Market Volatility – Panic has a Price

Market volatility is part of the deal when investing for the long-term. Currently, some of the volatility is due to inflation and the invasion of Ukraine but most of the volatility is from fear of the unknown (by market participants). We’ve had many periods that generated panic and each time an emotional reaction or seeking ‘safety’ had a price.

Since 1960, the markets have dropped more than 30% during seven crises.

Instead of seeking ‘safety’ during a crisis, we encourage you to let us do what we do best and make the most of these crises and instead focus on things that you directly control.  The best way to handle market volatility is to have a plan in place and let it be executed without ‘fear’.

So, what should you do during periods of volatility?

  1. Take care of your health by not over focusing on media hype – crises are a bonanza for media outlets. For example, CNN searches were up from 89% to 193% during March of 2020. ‘Googling’ trending topics only makes us more anxious. Online searches will not guide you to how your portfolio and your finances should be managed to get you to your goals.
  2. Do not check your portfolio every day but do evaluate your anxiety level – if you find that you are overly anxious then we need to re-examine your asset allocation once the market recovers. Keep in mind that unless you depend on the portfolio for cash support, what happens in the market today is not relevant.
  3. Monitor your cash flow – ensure that you have the cash flow you need and that you have the necessary emergency fund.
  4. If you have a long-term horizon (meaning that you are not planning to draw from your portfolio over the next 3 years) then view the volatility as dips that we will use to reallocate your portfolio.
  5. If you depend on the portfolio for ongoing cash flow and we developed a distribution plan for you then you have a withdrawal plan for the next 3-5 years regardless of the market dip. Stay within planned spending.

I don’t deny that there is good reason to be anxious about the war in Ukraine and the impact it will have on our lives and the economy. Even so, this is not the time to decide that you want to make your portfolio ‘safer’. ‘Safer’ often means going to cash or bonds but the time to move to cash is when markets are doing well not during a crisis. During a crisis the ideal action is to use cash to buy positions that will benefit your portfolio in the long-term even if they underperform in the short-term.

The graph below illustrates how a hypothetical “fearful” investor, who chose safety during market downturns of 30%, missed gains time and time again during market recoveries. This investor traded long-term results for short-term comfort likely because the constant drumbeat of negative news made it difficult to stay true to the investment plan.

But how about market timing? Research shows that market timing strategies do not work well for individual investors. Dalbar’s Quantitative Analysis of Investor Behavior measured the effects of individual investors moving into and out of mutual funds. They found that the average individual investor returns are less—in many cases, much less—than market indices return held through the crisis.

But how about, “it is different this time”? Of course, each crisis is different BUT the US has experienced 26 bear markets since 1929 and the markets recovered all 26 times though some took a long period of time to recover. The key to market recovery is that businesses must continue to make profits.
If you find that you are overly anxious about your portfolio, then record this in your Aikapa folder and let us seriously address your portfolio allocation and the tradeoff to your long-term goals once the market has recovered.

If you find you have unexpected/unplanned cash flow needs from your portfolio, then let’s talk about it and find ways to provide what you need today minimizing damage to your long-term plans.

Edi Alvarez, CFP®

Retiring early – A reality check

A letter published online by an ‘early’ retiree who encountered health difficulties has generated a lot of negative comments regarding early retirement. I thought it might be helpful to provide you with my perspective on the subject. Retiring early often means that there is NO paid work and that your assets are the only source of income for all living needs. The income from those assets needs to be able to support your chosen lifestyle for your entire life. For this reason, it is essential that this planning be completed with details based on your life and potential worse case scenarios. In this letter there seemed to have been little planning for healthcare, unexpected market changes, and potential disability which are essential in any retirement plan and particularly in one that would need to last 40+ years. The negative outcome for this early retiree might have been prevented with comprehensive retirement planning and annual adjustments.

Of course, the assets to support early retirement need to be much higher if retiring before age 65 when Medicare healthcare becomes available. In addition, retiring before age 59.5 needs to include significant non-retirement assets (or a willingness to annuitize retirement assets) to avoid a 10% early withdrawal penalty for retirement accounts. Early retirement must also account for retirement cash flow distributions over very long periods (longevity investment planning) which requires a careful combination of investment strategies to ensure that cash is available regardless of market behavior. A portfolio that needs to provide support for long periods of time must include sufficient growth potential with protections against the likely downturns.

If you are contemplating early retirement and have not yet discussed it with us, then let’s create planning scenarios for your situation and see how and if your assets will support your ideal ‘early’ retirement life.

Edi Alvarez, CFP®

Differences in Finances: Pre-retirement and Retirement

I am sometimes asked how our work differs as clients move from a period in which they are accumulating assets (pre-retirement savings) to a period in which they withdraw/distribute from their assets (retirement or financial independence). This becomes a critical question as individuals transition out of earning years and begin to implement their retirement plan. As a matter of fact, our tasks are very different in each case though our role remains the same. Our role is to provide financial guidance to help make the most of available assets given current realities and future goals.

To help you understand the various financial tasks that occur in these two distinct financial planning periods, I’ve outlined some of the major tasks that we perform in pre-retirement (accumulation phase) and in retirement (distribution phase).

During the accumulation period, our focus is to encourage you to integrate finances with all major decisions. We work with you to save as much as possible using tools or techniques that we know will likely be successful in your situation and come up with ways that work better for you. We also support you to define spending that is meaningful because we want spending to be sustainable and satisfying later in life. Annually, we help set spending and savings goals and ask you to hold yourself accountable because with accountability comes financial self-confidence. We also want you to experience the ups and downs of portfolio behavior over a significant period so that overtime you will learn to relinquish unproductive human emotions that are associated with daily monitoring and fretting over your portfolio total (which feeds fear and greed). We want you to internalize that what really matters is that the portfolio delivers as expected to meet your goals. It is therefore important that during accumulation (when you are not dependent on the portfolio), you can confirm that the returns used to create your financial plan are attainable by the average return of your own portfolio (not a model or generic return). Overall, we want you to identify how you can best work with finances and gain confidence in your own ability to make financial decisions regardless of the obstacles.

During retirement we are more involved with your cash flow management as we help you transition to financial independence by implementing your financial plan. This requires providing the needed cash flow from your accumulated portfolio. In retirement we annually setup monthly cash-flow distributions (or an annual lump sum distribution) from the portfolio and we internally estimate the tax liability so that we have the best after tax result for each distribution. We find that tax planning also helps prevent unexpected increases in future Medicare premiums, helps make Roth conversion decisions, and helps decide on the best timing for Social Security benefits. RMD (Required Minimum Distributions which begin at age 72) are also calculated and implemented based on what is best for your overall finances. We may recommend QCD (Qualified Charitable Distributions, only for those at age 70.5) or DAF (Donor Advised Funds which are available to anyone who wants to make significant or regular charitable donations) in some cases. Finally, we serve as your financial resource or partner to support you during major financial decisions.

Let us know if you have different questions or want more details on what is currently most important in your life, regardless of whether you are in pre-retirement or already enjoying your well-earned financial independence.

Edi Alvarez, CFP®

Inflation Expectations as of January

On Tuesday, January 11, 2022, Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell called high inflation a “severe threat” to a full economic recovery and that the central bank was preparing to raise interest rates because the economy no longer needed emergency support. Powell further stated that he was optimistic that supply-chain bottlenecks would ease this year and help bring down inflation while the central bank begins removing the emergency support we’ve depended on for years.

The January inflation rate (CPI) is reported at 6.1%.

With U.S. debt approaching $30 trillion and growing at $2 trillion per year The Fed is in a tough spot, they must find ways to fight off inflation. Debt is often a drag on future growth unless the debt is used to increase GDP and stimulate the economy. With higher interest rates and without additional economic growth (GDP), the U.S. government will struggle to cover interest payments given that tax revenues are at about $1 trillion per year. So, I expect aggressive measures will be taken to check inflation.To be honest, there is little agreement on the likelihood that 2022 inflation will be permanent. Some believe that the current wave of inflation will prove to be transitory and expect, at worse, a slowing of the global economy in the first half of 2022. Others argue inflation is not temporary and will be devastating through 2023 (they usually use the 1970’s period as a painful reminder of extreme inflation).

I am cautiously optimistic and believe that in the long-term what matters is our ability to increase economic growth. I also believe that consumers have a lot more influence over inflation than they realize – inflation is not magical or something to be afraid of but rather a reaction to something we consumers encourage or discourage with our behavior. Every time we purchase something despite its excessive price, or we raise the price despite the actual cost, we contribute to inflation. Consumers can practice restraint over consumer discretionary purchases, but it becomes much more challenging when inflation impacts the essentials or basic spending. For example, if your rent increases at 4% (see the chart below), this is not optional so something else needs to be reduced or your income must increase thus fueling inflation.

Percent changes in CPI

In your portfolio we are continually monitoring and adjusting for expected inflationary pressures, volatility, and increased interest rates. Our belief is that with infrastructure funding we’ll reach a high GDP by year-end and a good portfolio outcome. Without economic stimulus we are likely to have a more volatile and less predictable performance this year. You may notice that we added tilts to the portfolio that increased commodities (primarily cereals, materials, energy) and digital/tech assets (like digital supply chain, traditional finance, and fin tech companies) which we expect to do better during inflationary periods. Fixed income is tilted to the short-term and should provide stability if the expected volatility in equity markets materializes.

Edi Alvarez, CFP®

Student Government Loan Repayments to Restart in May

The Department of Education has announced that it will restart student loan payments that were frozen at the start of the pandemic. This was intended to allow for increased cash flow and savings during the pandemic. So far, it does NOT appear that the government will create new student loan forgiveness programs. If you were able to save over the last two years, then let’s review if paying down your student loans is the best use of your additional savings.

Action for those with a federal government student loan:

  1. Review the terms and balance of your loan.
  2. Make sure that you understand if it falls under any of the existing (and not yet honored) forgiveness programs.
  3. Log on and update your contact information.
  4. Determine your new payment amount and if you can consider paying it earlier. We recommend that you start paying it sooner than May if your cash flow allows so that you lower the loan before May, but this may not be ideal for all.Let us know and we can go over your specific situation.
  5. If the loan repayment amount doesn’t work within your current budget, then let’s work on a different solution before the May due date.
  6. Don’t count on blanket loan forgiveness – although it may arrive, it is not likely – the current government goal appears to be focused on fulfilling existing forgiveness programs not creating new ones.
  7. Check with us BEFORE you accept loan forgiveness offers – they may not be legit – anyone offering that they can easily forgive your student loan without details should be suspect.

Finally, when working online to obtain information on your student loans (or other financial transactions) please err on the side of caution and check with us and your CPA to ensure that you avoid scammers. They get more sophisticated each day.

Edi Alvarez, CFP®

A New Year – A New Opportunity

We’ve completed a second year in this pandemic that upended most of our habits and norms. Before we embrace a quasi-new normal and return to our old ways, we have an opportunity at the start of this year to pause, step back, and review what has and hasn’t worked in our lives.

It’s natural that we should want our financial life to be supportive and in concert with our values and life choices. I encourage you to identify and mobilize behaviors that add energy and positive feelings into your life. This year, prioritize those healthy behaviors and do your best to eliminate or minimize the negative ones.

The Milestones & Impressions notebook can help you create a personal record of what has added value and what makes you feel good each year. Over time, these notebooks will be a source of key events, patterns, and behaviors that mattered in your life. Possibly they will be a resource to help you identify what you wish to include in your ideal life.

Ultimately the process of taking time to reflect provides greater satisfaction and increases financial resiliency (readiness to handle unexpected financial issues in an efficient and streamlined manner). Financially resilient people focus on things they can control, such as meaningful spending, rather than the things that are beyond our control like market behavior. Recent studies suggest that acknowledging the events that bring joy to your life and recognizing from time to time just how fortunate we are will help to increase financial resiliency, and in-turn, well-being.

Be kind to yourself and take the New Year to reimagine yourself and your relationship with your finances.

Here is to a hopeful and happy 2022!

Edi Alvarez, CFP®

2022: Current Retirement Savings Limits

In 2022, 401K plan employee contribution maximums have increased by $1K to $20,500 and the catch-up (at age 50) remains at $6,500 (or a maximum of $27K). Total employer and employee contributions for 401K plans has increased to $61K. On the other hand, pension plan contributions are limited to $260K but the amounts are determined early in 2022. IRA contributions remain at $6K and for those over age 50 at $7K but tax deductibility is dependent on earnings and whether you’ve contributed to a 401K/403b plan. A Roth IRA contribution can be made instead of the IRA contribution, and it also has earning limits. Long-Term Capital Gain federal tax rates this year are still at 0%, 15%, and 20% dependent on taxable income levels but these are expected to increase in the new tax plan. Gifts can be made tax free to the recipient up to $16K in 2022 and for non-US citizen spouses this tax-free gift rises to $164K without additional paperwork. Keep in mind that these annual gifting exclusion limits are in addition to the currently huge lifetime tax-free gifting limit of $12.06M per person. The child tax credit and after-tax Roth conversion are part of the new tax plan under consideration.

Edi Alvarez, CFP®

Potential Tax Changes & Their Implications

Over the last six months, a good deal of our time has been spent studying the implications of the many tax proposals that were circulating. From the American Jobs Plan, the Made in America Plan, the 99.5% Tax Act, and others, it is still possible that some tax plan will be passed soon. The critical task for us is to better understand what the implications are and what, if anything, should be done ahead of their passage.

We must accept that funding at the level needed to get us through COVID and now infrastructure improvements will require tax increases. It would seem that Congress was looking to fund the proposed plans using sales tax (example, gasoline tax) but this would impact those earning less than what President Biden promised he would target. There seems to be some agreement on taxing businesses at 25% rather than the current 21% (though 29% is still being discussed). Close to 140 countries agreed in October on a global minimum corporate tax rate of 15% targeting the largest international firms, so that’s already baked in. Other items being considered have large implications for those who earn over $500K a year and who have a large taxable gain (home or portfolio). Those expecting to sell a business or a home with a large gain may need to prepare for alternative ways to lower their taxable income or accept the large one-time tax liability.

Current proposals include long-term capital gains taxed at 43.4% from the current maximum of 23.8% (plus state) for those in the higher tax brackets. A change in the step-up in basis on death is also likely since it makes sense with increased capital gains taxes. This is expected to apply to couples with income over $1M (singles are likely to be at $500K income). Keep in mind, if you sell your home or your business you may find yourself in these higher brackets and therefore pay taxes well over 50% of the gain in one year, making it very important to plan for single-year large capital gain realization (for the time being, there is no exception for single-year events).

These proposed changes encourage us all to annually consider the use of Roth conversions, 401K Roth contributions, charitable planning (Donor Advised funds) and estate planning strategies.

Edi Alvarez, CFP®

Social Security – Essential Tidbits on Early Benefits

We normally estimate that we need the same pre-retirement spending budget plus taxes to meet minimum retirement cash flow. Since Social Security was created to be a safety net, it only covers at most 40% of needed retirement cash flow. It is for this reason that additional savings are required to support retirement lifestyle cash flow.

The most important aspect of Social Security is that it is a lifetime benefit that is inflation adjusted and therefore holds a very unique place in any retirement plan and yet I find that it is often undervalued. Misunderstandings and short-term thinking can result in poor use of this very powerful resource.

More than a third of American workers claim Social Security benefits at 62, which is the earliest entitlement age, and also when they will receive the least benefit. This is referred to as early filing. With early filing the new lower-than-expected benefits are locked in for the remainder of one’s life. To highlight the difference, consider a person who at full retirement age of 67 would receive a benefit of $2,291 per month for life. If instead they file at age 62, their monthly benefit would be reduced to $1,487. This amounts to $9,648 less annually for life (or $17,844 instead of $27,492 each year), a significant decrease in retirement cash flow.

Claiming early Social Security benefits can be further reduced if you continue to work between ages 62 and your full retirement age. Early Social Security benefits will be dramatically reduced — up to a dollar for every $2 in earned income if your earnings exceed annual limits (usually the limits are around $19K of earnings though it changes each year).

There is a breakeven point for those thinking to file early. If, for some reason, you expect to die early and without a dependent spouse, then considering early Social Security benefits should be part of your planning.
Finally, many early Social Security claimants assume that Social Security is not taxed. In fact, taxation of Social Security benefits isn’t determined by a person’s age, but instead by income level. For example, if a married couple files jointly, and their income is above $44,000, then they will pay taxes on 85% of their Social Security benefits. On the other hand, if they earn less than that amount, they only pay tax on 50% of their Social Security benefits.

Always consider each available resource fully (including social security) to create the best support for your ideal retirement.

Edi Alvarez, CFP®

Gamification of Trading

The suicide of a 20-year-old experimenting with trading on the Robinhood platform
has many calling for new regulations on trading. I think new regulations on the “Robo”
interfaces are required but not on trading. Robo platforms, like Robinhood, provide a
software interface that makes trading more like a game.

Brokerage firms have been on a serious race to engage directly with the young and the
inexperienced. Robinhood, E-Trade, TD Ameritrade, Charles Schwab, Interactive
Brokers, Fidelity, Merrill Lynch, and many others have all embraced commission-free
and zero-minimum balance trading on platforms that focus only on the upside
of trading.
These platforms are more reminiscent of an animated game than a
serious financial transaction. Even those who have managed to make a little money on
day trading often fail to understand that there are tax consequences. They usually
reach out for assistance when they receive from these brokerage firms an unexpected
1099 with a large tax liability.

It is clear that what we need is more clarity on what is a game and what has real life

Edi Alvarez, CFP®