Saving for college with a 529 plan

College savings with a 529 plan

What is a 529 plan?

The 529 plan is a tax-advantaged state-sponsored investment plan, which allows parents to save for their children college expenses.

In the past 20 years, college expenses have skyrocketed exponentially putting many families in a difficult situation.  Between 1998 and 2018, college tuition and fee have doubled in most private non-profit schools and more than tripled in most 4-year public colleges and universities.

College tuition and fees growth between 1998 and 2018.
Source: College Board

With this article, I would like to share how the 529 plan can help you send your kids or grandkids to college.

Student Debt is Growing

The student debt has reached $1.56 trillion with a growing number of parents taking on student loans to pay for their children’ college expenses. The total number of US borrowers with student loan debt is now 44.7 million.

Amid this grim statistic, less than 30% of families are aware of the 529 plan. The 529 plan could be a powerful vehicle to save for college expenses. Fortunately, 529 plans have grown in popularity in the past 10 years. There are more than 13 million 529 accounts with an average size of $24,057.

Let’s break down some of the benefits of the 529 plan.

College Savings Made Easy

Nowadays, you can easily open an account with any 529 state plan in just a few minutes and manage it online. You can set up automatic contributions from your bank account. Also, many employers allow direct payroll deductions and some even offer a match. Your contributions and dividends are reinvested automatically., so you don’t have to worry about it yourself. As a parent, you can open a 529 plan with as little as $25 and contribute as low as $15 per pay period. Most direct plans have no application, sales, or maintenance fees. 529 plan is affordable even for those on a modest budget.

529 plan offers flexible Investment Options

Most 529 plans provide a wide variety of professionally managed investment portfolios including age-based, indexed, and actively-managed options. The age-based option is an all-in-one portfolio series intended for those saving for college. The allocation automatically shifts from aggressive to conservative investments as your child approaches college age.

Alternatively, you can design your portfolio choosing between a mix of actively managed and index funds, matching your risk tolerance, timeline, and investment preferences. Some 529 plans offer guaranteed options, which limit your investment risk but also cap your upside.

Earnings Grow Tax-Free

529 plan works similarly to the Roth IRA. You make post-tax contributions. And your investment earnings will grow free from federal and state income tax when used for qualified expenses. Compared to a regular brokerage account, the 529 plan has a distinct tax advantage as you will never pay taxes on your dividends and capital gains.

Tax-exempt growth
529 plan versus taxable investment account
The chart hypothetically assumes a $6,300 annual contribution, a 5% average annual return and a 20% average tax rate on taxable income in a comparable brokerage account. The final year post-tax difference would be $14,539, without taking into consideration state tax deductions.on contributions and impact on financial aid application.

Your State May Offer a Tax Break

Over 30 states offer a full or partial tax deduction or credit on your 529 contributions. You can find the full list here. If you live in any of these states, your 529 contributions can lower significantly your state tax bill. However, these states usually require you to use the state-run 529 plan.

If you live in any of the remaining states that don’t offer any state tax deductions, such as California, you can open a 529 account in any state of your choice.

Use at Schools Anywhere

529 funds can be used at any accredited university, college or vocational school nationwide and more than 400 schools abroad. Basically, any institution eligible to participate in a federal student aid program qualifies. A 529 plan can be used to pay for tuition, certain room and board costs, computers and related technology expenses as well as fees, books, supplies, and other equipment.

The TCJA law of 2017 expanded the use of 529 funds and allowed parents to use up to $10,000 annually per student for tuition expenses at a public, private or religious elementary, middle, or high school. However, please check with your 529 plan as not all states passed that provision

Smaller Impact on Scholarship and Financial Aid

Many parents worry that 529 savings can adversely affect eligibility for scholarships and financial aid. Fortunately, 529 plan savings have no impact on merit scholarships. You can even withdraw funds from the 529 plan penalty-free up to the amount of the student scholarship.

For FAFSA, funds are typically treated as ownership of the parent, not the child, reducing the impact on financial aid application. A key component of the financial aid application is the Expected Family Contribution (EFC). Since 529 plans are considered parents’ assets, they are assessed at 5.64% of their value. For comparison, any accounts owned directly by the student such as custodial accounts (UTMAs, UGMAs), trusts and investment accounts are assessed at 20% of their value.

Lower Cost versus Borrowing Money

Starting the 529 plan early can save you money in the long run. The tax advantages of the 529 plan combined with the compounding growth over 18 years it will provide you with substantial long-term savings compared to taking a student loan.

529 plan provide Estate Tax Planning Benefits

Your 529 plan contributions may qualify for an annual gift tax exclusion of $15,000 per year for single filers and $30,000 a year for couples. The 529 plan is the only investment vehicle that allows you to contribute up to 5 years’ worth of gifts at once — for a maximum of $75,000 for a single filer and $150,000 for couples.

Other Family Members Can Contribute Too

Grandparents, as well as other family and friends, can make gifts to your 529 account. They can also set up their own 529 accounts and designate your child as a beneficiary. The grandparent-owned 529 account is not reportable on the student’s FAFSA, which is good for financial aid eligibility. However, any distributions to the student or the student’s school from a grandparent-owned 529 will be added to the student income on the following year’s FAFSA. Student income is assessed at 50%, which means if a grandparent pays $10,000 of college costs it would reduce the student’s eligibility for aid by $5,000.

Transfer funds to ABLE Account

Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) account was first introduced in 2014. The ABLE account works similarly to a 529 plan with certain conditions. It allows parents of children with disabilities to save for qualified education, job training, healthcare, and living expenses.

Under the TCJA law, 529 funds can be rolled over into an ABLE account, without paying taxes or penalties.

Assign Extra Funds to Other Family Members

Finally, if your child or grandchild doesn’t need all the money or his or her education plans change, you can designate a new beneficiary penalty-free so long as they’re an eligible member of your family. Moreover, you can even use the extra funds for your personal education and learning new skills.

A financial checklist for young families

A financial checklist for young families

A financial checklist for young families…..Many of my clients are young families looking for help to build their wealth and improve their finances. We typically discuss a broad range of topics from buying a house, saving for retirement, savings for their kids’ college, budgeting and building legacy. As a financial advisor in the early 40s, I have personally gone through many of these questions and was happy to share my experience.

Some of my clients already had young children. Others are expecting a new family member. Being a dad of a nine-month-old boy, I could relate to many of their concerns. My experience helped me guide them through the web of financial and investment questions.  

While each family is unique, there are many common themes amongst all couples. While each topic of them deserves a separate post, I will try to summarize them for you.

Communicate

Successful couples always find a way to communicate effectively. I always advise my clients to discuss their financial priorities and concerns. When partners talk to each other, they often discover that they have entirely different objectives.  Having differences is normal as long as you have common goals. By building a strong partnership you will pursue your common goals while finding a common ground for your differences

Talking to each other will help you address any of the topics in this article.

If it helps, talk to an independent fiduciary financial advisor. We can help you get a more comprehensive and objective view of your finances. We often see blind spots that you haven’t recognized before.

Set your financial goals

Most life coaches will tell you that setting up specific goals is crucial in achieving success in life. It’s the same when it comes to your finances. Set specific short-term and long-term financial goals and stick to them. These milestones will guide you and help you make better financial decisions in the future.

Budget

There is nothing more important to any family wellbeing than budgeting. Many apps can help you budget your income and spending. You can also use an excel spreadsheet or an old fashion piece of paper. You can break down your expenses in various categories and groups similar to what I have below. Balance your budget and live within your means.

Sample budget

Gross Income?????
Taxes???
401k Contributions??
Net Income????
Fixed Expenses
Mortgage?
Property Taxes?
Utilities (Phone, Cable, Gas, Electric)?
Insurance?
Healthcare/Medical?
Car payment?
529 savings?
Daycare?
Non-Discretionary Flexible Expenses
Groceries?
Automotive (Fuel, Parking, Tolls)?
Home Improvement/Maintenance?
Personal Care?
Dues & Subscriptions?
Discretionary Expenses
Restaurants?
General Merchandise?
Travel?
Clothing/Shoes?
Gifts?
Entertainment?
Other Expenses?
Net Savings???

Consolidate your assets

One common issue I see amongst young couples is the dispersion of their assets. It’s very common for spouses to have multiple 401k, IRAs and savings accounts in various financial institutions and former employers. Consolidating your assets will help you get a more comprehensive view of your finances and manage them more efficiently.

Manage your debt

The US consumer debt has grown to record high levels. The relatively low-interest rates, rising real estate prices and the ever-growing college cost have pushed the total value of US household debt to $13.25 trillion. According to the New York Fed, here is how much Americans owe by age group.

  • Under 35: $67,400
  • 35–44: $133,100
  • 45–54: $134,600
  • 55–64: $108,300
  • 65–74: $66,000
  • 75 and up: $34,500

For many young families who are combining their finances, managing their debt becomes a key priority in achieving financial independence.

Manage your credit score

One way to lower your debt is having a high credit score. I always advise my clients to find out how much their credit score is.  The credit score, also known as the FICO score, is a measure between 300 and 850 points. Higher scores indicate lower credit risk and often help you get a lower interest rate on your mortgage or personal loan. Each of the three national credit bureaus, Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion, provides an individual FICO score.  All three companies have a proprietary database, methodology, and scoring system. You can sometimes see substantial differences in your credit score issued by those agencies.

Your FICO score is a sum of 64 different measurements. And each agency calculates it slightly differently. As a rule, your credit score depends mainly on the actual dollar amount of your debt, the debt to credit ratio and your payment history. Being late on or missing your credit card payments, maximizing your credit limits and applying for too many cards at once will hurt your credit score.

Own a house or rent

Owning your first home is a common theme among my clients. However, the price of real estate in the Bay area, where I live, has skyrocketed in the past 10 years. The average home price in San Francisco according to Zillow is $1.3 million. The average home price in Palo Alto is $3.1 million. (Source: https://www.zillow.com/san-francisco-ca/home-values/ ). While not at this magnitude, home prices have risen in all major metropolitan areas around the country. Buying a home has become an impossible dream for many young families. Not surprisingly a recent survey by the Bank of the West has revealed that 46% of millennials have chosen to rent over buying a home, while another 11% are staying with their parents.  

Buying a home in today’s market conditions is a big commitment and a highly personal decision. It depends on a range of factors including how long you are planning to live in the new home, available cash for a downpayment, job prospects, willingness to maintain your property, size of your family and so on.

Maximize your retirement contributions

Did you know that in 2019 you can contribute up to $19,000 in your 401k? If you are in your 50s or older, you can add another $6,000 as a catch-up contribution. Maximizing your retirement savings will help you grow your wealth and build a cushion of solid retirement savings. Not to mention the fact that 401k contributions are tax-deferred and lower your current tax bill.

Unfortunately, many Americans are not saving aggressively for retirement. According to Fidelity, the average person in their 30’s have $42.7k in their 401k plan. people in their 40s own on average 103k.

If your 401k balance is higher than your age group you are already better off than the average American.

Here is how much Americans own in their 401 plan by age group

  • 20 to 29 age: $11,500
  • 30 to 39 age: $42,700
  • 40 to 49 age: $103,500
  • 50 to 59 age: $174,200
  • 60 to 69 age: $192,800

For those serious about their retirement goals, Fidelity recommends having ten times your final salary in savings if you want to retire by age 67. They are also suggesting how to achieve this goal by age group.

  • By the age of 30: Have the equivalent of your starting salary saved
  • 35 years old: Have two times your salary saved
  • 40 years old: Have three times your salary saved
  • 45 years old: Have four times your salary saved
  • 50 years old: Have six times your salary saved
  • 55 years old: Have seven times your salary saved
  • 60 years old: Have eight times your salary saved
  • By age 67: Have 10 times your salary saved

Keep in mind that these are general guidelines. Everybody is different. Your family retirement goal is highly dependent on your individual circumstances, your lifestyle, spending habits, family size and alternative sources of income.

Know your risk tolerance level

One common issue I see with young families is the substantial gap between their risk tolerance and the actual risk they take in their retirement and investment accounts.  Risk tolerance is your emotional ability to accept risk as an investor.

I have seen clients who are conservative by nature but have a very aggressive portfolio. Or the opposite, there are aggressive investors with a large amount of cash or a large bond portfolio. Talking to a fiduciary financial advisor can help you understand your risk tolerance. You will be able to narrow that gap between your emotions and real-life needs and then connect them to your financial goals and milestones.

Diversify your investments

Diversification is the only free lunch you will get in investing. Diversifying your investments can reduce the overall risk of your portfolio. Without going into detail, owning a mix of uncorrelated assets will lower the long-term risk of your portfolio. I always recommend that you have a portion of your portfolio in US Large Cap Blue Chip Stocks and add some exposure to Small Cap, International, and Emerging Market Stocks, Bonds and Alternative Assets such as Gold and Real Estate.

Invest your idle cash

One common issue I have seen amongst some of my clients is holding a significant amount of cash in their investment and retirement accounts. The way I explain it is that most millennials are conservative investors. Many of them observed their parents’ negative experience during the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009. As a result, they became more risk-averse than their parents.  

However, keeping ample cash in your retirement account in your 30s will not boost your wealth in the long run. You are probably losing money as inflation is deteriorating the purchasing power of your idle cash. Even if you are a very conservative investor, there are ways to invest in your retirement portfolio without taking on too much risk.

Early retirement

I talk about early retirement a lot often than one might imagine. The media and online bloggers have boosted the image of retiring early and made it sound a lot easier than it is. I am not saying that early retirement is an illusion, but it requires a great deal of personal and financial sacrifice. Unless you are born rich or rely on a huge payout, most people who retire early are very frugal and highly resourceful. If your goal is to retire early, you need to pay off your debt now, cut down spending and save, save and save.

Build-in tax diversification

While most of the time we talk about our 401k plans, there are other investment and retirement vehicles out there such as Roth IRA, Traditional IRA and even your brokerage account. They all have their own tax advantages and disadvantages. Even if you save a million bucks in your 401k plan, not all of it is yours. You must pay a cut to the IRS and your state treasury. Not to mention the fact that you can only withdraw your savings penalty-free after reaching 59 ½. Roth IRA and brokerage account do not lower your taxes when you make contributions, but they offer a lot more flexibility, liquidity, and some significant future tax advantages. In the case of Roth IRA, all your withdrawals can be tax-free when you retire. Your brokerage account provides you with immediate liquidity and lower long-term capital gains tax on realized gains.

Plan for child’s expenses

Most parents will do anything for their children. But having kids is expensive. Whether a parent will stay at home and not earn a salary, or you decide to hire a nanny or pay for daycare, children will add an extra burden to your budget. Not to mention the extra money for clothes, food, entertainment (Disneyland) and even another seat on the plane.

Plan for college with a 529 Plan

Many parents want to help their children pay for college or at least cover some of the expenses. 529 plan is a convenient, relatively inexpensive and tax-advantageous way to save for qualified college expenses. Sadly, only 29% of US families are familiar with the plan. Most states have their own state-run 529 plan. Some states even allow state tax deductions for 529 contributions. Most 529 plans have various active, passive and age-based investment options. You can link your checking account to your 529 plan and set-up regular monthly contributions. There are plentiful resources about 529 plans in your state. I am happy to answer questions if you contact me directly.  

Protect your legacy

Many young families want to protect their children in case of sudden death or a medical emergency. However, many others don’t want to talk about it at all. I agree it’s not a pleasant conversation. Here in California, unless you have an established estate, in case of your death all your assets will go to probate and will have to be distributed by the court. The probate is a public, lengthy and expensive process. When my son was born my wife and I set up an estate, created our wills and assigned guardians, and trustees to our newly established trust.  

The process of protecting your legacy is called estate planning. Like everything else, it’s highly personalized depending on the size of your family, the variety of assets you own, your income sources, your charitable aptitude, and so on. Talking to an experienced estate attorney can help you find the best decision for yourself and your family.

I never sell insurance to my clients. However, if you are in a situation where you are the sole bread earner in the household, it makes a lot of sense to consider term life and disability insurance, which can cover your loved ones if something were to happen to you.

Plan ahead

I realize that this is a very general, kind of catch-all checkpoint but let me give it a try. No matter what happens in your life right now, I guarantee you a year or two from now things will be different. Life changes all the time – you get a new job, you have a baby, you need to buy a new car, or your company goes public, and your stock options make you a millionaire. Whatever that is, think ahead. Proper planning could save you a lot of money and frustration in the long run.

Conclusion

I realize that this checklist is not complete. Every family is unique. Each one of you has very different circumstances, financial priorities, and life goals. There is never a one-size-fits-all solution for any family out there. If you contact me directly, I will be happy to address your questions.

 

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 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.

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

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>

14 Effective ways to take control of your taxes

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

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

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1. Primary residence mortgage deductions

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

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

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

 

2. Home office deductions

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

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

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

 

3. Charitable donations

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

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

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

 

4. Gifts

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

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

 

5. 529 Plans

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

7. Commuter benefits

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

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

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

 

8. Employer-sponsored health insurance premiums

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

 

9. Flexible Spending Account

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

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

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

 

10. Health Spending Account

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

 

11. Disability  insurance

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


12. Life insurance

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

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

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

13. Student Loan interest

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

14. Accounting and Investment advice expenses

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

 

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

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

Incentive Stock Options

Incentive Stock Options

What is Incentive Stock Options?

Giving Incentive stock options (ISOS) is another way for companies to reward and retain their employees. ISOS have more favorable tax treatment than non-qualified stock options. While similar to them they have few major differences:

  • ISO 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 sell 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.

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 you will be allowed to exercise the ISO.

ISO exercise is not a tax event from 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 exercise 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 additional $500 for taxes on $2,000 of additional 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 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 additional ordinary income.

(15 – 10) x 1,000 = $5,000.

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

Scenario 5

You exercise your options and sell them after one year from 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 additional ordinary income.

(15 – 10) x 1,000 = $5,000.

Since your tax rate is 25%, you will owe additional $1,250 for taxes on $5,000 of additional 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 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 exercise date and 24 months after 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 grant date. This will give you the most favorable tax treatment.
  2. Watch your tax bracket. Your tax rate increases as your income grows. Depending on the vesting and expiry conditions, you may want to consider exercising your options in phases in order 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. 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 tax.
  4. 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 in order to get the most favorable tax treatment.

 

Final words

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.

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) are 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.

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 to 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

There are two different types of ESO – Non-qualified Stock Options and Incentive Stock Options

 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 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 additional ordinary income.

(15 – 10) x 1,000 = $5,000.

Since your tax rate is 25% you will owe 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 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

Under certain circumstances, it could make sense for you to recognize compensation income on a grant by making an IRC § 83(b) election. This election is rarely done due to the difficulty in ascertaining 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 exercise. 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 rate over short-term capital gain rate.
  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

Final words

If you have any questions about your stock options 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 the Insights page where you can find helpful articles and resources on how to make better financial and investment decisions.

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.