MARKET INSIGHTS

When one considers Dennis Rodman, what typically comes to mind are his off-court exploits – most notably his trips to the communist state of North Korea[1]. It’s hard to tell what Rodman is bringing to the table during these meetings other than something akin to being a court jester. But in this update, we’ll focus on Rodman’s on-court exploits and what he did for basketball teams he played for during the late 1980s and early 1990s.

What relevance does Dennis Rodman have to an investment portfolio? According to teammates and opponents, Dennis Rodman brought a valuable combination of defense and second-chance opportunities. In our mind, defense and second-chance opportunities in the NBA translate into investment portfolio benefits such as diversification, staying power, and optionality. We’ll discuss each of these concepts below, but the overarching concept is that all portfolios could use more Dennis Rodman.

Diversification

We’ve written about the concept of diversification in recent publications as the S&P 500 has been one of the best-performing equity indices over the last eight years. There was a confluence of factors, to include stable currency, political stability, and savvy corporate management, that contributed to this positive outcome for US equities. Yet, as we sit here at the midyear point in 2017, the winds of change are blowing in favor of companies domiciled outside the United States. Consequently, in many alternative strategies we have implemented in portfolios, the correlation/diversification benefits are starting to become more apparent.

The crux of the argument relating to diversification benefits is seen clearly in the mathematics of a portfolio drawdown. We illustrate this concept below, displaying the return required to get back to even based on various levels of portfolio drawdown.

Essentially, if you can construct a portfolio in a way that reduces the drawdown by owning non-correlated assets, you allow the math to work in your favor.  We believe alternative assets/strategies are an effective way to mitigate portfolio risk.

Staying Power

This concept may be new to many clients but it is one that we’ve been thinking a lot about recently.  Staying power is a behavioral concept that has application to every long-term investment portfolio and refers to the idea that portfolios will either succeed or fail due to investor behavior during stressful market periods.  As we’ve all witnessed over the years, we know people who can’t handle watching their portfolio losing money.  How many people do you know that sold out of all their equity exposure during the financial crisis and haven’t repurchased yet, or they have only recently added it back while equity markets are at all-time highs?

All this being said, if a portfolio contains assets/strategies that are zigging when the market is zagging, an investor’s ability to remain invested in the “riskier” portion of their portfolio goes up dramatically.  This staying power could be seen in the win/loss record of almost every team Dennis Rodman was on over his career, due to the fact that Rodman was a master at keeping his teams in the game with both tenacious defense and rebounding.  These two traits took the pressure off the superstars that surrounded Rodman.  We believe that a properly diversified allocation to alternative assets/strategies has the potential to reduce pressure on the more volatile segments of a portfolio (typically equities) over a full market cycle.

Optionality

Finally, we believe that all portfolios should be constructed with a degree of optionality.  Optionality is the flexibility a portfolio has to make changes or adjustments during significant stress periods in the financial markets.  The way in which most portfolios possess optionality is via a cash position.  Cash is said to have a high degree of optionality because the “price” of cash does not fluctuate and is readily accessible to redeploy in the event opportunities arise on very short notice.

Optionality is an important characteristic to have in a portfolio primarily because it allows investment decisions to be made without external influences.  For example, we believe investors like Warren Buffett and Seth Klarman have enjoyed success partly due to the fact that their portfolios carry a significant amount of cash (optionality) at almost every point in time.  In the case of Seth Klarman (via his investment vehicle Baupost LLC) the average level of cash over the last 30yrs has been 20%.  In the case of Buffett (via his investment vehicle Berkshire Hathaway) that cash level has been even higher!  The point in mentioning these levels is that both Klarman and Buffett have been able to succeed because they are almost always investing in opportunities based on merit.  Further, when they are making investments, they do not need to sell something to free up capital.  In this way, they are making only one difficult decision (what to buy) and not two (what to buy and what to sell).  Optionality is something investors should consider, as we currently find many equity and fixed income markets at extended valuation levels.

In summary, every team needs a Dennis Rodman, just as every portfolio could benefit from alternative holdings that generate a return that is different from traditional stocks and bonds.  While the benefits described (diversification, staying power, optionality) above may not be intuitive in the midst of an eight-year bull market, these benefits are invaluable during periods of significant market distress.  To that end, even though we have no way of knowing when the next significant downturn will come in the financial markets, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t begin preparing for the next occurrence.

Authored By:

The above article is intended to provide generalized financial information; it does not give personalized tax, investment, legal, or other professional advice. Before taking any action, you should always seek the assistance of a professional who knows your particular situation for advice on taxes, your investments, the law, or any other matters that affect you or your business.

__________________________________________

[1] In fairness, I cannot claim credit for the idea of correlating Dennis Rodman with alternative strategies.  That idea came from Chris Cole of Artemis Capital.  On the Artemis Capital website under “Market Views,” you’ll find a very interesting publication entitled “Dennis Rodman and the Art of Portfolio Optimization.”

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Most financial advisors advocate maximizing employer-sponsored 401(k) accounts or municipal 403(b)s. Generally, we agree. However, you could be missing out on tax savings if you aren’t careful.

Before going any further, let’s be clear on what we mean by tax efficient. According to Wikipedia, a financial process is said to be tax efficient[1] if it is taxed at a lower rate than an alternative financial process that achieves the same end.

The collaborative encyclopedia offers two tax efficient examples:

#1 – Passing one’s assets on to one’s heirs using a Grantor Retained Annuity Trust, for example, is potentially more tax efficient than simply letting the heirs inherit the assets.

#2 – An exchange-traded fund (ETF) that follows the S&P 500 Index generates fewer “taxable events” than a mutual fund that follows the same index.

Another Viewpoint

Financial educational portal The Balance[2] uses the term tax diversification and offers the following definition: Tax diversification is a financial term that refers to the allocation of investment dollars to more than one account type.

The Balance clarifies the term further by adding, “Tax diversification is similar to asset location (not to be confused with asset allocation), which refers to spreading investment dollars among various account types (the location of the investment assets) and choosing the best investment types that work best in those accounts.”

Tax Efficient or Tax Diversification

For the purposes of this post, we’ll use the two terms interchangeably, since they both seek the same end result. To help you more effectively evaluate tax efficient strategies, we asked Gratus Capital Director of Financial Planning Kevin Woods, CFP® for some advice.

Lack of Tax Diversification Negatively Impacts Retirement

“One of the reasons tax diversification is important for investment portfolios is due to the need to minimize paying taxes during retirement,” says Woods. “Keep in mind that if you place all of your money in tax-deferred investment vehicles, such as a 401(k) or Individual Retirement Account (IRA), you could end up paying more in taxes as compared to if you’d placed some money in taxable accounts today.”

Avoidable Yet Common Mistake

According to Woods, there are many people who only save for retirement using a traditional tax-deferred retirement account, such as an IRA, and never accumulate savings through an additional investment brokerage account.

“Placing all your money in tax-deferred retirement accounts imposes a built-in liability,” says Woods. “Essentially, a percentage of your retirement savings must go towards paying taxes.”

On the flip side is someone who invests in both traditional tax-deferred retirement accounts as well as other investments through a brokerage account. The investor who only saved using an IRA has to pay ordinary income tax on all of their withdrawals during retirement. Not true for an individual who saved using both an IRA and an investment brokerage account. This investor has a more tax efficient retirement portfolio, since he or she has saved their money in different types of investment accounts that have varying tax implications.

For example, the investor now has the ability to withdraw 50 percent from their IRA and the balance of what they need from a brokerage account and only pay taxes on what they withdrew from their IRA.

Detailed Scenario:

The White Coat Investor[3] provides a detailed example of two retired physicians who each draw $100,000 for the year from their financial savings vehicles. One physician placed all his money in a tax-deferred IRA account, and the other used a mix of tax-deferred and taxed accounts. Ultimately, the physician who used both tax-deferred and taxed accounts ends up paying less in taxes. The end result of the example is: One doctor pays an overall tax rate of 12.5 percent, while the tax-diversified doctor pays 1.9 percent.  

4 Different Tax Planning Investment Accounts

To build a tax-efficient investment portfolio, it’s important to distinguish among the four different types of investment accounts used for tax diversification, says Woods.

These include:

Taxed-Deferred (Pre-Taxed) – such as a 401(k) or 403(b). These vehicles are considered qualified investment accounts and have several benefits. Investopedia provides a simple explanation to help differentiate between qualified and non-qualified[4] investment accounts.

Why are tax-deferred accounts so popular? Woods isolates three key benefits:

“First, tax-deferred accounts enable you to lower the amount of income you pay taxes on now, increasing your take-home pay,” says Woods. “Second, since you’re deferring taxes until you withdraw funds during retirement, your investments grow tax-free during the years you’re making contributions. Finally, most retired investors are in a lower tax bracket as compared to when they were working, lowering their tax obligations when they begin withdrawing.”

After-Tax – such as a Roth IRA, Roth 401(k) or Variable Annuity. There are no upfront tax deductions when you contribute to these retirement accounts; however, you pay no taxes on withdrawals during retirement, and investment growth is tax-free.

“As a rule-of-thumb, if you’re age 55 or younger, a Roth 401(k) or Roth IRA makes sense to the extent that you’re not in the highest tax bracket,” says Woods. “Roths generally make more sense when you have more time to invest before retiring and you’re in a lower tax bracket.”

Taxable – such as stocks, mutual funds, bonds, CDs and money markets. Contributing to these taxable accounts means that you pay taxes each year on the dividends, interest and realized capital gains, rather than when you withdraw these funds during retirement.

Tax-Advantaged – such as municipal bonds or life insurance. These financial vehicles typically include a mix of tax-deductible, tax-deferred, and tax-free as well as other tax benefits.

Possible Diversification Strategies

“There are a number of strategies you can use with your portfolio management to strive for tax efficiency,” says Woods. “One approach is to have all your income-producing investments in your retirement account, thereby not requiring you to pay taxes on your interest each year. What’s more, you can also put all your stocks in taxable accounts, helping to provide a preferred lower tax rate on your dividends and long-term capital gains.”

In Closing

While saving for retirement may seem like a straightforward process, complexities arise when it comes to tax liabilities. “There are a myriad of variables to consider when trying to lower your tax liability both for today and during retirement,” says Woods. “I encourage all individual investors to seek the help of both a CPA and a financial advisor.”

Why both?

Because a CPA is an expert in tax laws and the tax preparation process, whereas a financial advisor is an expert at looking at an individual’s overall financial life. The latter includes financial and estate planning, as well as risk and investment management. Investors need both advocates to help ensure a tax efficient financial portfolio, says Woods.

Woods’ number one recommendation for investors, “Have more than just an employer-sponsored retirement account,” says Woods. “If that’s all you have, then it’s likely your portfolio is not tax efficient.”

At Gratus Capital, our team is made up of CPAs, MBAs and Certified Financial Planners. We believe that it takes a well-diversified skill set and team approach to ultimately guide individuals to financial freedom while lowering their tax burden. If you have questions regarding tax diversification or any other financial concerns, please contact us.

Authored By:

The above article is intended to provide generalized financial information; it does not give personalized tax, investment, legal, or other professional advice. Before taking any action, you should always seek the assistance of a professional who knows your particular situation for advice on taxes, your investments, the law, or any other matters that affect you or your business.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tax_efficiency

[2] https://www.thebalance.com/tax-diversification-with-investing-2466705

[3] https://www.whitecoatinvestor.com/taxes/tax-diversification-2/

[4] http://www.investopedia.com/ask/answers/206.asp

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Do you dream of owning a ski, beach or lake house? Well, you’re not alone. In fact, according to leading statistics company Statista, roughly 2.1 million people last year said they plan to buy a second home within the next 12 months1.

If a special hideaway is on your wish list, then planning ahead is highly recommended in order to remain financially sound. To help you make an informed purchasing decision, we asked Gratus Capital Director of Financial Planning Kevin Woods, CFP® for some advice. [This is really strong, considering our disclosures.  How about – To help you get started, we asked Gratus Capital Director of Financial Planning Kevin Woods, CFP® for his thoughts on making a detailed plan, first.]

What follows are six key considerations Woods encourages you to ponder before signing on the dotted line for a second home.

#1 – Estimate Real & Unexpected Costs

The very first consideration for buying a second home is to ask yourself if you can actually afford it, says Woods.

There are many people that think they’ll buy their second home, rent it and make money, or make enough from rental income to substantially subsidize their bills,” says Woods. “Unfortunately, a great deal of the time this doesn’t turn out to be true. Generally, it’s because many home buyers underestimate the actual carrying costs of owning a second home, above and beyond a second mortgage, property taxes and insurance.”

These Additional Second Home Expenses May Include:

  • Utilities
  • General maintenance & repairs
  • Security system
  • Mowing & lawn services
  • House cleaning services
  • Internet & cable
  • Water & sewer
  • Trash & recycling removal
  • Seasonal maintenance for heating, cooling, hot tub/spa, fireplace, gutters, septic pumping, pesticide spraying, etc.
  • Opening and closing of pool, spa and irrigation system
  • Long-term maintenance for exterior painting, driveway sealing, roof and appliance replacements
  • Travel expenses to reach second home
  • Insurance riders, e.g., snowmobiles, pool, speedboat, etc.
  • Flood insurance
  • Property manager

Hidden Expenses

Remember to account for association fees, such as condo fees, says Woods. Additionally, watch out for an association’s periodic assessments.

Examples Could Include: A one-time $1,500 fee assigned to each condo owner for a new roof, a $5,000 fee for a town-mandated water system upgrade, or a $7,500 assessment post-hurricane damage, and so forth.

Woods also reminds us to look out for individual state property taxes, since some can be significantly higher than what you’re currently used to with your primary home.

Woods recommends that once you’ve isolated all of your variable expenses, double them for the first 10 years of ownership. If you can afford your second home after doubling all monthly variable expenses, then more than likely you can actually afford it. “Keep in mind that at any moment you could lose your job,” says Woods. “If this were to happen to you, do you have enough buffer to continue affording your second home?”

Bankrate® provides a simple home loan calculator that you can use to generate a quick snapshot in qualifying for your second home.

#2 – Identify Usage:  Renting, Personal Use or Both

It’s important to decide if you’ll use your second home for personal leisure, as a rental or both. The key reason to make this determination before purchasing a second home is due to tax ramifications.

For Example:

According to Investopedia, as long as you use the property as a second home and not a rental, you can deduct mortgage interest and property taxes the same way you would for your primary home. You can rent your property for 14 days or less each year without needing to report this as income to the IRS.

However, the financial education portal adds that when you rent out your second home for 15 days or more and either use it for less than 14 days or 10 percent of the number of days the home was rented, it’s now considered a rental property, and you must report all rental income to the IRS. Of course, you’ll be able to deduct a portion or all of your rental expenses, including mortgage interest, property taxes, insurance premiums, fees paid to property managers, etc.

TurboTax provides some detailed scenarios of renting versus personal use and the respective tax ramifications here.

Also, keep in mind that the market fluctuates. A property that is easily rented today may take weeks or maybe even months to rent a few years from now. “We simply don’t know what the real estate market will demand from year to year,” says Woods.

#3 – Titling Your Second Home

If you’re renting your second home, Woods suggests forming a Limited Liability Company (LLC) for the property, helping to protect your personal assets if your rental business is sued. For investors owning a property outside of their resident state, Woods suggests that you title your second home within a revocable trust, helping your loved ones avoid probate should anything happen to you.

#4 – Manage Borrowing Requests & Minimize Resentment

According to Woods, often when you purchase a second home, you’ll start hearing from long-lost relatives and friends asking to stay over or even borrow your second home outright.

Therefore, it’s important to plan ahead and set limits. The first question to ask yourself is, will I allow others to use my property? If so, who and for how long and how often? If you do allow others to use your second home, it’s important to establish rules, such as no smoking or pets, or no one under the age of 21 without an older adult.

“The most important thing to keep in mind is that your vacation home is yours,” says Woods. “You’ve worked hard and have been financially responsible, enabling you to purchase a second home in the first place. And while it’s nice to have guests or to do a favor for someone who needs an affordable vacation alternative, you do not owe anyone a place to stay. Nor do you need to provide an excuse as to why they’re not allowed to use your second home. You’ll enjoy your hideaway more when you manage your expectations, not others’.”

Real Simple provides some great examples of guilt-free strategies for saying no to various types of requests from friends and family members. All of us at Gratus Capital especially enjoyed the first strategy, “Saying no for the sake of your wallet.”

#5 – Estimate Time & Pressures

The concept of buying a second home is exciting, says Woods. Yet many buyers forget to take a step back and realistically consider exactly how much time they actually have to use their second home.

“I’ve seen second homes work out well for families that have very young children,” says Woods. “However, when kids enter middle school their activities become more of a commitment, to the point that they may be penalized if they miss a game or practice. Your 9-year-old may love skiing or camping now, but as he ages, he may lose interest and resist the idea of driving to the mountains. Ask yourself if you’re prepared to manage such situations.”

Also, it’s important to ask yourself if you’ll feel pressured to use your second home every time you vacation versus taking a different vacation, given that you’re paying a substantial amount of money to maintain your second home. Woods says that vacation home owners often feel a pressure to vacation at their second home. This travel limitation can ultimately lead to resentment.

#6 – Maintain Formal Co-Ownership Agreements with Friends & Family

If you’re considering co-owning a second home with a close friend or family member, Woods suggests that you have a clear agreement before signing on the dotted line. “Keep in mind that people’s lives change, and not everyone is successful at projecting their future goals,” says Woods.

“For example, someone may decide they want out of the house because they need the money to help pay for their child’s college education.

It’s important to discuss the nitty-gritty when creating your co-ownership agreement. In fact, if any member of the two parties starts to get agitated with developing an agreement, this could be a sign that you may not want to get into business with this individual. If you’re unable to have ongoing, open and difficult conversations with your co-owners, then the partnership will likely fail.”

At a minimum, Woods suggests that you include the following in your agreement:

  • A list of shared expenses and distribution of expenses.
  • Facilitation of repairs.
  • Usage scheduling, who can use the house and when, including key vacation periods?
  • Guests, who, how many and how frequently?
  • House restrictions, e.g., no smoking, no pets, no adult children without parent present, etc.
  • Buy-sell agreement. The latter would allow you to take out life insurance on the co-owner, enabling you to buy his or her share of the property in the event of their death. Otherwise, you could end up sharing your second home with your best friend’s adult children who may not like your established rules.

In Closing

“I’m all for individuals and families purchasing a second home,” says Woods. “I, too, value quality time and relaxation with my family. Still, it’s imperative that you consider both the financial and emotional factors associated with owning a second home. If you can afford it, that’s terrific. However, do you have the patience to manage it, including enforcing boundaries regarding friends wanting to use your special hideaway? Owning a second home, even if you have the money, isn’t for everyone.”

At Gratus Capital, we take our clients’ lifetime goals very seriously. This includes their desire to secure a second home, whether it be for a personal escape or as another form of income. However, the purchase of a second home has both short and long-term ramifications on your financial well-being. It’s important to weigh the purchase of a second home within your overall financial plan, particularly tax and estate implications.

If you have questions regarding the purchasing of a second home or any other question pertaining to your overall financial health, including taxes and estate planning, as well as investment and wealth management, please contact us. In delivering financial advisory services, we aim to be your collaborative partner and dedicated advocate.

Authored By:

The above article is intended to provide generalized financial information; it does not give personalized tax, investment, legal, or other professional advice. Before taking any action, you should always seek the assistance of a professional who knows your particular situation for advice on taxes, your investments, the law, or any other matters that affect you or your business.
[1]  https://www.statista.com/statistics/228870/people-living-in-households-that-plan-to-buy-a-second-home-usa/
[2] http://www.bankrate.com/calculators/home-equity/loan-pre-qualification-calculator.aspx
[3] http://www.investopedia.com/articles/personal-finance/013014/tax-breaks-secondhome-owners.asp
[4] https://turbotax.intuit.com/tax-tools/tax-tips/Home-Ownership/Buying-a-Second-Home/INF12015.html
[5] https://howtostartanllc.com/what-is-an-llc
[6] https://www.realsimple.com/work-life/10-guilt-free-strategies-for-saying-no

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No one likes to think about the idea that there may be no tomorrow, whether it be for themselves or a family member. But life happens, and it’s for this very reason that life insurance plays such an important role in protecting your family and financial interests.

The key question is, how much life insurance does one person or family need?

While the answer varies greatly depending on your personal situation, there are important considerations to evaluate in order to obtain a well-rounded answer. To help you start preparing a life insurance strategy, we asked Gratus Capital Wealth Advisor Al Meadows, MBA, CFP® for some first steps.

Initial Life Insurance Planning Steps

“When determining whether or not you even need life insurance, the first step is to ask yourself if anyone is financially dependent upon you,” says Meadows. “If so, then you need life insurance. The next step is to identify your current financial needs as well as your future goals.

Start by asking yourself what current and ongoing financial obligations need to be paid. Then consider your long-term goals. Do you want to pay for your children’s or grandchildren’s college education or a wedding or perhaps provide enough income so your spouse will no longer need to work? No matter what your long-term goals are, you want to purchase enough life insurance to supplement existing assets to cover what you need for today and also for your future goals.”

Common Oversight

Many people wait until they have children to purchase life insurance. Meadows says this is often a mistake.

“Keep in mind that you may have a mortgage and credit card debt, as well as vehicle and college loans,” says Meadows. “Many people can’t afford to pay these debts off without their significant other’s income. If this resonates with you, then you more than likely need life insurance right now whether you have children or not.”

Estimating Life Insurance Costs

Research firm ValuePenguin recently took an in-depth look at the average cost of life insurance across a number of different policy durations. The firm determined that the largest influencing factor on life insurance prices is the health of the individual being insured. In fact, individuals that smoke can expect to pay up to 200 percent more for their life insurance policies than nonsmokers.

As an example, for a 20-year term policy worth $250,000, a nonsmoking 30-year-old can
expect to pay $334.54 annually. However, for smokers, the same policy is $721.99. Insurance premiums increase as you age. For the same plan, a 40-year-old can expect to pay $432.36 and $1,175.35 respectively.

To find your age group, ValuePenguin has put together a detailed Average Cost of Term Life Insurance by Age[1] chart. As an added life insurance price benchmarking resource, the nonprofit organization Life Happens® offers a detailed life insurance calculator[2]. 

Term Life versus Permanent Life Insurance

There are two different types of life insurance:  term life and permanent life. The latter is also known as whole life. Term life insurance is good for a specific time period. It could be two, 10 or 30 years, or any amount in between. Permanent life insurance is a policy that you own your entire life.

According to Meadows, 90+ percent of individuals only need term life insurance. The idea is to determine the period of time that you or your life partner would need additional income if something were to happen to either of you.

Rarely does someone need to purchase permanent life insurance. However, Meadows identifies two legitimate reasons for needing a permanent life insurance policy:

#1 – If you have a special needs dependent since he or she will need to be taken care of indefinitely.

#2 – If you have a large estate, necessitating the need for added income to cover the cost of your estate taxes.

Employer-Provided Life Insurance

According to Meadows, large employers will frequently pay the premium for the first $50,000 of the employee’s group-term life insurance coverage as part of a full-time employee benefits package.


Downside Potential

While there generally is no downside to receiving the first $50,000 of term life insurance paid by your employer, there are downsides in taking out more coverage through your employer, says Meadows. Specifically, if you terminate your employment, you’re now without life insurance and are that much older, unnecessarily increasing the cost of acquiring another life insurance policy.

Meadows adds that there is often a misconception when it comes to employer-sponsored term life insurance. “Most people think it’s cheaper to go through your employer,” says Meadows. “But this isn’t always the case. In fact, if you’re a nonsmoking healthy individual, you’re potentially paying higher premiums due to the unhealthiness of some of your coworkers.” Meadows encourages everyone to explore the idea of an independent policy, above and beyond an employer-sponsored plan.

Key Man & Buy-Sell Life Insurance for Business Owners

Business owners face two unique challenges when it comes to life insurance, says Meadows.

#1 – If you’re a business owner and would suffer financially due to a “key” employee dying, then this insurable interest[4] enables you to take a life insurance policy out on the employee, referred to as Key Man Insurance. You can retain the policy, even if this vital employee quits.
#2 – Suppose you have business partners and one passes away suddenly. If you do not have enough money set aside, you could end up being business partners with your deceased partner’s spouse or adult children.

To avoid this, business owners will establish a buy-sell agreement whereby all business partners agree to a purchase price for their business. They then take out life insurance policies on each other in the amount needed to buy out the deceased partner’s share of the business.

More Life Insurance Planning Considerations

  • Be Mindful of Hidden Expenses: When estimating current and future expenses, be aware of the money that is not spent. A common example is a spouse who remains home to care for your children. If he or she dies, you would need to ensure that you have enough life insurance to pay for childcare and home upkeep.
  • Update Beneficiaries: An important step within your overall life insurance strategy is to ensure that you regularly update your policy beneficiaries, says Meadows. He suggests that you revisit all financial and estate planning accounts with assigned beneficiaries, no less than once a year, and most certainly when you have significant life changes, e.g., divorce.

In Summary

At Gratus Capital, we help our clients build comprehensive financial plans. Our plans encompass every financial facet of life, including life insurance, estate, retirement and tax planning. Furthermore, we’re actively involved in the structure of our clients’ life insurance policies, including helping them to determine how much they really need in relation to their current financial situation and future goals.

To minimize conflicts of interests, we do not sell life insurance nor do we receive a commission when we refer our clients to an experienced life insurance specialist.  If you have questions regarding life insurance or any other financial matter, please contact us. We welcome the opportunity to get to know you better.

Authored By:

The above article is intended to provide generalized financial information; it does not give personalized tax, investment, legal, or other professional advice. Before taking any action, you should always seek the assistance of a professional who knows your particular situation for advice on taxes, your investments, the law, or any other matters that affect you or your business.

[1] https://www.valuepenguin.com/average-cost-life-insurance

[2] http://www.lifehappens.org/insurance-overview/life-insurance/calculate-your-needs/

[3] https://www.irs.gov/government-entities/federal-state-local-governments/group-term-life-insurance

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Insurable_interest

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Most investors think quality, as opposed to price, is the determinant of whether something is risky.  But high-quality assets can be risky, and low-quality assets can be safe.  It’s just a matter of the price paid for them.

– Howard Marks (Sept 2015)

It seems not a day goes by where a media outlet or publication doesn’t run a story on the death of active management. Whether these stories note the current tidal wave of money being dumped into low-cost index mutual funds and exchange traded funds (ETFs) or the idea that some large percentage of active managers fail to beat their benchmark, it’s all the same story.  Even notable investing legend Warren Buffett in his annual letter to shareholders[1] recommended that individuals allocate almost all their investable assets to an S&P 500 index.  Everywhere you turn, the drumbeat of passive investing is audible.  But is it a siren’s song?

Doesn’t it strike you as odd that humans spend countless hours getting the “best deal” on items to include toothpaste, cable bills, gasoline, and groceries, and yet do not put in equal amounts of effort to a far more critical commodity: their financial assets?  Put another way, the word “deal” as described in the prior sentence is meant to imply a recognition of price consciousness.  The passive approach to investing mandates that you ignore your inner drive for price consciousness.  To me, this behavior seems a little strange, but recent flow of funds data[2] would suggest that many investors are, in fact, eschewing price consciousness in favor of simple “market exposure”….just as the equity markets touch new all-time highs.

As with other manias in financial markets history, we think what is really going on here is momentum investing.  In financial markets, the phenomenon of momentum refers to the positive feedback loop that is created by prices that go up over a short/intermediate-term time frame.  This upward bias in prices draws in additional investors near the mid-to-latter stages of the cycle as FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) creates a buying frenzy.  Investor memories can be myopic, and you don’t have to look hard for examples of this activity.  Some would include: technology stocks in the late 1990s, single family homes in the mid-2000s, master limited partnerships (MLPs) in the 2010s, and the soup du jour is exchange traded funds (ETFs) based on indices.

So why is it a problem that so many investors are now price insensitive, and how are we (Gratus) accounting for this new potential risk?  We touched on this topic in an update last year, but I believe it’s time to revisit the issue as the answer may not seem obvious.

Low Cost ≠ Low Risk

We’ve put this idea first, as we think it is the most important concept to consider when thinking about an ETF or index mutual fund.  Just because the vehicle is low cost (ETF/index mutual fund) does not mean that the assets underlying the vehicle do not carry risk of over-valuation.  Many in the financial media will eschew this point by saying something nebulous like “in the long run” or “over a full market cycle” to indicate why your entry point is irrelevant.  To us, these phrases are meaningless, because every investor’s time horizon is different and considerations around their financial assets are unique to some degree.  So to reinforce the point, just because you can buy an index that has a low management fee does not mean you aren’t paying too much for the underlying assets.

Someone Needs To Do The Hard Work

To us (as we’ve mentioned in prior publications) successful investing all comes down to basic probability analysis and, by extension, risk/reward.  The only way we know how to pass judgment on risk versus reward is to relate an investment to its valuation (i.e. is this investment a good deal relative to how good a deal the investment was at various points in the past or to its future prospects?).  There are many ways to gauge value, but for simplicity’s sake, we will use the price-to-earnings (P/E) ratio.  Simply stated, the P/E ratio relates the share price of a company to the earnings it generates.  The higher the P/E ratio, the worse of a value it becomes and the lower the probability becomes that the subject company shares can perform in line with historical norms.  This is a gross simplification of all the variables that go into the P/E and a rigorous company valuation, but the concept helps underscore a point.  The only investors that undertake company valuation analysis are active investors….not passive index or smart beta investors.  Therefore, if fewer and fewer investors are willing to undertake valuation assessments, then who is judging whether a company is overpriced or not?  Clearly, it’s not the index/ETF contingent.  

Ease of Trading ≠ Better Investment Outcomes

Just because you can trade an ETF (buy or sell) intraday, whenever you feel like it, doesn’t mean that this liquidity is a good attribute.  In fact, Gratus (and others like Credit Suisse Global Strategist Michael Mauboussin) would argue that the more liquid an investment, the more likely it is that an investor will trade that investment.  This is partly due to loss aversion, whereby losses that an investor experiences (whether realized or unrealized) feel three times worse than gains of an equal amount.  Behavioral psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky documented this concept (known as prospect theory) in their academic paper.[3]

Leaving loss aversion aside, buying a low cost index ETF does not guarantee a good investment outcome because the purchase of an ETF implicitly involves investment decisions to include what size companies to purchase (small v. large), where those companies should be domiciled (US v. international), type of company to be purchased (growth v. value), currency exposure, % weighting in the portfolio (overweight v .underweight), among others.

Next, there are instances of equity index /ETFs that actually trade at premiums to the companies within the index they are replicating.  In this way, investing in these select ETFs means you are paying more than you would if you were to buy the underlying constituents.  This is not supposed to happen in an ETF.  Admittedly, this doesn’t happen very often, but when it does (as was the case with the Van Eck Junior Gold Miners) it makes news as the ETF marketing machines have placed considerable emphasis on minimal premiums and low cost.

Contrast the high-frequency trading of ETFs with some of the most successful investment programs, and we believe that the intra-day liquidity of ETFs is more of a marketing tool than an actual benefit to investors.  In the case of Gratus, we prefer to hold our equity/ETF positions multiple years (if not decades). 

Market Structure Degradation

I’ve left this section for last as it may be a little less intuitive than the sections above.  I won’t go into too much detail here but wanted to show a chart that may shed some light on this section.  Put simply, we now have a dynamic where an increasing number of ETFs are being created while the number of underlying stocks are declining.  What new risks does this dynamic present?

Next, obtaining diversification within a portfolio of indices/ETFs is now harder to obtain.  Take the case of ExxonMobil.  It’s a mega-cap energy stock with ample amounts of trading liquidity in its shares and an above-market dividend yield (3.8%).  Due to these qualities and the way these attributes are weighted in both market capitalization as well as factor-based indices, ExxonMobil finds its shares a top 10 holding in a surprising number of ETFs, to include iShares Core Dividend Growth ETF, iShares Russell 1000 Value ETF, PowerShares BuyWrite ETF, SPDR MSCI USA Quality Mix ETF, Goldman Sachs Active Beta US Large Cap Equity ETF, John Hancock Multifactor Large Cap ETF, SPDR S&P 1500 Momentum Tilt ETF.[4]  Does ExxonMobil really fit the requirements of all these types of investment vehicles?  You can see the issue in trying to reduce overlap in an ETF portfolio where a single stock is held in many different indices.  True diversification is harder to attain, which is why at Gratus we are migrating our portfolios to more active approaches.

Finally, within the context of market structure degradation, we will spend a little time on factor-based approaches to ETF/index construction.  In the media, factor-based approaches are commonly referred to as “smart beta”.  While the concept of smart beta is a valid approach to index construction (whereby stocks are selected not just by size but also other factors to include dividend yield, volatility, valuation, momentum) the problem lies with the mass adoption of the concept.  I would note that most major investment firms, to include behemoths like Dimensional Fund Advisors (DFA), now have smart beta index ETFs as a product offering.  Observing this build-up in enthusiasm, our thoughts turn to the risks: if we all agree that equities are trading at elevated valuation levels generally, then what good does weighing by slightly lower P/E or slightly higher dividend yield provide…… if everything is overvalued?  This is where an active manager’s decision on what constitutes absolute value from the smart beta relative value becomes important.  This distinction can be seen very clearly in periods approaching major turning points in the equity markets (e.g. 1929, 1970, 2001).

Conclusion

In summary, as we have outlined above, there are many reasons to be wary of the passive investment revolution.  So how are we addressing this potential issue in our portfolios?  First, by recognizing that index mutual funds and ETFs have advantages and disadvantages.  This is a big first step because the financial media and marketing machines like Vanguard and Blackrock have powerful platforms to spread their message which usually revolves around the ideas that (1) there is nothing to fear with index investments and (2) cost is the only area where an investor should focus.  This, of course, is way too short-sighted.  As even Vanguard founder Jack Bogle would admit, there are limits as to how many market participants could engage in indexing.

The simple fact is, no one knows the exact percentage amount where passive ownership in equity indices becomes problematic.  We would argue that the math of index investing indicates we are closer to this problem area than many realize.  As an investment firm, and not a marketing firm, Gratus has no preference in favor of any investment vehicle.  Our concern is to provide high quality investment counsel and identify the appropriate strategies to achieve specified goals and objectives with the least amount of risk.  For many of the reasons listed above, Gratus has been migrating toward select active investments as we believe better opportunity lies ahead for active strategies with a discernable value proposition.  In an era where price is seemingly becoming increasingly irrelevant, we at Gratus Capital remain committed to the concepts of a value-oriented approach, as we believe that value (or price consciousness) is one of the few time-tested investment strategies leading to long-term success.

[1] http://www.berkshirehathaway.com/reports.html

[2] Investment Company Institute 2017 Factbook

[3] Prospect Theory:  An Analysis of Decision Under Risk (1979).

[4] Horizon Kinetics, “Indexation: Capitalist Tool”, October 4, 2016

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The above article is intended to provide generalized financial information; it does not give personalized tax, investment, legal, or other professional advice. Before taking any action, you should always seek the assistance of a professional who knows your particular situation for advice on taxes, your investments, the law, or any other matters that affect you or your business.

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You worry about them and work hard every day to provide for them, hoping they’ll grow up to be happy, healthy and independent adults. Yet as parents, we often scratch our heads trying to figure out how to teach our kids about money. In fact, some of us don’t talk with our children about money at all.

According to a recent T. Rowe Price® survey, 13 percent of parents surveyed said they never have financial conversations with their kids, while 59 percent said they only talk to their kids about money when their kids ask them about it.

Intuitively, we know it’s important to educate our children about the financial side of life, but what’s the best way to go about it? To answer this question, we looked to Gratus Capital’s Director of Financial Planning Kevin Woods, CFP® for some answers. To qualify his answers even further, we focused on children aged 11 to 25.

Before delving into the different age groups and their respective strategies, Woods believes it’s important that parents come to terms with the following two concepts. Once you do, you’ll have greater success helping your children become money-wise adults.

#1 – Understand Your Own Thoughts about Money

To help your children understand money, Woods says that you must first understand your own thoughts about money. “Every day as adults we make decisions that determine what we need and want,” said Woods. “This drives our lifestyle choices, including the cars we drive, the jewelry and clothes we wear, the house we own and all the extras that make us feel good

“However, living within your means and knowing what you can afford often starts with how we grew up and how our own parents helped us learn about discipline, sensibility, sacrifice, reward and goals when it comes to money. To educate your children, you have to come to terms with your own thoughts and expectations regarding money. Only then can you teach your children how to lead financially fulfilling and responsible lives.”

#2 – Understand the Impact of a Digitally-Charged Generation

According to Woods, today’s children are part of a generation that rarely struggles to get what it wants. In fact, most have never had to make a major sacrifice. Instead, many of today’s children primarily understand what makes them happy and how to get immediate gratification.

But why?

Because now more than ever, today’s generation of children are being highly influenced by products and services that promise to make them happy. Search engines are tracking your children’s behaviors and creating advertisements that match their individual search history. This bombardment of highly-targeted and customized advertising enables today’s children to see the very things they want to buy repeatedly. Whether it’s Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat or another digital channel, most kids can’t escape digital advertising.

Digital influence aside, what can you as a parent do to help your children establish good habits about spending, giving and saving for the future?

Since your children’s needs, wants, and goals will change depending on their age, Woods suggests these money-wise parenting strategies for the following ages:

The Formative Years: Children Aged 11 to 18

Most children receive money for allowances, birthdays, holidays and odd jobs such as babysitting and mowing lawns. At this time of your child’s life, you should explain three financial concepts to them:

  1. How much to save.
  2. How much to give back.
  3. How much they’re allowed to spend.

Woods suggests that children save no less than 20 percent for future needs, such as college, buying a car or attending a concert. He’s also a strong charitable giving advocate and recommends teaching children now about setting aside money for the sole purpose of giving back. He recommends five to ten percent be set aside for giving. The rest of the money should go toward what your child wants today – Starbucks, trips to the mall, etc.

Talk More to Bring Goals to Life

It’s very important to talk with your children throughout the year about their saving, spending, overall needs and wants, as well as their long-term goals. Woods suggests that parents have no fewer than four comprehensive financial conversations per year with their kids, and ideally 12. The more conversations you have, the more you help by reminding your children about their goals and checking in to see if they’re on target to accomplish them.

Spend More Time Together by Opening a Joint Account

Starting at age 11 and up is a perfect time to start buying some shares of stock or open a mutual fund. The key is for you and your child to establish what your child’s ongoing contribution goal will be. Over time, as your child sees his or her savings grow, this will instill the encouragement to save even more. This account also becomes one of the key financial conversations you’ll have throughout the year.

The Budgeting Years: Children Aged 19-25

Financial conversations between you and your children will vary greatly at age 19, perhaps even starting a bit younger. The focus now turns to budgeting, says Woods. For children who go off to college, Woods recommends that you and your child establish a budget for both their everyday and monthly needs. They’ll have fixed expenses, such as food and housing; however, they’ll also have variable expenses including entertainment, weekend traveling with friends, etc.

A monthly amount of money allotted to your child strengthens their decision-making ability surrounding how to make money last.

Many savings apps can be quite useful in helping your son or daughter to budget more responsibly. PCWorld has provided a nice roundup of budgeting apps for tracking savings and spending.

What’s more, Woods recommends that your child have a summer job and be solely responsible for saving no less than the money needed for the extra spending they may want throughout the school year and summer.

By allotting a monthly college budget and instilling upon your student that he or she is responsible for the extra spending they desire, when your child graduates college, they will have built a foundation for knowing how to live within an established budget.

Watch Out for Credit Card Magnetism

According to a recent Experian College Graduate Survey Report, one in five of the college students surveyed gives their college an F grade on preparing them to understand how credit works. What’s more, of those surveyed, 58 percent have a credit card and had the following personal experiences: 33 percent made a late payment, 31 percent maxed out a card, 23 percent had a card declined, and 15 percent missed a payment.

Given these statistics, it’s imperative that parents and their college-age children maintain open and ongoing communication about their child’s credit card usage. Like most financial vehicles, credit cards have their pros and cons. However, as with any effective financial tool, it needs to be managed, says Woods.

Beware the Taxman

When your adult child starts their first professional job, it’s very important that they understand taxes and how to manage what is left over. Too often, young adults forget to take taxes into consideration within their saving and budgeting planning.

Woods recommends that parents encourage their adult children to pursue four positive financial habits:

  1. Contribute 10 to 15 percent of their newly-found income to their company’s 401(k) or a similar retirement plan. If their company doesn’t have a retirement plan, which can be true for many small businesses, then contribute to an Individual Retirement Account (IRA).
  2. Make a list of monthly expenses to determine how much is available to afford rent, such as mobile phone, gas, car payments, food, etc. Additionally, there are new expenses, such as auto and renter’s insurance, that need to be accounted for.
  3. Establish a second savings or investment account, in addition to a 401(k) or IRA, and contribute to it each month.
  4. Set all savings and investment contributions so that the funds are deposited automatically, alleviating monthly decision-making around surplus income and increasing the likelihood the money is saved.

In Closing

It’s been our experience at Gratus Capital that parents who start educating their children about money during their formative years, such as talking about the costs of operating their home, including the mortgage, property taxes, electricity, heating and so on, help their children go on to be far more money-wise and successful simply due to the open dialogue between parent and child about life’s financial responsibilities and expectations.

At Gratus, we’re financial life counselors who advocate not just for your strong financial future, but that of your child’s. If you have any questions about your financial future, or that of your child’s, please contact us. Finance, budgeting, and investment management are just the beginning of our expertise.

Authored By:

The above article is intended to provide generalized financial information; it does not give personalized tax, investment, legal, or other professional advice. Before taking any action, you should always seek the assistance of a professional who knows your particular situation for advice on taxes, your investments, the law, or any other matters that affect you or your business.

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In the first quarter of 2017, the bull market seemed unstoppable. The Dow Jones Industrial Average soared past 20,000 and closed at all-time highs on 12 consecutive trading days. The Nasdaq Composite gained almost 10% in three months.1

An eight-year-old bull market is rare. This current bull is the second longest since the end of World War II; only the 1990-2000 bull run surpasses it. Since 1945, the average bull market has lasted 57 months.2

Everyone knows this bull market will someday end – but who wants to acknowledge that fact when equities have performed so well?

Overly exuberant investors might want to pay attention to the words of Sam Stovall, a longtime, bullish investment strategist, and market analyst. Stovall, who used to work for Standard & Poor’s and now works for CFRA, has seen bull and bear markets come and go. As he recently noted to Fortune, epic bull markets usually end “with a bang and not a whimper. Like an incandescent light bulb, they tend to glow brightest just before they go out.”2

History is riddled with examples. Think of the dot-com bust of 2000, the credit crisis of 2008, and the skyrocketing inflation of 1974. These developments wiped out bull markets; this bull market could potentially end as dramatically as those three did.3

A 20% correction would take the Dow down into the 16,000s. Emotionally, that would feel like a much more significant market drop – after all, the last time the blue chips fell 4,000 points was during the 2007-09 bear market.4

Investors must prepare for the worst, even as they celebrate the best. A stock portfolio is not a retirement plan. A diversified investment mix of equity and fixed-income vehicles, augmented by a strong cash position, is wise in any market climate. Those entering retirement should have realistic assessments of the annual income they can withdraw from their savings and the potential returns from their invested assets.

Now is not the time to be greedy. With the markets near historic peaks, diversification still matters, and it can potentially provide a degree of financial insulation when stocks fall. Many investors are tempted to chase the return right now, but their real mission should be chasing their retirement objectives in line with the strategy defined in their retirement plans. In a sense, this record-setting bull market amounts to a distraction – a distraction worth celebrating, but a distraction, nonetheless.

At Gratus, we provide sound asset allocation advice, from determining each client’s initial allocation (“getting it right”) to ongoing strategic asset allocation (“keeping it right”).  We offer our clients balanced and comprehensive investment advice, complete objectivity and a personalized investment strategy. We apply a value-orientation (absolute not relative) to all facets of the investment decision-making process. This approach informs both the asset class and underlying strategy decisions in asset allocation construction.

Authored By:

Gratus Capital is an SEC registered investment advisor. Registration with the SEC does not imply any level of skill or training. Our ADV documents are available upon request.  The opinions expressed are as of April 2017 and may change as economic conditions vary. The information provided is not intended to be relied upon as specific investment advice and is not a recommendation, offer or solicitation to buy or sell any securities.  As with any investments, past performance is not a guarantee of future results. There is no guarantee that any investment strategy will achieve its objectives, generate profits or avoid losses.  All indices are unmanaged and are not illustrative of any particular investment.  This article was prepared by MarketingPro, Inc. This information has been derived from sources believed to be accurate. This article is intended to provide generalized financial information; it does not give personalized tax, investment, legal, or other professional advice.  Before taking any action, you should always seek the assistance of a professional who knows your particular situation for advice on taxes, your investments, the law, or any other matters that affect you or your business.

Citations.

1 – money.cnn.com/2017/03/31/investing/trump-rally-first-quarter-wall-street/index.html [3/31/17]

2 – fortune.com/2017/03/09/stock-market-bull-market-longest/ [3/9/17]

3 – kiplinger.com/article/investing/T052-C008-S002-5-reasons-bull-markets-end.html [4/3/14]

4 – thebalance.com/stock-market-crash-of-2008-3305535 [4/3/17]

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March 2017 Update: Dallas We've Had a Problem

“Houston, we’ve had a problem here.”  – Jack Swigert (Apollo 13 astronaut)

It was April 13, 1970, and the Apollo 13 mission to the moon was approaching the point at which the lunar lander was preparing for descent.  All of a sudden, an oxygen tank exploded which crippled the service module and effectively aborted the mission.  It was only after great effort and sacrifice that the crew of Apollo 13 was able to return the spacecraft safely back to earth.  In many ways, we believe that the Apollo 13 mission is a useful metaphor for the state of the US pension system.

What does Apollo 13 have to do with the pension system, and why should you care?  Just substitute “Dallas” for Houston and the metaphor will translate well.  For those that haven’t been watching what is happening in the city of Dallas, there’s reason to be interested…..especially for municipal bond investors.  Here’s a brief summary of what has happened.

The $2 billion Dallas Fire and Police Pension (DFPP) Fund finds itself at ground zero of the brewing pension issues on the horizon.  Essentially, DFPP made some bad real estate investments on behalf of its pensioners in the mid-2000s to include Hawaiian villas, Uruguayan timber and undeveloped land in Arizona.  These poor investments caused the pension fund to incur average annual losses of -1.5%/yr for the last five years, as opposed to the assumed return of 8.5%, to cover promised benefits.  These losses created a ~$7 billion shortfall that caused Moody’s and S&P to downgrade the credit rating of Dallas in early January.

Sensing that the pension was in crisis, many beneficiaries opted to take out lump sum distributions in lieu of the monthly payment.  This snowballing of fear caused ~$500 million in lump sum distributions in just the first few weeks of 2017, exacerbating the shortfall and causing the mayor of Dallas to halt all lump sum payments.  Now the city of Dallas/DFPP are in grueling negotiations to try and figure out where to go from here.

This brings us back to our original questions posed above:  What does Apollo 13 have to do with the pension system, and why should you care?  In short, we believe many investors are (1) overlooking large, unfunded liabilities, and (2) still relying on credit ratings and simplistic rules of thumb when making investment decisions on municipal bond offerings.  I’ll hear phrases like “I don’t have to worry about XYZ city because it’s a general obligation bond” or “this bond is AAA, so why would I be concerned”.  These are dangerous phrases to throw around.  In the case of Dallas, Texas, Moody’s has downgraded its general obligation (GO) bonds from Aa1 to A1 (three levels) in under 12 months due to pension concerns.  At Gratus, we approach a municipal bond portfolio with risk as a primary consideration.  To that end, below are a few considerations we keep in mind when constructing a municipal bond program.

1. Financial deterioration can happen quickly. Rarely is it the case that a municipality or state will jump from a high quality to low-quality bond overnight.  Yet, details are important to monitor.  One detail that we find useful is the rate of return (a.k.a discount rate) assumption being used by a municipal pension.  According to Piper Jaffray & Company, the median rate of return assumption being made by most municipalities is 7.75%.  In other words, the municipality is expecting the pension asset pool to earn 7.75% in perpetuity.  Obviously, this is far too high given where interest rates currently sit.  The problem, however, is more insidious.  If the municipality lowers its return assumptions, this increases the unfunded liabilities amount given that more assets are needed to generate the same return.  The table below illustrates this dynamic well. 

Discount Rate 7.6% 7% 6% 5% 4%
Total Liabilities ($tn) 4.5 5.1 5.8 6.6 7.5
Assets ($tn) 3.4 3.4 3.4 3.4 3.4
Unfunded Liability ($tn) 1.2 1.8 2.5 3.3 4.1

All this is to say, when interest rates were higher, there was more margin for error on investment returns.  Now with interest rates hovering around historically low levels, there is far less margin for error.

2. You can’t outsource your due diligence to a credit rating agency. While one would think companies providing insurance to municipal bonds have learned a valuable lesson in the credit crisis, we never rely on this insurance when making a municipal bond investment.  Certainly, the quality of municipal insurers has improved since 2008 with the entrance of behemoths such as Berkshire Hathaway, White Mountains Insurance and others.  Yet municipal bond insurance is often a reason I hear for not doing credit analysis under the idea that if Berkshire Hathaway is insuring the bond then it’s as good as an obligation of Berkshire.  Certainly, this will be the case longer term, but if an investor is relying on timely principal and interest payments as part of their income, any disruption (whether for a month or six months) to a payment can be difficult to endure.

3. Most municipalities display warning signals in advance of distress. As Wayne Gretzky once said, “A good hockey player plays where the puck is.  A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be.”  Our thought on the current pension situation is simply to avoid investing in municipalities/states where the unfunded liabilities are large relative to the size of the pension and tax base.  Furthermore, to reduce the risk of a pension disaster, we can look at essential service bonds which have zero pension/benefit obligations.  An example of this would be a municipal bond whose principal and interest is derived from a utility bill or special purpose tax.  Good examples of municipalities that were displaying warning signals well in advance of bankruptcy were:  City of Detroit (2013), City of Stockton (2012), City of Vallejo (2008), Puerto Rico (2016).

Current municipalities flashing warning signals include the following:  State of Illinois, City of Chicago, Cook County, Marshall Islands, American Samoa, State of Connecticut, City of Hartford, State of Rhode Island, City of Providence, State of New Jersey, among others.

In summary, our point in publishing this article is not to scare clients into thinking that there is some action that needs to be taken; it’s merely to describe the new world order in the municipal marketplace.  In our opinion, rules of thumb can be dangerous.  As with the Apollo 13 mission, the problem is not terminal, but it’s pretty close to dire for certain municipalities.  Unless dramatic and swift action is taken at the municipal level to right-size pension obligations, there will be identifiable losers over the medium term:  bond holders and pensioners of the problem issuers.  We are (and have been) proceeding with caution in the municipal marketplace as we see certain geographies that could have problems in the future.

Post Script:  After I wrote the piece above I looked into the situation for union pension plans.  As it turns out, the first union pension plan declared bankruptcy (NY Teamster Local 707) earlier this year.  According to industry estimates, a further 200 union plans are on the brink of insolvency. 

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The above article is intended to provide generalized financial information; it does not give personalized tax, investment, legal, or other professional advice. Before taking any action, you should always seek the assistance of a professional who knows your particular situation for advice on taxes, your investments, the law, or any other matters that affect you or your business.

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Save More Money for Retirement in 3 Easy Steps

According to a recent survey, one in three people has no retirement savings.1 Clearly, if you’re not feeling confident about your retirement savings, you’re not alone. As financial advisors, we believe that it’s never too late to begin saving for retirement. The key is to get started. Once you get past this initial hurdle, you’ll see your savings accumulate. To begin, first create a realistic household budget and savings plan.

To help you save more money for retirement, follow these three steps:

Step #1 – Determine what amount of money you can live within per month.

Notice that we said, live within. In order to effectively save more for retirement, you first need to define a budget. One that includes forgoing miscellaneous purchases and freeing up additional funds for your retirement savings.

Keep in mind that most people spend and then save what’s left over. The problem with this approach is that there’s typically very little left over, if anything at all. Therefore, a key budgeting step is to first determine how much you need to save each month.

By using a retirement calculator, you can get a better understanding of how much money you need to save in order to afford retirement based upon your projected time frame goals.2

Step #2 – Ask yourself: Where is my money going?

If your savings aren’t adding up fast enough to meet your projected retirement timeline, then the next step is to ask yourself: Where is my money going?

To answer this question, try using an automated tool that helps track spending. For example, Mint is a program that pulls all your financial information into one place so you can see your entire financial picture. Once you have a better understanding of where and what you’re spending money on, you can make proactive savings adjustments.3

Step #3 – Make spending cuts and redirect the funds back into savings.

Before you start cutting, be sure that you’ve outlined your savings goals and projected retirement timeline. By having goals underscored by reasons, it’ll be easier for you to cut expenses.

Good savers are typically individuals motivated by personal goals.

Contemplating where to cut spending? Try looking here:

  • Travel & Vacations – Do you really need to take your family to Disney World this year? Instead, how about a weekend in the city. Taking advantage of local tourist destinations is a nice alternative to expensive vacations – and Atlanta certainly has a lot to offer!
  • Home Repairs – Spend when it’s really Small DIY jobs can often spiral into costly home renovations. Plan ahead for major home repairs by saving in advance. In the meantime, focus only on the projects necessary to the function of your home. Décor preferences change with the season, and it’s worth waiting it out until you’ve properly budgeted for major updates.
  • Dining Out – It’s true, packing a lunch slows you down getting out the door in the morning. What’s more, it’s tiring coming home after a long day at work and then needing to cook dinner. Yet, there are tremendous savings to be had if you were to simply cut back on your dining out. CNN Money found that you could save as much as $207,598 by skipping two restaurant meals a week over a period of 40 years.4 How about limiting a night out to once or twice a week?
  • Coffees-To-Go – Those lattes sure are delicious, and at $5+ each, they ought to be. In fact, if you enjoy one each day on your way to work 49 weeks out of the year, that’s approximately $1,225 a year in lattes. How about limiting yourself to one or two lattes per week?

Many people believe they need a large income in order to save effectively for retirement. This isn’t true. The key to saving is to monitor your spending habits and automate your savings.

If you’re serious about wanting to save more money for retirement, then download our latest complimentary guide: Practical Steps to Fix 3 Fatal Flaws in Your Financial Plan. Learn long-term savings strategies to help you achieve your retirement goals.

 

Authored By:

1 http://time.com/money/4258451/retirement-savings-survey/

http://apps.finra.org/calcs/1/retirement

3 https://www.mint.com/how-mint-works

4 http://money.cnn.com/2016/05/09/retirement/save-more-retirement/

The above article is intended to provide generalized financial information; it does not give personalized tax, investment, legal, or other professional advice. Before taking any action, you should always seek the assistance of a professional who knows your particular situation for advice on taxes, your investments, the law, or any other matters that affect you or your business.

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February 2017 Update - New President, New Outlook_Gratus

“It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future”.  – Yogi Berra

“Economists are often asked to predict what the economy is going to do. But economic predictions require predicting what politicians are going to do – and nothing is more unpredictable.”  – Thomas Sowell

At this juncture, we continue to believe that making financial market predictions is a dangerous business.  Not only is there economic uncertainty relating to the fact that we are now in our eighth year of expansion during this cycle, but we also have obvious political risks percolating around the world.  To that end, political uncertainty now inhabits the White House with aspirations of undoing most of what has been done over the last eight years.  This US-specific political risk is one of many global political risks that stems from burgeoning nationalist movements in Western Europe and elsewhere.  These nationalist movements have the potential to be disruptive to economies over the short term.

Why does political risk matter now?  In our view, it’s simply because outcomes in many western economies are now even more difficult to forecast.  In other words, recent historical norms around free trade (TPP/NAFTA), immigration policy, and military unity (NATO) are coming into question.  In the spirit of a New Year and new president, we thought we’d collect and opine on President Trump’s priorities for 2017.

  • Roll back “regulation” because there is too much regulation in all areas of business

Trump’s Transition Team (TTT) has indicated that upwards of 75% of all regulation is unnecessary.  Financial markets are betting that a large portion of Dodd Frank gets rolled back.  This can be seen in the performance of most financial sector companies, which have responded very positively post-election.

INVESTMENT IMPACT:  Likely beneficiaries of reduced regulation would be heavily regulated sectors like energy and mining, as well as the financial sector.  Recent share price movements in metals/mining/energy shares certainly indicate it may be easier to mine/drill in more ecologically sensitive areas than previously thought.  Interestingly, nuclear companies are performing well, with the idea that no one energy source is favored over another.  Until recently, nuclear has been discouraged due to the nuclear waste disposal issue.

  • Overseas cash repatriation.

The idea is that US companies would be able to bring their overseas cash back to the United States at a low tax rate.  This proposal is fairly straightforward and has a high likelihood of passing through Congress without much obstruction.  Repatriation would give corporations access to much-needed liquidity in the event they decided they wanted to pursue M&A activity, increase share repurchases or increase dividend payments.

INVESTMENT IMPACT:  The investment impact of this policy would be relatively limited if we use the template of the first overseas cash repatriation that occurred in 2004.  Under that template, cash that came back was mostly paid out in dividends….not reinvested in the company.  Furthermore, overseas earnings that are being converted back into US dollars could cause the US dollar to move higher, which would crimp future earnings from those same overseas subsidiaries and, potentially, kick start the next recession. 

  • Reduction in tax rates at both the individual and corporate levels. 

There’s still a lot of distance to close within the Republican ranks as President Trump and Speaker Ryan have publicly proposed plans that are different.  Both men have proposed unique plans for corporate taxes as well as individual taxes.  The key is that they both believe something needs to be done.  This area of tax reform has, in my opinion, the highest possibility of getting Congressional approval.

INVESTMENT IMPACT:  As tax reform legislation works its way through the approval process, equity markets in the US will likely respond positively.  Goldman Sachs estimates that tax reform alone could add up to 4.8% in earnings per share or roughly $6 to 2017 S&P 500 earnings.  The downside, I believe, is that most of this benefit has been priced into equities already as exemplified by the move in small company stocks since election day.

  • Repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

President Trump has already issued an executive order to minimize the ACA’s impact at both the state and federal levels.  The US House of Representatives and the Senate have initiated legislative proceedings to defund the ACA at the same time.  It looks like this repeal and replace is the highest priority for most Republicans in D.C. right now.  The problem, of course, is that even with 3+ years of time to come up with a transition plan for the ACA, there is still no cohesive legislative solution to fill the ACA’s void.

INVESTMENT IMPACT:  It’s still too early to tell, but clearly there will be segments of the healthcare complex that stand to lose if the ACA is repealed without any solution (hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, etc).  Outside of healthcare, I don’t see much by way of immediate market impact until more details are known.

  • Massive infrastructure spending bill to rebuild America.

Again, nothing is really new here as both candidates Trump and Clinton had infrastructure spending proposals.  Clinton proposed an Infrastructure Bank while Trump proposed opening up US infrastructure to public private partnerships (PPP).  PPPs are a unique way to raise private capital for public projects but, effectively, these new PPPs act as new taxes on people that use those facilities.  Further, most infrastructure spending would get pushed down to the state/local levels.  From the time a funding measure for infrastructure would be passed to seeing shovels in the ground could take as long as 2 years given the permitting, environmental, and governmental approval process.

INVESMENT IMPACT:  Likely very little impact in the first four years of the Trump presidency.  To fund the level of infrastructure being tossed around (~$1 trillion), a lot of new debt would need to be issued and absorbed by the markets.  The Federal Reserve could buy that debt directly, but this may interject new risks to the financial system if the bond mark loses faith in the Federal Reserve.  On the positive side, the sheer scale of the program would likely lead to higher levels of employment which could have a positive effect on consumer sentiment thereby providing support for risk assets.

In summary it would appear, based on our initial analysis that much of what is being proposed above as stimulus to the economy has been accounted for in current market prices.  This makes intuitive sense as equity markets typically function with a 6-12 month forward-looking discount mechanism.  (For example, while the S&P 500 bottomed out in March of 2009, S&P 500 earnings didn’t start their upward movement until August/September of 2009).  Further, most of the above has to actually occur for the equity market to maintain its current valuations!  Said another way, don’t get pulled into the hyperbole of the 24-hour news cycle, and keep your focus on the long term.

Authored By:

The above article is intended to provide generalized financial information; it does not give personalized tax, investment, legal, or other professional advice. Before taking any action, you should always seek the assistance of a professional who knows your particular situation for advice on taxes, your investments, the law, or any other matters that affect you or your business.

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