Rethinking Investing and Paying off Debts

the best path may have changed ….

Investing has changed as times have changed … financial planning rules need to change too

Old thinking

In the past, when asked by a client about adding principal payments to reduce mortgage debt, so that the mortgage would be paid off sooner, I advised them to invest that payment instead.  

That advice was based on the financial planning rule that you do not pay off debt when the after-tax cost of the debt is less than the after-tax return on the investments.  Instead, you use cash flow to add to the investment because this is how you increase your net worth – the total of all investments less all debt – over time. 

Also, by not paying down your mortgage quickly, you had the added benefit of not tying up working capital in your home.  You cannot sell a bedroom when you need funds for a child going to college. 

But that was then … things are different now ….

Changes

All components of the financial planning rule need to be reevaluated:  Interest rates and inflation are at or near historic lows.  The tax law on deduction of mortgage and other interest on debts has changed.  The disruption to the economy from the Pandemic has hurt businesses and that will affect future investment returns. 

Interest rates – With interest rates so low, the investment return on cash is near zero and the return on bonds is very low.  Rates are almost certain to rise, which will make bonds today worth less in the future (when low interest bonds compete against newer bonds that offer higher interest rates, they are re-priced to match the new rate and that decreases what anyone will pay for the old bonds). 

Tax deductions – The Tax Cut and Jobs Act made the standard deduction the option for more than two-thirds of taxpayers.  With the standard deduction, there is no benefit because the mortgage interest is not actually deducted to lower your net taxes due.  That means that the after-tax cost of mortgage debt is no better than the before-tax cost. 

Investment returns – to get a better sense of the likely investment returns for that side of the rule, I spoke to Hal Hallstein IV of the Sankala Group, LLC out of Boulder, CO.  He referred me to their post on Money Supply & Discount Rates, in which they discuss the impact of stimulus checks and PPP loans in an economy where recipients are likely to invest those funds or make financial purchases because simple consumption, travel and entertainment, has been shut down.  They also discuss the threshold return required for making an investment decision, viz. the discount rate.  In the post, he states:

But simultaneously, we also know buying bonds with zero yields won’t work for people’s retirements, which realistically require 3% yields. Where does this leave us?

He then presents a rationale for owning gold, an asset he has always avoided, as have I.  But now it serves as a protection against a downturn when you have a portfolio that invests primarily in the stock market. 

In our conversation, we compared the weighted cost of capital, the blended rate on all your debt, against the expected return from investing, which he pegs at 3.5 to 4.25% over the next decade, due to high equity valuations in the US and low interest rates.* 

One note of caution: to get those returns will require tolerating substantial volatility.

All of this leads to the following:  if your mortgage is at 3.5%, and you get no deduction value, and your potential return is 3.5% before taxes, on which you will have some tax hit, now or later, then paying off the debt is a better choice financially than adding to your investments.

New planning ideas

When you apply the debt to investment rule above, more people may find it best to pay down debt. 

For a mortgage, added to your monthly payment will have a substantial impact over time, cutting the total interest paid.  If you have a Roth IRA, it may even make sense to distribute funds to pay a student loan or car loan, depending on the loan interest rate.

There are still some reasons not to switch from retirement investing to debt reduction, such as when your employer offers a match for contributions.  For a good set of considerations to review before acting, see the Betterment 5-Step Action Plan.

Conclusion

While the planning rule used to lead to the conclusion that you are best off adding to investments rather than accelerating paying off long-term debt like a mortgage or car loan, the conclusion from applying that rule has flipped.  Many will increase their net worth by paying down debt sooner. 

I hope you and your loved ones are all managing this as well as you can during the Pandemic. 

Thank you, and be well

Steven

  * Sankala Group LLC’s communications should not be considered by any client or prospective client as a solicitation or recommendation to affect any transactions in securities. Any direct communication by Sankala Group LLC with a client or prospective client will be carried out by a representative that is either registered with or qualifies for an exemption or exclusion from registration in the state where the prospective client resides. Sankala Group LLC does not make any representations or warranties as to the accuracy, timeliness, suitability, completeness, or relevance of any information presented in this communication, or by any unaffiliated third party. All such information is provided solely for illustrative purposes.

Steven A. Branson, retirement, investing, Financial Strategies, debt, discount rate, decision making, newsletter, cost of capital

Coronavirus – concerns for your health and finances

This is my busy time, working long hours preparing income tax returns, but I wanted to respond to your concerns.

News of the coronavirus spread and its impact on the economy and stock markets is constant.

People ask: “can I get the virus from a package delivered to me from China” (the answer via the CDC is “no”).

As some say, it’s not “if” but “when” in terms of you being in contact.  That is upsetting.

At that same time, experts ask us all not to panic.  And financial people urge us to stay the course.

If you do not already have a plan, here is a good overview with links to CDC posts on making a plan with your family – NY Times prepare for coronavirus

As for the stock market, here is a good NY Times piece discussing the rationale for sticking to your long-term investment plan:  The Market Is Moving. Most People Should Sit Still.

Here is a more sobering assessment:  It’s a ‘Swimming Naked’ Moment: The Financial System Has a Real Test

In the end, if you developed a good long-term investment strategy, staying the course should be the best response as it was in the 2008 financial crisis.

Let me know if you want to talk and I hope you and your family stay healthy!

  • Steven

Do you need to amend for tax extenders, SALT workarounds, state tax domicile and empowerment zone gains?

This tax update may give you reasons to amend your tax returns regarding the tax extenders, SALT workarounds, domicile audits and empowerment zones. Let me know if you need help.

Tax Deduction Superhero?

Tax extenders

Many tax returns were prepared assuming that Congress would pass a law for the “tax extenders” as it has in past years. However, the bill extending deductions and credits for 2018 and 2019 has not passed. Other matters have the attention of Congress.

The tax extenders include 26 tax breaks that expired at the end of 2017 and 2018. Some are for businesses, such as motor speedway depreciation, biodiesel credits, and disaster relief. Others are for individuals, such as retaining the 7.5% threshold instead of 10% for medical expenses, the private mortgage insurance (PMI) deduction, exclusion of up to $2 million from income from mortgage debt forgiveness on your home, and an above-the-line deduction college tuition and qualified expenses.

If you filed your 2018 returns relying on passage, and the extender bill does not pass, you could face an inquiry form the IRS. If you filed without relying on the extenders, and the bill does pass, you may be able to amend your 2018 filing to obtain a refund.

SALT and work around attempts by states

As you know from the first post in our series on the Tax Cut and Job Act (“TCJA”), the new tax law places a $10,000 cap on state and local taxes, or “SALT.” This includes state and city income taxes, property taxes, sales taxes and excise taxes.

Some states, including New York and New Jersey, felt that TCJA targeted them and responded with workarounds. One such measure provides that certain payments of state income taxes would be treated as charitable contributions, so that the full amount would be allowed as part of your Schedule A deductions.

The IRS reacted by indicating that only the IRS determines what are allowable Schedule A deductions and this workaround was not one of them. As Christy Rakoczy Bieber wrote recently on creditkarma.com:

If you’re counting on a SALT cap workaround from your state to keep your federal taxes low, you may face an unpleasant surprise at tax time since the IRS has made clear it won’t allow you to take deductions for charitable donations if you received tax credits.

Trying to avoid the state taxes

Some people with homes in more than one state have taken another approach to SALT limits by claiming to be residents of the state imposing less income taxes. For example, if you have homes in Massachusetts and in Florida, you would clearly pick Florida because there is no state income tax.

If you do pick a no or low-income tax state, be careful. The state that is missing out on tax revenue may conduct a domicile audit. Having the documentation to prove your residency is key. While residency is based on your “state of mind,” an audit would focus on a list of facts, including where you spend more time, the state in which you have a driver’s license and vote, where you receive your mail, and where you worship. Be sure to take the necessary steps and retain proof.

Empowerment Zone rollovers and Qualified Small Business Stock Sales (QSBS)

There are provisions for favorable treatment of certain capital gains transactions. Here are two:

  • If you purchased stock in a qualified small business, you may be able to exclude gain on the sale. The exclusion is even higher for certain empowerment zones, and;
  • You can roll over gain from certain sales into investments in an empowerment zone, delaying or even reducing the tax on the gain. There are opportunity funds into which you can invest for this deferral. If you think you need to amend, or if you have any questions on this post or any other matter, let me know. I am here to help.
thinking about a refund?

If you think you need to amend, or if you have any questions on this post or any other matter, let me know. I am here to help.

Getting unbiased advice on your finances

Unlike many sources of financial planning guidance, we do not charge a fee based on your assets or a commission for purchasing investments or insurance. We will help you set up investments and find the insurance that you need. For all our help, we simply charge for our time.

Why pay for financial advice when you can get it on the internet for free

(she’s thinking about the question)

Many investment firms have websites offering free advice on managing your finances. However, nothing on the internet is truly free. The advice may direct you to investments from which the firm receives a commission or the website may be a lead generation site.

What is lead generation?

Awhile back, I did a post on how a website that provides “free” use of a gamified retirement calculator. Using the calculator was fun and free. However, when you delved deeper, reading the company’s ADV disclosure, you learned that the website may receive referral fees from vendors for referring users to financial products, such as lenders for a user who needs to refinance her mortgage or Schwab, Fidelity or TD Ameritrade for users who want to rollover a 401(k). In other words, the site generates leads for which it gets paid. That hardly sounds free!

When to pay

If free is not the answer, that means you pay for advice. That can be good, because when you are the sole source of compensation, then planner has no hidden agenda – she serves your needs only.

I know finances are not fun and planning sounds like bad homework, so paying only makes it worse. At the same time, I see how spending the time to plan can make peoples lives so much better.

I hope you contact me and let me know what you think.

Year-end planning, 2016 version

The election of Donald J. Trump could have a significant impact on your finances. Individual and corporate tax laws may change, the Affordable Care Act may be eliminated, trade war may ensue, infrastructure building may boost jobs and sectors of the economy, and national defense and diplomacy could lead almost anywhere – your guess is as good as anyone else’s.

So then, how do you incorporate this into year-end planning? Very carefully!

Corporate Taxes

Our analysis starts with a review of his proposal to limit corporate income taxes to 15% as a way to illustrate how tricky planning is:

Analysis of the way this limit applies to pass-through entities suggests that the 10-year cost could be anywhere from $4.4 trillion, assuming owners of pass-throughs pay 33% tax, to $5.9 trillion, assuming owners only pay a 15% tax.

Those are hefty cost numbers, which is why it is tricky to assume that any major tax changes will be enacted in 2017.

Income Taxes

There could be three rates on ordinary income: 12%, 25% and 33%, with the latter starting at $225,001 for married filers and $112,501 for single filers. The 0.9% and 3.8% Affordable Care Act surtaxes on upper-incomers would be eliminated. So would the AMT (“alternative minimum tax”). The 20% maximum capital gains tax would remain. Standard deductions would go up, personal exemptions would be eliminated and breaks for dependent care would be increased.

Check here for 2017 tax rates.

Estate taxes

The President Elect has revised his estate tax proposal, calling now for pre-death tax on appreciation in assets of large estates, subject to a $10-million-per-couple exemption. This may be accomplished by limiting the step-up in basis for heirs who inherit capital assets from large estates.

Another change would be elimination of the IRS’s proposal to restrict the use of valuation discounts for gift and estate tax purposes on intrafamily transfers of closely held firms.

Investing and retirement

Infrastructure building could boost certain investments, while conflicts on trade agreements could hurt many.

His proposed tax changes for retirement plans include extending the age for which contributions to IRAs are allowed and delaying required minimum distributions (RMDs).

Okay, enough, how does one act now?

Some moves still make sense

Tax plan – deferring income into 2017 and adding deductions to 2016 should work well, unless doing so puts you in the AMT, in which case the reverse will work best.

Most of our suggestions from our 2015 year-end planning post still work, including RMDs, 3.8% Medicare surtax, itemized deductions, stock options, investment income and sole proprietor and small business income. Also check out our estate planning post for more ideas.

If your deductions include donating to charities, gifting appreciated assets leverages your donation. That is, you can avoid the income tax on capital gains while still benefiting from the charitable deduction. Watch for the rules on exceeding 30% of your adjusted gross income and donating to private charities.

Research Your Charities

Check out websites like such as ImpactMatters and GiveWell to make sure what you donate has the best impact. Other tools include Agora for Good, a tool to track donation impact over many sectors.

Investing – your strategy should not be altered in any dramatic way now.

If you do sell mutual funds, be sure to wait to buy replacement funds until after the dividend distribution date, so you do not end up with a taxable distribution on gains in which you did not participate

Summary

Many of the income and estate tax rules may change during 2017. However, for now, your safest plan is to assume little changes and stick to the “traditional” techniques outlined above.

If you have any questions, please contact me!