The Independent Investor: Truth About NATO & Defense Spending
While it would appear that President Donald Trump left the London NATO Summit this week empty-handed, the truth is he has already achieved what several presidents before him could not. Unfortunately, it is a shallow victory at best.
Just a week ago, in preparation for President Trump's visit, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization announced a change in the funding of its budget. It agreed to reduce the United States' contribution to the alliance (now 22 percent) and redistribute the costs to other members. As a result, the U.S. and Germany will now pay the same amount. Each will contribute 16 percent of NATO's central budget.
The problem is that NATO's central budget, which only amounts to $2.5 billion annually, is just a drop in the bucket when thinking about the ongoing defense of Europe. The alliance was formed after World War II as a means to counter the Soviet Union's growing domination in Europe and the rest of the world.
The idea of a collective defense — "One for all and all for one" — was a good one at the time. The assumption was that each nation member would see to its own defense spending, while contributing to the direct budget of NATO, which was miniscule in comparison.
Over the decades since its founding, it became apparent that, with the exception of the United States, most of the 29 members of the alliance were not spending nearly enough on their own defense readiness. The issue came to a head by 2014 when the members agreed that they would increase their own defense spending to 2 percent of their Gross Domestic Product (GDP) no later than 2024.
Therein lies the beef, since only nine members have reached that goal so far. In the meantime, the U.S. spends 3.4 percent of GDP on defense, which amounts to roughly 69 percent of overall defense spending among the NATO alliance. This year alone, the U.S. will spend $693 billion. That makes the amount members spend on the NATO budget mere peanuts in the grand scheme of things.
The 2014 agreement, however, is really a "paper tiger," since there is no penalty if a member fails to reach the 2 percent target. To be fair, most NATO members did increase defense spending this year, which makes it five years in a row. However, that was not nearly enough in President Trump's opinion.
"ALL NATO NATIONS must meet their 2 percent commitment, and that must ultimately go to 4 percent," was the tweeted message dictated to NATO by our commander-in-chief. That might be easier said than done, in my opinion. This week, the president has threatened additional tariffs on European imports if NATO members do not comply.
To be fair, our European allies are democracies and cannot simply up their defense spending without the agreement of their voters. At the same time, most Europeans have far less appetite for defense spending in general than Americans.
In addition, given Trump's overwhelming lack of popularity within European nations, it would be practically impossible for EU leaders to convince their citizens to increase defense spending based simply on Trump's demands. In fact, it is likely the opposite would occur.
That leaves one obvious avenue left to force a solution — threatened U.S. departure from NATO. The ramifications of such a move on Trump's part would go far beyond economics. I am sure that possibility is the stuff of nightmares that may keep our military establishment up at night. Many politicians on both sides of the aisle might also have a problem with such a move. And yet, I would not put it past this president to venture down that road, if only as a negotiating ploy to get some of what he wants.
The Independent Investor: Will Santa Satisfy Retailers?
Ready, get set, go! That's what the nation's retailers are hoping you will do, preferably before your Thanksgiving dinner has barely been digested. Black Friday has become Black Week, while holiday shopping now officially includes the entire months of November and December.
In 2019, retail sales nationwide are expected to increase by 3.8-4.2 percent from last year, according to the National Retail Federation (NRF). That would amount to a total of between $727 billion to $730 billion being rung up in the nation's cash registers. That's not a bad haul when you realize the average holiday sales increase over the last five years was 3.7 percent.
Those numbers are even more encouraging when you realize that this year, there are six less shopping days until Christmas and Hanukkah. Driving theses sales is a healthy consumer, which is important, since consumer spending is still the primary engine of America's economy.
Consumers are in good shape financially, thanks to low unemployment, higher wages, and a record high stock market. It is a heady brew that gives shoppers an extra jolt of good cheer and could translate into more generous gifts for friends and loved ones.
The NRF predicts that the average Americans plans to spend $1,047.83 this year, which is up 4 percent from last year's $1,007.24. Breaking those numbers down into three groups: the average Joe/Jane will spend $658.56 on gifts for family, friends and coworkers. Holiday purchases such as food, greeting cards and decorations will total $227.26 more and other non-gift purchases for themselves and their families will add an additional $162.02 to the total.
While gift splurging is up, the costs of Thanksgiving dinner will drop for the third year in a row. You can thank Thomas the Turkey for that. The cost of a 16-pound turkey is down 3 percent to $21.71, on average, nationwide. It is estimated by the American Farm Bureau Federation that the whole meal could average less than $5 per guest, if you stick to the basics like stuffing, sweet potatoes, rolls, peas, pumpkin pie, etc.
Thanksgiving Day will still register as the worst driving day of the year, but for the second year in a row, my wife and I have smartened up. We are taking the train roundtrip to New York City and spending just enough time with our loved ones to stuff our faces and maybe lose another chess game to my 7-year-old grandson.
We don't know yet what impact President Trump's tariffs will have on spending and prices, and we probably won't know until Dec. 15. That is the date when the next round of tariffs on Chinese imports is slated to take effect. Apparel, footwear, electronics and more will be subject to these new duties and it could dampen consumer enthusiasm just as holiday shopping swings into full gear.
So far, the message I keep getting is to "shop early." I'm not sure if this is just another gimmick to get me out and about spending money, or if retailers are warning me that if I procrastinate, the special gift I'm looking for will be either sold out or cost a heck of a lot more because of the tariffs. Either way, one thing is clear, Black Friday has now morphed into "Black Week" and it is in full swing right now.
In any case, no shopping for me on this Turkey Day. As you read this, I will be ensconced among family members and friends, passing the gravy boat, and wishing all of you, my readers, a Happy and Thankful Thanksgiving.
The Independent Investor: Diamonds Should Be at Top of Christmas List
Diamonds for most Americans evoke visions of luxury and romance and are almost always the traditional go-to precious stone for engagement rings. The good news is that no matter how strapped for cash you are, you could probably afford one right now.
Chances are, I don't have to sell you on diamonds, since most Americans are in love with this precious gem and always have been. Diamonds make men into heroes, while nothing says to a woman ‘"I am deeply loved" than a sparkling stone that required millions of years to make.
Americans account for 50 percent of all diamond sales worldwide. Sales grew 4.5 percent (to $36 billion) last year. The good news for you this holiday season is that diamond prices have consistently declined since 2011. In fact, the wholesale price of a diamond right now is close to its 2002 level. Can you say that about any other product?
But remember that not all diamonds are the same. The four Cs — color, clarity, cut and carat weight — will still determine the price you are going to pay. A dealer will tell you that there are diamonds and then there are "diamonds." The kind you see on Madison Avenue in the plate-glass windows of Bulgari or Cartier are still wildly expensive, but most of us could never afford those stones anyway. No, we shop at the discount stores or local jewelers, and there you will find great prices on most polished stones.
There are reasons for this. While demand for diamonds has been increasing, there is and has been an increasing glut of supply in the polished stones market, especially in smaller gems, worldwide. Companies, and in some cases, countries, have benefited from modern methods of production. This has made mining these stones easier, faster, and cheaper. Competition among companies in the sector for market share has also exploded. An attitude of "produce at any price" has permeated the industry, resulting in everyone getting hurt.
Companies such as De Beers, a unit of Anglo-American Corp., which is considered the premier diamond company in the world, at one time could dictate not only the price of its diamonds, but the amount of stones each of its distributors must buy. No longer.
Those distributors who cut, polish and trade the rough diamonds have been squeezed the most. They are in the middle, between the mines and the end buyers, the retail jewelry chains. These chain stores, aware that there is a mountain of these gems available, have reduced the inventory they are willing to hold at any one time. In addition, not only have they held the line on price, but have actively negotiated prices downward as the glut grows worse.
As a result, the middleman's profits have evaporated. Banks have stopped offering lines of credit to them. The situation has gotten so bad that distributors have simply refused to buy any more diamonds from the mines. And just when the industry thought it couldn't get any worse, lab-grown diamond popularity has emerged.
Ever since the movie "Blood Diamonds" dramatically revealed the downside of diamond mining (child labor, pollution, etc.), more and more millennials are opting to buy the more politically correct alternative to earth-mined diamonds. It also helps that they are cheaper than their earth-bound cousins. So far, sales account for only 2 percent of the diamond market but it is growing quickly.
The technology is such that most lab gems are on the smaller size (1.5 to 3 carats) and are in the E-F color range with VS quality. And no, you may never see them displayed in Tiffany's, but then again, as technology improves and consumer preferences continue to change, you just might. All of which just presents yet another hurdle for the people who mine, polish and sell "a girl's best friend."
And while I do not revel in an industry's misfortunes, it does present an opportunity for you, the reader. Sure, you may find that buying that diamond still sets you back a bit more than you were originally willing to spend, but take it from me, she/he is worth it. The returns on your investment are going to last you a long, long time. And Black Friday is just around the corner!
The Independent Investor: Attention Retirees!
It has been more than a year since President Trump admonished the government to strengthen retirement security in America. This week, in response, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) released a proposal to comply with that executive order. Its suggestions were decidedly underwhelming.
Truth be told, financial planners and tax accountants have been speculating for years that, at some point, the IRS was going to have to recognize certain facts of life concerning retirement. One of which is that Americans are living longer. Why should that matter so much to you, the retiree?
Because everyone that has a tax-deferred savings account like an IRA, 401(k), 403(b), etc., is required take a Required Minimum Distribution (RMD) from those accounts once they reach 70 1/2 years old. Those distributions are then taxed at whatever the retiree's prevailing income tax rate is at the time of distribution. These RMDs are required until you die or there is no money left in the account. Simple enough, so far.
Readers may ask how the IRS determines these distributions. The taxman uses a ratio based on how much is in the subject account at year's end, plus how old the retiree is, and how long the person is estimated to live. Therein lies the rub.
Americans are living longer than they have in the past. And while that is good news, for many middle-class retirees, it presents a challenge. As readers know, I have dozens of such clients and when we go through financial planning one of the first questions they asked is "Will my savings be enough to support me through the rest of my life?"
Back in the day, that wasn't an important topic. Most people died young. A person born in 1900, for example, could only expect to live on average to age 47. By 2011, life expectancy ballooned to 76.3 years as a result of massive breakthroughs in medicine and life sustaining technology. As such, even the IRS had to acknowledge that they might have to adjust their own tables of life expectancy. Unfortunately, the last time they did so was back in 2002.
Since then, life expectancy has increased by more than 2 percent (1.6 years) on average for all Americans, but more than 8 percent for those of us who have reached 65 years of age. And those average numbers can be misinterpreted. For example, the rule of thumb is that most of us will kick the bucket by age 85 (with women living about 5 years longer than men). But that is an average number.
If you live past 65 then the numbers change big time. Chances are that someone like me (age 71, next month) could conceivably still be living (and writing) into my nineties! That means my RMD must last far longer than the calculations used by the IRS.
A look at the suggested new timetables is not encouraging. For someone with an IRA with a value of $1 million (most of us have a lot less), the new proposed first year change in your RMD would decrease it by about $2,100. Only a portion of that amount would be paid in taxes, so the overall savings would not materially extend the amount of money you would need throughout your lifetime.
Any decrease is better than nothing; however, the majority of retirees (80 percent) are taking much more than their minimum RMD each year. Unlike the millionaires, most retirees need much more than their minimum RMD to make ends meet (and thus their worry that their money is not going to last a lifetime of retirement).
The bottom-line is that the changes won't materially impact the 20 percent (the rich), who take a minimum RMD. They are no help to the rest of us and for those who are younger and face even a longer potential life span; the difference is infinitesimal.
I would think that a government and an agency that could transfer $1 trillion to corporate America in tax savings in one year could do a little better than this to help the middle class but what do I know? This is the country we are living in today.
The Independent Investor: Fringe Benefits Important as Paycheck
Most of us know to the penny how much we made last paycheck, but how many of us know the details of our fringe benefits? Not many, I suspect, and that is a big mistake.
Retirement benefits are available to 77 percent of private industry workers and 91 percent of state and local government employees as of March 2019, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Back in the day, offering perks to workers was a way to stand-out from your competition, but today they are essential tools of recruitment. And countless studies have shown that these benefits are a means to engage employees and increase productivity. That all sounds good on paper but in real life things may be different.
In my line of work, I often ask prospective clients to run through their employment compensation. Salary and bonus, as you might imagine, are right at the top, followed by paid vacation days. After that, things get a bit hazy.
With some initial prompting, most clients do know they have some kind of tax-deferred retirement plan, but exactly how it works and even how much they are contributing is usually answered with a "I'll get back to you."
In similar fashion, most employees will answer "yes" to medical coverage, but when I burrow down to the details, such as "what are your co-payments, deductibles, and do you have dental or vision coverage," the answers are not forthcoming. In many cases, questions concerning life insurance, paid sick and leave time, disability insurance, educational assistance, flexible schedules and more might be offered, but most confess to not knowing or understanding most of what they are offered.
This seems to be the case with most, although not all, of company employees I talk to. At the same time, I know many companies task their human resources person or department to explain in detail all the benefits that an employee can obtain. And yet many employees continue to be either dissatisfied with their benefits or claim that they are too complex and difficult to understand.
As someone who reviews fringe benefits plans, I can understand their point. Many plans I have seen are written in financial or medical gobbly gook. Explanations and directions are communicated through company directives (usually via computer programs) or big fat books that confuse more than they help employees. It is not that the employee is stupid, or doesn't care about the benefits, they simply do not have the background and experience to make rational decisions.
I have found that once each benefit is explained and applied to their particular life situation, most employees not only "get it" but appreciate it. Zack Marcotte, our resident Certified Financial Planner, recommends a few key points:
- If your company offers a Flex Spending account, sign up for it
- Both vision and dental coverage makes economic sense
- Critical Illness Coverage should be avoided in most cases
- Accident Coverage should also be avoided
- Voluntary life and insurance coverage — group coverage is a better way to go
- Short-term disability coverage — avoid (assumes you have an emergency fund)
- Long-term disability — critical to have, which should cover 60 percent of your income
- All and any free coverage should always be accepted
For any readers that may have specific questions along these lines, just send me an email. I will either respond to your question directly, or I may use it as a topic for another column.