IRA Contribution Limits 2020

IRA contribution limits 2020

The IRA contribution limits for 2020 are $6,000 per person with an additional $1,000 catch-up contribution for people who are 50 or older.

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What is an IRA?

IRA or Traditional IRA is a tax-deferred retirement savings account that allows you to make tax-deductible contributions to save towards retirement. Your savings grow tax-free. You do not owe taxes on dividends and capital gains. Once you reach retirement age, you can start taking money out of the account. All distributions from the IRA are taxable as ordinary income in the year of withdrawal.

IRA income limits for 2020

The tax-deductible IRA contribution limits for 2020 are based on your annual income. If you are single and earn $124,000 or less, you can contribute up to the full amount of $6,000 per year.  If your aggregated gross income is between $124,000 and $139,000 you can still make contributions but with a lower value.

Married couples filing jointly can contribute up to $6,000 each if your combined income is less than $196,000.  If your aggregated gross income is between $196,000 and $206,000 you can still make reduced contributions.

Spousal IRA

If you are married and not earning income, you can still make contributions. As long as your spouse earns income and you file a joint return, you may be able to contribute to an IRA even if you did not have taxable compensation. Keep in mind that, your combined contributions can’t be more than the taxable compensation reported on your joint return.

IRA vs 401k

IRA is an individual retirement account.  401k plan is a workplace retirement plan, which is established by your employer. You can contribute to a 401k plan if it’s offered by your company.  In comparison, starting in 2020, anyone who is earning income can open and contribute to a traditional IRA regardless of your age.

IRA vs Roth IRA 

Traditional and Roth IRA have the same annual contributions limits.  The Traditional IRA contributions can be tax-deductible or after-tax depending on your income. In comparison. Roth IRA allows you to make after-tax contributions towards retirement. Another difference, your Traditional IRA retirement savings grow tax-deferred, while Roth IRA earnings are tax-free.

 

Roth IRA Contribution Limits 2020

Roth IRA contribution limits for 2020

The Roth IRA contribution limits for 2020 are $6,000 per person with an additional $1,000 catch-up contribution for people who are 50 or older.

Retirement Calculator

Roth IRA income limits for 2020

Roth IRA contribution limits for 2020 are based on your annual earnings. If you are single and earn $124,000 or less, you can contribute up to the full amount of $6,000 per year.  If your aggregated gross income is between $124,000 and $139,000 you can still make contributions but with a lower value.

Married couples filing jointly can contribute up to $6,000 each if your combined income is less than $196,000.  If your aggregated gross income is between $196,000 and $206,000 you can still make reduced contributions.

What is a Roth IRA?

Roth IRA is a tax-free retirement savings account that allows you to make after-tax contributions to save towards retirement. Your Roth investments grow tax-free. You will not owe taxes on dividends and capital gains. Once you reach retirement your withdrawals will be tax-free as well.

Roth vs Traditional IRA

Roth IRA allows you to make after-tax contributions towards retirement. In comparisons. Traditional IRA has the same annual contributions limits. The Traditional IRA contributions can be tax-deductible or after-tax depending on your income. Additionally, your Traditional IRA savings grow tax-deferred. Unlike Roth Roth, you will owe income taxes on your withdrawals.

Roth IRA Rules

The Roth IRA offers a lot of flexibility and few constraints.  There are Roth IRA rules that can help you maximize the benefits of your tax-free savings account.

Easy and convenient

Opening a Roth IRA account is a great way to start planning for your financial future. The plan is an excellent saving opportunity for many young professionals with limited access to workplace retirement plans. Even those who have 401k plans with their employer can open a Roth IRA.

Flexibility

There is no age limit for contributions. Minors and retired investors can invest in Roth IRA as well as long as they earn income.

No investment restrictions

There is no restriction on the type of investments in the account. Investors can invest in any asset class that suits their risk tolerance and financial goals.

No taxes

There are no taxes on the distributions from this account once you reach 59 ½. Your investments will grow tax-free. You will never pay taxes on your capital gains and dividends either.

No penalties if you withdraw your original investment

While not always recommended, Roth IRA allows you to withdraw your original dollar contributions (but not the return from them) before reaching retirement, penalty and tax-free. Say, you invested $5,000 several years ago. And now the account has grown to $15,000. You can withdraw your initial contribution of $5,000 without penalties.

Diversify your future tax exposure

Roth IRA is ideal for investors who are in a lower tax bracket but expect higher taxes in retirement. Since most retirement savings sit in 401k and investment accounts, Roth IRA adds a very flexible tax-advantaged component to your investments. Nobody knows how the tax laws will change by the time you need to take out money from your retirement accounts. That is why I highly recommend diversifying your mix of investment accounts and take full advantage of your Roth IRA.

No minimum distributions

Unlike 401k and IRA, Roth IRA doesn’t have any minimum distributions requirements. Investors have the freedom to withdraw their savings at their wish or keep them intact indefinitely.

Earnings cap

You can’t contribute more than what you earned for the year. If you made $4,000, you could only invest $4,000.

Charitable donations: 6 Tax Strategies

Charitable donations

Charitable donations are an excellent way to help your favorite cause, your church, a foundation, a school, or any other registered charitable institution of your choice. Americans made $373.25 billion of charitable donations in 2015, which was 4.1% higher than in 2014. The average annual household contribution was $2,974. In 2015, the majority of charitable dollars went to religious institutions (32%), educational organizations (15%), human services (12%), grantmaking foundations (11%), and health organizations (8%).

Charitable donations are also a powerful tool to reduce your overall tax liability to the IRS. By carefully following the tax law and IRS rules you can substantially increase the impact of donations. Here is what you can do.

1. Meet the requirements for charitable donations

In order to receive tax deductions for your gift, donations need to meet certain requirements. Some of the most important rules are:

  • You have to give to qualified charitable organizations approved by the IRS. The charity can be public or private. Usually, public charities receive more favorable tax treatment.
  • You need to have a receipt for your gift.
  • You need to itemize your tax return.
  • Donations apply for the same tax year when you make them. For most individuals the tax year and calendar year are the same. For some companies, their tax year may end on a different date during the calendar year (for example, November 1 to October 31)
  • All gifts are valued at fair market value. Depending on your donation, the fair market value may not be equal to the initial cash value.
  • You have to transfer the actual economic benefit or ownership to the receiver of your gift.

There are many ways to give. Some are straightforward, others are more complex and require professional help. Each one of them has its rules, which you need to understand and follow strictly to receive the highest tax benefit.

2. Give Cash

Giving money is by far the easiest way to make contributions to your favorite charitable cause. IRS allows for charitable donations for as much as 50% of your aggregated gross income. Any amounts of more than 50% can be carried over in future years. However, it’s imperative that you keep a record of your cash donations.

3. Give Household goods

You can donate clothes, appliances, furniture, cars, and other household items in good condition. The items will be priced at fair value, In most cases, the value will be lower than what you paid for them. This category is also subject to the 50% limit of the AGI.

Donating household items is a perfect way to clean your closet from old clothes and shoes that you haven’t worn for years. You can even donate your old car that has been collecting dust in the garage. Moreover, if you plan to do a kitchen remodel, you can give your old cabinets and appliances to charities like the Salvation Army. Remember to keep the receipts of these items in case the IRS asks you for them.

4. Donate Appreciated assets

One of the most popular tax-saving strategies is donating appreciated assets directly to charitable organizations. This approach is subject to 30% of AGI for donations given to qualified public charities. Appreciated assets can include publicly traded stocks, restricted stocks, real estate, privately help companies, collectibles, and artwork. The main caveat to receiving the highest tax benefit is to give the appreciated asset directly to the charitable donations instead of selling it and gifting the remaining cash amount.  This way you will avoid paying a capital gain tax on the sale of your asset and deduct the full fair value of your asset.

 Let’s look at an example. An investor at a 28% tax bracket is considering donating an appreciating stock to her favorite charity. She can sell the stock and give the proceeds or donate the shares directly. The current market value of the stock is $100,000. She purchased it more than one year ago for $20,000. The total capital gain is $80,000.

 By giving the stock directly to her favorite, the investor is achieving three major goals. First, she is not paying a capital gain tax on the proceeds of the sale. Second, she can use the full fair value of the stock (instead of the proceeds from the sale) to reduce her tax liabilities. Third, the charitable organization receives an asset with a higher value, which they can sell tax-free.

 5. Make direct IRA charitable rollover

Donations made directly from your IRA, and 401k accounts are another way of reducing your tax bill. If you reached 70 ½, you could make up to $100,000 a year in gifts to a charity directly from your IRA or 401k accounts. Those contributions count towards the required annual minimum distributions you must take once you reach 70 ½, They also reduce your adjusted gross income. To be compliant, you have to follow two simple rules.

Your plan administrator has to issue a check payable to your charity of choice. Therefore the funds have to transfer directly to the charitable organization. If the check is payable to you, this will automatically trigger a tax event for IRS. In that case, your IRA distribution will be taxable as ordinary income, and you will owe taxes on them. The second rule, you have to complete the transfer by December 31 of the same calendar year.

6. Consolidate your donations

Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 increased the standard deduction for all individuals and families.  Therefore relatively small charitable donations may not be tax-deductible at all.

Standard deduction amounts

2019 tax year2020 tax year
Individuals$12,200$12,400
Married couples filing jointly$24,400$24,800
Heads of households$18,350$18,650

If you want to increase the tax impact of your donations you may have to consolidate the small annual donations in a single year.

15 Costly retirement mistakes

15 Costly retirement mistakes

15 Costly retirement mistakes… Retirement is a major milestone for many Americans. Retiring marks the end of your working life and the beginning of a new chapter. As a financial advisor, my job is to help my clients avoid mistakes and retire with confidence and peace of mind.  Together we build a solid roadmap to retirement and a gameplan to achieve your financial goals. My role as a financial advisor is to provide an objective and comprehensive view of my clients’ finances.  As part of my process, I look for any blind spots that can put my clients’ plans at risk.  Here is a list of the major retirement mistakes and how to avoid them.

1. Not planning ahead for retirement

Not planning ahead for retirement can cost you a lot in the long run. Delaying to make key decisions is a huge retirement mistake that can jeopardize your financial security during retirement. Comprehensive financial planners are more likely to save for retirement and feel more confident about achieving their financial goals.  Studies have shown that only 32% of non-planners are likely to have enough saved for retirement versus 91% of comprehensive planners.

Reviewing your retirement plan periodically will help you address any warning signs in your retirement plan. Recent life changes, economic and market downturns or change in the tax law could all have a material impact on your retirement plans. Be proactive and will never get caught off guard.

2. Not asking the right questions

Another big retirement mistake is the fear of asking the right question. Avoiding these

Here are some of the questions that my clients are asking –

  • “Do I have enough savings to retire?”
  •  “Am I on the right track?”.
  • “Can I achieve my financial goals?”
  • “Can I retire if the stock market crashes?”.
  • “Are you fiduciary advisor working in my best interest?” (Yes, I am fiduciary)

Asking those tough questions will prepare you for a successful retirement journey. Addressing your concerns proactively will take you on the right track of meeting your priorities and achieving your personal goals

3. Not paying off debt

Paying off debt can be an enormous burden during retirement. High-interest rate loans can put a heavy toll on your finances and financial freedom. As your wages get replaced by pension and social security benefits, your expenses will remain the same. If you are still paying off loans, come up with a plan on how to lower your debt and interest cost. Being debt-free will reduce the stress out of losing viable income.

4. Not setting goals

Having goals is a way to visualize your ideal future. Not having goals is a retirement mistake that can jeopardize your financial independence during retirement. Without specific goals, your retirement planning could be much harder and painful. With specific goals, you have clarity of what you want and what you want to achieve. You can make financial decisions and choose investment products and services that align with your objectives and priorities. Setting goals will put you on a successful track to enjoy what matters most to you.

5. Not saving enough

An alarming 22% of Americans have less than $5,000 in retirement savings. The average 401k balance according to Fidelity is $103,700. These figures are scary. It means that most Americans are not financially ready for retirement. With ultra-low interest rates combined with constantly rising costs of health care,  future retirees will find it difficult to replace their working-age income once they retire. Fortunately, many employers now offer some type of workplace retirement savings plans such as 401k, 403b, 457, TSP or SEP IRA. If your employer doesn’t offer any of those, you can still save in Traditional IRA, Roth IRA, investment account or the old fashioned savings account.

6. Relying on one source for retirement income

Many future retirees are entirely dependent on a single source for their retirement income such as social security or pension.  Unfortunately. with social security running out of money and many pension plans shutting down or running a huge deficit, the burden will be on ourselves to provide reliable income during our retirement years.  If you want to be financially independent, make sure that your retirement income comes from multiple sources.

7. Lack of diversification

Diversification is the only free lunch you can get in investing and will help decrease the overall risk of your portfolio. Adding uncorrelated asset classes such as small-cap, international and emerging market stocks, bonds, and commodities will reduce the volatility of your investments without sacrificing much of the expected return in the long run.

A common mistake among retirees is the lack of diversification. Many of their investment portfolios are heavily invested in stocks, a target retirement fund or a single index fund.

Furthermore, owning too much of one stock or a fund can cause significant issues to your retirement savings. Just ask the folks who worked for Enron or Lehman Brothers who had their employer’s stocks in their retirement plans. Their lifetime savings were wiped out overnight when these companies filed for bankruptcy.

8. Not rebalancing your investment portfolio

Regular rebalancing ensures that your portfolio stays within your desired risk level. While tempting to keep a stock or an asset class that has been on the rise, not rebalancing to your original target allocation can significantly increase the risk of your investments.

9. Paying high fees

Paying high fees for mutual funds and high commission insurance products can eat up a lot of your return. It is crucial to invest in low-cost investment managers that can produce superior returns over time. If you own a fund that has consistently underperformed its benchmark,  maybe it’s time to revisit your options.

Many insurance products like annuities and life insurance while good on paper, come with high upfront commissions, high annual fees, and surrender charges and restrictions.  Before signing a contract or buying a product, make sure you are comfortable with what you are going to pay.

10. No budgeting

Adhering to a budget before and during retirement is critical for your confidence and financial success. When balancing your budget, you can live within your means and make well-informed and timed decisions. Having a budget will ensure that you can reach your financial goals.

11. No tax planning

Not planning your taxes can be a costly retirement mistake. Your pension and social security are taxable. So are your distributions from 401k and IRAs. Long-term investing will produce gains, and many of these gains will be taxable. As you grow our retirement saving the complexity of assets will increase. And therefore the tax impact of using your investment portfolio for retirement income can be substantial. Building a long-term strategy with a focus on taxes can optimize your after-tax returns when you manage your investments.

12. No estate planning

Many people want to leave some legacy behind them. Building a robust estate plan will make that happen. Whether you want to leave something to your children or grandchildren or make a large contribution to your favorite foundation, estate, and financial planning is important to secure your best interests and maximize the benefits for yourself and your beneficiaries.

13. Not having an exit planning

Sound exit planning is crucial for business owners. Often times entrepreneurs rely on selling their business to fund their retirement. Unlike liquid investments in stocks and bonds, corporations and real estate are a lot harder to divest.  Seling your business may have serious tax and legal consequences. Having a solid exit plan will ensure the smooth transition of ownership, business continuity, and optimized tax impact.

14. Not seeing the big picture

Between our family life, friends, personal interests, causes, job, real estate properties, retirement portfolio, insurance and so on, our lives become a web of interconnected relationships. Above all is you as the primary driver of your fortune. Any change of this structure can positively or adversely impact the other pieces. Putting all elements together and building a comprehensive picture of your financial life will help you manage these relationships in the best possible way.

15. Not getting help

Some people are very self-driven and do very well by planning for their own retirement. Others who are occupied with their career or family may not have the time or ability to deal with the complexities of financial planning. Seeking help from a fiduciary financial planner can help you avoid retirement mistakes. A fiduciary advisor will watch for your blind spots and help you find clarity when making crucial financial decisions.

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.

IndexQ1 2018Q2 2018Q3 2018Q3 YTD 2018Oct – Nov 2018Nov 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.

IndexQ1 2018Q2 2018Q3 2018Q3 YTD 2018Oct – Nov 2018Nov 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 stoyan@babylonwealth.com 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 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 stoyan@babylonwealth.com 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,

 

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

10 ways to grow your savings during medical residency

Grow your savings during medical residency

As someone married to a physician, I happen to have many friends in the medical field. Most doctors have to go through a brutal residency program. The medical residency takes between three and five years. Residents have a hectic working schedule, aggressive learning plan and spend long hours in the hospital. They shift every 3 to 6 months between different subjects and medical practices. Their salaries are usually in the 40-60k range, while their student loan balance is still growing with compounding interest. As a financial advisor, I would like to suggest ten ways to grow your savings during medical residency.  Naturally, I have to give credit to my wife for contributing to this article.

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1. Consider a location with low cost of living

When you apply for medical residency, one way to save money is to pick an area with a low cost of living. If you decide on a residency in New York City or San Francisco, you can expect your living expenses like rent and food to be much higher than if you are in Charlotte or Denver for example. $10 bucks don’t go a long way in the Big Apple but might fit your daily budget in a smaller town.

2. Find out if your hospital provides subsidized housing

Many hospitals offer subsidized housing. A lot of these apartments are conveniently located near your hospital, and you will save money on rent and transportation. Also, you might be able to get an extra 15-20 minutes of sleep just because you are right next door.

Often these spots are limited. Check if you qualify and apply early. Don’t wait until the last minute.

3. Get a roomy

If you spend six out of seven days in the hospital, you might as well have a roommate. You can split the bills. If you are on good terms with your roommate, you can even shop together at Costco or Sam’s club. They sell in bulk at very competitive prices. If you have a buddy to split the large packages, you can save a lot of money on your meals and other necessities.

4. Set up a budget

This is an important one. Medical residents get an average salary for the number of hours spent in the job.  Since you won’t have much time later on, before you start your residency, do your budget. Go over your salary from the hospital and your necessary expenses. Make sure that all numbers add up. Also, start setting up an emergency fund. You never know what life will present.

5. Manage your student loans

Do not ignore your student loans. If you are not required to pay them during residency the interest on the loan will still accrue and add to the amount you have to pay later. Try to refinance your high-interest loan with a lower rate one. If you can’t refinance it, try to pay the interest regularly.

Not paying your interest will have a huge compounding effect on your loan balance, which will substantially increase the amount you owe once you leave residency.

6. Manage your credit card debt

Now when you finally started making some money, you can look at your credit card debt. Credit cards are a convenient way to pay for things, but they often carry a huge interest. I hope you don’t carry any credit card debt, but if you do, now is an excellent opportunity to start refinancing or repaying the high-interest balances.

7. Maintain a good credit

A good FICO score will save you a lot of money in the long run. People with high credit score get lower interest on their personal, car loans, and mortgages. A lousy credit score can even hurt your job search. Yes, many employers check that.

8. Don’t splurge on expensive furniture. Go to Ikea or Craigslist

If you must buy new furniture, do not splurge on expensive ones. Remember, you will spend the next four years in the hospital. You don’t need expensive furniture to collect dust. If you want to have something decent go to Ikea, look on Craigslist or ask other senior residents, who are graduating soon.

9. Start retirement savings

This recommendation is critical. Doctors launch their career at least ten years after the average person. Therefore they start saving for retirement much later. The new physicians miss ten years of potential retirement savings. You don’t have to be that person.

401k / 403b

Most health systems offer some variation of a 401k or 403b plans. Take full advantage of them. Your contributions are tax deductible. You won’t owe any taxes on your savings until you start withdrawing money from the plan.

Roth IRA

If your hospital does not offer any retirement saving plans (very unlikely but possible), you can always open a Roth IRA account. Roth IRA allows you to invest up to $5,500 every year which will grow tax-free until retirement. You will never pay any taxes on your gains and dividends as long as you keep the money in the account until you retire. Roth IRA has one caveat. You can only contribute the maximum amount if you make less than $117,000 per year. The chances are high that you will make a lot more after leaving residency and starting your practice. Therefore, you won’t qualify for Roth IRA later in your career.

 

10. Find freebies

Look for free stuff. There is no shame in that. There are many local free concerts, free museum nights, restaurant specials and happy hours. Look for them in your area or local newspaper or website.

Your hospital will regularly offer sponsored programs with free lunches or dinners. Go to some of them. You may learn something new, meet interesting people and get a free meal.

Find out if your hospital has a gym. Regular workouts will keep you in shape and help you get through the long hours.

 

Final words

If you have any questions about how to grow your savings during medical residency or how to start investing for retirement and other financial goals, reach out to me at stoyan@babylonwealth.com 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 married to a physician. He 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 healthcare professionals and their families.  To learn more about our Private Client Services and how to grow your savings during medical residency visit out page here

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Top 5 Strategies to Protect Your Portfolio from Inflation

Top 5 Strategies to Protect Your Portfolio from Inflation

Protecting Your Portfolio from Inflation

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

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

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

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

Cash

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

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

Equities

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

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

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

 Real estate

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

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

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

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

Commodities

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

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

Bonds

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

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

Municipal Bond Investing

Municipal Bond Investing

What is a Municipal Bond?

Municipal bond investing is a popular income choice for many American.  The muni bonds are debt securities issued by municipal authorities like States, Counties, Cities and their related companies. 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 reaches $3.7 trillion dollars. There are about $350 billion dollars of Muni bond issuance available every year.

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

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Types of Municipal Bonds

General obligation bonds are issued by municipal entities 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 other borrowers such as water and sewer service, 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 provide a significant benefit to 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 comparable to 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 certain investors are flocking into buying muni bonds? Let’s have an example:

An individual investor with a 35% tax rate is considering between AA-rated corporate bond offering 4% annual yield and AA-rated municipal bond offering 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.

 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 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. 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 as part of 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 subject to taxes. 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 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 go 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

Similar to the corporate world, the municipal bonds and the bond issuers receive a credit rating by the 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 are 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 is 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 look for 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%. Top 5% holdings of the ETF make 1.84% of the total assets under management. For comparison, TLT, 20-year old Treasury ETF, has 32 holdings with the largest individual weight at 8.88%. Top 5% make up 38.14% of the assets under management.

 

 

About the author: Stoyan Panayotov, CFA is a fee-only financial advisor based in Walnut Creek, CA. Hs 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_designer491′>designer491 / 123RF Stock Photo</a>