“An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Pound of Cure”- B. Franklin

Millions of Americans are being impacted by two Category 5 disasters- Hurricane Irma and the Equifax data breach!!  Certainly, we’re all watching Irma spread through FL and our hearts and prayers are with all those in Irma’s path.  But don’t discount the Equifax high-tech heist as something small.  Last Thursday, Equifax announced that personal and confidential information for 143 million Americans.  This included names, social security numbers, birth dates, addresses and, in some instances, driver’s license numbers and other information.

This epic breach is a really big deal and a great concern.  Equifax, Experian and Transunion warehouse the most intimate details of Americans’ financial lives, from credit cards to medical bills.  Once security is breached, the hackers typically sell the stolen information to sophisticated identity thieves.  Last year, 15.4 million Americans were victims of identity theft, which totaled $16 billion.  In most cases, the money was recovered, but only after a tremendous amount of time, money and stress.  One man said the thieves so ruined his credit that he was unable to secure a needed mortgage refinance.  One lady’s social security number was used by others to file her income taxes and get a refund before she even filed her own return.  It took her over a year to get it straight with the IRS.  In the first half of 2017, there were a record 791 data breaches in the U.S., up 29% from last year.  Victims have recounted what a terrifying experience it is to have your identity stolen.  “You’re worried about the tremendous implications this could have and the possibility of it going on for years.”

Here’s the really bad part of the Equifax breach. We now know that the breach occurred six weeks ago, July 29th.  The hackers probably sold the information shortly thereafter.  We’ve likely all been compromised for six weeks and we didn’t know it.  Equifax is now under investigation for the breach and their lack of transparency by Congress, New York’s attorney general and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. If you call Equifax, it’s another frustration.  Their “hot line” is staffed with people who really can’t tell you if your information was taken or not.  You should assume that it was.  Ouch!!

It’s time for us to play defense.  Step one- put a credit freeze on all three reporting services immediately.  It’s your only hope.  A credit freeze prevents existing creditors and new creditors from using your information.  It prevents new accounts being opened in your name.  When you contact the sites listed below you will receive a PIN that allows you to temporarily lift or “thaw” your freeze.  Put that number in a very safe place (see below).  Yes, you may be delayed a day or two to get your information released when you need to apply for new credit, but that’s a small problem compared to potential identity theft.

Here are the sites:

Equifax – https://www.freeze.equifax.com/Freeze/jsp/SFF_PersonalIDInfo.jsp

Experian – https://www.experian.com/freeze/center.html

TransUnion – https://freeze.transunion.com/sf/securityFreeze/landingPage.jsp

I froze Elise and my accounts yesterday in about 20 minutes.

 

Step two-you need to create strong passwords and store them in a secure spot. The bad guys have two pieces of information, your social security number (which you don’t want to change) and your address.  Don’t help them with the next step by having weak passwords.

Updating your passwords will take some time.  Focus first on the key ones; your credit cards, financial institutions, and key retailers like Amazon and Apple; anywhere there is money or where thieves could get merchandise or services.  If a site offers additional security with a two-factor authentication, enable it.   Once you’ve got the key sites, start knocking out the others.

You should use a password manager like 1Password or LastPass.  It’s always important to update your password every so often. These sites create a unique random number password for every website you visit and stores them in a database that you create.  This makes it much more difficult for the thieves to decode your password. Further, these are great places for all of your passwords and your PINs.  Of course, you need to keep your master password in a special spot and share that with your spouse and/or another trusted person.

No question, this is a real pain!!  But, the alternative is possible identity theft which could be a 100 times worse.  We live in an age of Big Data.  We have all allowed the emergence of huge detailed databases full of information about us.  Thanks to technology, financial companies, tech companies, medical organizations, advertisers, insurers, retailers and the government can maintain and access this information.  Unfortunately, companies like Equifax are only lightly regulated and there’s not much punishment for breaches.  Hence, breaches will keep happening.  Even with new technology, like Apple’s new iPhone8 which includes face recognition to unlock it, the consumer credit bureaus are not going away anytime soon.

Please do yourself a favor and freeze your credit, change your passwords and store everything securely this week.  The process will certainly feel like more than an “ounce” of prevention, but if it saves you from identity theft, it will be far more than a “pound” of cure.

My, How Jobs Have Changed

Hope you had a super Labor Day weekend!  Wonderful to be with family and friends.  It’s amazing how jobs have changed over the years.  The NYT over the weekend illustrated how life is so much different for workers by comparing two janitors working for two top companies then and now.

Gail Evans was a janitor for Eastman Kodak in Rochester, NY almost forty years ago.  She was a full-time employee, received 4 weeks paid vacation, reimbursement for some tuition costs to go to college and bonuses. And, when the Kodak facility was temporarily closed, the company kept paying her and had her perform other work.  Ms. Evans took computer classes at night, got her college degree in 1987 and ultimately became chief technology officer for Kodak.

Marta Ramos cleans floors for Apple in Cupertino, CA.  She isn’t on Apple’s payroll. She works for one of Apple’s contractors.  Ms. Ramos hasn’t had a vacation in years-she can’t afford the lost wages.  Going back to school is out of the question. There are no bonuses and no opportunities for some other role at Apple.  Ms. Ramos earns $16.60 per hour, about the same as Ms. Evans did in inflation-adjusted terms.  But her only hope for advancement is to become a “team leader”, which pays an extra $.50 per hour.

Over the last 35 years, American corporations have increasingly focused on improving their bottom line by focusing on their core competency and outsourcing the rest. Part of the success of the Silicon Valley giants of today has come from their ability to attain huge revenues and profits with relatively few workers.  It’s led to huge profits for shareholders, helped grow the U.S. economy, but also has fueled inequality.

In 1993, three of the then tech giants – Kodak, IBM and AT&T – employed 675,000 employees to produce $243 billion of revenue in inflation-adjusted dollars.  Today, Apple, Alphabet and Google produce $333 billion in annual revenue with less than 1/3 of that number, employing only 205,000 employees.

Apple is quick to point out that its products generate many jobs beyond those who receive an Apple paycheck.  It estimates that 1.5 million people work in the “app economy.” However, research shows that the shift to a contracting economy has put downward pressure on compensation.  Many corporations hire full-time employees only for the most important jobs and outsource the rest; obtaining contractors at the time and place needed for the lowest price possible. It’s not just janitors and security guards that are outsourced.  There are also people who test operating systems, review social media posts and screen job applicants, for example.  It’s understandable: companies face really tough competition and if they don’t keep their work force lean, they risk losing out to a competitor that does.

In addition, outsourcing often results in a culture of transience.  Contracted workers are often changing jobs every 12 to 18 months, which obviously can be stressful to them and their family.  Contractors generally don’t receive stock options nor robust health insurance.  Also, retirement plans, even for full-time employees, have changed considerably in the last 35 years. In 1979, 28% of workers were covered by a company paid pension program and 7% had a 401(k). In 2014, only 2% of workers were covered by a pension plan and 34% had a 401(k) plan, which of course, means that most of the funding now is coming from the worker.

Here’s what’s really amazing.  With all these changes, job satisfaction has gone up.  For the first time since 2005, more than half of U.S. workers say they’re satisfied with their jobs.  This optimism has led to consumer spending increasing every month this year and a strong economy.  Apparently, after a decade of job cuts, minimal raises and reduced benefits, workers have lowered their expectations.  Rick Wartzman, author of “The End of Loyalty: The Rise and Fall of Good Jobs in America,” feels that young workers today “don’t even know what they are missing.”

On Monday, we celebrated Labor Day, honoring working people.  That’s particularly important these days as many workers don’t have it nearly good as it was 30-40 years ago.  Even so, American values, spirit and resiliency continue to be very evident in these ever-changing times. Perhaps we need another holiday, “Resilience Day.”  Time to get the grill heated up again!

“The Markets are going to Fluctuate”

Last Thursday, August 17, the equity markets took a hit of 1-1.5%.  In overall terms, it wasn’t a pullback (5% drop) or a correction (10%) yet some were concerned this might be the “start of the end” of the long-term bull market.  Yes, stock valuations have been high for some time, but many people wondered “Why now?” Various reasons were given to “explain” the causes of Thursday’s decline.  Let’s take a look at some of these:

“Terrorism.”  The first reports of the attack in Barcelona were posted in New York around noon last Thursday.  The markets were already in a decline and gold and bonds were moving higher.  Though the attack was dreadful and disgusting, it likely didn’t move the markets.

“Corporate America abandons the White House.”  Kenneth Frazier, CEO of Merck, resigned Monday, August 14.  Others followed and the major business councils disbanded on Wednesday, August 16.  However, participation on President Trump’s councils is voluntary and the first priority of each of the CEOs is their “day job,” which involves working with their customers, employees, suppliers and investors.  Their departure shouldn’t have been a surprise.

“All Donald Trump all the time has worn out people’s patience.”   Certainly, many may be exhausted by the almost singular focus of the news being the White House for the last seven months.  However, impatience is unlikely to cause the markets to move lower.  It was only two weeks ago that we all were worried about the possibility of a nuclear war starting in the Korean peninsula. And, that scare didn’t move the markets.  Therefore, it’s hard to believe the daily White House news would be a source of concern for the markets.

“The White House Economic Team is Leaving.”  Early last Thursday, a rumor floated through Wall Street that Gary Cohn, the Director of the National Economic Council, was resigning.  Mr. Cohn, along with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin are leading the all-important tax reform and infrastructure initiatives.  The S&P 500 began a sharp move down around 10 am last Thursday exactly the time the false tweet came out.  Fortunately, the rumor was squelched almost immediately but the markets, nevertheless, continued to fall.   Hence, the rumor seems not to have been the catalyst for the sale, though the loss of either Mr. Cohn or Mr. Mnuchin would, in fact, be a major concern.

In short, these “explanations” given after last Thursday’s market drop really don’t identify why it happened.  Even so, story lines will continue.  We humans want them.  We are wired to try to understand why and how things happen and use that information to guide our future.

Legend has it that about a century ago, an alert young man found himself in the presence of John Pierpont Morgan, one of the most successful investors of all time.  Hoping to improve his fortune, the young man asked Mr. Morgan’s opinion as to the future course of the stock market.  The alleged reply has become a classic:  “Young man, I believe the market is going to fluctuate.”

Yes, there are many things we cannot control and, fortunately, some we can.  At DWM, we focus on helping you to create and maintain an investment portfolio that is designed to participate in good times and protect in bad times by:

  • Identifying and implementing a customized asset allocation based on your goals and risk tolerance
  • Diversifying the holdings by asset class and asset style
  • Using the lowest cost investments wherever possible
  • Striving to make the portfolio tax efficient
  • Rebalancing regularly
  • Staying fully invested
  • Providing discipline to keep you on track and, for example, making sure you are not trying to time the markets or chase performance

Yes, the markets are going to fluctuate.  We can’t control that.  But, at DWM we can help you control those key metrics that, over the long run, can produce higher expected returns with lower risk.

Let’s All Work to Grow Human Capital!

Your biggest financial asset may be your human capital.  Yes, perhaps even more important than your investment portfolio, house, real estate and other assets.  Simply put, human capital refers to the abilities and qualities of people that make them productive.  There are many factors that contribute to human capital.  Knowledge is the most important, but discipline, punctuality, willingness to work hard, personal values and the state of one’s health are among the other factors.

Generally, younger people will have more human capital than financial capital.  In an economic sense, their human capital is the net present value of their lifetime earnings.  In a larger sense, human capital is our ability to add value to others and improve their lives and, by doing so, improve our own.  Decisions young people make early on regarding their education, their careers, their job choices, life partner choice, etc. will all have huge impacts on their eventual financial capital and human capital. Key questions they should answer include “What is your passion?” “When are you at your best?” and “What allows you to engage your human capital at the highest level?”

Historically, the cross-over point where financial capital starts to exceed human capital occurs when one is in their 50s.  However, with people living longer or pursuing “encore” careers, human capital may remain a significant personal asset for octogenarians and beyond.  A perfect example is 86 year old Warren Buffet who is committed to growing human capital:  “Investing in yourself is the best thing you can do.  Anything that improves your own talents cannot be taxed or taken away from you.”  Regardless of your age, human capital is like a garden, you need to continually give it your time and effort in order for it to grow.

For decades after WWII, the G.I. bill and the American economy pushed workers to build skills and maximize their economic potential.  This was arguably the greatest period of shared prosperity in the history of capitalism.  Last week’s Economist featured an article about University of Chicago Nobel Prize winner Gary Becker’s concept of human capital. Dr. Becker found that 25% of the rise in per-person incomes from 1929 to 1982 in the U.S. was because of increases in schooling.  Other components included on-the-job training and better health.  Dr. Becker was fond of pointing to Asian economics, such as South Korea and Taiwan, with few natural resources, who have invested in human capital by building up their education systems.  There is no debate that well-educated populations have greater incomes and broader social gains. There is a debate over whether the government should supply the education or students should bear the cost; yet both will receive the rewards.

Dr. Becker also wrote about “good inequality” and “bad inequality.”  Higher earnings for doctors, scientists and computer programmers, for example, help motivate students to push harder and achieve top paying jobs.  On the other hand, Dr. Becker wrote, when inequality becomes too extreme, the schooling and even the health of children from poor families suffers, with parents unable to adequately provide for them.  Inequality of this sort “depresses human capital, leaving society worse off.”

Certainly, many, if not most, of our DWM blog readers are committed to increasing and using their human capital to benefit themselves and others.  But, there are many Americans who do not or cannot.  Some are in occupations that have been hit hard by technological changes, others are in declining industries, others have limited education, and others have little opportunity.  As a result, there are lots of unhappy people due to this huge current gap between full human capital and employed human capital.  Can you imagine our country where the vast majority of our 323 million people were increasing their human capital and using it to benefit themselves and society?  Can you imagine an annual economic growth rate of GDP of 5-10%, like it was in the 60s and 70s, compared to the 2% it is currently?  Can you imagine hundreds of millions of Americans happy with their shared prosperity and with optimism for the future?

Let’s make growing human capital a lifetime commitment. And, let’s also commit to using our human capital to help others grow theirs.  It’s up to each of us. Mahatma Gandhi put it so well: “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”

Next on the Agenda- Income Tax

Washington is moving on to tax reform. Earlier this week, the Senate Republicans made it clear that they want to focus on tax overhaul and critical fiscal legislation.  Republicans and Democrats have already outlined their plans.  Income taxes have always been a very important and often contentious subject. Before we review the key issues, let’s step back and review tax policy generally.

I remember my first tax class in Champaign, Illinois over 50 years ago.  We learned that income tax policy was more than simply raising money.  Taxes have always been an instrument of economic and social policy for the government, as well.

Income taxes became a permanent part of life in America with the passage of the 16th Amendment in 1913.  The first tax amount was 1% on net personal incomes above $3,000 with a surtax of 6% on incomes above $500,000 (that’s about $9 million of income in today’s dollars).  By 1918, at the end of WWI, the top rate was 77% (for incomes over $1 million).  During the Great Depression, the top marginal tax rate was 63% and rose to 94% during WWII.  The top rate was lowered to 50% in 1982 and eventually 28% in 1988.  It slowly increased to 40% in 2000, was reduced again from 2003 to 2012 and now is back at 40%. Corporate tax rates are 35% nominally, though the effective rate for corporations is between 20% and 25%.

Changes in the tax structure can influence economic activity.  For example, take the deduction for home mortgage interest.  If that deduction were eliminated, the housing market would most likely feel a big hit and economic growth, at least temporarily, would likely decline.  In addition, an argument is often made that tax cuts raise growth.  Evidence shows it’s not that simple.  Tax cuts can improve incentives to work, save and invest for workers, however, they may subsidize old capital that may undermine incentives for new activity and growth.  And, if tax cuts are not accompanied by spending cuts or increased economic growth, then the result is larger federal budget deficits.

Our income tax system is a “progressive” system.  That means that the tax rate goes up as the taxable amount increases.  It is based on a household’s ability to pay.  It is, in part, a redistribution of wealth as it increases the tax burden on higher income families and reduces it on lower income families.  In theory, a progressive tax promotes the greater social good and more overall happiness.  Critics would say that those who earn more are penalized by a progressive tax.

So, with that background, let’s look at some of the key issues.

The Republicans and the White House outlined their principles last Thursday:

  • Make taxes simpler, fairer, and lower for American families
  • Reduce tax rates for all American businesses
  • Encourage companies to bring back profits held abroad
  • Allow “unprecedented” capital expensing
  • Tax cuts would be short-term and expire in 10 years (and could be passed through “reconciliation” procedures by a simple majority)
  • The earlier proposed border adjustment tax on imports has been removed

Also this week, Senate Democrats indicated an interest in working with Republicans if three key conditions are met:

  • No cuts for the top 1% of households
  • No deficit-financed tax cuts
  • No use of fast-track procedures known as reconciliation

The last big tax reform was 1986.  It was a bipartisan bill with sweeping changes.  Its goals were to simplify the tax code, broaden the tax base and eliminate many tax shelters.  It was designed to be tax-revenue neutral.  The tax cuts for individuals were offset by eliminating $60 billion annually in tax loopholes and shifting $24 billion of the tax burden from individuals to corporations.  It needed bipartisan support because these were permanent changes requiring a 60% majority vote.

With all that in mind, sit back, relax and follow what comes out of Washington in the next few months. It will be interesting to watch how everything plays out for tax reform, the next very important piece of proposed legislation.

Some Cures for Procrastination

While most of us are having a super summer, maybe traveling a little bit, maybe kicking back a little, 60 psychologists were in Chicago last week attending the 10th Procrastination Conference. Their goal:  to better understand who procrastinates and discuss how the dreaded loop of perpetual delay can be altered.

Amazing.  20% of people are true procrastinators.  It seems of all countries surveyed, including the U.S., to Poland, Britain, Germany, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Peru, all have about 1 in 5 residents who are chronic procrastinators, or “procs.”  They delay in completing a task to the point of experiencing subjective discomfort, such as anxiety or discomfort.  A proc is usually consistent; procrastinating in multiple areas of her or his life- work, personal, financial and social.  Procs often lose jobs, have broken marriages, suffer deflated dreams, have self-esteem issues and are in financial disarray. Procrastination can be a real problem.

Hopefully, though, we have none or only few chronic procs in our readership.  However, for those who are in the other 80% who “on occasion” delay making decisions until it is too late, find themselves saying “I’ll do it tomorrow,” putting things off until the last minute or simply neglecting important items, here are some ideas on ways to get more things done.

  • Begin by forgiving yourself for being a part-time procrastinator.
  • Break down tasks into smaller pieces. For example, “select your blog topic,” as opposed to “write the blog.”
  • Consider using the Pomodoro technique. Plan your day in 25 minute intervals with a 5 minute break after each.  Complete small tasks throughout the day which will produce a huge cumulative effect and a wonderful feeling of accomplishment.
  • Adopt the “Seven Minute Rule.” If you have a task that requires seven minutes or less, just get it done now.  No need to put it on a to-do list or waste energy thinking about it over and over again, just knock it out.
  • Minimize distractions. One key area is emails.  Consider being email free for 15-25 minutes at a stretch to be able to concentrate and complete a project rather than getting sidetracked every other minute.
  • Deal with problems now. Remember the following saying:  “If you have to swallow a toad, it’s best not to look at it too long.”
  • Seek external help for your goals.

It’s no surprise that many people procrastinate on getting their financial matters in order.  Making decisions for what happens to your estate when you die isn’t all that much fun.  Reviewing insurance coverage for when your house is destroyed or your dog bites your neighbor isn’t extremely enjoyable.  Income tax planning isn’t a bowl of cherries.  Planning for retirement and making choices about needs, wants and wishes is not like having a birthday party.  Trying to make investment decisions by yourself with so much information available and so many  conflicting, self-proclaimed “experts” is difficult and frustrating.

However, all of these items are very important and do need to be put in order. Wealth management is one of those key areas where seeking external help can break your procrastination and help you reach your goals.  Consider working with a full-service fee-only fiduciary like DWM.  Not only will you get an experienced, competent team to guide you and provide information and choices so you can make decisions on all aspects of your finances.  In addition, with firms like DWM, who have a proprietary and prudent process in place, you receive regular, consistent follow-up on all investment, financial planning, insurance, income taxes and estate planning matters for years to come.

So, don’t procrastinate.  Consider some of these ideas for getting more things done. And, if you need external help on your finances in order, please give us a call.

“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.

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.