Now’s the time to plan your 529!

Summmerrrtttime!  Every day in the summer at our office here in Charleston, we are regaled with the carriage tour drivers’ versions of this famous song from Porgy & Bess.  We end up having that song stuck in our head a lot of the time!  Already the ads for back to school sales are appearing and it reminds us that, while the “livin’ is easy” right now, the hustle of getting kids ready to head back to school isn’t far away.  We hate to interrupt your summer fun, but it is a good idea to get ready for college tuition payments no matter what age those students are!

We wanted to highlight the particular advantages of using 529 plans for funding your education purposes, as it is the most cost-effective way to manage the expenses of higher education.  Enacted in 1996, Section 529 of the Internal Revenue Service Code allows an account owner to establish a plan to pay for a beneficiary’s qualified higher education expenses using two types of plans – a pre-paid tuition program or the more popular, state-administered college savings plan.  The beneficiary can be a family member or friend or an owner can set up a 529 account for their own benefit.  Anyone can then donate to the account, regardless of the owner or beneficiary.  Funds can be deposited and used almost immediately (need to wait 10 days) or can be invested and grown until needed.  Surprisingly, according to a Wall Street Journal article recently, only 14% of Americans plan to use 529s to pay for college.

Although there is no allowable federal tax deduction for 529 contributions, the income and gain in the account are not taxable, as long as they are used for qualified education expenses.  These qualified expenses include tuition, room & board, books and, in a 2015 legislative change, payments for many technological expenses like a computer, printer or internet access, even if not specifically required by the educational institution.  The costs for off-campus housing can also qualify, as long as the amount used matches the average cost of resident-living at your university.  Many states, like SC and IL, also allow a tax deduction for 529 contributions to in-state plans.  Another recent legislative change allows for an increase from one to two annual investment selection changes per year, unless there is a rollover and then a change can be made at that time.  This gives the 529 owner a little more benefit, flexibility and control over their accounts.

When funding 529 accounts, we recommend that our clients not fund more than 50% of the total cost of estimated expenses for the education of their student before the student selects and starts college.  One nice feature about 529 plans is that they are transferrable to a sibling or other close family member, if a student doesn’t use or exhaust their entire 529 account.    However, you don’t want to overfund an account and then have some leftover.  Only the gains in the account are taxed, but there is a 10% penalty on the account if the funds are withdrawn and not used for qualified education expenses.  Another reason for not overfunding is that there are many scholarships available – you may have an accomplished science whiz or an amazing athlete that earns scholarship money.  Once final amounts of tuition requirements are determined, 529 account owners can make necessary additional contributions to take advantage of tax benefits.

There are many scholarship opportunities available for those who take the time to look and apply.  Checking with the high school guidance counselor, local civic groups or community organizations about scholarships or awards opportunities can give your high school student some hands on involvement in paying for their own education!  All high school seniors should also fill out the annual FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid).  There are many opportunities for earning money for college and nothing should be ruled out.

We know that using 529 accounts is the least expensive way to pay for college.  Research shows that the most expensive way to pay is by taking out student loans or paying out of pocket as the student needs it.  At DWM, we want to help you strategize how to save for and pay for any education expenses that you may have before you, no matter when those costs are expected.  We can help you evaluate the various state plans and the investment options in the 529s and calculate an appropriate annual or lump sum amount of savings.  We will be glad to help make your summertime livin’ easy and carefree!  Okay, now back to summer fun…already in progress!

“American Spirit and Values”

David McCullough, Pulitzer Prize winning historian has a new book.  “The American Spirit,” is a compilation of speeches Mr. McCullough has made over the last 25 years.  His hope is to “remind us, in this time of uncertainty and contention, of just who we are and what we stand for, of the high aspirations of our founders and of our enduring values.”   Our country has always stood for opportunity, vitality and creative energy, fundamental decency, insistence on truth, and good-heartedness to one another.

However, much of what we read in the papers these days belies our American values.  Today, let’s look at two key areas- corporate America and Washington- that require substantial improvement.

First, let’s talk about today’s problem of big business focusing solely on “maximizing shareholder value.”  The result has been an almost Dickens-like atmosphere for consumers and employees. Turning airplanes into cattle cars is a good example.  We all saw the United passenger dragged off the flight in April.  United used to have a bonus program for executives based on on-time arrivals, consumer satisfaction and profit.  It doesn’t now- it’s only based on pretax income and cost savings.  Same thing for American Airlines.  After years in Chapter 11, AAL came out of bankruptcy by merging with US Airways in 2013.  Earlier this year, after finally making a profit, management awarded its long underpaid flight attendants and pilots with a raise to bring them to industry levels of compensation. Wall Street “freaked out” that some potential shareholders earnings were being diverted and AAL’s stock price tanked.

Wal-Mart doesn’t want that to happen to them. Seven Walton family members (with a net worth of $130 billion) own ½ of WMT.  In 2015, WMT made $14.7 billion and shareholders got $10.4 billion in dividends and stock repurchases. WMT’s “low, low prices” are in part made possible by low, low wages for its 1.5 million employees. Many full-time WMT employees live in poverty, without enough money to pay for an apartment, buy food, or get basic health care. And, each year, we taxpayers pay $153 billion to pay for food stamps and other welfare programs for low paid employees, with WMT employees receiving about $7 billion of it.  WMT’s CEO made $21.8 million last year. The median annual pay for CEOs of the S&P 500 companies is now $11.7 million.

The real issue with low wages is the impact on the overall economy.  One company’s workers are another company’s customers.  Profitable companies could pay workers more and shareholders less, leading to more spending on products and services from other companies. This is turn could increase the revenue and profits of the overall economy.  Treating employees more fairly, giving them more opportunity and training is good for America and the economic growth and happiness of our country.  Focusing on making super products and providing excellent customer service are great.   Those aspects of capitalism are good for American.  The greed and selfishness parts are not.

Which brings us to Washington.  In less than five months, President Trump has transformed us from leaders of the free world to whiny bullies.  He pulled us out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, refused to reaffirm the mutual defense commitment to NATO and abandoned the voluntary Paris climate accord.  Here’s how Mr. Trump’s national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster described the President’s world view:  “The world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage.”

Really?  Is it all about self-interest? What happened to the more cooperative, rules-based vision that motivated America and its allies since WWII?  Our leadership was good for the world and has been good for our country.  A world of cutthroat competition and zero-sum outcomes is not.

On the domestic side, the House passed the Financial Choice Act (FCA) last week.  Very disappointing.   This legislation would replace the post 2008 financial crisis Dodd-Frank regulations, designed to protect Americans.   FCA would repeal the “Volker Rule,” which restricts banks from certain types of trading, and would strip the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau of its power to write rules and supervise investment firms (particularly regarding deceptive practices and consumer complaints.)  This, like the Health Care Choice Act and proposed tax reform, is just another Congressional attempt to give Wall Street and the top 1% unfair advantages so they can keep making more money at the expense of most Americans.

History can be a strength and an inspiration- it reminds us who we are and what we stand for.  Certainly, let’s make America Great, but let’s do it the right way- working together and providing opportunities for all 321 million Americans to reach their full potential. Let’s move away from the toxic polarization, greed and selfishness we see every day and get back to the high aspirations of our founders; cooperation, vitality, energy, basic truth and decency.  And, yes, let’s “Make Our Planet Great Again” and work with almost 200 countries worldwide to mitigate global warming.  We 7.5 billion citizens of the world are all in this together, hopefully for centuries and centuries to come.  Finally, let’s remember and promote our American Spirit and Values.

Successful Investing Strategies for Millennials

We have all heard how important it is to start saving for retirement at a young age; but what exactly does that mean? A lot of young working people will sock money away in a savings account and think they are doing the right thing. While having cash for a rainy day/unexpected life event is very important, it is not at all how to save for retirement or save for a big purchase (i.e. down payment on a mortgage/new car). The secret behind it all is something called “compounding interest”. Compounding interest is something that happens over the course of many years and is hands down the best strategy to obtaining financial freedom.

For starters, it is important to understand what kind of account you are funding. Ideally, funding both a qualified account and non-qualified account is important. Qualified accounts are tax-advantaged retirement accounts such as Traditional IRAs, Roth IRAs, and 401ks. The beauty about these accounts is that they can grow either tax-deferred (such as a Traditional IRA) or tax-exempt (i.e. Roth IRA), however they cannot be tapped until a later age without penalty. Qualified accounts also come with contribution limits so one cannot put in an indefinite amount. Although you will pay tax on earnings upon sale of investments within non-qualified accounts, the good news is that the funds are available for withdrawal at any time with no age restriction.

We understand young workers may not be able to fund both kinds of accounts early in their careers, therefore, we recommend funding the qualified accounts (retirement) first, followed by the taxable, non-retirement accounts.

Click here to learn a little more about Roth and Traditional IRA’s (qualified/retirement accounts).

The next step is to determine what kind of asset allocation aligns with your ‘Risk Tolerance Level’. We recommend consulting an investment expert, like DWM, to help determine your risk level profile (e.g. defensive, conservative, balanced, moderate, or aggressive) and the funds you should be invested in. Assuming your risk tolerance lands you in a “balanced” portfolio, you should expect a targeted long term rate of return of 6 to 8% per year. This may not sound like an enormous annual rate of return, but after compounding interest over a long investment time horizon, one is capable of achieving impressive portfolio numbers.

Now for the magic of compounding interest, what it can mean for your future, and why it is so important to start early for young workers. The best way to explain this is through an example:

If you contribute $5,500 to a Roth IRA (the max a Roth allows each year) starting at 22 years old and average 7% return per year until retirement at age 65, the $236,500 total contribution will turn into $1,566,121.

Compare that to socking away $5,500 into the same type of account, invested in the same exact funds, starting at age 40: Your account will grow to $372,220. This is still great and much better than not investing at all, but it would be a lot nicer to grow an account to over 1.5 million dollars versus less than 0.4 million dollars going into retirement.

An accepted estimate in the financial planning world is something called “The Rule of 72”. This is a quick and simple math equation that estimates how many years it will take to double an investment, given a certain annual rate of return. If we assume a 7% rate of return, we would divide 72 by 7 to come to a final answer of 10.24. So, with an annual return of 7%, it will take you a little over 10 years to double an investment. Therefore, a 25 year-old has the potential to double his/her invested money every 10 or so years from your early 20’s until retirement (4x over).

This means one would need to more than quintuple your annual income if you wait until age 40 vs. starting at 22 to make up for not putting away the $5,500 the 18 years prior (~$1.25 million) you technically missed out on.

Click here to see what amount you can achieve if you started putting $5,500 away today.

Another big misconception with saving young is “maxing out a 401(k)”. Many young workers will say they are maxing out their 401(k). However, simply putting away the 3-4% a company matches is not at all maxing out a 401(k), in fact, it is barely scratching the surface. As of 2017, the maximum employee contribution, per year to a 401(k), is $18,000- this is maxing out a 401(k). Let’s say a 25 year old makes $50,000 per year and is contributing 4% to his/her 401(k) that the company is matching. This 4% is only $2,000 per year and the match only becomes yours after it vests. It is important to understand your companies vesting schedule because in some cases it can take six years or more for that to actually be considered your money.

Another important step to saving/investing correctly is analyzing the investment menu within your 401(k). This involves studying the funds offered within a 401(k) and identifying an appropriate asset allocation target for yourself in-line with your risk tolerance. It is also important to look at the underlying fees within the funds of the 401(k). If you are in a large cap equity fund charging 70 basis points but there is another large cap fund that charges only 9 basis points, it can make a big difference over 20-30 years. Here at DWM, we do a 401(k) analysis for all clients because we understand the importance a few basis points can have on an individual and their family over the course of a lifetime.

We have all heard our millennial generation and future generations will never be able to retire because of different theories on social security and how rare pensions are today. This could not be further from the truth. We simply need to take our savings just as seriously as our expenses and we may be capable of not only retiring, but comfortably retiring and being able to leave a legacy for future generations. While a lot of millennials believe they are going to invent the next pet rock and become overnight millionaires, it might be a good idea to start saving the correct way because slow and steady does indeed win the race. 

SC Business Review Interviews Les Detterbeck: “Consider Alternatives!”

Press Release:  Tomorrow morning, May 23, at 7:50 a.m. ET on NPR/WSCI Radio (89.3) Mike Switzer will conduct his SC Business Review.  I will be his guest. The 6 minute segment was taped three weeks ago. The topic is “Liquid Alternatives.”  Please tune-in if you can.

Mike Switzer:  Hello and welcome to SC Business Review.  This is Mike Switzer.  As stocks continue their long-term upward trend, many are concerned about what will happen to their portfolios when the bull market ends.  Today, we are talking with Les Detterbeck, a wealth manager with Detterbeck Wealth Management.  Les is one of the few professionals in the country who has attained a CPA certificate, is a CFA charter holder and a Certified Financial Planner professional.  Welcome, Les.

Les Detterbeck:  Good morning, Mike.  It’s a pleasure to be with you this morning.

MS:  Les, the markets keep going up.  What happens when the bull market ends?

LD:  Mike, of course, no one can predict the future.  We will have a pullback, correction or crash sometime in the future. We just don’t when and how much.  Right now, we’re in the midst of the second longest bull market in history- 8 yrs and counting.  There is still optimism about tax reform, deregulation and infrastructure additions boosting the economy and the markets.

MS:  Yes, Les, but what are some of the concerns?

LD:  Mike, there’s been a recent ramping up of potential global conflicts, there is significant political risk both here and abroad, and stock valuations are at an elevated level, just to name some of the major ones.

Let’s remember what happened in 2008 when the financial crisis turned a bull market to a bear.  Equities were down 40-50%.  Most investors lost a major part of their portfolio.  However, prepared investors stayed invested and only lost 5-8%.  And, they didn’t have to climb out of a big hole when markets reversed in March 2009.  Many of these investors who did well owe their results to alternative investments, designed to participate in up markets and protect in down markets.

MS:  Les, what do you mean by an alternative?

LD:  Basically, these are not traditional equity or fixed income investments.  Alternatives provide diversification and therefore reduce risk and volatility.  They are not correlated to the equity market and therefore can provide a return even when stocks are not doing well.  For those investors whose primary focus is protection and secondary is growth, alternatives are a great addition to a portfolio.

MS:  Could you give us some examples?

LD:  Certainly.  Gold and real estate are alternatives.  They are not part of the traditional asset class of equities or fixed income.  Other examples are non-traditional strategies, such as market-neutral funds, arbitrage funds, and managed futures funds.  All designed to perform in both up and down markets.  New alternatives come to the marketplace regularly.  Recently we have reviewed and added to our client portfolios alternative assets investing in the global reinsurance industry and online consumer lending.

MS:  Les, tell us why and how alternatives work?

LD:  First, they provide increased diversification.  We all have heard “don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”  Second, lower correlation.  They don’t perform in lock step with stocks.  Harry Markowitz won a Nobel Prize by showing that combining assets which do not exhibit a high correlation with one another gives investors an opportunity to reduce risk without sacrificing return.  Studies, including those by the CFA, show that inclusion of at least 15% of alternatives can reduce the volatility and increase the returns of portfolios.  As a result, clients can get comfortable with their allocation and stay fully invested.  No need to try to time the markets-which is a loser’s game.

MS:  How did you get into alternatives and how are they used?

LD:  My son Brett and I started our business in 2000, the year of the dot.com bubble burst.  Stocks lost 15% and our clients did slightly better than that.  We didn’t take any solace in beating the S&P 500- our clients had lost money.  In 2001, the stock markets were again down and again, our clients lost money.  We realized we needed to find an answer- how do we protect our clients’ money and grow it as well?

We researched, reviewed and investigated everything we could find on alternatives. And, bought them ourselves so we could “test drive” them.  In early 2008, at a time somewhat like now, when valuations were high and there were concerns that the bull market might be ending, we knew it was time to prepare our clients for the end of the bull market.

We compiled and issued a report to them in January 2008 entitled “The Bubble Bust” which outlined our concerns about the coming end of the bull market and how alternatives could protect their portfolio.  We met with our clients and, in general, reduced equity allocations and substituted alternatives.  When the crisis came that fall, our clients were prepared.  Their overall portfolio losses were minimized.   Today, virtually all of our clients use three assets classes; equities, fixed income and alternatives.  Asset allocations vary by client and alternatives compose 15%-40% of a typical client portfolio.

MS:  Any final thoughts, Les?

LD:  If your focus is on protecting and growing your portfolio, consider adding liquid alternatives; designed to participate in up markets and protect in down markets.  In times like this, they can really reduce risk, increase returns and provide great peace of mind.

MS:  Les, thank you so much for visiting us today.  We hope you will join us again.

LD:  Mike, I will look forward to that.

Ask DWM: “Please Explain how Investment Returns are Calculated”

Excellent question from a valued client and an extremely important one.  You need to know how your investments are performing.  Are you on track to meet your goals?  Are any changes needed?

To start, focus on your “total return.” In simplest terms, this is the total increase in your portfolio for the period. Let’s say you had $100,000 in one account at the beginning of the year and you didn’t add money or subtract any money during the year. At the end of the year, this account has grown to $111,820.  Your total return is $11,820 ($111,820 ending value minus $100,000 beginning value).  This is an 11.82% total return ($11,820 divided by $100,000).

Next, let’s drill down a little further.   The total return is composed primarily of two parts; the change in market value during the period plus dividends and/or interest earned.  Let’s assume, for simplicity sake, that this $100,000 portfolio only had one investment on January 1, 2016 and it was invested entirely in the Schwab S&P 500 Index Fund (SWPPX).  Those shares were valued at $31.56 per share at the beginning of that year- 3,168 shares with a total value of $100,000 (3,168 times $31.56).   Here is what actually happened with those shares in 2016:  Their value went up to $34.42. The $2.86 per share increase ($34.42-$31.56) amounted to a $9,062 increase in value.  And, in December, dividends were paid totaling 87 cents per share, a total of $2,758.  So, the account increased by a total of $11,820, of which there was a $9,062 price increase (9.1%) and a $2,758 (2.7%) dividend return.  Overall, an 11.82% total return for 2016.

Dividends and interest are the income received for holding the security and are called the “yield.”   Some investors focus on a high yield and ignore the potential impact of market increases or decreases.  We believe that is a mistake.  Historically, there are times, such as periods of low inflation, when dividend-paying stocks have outperformed.   And, there are times, such as the 1990s, when tech stocks with limited earnings and no dividends outpaced dividend payers by nearly 5% per annum.  Focus on total return (and, of course, diversification).

Now, let’s look at the situation where money is added or subtracted from the investment portfolio during the year.  When this happens, the performance results are generally calculated and shown as “time-weighted returns” which eliminates the impact of money coming in or going out and focuses on daily returns. Our DWM/Orion reporting system calculates the daily return for each holding and multiplies the daily returns geometrically to determine the time-weighted return.

The DWM/Orion reports show gross total returns for all holdings and asset classes and deduct management fees in calculating the time-weighted return.  Furthermore, reports covering a period of less than a year are not annualized.  For example, if the time-weighted return for the first three months is 2%, the report shows 2% and does not annualize that number (assuming the next three quarters will be similar results) and show an 8% annualized return.  However, on reports covering a period of more than one year, the overall results are reduced to annual amounts.  For example, if a performance report covering a three-year period shows a time-weighted return of 6%, then the overall return for that total period is approximately 18%.

The CFA Institute, the global association of vetted investment professionals, including Brett and me, which sets the standard for professional excellence and integrity identifies clear, trustworthy investment reporting as the most valuable tool for communicating investment information.  Early on, we at DWM determined that we and our clients needed a robust reporting system to calculate, help monitor and report on your investments.  Schwab as custodian provides regular statements for each account showing balances and activity during a given period. However, the statements don’t show performance vs. benchmarks on a percentage basis.  It also only shows one account at a time. Our DWM/Orion reporting system can show you performance at various levels: asset, asset class, account and household for a more complete, holistic review.

In today’s world, when there is so much data and so much news and much is either fake or biased, it’s important to know that your investment returns with DWM are calculated in an objective basis and compared to benchmarks for any time period.  This allows proper monitoring and facilitates modifications, when needed.

Thanks again for the question and let us know if there are any follow-up questions.

Let’s Make Taxes Simpler and Fairer!

Last Wednesday, President Trump’s one-page Tax Reform Proposal was released.  We expect the Administration will soon discover that Tax Reform is similar to Health Care Reform.  President Trump’s February 27th “epiphany” concerning Obamacare was expressed this way:  “Nobody knew that healthcare could be so complicated.”

Tax Reform isn’t simple either.  The last major Tax Reform was in 1986 and it took years of bipartisan effort to get it done.  In 1983, Richard Gephardt of Missouri and Bill Bradley of NJ introduced a tax reform bill to cut rates and close loopholes.  The proposal was predictably attacked by special interest groups and didn’t gain much traction.

In 1985, President Reagan met with a bipartisan group of senators to push forward revenue-neutral tax reform. Four key principles were established:

  • Equity, so that equal incomes paid equal taxes
  • Efficiency, to let the market allocate resources more freely
  • Simplicity, to reduce loopholes, and
  • Fairness, to ensure those who have more income pay more tax

Dan Rostenkowski, Democratic chairman of the House Ways and Means committee and Bob Packwood, Republican chairman of the Senate Finance Committee were tasked with getting the bill passed.  It wasn’t easy.  Ultimately, many loopholes and “tax shelters” were eliminated, labor and capital were taxed at the same rate, low-income Americans got a big tax cut, corporations were treated more equally, and the wealthy ended up paying a higher share of the total income tax revenue.  In the end, the bipartisan 1986 Tax Reform Act, according to Bill Bradley, “upheld the general interest over the special interests, showing that clear principles, legislative skill and persistence could change a fundamentally unfair system.”

The current Tax Reform proposal is, of course, only an opening wish list, but it has a long way to go.  The current proposal would basically give the richest Americans a huge tax break and increase the federal debt by an estimated $3 trillion to $7 trillion over the next decade.  As an example, it would eliminate the Alternative Minimum Tax, which would have saved Donald Trump $31 million in tax on his 2005 income tax return (the only one Americans have seen). Furthermore, there’s lots of work to be done on corporate/business rates, currently proposed to be revised to 15% (from a current top rate of 40%).  Workers of all kinds would want to become LLCs and pay 15%.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin at the time of presenting the proposal last week stated that the Administration believes the proposal is “revenue-neutral.”  The idea is that tax cuts will produce more jobs and economic growth and therefore produce more tax revenue.  We’d heard estimates that real GDP, which was .7% on an annual basis in 1Q17 and 2% for the last number of years, would grow to 3-5% under the current tax proposal.  However, there is no empirical evidence to show that tax cuts cause growth and, in fact, can result in severe economic problems.  The latest disastrous example was the state of Kansas.  The huge tax cuts championed by Governor Sam Brownback in 2012 haven’t worked.  Kansas has been mired in a perpetual budget crisis since the package was passed, forcing reduced spending in areas such as education and resulting in the downgrading of Kansas’ credit rating.

Furthermore, we’ve got some additional issues that weren’t there for President Reagan and the others in 1986.  First, our current federal debt level is 80% of GDP.  It was only 25% in 1986.  Adding another 25% or 30% of debt, to what we have now, could be a real tipping point for American economic stability going forward. Second, the demographics are so much different.  Thirty years ago, the baby boomers were in their 30s and entering their peak consuming and earning years.

Tax Reform is needed and can be done.  It’s going to take a lot of work and bipartisan support.  It was great to see Congressional leaders reach a bipartisan agreement on Sunday to fund the government through September, without sharp cuts to domestic programs, an increase in funding for medical research, and not a penny for Trump’s border wall.  On Monday, Republican Charlie Dent (PA) and Democrat Jim Hines (CT) put together a great op-ed in the Washington Post calling for compromise and cooperation.  It concluded:  “Ideological purity is a recipe for continued bitterness. …Failure to seek commonality or accept incremental progress will threaten more than our congressional seats and reputations.  It puts our systems of government at risk.  We owe it to our country to do better.”

Hear! Hear!  Yes, let’s make the tax system fairer.  Let’s do tax reform correctly- the way they did it in 1986- putting our country’s interests ahead of personal or special interests.

Digital Legacy

With all of the various accounts, passwords and files that make up our digital identity today, it is easy to see why organization of this information is essential. While this is a subject that many do not like to discuss, it brings up the interesting concept of digital legacy and how important it is to maintain and preserve your digital identity in the event of incapacity or death.  

It is becoming a more and more common practice for financial advisors, including DWM, as well as estate planning attorneys, to advise their clients on a plan to preserve their digital legacy. According to a survey conducted by NAPFA, two-thirds of NAPFA members said that they do in fact advise their clients on digital legacy.

As part of our DWM “Total Wealth Management” process, we provide our clients with an “Estate Flow.”  This has three parts. First, a concise and easy to read recap of all of their estate documents to make it easier to review so that they can assess whether their documents outline their current wishes or if changes need to be made.  Second, a review of titling and beneficiary designations, to make sure the disposition of the estate is as desired and its administration is as hassle-free as possible.  And, third, our recommendations. We have recently added a review of our clients’ digital legacy as part of this process.

It is vital that all information is stored in one designated place to ensure that your entire estate is transitioned smoothly and easily.    There are many applications and services that can help you store passwords to preserve digital legacy. Having a password manager for your passwords so that someone can log in to your accounts in the event of your incapacity or passing and take care of your digital assets is essential. Many cloud-based digital services will actually wipe your data after an account is closed, so it is imperative that your loved ones have a way to access this information before that occurs. Some of the more useful password tools that enable the user to assign heirs include PasswordBox and Zoho Vault.

Aside from password protection, there are other steps individuals can take to ensure their digital legacy is properly handled, such as the introduction of “digital heirs.” As digital legacies begin to become a common hindrance in postmortem estate processes, more companies, such as Google’s Gmail, are instituting ways to improve the flow of digital legacies. Through Gmail’s Inactive Account Manager, found in your account settings page, you can now specify what you would like to have done upon account inactivity. After three, six, nine, or twelve weeks, the user can choose to have his or her data automatically deleted or have a notification email sent to trusted contacts. By enabling a contact email to be sent, the user is allowing this contact to access his or her account, which may contain sensitive information, so it is important to choose this contact selectively. 

The bottom line is this: It is necessary to develop and implement a plan to preserve your digital legacy and ease the transition for your loved ones, making it as simple as possible for them to take care of your digital assets, including financial accounts.  Specifically, at DWM, we would recommend three key components:

  1. Take and record an inventory of all of your digital assets including your user names and passwords and store that information in a secure place.
  2. Work with your estate planning attorney to make sure that digital asset provisions are included in your estate documents. These provisions should allow your successor Trustees or executor/executrix the power to access, view, modify and make use of any electronic accounts including online financial accounts.
  3. Consider providing your successor trustee or executor/executrix now with information about your digital assets.

At DWM we believe your digital assets are a very important part of your legacy.  Getting things in order now can significantly help your loved ones in the future.

Computers and Technology- A Current Potpourri

Gary Kasparov

Gary Kasparov has always interested me.  Born in the Soviet Union, he was a world champion chess player from 1985-2005.  He has long been a vocal activist opposing Putin’s policies. Today Mr. Kasparov is the chairman of the Human Rights Foundation in NY.  But perhaps he is best remembered for what happened on May 11, 1997.  That day he “resigned” and became the first world chess champion to be beaten by a machine-IBM’s Deep Blue.

Newsweek’s cover article the next week called the match “The Brain’s Last Stand.”  As no surprise, Mr. Kasparov hated losing, but over the last twenty years, after learning more, he became convinced that we need to stop “seeing intelligent machines as our rivals.”  They are not a threat, but help provide great opportunities to extend our capabilities and improve our lives.

While most of us won’t face head-to-head competition with a computer the way Mr. Kasparov did, many Americans will be challenged, surpassed and replaced by automation.  Every profession will eventually feel the pressure and that’s what we should expect as humanity makes progress.  We shouldn’t fight it.  Here’s Mr. Kasparov’s analogy: “Waxing nostalgic about jobs lost to technology is little better than complaining that antibiotics put too many gravediggers out of work.”

The human vs. machine narrative was a major topic during the Industrial Revolution.  In the 60s and 70s, robots starting replacing union workers and then in the 80s and 90s the information revolution eliminated millions of jobs in the service and support industries.  There is no going back.

Learning to Think Like a Computer

President Obama’s “Computer Science for All” initiative was launched in 2016 and focuses on expanding computer science knowledge by learning how to code.  Kindergarten students are now learning using wooden blocks.  The blocks have bar codes with the instructions such as “forward,” “spin” and “shake” that are used to program robots.  By sequencing the blocks and having the robot scan in information, the children are directing the actions of the robot.  Studies show that after the kids have learned to program the robots, they become better at sequencing picture stories, or even listing the steps required to brush their teeth.

The job market is hungry for coders.  Since 2011, computer science majors have doubled. At Stanford, Tufts and Princeton, it’s the most popular major.  And, even non-majors are cramming into computer science classes.  Learning to think like a computer can help all of us in our daily lives. In addition, the digital age has brought us great access to information.

Steve Ballmer’s Treasure Chest of Real Data

You may remember Steve Ballmer as Bill Gates’s right hand man and CEO at Microsoft from 2000-2014. Or as the high bidder ($2 billion) of the LA Clippers basketball team in 2014.   A few years ago, he started a website, USAFacts.org designed to answer in detail the question:  “What does government do with all the money we taxpayers send it?”  He wanted to create a fully integrated look at revenue and spending across federal, state and local governments.  The site, USAFacts.org, went live yesterday.

In an age of fake news and accusations about manipulating data to fit biases, Mr. Ballmer’s website is a welcome resource. Certainly, people can come to different opinions on the same subject, but shouldn’t they at least start with the same believable common data?  USAFacts.org was designed to do that.

There is lots of interesting data from 70 government sources.  Want to know how much revenue is brought in from parking tickets?  And what percentage of Americans suffer from depression? It’s there. Here’s a good one: how many people do you think work for government in the U.S.?  Remember, this includes those in education, the military, law enforcement, government hospitals, etc.  Answer: 24 million.  Take a look.  You’ll like it.

Think Like a 94-year Old

Lastly, many over the age of 70 think that they were born too late to be part of the computer/tech revolution.  Someone forgot to tell that to 94-year-old John Goodenough.  Mr. Goodenough’s team at the University of Texas has just filed a patent application for a new battery that would be so cheap, lightweight, and safe it would revolutionize electric cars and put an end to petroleum-fueled vehicles.  This is not Mr. Goodenough’s first major patent. In 1980, at age 57, he co-invented the tiny lithium-ion battery.

As a society, we often tend to assume creativity declines with age.  Yet, some people actually become more creative as they grow older.  In the U.S., the highest-value patents often come from inventors over the age of 55.  Mr. Goodenough figures it this way: “You have to draw on a fair amount of experience in order to put ideas together.”  He also said that his old age gave him intellectual freedom.  At 94, he said, “You no longer worry about keeping your job.”

Conclusion

For those of us of all ages, computers and technology should be our friends, not our enemies.  With the information it provides and our continued learning and lifetime experiences, hopefully we will all benefit from the great digital age in which we live.  Here at DWM, we embrace technology and strive to make our processes as automated, robust and efficient as possible.  However, we recognize that some of the most important aspects of our work are accomplished through personal interactions with our clients and friends.  Don’t worry-we have no plans to have one of Deep Blue’s cousins doing that favorite part of our job for us.

Health Savings Accounts – Understanding the Benefits

Health care is a very hot topic in 2017.  The new administration made it their leading agenda item, though we have yet to see a plan agreeable to both sides of the aisle.  As Republicans contemplate how to replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA) with a good alternative, Health Savings Accounts or HSAs are expected to figure prominently.  President Trump has made the expansion of access to HSAs an important measure for his health-care plan and conservative proposals are using expanded eligibility and increased contribution limits as key elements in their plans.   We think it is a good time, therefore, to understand how these plans might fit into an overall health care and investment strategy.

Health care costs are rising and the costs and inflation associated with health care are a tremendous consideration for retirement planning.  There are varying estimates of costs for retirement health care –some estimates show that a 65 year old couple will need an average of $260,000 for 20 years of healthcare spending.  At DWM, we actually look at health care as a separate spending goal in our financial plans because of the higher inflation and importance of adequately preparing for these costs. 

Here is where an HSA may come in.  HSAs offer an opportunity to take advantage of triple tax benefits to pay for some of this cost.  HSA contributions can be deducted or paid pre-tax, there is tax-free compounding while in the account and no tax is paid on qualified withdrawals for health care.  It’s a trifecta of tax advantage!  After age 65, you can make withdrawals for any reason and pay regular income tax just like you would for an IRA, but there are no required minimum distributions.  However, using the funds for non-qualified expenses before you are 65 results in a stiff 20% penalty plus the normal taxes.

 Let’s look at how HSAs currently operate.  You are eligible to contribute to a Health Savings Account if you are part of a high-deductible health plan (HDHP) and as long as you have not signed up for Medicare.  There is an annual contribution maximum and, for 2017, it is $3,400 for an individual and $6,750 for families.  A HDHP, in 2017, means your deductibles must be at least $1,300 for an individual and $2,600 for a family with maximum out-of-pocket expense requirements of $6,550 for an individual or $13,100 for a family policy.  The lower premiums charged for this kind of coverage have attracted consumers and employers alike.  Given the ACA’s requirements that certain preventive screenings, annual visits or prescription drugs be covered regardless of deductibles, these policies are now more attractive and palatable to average health care consumers.  These plans are also becoming more popular as employers look for ways to manage their employee benefit costs. 

You can make withdrawals from the Health Savings Account for many traditional healthcare expenses and the qualified expenses can also include things that you normally pay for with after-tax dollars, like vision or dental care and supplies.  It might be a good way to pay for braces for your child or eye exams that might not be otherwise covered.  This might be one way to use HSAs – as a tax-free payment for the costs of the deductibles on the HDHP, as well as some additional medical expenses.  The other beneficial use is as an extra savings vehicle to be used in retirement for those future retirement health costs, including some of the long-term care costs that Medicare doesn’t pay. Also, the pre-tax contributions that you are allowed to make to these accounts can be in addition to your contribution maximums for other qualified accounts.  You can also, like IRAs at age 50, make $1,000 “catch-up” contributions to your HSA at age 55.  

There are some downsides to these accounts.  High deductible plans might not be the right choice for everyone; each individual or family will have to evaluate their situation carefully.  Also, the HSAs are not offered by every financial institution and the investment choices and administrative costs should be investigated before committing to one.  It also takes disciplined saving to make the most of the tax advantages. 

We do think there could be a place for these accounts in certain circumstances and, as the political negotiations continue to unfold, it is good to understand their pros and cons. We recognize the importance that health care costs play in preparing for financial independence.   As your holistic financial advocate, we would be glad to help you evaluate how a health savings account might fit into your overall plan to help you reach your goals.  

DWM 1Q17 Market Commentary

Did you know that after 146 years, the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus is shutting down? No worries. It seems our friends in Washington are taking it over as it has been a circus-like atmosphere filled with noise for the last few months. Ironically, for the market, it’s been just the opposite, with 1Q17 going down on record as one of the “quietest” quarters in the last 30 years, as represented by the S&P500 posting an average daily move of just 0.32%. But even though the stock market was calm, that does not mean it didn’t produce. Because it did, with the three major asset classes – equities, fixed income, and alternatives – all up.

What’s interesting is that it was not a continuation of the “Trump trade” that has powered the recent advance. After the November election, shares of financials and smaller US stocks jumped based on hopes that looser regulations and tax cuts would benefit banks and more domestically oriented companies. However, so far the Trump administration has not lived up to the campaign hype. The failure of the Republicans’ health-care bill has led investors to question if this administration can push anything through, including any significant shift in U.S. trade policy. That has led to a sector rotation within the equity asset class. Things that were strong post-election like financials and small caps are being sold for US multinationals, particularly those in the trade-sensitive technology sector, and emerging markets. This shows in the following results:

Equities: The MSCI AC World Equity Index had a great start to 2017, up 6.9%. Domestic large cap stocks as represented by the S&P500 came in at a solid 6.1% as large caps dominated small caps*, up only 2.5%. The big winner was emerging markets**, up 11.5%.

Fixed Income: The Fed lifted rates during the first quarter based upon promising US economic forecasts. The personal consumption expenditures price index, which is the Fed’s preferred inflation gauge, ticked in at over 2% for the first time in over five years. It wasn’t too long ago that people were worried about deflation, so this achievement is very good news. The Barclays US Aggregate Bond Index gained 0.8% in the first quarter. The Barclays Global Aggregate Bond Index enjoyed slightly better returns, +1.8%, thanks to stronger results overseas. Again, emerging markets was the place to be, up 4.2% as represented by the PowerShares Global Emerging Mkts Sovereign Debt ETF.

Alternatives:  The Credit Suisse Liquid Alternative Beta Index was just above break-even, +0.1%.  The handful of liquid alternatives (which could be an alternative asset or strategy) that DWM follows fared better. Alternative assets like gold*** surged 8.4% and MLPs**** advanced 2.6%. An alternative strategy like the RiverNorth DoubleLine Strategic Income Fund, which takes positions in the inefficient closed-end space, registered a 1.4% return. The only real losing alternative category we follow were managed futures funds (an example of alternative strategy), like the AQR Managed Futures Fund which lost 1.0%. These funds struggled from the rotation change mentioned above. It should be noted that these type of funds exhibit extremely low correlation to other assets and can provide huge protection in down times.

Put it together and it was a very handsome start to 2017 for most balanced investors.

Looking forward, we are encouraged as we believe economic growth will continue to advance not only in the US but also globally. Consumer and business owner sentiment is very strong. American factory activity has expanded significantly in recent months.

Concerns include:

  • Elevated US equity valuations: Current valuations of 29x cyclically-adjusted price-to-earnings (CAPE) are much higher than the long-term average of 18x. This doesn’t necessarily mean a huge pullback is in front of us, but it could be pointing to a much more muted return profile. Frankly, we would view a small pullback as a healthy development.
  • Pace of Fed rate hikes: We think the Fed has done a decent job handling and communicating rate changes. They need to continue this practice and avoid further acceleration to avoid making investors nervous.
  • The return of volatility: After the record “calmness” mentioned above, volatility most certainly will rise. Hopefully, it advances in a manageable fashion.
  • Heightened Political risk: 2016 was full of political surprises and more are possible in 2017 given the rise in populism and the heavy global calendar. See below.

I’ve written a lot of these quarterly market commentaries and I cannot remember one so consumed with political policy. There’s a lot of uncertainly right now. But what is certain is that we live in some interesting times. Every day brings a new headline, and a lot of them are political. So far, the market has worked through it handsomely. Let’s hope our strong economic outlook continues to offset any ugliness coming out of the Barnum & Bailey Circus…err, I mean, Washington.

Brett M. Detterbeck, CFA, CFP®

DETTERBECK WEALTH MANAGEMENT

 

*represented by the Russell 2000 Index

**represented by the MSCI Emerging Markets Index

***represented by iShares Gold Trust

***represented by the ALPS Alerian MLP ETF