of 0.16%, the fund was taking a whopping 0.92%.  The only purpose of this sham is to deceive participants into believing they are investing in the real Vanguard fund and marking up the expense ratio exponentially.

Asset allocation

The asset allocation is the most critical factor for investment performance. According to numerous studies, it contributes to more than 90% of the portfolio return.  As a factor of such significance, it is essential to understand the asset allocation of your target retirement fund.

While comparing five of the largest target retirement families, we see some considerable variations between them. Vanguard has the highest allocation to Foreign Equity, while T. Rowe has the largest investment in US Equity. Fidelity has the highest allocation to Cash and Cash Equivalents while American Century has the biggest exposure to Bonds. And lastly, American Funds has the largest distribution to Other, which includes Preferred Stocks and Convertible Bonds.

 

2045 Series 

Name Ticker Cash US Stock Non-US Stock Bond Other
Vanguard Target Retirement 2045 VTIVX   1.11      52.98         34.91     9.77   1.23
T. Rowe Price Retirement 2045 TRRKX   2.87      58.98         28.48     9.05   0.62
American Funds 2045 Trgt Date Retire R6 RFHTX   3.66      53.21         29.02     9.77   4.34
Fidelity Freedom® 2045 FFFGX   5.79      57.58         32.07     3.93   0.63
American Century One Choice 2045 AROIX   2.04      55.38         20.32   21.36   0.90

It is also important to understand how the target asset allocation changes over time as investors approach retirement. This change is known as the glide path. In the below table you can see the asset allocation of the 2025 target fund series. All of them have a higher allocation to Bonds, Cash and Cash Equivalents, and a lower allocation of US and Foreign Equity.

2025 Series

Name Ticker Cash US Stock Non-US Stock Bond Other
Vanguard Target Retirement 2025 VTIVX   1.44      38.05         25.09   34.30   1.12
T. Rowe Price Retirement 2025 Fund TRRHX   3.35      45.64         22.06   28.23   0.72
American Funds 2025 Trgt Date Retire R6 RFDTX   4.12      39.60         19.36   33.65   3.27
Fidelity Freedom® 2025 FFTWX   8.99      41.70         24.31   24.46   0.54
American Century One Choice 2025 ARWIX   7.18      40.01         11.88   40.01   0.92

 

 Keep in mind that the target Asset Allocation is not static. Moreover, the fund managers can change the fund allocation according to their view of the market and economic conditions.

Performance

After all said and done, the performance is what matters for most investors and retirees. However, comparing performance between different target funds can be a little tricky. As you saw in the previous paragraph, they are not the same.

So let’s first look at a comparison between different target-date funds from the same family. The return figures represent a net-of-fees performance for 3, 5 and 10 years. Standard Deviation (St. Dev) measures the volatility (risk) of returns.  As expected, the long-dated funds posted higher returns over the near-dated funds. However, the long-dated funds come with higher volatility due to their higher allocation to equities.

 

Target Date Performance Comparison by Target Year

Return Standard Deviation
Name Ticker 3-Year 5-Year 10-Year 3-Year 5-Year 10-Year
American Funds 2025 Trgt Date Retire R6 RFDTX    5.71     9.36      5.88    6.78     7.48    12.83
American Funds 2035 Trgt Date Retire R6 RFFTX    6.73   10.43      6.44    8.70     8.84    13.81
American Funds 2045 Trgt Date Retire R6 RFHTX    6.99   10.67      6.56    9.09     9.10    13.96
American Funds 2055 Trgt Date Retire R6 RFKTX    7.33   11.32    9.13     9.15

 

The comparison between different fund families also reveals significant variations in performance. The majority of these differences can be attributed to their asset allocation, investment selection, and management fees.

Target Date Performance Comparison by Fund Family

Return     Standard Deviation
Name Ticker 3-Year 5-Year 10-Year 3-Year 5-Year 10-Year
Vanguard Target Retirement 2045 VTIVX    6.24     9.50      5.70    9.42     9.51    14.63
T. Rowe Price Retirement 2045 TRRKX    6.54     9.92      6.20    9.68     9.80    15.80
American Funds 2045 Trgt Date Retire R6 RFHTX    6.99   10.67      6.56    9.09     9.10    13.96
Fidelity Freedom® 2045 FFFGX    6.50     8.95      4.82    9.83     9.64    15.25
American Century One Choice 2045 AROIX    5.79     8.63      5.73    8.38     8.41    13.50

How they fit with your financial goals

How the target retirement fund fit within your financial goals is an important nuance that often gets underestimated by many. Target retirement funds assume the investors’ risk tolerance based on their age and the estimated year of retirement. Older investors will automatically be assigned as conservative while they could be quite aggressive if this is a part of their inter-generational estate planning. Further, young investors default to an aggressive allocation while they could be more conservative due to significant short-term financial goals. So keep in mind that the extra layer of personal financial planning is not a factor in target retirement funds.

 

Final words

Target retirement funds come with many benefits. They offer an easy way to invest for retirement without the need for in-depth financial knowledge. Target funds come in different shapes and forms and bring certain caveats which may appeal to some investors and not to others. If you plan to invest in a target retirements fund, the five questions above will help you decide if this is the right investment for you.

Will Small Caps continue to rally under Trump Presidency?

Small Cap stocks are a long-time favorite of many individual investors and portfolio manager. The asset class jumped 38% since the last election. Will Small Caps continue to rally under Trump Presidency? Can they maintain their momentum?

The new president Trump started with promises for domestic business growth, lower taxes, and deregulation. While details are still unclear, if implemented correctly, these policies can bring significant benefits to small size companies.

The recent growth comes after five years of sluggish performance. Before the 2016 election, the Russell 2000 had underperformed S&P 500 500 by almost 2% annually, 11.59% versus 13.44%.  Small-cap stocks have been very volatile and fragmented. As a result, many active managers have underperformed passive index strategies.

 

Low tax rates

The average US corporate tax rate is 39.1% which includes 35% federal tax and 4.1% average state tax. USA has the highest corporate tax among OECD countries, which have an average of 29% tax rate. While large multinationals with their corporate lawyers can take advantage of cross-border tax loopholes, the same is not possible for smaller businesses. Dropping the tax rate to the suggested 20% will give small caps a breath of fresh air. It will allow them to have more available cash, which they can use for hiring more talent, R&D or dividends.

Deregulation

Regulations are typically set to protect the consumer and the environment from businesses which prioritize profit margins over safety. Therefore, lifting regulations will be a tricky game. If the streamlining leads to more competition, better customer experience, less bureaucracy, and faster processing of business requests to governing bodies, then deregulation will help smaller business thrive further and be more competitive.

 Infrastructure

I drive a lot around the San Francisco Bay Area and can ensure you that every highway with “80” in the name is in dire need of major TLC. The same story is probably true for many major cities and industrial centers. If the executed correctly, the infrastructure policy can boost small business growth. Local companies can bid for infrastructure projects or participate as subcontractors. Improved infrastructure can also help goods and produce to arrive faster and safer and ultimately drive down cost.

Domestic production incentives

With the current strong dollar and liberal trading policy, the small business has struggled to compete against imports, which rely heavily on cheap labor and often on local government subsidies. Certain industries like textile and electronics are almost non-existent in the US.

Nevertheless, I think setting embargos and trade wars with other countries will be a step in the wrong direction. Alternatively, The US government should support industries that offer innovative, high quality, customized and niche products, which can dominate the global markets.

 

While the markets are currently optimistic about the success of the new economic policies, things can still go wrong. The markets had a long rally since the end of the bear market in March 2009. At the current level, both large and small-cap companies have reached rich valuations, and stock prices are factoring the proposed economic policies. The stock market may react abruptly if the new administration fails to deliver their promises.

Some of the side effects of the new policies need to be in consideration as well.

Rising interest rates

The 10-year Treasury jumped from 1.5% in July 2016 to 2.47% today. While high-interest rates have been welcomed by many market players, they can hurt the small business’ ability to get new loans. Many companies rely on external financing to fund their daily business activities, R&D, and expansions. Higher interest rates will increase the cost and affect the bottom line of those companies that traditionally use loans as part of their business and have less access to internal resources.

Another caveat in this topic is the proposed change to eliminate the interest as a tax deduction. While still up-in-the-air, this proposal will further affect those companies that depend on external loans for financing.

Inflation

Inflation is healthy for the economy when it’s a result of organic economic growth, innovation, productivity, and consumer demand. However, if let out of control, inflation will undermine the purchasing power of the dollar, push down consumer demand and increase the cost of domestic goods and services.

Strong dollar

Small cap companies are traditionally focused on the local US market. However, a strong dollar can make imports more price competitive against local products. The strong dollar also affects negatively business relying on exports. It makes US exports more expensive in local currencies.

Immigration

It’s a known fact that US firms tap into a foreign talent to fill out jobs that are not in high supply by domestic job seekers. Usually, the biggest portion of visa workers goes to larger companies. However, stricter immigration laws can still hurt the ability of small firms to hire foreign talent and compete against their larger rivals. Many tech start-ups, financial and biotech companies rely on foreign visa workers to fill out certain roles whenever they cannot find qualified US candidates. Agriculture and tourism businesses also depend on foreign workers to fill in seasonal positions. Tighter immigration rules will force these companies to increase salaries to remain competitive. Higher salaries will drive higher cost and lower profit margins.

 

Conclusion

While we are in a standby mode, the market continues to be nervous in anticipation of the direction of the new policies. For those interested in small-cap stocks, I would suggest looking for companies with an innovative business model, solid R&D and high-quality metrics like ROA and ROE. Those companies are likely to be more resilient in the long run, and less depended on policy changes.

 

Final words

If you have any questions about your existing investment portfolio, reach out to me at [email protected] or +925-448-9880.

You can also visit our Insights page where you can find helpful articles and resources on how to make better financial and investment decisions.

About the author:

Stoyan Panayotov, CFA is the founder and CEO of Babylon Wealth Management, a fee-only investment advisory firm based in Walnut Creek, CA. Babylon Wealth Management offers personalized wealth management and financial planning services to individuals and families.  To learn more visit our Private Client Services page here. Additionally, we offer Outsourced Chief Investment Officer services to professional advisors (RIAs), family offices, endowments, defined benefit plans, and other institutional clients. To find out more visit our OCIO page here.

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,

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.

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

MLP Investing – Risks and benefits

MLP Investing

MLP investing is popular among retirees and income-seeking investors.  In this article, we will break down the benefits, risks and tax implications of investing in MLPs.

What is an MLP?

Managed Limited Partnerships (MLPs) have grown in popularity in the past several years. Many U.S. energy firms have reorganized their slow-growing, but stable cash flow businesses, such as pipelines and storage terminals, into MLPs.

MLPs are very attractive to income-seeking investors. They must pass at least 90% of their income to their partners (investors). As a whole, the MLP sector offers on average 6% annual yield with some MLPs reaching over 15%.

Companies that operate as MLPs tend to be in very stable, slow-growing industries, such as pipelines and energy storage. The nature of their business offers few opportunities for price appreciation. On the other hand, cash distributions are relatively stable and predictable giving the MLPs features of both an equity and fixed income investment.

The number of public MLPs increased dramatically in the past 20 years. There were more than 18 IPOs in 2014 from almost zero in 1984.      

MLP Legal structure

There are two types of MLP owners – general and limited partners. General partners manage the day-to-day operations of the partnership. All other investors are limited partners and have no involvement in the company’s activities. MLPs technically have no employees.

MLP investors buy units of the partnership. Unlike shareholders of a corporation, they are known as “unitholders.”

Each unitholder is responsible for paying their share of the partnership’s income taxes. Unitholders are required to file K-1 forms in each state where the MLP operates, regardless of the size of revenue generated from that state. This filing requirement makes the direct MLP ownership.

Additionally, open-end funds like traditional ETFs are restricted from investing more than 25% of their portfolio in MLPs. Therefore most ETFs choose a C-corporation or ETN structure in order to track the MLP market.

Distributions

MLPs provide generous income to their investors. The average yield is around 6% as some small MLPs pay up to 15%. The distributions from MLP consist of non-qualified dividends, return on capital, and capital gains.

Since MLPs pass through 90% of their income to unitholders, each type of distribution has different tax treatment.

Dividends are taxed at the ordinary income tax level, up to 39.6% plus 3.8% for Medicare surcharge.

Capital gains are taxable as either long-term or short-term. Long-term capital gains have favorable tax treatment with rates between 0, 15% and 20%. Short-term gains are taxed at the ordinary income level.

The largest portion of MLP distributions comes as a return on capital. The benefit comes from the MLPs use of depreciation allowances on capital equipment, pipelines, and storage tanks, to offset net income. Return on capital distributions are tax deferred. Instead of being immediately taxable, distributions decrease the cost basis of the investment. Taxes are only due to these distributions when investors sell their units. In fact, investors can defer paying taxes indefinitely by keeping their shares.

Tax Impact

MLP distributions are not sheltered from taxes in retirement accounts. According to the Unrelated business taxable income (UBTI) rule, unitholders will owe taxes on partnership income over $1,000 even if the units are held in a retirement account.

Individual MLP holdings, ETFs, mutual funds and CEFs are most suitable for long-term buy and hold investors in their taxable investment accounts. Those investors can benefit from the tax-deferred nature of the cost of capital distributions, which will decrease their cost basis over time. They will pay taxes only when they sell their units. Investors can avoid paying taxes indefinitely or until cost basis reaches zero. In that case, they will owe taxes on the return of capital distributions at the long-term capital gain rate.

Short-term investors may consider ETNs for their better index tracking. All distributions from ETNs are taxable as an ordinary income level and do not provide any preferential tax treatment.

Risk considerations with MLP Investing

MLPs drive their revenue from the volume of transported energy products. Their business is less dependent on the fluctuations of the commodity prices compared to other oil & gas companies. Historically, MLPs as a group is less volatile than the broader energy sector. MLP price tends to have a direct correlation with the partnership distributions. Higher payouts drive higher prices while lowers distributions push the price down.

Between September 2010 and October 2016, the largest MLP ETF, AMLP had a standard deviation equal to 14.8%. As a comparison, the largest energy ETF, XLE, had a standard deviation of 19.61%.

MLPs are often treated as an alternative investment due to their considerable ownership of real assets. They also have a lower correlation with the broad equity and fixed income markets while simultaneously having characteristics of both. AMLP has 0.57 correlation with S&P 500 and -0.16 to the 20-year treasury.

MLP Investing options

Direct ownership

As of March 31, 2016, 118 energy MLPs were totaling $304 billion in market capitalization.

The most popular index tracking the MLP space is Alerian MLP. The index has 44 constituents and $298 billion market capitalization.

There are ten companies dominating the sector. They make up close to two-thirds of the Alerian MLP Index. The remainder consists of hundreds of small and mid-size partnerships.  

Direct MLP ownership is a popular strategy for yield-seeking investors. The direct investing also provides the most beneficial tax treatment of MLP distributions – tax deferral.

However, the biggest drawbacks of direct investing are the large tax filing cost and exposure to a single company.

Investors interested in direct ownership in MLPs should consider buying a basket of partnerships to diversify their risk more efficiently. They should also weight the tax benefits of direct ownership versus the cost of year-end tax filing.

ETFs and ETNs

MLP ETFs and ETNs have the most complex legal and tax structure of any other ETFs. Due to these complexities, most funds are structured as ETNs.

There are 28 MLP ETFs and ETNs currently listed on the exchange. Their total Asset Under Management (AUM) is $17.7 billion with the top 4 ETFs dominating the space with total AUM equal to $15.9 billion. 

AMLP

AMLP is the most popular and liquid MLP ETF. It tracks the Alerian MLP index. AMLP is the first ETF to address the complexity of direct MLP ownership.  This ETF offers a broad diversification to the largest publicly traded MLPs.

AMLP offers simplified tax filing by issuing standard 1099 form. Because of its legal structure, AMLP can pass the tax-deferred treatment of MLP distributions to its investors.

To satisfy the legal restrictions on ownership, AMLP is structured as a corporation, not an actual ETF.  AMLP pays taxes at the corporate level. The structure requires the fund to accrue the future tax liabilities of unrealized gains in its portfolio. Doing this is causing the fund to trail its underlying Alerian Index during bull markets and beat it during down periods.

AMJ

AMJ is the next most popular fund in this category. It is structured as an exchange-traded note.

ETNs are an unsecured debt instrument structured to track an underlying index’s return, minus management fees. Unlike exchange-traded funds, ETNs do not buy and hold any the underlying assets in the indexes they track. They represent a promise by the issuing bank to match the performance of the index.

AMJ is issued by JP Morgan and capped at the market value of $3.885 billion. Investors in AMJ have credit exposure to JP Morgan in case they are not able to pay the performance of the index.

Due to the lack of actual MLP ownership, AMJ can replicate the performance of the Alerian MLP index much closer than AMLP.

AMJ also issues single 1099 tax form. However, all its distributions are taxable as ordinary income, for up to 39.6% plus 3.8% of Medicare surcharge. AMJ distributions do not have the preferential tax treatment of AMLP and individual MLP ownership.

This ETF is suitable for short term investors willing to bet on the MLP sector and not interested in any potential income and tax benefits.

EMLP

EMLP is the only traditional ETF in this group. Because of the regulatory restrictions, EMLP holds only 25% stake in MLPs and the remaining 32% in Energy, 40% in Utilities and 2% in Basic Materials. Unlike the other funds, EMLP has a broader exposure to companies in the energy infrastructure sector. According to the prospectus, the fund invests in publicly traded master limited partnerships and limited liability Canadian income trusts,, pipeline companies, utilities, and other companies that derive at least 50% of their revenues from operating or providing services in support of infrastructure assets such as pipelines, power transmission and petroleum and natural gas storage in the petroleum, natural gas and power generation industries.

Mutual Funds

The three Oppenheimer mutual funds are dominating this niche. They manage almost 50% of the $20b AUM by MLP mutual funds.

The MLP mutual funds tend to have higher fees than most ETFs. They utilize the corporate structure which allows them to transfer the majority of the income and tax advantages to their shareholders.

Closed-End Funds

Closed-End funds (CEF) are another alternative for investing in the MLP sector. Similarly to mutual funds,  CEFs are actively managed. The difference is that they only issue a limited number of publicly traded shares.

Most MLP closed-end funds use leverage between 24% to 40%  to boost their income. These funds borrow money in order to increase their investments.

 

CEFs shares often trade at premium or discount from the NAV of their holdings. When purchased at a discount they can offer potential long-term gains to interested investors.

MLP CEFs also use the c-corp structure. They issue a 1099 form and pass current income and return on capital to their investors allowing for tax-deferral benefits on the distributions.

 

Investing in Small Cap Stocks

Small Cap Stocks

Small cap stocks are an important part of a diversified investment portfolio. They had provided high historical return and diversification, which are key factors in the portfolio management process.

Many flagship companies started as small businesses in a local market and evolved to large multinational corporations. Some of these success stories include McDonalds, which opened its first restaurant in Des Plaines, Illinois to become one of the biggest food chains in the world.

Research has shown that small-cap stocks overperformed a large cap over an extended period.

The below chart shows 15-year performance between IWM, Russell 2000 Small Cap ETF and SPY, S&P 500 Large Cap ETF. For that period IWM surged by 164% while SPY rose by 67%.

 

Once we include dividends, the 15-year annualized return of a small cap blend strategy becomes 8.66% versus 6.71% for a large cap strategy.

If we extend our period to 40 years (1975 – 2015), the small cap generated 14.25% annualized return while large cap produced 11.66%.

Investing in small companies comes with many caveats.  Even though they bring potentially high returns, they also impose high risk and uncertainty.

Small cap stocks market capitalization

Small cap companies have a market capitalization between $300 million and $2 billion dollars. Overall, the small size market is very fragmented. There are thousands of publicly traded small-size companies, but they only make 10-15% of the total market. The definition of a small-cap company varies widely among index providers and portfolio managers. Standard & Poor’s tracks their own S&P 600 Small Cap Index while FTSE Russell tracks the Russell 2000 Small Cap Index.

Very often, small companies are managed by their original founders.  They are usually new and innovative companies with competitive strengths in a particular local market or a specific product. It is not uncommon for companies to go back and forth between small, mid and large-cap rankings depending on their business cycle.

Niche market

Small cap companies often operate in a niche market where they have a distinct competitive advantage. Small businesses have a unique product or service, which they offer on either national or local level.  Unlike their bigger counterparts, which offer a variety of products in different geographies, small size companies tend to be more focused, with one or two flagship products. A particular example can be Coca Cola versus Red Bull. Coca-Cola offers hundreds of varieties of beverages worldwide while Red Bull offers only one type of energy drink.

Regularly small companies will start from a local market and grow nationwide.  Starbucks is a great example of a local coffee shop that moved up the ranks and became one of the top 100 large company in the USA and the world.

Small businesses with a unique product will often become an acquisition target for a larger corporation that wants to gain a presence in a growing higher margin market. Great example for that is PepsiCo acquiring Gatorade. PepsiCo wanted to get access to the fast growing market of sports drinks and instead of developing their own line; they decided to purchase an already established brand.

Growth potential

Small cap companies often have higher revenue growth than large size ones. Their competitive advantages, innovative strategy, flexibility and market positioning allows them to grow faster. It is easier to increase 25% when you start at $10 million of revenue versus $25% at $ 1 billion of revenue. Many times small companies do not even have a competition in their market niche. Think of Facebook before they went public. It is common for small firms to grow their revenue between 25% and 50% annually for several consecutive years.

Volatile prices

Investing in small cap stocks is risky. The high potential return of small caps comes with greater risk. The share price of small companies is more volatile and subject to larger swings than those of bigger companies.

IWM, the biggest small-cap ETF, has a beta of 1.22 to the equity market. As the comparison, the beta of SPY, the most traded large-cap ETF, is equal to 1. Beta measures the volatility of a security compared to the market as a whole. IWM beta of 1.22 shows that the ETF is historically 22% more volatile than the overall market.

Another measure of volatility is a standard deviation. It illustrates how spread out are the historical returns compared to the average annualized return of the investments. In our case, the 15-year standard deviation of IWM is 19.73% versus 14.14% for SPY.

As I mentioned earlier, the average 15-year return for a small cap stock is 8.66%. With a standard deviation equal to 19.73%, an average annual return can go between -11.07% and 28.39%. For SPY the average range is between -7.43% and +20.85% with annualized return of 5.25%. Based on this historical data we can claim that the small cap market has a much wider probability of returns. The high upside comes with a bigger downside.

Limited access

Small cap stocks lack the liquidity and trading volume of the large public corporations. This makes them more vulnerable to large price swings in short periods.

In times of economic recession, small companies can take a bigger hit in their earnings and may take a longer time to recover. Ten or fifteen percent decline in revenues can have a much more adverse impact on a small company than a larger one.

Due to their limited access to equity markets and loan financing, small size companies have a higher risk to go into bankruptcy if they run out of money.

Many small firms are start-ups with one innovative product and untested business models. Their dependency on just one product or service puts them in a very high-risk category in cases when the product or service does not appeal to their target customer base.

Inefficient market

Traders and portfolio managers often ignore small-cap companies. The focus is usually on large size companies, which frequently have 5 to 10 analysts following their earnings.  In fact, research analysts cover very few of the 2,000 stocks in the Russell 2000 index. Therefore, it is common that a small company does not have a full coverage by any industry analysts. This lack of interest and publicity produces conditions for inefficient pricing.   Active investors with a focus on the small cap market can scan the universe for undervalued and mispriced stocks and generate higher returns based on their valuation techniques and knowledge of the market.

Diversification

Investing in small cap companies can significantly contribute to the diversification of your portfolio.  Even though small stocks have a higher risk than larger ones, their correlation to the overall market is lower. A small blend strategy has 0.86 correlation to the overall US stock market and 0.56 to the broader international stock market.

A correlation equal to 1 shows the highest strength of the relationship between two asset categories. In the case of small cap, the correlation of 0.86 shows a weaker link with the overall market. Small cap prices does not fluctuate in the same magnitude and pace as the large cap companies.  While there is some influence by S&P 500, they follow an independent path.

 

How to invest in small cap stocks

Individual stocks

You can invest in small size companies by buying them directly on the open market. There are over 2,000 listed small size companies in various industries and stages of their business cycle. Naturally, you cannot invest in all 2,000 stocks. You have to find a way to narrow down your criteria and select stocks based on certain factors. Very few small companies have analyst coverage. Therefore investing in small caps stocks will require doing your own research, analysis, and valuation.

When you invest in any company directly, being that a small or large size, you have to keep in mind that concentrated positions can adversely affect your portfolio performance if that company has a bad year or goes bankrupt. While everyone’s risk sensitivity is different, I would recommend limiting the range of each individual stock investment to 1% – 2% of your portfolio.

Tax Impact

For the best tax impact, I recommend putting small cap stocks either in taxable or Roth IRA accounts. Small cap companies have higher expected return combined with a higher expected volatility. If you hold your stocks in a taxable account, you can take advantage of tax loss harvesting opportunities if a particular stock in your portfolio is trading at lower levels than original purchase price. Tax loss harvesting is not available in Roth IRA, Traditional IRA, and 401k accounts. I

If you have small-cap stocks with solid long-term return prospects, keeping them in a taxable account will also allow you to pay the favorable long-term capital gain tax when you decide to sell them.

Having stocks in a Roth IRA account will have even better tax treatment – zero tax at the time of sale.

Passive indexing

ETFs and index mutual funds are the top choice for passive small cap investing. They provide a low-cost alternative for investors seeking a broader exposure to the small cap market. Small cap ETFs come in different shapes and forms. The table below shows a list of the most traded small cap ETFs with AUM above $500 million:

List of Small Cap ETFs

TICKER

FUND NAME EXPENSE RATIO AUM SPREAD % 1 YEAR 5 YEAR 10 YEAR SEGMENT

AS OF

IWM iShares Russell 2000 ETF 0.20% $27.79B 0.01% 5.69% 12.28% 6.01% Equity: U.S. – Small Cap 10/26/2016
IJR iShares Core S&P Small Cap ETF 0.07% $20.83B 0.03% 7.35% 14.16% 7.56% Equity: U.S. – Small Cap 10/26/2016
VB Vanguard Small-Cap Index Fund 0.08% $13.94B 0.03% 5.59% 13.14% 7.40% Equity: U.S. – Small Cap 10/26/2016
VBR Vanguard Small Cap Value Index Fund 0.08% $8.16B 0.04% 7.31% 14.20% 6.77% Equity: U.S. – Small Cap Value 10/26/2016
IWN iShares Russell 2000 Value ETF 0.25% $6.72B 0.01% 9.39% 12.17% 4.82% Equity: U.S. – Small Cap Value 10/26/2016
IWO iShares Russell 2000 Growth ETF 0.25% $6.35B 0.02% 1.92% 12.31% 7.01% Equity: U.S. – Small Cap Growth 10/26/2016
VBK Vanguard Small-Cap Growth Index Fund 0.08% $4.93B 0.04% 3.50% 11.36% 7.25% Equity: U.S. – Small Cap Growth 10/26/2016
IJS iShares S&P Small-Cap 600 Value ETF 0.25% $3.85B 0.03% 10.26% 14.31% 6.57% Equity: U.S. – Small Cap Value 10/26/2016
SCHA Schwab U.S. Small-Cap ETF 0.06% $3.78B 0.04% 5.46% 13.03% Equity: U.S. – Small Cap 10/26/2016
IJT iShares S&P Small-Cap 600 Growth ETF 0.25% $3.47B 0.08% 4.41% 13.74% 8.42% Equity: U.S. – Small Cap Growth 10/26/2016
DES WisdomTree SmallCap Dividend Fund 0.38% $1.59B 0.12% 11.96% 14.36% 6.35% Equity: U.S. – Small Cap 10/26/2016
FNDA Schwab Fundamental US Small Co. Index ETF 0.32% $1.04B 0.06% 6.38% Equity: U.S. – Small Cap 10/26/2016
SLYG SPDR S&P 600 Small Cap Growth ETF 0.15% $807.64M 0.27% 4.61% 13.74% 9.00% Equity: U.S. – Small Cap Growth 10/26/2016
VTWO Vanguard Russell 2000 Index Fund 0.15% $675.74M 0.06% 5.67% 12.19% Equity: U.S. – Small Cap 10/26/2016
XSLV PowerShares S&P SmallCap Low Volatility Portfolio 0.25% $651.46M 0.09% 12.43% Equity: U.S. – Small Cap 10/26/2016
SLYV SPDR S&P 600 Small Cap Value ETF 0.15% $610.42M 0.21% 10.46% 14.43% 7.38% Equity: U.S. – Small Cap Value 10/26/2016
SLY SPDR S&P 600 Small Cap ETF 0.15% $512.80M 0.25% 7.10% 13.99% 8.19% Equity: U.S. – Small Cap 10/26/2016

Benchmark

One of the main differences between small-cap ETFs is the index they track. Each of the three main Small Cap Indexes is constructed differently.

Russell 2000 (IWM) includes the bottom 2,000 of the largest 3,000 publicly traded companies. The average market cap of the constituents of Russell 2000 is equal to $1.9 billion. The median is 698 million. And the largest stock has a market cap of $6 billion.

S&P 600 Index (IJR) tracks a smaller subset of the market. It includes only 600 companies.  As of April 2016, the market capitalization of companies included in the Index ranged from US$ 400 million to US$ 1.8 billion. S&P 600 also sets additional requirements for liquidity, public float, sector and financial viability.

CRSP SmallCap index (VB) tracks the 2%-15% percentile of the total market. It has 1,462 companies. The smallest company has a market capitalization of $21 million; the largest has $7.9 billion. The average size is $1.85 billion. The median is $1.44 billion. It is worth noting that VB tracked Russell 2000 Index through May 16, 2003; MSCI US Small Cap 1750 Index through January 30, 2013; CRSP US Small Cap Index thereafter

Focus

Another big difference between Small Cap ETFs is their segment focus. There are three main segments – small cap blend, growth, and value. The blend strategy invests in the wide universe of small caps, which mechanically tracks the designated index. The value strategy tracks a specific group of companies that have a  certain level of Price to Earnings, Price to Sales, Price to Book, dividend yield, and other fundamental ratios. Growth strategy invests in a group of stocks that meet certain criteria for price, revenue and earnings growth.

Tax Impact

ETFs and index funds have more favorable tax treatment than actively traded mutual funds. Due to their passive nature and legal structure, these funds rarely release capital gains and losses to their shareholders. Therefore, investors looking to optimize taxes in their investment portfolio should consider these type of funds.

Active investing

This strategy includes investing in actively managed mutual funds. These funds are run by management teams. They normally charge higher fees than comparable ETF to cover for the trading, administrative, marketing and research expenses.  Mutual funds follow a benchmark, which is usually one of the three main indices described earlier – S&P 600, Russell 2000 or CSRP Small Cap Index. Because of their higher fees than comparable ETFs, fund managers are often expected to outperform their benchmark.

Active funds normally focus in one of the three main segments – blend, growth or value. The fund managers utilize a formal selection process that identifies a number of companies, which meet certain proprietary criteria. The end goal is to select those companies that will achieve a higher return than the undying benchmark. Since the characteristics of value vs. growth strategy can be subjective, it is not an unusual that the same company is owned by both value and growth oriented funds.

In the past 7-8 years, many of the active managers have been criticized for underperforming the market. Part of the reason is that we experienced a very long market rally driven by a small number of flagship companies.

Tax Impact

Actively managed mutual funds have a more complex tax structure. They must transfer most of their dividends and capital gains and losses to their shareholders. Mutual funds will often have large amounts of long or short-term gains and losses released in December regardless how long you had kept in your portfolio, to avoid paying additional taxes I recommend placing your actively managed mutual funds in tax deferred and tax exempt accounts. Another alternative is to look for tax-managed funds. They tend to have a low turnover ratio and tend to report long-term gain and losses less frequently.