Not All Winners: Tax Refunds Down $6 Billion from Last Year

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At the end of March, 2019, the Treasury had issued $6 billion less in tax refunds than the same period a year ago. The refunds still have averaged around $3,000 each and the number of returns processed is similar to last year, but there are roughly 2 million fewer refunds so far in 2019. Many taxpayers are shocked- getting smaller refunds or having to pay, when seemingly nothing has changed in their situation.

We cautioned our readers about this a year ago (March 15, 2018), in “How to Avoid a 2018 Income Tax Shock.” We pointed out the Tax Cuts and Job Act (“TJCA”) brought about a number of changes. It reduced itemized deductions, lowered tax rates, eliminated exemptions, and produced new tax withholding tables in early 2018 that reduced withholding, thereby increasing net paychecks. So, for those families who have used their annual refund as a forced saving mechanism, it was a huge disappointment this year. They received little or no refund-yet, in fact, they had already received their refund money with each enlarged paycheck which, studies show, was spent, not saved.

Wealth Management magazine reported today that “Fewer RIAs (Registered Investment Advisers) See Client Benefits From Tax Act.” Craig Hawley, head of Nationwide Advisory Solutions, authored a recent study on TCJA which indicated that “the benefits of tax reform were not as widespread as originally expected.” This is no surprise to us at DWM- we anticipated winners and losers. We didn’t expect the benefits to be widespread and they haven’t been.

Our DWM clients represent a very diversified group. We are pleased to work with clients of all ages, from teenagers and others in our Emerging Investor program to Total Wealth Management clients in their 20s to their 90s. We work with lots of folks whose primary income is W-2 income and others whose primary income comes from their businesses and still others whose income comes primarily from their investment funds and retirement programs. While we don’t prepare any tax returns, we are very involved in tax projections and tax strategy for our many families. Here is the anecdotal evidence of the 2018 impact of the TCJA we have seen:

1)For younger people, their taxes were slightly less, but their refunds were down or they had to pay.

2)Those with significant personal real estate taxes, particularly those in IL, CA and NY, in many cases paid more in income taxes than 2017 due to the fact that most of the large real estate taxes they paid were not deductible.

3)Business owners, except for those in the excluded “Specified Service Trades or Businesses” (such as doctors, lawyers, CPAs and wealth managers), did exceptionally well under TCJA. They were able to qualify for a 20% “Qualified Business Income Deduction” from their income and get lower rates as well. For example, if a business owner’s share of the profit was $1,000,000, only $800,000 of it was taxed and that was at lower rates producing tax savings of over $125,000 as compared to 2017.

4)Many retired couples with no mortgage and few itemized deductions were able to take advantage of the new $24,000 standard deduction ($26,600 for those over 65) instead of using their itemized deductions and this saved them taxes.

5)Overall, TCJA brought winners and losers. Generally, business owners (not in service businesses) and those in the highest tax brackets saw the biggest reduction in income taxes. Certainly, benefits have not been widespread.

At DWM, we regularly prepare tax projections for our clients and encourage everyone to know, at least by the 3rd quarter, what their 2019 tax status might be. It’s really important to go through this process to avoid tax shocks and, maybe, even find some opportunities to reduce your taxes for 2019. Please contact us if you have any questions.

TAX REFORM: THIS YEAR’S CHRISTMAS GIFT OR A FUTURE CHRISTMAS COAL?

On top of the regular holiday season’s festivities, this year we’re watching the proposed “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act” likely making its way to the President’s desk for signature. The “joint conference committee” announced yesterday that they have a “final deal” and Congress is scheduled to vote on this next week.  Before we review what we specifically know about the bill (not all details have been released as of this morning) and provide some recommendations concerning it, let’s step back and review it from a longer-term perspective.

Since last year’s election, stock markets have been on a tear- up over 20%, mostly driven by increased corporate profits, both here and abroad.  U.S. GDP is growing and unemployment is close to 4%.  Most economists believe that now is not the time for a tax cut, which could heat up an already expanding economy to produce some additional short-term growth and inflation. The Fed reported yesterday that the tax package should provide only modest upside, concentrated mostly in 2018 and have little impact on long-term growth, currently estimated at 1.8%.  So, tax cuts now will not only likely increase the federal deficit by $1.5-$2 trillion over the next decade, but will take away the possibility of using tax cuts in the future, needed to spur the economy when the next recession hits.  Certainly, we would all like lower ta

xes and even higher returns on our investments, but we’d prefer to see longer-term healthy economic growth with its benefits widely shared by all Americans and steady investment returns, rather than a boom-bust scenario and huge tax cuts primarily for the wealthy that may not increase long-term economic growth.

As of this morning, December 14th, here are the current major provisions:

Individual

  • Income Tax Rates.  The top tax rate will be cut from 39.6% to 37%.
  • Standard deduction and exemptions.  Double the standard deduction (to $24,000 for a married couple) and eliminate all exemptions ($4,050 each).
  • State and Local Income, Sales and Real Estate Taxes.  Limit the total deduction for theseto $10,000 per year.
  • Mortgage Interest.  The bill would limit the deduction to acquisition indebtedness up to $750,000.
  • Limitations on itemized deductions for those couples earning greater than $313,800.  Repeals this “Pease” limitation.
  • Roth recharacterizations.  No longer allowed.
  • Sale of principal residence exclusion.  Qualification changed from living there 2 of 5 years to five out of eight years.
  • Major items basically unchanged.  Capital gains/dividends tax rate, medical expense deductions, student loan interest deductions, charitable deductions, investment income tax of 3.8%, retirement savings incentives, Alternative Minimum Tax, carried interest deduction (though 3 yr. holding period required.)
  • Estate Taxes.  Double the estate tax exemption from $5.5 million per person to $11 million.

 

 

Business

  • Top C-Corporation Tax Rate.  Reduce to 21% from 35%.
  • Alternative Minimum Tax.  Eliminated.
  • Business Investments.  Immediate expensing for qualified property for next five years.
  • Interest Expense.  Limit on expense to 30% of business interest income plus 30% of adjusted EBITDA.  Full deduction for small businesses (defined as $25 million sales by House, $15 million by Senate).

Another key issue, the top rate on pass through organizations (such as partnerships and S Corps), is yet to be determined. However, it appears that a reduction of 20% to 23% will be available to pass-through income, subject to W-2 minimums and adjusted gross income maximums. This would produce an effective top rate of 29.6% on pass through income.

If all of that see

 

ms confusing, you’re not alone.  Lots of moving parts and lots of details still to be clarified. Even so, if the bill passes, you will have been smart to consider the following:

Recommendations:

1) Because the bill would limit deductions for local income, sales and real estate taxes, you should make sure that you have paid all state income tax payments before December 31, 2017. If you are not sure, pay a little extra.

2) Also, make sure you pay your 2017 real estate taxes in full before 12/31/17. Because Illinois real estate taxes are paid in “arrears” it will be necessary to obtain an estimated 2017 real estate tax bill (generally due in 2018) by g

 

oing to your county link and then paying this before 12/31/17.  Let us know if you need help on this.  In the Low country, while our CPA friends indicate that paying 2018 real estate taxes in 2017 should be deductible, as a practical matter, there appears to be no way to get an estimated tax bill for 2018 and prepay your 2018 real estate taxes in 2017.

3) Meet with us and/or your CPA in early 2018 to review the impact of the Act, assuming it becomes law, on your 2018 income tax planning. It will be important to review the various strategies that may be available to make sure you are paying the least amount of taxes. 

Yes, tax reform may be here before Christmas. Not sure what it will be: a wonderful gift for this year’s holiday or perhaps a lump of coal in our stockings for Christmases to come.  Stay tuned.

“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.

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.

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.

DWM 1Q17 Market Commentary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Concerns include:

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

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

Brett M. Detterbeck, CFA, CFP®

DETTERBECK WEALTH MANAGEMENT

 

*represented by the Russell 2000 Index

**represented by the MSCI Emerging Markets Index

***represented by iShares Gold Trust

***represented by the ALPS Alerian MLP ETF

Big Macs and Donald Trump

Big Macs are becoming a real bargain everywhere in the world… except for the United States. This is because most emerging market currencies have taken a big hit since the election of Donald Trump, whereas, the dollar is as strong as it has been in almost 20 years. Not only has Trump raised expectations of an increased strength of the dollar, but many foreign countries have had problems of their own as well, leaving emerging markets lagging behind.  The Turkish Lira, for example, is one of the worst performing currencies so far this year due to terrorist bombings, economic slowdowns, and a central bank reluctant to raise interest rates to defend the currency (The Economist, Big Mac Index of Global Currencies). Emerging market struggles paired with a surging US dollar has led the Lira to be undervalued by 45.7% according to the Big Max Index.

You may be asking yourself “what on Earth is the ‘Big Mac Index?’” At least that’s what I asked myself the first time I heard it. You may be surprised to hear the Big Mac index is exactly what it sounds like: the cost comparison of a McDonalds Big Mac burger from one country to another. It is a fun, educational, and interesting way to learn how the world is valuing cost of goods on a country by country basis. The Big Mac index is built on the idea of purchase-power parity, meaning in the long run currencies will converge and rates should move towards equalization of an identical basket of goods & services.

In the United States a Big Mac costs $5.06 versus 10.75 Lira, or $2.75, in Turkey. The Mexican peso is even more undervalued at 55.9% versus the US dollar, meaning, a Big Mac only costs $2.23 in Mexico as of January 15th, 2017. The Big Mac index allows us to take complicated subjects, such as international commerce, and make it relatable and understandable.

One drawback of the Big Mac index is it does not take account of labor costs. Of course, a Big Mac will cost less in a country like Mexico because workers earn lower wages than workers in the US. So, in a slightly more sophisticated version of the Big Mac index, labor is included. This typically devalues the US Dollar (USD) compared to other countries around the world because our income is higher. For example, in the traditional Big Mac index, the Chinese yuan is 44% undervalued to the greenback, but after labor adjustments, it is only 7% undervalued. When this adjustment of labor cost is made, it makes it nearly impossible for the USD to trade at a premium against the Euro. This is because Europeans have a higher cost of living and lower incomes than Americans (The Economist, Big Mac Index of Global Currencies). Typically, the Euro trades around a 25% premium against the USD according to the Big Mac index. However, since the election of Donald Trump, even with the labor cost adjustment, the Big Mac index currently finds the Euro UNDERVALUED to the dollar. The US dollar is so strong, it is currently trading at a 14 year high in trade-weighted terms.

 A strong dollar may sound great, but it has many disadvantages. In the United States specifically, a strengthening USD can lead to a widening trade deficit with decreased exports and increased imports. This has a negative result on domestic businesses that operate in foreign countries as well as anyone servicing debts tied to the US dollar. President Trump has publically stated he feels international commerce is rigged against the United States. Whether he is right or wrong, as the trade deficit grows, so does the likelihood of him imposing tariffs on imports from China and Mexico in hopes of bringing balance to trade. If we put a tax on imports, it will lead to something called “protectionism,” or the practice of shielding the United States’ domestic industries from foreign competition. Some feel this is a strong policy because it will keep businesses in the United States and, according to Trump, will prevent us from being taken advantage of. However, it is fairly accepted in macroeconomics that protectionism is a poor/outdated policy because corporate globalization has led to international supply networks that promote convergence and integration throughout the world. Simply put, the countries that are the best at developing goods, develop them, and other countries benefit from the best products at the lowest prices. When something like protectionism takes place, it disintegrates these networks and adversely affects trade-dependent states and the domestic country itself (in this case the United States). The import tax will ultimately drive up prices for domestic consumers who would otherwise benefit from world prices that are significantly lower. This will lead to an increase in trade of intermediate goods and inward investing into value chain niches.

The reason the Big Mac index is so interesting is because it can explain a complex subject like macroeconomics with something as simple as the cost of a hamburger. By knowing the price of a Big Mac on a country by country basis, we are able to understand a significant amount about the world economy and the repercussions the US will face based on the actions we take moving forward.

The Big Mac index is telling us one thing for certain: the US dollar is abnormally strong, which makes the near future uncertain. It is important to have a well-diversified portfolio with an appropriate asset allocation and a competent, experienced fiduciary like DWM to help guide you through times like this. 

DWM 2016 Year-End Market Commentary

Over the holidays, I heard a lot of people whine about 2016 and how they were happy that it was over. Obviously, as a Cubs fan, I am biased. 2016 delivered a gift that has been waited upon for decades! One more time, “Go Cubs Go, Go Cubs Go, Hey Chicago, What Do You Say…” Sorry, I digress. Really, beyond breaking goat curses, what’s not to like about a year like 2016 when all major asset classes were up? For all the doom and gloom, not only early on in the year when stocks were getting hit in January, but also later in the year with Brexit and then during our “nasty” US Presidential Election, 2016 turned out to be a pretty darn good year for most investors.

Let’s review:

Equities: The graph above shows the performance of the MSCI AC World Equity Index, which finished the year up 7.9% in 2016. You can see that it was rough going early on and definitely some blips here and there, but ultimately a solid showing. Large caps did well, as represented by the S&P500, up 12.0%. But the big winner was in domestic small cap value where the Russell 2000 Value notched in a 31.7% return! Mid cap* stocks also shined, up 20.2%. Emerging markets** sold off in 4q16 after the Trump victory, but still finished up 11.2%.  Value continued to outperform growth, in some cases, by a 2 to 1 margin. At DWM, our clients follow a diversified strategy within their equities portfolio which feature the areas above and a value tilt.

Fixed Income: 2016 was another positive year for bonds, but ended with a thud, if you’re looking at the most popular bond benchmarks. The Barclays US Aggregate Bond Index lost 3.0% in the fourth quarter, finishing 2016 up 2.7%. The Barclays US Aggregate Bond Index had a horrendous 4q16, down 7.1, and finished +2.1%. Why the fourth quarter sell-off? Well, the Trump victory caught a lot by surprise and created a “rotation” of assets in the markets. In other words, with Trump’s pro-growth/ decreased regulation / America-first agenda, people traded out of bonds (that can get hurt from this new expected inflation brought on by growth), and traded into domestic equities particularly smaller caps and industries currently weighed down by regulation like financials and those that will benefit from infrastructure spending. The 10-yr Treasury Note yield which went as low as 1.3%, with some even worried about potentially going negative, spiked up, closing at 2.4% to end the year. That, folks, is a huge move for bonds, but is something that can happen when rates have been held down artificially for so long, and forecasts what we may be in store for. These upward moves in yield bring downward moves in prices. With the Fed signaling three rate increase of 0.25% each in 2017, traditional bond index investors could be seeing flat to even negative returns in 2017 and beyond! Bonds are no longer the safe haven they have generally been for the last three decades. This is not your Grandfather’s Oldsmobile! If you’re heavily invested in bonds, make sure you are working with a professional wealth manager that can position the portfolio appropriately or you could be caught with your pants down. Here at DWM, we aren’t a bond “closet indexer” which means the components that make up our clients’ bond portfolio are quite different than that of those indices mentioned above. Furthermore, we feel we can better position the portfolio for this new environment by adjusting the duration – or sensitivity to rates – to a very low measure. Our DWM clients have benefitted from this approach.

Alternatives:  In general, alts had a positive performance in 2016. The Credit Suisse Liquid Alternative Beta Index which was up 5.4% for 2016. Winners included precious metals like gold**** +8.3%; MLPs +14.8%; and catastrophe insurance-linked bonds notching in at 8.8%. But all was not peachy. Hedge funds*** as of the latest data available (11/30/16) were only about flat on the year. And many managed futures had negative showings, having a particularly tough time with the trend reversals following Trump’s victory.

So after a year where a balanced investor may have had registered a handsome high-single digit return, now what? It really is hard to forecast what will happen in 2017 as nobody knows exactly how this new Trump agenda will play out. We do know that the latest US quarterly GDP reading was the best in two years at 3.2%. US unemployment at 4.7% is hovering around its nine-year low. US companies are coming off the sidelines and are starting to invest their cash piles. Beyond this recent optimistic attitude domestically, investors are even encouraged with the outlook in the Eurozone, Japan, and China, more so than just several months ago. Brighter economic fundamentals could lead this stock market even higher.

In conclusion, we’re at a very interesting time. It’s only several days until Trump takes office and when his administration and Republican congressional majorities start trying to do all of these pro-growth/pro-economy measures. The markets are up since Election Day because investors have bought into the theory that they will indeed be successful in cutting taxes, loosening regulations, and providing fiscal stimulus. If they are successful, the legs on this bull market will continue to grow. If they are unsuccessful, America might not be so great again. Only time will tell. In the meantime, DWM will continue to monitor all client portfolios in pursuit of protection and growth in this new environment.

As I could hear Joe Maddon, coach of the Chicago Cubs saying, “2016 was a pretty darn good year. Now let’s go out and do it again!” Hey Joe, at DWM, we’re up to the challenge!

Brett M. Detterbeck, CFA, CFP®, AIF®

DETTERBECK WEALTH MANAGEMENT

*represented by the Dreyfus Mid Cap Index Fund

**represented by the MSCI Emerging Markets Index

***represented by the GSAM Hedge Fund Index as of 11/30/16 (latest available)

****represented by the iShares Gold Trust

† represented by the Alerian MLP ETF

‡ represented by the Pioneer Insurance-Linked Interval Fund

President for All Americans

0209-tiled-flag-of-american-diversity-1On the morning after the election, Donald Trump pledged that he “will be President for all Americans.”  That was a great start.  President-elect Trump has now assembled his transition team.  We’re starting to see that some of the campaign rhetoric and issues espoused by candidate Trump were not to be taken literally.  Further, with our government’s checks and balances, there is only so much one man can do by himself.  Being President of the U.S. will be much different than being Chairman and President of the Trump Organization.

First, let’s focus on four key economic initiatives we expect under President Trump: tax reform, infrastructure, trade protectionism and fiscal stimulus.

Tax Reform. House Speaker Ryan and President-elect Trump are not that far apart on tax reform.  The corporate tax (currently 35%) could end up at 20% (Ryan) or 15% (Trump).  The logic here is that lower rates would provide an incentive for American companies to repatriate profits held overseas. And, with that ready cash, they would be in a position to increase capital spending in the U.S.

On the personal side, we’d all get a tax cut.  The current seven tax brackets would be cut to three brackets. The highest bracket, currently 39.6%, would become 33%.  Tax reform could raise the standard deduction, limit exemptions and eliminate the alternative minimum tax.  And, it would eliminate or greatly reduce estate and gift taxes.

Individual tax reform is estimated to cost between $2.2 to $3.5 trillion over the next 10 years.  However, both President-elect Trump and Speaker Ryan believe that tax reform will put more money in people’s pockets and create demand which will grow the economy to offset this cost.

Infrastructure.  Further tax incentives would be given to support private funding for some of the repair and upgrading of roads, bridges and airports.  $140 billion in tax credits could provide funds for $1 trillion in infrastructure investments over the next 10 years.  And, using Standard & Poor’s formula that every dollar spent on infrastructure adds $1.30 to the economy, the plan is again for growth and more jobs.

Trade Protectionism.  Candidate Trump promised to put tariffs on Chinese imports and renegotiate NAFTA with Mexico and Canada.  He opposes the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would eliminate most tariffs on goods from countries in the alliance.  The net effect is that retail prices may be going up soon (to cover the increased costs of foreign produced merchandise) which may push inflation perhaps to the 3-4% range.

Fiscal Stimulus. Tax reform, along with more public spending on infrastructure, will likely increase the budget deficits and drive up interest rates.  According to Jeffrey Gundlach, CEO of Doubleline Capital, and one who predicted in January that Mr. Trump would be elected President, “Trump’s pro-business agenda is inherently ‘unfriendly’ to bonds.” Mr. Gundlach predicts the 10-year Treasury note, currently at 2.27%, will be 6% in 4-5 years.

Candidate Trump said he can get the economy to grow at 4% a year, twice what it is now.  He also promised add lots of jobs and reduce taxes.  We hope President Trump can make that happen.

Second, we need to recognize that this acrimonious presidential campaign was about more than simply “pocketbook” issues.  It showed very clearly that there are also deep divides in our country over race, ethnicity and culture.  When the votes were counted, millions in the rust belt and rural regions of the country cheered their new champion.  Yet, in the urban areas, thousands of minorities, millennials and millions of women and men fear that our country may be entering a dark and divisive time. We hope that President Trump will continue to change the rhetoric of candidate Trump as he did on 60 minutes Sunday night with Lesley Stahl.  He publicly asked those harassing Latinos and Muslims to “Stop it.”

In conclusion, we hope the economy can grow and help all Americans prosper in the coming four years. We also hope that President Trump will continue throughout his term to denounce the hate in our country and promote the safety and dignity of all of our 320 million diverse people.  If he accomplishes all of this, he certainly will be the “President for all Americans.”

“You’re Hired!”

trump-youre-hired-002“You’re hired!” was something The Apprentice reality show viewers heard at the end of every season as someone emerged from a group of highly different “characters” and was chosen as the winner. In a surreal twist, Donald Trump, the star of that show, has just been hired as our next President after a surprise victory over Hillary Clinton highlighting a populist uprising defeating the status quo.

No, November has not been just a bizarre dream; although on paper, both the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series and Donald Trump winning the US Presidency, seems about as outlandish as a UFO. These events have actually happened! Donald Trump will be our next President for at least the next four years and the Cubs most certainly will become a dynasty during that time. We are in for change. But is change necessarily a bad thing? At this point, the voters have voted and we no longer have a choice. Hence, time to embrace that change. However, what does it mean for you and your money?

First off, this is not Brexit #2. Recall that the markets fell significantly following the surprising June 2016 Brexit “Leave” victory, only for the market to recover fully in several days’ time. Yes, there were times last night when market futures were down big, but it didn’t prevail. Markets opened in steady fashion this morning and are up, not down, close to 1% as of this writing.

That, too, may come as a shocker to many as until now the market had been fluctuating based on Hillary’s success chances. See, the market had been pretty cool with status quo and hesitant of uncertainty, which Trump would undoubtedly bring to the table. But if we look at what Trump will be working on in the early months of his Presidency, we can see that it’s quite possible that it provides positives:

  1. Putting forth a giant infrastructure agenda in the likes of Eisenhower
  2. Working on trade reform which will most likely lead to inflation and thereby helps the banks
  3. Working on healthcare reform – most likely replacing the Affordable Care Act with something that – well, let’s face it – has to be better
  4. Decreasing regulation which will make many corporations and financial markets happy
  5. Working on tax reform – both individual and corporate, including repatriation (bringing back perhaps trillions of dollars of American companies that are currently overseas)

Many of these are pro-growth / pro-economy and the market likes that. Furthermore, for those that feared the Trump bulldog approach, the bark we heard on the campaign trail will be bigger than the bite as there are roadblocks to the rhetoric. The legislative and judicial process tends to mute campaign promises. Trump will not enjoy unlimited power. Smart negotiations will likely be made.

The fact of the matter is that this is a healthy economy in the US right now and poised to get better. GDP is up, unemployment is down. It’s not as “gloomy” as one may feel. This new business-friendly administration coming in will look to keep that going.

In conclusion, polls and markets will remain unpredictable. Don’t let politics overrule how you invest. Here at DWM, we’ve constructed portfolios for our clients to stand the test of time. Sure, we’ll have blips here and there like Brexit and the one we were bracing for this morning that didn’t happen. Volatility will always be a part of investing. The key is to remain invested in a diversified fashion for the long-term and don’t let your emotions turn into knee-jerk reactions you’ll ultimately regret. Last night’s event may have been a bit of a shocker, but the sun did indeed come out this morning and is shining down on America. We are in for a little change. But we should embrace this change and come together as a country to make it stronger than it has been. Hey, if the Cubs can do it, why not the good ole US of A?!? “Holy Cow” as Harry Caray would say!