MLK Would Have Loved Finland

We hope everyone enjoyed the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday on Monday. We hope you spent at least a few minutes thinking of Dr. King and his legacy. His stirring words and writings remain as relevant today as they were 50 years when he was alive. I am always moved by his comments, particularly on equality, such as:

  • “We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now,”
  • “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools,”
  • “The time is always right to do what is right,” and
  • “In some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.”

As I thought about these quotes, it made me think of Finland, recently deemed a “Capitalist Paradise” by the NYT and lauded by the Economist for slashing homelessness while the rest of Europe is “failing.”

As many of you know, my maternal grandmother was Finnish and Elise and I spent a wonderful homecoming in Finland this past summer, meeting relatives and experiencing life first-hand in Finland. Dr. King certainly would have loved a country like Finland that provides a real-life example of a system that works to provide equality and happiness to all.

Finland hasn’t been operating independently all that long. Located between Sweden and Russia, Finland was under Swedish rule from 1250-1809. In 1809 it became a Grand Duchy in the Russian Empire until it declared its independence in 1917. In 1918, Finland experienced the Finnish Civil War; the “whites” were primarily Swedish descendants who were anti-socialists and the “reds” who supported Russian socialism. The whites won and established a republic. World War II saw Finland under attack from Russia and ultimately joining forces with Germany.

After WW II, Finland did not want to become a socialist country. Its capitalists cooperated with government to map out long-term strategies and discussed these plans with unions to get workers on board. Finnish capitalists realized that it would be in their best interests to accept progressive tax hikes. The taxes would help pay for new governmental programs to keep workers and their families healthy, educated and productive. Fast forward to today, the capitalists are still paying higher taxes and outsourcing to the government the responsibility of keeping workers healthy and educated.

The NYT article “A Capitalist Paradise” was authored by a couple who moved from Brooklyn to Helsinki two years ago. Both are US citizens, experienced professionals and enjoyed a privileged life in the States. However, they were both independent consultants with uneven access to health insurance, and major concerns about funding for day-care, and education, including college. What may come as a surprise to some, is that they have experienced since the move an increase in personal freedom.

In Finland, everyone is covered by taxpayer-funded universal health-care that “equals coverage in the U.S. but without piles of confusing paperwork or haggling over huge bills.”   Their child attends a “fabulous, highly professional and ethnically diverse” public day-care that costs about $300 per month. If they stay in Finland, their daughter will attend one of the world’s best K-12 education systems at no cost to them, regardless of the neighborhood they live in. College would also be tuition free.

Many Americans may consider the Finnish system strange, dysfunctional or authoritarian, but Finnish citizens report extraordinarily high levels of life satisfaction. The World Happiness Report announced recently that Finland was the happiest country in the world, for the second year in row, leading Norway, Denmark, Switzerland and Iceland in the poll.

Finland has also become one of the world’s wealthiest countries and, like other Nordic countries, home to many highly successful global companies. A spokesman for JPMorgan Asset Management recently concluded that “The Nordic region is not only ‘just as business friendly as the U.S,’ but also better on key free-market indices, including greater protection of private property, less impact on competition from government controls and more openness to trade and capital flows.” “Furthermore, children in Finland have a much better chance of escaping the economic class of their parents than do children in the U.S.”

Finland’s form of capitalism has worked for businesses and citizens alike. Since Independence, Finland has remained a country and economy committed to free markets, private businesses and capitalism. Its growth has been helped, not hurt, by the nation’s commitment to providing generous and universal public services that support basic human well-being. Finland and the Nordic countries as a whole, including their business elites, have arrived at a simple formula: “Capitalism works better if employees get paid decent wages and are supported by high-quality, democratically accountable public services that enable everyone to live healthy, dignified lives and to enjoy real equality of opportunity for themselves and their children.”

This system works. Over the last 50 years, if you had invested in a portfolio of Nordic equities, you would have earned a higher annual real return than the American stock market according to Credit Suisse research. It’s not a surprise since Nordic companies invest in “long-term stability and human flourishing while maintaining healthy profits.” We made a similar point in our September blog “Reinvent Capitalism?”

Dr. King’s quotes resonate loudly today. We Americans are a country of immigrants- “We came on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.” In a time of tribal politics- “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.” However, since “The time is always right to do what is right,” let’s keep optimistic that “In some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with their scintillating beauty.”

https://dwmgmt.com/

DWM’s 4Q19 Market Commentary & A Look Into 2020

Happy 2020! No doubt you have heard the term “20/20 vision” over the last several weeks as we enter this new decade and all of the imagery that comes with it. As you probably already know, 20/20 vision is synonymous with perfect vision. As financial Sherpas, we are always striving to provide our clients with that – to observe, to envision, to help foresee, to project, and to be on the lookout! We can’t guarantee that our outlook will be spot on, but we certainly can help our clients plan and make projections for what’s next on the horizon.

But before telescoping ahead, let’s look back on fourth quarter 2019 (“4Q19”) and calendar year 2019 and the bedazzling year it was! We’ve put the magnifying glass on this investment landscape panorama so you can visualize the details!

Equities: No, it wasn’t a hallucination… Equities, as evidenced by the MSCI AC World Index, rallied to close the year, up 9.0% for 4Q19 and an eye-popping 26.3% for the year! Domestic large cap stocks*, particularly the growth-oriented FAANG group**, kept outperforming, up 9.1% and 31.5%, 4q19 and YTD, respectively. International equities* also participated in the 4Q19 rally, +8.9% for the quarter, to finish the year +21.5%. Unlike the growth and momentum-driven environment of late, we and many other experts expect valuations to actually matter in 2020.

Fixed Income: Don’t get bleary-eyed just yet, as the positive readings keep coming! In a blink of the eye, the Fed went from a hawkish stance to a dovish one which amounts to massive liquidity support and lower rates, which in turn pushes bond prices up as evidenced by the Barclays US Aggregate Bond Index & the Barclays Global Aggregate Bond Index turning in a solid quarter, up 0.2% and 0.5%, and an eye-catching year-to-date (“YTD”) return of 8.7% and 6.8% respectively!  The Fed appears to be on hold for the foreseeable future, thus barring a setback on trade, we expect Treasury yields to move higher as recession fears fade.

Alternatives: Sometimes this asset class goes unnoticed or invisible, but not in 2019 as alts produced some very good returns. In fact, the Credit Suisse Liquid Alternative Beta Index, our chosen proxy for alternatives, showed a 2.2% gain on the quarter and finished up 8.1% for the year! Standouts include infrastructure*** (+2.9% 4Q19 & +27.8% YTD) and gold**** (+2.8% on 4Q19 & +18.0% YTD). Such spectacles!

Recall that in 2018 almost every asset class and investment style went down; 2019 was pretty rare in the sense that it was just the total opposite of that – virtually everything went up, i.e. no blind spots! In fact, the balanced investor – those with sizable allocations to equities, fixed income, and alternatives – should be seeing double-digit returns in the teens! Pretty amazing! The key is not to be short-sighted and getting caught up in recency bias. One needs to be realistic when planning for the future. If you are thinking that the environment is as pretty as the light prism above, you have blinders on. Alas, here is some near term darkness:

Investor sentiment is really high now with all the recent good news. That typically is a leading indicator of less-than-stellar times. And because of this high investor sentiment and recent stock market rally, valuations in certain areas, particularly the S&P500, are getting uncomfortably high. The market seems almost priced to perfection. So far the market has shrugged off scary news like the recent US killing of Iran’s most famous military commander. But it’s only speculation that that can continue. Further, manufacturing and business investment is still struggling, which will most likely continue until we get a more comprehensive trade deal, more than the vague preliminary one being discussed now. The good news is that it appears that US and China are both working on a resolution, but don’t be dazed and confused if talks fall apart. And, of course, we have an upcoming Presidential election which brings more uncertainty into the mix.

In conclusion, it’s a beautiful scene right now with most investors’ portfolio values near all-time highs. But like rays of light, the direction of the markets and portfolios don’t forever stay the same. We are here to help now and also when the light ray inevitably bends.

DWM enjoyed watching out and doing all it could for its clients in the last decade. And as we now start into this new decade, we continue to be on the lookout over our clients, their portfolios, and their wealth management needs. Serving our clients make us smile. On the flash of light, we say “cheese”!

Cheeky Smiles

As always, don’t hesitate to contact us with any questions or comments.

Brett M. Detterbeck, CFA, CFP®

DETTERBECK WEALTH MANAGEMENT

*represented by the S&P500 Index

** FAANG = Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google

***represented by the Frontier MFG Core Infrastructure Fund

****represented by the iShares Gold Trust

 https://dwmgmt.com/

Breaking News- How the SECURE Act Will Impact Retirement Plans

Happy New Year!! We hope everyone had a great holiday. Everyone at DWM certainly did. In late December, Congress’s year-end spending package was signed into law and it included the SECURE Act which has made some significant changes to retirement plans. It’s a mixed bag. Major items impacted are 1) “stretching rules” for IRAs, including Roth IRAs, inherited by non-spouse beneficiaries 2) age limits for IRA contributions and 3) Required Beginning Date (“RBD”) for Required Minimum Distributions (“RMD”) for retirees.

In the past, owners of IRAs and Roth IRAs could leave them to much younger heirs, including grandchildren, who could “stretch” the IRA by taking out the minimum distribution, typically until they were 85 years. This was particularly valuable for Roth IRAs, where the income tax had already been paid and the account continued to grow tax-free for 50 years or more. For example, a grandchild who received a $100,000 Roth IRA from her deceased grandparent at age 30, who invested the money and earned 6% annually and withdrew only the required amount each year, could eventually receive $741,000 in distributions over 55 years, all tax-free. The same applied to IRAs, except there would be taxes to be paid on the distributions each year. This was a great wealth succession strategy.

Now, the “Big Stretch” is gone. The distribution period has been reduced generally to 10 years for non-spouse beneficiaries. Surviving spouses are still covered by the old rules. However, a non-spouse IRA or Roth IRA heir can postpone any distributions until the end of the 10 years to maximize tax-free or tax-deferred growth. A surviving spouse who inherits a Roth IRA can put the account in his or her name, not take any distributions in their lifetime and then leave the accounts to younger heirs who get a 10 year stretch.

The Big Stretch is gone but Roth conversions can still make lots of sense, in the right circumstances. Here’s a real life example of a program we are just putting into place with clients. A Roth conversion is where you voluntarily move all or a portion of an IRA to a Roth account and pay income tax on the amount transferred. The Roth account is tax-free thereafter. Over a 10 year period one of our client couples is converting $1 million of traditional “pre-tax” IRA money to Roth. We do an installment Roth conversion each year, with larger amounts in the beginning. At the end of the conversion, using a 6% annual investment growth, their Roth accounts total $2 million. It has cost about $250,000 of federal tax (they live in a state with no income tax) to do the conversion. At that point, our clients are 70 years old. They have no RMD requirements on their Roth accounts and, assuming the second to die of the couple passes away at 95 years of age, the $2 million would have grown to $8.5 million over those 25 years. After that, the beneficiaries can allow the money to grow for 10 more years under the new rules and then take tax-free distributions on the roughly $15 million of Roth money. The effective tax rate on the conversion and growth was less than 2% tax ($1 million of IRA money eventually became $15 million of Roth money). Conversions don’t work for everyone but for the right situation, it is a key part of the legacy and wealth succession strategy, even without the Big Stretch.

Under the SECURE ACT, savers can continue to make contributions to a Traditional IRA past the age of 70 ½ (the age limit of 70 ½ has been repealed). Roth contributions were never subject to an age limit. They still have to meet the requirements of earned income to make contributions.

Lastly, starting dates, or RBDs, have been revised from 70 ½ to age 72 for RMDs. Obviously, people are living longer and many would prefer to start their RMDs later. Again, traditional IRAs have RMDs so that the IRS can finally start collecting tax on the money. The initial withdrawal rate is 3.6% and the withdrawal rate increases each year to 16% at age 100, for example. Roth IRAs have no RMDs for owners and their spouses. Now, if the owner reaches 70 ½ after 12/31/19, the first RMD year is the year in which the owner reaches 72. The RBD is April 1 of the year that follows the year in which the owner reaches 72 ½. Here’s an example, IRA owner was born in April, 1950. She will be 70 ½ in October, 2020 (after 12/31/19). So, she can take his first RMD either in 2022 or by April, 2023 (under the old rules she would have had a RBD of 2020 or April 2021.) However, if the first RMD is taken in April 2023, then the 2023 RMD for her will be taken that year as well. Doubling up may not be advantageous, as it may push you into a higher tax bracket.

Those are the key issues in the SECURE ACT. If you have any questions, please let us know. We love working with retirement plans, traditional IRAs and particularly Roth IRAs. Even with the new changes in the SECURE Act, there are still some great planning opportunities available.

https://dwmgmt.com/