Keeping perspective while the debt ceiling “crisis” continues ….

While Congress and the President continue the political battle on the “debt crisis,” here is more for proper perspective:

First, the yield on Treasuries if falling, not rising. If there were a serious issue about the US ability to repay, then US bonds would see high rates. That is, unlike Greece, which is in real trouble, or even Spain or Portugal, the US is still able to borrow at very favorable rates. So, the markets in general, up to this point, believe that the “crisis” has nothing to do with the economy or the strength of the US relative to other nations.

Second, the debt issues have come about after the extended bull market ended in 2008. That is, high stock values and prosperous markets yielded high tax revenues. With this, there were years of budget surpluses, even after tax cuts were enacted. But, post 2008, that has changed. The change in the economy and stock values, even with some markets approaching their 2008 high points, has led to much lower tax revenues.

Finally, from Floyd Norris in the New York Times, we have this summary:

“If rationality does prevail, the debt ceiling will be raised. For that matter, there is no good reason to have a debt ceiling other than to give politicians a chance to grandstand. The important decisions for Congress and the White House concern spending and taxing. Borrowing, or paying back debt as happened for a couple of years before the Bush tax cuts, is a result of the interplay of those decisions and the state of the economy.”
“There is a risk that many analysts now are making the opposite mistake. Deficits have skyrocketed in recent years for reasons that are clearly temporary, or that will be temporary if the economy recovers. In some of the debate, the short-term problems are mixed up with longer-term demographic concerns caused by the aging and retirement of the baby boomers and the rising costs of Medicare, the health insurance program for Americans over the age of 65.”

So, with fingers crossed for the prevailing of rationality soon, that is my update. Let me know if you have questions or comments

Financial impact of the budget plan and planning for tax reform

First, the on-going budget battle in Washington, or “the debt ceiling crisis,” should be kept in perspective. The battle is more a game of chicken, where one side will eventually blink and the ceiling increased. This political battle is not likely to have an impact on investments, as the markets have already accounted for the outcome, as usually happens well before the event. In fact, by way of example, this is much like 1989 when the municipal bonds of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts we downgraded to a rating just above that for Louisiana. Many investors panicked. However, the underlying economy had not changed. Therefore, the smart investment strategy at the time was to buy Massachusetts bonds. After Governor Weld came to office, the rating went back up and investors who held or bought the bonds had a nice profit. The equivalent today would be to buy treasuries.

Second, as it is shaping up, the deficit reduction package contains major tax reform provisions as well as huge spending cuts. This could ultimately be good for the economy and our markets, as it would bring corporate tax rates in line with other countries, falling in the 23 to 29% range. However, the base would be broadened, possibly including depreciation over longer periods, eliminating deductions for domestic production and trimming or dropping the R&D credit.
The tax overhaul raises substantial revenue, $1 trillion over 10 years. However, this less than half the amount that would have been raised by simply letting the Bush tax expire as scheduled.

New Tax Law: Many specifics will not be known until a new tax law is enacted, which is not likely to occur this year. What Kiplinger’s Tax Letter and others are predicting the following: Instead of six tax rates or brackets, with the highest at 35%, three are expected: one in the 8 to 12% range, the next in the 14 to 22% range, and the in the last in the 23 to 29% range. The Alternative Minimum Tax (“AMT”) would be repealed. The earned income credit and child credit would remain.

To do all this, there will be pain: itemized deductions would be significantly reformed, changing home interest and property tax deductions as well as charitable deductions. For example, deduction of interest might be limited to a mortgage of $500,000 used to purchase a home, but not any for a second home. In addition, the deduction of equity line of credit interest may be eliminated (no one knows what will be grandfathered, so better to have a line in place than to wait). Higher bracket taxpayers may see the deductions converted into a 12% credit.
Something of a surprise, given the push over the last ten years or more to increase personal savings, the deductions for retirement contributions may be cut back, lowering the ceiling and amount of the contributions that will be allowed for 401(k), IRA, Keogh, SEP-IRAs, profit-sharing plans and so on. Similarly, flex plan and health savings accounts may be curtailed or repealed.

We will continue to monitor the information on tax reform, and post updates when appropriate.

Any changes that are this sweeping will require serious tax planning, so that should be on your “to do” list for this fall!

Summer of 2011 to do list: investing, estate plan, refinance, taxes and planning matters

For this summer, we have suggested financial matters for you to review:

1. Asset allocation and investments – taking all IRAs, 401(k)s and taxable accounts as a single portfolio, reviewing the allocation and checking to see if it is time to rebalance;
2. Interest rates, investing and inflation – rates are likely to stay low, inflation is likely to stay low as well (there is no wage component, in fact wages may be deflationary now, there is only commodity inflation), so that leaves looking at any investment that equals or beats the 10 year Treasury bond at a 3% yield: good municipal bonds, dividend paying stocks, or packaged stocks like Berkshire Hathaway or the Permanent Portfolio mutual fund;
3. Refinancing – rates are back down some, so that you can bring a 30 year loan down to a 4.5% 25 year loan, or 4.25% 20 year, or 3.75% 15 year fixed;
4. Home Equity Line of Credit – rates are still under 3% and no closing costs, so be sure to set one up so you have a fall back source of funds to cover the unexpected
5. Estate plan – reviewing your wills and trusts, and any letters to fiduciaries, to be certain that you account for such matters as the portable credit, which requires an election at the first death;
6. Tax planning – reviewing your information for 2011 against 2010 and checking your options to be you minimize your 2011 and 2012 taxes (e.g., max out 401(k), 402(b), ESPP plans, convert to Roth IRAs in low income years, etc.); and
7. In fact, you could do a Finance Health Day (you own financial planning focus) – please check out Finance health day….

Let me know if you have questions or comments, or if anyone you know wants to ask about any of this material. Also check out Time Saving Tips…

Coming soon…. credit card benefits with real value

Time saving ideas that pay off in tax planning, investments, technology and daily routines

Ben Franklin taught us that “time is money”. In addition, we all know that we have limited time, so every instant is important to us. In fact, each minute involves a choice about how you spend that time.
However, the best use is often hard to sort out. Moreover, tracking time minute by minutes can cloud the real issue, which is what the best use of your time may be.

Tracking your time: However, as a starting point, Laura Vanderkam suggests keeping a journal of how you spend each day. This can show you how much time you spend, say, checking your e-mail every 15 minutes. If you can evaluate your habits with some clear-headed objectivity, you may find ways to spend your time better.

What is your time worth? Here is a financial perspective on the use of your time. Ms. Vanderkam “what is your Minimum Wage” as way to have you test your use of time financially. Her example is the difference between buying and making your own tortillas. When she factored in the time spent against any cost savings, she arrived at a wage of $1.40 per hour. So, was that a good decision for the use of your time? Maybe if your tortillas taste so much better… but often, tortillas are tortillas.

Here are two more taken from my experience: driving an extra 25 miles to save ten cents per gallon on gas probably nets out to the same total expenditure, after factoring in the gas used to get there, let alone the time. Replacing the brakes or McPherson struts on your car may seem to save money. However, when you factor in six hours or more spent, and the clean up, you have a fairly low minimum wage calculation. It is often better hire an expert and spend time with family.

Dangers of Technology: Another author suggests three time wasters from new technology: texting, remote access and last minute preparation. Geoffrey James finds that each of these appears to save time, but embodies significant risks. For texting, the response is immediate and you have a full record of the communication. That may not be to your advantage in business or personal relationships. Remote access may mean you are never really on vacation, never really relax and recharge, so return in less than par shape. Easy access to information makes last minute work tempting. So much can be reviewed easily. However, this process is usually rushed, and rarely forms permanent memories like long-term studies. Therefore, technology in general can be good, but there are some technologies, or at least the ways in which we use them, that do not save you time and make you more productive.

Now, some ideas that payoff
One time saving idea that pays is gathering your tax information as it comes, saving you from hunting for it last minute. Also, saving each year’s information in an organized manner will save time if ever questions arise or, worse, you have an audit to counter. Finally, if you let your tax preparer know about any changes during the year, you have a chance to react and adjust your tax planning, rather than being told what you should have done when it is too.

The same holds true for evaluating any other financial change. Address it at the time, and save the documentation. For example, when you get a new document, you can now scan and save files on your computer (but be sure to have backups). This way, your information is more easily retrieved and searchable, so you can find the correct item quickly.

Investing: This is an area where too much attention is not the best use of your time but also risks making investment errors. Please see our comments at Faults of the individual investor…. Too much attention can lead you to override your long-term plan so spend the time on other matters. Your portfolio will be better off.

If you create or update your estate plan, be sure to change your beneficiary designations right away. You may even choose to fund trusts you have created, saving time for your executor (or the attorney she hires). See Estate planning overview…

If you have suggestions, or questions, let us know.