What to watch out for in 2010 – investing, taxes and more

With a new year begun, now is a good time to take stock of your finances. Below are a series of areas to address. If you have questions or comments, please let me know Contact Us

Investing

The markets were up in 2009, some by over 70%, especially low grade stocks and bonds or what some have called a “junk rally”. Should you expect the same for 2010? Is there “a new normal” to which you need to respond?

If you have read any of my Newsletters, you know my response: last year’s winners usually perform poorly in the following years; many individual investors buy these investments anyway, making it more difficult for fund managers to produce results (it is harder to find good investments when you have a great deal more to invest); individual investors also often sell investments that historically go up; any thesis about a “new normal” tends to either ignore long-term lessons of history or be a flashy way of pitching a tactical move that could make sense, but only if you know when to sell as well as when to buy; and what is out of favor usually returns to favor, so that the more stable stocks and bonds that seem too boring to buy could be the right investment to be making now, as so often investment returns track back to the norm over time.

Studies show that, on average, mutual funds over decades fared slightly worse than their respective indices but individual investors did far worse. On the last point, there is a good article entitled “Stop Listening to Jim Cramer” found at Stop Listening to Jim Cramer. The point of this and some other authors worth noting is that prudent investing requires a long-term strategy, and with it the urge to resist trying to pick winners based on a fad, their most recent performance or some other short-term gauge (see The Biggest Mistake Investors Make). Investing in index funds is very boring, but the fees are low and these funds often do well over time.

So what do you do? First, create or update your investment allocation with a long-term view that does not respond to fads. This is essential. Second, rebalance at least annually, selling the excess of your winners to buy your under-performing funds. Historically, this is a way to sell high and buy low. Third, as a tactical move, consider funds investing in large cap US stocks, dividend paying stocks, and adding or increasing your allocation to international stocks. Also, use bond funds that have short-term durations and try to find bond or convertible bond funds that are buying or holding bonds that are discounted. Finally, consider adding commodities as further diversification, with the goal of obtaining gains from either new building, especially in foreign markets, or the chance that we have inflation instead of deflation.

Tax law changes

In my 2009 year-end tax planning Newsletters, I highlighted Roth conversions and other ideas that still apply in 2010. I also pointed out that, with the Bush tax cuts expiring and the need to cover deficits, counting on marginal income tax rates to rise is a safe bet. (Please see Three-year Planning for this year-end and Year-end Tax Planning – Tax Credits – Continued)

This means that you should maximize your contributions to your 401(k), SEP or 403(b) plans, use your HSA or FSA, avail yourself of the first-time home buyer credit and even sell stocks and bonds to reset the basis before the long term capital gains rate rises.

With respect to the Roth conversion, you get two years to pay the taxes for a conversion in 2010. However, the 2011 rate could be higher so this may not be an option worth taking.

In the end, we all need to follow what Congress does to update our strategies during the year.

Estate tax update

Congress is expected to reinstate the estate tax retroactively to January 1. However, instead of the $3.5 million credit and 45% rate, there are some pushing for $5 million and 35% who may win in a compromise. We will update you when we know more.

Also, remember to use your $13,000 annual exclusion for gifting strategies.

Credit – mortgages, cards, etc.

Check your mortgage rate against what you can get on refinancing now. Rates are still low so you may be able to save. Also, if your appraised value is less than the mortgage, there are government programs to help (see Making Home Affordable – refinance eligibility).

If you have not purchased a house, rates are low as are home prices, so this could be a good time to act. First time home buyers have the tax credit as an extra incentive (as mentioned above), if they can act in time.

There are actions to take regarding your credit rating and use of credit cards. Monitoring your credit score will let you know if you can qualify for good loans and credit cards, as well as alerting you to any potential identity theft.

Check to see what accounts are open and use them, reasonably. An account that is not used can be closed under the new banking laws, which has a negative impact on your credit score.

If you do have higher fees or rates imposed, fight to see if you can get your old terms back. Many notices are sent without real scrutiny of your particular situation so, if you have a good history, you may win this fight. Also, opt out of the overdraft fees ($39 per time you go over your credit limit).

If you are looking for a new card, consider credit unions, as their rates are capped, unlike other credit card issuers.

Finally, consider adding a child who is in college to your card, because the new law requires them to prove sufficient income to afford the payments.

Estate plan and life insurance

As noted above, we await action from Congress on the federal estate tax.

However, you still need to make sure that your current will/trust/durable power of attorney/medical directive/etc. work under state laws, have all the people you still want as your fiduciaries and reflect any other changes you have experienced. If not, you should update these documents.

Other financial matters

Do you have an umbrella policy? Did you buy or update your disability policy? Have you checked to see if you can get a better deal on your auto insurance? Would increasing the deductible make sense for your risk tolerance and cash flow?

There are many other items to review. Please check out Finance Health Day – your own financial planning focus

Conclusion

Even if 2010 is not a repeat of 2009 for investments, there are many steps to take to make certain that you are in an optimal position on all your financial fronts.

Let us know if you have questions or comments. Thanks,

Steven