@theMarket: Investors Underwhelmed by Tax Reform
With great fanfare, House Republicans rolled out a tax reform proposal that they promised would get this country going again and invigorate business, while creating jobs and huge savings for the middle class. What are they smoking?
Clearly, the entire reform package was simply a smoke screen to reduce taxes for American corporations with the majority of benefits directed at the country's largest companies. For the individual, depending on what you make and where you live, taxes will remain the same or go up.
Several legislators used a postcard as a prop claiming your individual tax return will be so simple it will fit on a postcard. The reason is simple. This plan will greatly reduce the few tax deductions we have left. State and local taxes will no longer be deductible, property taxes will be capped and a slew of other credits and deductions have been reduced or eliminated.
In my opinion what we have here is a classic distribution of wealth from the individual to the corporation. You may have noticed that while the GOP cut taxes on corporations permanently (from 35 percent to 20 percent); they did nothing to reduce or eliminate the mountains of tax credits, incentives and loopholes available to big business. If the truth be told, the effective tax rate of U.S. corporations, after taking advantage of these loopholes, is 12.6 percent. And that was before this proposed tax cut.
It doesn't take rocket science to figure out that if the Republican proposal passes, U.S. corporations could be effectively paying no taxes at all. The government may actually be paying them thanks to the various tax credits in place.
On another subject, a new Federal Reserve chairman has been selected. President Trump has bypassed Janet Yellen, a Democrat, for a second term. Instead, he has named Jerome Powell, a Republican and a "dove," who is not expected to rock the boat. He is reputed to be a "boring, predictable, Steady Eddie" who will maintain and continue existing monetary policy. This nomination was expected and telegraphed to the Street earlier in the week.
Friday's unemployment numbers (261,000 actual jobs created versus 310,000 expected) was a non-event since three hurricanes (Florida, Puerto Rico, Houston) will have skewed the numbers enough that the data cannot be relied upon to discern any kind of trend. What can be said is that the headline number on the unemployment rate is now down to 4.1 percent.
That historically low unemployment rate makes me wonder just who is going to fill all these new jobs that Republican politicians claim will be forthcoming as a result of their tax reform bill. As it stands, an increasing number of job vacancies around the nation can't be filled because the country lacks the skilled labor force that can qualify for these high-paying jobs.
Most of what I have seen thus far in new job growth coming out of the U.S. corporate sector is minimum wage jobs in the service industry. This week's data showed additional gains in the food service industry (think waiters and waitresses) and drinking places (bartenders). Wage growth was flat.
Like most market participants, the news out of Washington seems to be nothing more than a feeble attempt by the House to resuscitate the "Trickle Down" economic fairy tale of yester year. This tired myth has been soundly discredited over the last four decades.
Most corporations will simply pass on these new tax savings to shareholders or buy up assets rather than invest in their companies or employees. As for the markets, the S&P 500 Index has been trapped in a trading range for almost two weeks now. Look for the index to attempt a breakout soon to 2,600 or more.
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The Independent Investor: Are You Ready for a Down Market?
It has been some time since we have had even a tiny decline in the stock market. Human behavior is such that we expect what has come before to continue into the future. When it doesn't, a whole host of emotions arise and most of them will be detrimental to your financial health.
A new survey by E-trade Financial, a discount broker dealer, reveals that well-heeled investors (those with $1 million or more in equity investments) are as bullish as they have been all year. Almost 75 percent of million dollar players are now bullish as we enter this final quarter of the year. Most of these investors are 55 or older and are significantly more optimistic than younger investors.
Some of that bullishness is understandable given the fundamentals of the economy. Gross domestic product continues to grow slowly and some estimates (such as the most recent survey from the Atlanta Fed) indicate that we could see a greater than 4 percent growth rate in the fourth quarter. Couple that with a fairly consistent improvement in corporate earnings and we have an almost Goldilocks environment for stocks.
This is especially telling since many of the upside earnings surprises are coming from cyclical companies, which really do measure the pulse of the overall economy. The same sort of economic results can be found overseas to a varying degree, which works to improve the outlook for the world's economy in general.
The fact that we are entering the historically best period for the stock market all year has also fueled bullish sentiment. This rosy scenario has resulted in fewer and fewer investors (only 9 percent) who believe that the market will see a down quarter between now and the end of the year, while more than 17 percent believe the markets will gain 10 percent or more by New Year's Day.
But what if all this hype turns out to be wrong? How will you handle it if, instead, markets decline? What if all the great gains we have experienced since the beginning of the year are erased in a month or two? You can bet on one thing: the investments which have gained the most will be those with the most downside. It is not a reason to sell them necessarily, but it is a time to recognize how much loss you are willing to accept.
The range of emotions most of us will feel in a sell-off will range from panic, anger, dismay and the overwhelming need to escape (sell). Well, you might think, I will just sell out now and capture my gains before the decline. When the market declines far enough, I will simply buy back in. That's called timing and we all know that doesn't work. Usually, we sell too early and then buy back too late; resulting in more losses than if you had simply held on through the decline.
I know I can tell my clients until I am blue in the face that the markets will come back given enough time. I can remind them that stocks are much higher today even though the markets dropped 50 percent in 2008-2009, 20 percent in 2011, had a 12 percent sell-off in 2015 and an additional 10 percent decline in 2016. But it is little comfort when they are facing not only a loss of gains, but an actual loss to their portfolios.
One strategy you might want to think about is to reduce the risk in your portfolio. As I have written countless times in the past, markets usually decline 2-3 times a year with each decline averaging between 5-7 percent. We are overdue for a decline. No one knows when it will occur but it will. If you are an aggressive investor, and shouldn't be, maybe drop the risk down a notch or two. You can even raise some cash if you want. It depends on your risk tolerance.
How much risk you should take is directly correlated with how much loss you can bear. As an example, if you can't stomach a 20 percent decline in your overall portfolio, you have no business being an aggressive investor. A moderate investor should not even care if he or she experiences a 10 percent decline. There is an old saying, "if you can't stand the heat, you should get out of the kitchen." That's good advice. If you feel you have become too aggressive over the past year, the time to adjust the temperature is now, not when the markets are in the middle of a free-fall.
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@theMarket: Markets Are Waiting for Tax Reform
Stocks gyrated up and down this week as events in Washington competed with quarterly earnings results for investor's attention. Next week, we should find out more about both.
True to form, third-quarter earnings results have been in-line or better than expected. Over 70 percent of companies have "beat" earnings estimates, which is no surprise. Sales and earnings guidance have also been upbeat. For those unfortunate corporations who "missed" their targets on either the top or bottom line, retribution was swift and dramatic.
Some companies saw their stock price plummet 20 percent or more. And we are not just talking about penny stocks. Some mega-cap biotech names, for example, were taken to the woodshed and are still falling in price days later. On the other hand, some technology stocks, including the big momentum names such as the so-called "FANG" stocks saw their shares skyrocket on Friday as results more than beat analyst's estimates.
In the background, legislators in our nation's capital continued to march forward in their plans to cut and reform taxes. The House passed the Senate's version of the budget this week. That was a preliminary but necessary move that now allows tax reform to move forward through Congress with a simple majority vote.
No Democrats voted for the budget and some Republicans also abstained. The budget still passed, but by a slim majority. The political maneuvering behind the vote gave many investors the impression that next week's tax plan would not be as simple to pass as some might expect. However, traders are still giving Congress the benefit of the doubt, at least until next
Wednesday when the tax plan will be unveiled.
In the meantime, global markets are waiting with baited breath for President Trump to announce who will head the nation's central bank. Obviously, it is an important (some might say critical) job. Depending upon who you talk to, the front-runners are Jerome Powell, a Fed governor, who is thought to be in tune with current Fed policy under Chairwoman Janet Yellen.
John Taylor, a Stanford University economics professor, is the other candidate. He is a darling of conservative Republicans given his belief that the economy would generate stronger growth if the Fed would just get out of the way. However, Yellen is not out of the running just yet, since Trump said he still liked Yellen "a lot" for a second term. This week he said the decision was "very, very close."
The world's central bankers are on pins and needles as well, since much of monetary policy in the recent past has been a joint effort. This week, for example, Mario Draghi, the head of Europe's central bank, signaled that Europe would follow the lead of the U.S. central bank over the next year or so in throttling back its own stimulus of the European Union's economies.
Careful, steady, coordinated progress by central banks has been made in guiding the world's economies out of the financial crisis and Great Recession. Investors worry that a newcomer to the Fed chairmanship's job, especially one with different views, might rock the boat.
As for the markets, investors worry that at some point soon, the indexes will have to correct. There is an inescapable logic to that argument. But exactly when that will occur no one knows. In the meantime, stay invested.
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The Independent Investor: IRS Changes Tax Rules for Next Year
As politicians squabble over tax reform and cuts, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) continues to do their job. New tax provisions for 2018 are out and some of them may be of interest to you.
Right now, there are seven marginal tax rates (soon to be three or four, if tax reform happens). Each tax bracket applies to a different income range. The highest tax rate (39.6 percent) will apply to all those who make $426,700, or $480,050 (married). The lowest rate, at 10 percent, would apply to those making $9,525 as an individual and $19,050, if married. You can review the other five brackets at your leisure by going to IRS.gov.
The IRS has also increased the standard deduction to $6,500 (for singles) and $13,000 for married couples. That amounts to a $150 increase, and double that, if filing jointly. Your personal exemption also increases by $100 from last year and now phases out for those earning $266,700-$389,200 and, if married, $320,000-$442,500.
Single taxpayers whose adjusted gross income exceeds $266,700 ($320,000 if married and filing jointly), will now be subject to a limit on certain itemized deductions such as property tax deductions. The controversial Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT), which prevents high income earners from dodging individual income taxes, has also changed. The AMT exemption amount has increased from $54,300 to $55,400 for singles and begins to phase out at $123,100.
For married couples, filing jointly, the new total is $86,200 from last year's $84,500.
The estate tax exclusion has also increased from $5.49 million to $5.6 million next year and the gift tax exclusion has increased by $1,000 to $15,000 a year. This will also affect 529 education accounts. The contribution limit is equal to the annual gift tax exclusion or a once in five-year contribution of $75,000 up from $70,000. In the tax-deferred savings area, another $500
was added to the allowable contribution amount. Those under age 50 can now contribute $18,500 a year to their 401(k), 403(b) and most 457 and federal thrift savings plans. However, for those over 50 years old, the catch-up contribution remains the same at $6,000. There are not changes to IRA contribution amounts for next year.
Of course, all or any of the above changes could fly right out the window next week when Republicans roll out their tax bill on Nov. 1. The GOP is caught between a rock and a hard place right now in deciding exactly what to cut and what to save. On the one hand, everyone wants to cut taxes, but the key is to do so without triggering a revolt in their own party or worse still, hurt middle-class taxpayers.
The proposed Republican budget will allow them to cut taxes by $1.5 trillion, but at the same time, their plans to cut taxes for individuals and corporations would amount to $5.5 trillion.
That's a $4 trillion shortfall that would have to be made up somehow. That's potentially more in spending cuts (or tax increases) than Congress has approved in the last 25 years.
Readers are probably aware of the areas that are under study. Sharply lowering pre-tax contributions to tax-deferred savings accounts and eliminating state and local tax deductions are two proposals that have caused uproar among politicians and voters alike. President Trump has warned legislatures to leave tax-deferred accounts alone.
We will all know more next week about the details. Needless to say, few if any Democrats intend to participate in this tax-reform effort. There is also some doubt as to whether any tax changes will occur before next year. As such, pay more attention to the IRS changes for now then what comes out of Washington.
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The Independent Investor: Taketh Care of Your Workers and They Will Taketh Care of You
Employers have had it all their own way for a decade or more. They have been able to freeze wages, cut benefits, force overtime and even deny vacations with impunity. Now, for many, it's time to pay the piper.
There is a saying, "what goes around, comes around," which means in this case that if you have spent years abusing your employees, the first company that offers them even the slightest uptick in benefits or salary will pick off your best workers in the time it takes to sign on the dotted line.
I can walk into a company and tell you within seconds whether or not its employees are well treated and happy. I'm sure you can, too. It shows on their faces, in their body language.
Spend a little time talking to them, and you can easily measure a worker's engagement, warmth and sense of shared purpose.
As unemployment declines, wages rise, and good workers become critical to your bottom line, you might want to consider that happy employees are critical to on-going productivity and talent retention. It has been shown over and over again that the better the corporate culture, the more a company will earn.
Don't just take my word for it. The 100 best companies to work for, according to Fortune Magazine, consistently outperform their competitors in sales and profits. They also add new employees at five times the rate of the national average. Fortune uses a "Trust Index" which measures employees' workplaces, including the honesty and quality of communication by managers, degree of support for employees' personal and professional lives, and the authenticity of relationships
While Fortune 500 companies, for the most part, strive to offer employee benefits such as retirement plans, healthcare insurance and the like, what really wows employees are the perks that many small and medium-sized businesses provide. Unlike the cookie-cutter benefits of mega-firms, these are a more tangible sub-set of service-oriented perks, each customized to address individual employees' everyday needs.
What, you may ask, are some examples of these kinds of perks? Take my company as an example. When I went into surgery for six hours for prostate cancer last year, the company's management team sat with my wife in the waiting room for the entire operation.
When our dog, Titus, required spine surgery this winter, both my wife and I were paid for the two days we were out caring for him. In addition to our 401(K) and health insurance, we also have a SEP IRA, dental insurance, unlimited time off, first class travel, company pets come to work (unpaid), unexpected bonuses, financial help for our parents in time of need, gifts, parties, presents etc. Naturally, everyone in the region wants to work for us.
But here's the point. None of us take off more than two-three weeks a year because we love it here. Prospective clients are struck by the attitude and team-work of our employees. This is no accident.
We have practically no turn over, despite constant offers from other firms.
The power of these perks cannot be understated. You may not be able to provide the level of personalized incentives that we enjoy here, but that does not mean your firm must settle for simply "me-too" kinds of incentives. Remember, aside from showing that you care, these efforts go right to the bottom line. And who among us would not want higher sales, profits and return on investment?
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