Traditional vs. Roth 401(k): Where Should I Be Putting my Money?

Recently, we have had quite a few conversations reviewing the age-old debate of whether Roth 401(k)s or Traditional 401(k)s are better. Well perhaps not age-old considering Roth 401(k)s came out in 2006, but still a common question with no quick answer. To start, let’s clarify exactly what a 401(k) is and how a Roth 401(k) compares and contrasts to a Traditional version.

Starting in 1980, the first 401(k) program was established through Johnson Companies. This retirement program provides employees the ability to shift their income straight from payroll into an investment account just for them. In a Traditional 401(k) plan, this shift comes in the form of deferred payment. Previously being reliant on company-set pension schedules, 401(k) plans transfers the legwork and adoptability of retirement savings away from company management and into the hands of workers themselves. Through this vehicle, employees can take a portion of their pay on a regular schedule that would normally be included in their check and instead deposit it into a corporate-structured, employee-managed investment account. These plans quickly became a company favorite, with over 50% of current companies either already providing these plans or considering it today.

Additionally, 401(k)s provide employees with an additional benefit: Tax-deferral for contributions. While contribution amounts to this account are capped annually ($19,500 for 2020 without catch-up), all amounts transferred are considered tax-deferred, i.e., employees can directly reduce their taxable income in the year contributed by their total contribution amount for that year. For example, if you were paid $100,000 in 2020 and deferred $19,000 into your 401(k), your total taxable income for 2020 would be $81,000.

For years, Traditional 401(k)s (and by proxy extremely similar accounts such as 403bs or 457s), dominated the market of employer retirement plans as they were one of the only real players in the game. However, in 2006, Roth 401(k)s (which are modeled after Roth IRAs created in 1997) shook all of that up. Why? Because these Roth plans offer up no current year tax deduction, but once contributed, the principal is never taxed again and the earnings are never taxed. Not to mention that since the contributions are already taxed, if rolled into a Roth IRA upon retirement, there are no required minimum distributions (“RMD”s) during the account owners lifetime, and beneficiaries are not taxed as well which provides some extra incentive for individuals who look to provide significant inheritances to their loved ones.

The addition of this designation to retirement plans opened up a lot of questions that we’ve seen over the past few years as more and more employers begin to offer the option. The most prevalent one being the titular “How much should I be investing in my Roth 401(k) vs my Traditional 401(k)?”. And the answer may not be as simple as it seems at first glance.

The taxability of the contributions to each is the driving factor behind deciding which form of retirement plan works the best for each client. The long term understanding of tax rates can help clear up this picture. Take the situation below for example:


Chart 1: Value of Roth vs. Traditional 401(k)

As stated in the blurb above the figures given in Chart 1, the calculations hinge based on tax rates over time. In theory, both accounts end up holding the same net value. However, the idea that tax rates over time will remain the same is highly unlikely. The 2017 Tax Act cut rates initially but they gradually ascend back to the former, higher rates. Further, with trillions of dollars of U.S. debt hanging over our heads, tax rates look to go up in the coming years. The result of this expected increase in tax rate indicates that the tax on the Traditional (also known as “regular”) 401(k) column shown in Chart 1 should be bumped up to something like 32% or higher, resulting in 4% less overall value of Traditional 401(k) assets than that of the Roth 401(k). While that may be only $1,200 dollars less in the example above, the larger the 401(k) value at retirement age the more significant this difference will be. Then again, this example assumes you stay at the same income now and in the future which may not be realistic. For many retirement will likely drop them into a lower tax bracket. As such, the Traditional 401(k) may make more sense. For a fun analysis to play around with this idea, try using this calculator.

One additional consideration not shown in the above chart is that additional taxable income in retirement years can also cause Traditional 401(k)s to have less appeal than Roth 401(k)s. If you expect to get a sizeable pension, annuity payout, or other income stream during retirement, the tax-deferral of the Traditional 401(k) contributions works less in your favor as you’ll likely be taxed at a similar or (in rare circumstances) higher rate than that of when you were working.

Further, the younger an individual is, the more likely that they will be in a lower tax bracket than when they look to retire. For this reason, we generally hope to see young individuals contributing at least 50% of their 401(k) contributions towards their Roth 401(k).

Here’s a different situation in which Traditional 401(k)s may be a better option. For example, if your current year income totals slightly above the current year tax bracket, it would likely be more beneficial to contribute more to a Traditional 401(k) in order to drop down a bracket and have all your income taxed at a lower current year rate.

At the end of the day, there are many variables to consider when choosing between a Traditional or Roth 401(k). One needs to make assumptions about one’s current and future financial situation. Frankly, those can be tough assumptions to make, but fortunately the argument over Roth vs Traditional is not an exclusive debate! In actuality, a significant number of workers will find that a mix of these savings, for example 50% of 401(k) contributions being allocated to Traditional and 50% to a Roth 401(k) can work out to receive the benefits of both sides, slightly lower taxes now as well as slightly lower taxes in the future!

Here at DWM we work with our clients to ensure that proper analysis through financial planning and tax planning provides us insight into the benefits that each type of 401(k) plan can offer on a case-by-case basis. If you would like to review this information and how it may apply to you in more detail, please feel free to reach out!

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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/

The “Nastiest, Hardest Problem” in Retirement

Running out of money in retirement is, according to Nobel Prize winning economist William Sharpe, the “nastiest, hardest problem” in retirement. Professor Sharpe has spent his career thinking about risk. His work on the Capital Asset Pricing Model and systemic risk produced in 1966 the Sharpe ratio, which measures risk-adjusted returns. Now, he’s tackling a much broader subject, extremely important to everyone, about possibly outliving your money in retirement. Similar to the Monte Carlo analysis that DWM uses to provide a probability of success for your financial plan, Dr. Sharpe created a computer program with 100,000 retirement-income scenarios to calculate the probability of not running out of money. He’s published a free 730 page e-book “Retirement Income Scenario Matrices.”

In short, there are three key variables that impact your retirement income; your spending, your investment returns and your eventual age (when your plan “ends.”)

The first variable, spending, is the one you can most control. Your spending before retirement will generally determine how much money you accumulate while working. What you don’t spend becomes savings/investments and these annual additions and their appreciation increase your investment portfolio overtime. Your spending in retirement will determine how much you need to withdraw from your investment pot. As your earnings during the working years increase, you need to save a larger percentage of your income in order to accumulate an investment pot at retirement time that will support the lifestyle you’ve created. Withdrawals from your investment portfolio during retirement typically should not exceed 4% of the total investment pot. It’s an easy calculation. For example, if you determine you will need to withdraw $100,000 from the portfolio in your first year of retirement, you’ll need a portfolio of $2.5 million.

Now let’s look at investment returns. No one can predict the future. Historically, we know there is a relationship between inflation, asset allocation and returns. Hypothetically, let’s assume that a diversified fixed income portfolio over the long term would produce a return of 1% above inflation. The return above inflation is called the “real return.” Equities, because of their higher risk, have earned an “equity risk premium” of roughly 3 to 7% above the inflation rate over the long term. Again, hypothetically, let’s assume that in the long-run equities earn 5% above inflation. Alternatives have a shorter historical track record but are designed to produce returns comparable to fixed income returns over time. Therefore, a portfolio with 50% fixed income holdings and 50% equity holdings might hypothetically produce a 3% real return over time. If long-term inflation is expected to be 2.5%, the nominal return could be expected to be 5.5%. A larger allocation to equities will likely produce a larger real return and a smaller (more defensive) allocation of equities would likely produce a smaller real return.

Lastly, longevity. Certainly, we can look at actuarial tables, such as those used by insurance companies and social security, to calculate life expectancy. These charts show that a male age 60 might be expected to live another 22 years; a female age 60, another 25 years. However, we suggest you not use these actuarial tables. Harvard Professor David Sinclair‘s “Lifespan- Why we Age- and Why We Don’t Have To” shows that the increases in technology and medicine are going to give those individuals who want to live a longer and healthier life the opportunity to do so. It is very possible that many of our clients and friends will live a healthy 100 plus years and younger generations, such as millennials and Gen Z, may live to 110 or longer. Accordingly, we suggest using an eventual age of at least 100 when doing your financial planning.

Dr. Sharpe’s final section in the book is about advice. He indicates that many people will need help. He outlines the “ideal financial advisor” and compares a “good financial advisor” to a “fine family doctor” who has “deep scientific knowledge, can assess client needs, habits and willpower and is able to provide scientific diagnoses and can communicate results to the client in simple terms so that the best treatments can be applied.” We like the analogy, we use it all the time.

Yes, running out of money in retirement would be a nasty, hard problem. It’s doesn’t have to be that way. You need a solid financial plan based on realistic values for investment returns and longevity. You also need to focus on spending and savings.   And, you might need some help from a “good financial advisor” that operates like a “fine family doctor,” a firm like DWM.

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Old Adages Die Hard: What Worked in the Past May Not Work Today!

More people are renting (not buying) houses, particularly millennials. The old adage that “paying rent is foolish, own your house as soon as you can” is no longer being universally followed.  Lots of reasons: cost of college education, student debt, relative cost of houses, flat wages, more flexibility and others.  Today we 327 million Americans live in 124 million households, of which 64% (or 79 million) are owner-occupied and 36% (or 45 million) are renter-occupied. In 2008, homeownership hit 69% and has been declining ever since.

It starts with the increasing cost of college.  Back in the mid 1960s, in-state tuition, fees, room and board for one year at the University of Illinois was $1,100.  Annual Inflation from 1965 to now has been 4.4% meaning $1,100 would have increased 10 times to $11,000 in current dollars.  Yet, today’s in-state tuition, room & board at Champaign is $31,000, a 28 times (or 7.9% average annual) increase.  Yes, students often get scholarships and don’t pay full price, but even a $22,000 price tag would represent a 20 times increase.

It’s no surprise that in the last 20 years, many students following the old adage “get a college education at any price” found it necessary to incur debt to complete college.  Today over 44 million students and/or their parents owe $1.6 trillion in student debt.  Among the class of 2018, 69% took out student loans with the average debt being $37,000, up $20,000 each since 2005.  And here is the sad part: according to the NY Fed Reserve, 4 in 10 recent college graduates are in jobs that don’t require degrees.  Ouch. In today’s changing economy, taking on “good debt” to get a degree doesn’t work for everyone, like it did 50 years ago.

At the same time, houses in many communities have increased in value greater than general inflation.  Elise and I bought our first house in Arlington Heights, IL in 1970 when we were 22.   It was 1,300 sq. ft., 3 bedrooms and one bath and cost $21,000.  I was making $13,000 a year as a starting CPA and Elise made $8,000 teaching.  Today that same house is shown on Zillow at $315,000.  That’s a 15 times increase in 50 years. At the same time, the first year salary for a CPA in public accounting is now, according to Robert Half, about $50,000-$60,000. Let’s use $60,000.  That’s less than a 5x increase.  Houses, on the other hand, have increased at 5.6% per year. CPA salaries have increased 3.1%.  The cost of living in that 50 years went up 3.8%. Wages, even in good occupations, have lagged inflation. Our house 50 years ago represented about one times our annual income.  Today the average home is over 4 times the owners’ income.  That makes housing a huge cost of the family budget.

In addition, today it is so much more difficult to assemble the down payment. We needed 20% or $4,200; which came from $3,500 savings we accumulated during our first year working full-time and a $700 gift from my mother. A “starter” house today can cost $250,000 or more.  20% is $50,000, which for many is more than their first year gross income.  And, from that income, they have taxes, rent, food and other expenses and, in many cases, student debt, to pay before they have money for savings. Saving 10% is great, 20% is phenomenal.  But even at 20%, that’s only $10,000 per year and they would need five years to get to $50,000.  No surprise that it is estimated the 2/3 of millennials would require at least 2 decades to accumulate a 20% down payment.

Certainly, houses can become wealth builders because of the leverage of the mortgage.  If your $250,000 house appreciates 2% a year, that is a 10% or $5,000 increase on your theoretical $50,000 down payment. But what happens when real estate markets go down as they did after the 2008 financial crisis?  The loss is increased.  Many young people saw siblings or parents suffer a big downturn in equity 10 years ago and are not ready to jump in.

Furthermore, young people who can scrape up the down payment and recognize the long term benefits of home ownership, may not be willing to commit to one house or one location for six to seven years.  With closing costs and commissions, buying, owning and selling a house in too short a period can be costly and not produce positive returns.

Lastly, many people want flexibility and don’t want to be tied to a house. They want flexibility to change locations and jobs.  They want flexibility with their time and don’t want to spend their weekends mowing the grass or perform continual repairs on the house. In changing states like Illinois, with a shrinking population and less likelihood of significant appreciation, their house can be a burden.  For them, renting provides them flexibility and peace of mind.

It’s no surprise then that the WSJ reported last week that a record number of families earning $100,000 a year or more are renting.  In 2019, 19% of households with six-figure income rented their house, up from 12% in 2006.  Rentals are not only apartment buildings around city centers, but also single-family houses.  The big home-rental companies are betting that high earners will continue renting.

Yes, the world has changed greatly in the last 50 years and it will keep changing.  When I look back, I realize we baby boomers had it awfully good.  The old adages worked for us. But today, buying a house is not the “slam dunk” decision we had years ago, nor is a college degree.  The personal financial playbook followed by past generations doesn’t add up for many people these days.  It’s time for a new plan customized for new generations and that’s exactly what we do at DWM.

Climate Capitalists to the Rescue?

Record heat has hit the South. On October 1, it was 101 in Montgomery, AL. Record highs were hit in AL, TN, MS and KY. An acute lack of rainfall has dried out the Southeast as well and residents and farmers are hurting. Planet Earth continues to get warmer.

Look at the chart above showing the changes in temperatures from the 1850s until now. Each stripe is one year. Dark blue years are cooler and red stripes are warmer. The period 1971-2000 is the base line. At the same time, extreme events like Dorian are becoming more severe, more glaciers have died and seas and lakes are getting higher. The climate has changed.

The past century has seen major changes in the world. The Industrial Revolution has brought riches to some, higher standards of living to many, and the population has increased from 2 billion to 7 billion in that last century, and carbon dioxide (“CO2”) emissions have skyrocketed. Fossil fuels have been used to produce industrial power, electricity, transportation, heating, fertilizers and plastic. In 1900 about 2 billion tons of CO2 went airborne. For 2019, 40 billion tons per year will be emitted, with the biggest increase in the last 30 years.   Expanding use of fossil fuel and related increasing emissions of CO2 have gone hand in hand with the expansion of world growth. See the chart below.

GDP CO2

We humans also produce CO2, breathing and eating.  Trees and plants absorb CO2 and, with sunlight and water, convert it to food.   Compared to 1900, we have 5 billion more humans, expanded use of fossil fuels and, because of deforestation, we have less flora to absorb the CO2.

The first half of the 20th century scientists believed that almost all of the CO2 given off by industry and humans and not absorbed by plants would be sucked up by the oceans.  By 1965 oceanographers realized that the seas couldn’t keep with the CO2 emissions.   Climate change shouldn’t come as a surprise; we’ve known about it for decades.

There are lots of predictions about the impact of climate change in the future. No one can predict the future. But certainly, as our beloved Yogi Berra always said, “The Future is not what it used to be.”

The Economist recaps it this way: “Climate change is not the end of the world.”  Humankind is not poised teetering on the edge of extinction.  The planet is not in peril.”  However, climate change could be a dire threat to the displacement of tens of millions of people, it will likely dry up wells and water mains, increase flooding as well as producing higher temps and more severe weather.  The Economist concludes that “the longer humanity takes to curb emissions, the greater the dangers and sparser the benefits-and the larger the risk of some truly catastrophic surprises.”

Addressing climate change will also provide substantial business opportunities in the coming years.  Already some countries are abandoning coal to generate electricity. Britain, e.g., has developed a thriving offshore wind farm industry used to generate power. Germany recently announced that it will spend $75 billion to meet its 2030 goals to combat climate change, primarily in the transportation area with electric vehicles.

In addition, “climate capitalists” want to do good for the planet and well for themselves.  Elon Musk has invested billions into batteries and electric vehicles.   Chinese BYD’s Zhenzhen sprawling campus is a major provider of solar cells, electric cars, heavy machinery and other items needing energy storage.  Warren Buffet has invested $232 million into BYD.  American billionaire Philip Anschutz has spent a decade promoting a $3 billion high-voltage electric grid. Bill Joy, a co-founder of Sun Microsystems, is now backing Beyond Meat, a maker of plant-based alternatives to burgers.  Microsoft’s Bill Gates established a $1 billion company to bankroll technologies that “radically cut annual emissions.”  Even Pope Francis is using the Vatican Bank’s $3 billion fund to help fight climate change.

The UN’s one day climate summit last week concluded with a number of new announcements.  65 countries and the EU have committed to reach net-zero carbon by 2050.   Unfortunately 75% of the emissions come from 12 countries and 4 of them, India, American, China and Russia made no commitment.  However, certain businesses such as Nestle, Salesforce and have made commitments to reach net-zero by 2050 or before.

2050 will be here before we know it.  Yet, technological change can be adopted quickly, particularly when people are provided a better alternative.  In America, the shift from horse-drawn carts to engine-driven vehicles took place within a decade, from 1903 to 1913.  Let’s hope climate capitalists all over the world do well for themselves and good for planet as soon as possible and we humans and our countries do our parts as well.

 

REINVENT CAPITALISM?

Kraft Heinz (KHC) and Unilever (UL) have many things in common. Both companies own hundreds of global consumer brands- KHC includes not only Kraft foods and Heinz Ketchup but also Planter’s peanuts and Grey Poupon mustard. Unilever owns Dove soap and Hellmann’s mayonnaise, Lipton’s tea and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. Both have been in business since the 1920s. Both employ tens of thousands of employees.

In early 2017, KHC offered to buy UL for $143 billion. UL’s then CEO, Paul Polman, fended off the takeover attempt because of a “corporate culture that couldn’t have been more different from Unilever’s.” Since then, KHC’s share price has dropped 70% and UL’s has increased about 35%. If we look at some of the differences between KHC and UL we will see why Mr. Polman didn’t want to merge with KHC and why he would like to see capitalism “reinvented.”

After receiving his M.B.A., Mr. Polman joined Procter & Gamble which provided the foundations for his leadership approach. In his recent NYT interview, Mr. Polman indicated that “P&G has enormous values that permeate all levels and all places in the world that it operates. Ethics, doing the right thing for the long term, taking care of your community is really the way you want a responsible business to be run.”

Fast forward to 2009. After 10 years of decline, UL hires Mr. Polman as CEO. Annual sales had dropped from $55 billion to $38 billion. Mr. Polman felt UL had good brands and good people but had become too “short-term focused.” A change was needed.

Mr. Polman brought back values from the 20s that were at the roots of Unilever’s success. He felt a more responsible business model was needed. He came up with a bold plan to double Unilever’s revenue while cutting the company’s negative impact on the environment in half. And, he committed his entire team to focus on the long-term, not the short-term, in solving important issues.

In short, Mr. Polman believes “We need to reinvent capitalism, to move financial markets to the longer term.”  He felt that “KHC is clearly focused on a few billionaires that do extremely well, but the company is on the bottom of the human rights indexes and is built on the concept of cost cutting.”

This long-term vs. short-term focus is at the heart of a recent best seller, “Prosperity” by Colin Mayer, a former dean of Oxford’s Said business school. Dr. Mayer believes that a great shift in businesses, here in the U.S. and abroad, started about 50 years ago with the overwhelming acceptance of Chicago economist Milton Friedman’s simple doctrine that “the one and only responsibility” of a business is to increase its profits for the benefits of its shareholders, as long as it stays within the rules of the game.” This has been a “powerful concept that has defined business practice and government policies and has molded generations of business leaders.” It has resulted in a huge emphasis on quarterly reporting and quarterly behavior.

Dr. Mayer believes, on the other hand, that the purpose of a corporation should consider its customers, employees, suppliers, and communities as well as its shareholders. Historically, family-owned businesses were cognizant of and responsive to all the constituencies that compose a business and focused on the long-term. Today, almost all corporations in the UK and many US corporations are no longer owned by the founders or their families. This change has accelerated due to the focus on short-term profits, often by simply merging and cutting costs. Dr. Mayer also pointed out that corporations can also have dual-class share structures (typically voting and non-voting shares) which can allow the founders and their like-minded successors to control the company and therefore focus on its long-term purpose rather than quarterly earnings reports. Ford, Google, and Facebook all have this structure. This is a positive trend.

Robert Reich’s new book “The Common Good”, sums it up this way, “In the corporate world, the single-minded-pursuit of shareholder value has displaced the older notion that companies are also responsible for the well-being of workers, customers and communities they serve.” “The common good is no longer a fashionable idea.” He defines common good as “consisting of our shared values about what we owe another as citizens who are bound together in the same society.” Regardless of political party, all Americans should embrace contributions to the common good.

For 50 years, there has been a huge focus on financial capital with less attention paid to human capital, intellectual capital, material capital and environmental capital. All five of these components of capital should be considered for the overall long-term growth and common good of America and the world.

Reinventing capitalism would require companies to focus on more than quarterly profits. Consideration of all of its constituents- customers, shareholders, employees, suppliers, communities and the environment for the long-term-could certainly benefit the common good and likely produce even better stock market returns in the long-run as well.

ECONOMY CELEBRATES 10 YEARS OF GROWTH: IS IT TIME TO PARTY?

Next week will mark the 121st month of the current bull market- the longest business cycle since records began in 1854. Based on history, a recession should be starting soon. Bond rates now form an “inverse yield curve” with shorter term rates above longer term, which typically signals a downturn. Business confidence is down. However, 224,000 American jobs were created in June and equities continue to soar, rising 16-20% year to date. Is it time to party or not?

The business cycle appears to be lengthening. The current expansion, coming after the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, has been unusually long and sluggish. Average GDP growth has been 2.3% per year, as compared to the 3.6% annual growth in the past three expansions. The workforce is aging. Big firms invest less. Productivity has slipped. And, Northwestern Economics Professor Robert Gordon continues to assert that American’s developments in information and communication technology just don’t measure up to past achievements including electricity, chemicals and pharmaceuticals, and the internal combustion engine.

However, the changing economy may now be less volatile for a number of reasons. 1/3 of American’s 20th century recessions were caused by industrial declines or oil-price plunges. Today, manufacturing is only 11% of GDP and its output requires 25% less energy than in 1999. Services are now 70% of our GDP. Furthermore, the value of the housing market is now 143% of GDP, as compared to a peak of 188%. Banks have lots of capital.

Finally, inflation has been very low, averaging 1.6% in the U.S. (and 1.1% in the euro zone) per year during the current expansion. In earlier business cycles, the economy would surge ahead, the jobs market would overheat, causing inflation to rise and leading the Federal Reserve to put on the brakes by raising interest rates. Today, it’s different. Even though the unemployment rate is at a 50 year low of 3.7%, wage growth is only 3%. As the Economist pointed out last week in “Riding High,” American workers have less bargaining power in the globalized economy and are getting a smaller percentage of company profits, keeping inflation down. The Fed recently announced that it is less concerned about rising prices and more concerned about growth slowing and, therefore, will lower interest rates at its meeting next week.

Changes in the economy to slower growth, more reliance on services and lower inflation all contribute to longer business cycles. Yet, the changing economy, particularly globalization and technology, has also produced new risks.

Manufacturing that was formerly done in the U.S. is now outsourced to global producers. These chains can be severely disrupted by a trade war. This could produce a major shock- imagine if Apple was cut-off from its suppliers in China. Also, take a look at the impact that the prolonged grounding of Boeing’s 737 MAX is having on the U.S. economy. It’s hurting suppliers, airlines, and tens of thousands of workers, while $30 billion of the MAX sit grounded. Global supply chains are extremely interconnected these days.

IT is significantly linked as well. Many businesses outsource their IT services via cloud-computing to a few giants, including Alphabet (GOOGL).  85% of Alphabet’s $100 billion annual sales comes from advertising, which in the past has been closely correlated to the business cycle. GOOGL invested $45 billion last year, 5 times more than Ford. In fact, the S&P 500 companies invested $318 billion last year, of which $220 billion was spent by ten tech companies. The big IT companies are now facing regulatory issues worldwide. What would be the worldwide impact if GOOGL, Facebook or others get their “wings” clipped?

Also, finance issues could disrupt the expansion. Although housing and banks are in decent shape, private debts remain high by historical standards, at 250% of GDP, or $50 trillion. And, if the prime lending rate continues to decline, banks’ profits and balance sheets will likely weaken.

Lastly, politics is a big risk. There are the threats of trade wars with China and physical war with Iran. The big tax cut that pushed markets up in 2017 could now produce lower year over year earnings for companies. On Monday, July 22nd, Congressional leaders and White House negotiators reached a deal to increase federal spending and raise the government’s borrowing limit. This would raise spending by $320 billion, at a time when the annual deficit is already nearing $1 trillion, despite the continuing expansion.

Conclusion: Changes in the economy have produced reasons why business cycles are longer, yet more sluggish. Those changes have also added new risks for a continuing expansion and bull market. No one can predict the future. Focus on what you can control: Make sure your risk level is appropriate for your risk profile. Make sure your portfolio is prepared for the next downturn. And, yes, stay invested.

Real Estate: Time to Sell that Large House?

American homes are a lot larger than they used to be.  In 1973, the median size of a newly built house was 1,500 square feet.  In 2015, that figure was 2,500 sq. ft. – 67% more. Plus, with smaller families, there is lots more room per person: 507 sq. ft./person in 1973, and, almost double, 971 sq. ft./person in 2015.

In addition, Americans aren’t any happier with bigger houses.  A study by PhD Clement Bellet found that “house satisfaction in the American suburbs has remained steady for the last four decades.”  His reasoning is based on the premise that people compare their houses to others in the neighborhood-particularly the biggest ones.  The largest homes in the neighborhood seem to be the benchmark.  Dr. Bellet tracked the “one-upmanship” by owners of the biggest homes from 1980 to 2009.  He found that the size of largest 10% of houses increased 40% more than the size increase of median houses.  Apparently, the competition never ends.

Fifty years ago, a one bathroom house or a bedroom that slept 3 siblings might have felt cramped- but it also probably felt normal.  Today, many Americans can afford more space and they’ve bought it. They just don’t appear to be any happier with it.

Dr. Robert Shiller, the noted Nobel Prize winner and co-author of the Case-Shiller index of housing prices, was interviewed recently by the WSJ for an article titled “The Biggest Ways People Waste Money”.  Dr. Shiller opined that “Big houses are a waste.”  He believes that modernization has reduced our space needs.  However, he recognizes, that for some, a big house is a symbol of success. Your neighbors may not know about your finances and achievements, but they can see your big house.

Dr. Shiller suggests books such as “The New Small House”- that talk about designing houses to look impressive as well as function on a smaller scale. Living smaller can be easier on the pocketbook, the owner’s time and the environment.  He concludes: “Just like Uber and Lyft and Airbnb, using resources more efficiently, we can also build houses that are better at serving people’s needs without being big”.

As a result, we’re seeing that fewer people want to buy large, elaborate dream houses.  We know that in the high-end suburbs of Chicago that prices today, in some cases, are ½ of what they were 10-15 years ago. In the Southeast and the Sunbelt, McMansions are sitting on the market, enduring deep price cuts to sell.  For example, Kiawah Island currently has 225 houses for sale, which is a 3-4 year supply.  Of these, the largest and most expensive are the hardest to sell, especially if they haven’t been renovated recently.

The problem is expected to get worse in the next decade.  Baby Boomers currently own 32 million houses, 40% of all the homes in America, and many of these homes are big ones. As the Boomers advance into their 70s and 80s, many will be looking to downsize and/or move to senior housing and therefore will attempt to offload their big house.

When we at DWM talk with clients about housing, we generally ball park a figure of 5-7% of the market value of the house as the annual net cost.  The costs include interest, if there is a mortgage, the opportunity costs of not investing the equity in the house, real estate taxes, insurance, and maintenance and repairs. From this total we subtract the expected appreciation.  For example, a $500,000 house with a $200,000, 4.5% mortgage, might have $9,000 in interest, $18,000 in opportunity costs, $5,000 in real estate taxes, $3,000 in insurance and $5,000 in repairs. Total costs of $40,000 less 2% appreciation of $10,000 nets $30,000 in annual net costs or 6% of the market value.  Of course, values differ across the country and by house. Furthermore, there are some sections of the country experiencing excellent appreciation and some that are experiencing deprecation in value.

As we look at our spending, it’s always good to compare the value received to the cost and, if the cost exceeds the value, a change might be in order.  In our example, if the couple owning the $500,000 house feels they are getting $30,000 or more per year of value from the house, that’s great.  If they are not, particularly if they have a bigger house that may not be appreciating and may be hard to sell in the future, they may want to think about a change now.  Give us a call if you would like to discuss this very important topic.

SECURE – Update on New Retirement System Legislation

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Two weeks ago, the House of Representatives almost unanimously passed the Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (SECURE) Act, adopting their version of long-awaited retirement legislation that can now be introduced for deliberation on the Senate side and ultimately head to the President’s desk.   While Congress has discussed this for many years, these policy changes come at a time when life expectancy has increased and a greater number of American retirees must ensure that they don’t outlast their savings. The bill is now in the Senate Finance Committee, where action has slowed as a handful of Finance Committee members have some issues they want addressed before agreeing to vote on it.  

The marquee provisions in the House bill, estimated to cost $16.8 billion over 10 years, include providing tax credits and removing barriers for small businesses to offer retirement plans and boosting the minimum age for required minimum distributions (RMDs) to begin from 70½ to 72 years old. Other significant changes written in the House bill would make it easier for tax-deferred retirement plans, like 401(k)s, to offer annuities and also repeals the age cap for contributing to individual retirement accounts, currently 70 ½. There are also beneficial measures for part-time workers, parents, home-care workers and employees at small businesses, as well.

As reported by the May 23rd WSJ article, the House legislation also repeals a 2017 change to the “Kiddie Tax” that can boost tax rates on unearned income for low and middle income families that had caused surprise tax increases for many, including many military families of deceased active-duty service members . This policy change would also benefit survivors of first responders and college students receiving scholarships. This provision helped accelerate the passage of the bill to resolve a problem for military families right before Memorial Day.

To help pay for these changes, the House bill limits the “stretch IRA” provisions for beneficiaries of inherited IRAs. Currently, beneficiaries can liquidate those accounts over their own lifetimes to stretch out the RMD income and tax payments. The House bill would cut the time down to 10 years, with some exemptions for surviving spouses and minor children.  

A handful of Republican Senate members have some concerns about the House bill, including the House’s resistance to a provision that allows 529 accounts to pay for home-schooling costs. The Senate Finance Committee has introduced a bill closely resembling the House legislation – the Retirement Enhancement and Savings Act. Republican Senators are considering whether to make even broader policy changes than the House bill.

Here are the key items included in the House bill that are of most interest for our DWM clients:

IRAs if you are over 70 ½ – This bill would increase the age for the required minimum distributions (RMD) to begin from 70 ½ to 72. This will allow the accounts to grow and save taxes on the income until age 72. Also, there would no longer be an age restriction on IRA savings for people with taxable compensation – the age had previously been 70 1/2.

401(k)s – Small business employers would be allowed under this legislation to band together to offer 401(k) Plans to their employees, if they don’t offer one already. Long-standing part-time workers would now be eligible to participate in their employer’s Plan and new parents would be allowed to take up to $5,000 from 401(k)s or IRAs within a year of the birth or adoption of a child. Employers would also be required to provide more comprehensive retirement income disclosures on the employee statements and it would be easier for employers to offer annuity options in their 401(k) Plans.

Student Loans/529s – The House version of the bill would allow up to a $10,000 withdrawal from a 529 to be used for student loan repayment.  

At DWM, we are always watching for legislative changes that might affect our clients and will continue to report on these important developments. Please don’t hesitate to contact us with any questions or comments!