The Independent Investor: Dogs and Their Cars
Pet ownership in America is well over 50 percent. Nine out of 10 of these owners view their pet as part of the family. As such, dollars spent on traditional pet ownership areas such as food, veterinary needs and boarding have expanded to include things like exercise and travel. For more and more Americans, that trend has grown to include what cars we purchase.
This hit home for me recently when my wife and I began discussing our next automobile purchase or lease. In times past, our decision may have been based on what vehicles provided the best fuel mileage or winter safety in snow and ice conditions. But this year, it was all about what car would be most appropriate for our 10-year-old Labrador retriever, Titus.
Over the years, from time to time, I have written about Titus while examining topics such as the growing cost of owning a pet to the reasons everyone should purchase pet insurance.
Now, Titus has reached an age (like his owners) where he is slowing down. Arthritis in both shoulders, a back operation last year, and just wear and tear from retrieving way too many balls has made it increasingly difficult for our guy to leap into the back of an SUV. It appears we are not alone.
Seventy-seven percent of dog owners say the option of having pet-friendly features available would impact their decision on which vehicle to purchase the next time they are in the market to buy a car. That number increases to 89 percent for millennials.
In a recent 2018 auto trends report published and conducted and published by Google, the internet company found that the average American was 36 times as likely to search for pet-related items like a dog car seat or dog hammocks than the average person in Germany, and 10 times more likely than the average person in Japan.
Back in the day, when you went on a road trip, Fido stayed at the kennel or with friends or relatives. Today, no road trip would be complete without man's best friend tucked safely in the back. Problem is that what constitutes safety for a Chihuahua may not be safe for a 90-pound Rottweiler. Popular wisdom says, "the larger the dog you have, the bigger the car you need."
So, we have an SUV outfitted with a metal grill that sections off the baggage area. The space has been fitted out with a nice dog bed, towels, leashes and Titus' favorite toys. Most dog-friendly cars offer roomy interiors, seats that fold down, and has low ride height so that dogs can get in and out easily.
Who among us can forget Subaru's successful marketing campaign and website for their Forester wagon? It was built around (you guessed it) an aging chocolate Lab, declaring that their car was "dog-tested." Subaru's Dog Tested Facebook page even provided driver's licenses for your pets.
Toyota and Nissan, among others, have also jumped on the band-wagon. Nissan rolled out a new concept car, the "Rogue Dogue," based on its popular Nissan Rogue model. Among canine-oriented amenities offered are: a removable pet partition, secured leash-attachments, padded walls and floors, a 360-degree dog shower and dryer (I kid you not), spill-proof water and food dispensers, slide away loading ramp, a canine first aid packet, storage drawers and waste bags.
Before you get your hopes up, the Rogue Dogue is only a project vehicle and as such is not on the market yet. At some point, if there is enough demand, Nissan might enable dealers to add these features on an aftermarket basis.
As for me, I am hoping that Nissan does roll out the Rogue Dogue by next year. It sounds like the perfect car for our family, that is, if Titus approves.
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The Independent Investor: How Prepared Are You to Sell Your Company?
If you are a small-business owner and are toying with the idea of someday selling your company, you should pay attention. Only one in five small businesses put up for sale result in a closing. How do you become one of those success stories?
Where I live and work, nestled in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts, there are relatively few large companies. We are over-populated with "Mom and Pop businesses." As such, I meet and talk to plenty of these enterprise owners daily. An overwhelming number of these entrepreneurs have saved little or nothing towards their retirement.
Instead, they believe that at some point, someone would swoop in and buy their business, guaranteeing a financially secure retirement. Despite taking a hardline approach to the realities of running a business, most owners do not have a realistic sense of how to sell a business. The two are completely different animals.
I recently got an education in the difference by reading a book written by Allen P. Harris (owner of Berkshire Money Management where the columnist works) titled "Built It, Sell It, Profit." It's a slim book, well-written in layman's terms, which I suggest you pick up. In it, Harris addresses the big questions that need to be answered if you have even a hope and a prayer of selling your business.
The first question to ask is "What should I be doing today to build my business toward "maximum value?"
Harris would tell you that you will need to begin planning that sale for at least three to five years ahead of time. The things that you overlook in your day-to-day running of the business won't be overlooked by a potential buyer. Think of it in the same way you would approach getting in shape at the gym. You need a plan, and to figure out how the machines work and which ones to use.
In your firm, you will need to start documenting your workflows, your business procedures, hire the employees that will be needed, and in general, clean up your act before showing your business to any potential buyers.
"Think big," says Harris, "Strategic planning is a process of setting bold, long-range goals and then working backward to determine the steps needed to get there."
Another important question to ask is what your business is worth? You may know how much money you put into it, how much that new roof cost, or that line of trucks outside on the newly-paved blacktop but how much will a potential buyer be willing to pay for all that? Not to mention putting a value on the blood, sweat and tears you have invested in it over the years.
Most businesses need an independent valuation by an expert who can compare your firm to others in the same business. That's going to cost you and more than likely you won't take kindly to the answers. Unfortunately, most owners think their business is worth far more than it is.
The burning question I hear more than any other, is "If I were to decide to sell my business, would I get enough money so that I would be able to maintain my lifestyle and take the next step in life?" We will discuss that answer, as well as raise several other issues you might want to consider.
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The Independent Investor: Should You Bury Yourself?
In today's world, the idea that you should prepay, or at least set aside some money to cover your funeral expenses is gaining traction. Given the escalating costs of paying for a loved one's funeral, it is no surprise.
Most of us don't want to face it, let alone discuss it. In some quarters, it is "bad mojo" to consider planning for your death, so pardon me for bringing up such a squeamish (some might say ghoulish) subject. But as your fiduciary in all things financial, I feel obligated to discuss prepaid funeral expenses.
This year, I was introduced to this concept when my Mom died. She was 93 years old, bless her soul, and had a good life. Independent to the end, she secretly arranged for her own funeral expenses in 2000 along with specific instructions on what should happen at her passing. She wanted no fuss, no bother. Her remains were cremated, and everything was signed, sealed and delivered before I could make the five-hour trip to her home in Pennsylvania.
My mother turned out to be an astute investor when it came to her death. Funeral expenses during that time (2000-2018) increased by 75.74 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Her arrangement to prepay her expenses protected her from rising costs and provided a convenient and stress-free experience for me and the rest of the family.
However, there are pros and cons of pre-paying for your funeral. A prepaid funeral plan is an arrangement between you and a funeral home in which you make an upfront payment to the funeral home today. The agreement should state that the funeral home will administer funeral services in the future in return and cover all the costs. These funeral costs usually run somewhere between $10,000-$15,000 for basic services. They usually do not pay for cash expenses such as fees charged by the clergy or other services.
If you go this route, make sure the services and costs you specify are guaranteed in the contract. Watch out for terms such as additional payments for "final expense funding." It usually means that your beneficiaries will be required to pay any cost overruns.
There are other risks you take as well. For example, the funeral home may go out of business. What happens to your contract at that point? Have arrangements been made for another entity to take over your contract? What happens if you decide to move for example? Can your plan be transferred to another funeral home in a different state? Can you get your money back if you change your mind? Make sure that all of these "what ifs" are spelled out.
Some experts argue that there are better ways to pay ahead for your funeral. You could buy a life insurance policy with the proceeds earmarked for funeral expenses. Some suggest that you could also set up your own burial trust fund. It's called a "Totten trust" and is simply a regular bank account with a designated "pay on death" inheritor.
In this case, you open the account at your local bank or credit union. The money earns interest, you can close it at any time if you want, and could transfer the balance to a different bank if you want. When you die, the beneficiary collects the account balance and pays for the funeral.
Granted, prepaying your expenses via a funeral home is convenient and can insulate your costs from inflation if it is done right. Ask your financial planner what she thinks at your next meeting. It could not only provide you peace of mind but could also be a great gift to your beneficiaries.
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The Independent Investor: Turmoil in Turkey
Turkey, a country that represents about 1 percent of the world's gross domestic product, has suddenly become a cause of concern for investors worldwide. Both developed and emerging financial markets have plunged over the last week as that country's currency plummeted. Fear that this tiny country's problems could somehow spark a global financial contagion has everyone on edge.
Those fears are unfounded. There will be no "contagion." What is happening in Turkey is truly a "Tempest in a Teapot" that bears little resemblance to the crisis in Greece several years ago. Yet, over the last week, Turkey's currency, the lira, fell to record lows, interest rates skyrocketed, and their stock market cratered.
Turkey's problems are nothing new. It is a classic case of a country that borrows abroad (in U.S. dollars) to leverage their economy's growth rate, which make the voters happy — until it doesn't. Investors have erroneously compared Turkey's woes to the Greek crisis of a few years ago. But there are big differences.
Turkey's economy is about 1 percent of global GDP, the 17th largest in the world. The country is not a full member of the European Union, nor does it use the Euro as its national currency. In addition, European banks have relatively little exposure to Turkish debt. Unlike Greece, where all the above were real fear factors, Turkey is more of a "corporate debt problem."
It has been companies, and not the government, that have gone on a borrowing spree. And foreign investors, searching for better returns that can be had in safer, more developed markets, were glad to loan Turkish companies' money for a double-digit return. Turkey is not alone in this trend; many other emerging markets have also been able to tap the debt markets in recent years.
The problem in this scheme is that the U.S. dollar has been strengthening all year. Projections are that it is likely to continue to gain against other emerging market currencies. Since Turkey's debt is priced in dollars, every tick up in the greenback makes their debt payments that much higher. At some point, that situation becomes untenable. Debt default could become a real possibility in that case.
And what could happen to Turkey, might also happen to other countries, such as Italy. A crisis in Italy would be a whole new ballgame, similar, but worse, than what happened to Greece. The "Italian Problem" has also been simmering for years, so it is understandable that investors would jump to conclusions prematurely.
And during this tempest, President Trump brought the kettle to boil by doubling tariffs on imported Turkish steel and aluminum in response to Turkey's imprisonment of an American citizen. Although Turkey only sells $1.4 billion of these metals to the U.S., it is the thought that counts. Down went the lira (again), which has now declined 40 percent since the beginning of the years. Their stock market (which is about the size of the market capitalization of McDonald's) plummeted. Interest rates spiked (now 17 percent), while the inflation rate is expected to go higher than its present 17 percent.
While there is little positive news that one can point to in terms of this country's economic prospect over the short term, their situation is purely "Turkish" in nature. There is no need to put down that novel or call your broker from the beach. As I have warned my readers over the past few weeks, manufactured crises that are then blown out of proportion are how traders whittle away the slow days of August. Don't get caught up in the hysteria.
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The Independent Investor: Should You Pay Down Your Mortgage?
The Tax Cut and Jobs Act of 2017, together with rising interest rates have changed the calculus in determining whether to pay down your mortgage or let it ride. Let's examine the pros and cons.
Over the last 10 years, as interest rates fell to almost zero, it made total sense to pay off your high-interest mortgage. At the very least, one could re-finance and save on monthly payments. This was especially true if your mortgage was in the last stages of a 30- or 15-year life.
At that point, the interest portion of the payment, (which is tax deductible) was minimal, while the principal payments represented the lion's share of the monthly bill. For those with new mortgages, or who refinanced at record-low interest rates, the interest banks charged composed most of the payment (and thus a larger tax deduction), so these buyers had fewer reasons to prepay.
All this changed with the new tax act. There is now a cap on how much of a mortgage interest deduction one can claim. Worse still, if you are unlucky enough to live in a state with an income tax, the cap on the mortgage deduction is combined with a cap on state income tax and property taxes deductions. In short, the higher the interest payment on your mortgage, the less tax incentive you have to carry a mortgage.
However, there are some positives to this mortgage equation. Interest rates have already begun to rise, although not by much. If rates continue to rise, at some point, some homeowners will have lower mortgage rates than the interest rates they could obtain in the prevailing market. They would have borrowed "cheap" money at a fixed rate for an extended period. Of course, all bets are off if you have an adjustable rate mortgage or home equity loan. In these loans, your payments rise along with interest rates.
However, for some Americans, an aversion to debt can be an overriding factor in holding a mortgage. We are a nation of debtors overall. But as we grow older, many retirees facing a decline in their income, realize that paying down their debt raises their chances of a satisfying, worry-free retirement. There are others who just hate owing money or resent paying that "pound of flesh" the lending institution demands for the loan.
Putting those emotional issues aside, the key question to ask as a financial planner will always be what is the best use of capital? Can I make more by paying off my loan or keeping it and investing my extra money elsewhere in something that is yielding even more than my mortgage rate.
Given the lower tax incentives for owning a mortgage, why hold a mortgage at all?
Let's take an example. Pretend you are 65 years old, have no debt, except a 30-year fixed, 3.5 percent mortgage. As a retiree, if you are going to pay off your 3.5 percent mortgage, you want a safe, guaranteed return on your money that is higher than that. Certificates of Deposits, therefore, make the most sense. Right now, the best three-year CD rate is around 3.1 percent. So, you would still be making more by using any extra cash in prepaying your higher rate mortgage than putting your money in a CD, but not by much.
As rates move higher, your fixed-rate mortgage looks better and better. Fast forward a year, and now CDs are yielding 4 percent. In which case, it would make more sense to invest your extra cash in that higher-yielding CDs than paying off your mortgage. In a sense, you are borrowing cheap 3.5 percent money and investing it in an investment returning 4 percent.
Given that you will still be receiving some reduced mortgage interest tax benefits under the new tax rules, this example needs to be adjusted for that tax benefit depending on your state of residence. Remember too, that in retirement, you may need cash when you least expect it. Medical emergencies, a new car, home repairs—all seem to crop up when you least expect them. As such, liquidity will be an important variable in your financial line-up. As such, prepaying your mortgage will usually require a severe decline in your available cash.
I guess the good news is that after a decade of low-interest rates and high tax mortgage deductions, the worm has turned. This opportunity may provide conservative investors with alternative investments to at least think about and monitor in the future.
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