Tax

Welcome to 2020: Hindsight and Vision

Posted on Jan 1, 2020 in Community, Family, Investments, Planning, Retirement, Tax, Technology

This time of year we often look back over the past 12 months, and as we close out 2019, we also close out a decade. Time goes by in the blink of an eye, and the past ten years are only different in that there has been more change than ever before. That will only be exceeded by the rapid change in the next ten.

We’ll welcome some of this: systemic and technological changes to make life better. Other changes,  like those which require shifts in well-worn habits, or to combat climate change and rewrite our social contracts to reflect life today, will be more difficult, and require more attention.

LOOKING BACK: THE DECADE IN REVIEW

ECONOMICS
We all remember where we ended the last decade, surrounded by the tatters of financial life after the Great Recession (aka the Financial Crisis, August 2007-March 2009). We weren’t sure it was over, and while the recession had technically ended, the impact would still be felt by many for years to come. While we are spending lately like the Financial Crisis is forgotten, some have still not recovered, and the trauma of the event continues to affect almost all of us.

As the decade began, we were told the recovery was happening, then we were hit with a series of smaller crises in financial markets: 2010 Flash Crash (trillion dollars lost in the stock market in 36 minutes, started by automated trading programs); 2011 European Sovereign Debt Crisis (causing a write-down of Greek bonds); 2013 bailout of Cyprus by the European Union (to avert a banking crisis); 2015 Chinese stock market crash, followed by a commodity-driven US stock market drop, and finally a 2018 worldwide stock market downturn, ending last Christmas Eve, when the S&P fell nearly 20% in the preceding three months.

While the economy is NOT the stock market, the two are related. Here is what the largest U.S. companies did over the last decade, in terms of their stock prices:

It hasn’t been an entirely smooth ride; we have forgotten the hiccups that occurred because of the events noted above, and others.  But what does this tell us about the economy?  Is it reflective of fundamental strength of companies and demand, or of manipulation of interest rates, and tax laws that favored stock buy backs? Or a combination?

Despite very low unemployment, wages have barely budged for most, and some Americans have taken to working two (or more) jobs. A minimum wage of $15/hour works out to $30,000/year for a full-time job, which hardly meets rent in some urban areas. You enjoy the benefits of a rising stock market when you can invest, and for many, that’s still out of reach.

POLITICS
President Obama was two years into his first term as the decade began, and the push-back to the change he represented was evident. A Republican-led Congress blocked attempts at government spending on infrastructure programs to jump-start the economy and get Americans, particularly those in the trades, back to work in the wake of the Financial Crisis. The Tea Party, a movement within the Republican Party and a harbinger of where we would end the decade, gathered power, pushing for lower taxes, reduced government spending and a reduction in the national debt. By the decade’s end, they’d achieved 1 of 3.

Obama’s first term was devoted to health care reform, and Congress passed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) in 2010. President Obama’s second term included another big change: in 2013 the U.S. Supreme Court decided the case that recognized same-sex marriage and overturned the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).  Reforming our health care system and expanding the definition of marriage were both HUGE shifts in the American landscape.  No question there would be a reaction to big social change.

Part of the reaction to the economic situation was political of another persuasion: the Occupy Wall Street protests began in July 2011 in New York City and spread to 82 countries by October. Bailouts for big banks led to an outcry against financial greed and corruption, starting a new discussion about economic inequality that continues today.

The BlackLivesMatter movement began in 2012 after the shooting death of teenager Trayvon Martin, and went national in 2014 after the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO and Eric Garner in New York City at the hands of police. Social media aided both the spread of participation in the campaign against violence and systemic racism, and in the backlash, with the appearance of “All Lives Matter” and Blue Lives Matter, in support of the police.

The election of Donald Trump in 2016 was the capstone to years of work to bring America back to an earlier time, to re-entrench systems and institutions to support the economic and social structure we created after World War II.  The President’s Inauguration in 2017 kicked off worldwide Women’s Marches, with 420 reported marches in the U.S. and 168 in other countries, becoming the largest worldwide protest in recent history. In March 2018, Stoneham Douglas High School students led nationwide protests over gun violence, called the National School Walkout. By May the protest movement became the March for Our Lives, with demonstrations in 900 U.S. cities.

In December 2018 “Yellow Vest” (“gilets jaunes ”) protests in France that were initially motivated by rising fuel prices and a high cost of living shut down urban centers weekend after weekend; by December 2019, the movement broadened its focus to include opposition to President Emmanuel Macron’s austerity measures, which included pension reform that would postpone retirement until age 64 instead of 62. The protests spread across political, regional, social and generational divides angry at economic injustice, with polls indicating than 80 percent of French people supported the movement.

A series of strikes in 2019 for action on climate change drew millions of people worldwide. The third global strike in September, also known as the Global Week for the Future, was timed to occur around the UN Youth Climate Summit and UN Climate Action Summit. The September Climate Strike included over 1,000 strike events in all 50 states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia.  The student-led protests had five demands directed at world leaders and elected officials centered around a “Green New Deal”: to transform the economy to 100% renewable energy by 2030, while creating jobs and ending leases and permits for fossil fuel projects; respect for indigenous land and peoples; investment in communities affected most by poverty and pollution; protecting biodiversity, restoring 50% of the world’s lands and oceans, and stopping all deforestation by 2030; and sustainable agriculture, including the end to subsidies for industrial agriculture. A bold “to-do” list.

We closed the decade with anti-extradition protests in Hong Kong against a bill that was viewed as eroding the “one country, two systems” balance between Hong Kong and mainland China. The protests morphed to reflect broader threats to Hong Kong’s autonomy, as well as underlying discontent in Hong Kong, from the dearth of affordable housing to the demand for universal suffrage for elections rather than use of an Election Committee, which is viewed as non-representative.

Worldwide, there were protests related to housing affordability, economic inequality in general, climate, safety, and the concentration of power in few rather than many hands.

DEMOGRAPHICS
We’ve all heard about our longer life expectancy, and that reality is rapidly coming head-to-head with social safety nets worldwide. Despite reports of a reversal of this trend, looking closely at the numbers, the decline in life expectancy in the U.S. tends to cluster around certain regions, in rural areas where the opioid epidemic, among other factors, is concentrated and driving down life expectancy.  In coastal areas in the U.S., life spans are tracking the rest of the developed world, and increasing.   The safety net failing here is general health care coverage (as well as regulation of pharmaceutical companies).

The other safety nets running into headwinds are those for our elders. In April 2018, Nicaragua announced reforms to its Social Security programs to decrease retirement benefits; 34 people were killed by police in the resulting protests. In France, the aforementioned Yellow Vest protests now include push-back on labor law changes and plans to overhaul the pension system. In the U.S., the Social Security Administration notes on every Social Security statement that as of 2035, only 76% of benefits can be paid; for disability insurance benefits offered through the program, those benefits become unsustainable in 2020.  Medicare is on an even less solid footing.

Meanwhile, and because we like acronyms, a legislative proposal, called the Time to Rescue United States’ Trusts, or TRUST, Act, would create congressional committees to evaluate how to bolster solvency or make other changes to improve the programs. That sounds like kicking the can further down the proverbial road, but further increasing the age when we are eligible for benefits should be part of the solution. The Social Security 2100 Act calls for increased benefits, and increases payroll taxes to pay for it. Also in the hopper are plans to cut both Medicare and Social Security in a second Trump term, based on growing federal deficits, the same deficits Republicans and the Tea Party wanted to avoid, but created by the most recent tax reform legislation.

We are living longer than ever before, and the math these demographics present is straightforward: we need to work longer, pay more in taxes, and start benefits later. We’ll be experiencing exponentially increasing change over these longer lives, and we’ll need to retrain/retool/refresh along the way. All of which argue for a restructuring of how we work, not a return to a post-WW2 ideal, and a reworking of how we enjoy leisure time, “retiring” the current concept of “retirement.”

DATA
Throughout the decade, leaks and breaches of big data caused turmoil large and small:
2013 – Edward Snowden exposes widespread government surveillance
2016 – Panama Papers are revealed, showing myriad ways the rich can stash cash offshore
2016 – WikiLeaks releases Hillary Clinton’s emails and Russia interferes with US elections
2017 – WannaCry Ransomware attack hits computers in 150 countries

Wikipedia lists 138 data breaches from 2010 to the present, from Reddit to Capital One, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to Uber, Premera Blue Cross to Facebook (Facebook was hit five times; in July 2018, a drop in Facebook’s share price on the heels of its latest data leak wiped out $109 billion from its market value, the largest single day loss in corporate history).

By the end of 2018, the UN reported that more than half of the world’s population is now using the internet. Also in 2018, Europe enacts strict privacy controls for European citizens called GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation), and we can expect the U.S and others to follow.  (Expect California, non-conformist state that it is, to lead here.) We are all in cyberspace now, even if we got there kicking and screaming, and the last decade shows us how we must be vigilant about how we manage our activities and information online. Those of you with kids who want to opt out of learning new technologies, think again; you will need to know about whatever follows SnapChat and TikTok to keep your kids tech smart and safe.

TECH
Social media and gaming were not new when we started the decade, but mainstays that we use today were just emerging: Instagram launched in 2010, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One were released in 2013, Pokemon Go in 2016. More ways to stream/play/be entertained are on the horizon.

Other parts of the tech community were focused farther afield, and there was no shortage of space exploration over the last decade.  NASA’s New Horizons probe visited Pluto (2015), NASA found water on Mars (2015), SpaceX landed a Falcon 9, the first reusable rocket (2015); a new Mars rover is headed out into space next year, complete with an oxygenator (just like in The Martian) as part of the Mars 2020 project.  Recently, I overheard two middle school kids on the bus talking about the budgets of NASA and the Department of Defense, noting that the former is 1/20 the size of the latter, and if they switched budgets, we’d be living on Mars.  Out of the mouths of babes.

In between our personal screen and the Final Frontier, there are technological developments to herald and to watch carefully.  Automation, self-driving cars, drones, AI-driven “helpful tech” from Siri to Alexa are here to stay.

HEALTH
Major health crises – the Ebola virus in 2014 and 2018, the Zika virus in 2016, cholera in 2017 in Yemen, plus famine in Africa in 2017 – occurred alongside medical breakthroughs: a vaccine 70%-100% effective against Ebola was found by the end of 2016; 3D printing created a lab-grown ear (2013); China created monkey clones in 2018.

Like other new ideas, some need to come with a warning label. In late 2018, a Chinese scientist announced he had altered human DNA in twin girls to make them resistant to HIV, news that was widely criticized by scientists and medical ethicists. The technology that made this possible was “CRISPR” (pronounced “crisper” = Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats), which forms the basis for genome editing technology. In June 2019, U.S. scientists used CRISPR to treat a 34-year old woman with sickle cell disease. Also in 2019, a second case of sustained remission of HIV after stem cell treatment aided by the CRISPR research was reported. Alas, most of the decade was spent in a patent dispute between the two scientists laying claim to the CRISPR research and the huge educational institutions with which each is affiliated.

A man-made health threat is that of gun violence, and the decade proved laden with examples: Aurora, CO (2012) — Sandy Hook Elementary School (2012) — San Bernadino, CA (2015) —
Orlando, FL (2016) — Charleston, VA (2017) — New York City (2017) — Sutherland Spring, TX (2017) — Parkland, FL high school — Tree of Life Synagogue (2018) — El Paso Walmart (2019) — Dayton , OH (2019) – White Settlement, T (2019). Active shooter drills become commonplace in schools.

Technology continues to make us safer, and seemingly simultaneously exposes us to more, and deadly, risk.

CLIMATE
We talked about the climate Crisis the whole decade, continuing the discussion organized through the Kyoto Protocol (a 1992 international treaty to reduce CO2 emissions, the first commitment period of which ended in 2012), followed each year by climate change conferences. In 2015, at the UN’s annual climate change conference (COP 21), almost the entire world came together to agreed to reduce carbon. The U.S. and China, responsible for 40% of the world’s carbon emissions, joined the Paris Accords in September 2016. As of October 2019, the hold-outs were Angola, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Libya, South Sudan, Turkey, and Yemen. In November 2019, the U.S. formally began its withdrawal from the agreement, announced earlier during the Trump Administration. The U.S. will be officially out in November 2020.

The face of climate change activism became Greta Thunberg’s, a 16-year old Swedish teen, proclaimed Time magazine’s Person of the Year for 2019. I’ll let her final tweet of 2019 outline where we need to go:

NEW IDEAS
The last decade may have been more about disruption than innovation. Tesla made its public debut in 2010, and last year’s IPOs alone brought Uber, Lyft, Pinterest and BeyondMeat into the public domain.

For 2020 and beyond, the unicorns (private companies valued at a minimum of $1 billion) in the pen include CrowdStrike, The RealReal, Cloudflare, Peloton, Progyny, Bill.com, AirBnB, SpaceX, DoorDash, Robinhood, Casper (bed-in-a-box) and Didi Chuxing (China’s Uber competitor, which recently spun-off its autonomous driving unit into a new company), Ant Financial, Droom, Gitlab, Hemptown, Instacart, Neptune Energy, Palantir Technologies, Saudi Aramco. Remember, the companies that go public are rarely start-ups, they’re often many years (and many rounds of financing) old. And while sometimes they do well, Renaissance’s fund-of-IPOs ETF (IPO), for example, was up by about 33% by the end of 2019…but the S&P 500 was up by 29% over the same period, and with a lot less risk.

LOOKING FORWARD: THE NEXT DECADE

Data — If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product. The “free” services we use so readily are gathering our personal data into privately-owned assets. You may not be concerned about your Instagram account, but you should be concerned about the silos of health care data that are owned not by you, but by a specific health care entity, and not shared. Look for agitation for a national health care database.

Demographics – Longevity, work and family structures are all changing, and our social safety net will need to change to reflect these shifts. There are ways to adapt our institutions to meet our future needs. Don’t get hung up on fear-mongering about costs and taxes; smart legislation on taxes, program eligibility, needs-testing, and even immigration can adjust programs that have proven to lift Americans out of poverty. As a leading First World nation, we owe it to ourselves to look to the future and blaze a trail.  There is a real opportunity here for elders and youth to unite, creating a “great trade” to reconfigure safety net programs like Social Security and Medicare in exchange for big structural changes like universal basic health care and climate action at corporate and governmental levels.  Both age groups have the numbers of people that could sway the vote, and coming together rather than working for their separate interests could benefit everyone.  Oh yeah, and we’ll still have a planet to live on, too.

Government matters – If the impeachment hearings have taught us anything, it’s that there is a whole slew of civil servants who make our lives work. They labor mostly invisibly, with much criticism and little praise, and even less in these last few years. Our trade, our travels, our place in the world owe TONS to these unsung Americans. Government and the people in it matter.

Power – There are two issues here: power politics and power generation. Leaders with dictatorial leanings are striving to consolidate power, and to change the rules so that they keep it. If you’re content as a serf, no need to worry. If not, you’re going to need to expend some energy here, to protest, to vote, to walk out. On the second front, it’s fine to talk about adapting to climate change when you live in a place with most of your energy coming from hydropower and nuclear power. Our economy is no longer dependent on horsepower, or manpower, but on electricity, and some places are going to have a harder time adapting than others. If you want them on board, you’re going to have to pay for it, so watch for ideas to pay for not using coal- or oil-fired plants. It’s like paying for guns to get them off the streets. If there’s a bailout that might be worth the dollars, this could be it.

Attention – When research tells us that being mindful and intentional makes us happiest, you might hesitate when offered the newest, greatest way to stream/play/get high. The age of distraction that’s coming is built of new forms of tv/streaming/video games along with legal cannabis in addition to booze and offers a challenge to us to stay in the game (life) even when we’d rather check-out.

Voting – The 19th Amendment, giving US women the vote, is 100 years old in 2020. This is one voting block that could decide the 2020 elections. The other is the Millennial generation (1981-1996), which is on the verge of surpassing Baby Boomers (1946-1964) as the nation’s largest living adult generation, according U.S Census projections.

The next time you’re inclined to say something snide about a Millennial, think twice.  They will hold an increasingly stronger hand over the next decade.  And besides, you will need them to teach you how to use that new app or how to control your household robot.

These past 10 years have been tough in many ways, and while I’m always glad to be able to make a fresh start, this New Year dawned with some serious dark clouds overhead.  We have big decisions to make; doing nothing IS a decision, just not one we want to make.  Thunberg said it above: This coming decade humanity will decide its future. Our future is really our kids. And the kids better vote.

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Let the Debate Begin: Waiting for Tax Reform Details

Posted on Apr 25, 2017 in Community, Philanthropy, Planning, Simplicity, Tax

Now that your 2016 tax return is behind you, you might be thinking about how tax reform changes expected under the Trump Administration might affect you. We are expecting a big announcement tomorrow, but despite some advance hype of “massive” changes, we’re likely to get only minimal details. The tax code is 4,029 pages and covers a multitude of taxes and entities. Tax reform, like Repeal and Replace, is going to take longer than originally planned.

The Big Three Goals of current tax reform proposals are:

1-Reduction of the corporate tax rate
2-Lower tax rates on individuals (reducing tax brackets from 7 to 3)
3-Simplification

In general, Republican proposals strive to broaden the tax base and lower tax rates. Under the banner of freedom and personal responsibility, these proposals support the idea that government should be as small as possible, providing minimal benefits to individuals, but counter that with lower tax rates, meaning more after-tax dollars in pocket, with which people are free to do what they want.

What are the things to watch for tomorrow? Here’s what I’ll be watching for:

1. Corporate tax rate: Republicans originally wanted a 20-25% top rate, which even they felt was unrealistic. Expect Trump to hold out for the 15% corporate rate he campaigned on.

The argument for a lower corporate tax rate is one of global competitiveness. The Tax Foundation reported that the US ranks 32 of 43 countries in the OECD in terms of international competitiveness. Note that the Tax Foundation is the oldest non-profit think tank in the country, described as an “independent tax policy research center” but it is also noted for a conservative, business-friendly bias.

The top US corporate tax rate is 35%. But who really pays this? The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report in March 2016 that reviewed US corporate taxes over a five-year period. “From 2008-2012, profitable large US corporations paid, on average, US federal income taxes amounting to about 14% of the pretax net income that they reported in their financial statements. When foreign and state and local income taxes are included, the average effective tax rate across all of those years increases to just over 22%.”

One of my sources for tax policy research is the Tax Policy Center (TPC), a nonpartisan joint venture between the Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution. From TPC’s perspective, a 15% corporate tax rate would make the US one of the lowest corporate tax regimes – until other countries cut their own rates, as they did after the Tax Reform Act of 1986. It would also create a ginormous loophole for high-income individuals. Under the Trump proposal, the 15% rate would apply to partnerships and sole proprietorships, which would create a huge path for tax avoidance by sheltering wages through such an entity. If the new rules let pass-through entities, such as sole proprietors and LLCs (like this firm) be taxed at the lower corporate tax rate, then that benefits me (and dentists).

Let’s be clear about how this works: it’s not like there is one bucket for corporate tax receipts, and a separate one for individual tax payments, and yet another for payroll taxes. All tax receipts go into the same bucket, and go right out again to pay our collective expenses. Those countries with lower corporate tax rates also have much higher personal tax rates. (The plan in the US is to cut those too – at least at the very top levels. You can guess where this is headed.)

The one bright idea in corporate tax reform proposals is to tie corporate tax rate reform to reform of individual tax rates, potentially aligning rates and eliminating this type of income-shifting loophole.

2. Fewer tax brackets for individuals: The idea is to simplify the tax system. The following chart shows how your tax bracket might change under the proposed simplification.

By the way, this doesn’t come without a cost. The deficit is expected to increase by $6 trillion in 10 years. That’s more than a 25% increase. Your kids and grandkids get to figure out how to pay for that.

Ultimately what you care about is what you have in your pocket, as well as what things you have to pay for (health care, city services, college, retirement, etc). While marginal tax brackets are expected to change, if some deductions and exemptions are eliminated as expected, you could end up paying more in taxes. Fortune magazine took a look at the impact of expected changes on take-home pay, and this is the result:

If you’re in the Top 1% of earners, this works for you.

Hand-in-hand with the compressed brackets are higher standard deductions ($15,000 for a single filer, $30,000 for marrieds).  The higher standard deduction could make your tax calculations simpler by eliminating the need to itemize.  It may also make your tax liability higher, and remove incentives for certain spending and investment.

3. Deductibility of state income tax:  One of the items on the chopping block is the deductibility of state income taxes. Let’s not kid ourselves about this being payback to states that went blue and voted for Clinton. The states most effected: California, New York and New Jersey.

That said, Trump is not the only President to use tax reform to rectify political slights. We have the current rule on the non-deductibility of donations to not-for-profit organizations with a political agenda because President Lyndon Johnson was miffed over a preacher literally using his pulpit to bully Johnson. Trump has suggested repealing the Johnson Amendment, which essentially shut down lobbying activity by 501c3 organizations.

But if you don’t have itemized deductions of at least $30,000 for a married couple (or $15,000 for a single filer), it might not make that much difference to you, and might simplify your tax return.

4. Deductibility of mortgage interest: This is a classic middle- to upper-income deduction on the block. Each household can deduct mortgage interest on mortgage indebtedness up to $1,100,000 on up to two homes (that means loans totaling up to $1.1 million, not a deduction of $1.1 million). So mortgage interest on your house (and vacation home) is deductible up to these limits. What if you hold a multi-million loan on your home? Or own more than two homes? You’re not able to deduct that interest anyway. No skin off your nose.

5. Cap on total itemized deductions & 6. Deductibility of charitable donations: One proposal last summer from House Republicans suggested eliminating all itemized deductions except those for home mortgage interest and charitable contributions. The latest scuttlebutt puts charitable donations on the chopping block too. Or at least capping them.

Trump campaigned on capping all itemized deductions at $100,000 for single people and $200,000 for couples. You might not care about this one either, if you’re not making seven figures. But a lot of support to not-for-profits comes from higher earners. A taxpayer making over $1 million paid an average of $260,000 on state and local taxes according to the TPC. At this point, this taxpayer’s itemized deductions would be capped, eliminating the tax incentive for charitable giving by high earners.

One of the arguments made by those favoring smaller government is that people should have the choice of how their money is spent, and if they want to give to social services and other philanthropic causes, they can give to charity directly. Congress created the charitable deduction 100 years ago this year, to incent Americans to support their communities. With smaller government and a capped or eliminated charitable deduction, the landscape of American society will fundamentally change.  If you are in the camp that believes an American spirit of generosity is in part responsible for the success of capitalism (as I am), things won’t be changing for the better. The “compassionate conservatives” in the Republican Party won’t be happy with the reduction in tax incentives for charitable giving either, as it would affect donations to religious organizations.

7. Limits on donor-advised fund deductions: It’s unlikely we’ll hear anything tomorrow on this detail of the tax code. There are already some limits based on income for large charitable contributions, either directly to an organization or to a donor-advised fund (DAF). A DAF allows a taxpayer to “bunch” deductions for future charitable contributions into a single tax year. I recommend DAF contributions to charitably-inclined clients when they have a windfall, to off-set some of the tax they would otherwise pay in that year. Proposals here have included a time limit on the pay-out of DAF money through grants. Under current law, there is no limit on how quickly you need to make donations from a DAF; some proposals are suggesting funds be distributed to charities in 5 years.

Simpler is not always better. In my view we have the wacky tax code we have due to the same strong special interests we have always had, and because our economic world has grown more complicated. If you think about the tax code as a tool to incent certain behavior, as an example, you get to deduct your mortgage interest and property taxes because as a society we think it’s better for wealth building and maintaining capital stock for individuals to own their own homes. We have other tax rules to rectify imbalances, such as the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT), which was created because in 1962 it was discovered that a bunch of millionaires were paying no tax, and that seemed unfair. That it was not inflation-adjusted and had unintended consequences years later doesn’t mean it was a bad idea, it means it needed to evolve as the economic landscape did.

For a quick overview of the three main proposals and detail on some of the main changes up for consideration that you may hear about tomorrow, check out http://www.taxpolicycenter.org/feature/preparing-2017-tax-debate

Remember that Trump views himself as a disrupter and a master negotiator, and as such, he’s not likely to start with a centrist proposal meant to bring everyone into the fold. Once we do have a detailed bill to consider, the legislative process begins. That means lots of hearings, followed by changes, more review and comments before the House then Senate vote. But Democrats in Congress are not aligned, and Republicans  may attempt to push through a tax bill with only Republican votes, though they may not have enough.

Alternatively, Republicans can use the Budget Reconciliation process to overcome this legislative hurdle. There are many rules that need to be followed, but it’s possible we’ll get tax reform this way. We got the Affordable Care Act this way under Obama and the 2001 tax cuts under Bush.

To date, there has generally been strong support for tax incentives for retirement savings, home ownership, and some charitable giving. Under the proposals being floated thus far, these tax-preferenced items are expected to have less value in the future.

We’ll find out more tomorrow.

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Planning in the New Year

Posted on Jan 9, 2017 in Community, Family, Planning, Tax

You all know I love to plan. The power of planning comes from setting your intention, and taking action to make it happen. It’s about dreaming, but it’s more about doing.

Starting a new year is a perfect time to set your intention on how you want to affect the world outside your personal sphere. I know I’m not alone in that while I am glad to put 2016 behind me, I’m not altogether too sure about 2017. All the more reason to have a plan about how you want things to go down. It can be overwhelming to figure out where to start. So start at the beginning:

1. FOCUS – Ask yourself what the top issue is for you – it’s overwhelming to try and solve all the world’s problems at once. Believe me, my mom and I tried over numerous cups of coffee. What is the area that you feel most concerned about protecting? Civil rights? Climate change? Women’s health? Choose one (or two, tops) and put your energies here.

When we’re talking about your portfolio, diversification is beneficial. For philanthropic investments, concentrating your giving – of time and money – focuses your precious resources on the specific goal you want to support, and can enhance your involvement in something you care about.

2. Next, DECIDE how you’d like to help. There are three main ways to support the causes that matter to you:

• Gifts to traditional charities
• Gifts to not-for-profits with a political agenda
• Gifts of action

Gifts to Traditional Charities
Our tax code currently provides some incentive for charitable giving, allowing a tax deduction for giving to not-for-profit – and generally non-political – groups. We’re entering a whole new world this year, both with potential changes to the tax code and changes in the political climate.

We don’t yet know how the changes to the tax code will affect charitable giving from a tax perspective. One thing we can know with some certainty is that there will be less spending of our collective tax dollars for social services or human rights protection. Organizations that work in these areas – food banks, civil rights groups, women’s health – are going to need your help more than ever. If they are 501(c)3 organizations, you can take a tax deduction to the full extent of the law as it stands now.

From what we have heard thus far, the new administration is proposing tax reform that stresses simplification, part of which would reduce the number of tax brackets and substantially increase the standard deduction (from $6,300 to $15,000 for single filers, $11,500 to $30,000 for jointly-filed tax returns). Meaning many people who may have itemized and received a tax benefit for charitable giving will now receive no additional tax benefit from this unless their total itemized deductions exceed the standard deduction.

Gifts for Political Action
There are many reasons to give beyond a tax deduction, and giving to groups that lobby or otherwise take political action may now be on an equal footing tax-wise with giving to tax-exempt organizations. Some not-for-profit groups which lobby or otherwise participate in political campaigns don’t have 501(c)(3) status, so your donation may not be tax-deductible.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the many areas of need, and you’re going to need to pick your battles. On one of his first post-election shows, comedian John Oliver of Last Week Tonight offered a solid list of organizations you may want to help. Oliver made a very serious call to action on his program, noting that until now we’ve generally felt that the rights of all Americans would be protected by those in Washington. But many may feel that will no longer be the case, and some groups will need help under the new administration. He organized his list by cause:

Women’s health: Planned ParenthoodCenter for Reproductive Rights           

Climate change: Natural Resources Defense Council

Refugees:  International Refugee Assistance Project

Civil rights: American Civil Liberties UnionNAACP Legal Defense FundThe Trevor Project,

Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund

All of these groups, with the exception of the ACLU, are 501(c)3 organizations and donations to them are tax deductible to the full extent of the law. Note you can donate to the ACLU Foundation to make a tax-deductible gift to support their work on civil rights issues.  Here’s a description of the difference: Giving to ACLU or ACLU Foundation: What is the Difference?

If you want to make your own list — and not rely on one from a fake news show — check out Charity Navigator or Guidestar to search for organizations doing work you want to support. You can search by area of interest.  On Charity Navigator you can start with its Perfect 100, charities that execute their missions such that they’ve received top marks for good governance.

Gifts of Action
You may want to take action beyond writing checks. While you can blog and tweet and email and post about how the world should change, coming together with others is what creates a message that cannot be denied.

You can do this without leaving your house. Just last week, plans to alter the House of Representatives independent Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) were scrapped after thousands of phone calls opposing the move tied up Representatives’ telephone lines. The fight to curb the power of the OCE was not new, nor was the tool used to voice disapproval. You have your First Amendment Rights for a reason. Likewise, over dinner recently with a long-time friend, she surprised me by saying if the new administration rolls out a Muslim registry, she’s planning to register. She is not Muslim nor of a targeted ethnicity. It was her way to disrupt a rounding up of people according to religion or ethnicity, and she was betting it was unlikely that the authorities would come round to arrest a white, middle-aged mom in the suburbs.

I felt obliged to remind her that that was a reasonable bet now, but perhaps not in the future. (See point #3, below).

3. If you plan to act, PLAN to act

You know this is all really leading up to some planning. Whether you give money – for a tax deduction or not – or decide to take action yourself, make sure you plan for it. It will take time out of your already busy lives, to research a charity, to call your Congressperson, or better still, to show up en masse at his or her office. To work on a committee, to meet up with others to plan, to work, to act. It will use nights, weekends, vacation, PTO. And you’re going to need to protect yourself when you do.

When I was in graduate school, a visiting professor taught a course on ethics. I was skeptical about what ethics you could teach to MBA students, but her approach was pragmatic. Specifically, she talked about how to be prepared in case you found yourself working somewhere in which you found corporate behavior to be illegal or unethical. There is often an enormous toll for speaking out, not only in legal costs but in damage to your career in the short- and sometimes long-term, to your social and professional networks, personal financial security, and to personal health. At a minimum, you need to be able to walk away. We all want to be the kind of person who acts when needed, but not everyone feels they can for some of these reasons.

One of the things she taught us was to have a cash reserve. Yes, I’ll always recommend you have an emergency fund. Beyond cash for a short-term shortfall, consider building another kind of reserve. Have “pin money,” bail money, a Go F*ck You Fund, a reserve in case you need to make a change, or end up at Santa Rita after your weekend activities.

A Brave New World
Progress often feels like two steps forward and one step back. We are at the beginning of a new cycle for social justice, and things are going to get bad before they get better. It’s going to take work and sacrifice to make progress. Civil rights, women’s rights, human rights all seem under threat as we move into this New Year.

You can leave it to others. 56% of Californians and 39% of Washingtonians did not vote, they left the decision to others. Don’t leave the work to others. Plan for your part in it, whatever that is.

I’m encouraged by the numerous people in the media, experts in disparate professions, and yes, even some politicians, who understand what is at stake and who are ready to put their time and effort towards moving us forward. Find your cause, find others working towards the same goals, find your tribe. At a minimum, it’s an opportunity to get to know your neighbors, co-workers, kids, parents in new ways. It’s our connection to others that gives us a rich life, and believe it or not, this year and beyond could prove to be some of the most moving and meaningful times we might have. It takes courage, and time and effort. Set your intention: what do you want to look back on with pride at the end of this year? It is a New World in this New Year, and we need to be brave in it.

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A Post-Election Note

Posted on Nov 9, 2016 in Community, Investments, Planning, Tax, Women

Like me, you may have felt that the world would look different this morning (if we even woke up at all) after the results of the presidential election. And yet, the sun rose, the day began, and here we are.

What we know after the election is that our country is seriously divided. As we saw when we elected Barack Obama, we want real change. The trouble as I see it is that the direction in which President Trump will lead us will be more of the same. Right now, markets — and the people who make them up — are orderly. There may come a time when the emotions that drove this election will react negatively to a lack of any real change.

Here are a few thoughts on what comes next:

Economics – We have limited specifics on Trump’s plans for “national growth and renewal” in the economy, but there are echoes of Reaganomics: lower taxes, relaxed regulation, big government spending. If the fiscal stimulus he plans repairs and expands our infrastructure, that’s a plus. Reduced regulation (such as repeal of the new DOL Rule (which requires advisors to your 401k to act in your best interest), repeal of Dodd-Frank (Wall Street reform), repeal of the Affordable Care Act) means you’ll be more on your own to protect your interests.

Taxes – We can expect lower taxes, at least on higher earners. I am doubtful Trump’s plan to bring overseas corporate earnings home; if he is able to do this, that’s again a plus for higher earners. Given the structure of our Federal budget, we can’t grow our way out of a deficit spending situation, so lower taxes means increasing deficits.

The World – We are more connected globally than ever, and building walls and reducing trade is likely to hurt us economically, as well as in our leadership role in the world. Bombastic rhetoric in discussions with other leaders and nations could have dire consequences.

The Rhetoric – The most difficult part of the campaign for me has been the vitriolic, threatening language that stirred up some of the ugliest facets of the American character. As a woman, I feel unheard, less safe and decidedly second-class. But I believe we can’t change what we don’t acknowledge, and we must admit this election cycle has revealed a dark side we have wanted to ignore. How we continue the conversation around these issues and change them is the real challenge.

Markets are mixed this morning, after some strong negative indications overnight. We can expect to see more volatility in the months and years ahead, and increasing economic inequality. What we can do is focus on what we can control: diversifying the risk in portfolios, organizing your accounts for tax diversification and to keep expenses as low as possible, saving more, and when we spend, spending with intent.

The table next to mine at the Election Watch Party I attended last night joked that at least here in California we also passed a recreational marijuana law, which we’ll need all the more after this election. (To be clear: I don’t recommend that as a personal financial strategy.)

In the meantime, we need to continue the conversation, and fighting for what we believe: “Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary.”

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What Is Tax Loss Harvesting?

Posted on Sep 27, 2015 in Investments, Planning, Tax

Part of what a good financial advisor does is help you respond to changes in our economic environment. Sometimes that includes managing your money when markets are behaving badly. No advisor has a crystal ball, and financial markets will go up and down. When they go down, what can you do about it?

You can sell, hold, or tax-loss harvest. For many investors, taking investment gains and harvesting tax losses can be an important tool for reducing taxes now and in the future. If used properly, this active tax strategy can save you money and help keep your portfolio diversified. It won’t restore your losses, but it’s a silver lining in a dark economic climate.

What is “tax loss harvesting”?  Investment losses have tax benefits. Selling and staying out of the market locks in your losses, but it gives you a tax break. Continuing to hold a security that has lost value means you stay invested, but you have to wait for markets to make up for the decline in your holding. With tax loss harvesting, you sell an investment that has experienced a loss in value, but replace it with a similar one, realizing a tax benefit while maintaining your target asset allocation.

Benefits of tax loss harvesting are two-fold:

  • You have a store of tax losses that can be used to off-set future gains, and
  • You have up to $3,000 each year in tax losses to use against ordinary income

How does this work?  Investments fall into asset classes: Short-Term Bonds, Large-Cap Stocks, International Developed Markets, and the like. Let’s say you invested $10,000 in XYZ S&P 500 Fund. As you likely know, the S&P 500 index tracks a list of 500 large US companies, so in our example, our investment in XYZ gives us a holding in Large-Cap Stocks.

You hold on to XYZ S&P 500 Fund for a couple of years, it goes up and down, and then we have a financial downturn. The value of your XYZ S&P 500 Fund holding falls to $6,000. While this may start the acid in your stomach churning, it’s helpful to take a deep breath and not panic. You are a long-term investor and know that markets have cycles, downturns are temporary, and the S&P 500 will recover (if it doesn’t, we have bigger problems). So you want to stay invested in the market, but who knows how long it will take to recover your losses.

If you sell your holding, you have a tax benefit in the form of the $4,000 investment loss ($6,000 current value of your investment – $10,000 purchase price, or cost basis). Let’s say you sell and take your tax loss. But then you’re out of the market. A better strategy might be to take your losses – but stay invested:

SELL XYZ S&P 500 Fund; take the $4,000 tax loss  THEN

BUY ABC Large Cap Fund

 ABC Large Cap Fund is also in the Large-Cap Stock asset class, just like XYZ S&P 500 Fund. You have “banked” the tax loss from your original investment, and stayed invested in the same asset class by investing in a similar fund. You won’t miss out on a recover in large cap stocks, and you don’t have to try to time the market to do it.

The Benefits   When you file your tax return for the year, let’s say you have $500 in capital gains from other investments. You can use $500 of your tax losses to off-set the $500 gain (saving you $75 in federal taxes if you’re subject to the 15% capital gains tax rate). You can then use $3,000 from your “tax loss bank” to off-set ordinary income (wages, interest income, etc) on your tax return. At a 25% marginal tax rate, that saves you $750. You also have $500 in tax losses remaining from the original $4,000 that will carry-forward to the next tax year.

The Rules   The IRS won’t let you simply sell an asset for a loss and immediately buy the same asset solely for the purpose of paying less tax. The loss will be disallowed if the same or substantially identical asset is purchased within 30 days. This is called the “wash-sale rule.” After the 30 days have passed, you can buy the asset you sold and still have the tax loss.

But you can immediately purchase a similar asset that is highly correlated with the one you’ve sold if you don’t want to wait the 30 days. Correlation means the two investments move up and down together in response to market changes. We wouldn’t expect stocks to change in value in the same way bonds would, given a certain economic hiccup; they are not highly correlated. But we would expect an S&P 500 fund and a Large Cap Stock fund to move closely in tandem.

Other Considerations To effectively use tax loss harvesting, you’ll need to consider transactions costs. How much is it going to cost you to buy and sell? If it costs you $10 each trade and your loss was $40 instead of $4,000, it doesn’t make sense to harvest your losses. Also, tax loss harvesting is only for taxable accounts – 401ks, 403bs, 457s, and IRAs are all tax-protected and as such have no tax loss/gain that you experience along the way. Additionally, transacting every time the market goes down can be costly from a tax-preparation standpoint. Lastly, with the latest round of “tax simplification” we now have four different capital gains tax rates, so a loss banked now may not always help you more later.

We can’t do anything about fluctuations in the market, but you can be smart about managing your own “harvest time” and taking tax losses carefully, while remaining invested in down markets. In this case, we saved $825 in tax, with a carry-over benefit to enjoy in future years. Research has shown regular tax loss harvesting to improve portfolio performance by 0.50% to over 1%. During the Financial Crisis in 2008-09, savvy advisors were “banking” losses for clients through tax loss harvesting, keeping their clients invested in the market so they enjoyed the tremendous growth we’ve experienced since then, while using a chunk of their tax losses each year to offset gains. Tax loss harvesting is one way you can take an active role in managing your portfolio with a strategy based on opportunity created by tax law, not market speculation.

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Tax-Diversify Your Portfolio Part 3: Back-Door Roth IRAs – Advanced

Posted on Apr 1, 2014 in Philanthropy, Tax

For those of you with income higher than the limits to contribute directly to a Roth IRA, you can still achieve tax-free savings through a “back door” Roth strategy: contributing first to a Traditional (non-deductible) IRA, followed by conversion to Roth.

This “Contribute-then-Convert” strategy provides a tax efficient way to tax-diversify your accounts provided that you do not have other IRAs that contain pre-tax contributions.   These IRAs with pre-tax savings include rollover IRAs from 401ks or 403bs, and SEP-IRAs from self-employment.  The existence of these other IRAs changes the math involved in the conversion calculation, and lessens the tax efficiency of the strategy.  The non-taxable part of a Roth contribution is calculated according to the following formula:

 

Tax basis of all IRAs

——————————————————            X   Amount of IRA converted to Roth = NONTAXABLE

Value of all IRAs at end of year of conversion

 

Example: If you had contributed $11,000 to a Traditional IRA (and taken no tax deduction), you have an IRA with a tax basis of $11,000 (the total of after-tax contributions).  If you convert that IRA to a Roth when its value is $11,050, the non-taxable part of the conversion is ($11,000 / $11,050) x $11,050 = 0.9955 x $11,050 = $11,000.  $11,050 converted – $11,000 not taxable = you’ll owe tax on $50.

Example: Same facts as the previous example, but now let’s say you also have a rollover IRA (all pre-tax savings from a 401k) valued at $100,000. If you convert the $11,050 IRA to a Roth, you’ll have to include the $100,000 balance of the rollover IRA. In this case, the non-taxable part of the conversion is ($11,000 / $111,050) x $11,050 = 0.0991 x $11,050 = $1,095.  $11,050 converted – $1,095 not taxable = you’ll owe tax on $9,955.

In each case, you only converted $11,050 to Roth, but the tax consequences were vastly different, given the presence of the other IRA money.

 

If you have other IRAs with pre-tax savings that will dilute your Roth conversion, there are some things you can do.  The effort to tidy up accounts to lay the foundation for a tax efficient Contribute-and-Convert strategy is not immaterial.  But the long-term benefits are numerous:

  • Never having to take taxable required minimum distributions
  • Tax-free compounding on savings until you need the money
  • When you need your Roth savings, you can take it out tax free
  • Your heirs can take it out any income from a Roth you leave them tax free
  • A Roth can reduce the impact of the new American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 (“ATRA”), which brought back the phase-out of itemized deductions and gave us the new net investment income tax
  • If you believe your accounts will grow in value, converting a smaller account balance results in a smaller tax liability today, with any future growth now occurring in a tax-free account

Here are some tips if you find yourself in a Roth conversion situation complicated by other IRA assets:

 

Planning Tip #1: If You Have an Old IRA – Roll It to Your 401k

Many employer plans will accept rollovers of previous employer’s plan balances.  If you rolled a previous employer’s 401k or 403b to a rollover IRA, check with your current employer’s plan administrator to see whether you can roll those old retirement plan funds into your current plan.  You need to complete this “roll-up” of your old 401k/403b into your current plan in the tax year before you convert any other IRA balances to Roth. One drawback of using your existing employer plan is that will be limited to the investment choices in your plan. 

 

Planning Tip #2: If You Have an Old SEP – Roll It to Your New Solo 401k

If you are self-employed, you can use a variation on Tip #1.  While a SEP-IRA would be included in the Roth conversion calculation, a Solo or Independent 401k (available to self-employed workers) would not be.  You can roll a SEP into a Solo 401k, and that takes the SEP-IRA out of the Roth conversion calculation, provided you moved the SEP to the Solo 401k in the tax year before the conversion of any other IRA balances to Roth.  Note that here you would not necessarily be limited in your investment choices.

 

Planning Tip #3: If You Have an Old IRA – Accelerate Charitable Giving

If you can’t move an old IRA with pre-tax savings into a qualified retirement account (i.e., 401k, 403b) and you are charitably inclined, you could accelerate your charitable giving using a donor-advised fund (DAF)  to “bunch” future years’ giving into the tax year of the conversion.  You need to consider your long-term financial needs, but if you can afford it, your contribution to a DAF in the year of a Roth conversion can help off-set some of the tax from the conversion. 

 

Planning Tip #4: Note Each Spouse Treats His/Her IRAs Separately

Sometimes one member of a client couple can do a tax efficient conversion, while the other cannot, so we look at conversion of each person’s accounts.  Note that the Roth conversion calculations for couples is based on what each spouse owns;  if he has a rollover IRA that would make a Roth conversion strategy less tax efficient, and she has no rollover IRA, she can do a tax efficient Roth conversion.  His rollover IRA does not affect her Roth conversion calculation, even if they are filing a joint tax return.

 

Satori Financial LLC has been working with clients over the past several years to clean up their IRA accounts, rolling them into existing 401k and other employer plans where possible when the investment choices in those plans are solid, to great tax advantage.   The rules can be complicated, so proceed with caution, or better still, seek advice from a tax professional familiar with Roth IRA conversion strategies.  Contact Satori Financial LLC to see how we can help you. 

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