Years Past

December 31, 2017

by Steve Stofka

This past week, I found a July 2008 Wall St. Journal used as shelf liner. On the eve of 2018, a look back has some useful reminders for a casual investor.


Most of us remember the financial crisis that erupted in September 2008. What we may not remember is that the first half of that year was very volatile. In reporting about the first half, there were “warnings of the collapse of the global financial system.”

In the first six months of 2008, 703,000 jobs had been lost. The job losses continued until March of 2010 and totaled a staggering 8 million. In early July 2008, the stock market had lost 16% from its high mark in October 2007 but a balanced portfolio of 60% stocks and 40% bonds had lost only 8%. To prepare for a difficult second half of 2008, investors were cautioned to:
1) Balance
2) Diversity
3) Spend less and invest more
4) Don’t pay high investment fees
5) Don’t get greedy and chase get rich investments

The advice is timeless.


Tax Reform

In a holiday week, thousands of residents in coastal states lined up at their local tax assessor in order to pre-pay 2018 property taxes in 2017.  Most of these residents have annual property taxes that exceed the $10,000 cap on all state and local taxes that can be deducted on 2018 Federal taxes.

The IRS said that they would not allow deductions for prepaid taxes unless the local district had assessed the tax by December 31, 2017.  We may see lawsuits over the definition of the word “assess.” When is a homeowner assessed a property tax?  When they receive a bill?  When the district announces the rate for the following year?

In their battle against the IRS, Republicans have cut the agency’s funding so much that the IRS does not have the resources to perform audits on several hundred thousand to determine the status of assessment.  The courts will likely weigh in on the question.  Come next November, voters will register their opinions.

The New York Times featured a several question calculator  to estimate the effect of the tax bill on your 2018 taxes.



Economists have noted the decades long decline in inflation-adjusted wages.  Since 1973, the share of national income going to wages and salaries has declined by 14%.


Employee benefits as a percent of gross domestic income have grown by a third since the 1970s. Of course, a person cannot spend benefits.


Even after the increase in benefits, total income is down. In 1973, 50% of Gross Domestic Income (GDI) went to wages and salaries + 7.5% to benefits for a total of 57.5%. In 2016, 42% went to wages + 10% to benefits = 52%.  Total compensation is down 10%.

As the wealth of the affluent continues to grow, the ratio of net wealth to disposable income has reached an all-time high.

It is inevitable that extreme imbalances must revert to mean.  The last two peaks preceded severe asset repricings.

Taxes, Bitcoin, and Housing

December 24, 2017

by Steve Stofka

Merry Christmas! Because of the holidays, I’ll keep it short. A few notes on the tax bill passed this week and some odds and ends I’ve collected.

In the final version of the tax bill, the state and local tax (SALT) deduction was limited to $10,000.  This limitation will hurt those in the coastal “blue” states.  As a group, these states already pay more in Federal taxes than they receive in various Federal programs.  The limit on the SALT deduction will take even more money from blue states and give it to red states. There is a second transfer taking place intra-state.

There are several components to SALT: income, sales and property taxes. According to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, almost 50 million households own a home with a mortgage.  Under current tax law, they get to deduct whatever mortgage interest they pay. Rich homeowners take the bulk of the mortgage interest deduction on their million-dollar homes.  50 million households rent. They get to deduct zilch.

For decades, homeowners have been in a protected class and able to deduct their property taxes. Renters have enjoyed no such deduction.  The owner of the building gets the deduction.  Think the owner is sharing that tax largesse by lowering rents?  No. For years, renters have effectively subsidized the tax deduction for their homeowning neighbors. The new tax bill transfers some of that tax burden from renters back to homeowners, putting both types of households on a more even level.

The density of coastal populations requires more infrastructure supplied by states, cities and towns.  Unless there is a natural resource like oil that can be taxed, local jurisdictions need higher taxes to pay for the added infrastructure. Secondly, the population density leads to more competition for land and housing, which causes higher property prices.  Even if New Jersey and Colorado charged the same property tax rate, the higher home prices in New Jersey would result in higher taxes.  But the two states don’t charge the same rate.  New Jersey averages almost twice the property tax rate charged by counties and towns in Colorado.

If you would like to compare property taxes in your state, county, or zip code with others, you can click here (

Democrats have long championed a graduated income tax, and the more graduated the better. The limit on the SALT deduction effectively levies more tax on those with higher incomes. That is the core principle of a graduated tax. Isn’t that what Democrats want?


Bitcoin Bumps

After surging more than 2000% this year, bitcoin has fallen 40% this week, but is still up more than 1400% for the year. 80% of the trading volume this year has come from Asia. Japanese men have turned from leveraged forex trading to bitcoin and other digital currencies. (WSJ article)

As an exchange of value, currencies should be stable. When they are not, they have failed, and it is invariably due to a failure of government policy. Venezuela is a current example. From 2007-2009 Zimbabwe’s currency failed, and even today, they use the U.S. dollar. Germany in the 1920s is probably the most egregious example of a failed currency.

Bitcoin is not a currency. Bitcoin is an asset but barely that. Buyers of bitcoin and other digital “currencies” are buying a share in the “greater fool” theory. Yes, the concept is brilliant. Ledger transaction chains solve many problems in international exchange. But digital transactions take too much energy to serve as a currency. In the time that it takes to validate the transfer of one bitcoin, hundreds of credit card transactions take place.

Bitcoin is not secure. A South Korean bitcoin exchange went bankrupt this month when it was hacked, and its reserves stolen. (CNN article) . Mt. Gox is the most well-known bitcoin hack victim, but there are others (Top 5 Bitcoin Hacks ).


Housing Prices to Income Ratio

New home sales in October were 10% above estimates. The average price of a new home hit an all-time high of $400K. The median price is $316K, more than five times the median household income. Here’s a graph of that housing price/income ratio for the past thirty years.


The ratio first broke above 4 in 1987 and steadied for the next 13 years. During the housing bubble in the 2000s, the ratio rose swiftly and crossed above 5. As the bubble popped in 2007 and millions of people defaulted on their loans, the ratio fell as fast as it rose. Since the Financial Crisis, low interest rates have helped fuel another bubble.

The recent Case-Shiller housing index was higher than expected. Home prices are going up 6% per year, twice the rate of increase in incomes.


I’ll have more next week on long-term trends in income and inflation. Have a merry and take care of year ending stuff this week! Those with high SALT deductions might consider paying 2018 property taxes in 2017 but there is some question whether the IRS will allow the deduction. See this L.A. Times article.

Tax Reform Is Calling

by Steve Stofka

December 17, 2016

On our journey on the sea of life, we sometimes hear the siren call of politicians who promise simple taxes. “File your taxes on a postcard” their voices echo across the waters as they invite us to their island. Our journey is long and treacherous, so we are drawn to the prospect of simple tax filing.

Some taxpayer boats weave through the sharp rocks that lay just off the sandy shores of the simple tax island. They are greeted by the politicians who give them postcards to celebrate their arrival. Many boats are caught in the turbulent waters and are swallowed up by the tax monsters lurking in the sea.  “Alas!” they wail as they curse themselves for their attraction to the politicians’ call.

So the story goes with the tax bill that Republicans hope to pass next week. I didn’t think that the bill would get this far.

Many paycheck employees will find the new tax rule simpler. Student loan interest will continue to be an “above the line” deduction from income. The child tax credit will be doubled to $2000. To satisfy Republican Sen. Marco Rubio’s demands, more of this credit will be refundable to those taxpayers who pay little or no income tax.

Those in high tax states will suffer under the new tax bill, which allows only $10,000 in combined deductions for state, local and property taxes (SALT). Deductible mortgage interest will be capped as well. Tax policy has long subsidized homeowners over renters and favored those in coastal states (NY Times article).

Many taxpayers will find it more advantageous to take the newly doubled standard deduction of $24,000.  Under the new law, 529-college funds can now be used for K-12 tuition and qualified expenses.

Caught in the rocks and turbulent waters are professionals and business owners, who have adopted “pass-through” ownership structures to legally minimize taxes under current law. This group accounts for 30% of all business income. As this Journal of Accountancy article notes, court rulings and IRS guidance can be complex and contradictory. The new tax bill only complicates the familiarity of the existing complexity.

These non-paycheck earners receive all or part of their business income through a Sub-S corporation, an LLC, or partnership. Unlike a conventional C-corporation, these businesses “pass through” their profits to the owner/partners who pay at a personal tax rate. Under the new tax bill, some of that income may be subject to a 20% exclusion from taxes.

Under the new tax bill, the tax rate for C-corps will be reduced to 21%. Depending on individual circumstances, some owner groups may find it advantageous to adopt a C-corp ownership structure.

25 million sole proprietors  account for 11% of non-farm business income. Many are low-profit or part-time businesses which will remain sole proprietors. Higher volume businesses may want to revisit their ownership strategies with their accountants.

Corporations will benefit from the reduced tax rate but the accountants for publicly held corporations are dreading the prospect that the new tax law will be signed before the new year. Under GAAP accounting rules, those corporations must estimate the effect of the tax changes and present those estimates at the next earnings announcement which are scheduled for late January or February. Number crunchers can cancel that Cabo vacation during Christmas week.

The rich benefit because they pay an outsize portion of income taxes. According to the IRS (2016 tax stats on this page) , taxpayers with adjusted gross incomes (AGI) above $500K were only .8% of the 150 million individual returns. Their AGI was 19.4% of the $10 trillion in income reported, but they paid 36.5% of the $1.4 trillion in Federal income taxes.


These high incomes will get a reduction in taxes from 39.6% to 37%. The very rich – those with an AGI above $10 million – get half of their income from capital gains, which are not affected by the new tax law. Despite promising to do so, lawmakers did not reduce or repeal the 3.8% Obamacare tax on investment income for high income taxpayers. Based on 2016 tax data, they probably could not forgo the tax revenue and keep the ten-year cost of the bill under $1.5 trillion.

In short, the new bill will create two classes of taxpayers – the postcard and non-postcard payers. Some tax preparers and accountants may worry that the new law will reduce their business. Rest assured – Congress does not know how to write tax laws that are not complex. Thank God for politics!

Trump To The Rescue

by Steve Stofka

December 10, 2017

This blog post goes to what may be a dark place for some readers. The election of Donald J. Trump may have stopped a year-long slide into recession. I didn’t start out with that conclusion. I meant to point out some interesting correlations in the velocity of money. Yeh, yawn. By the time I was done, not yawn.

If I mention the change in the velocity of money, do you groan at the prospect of a wonky economics topic? Take heart. Anyone who has slowed down from 65 MPH on a highway to 15 MPH in rush hour traffic is familiar with a change in velocity.

The velocity of money measures the amount of time that money stays in our pockets. It signals the willingness of buyers and sellers to make transactions. When buyers and sellers can’t agree on price, transactions fall and the change in velocity goes negative. In the chart below, the change in the velocity of money (blue line) often has a similar pattern to the change in real GDP (red line).


Both recent recessions were preceded by declines in GDP growth and the speed of money. Following the financial crisis, the Fed began to inflate the money supply in a series of policies dubbed “QE,” or Quantitative Easing. In 2011, after two rounds of QE, the Fed worried that the recovery might stall out.

Let’s turn to the green square in the chart labelled Operation Twist. Obama and a do-nothing Republican Congress were at odds so there was little chance of Congress enacting any fiscal policy to come to the economic rescue. That task was left – once again – to the Federal Reserve to use its monetary tools.

In Congressional hearings, then Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke advised the Senate Finance Committee that the short term interest rate was already zero and the Fed was out of monetary tools. The Congress should step in with a stimulative fiscal policy. The Committee members somberly hung their heads. We are incompetent, they said, so the Federal Reserve will have to rescue the country.

If it expanded the money supply further, the Fed was concerned that they would spark inflation. In hindsight, that fear was unfounded, but none of us has the luxury of making decisions while looking in the rearview mirror. Economic identities like M*V = P*Q (notes at end) are just that – looking in the rearview mirror.

The Fed resurrected a monetary tool from the 1960s dubbed Operation Twist, after the dance craze the Twist (Fed paper).  Early Boomers will remember Chubby Checker. The Fed began selling the short-term Treasuries they owned and buying long term Treasuries. By increasing the demand for long term Treasuries, the Fed drove down long-term interest rates as an inducement for businesses and consumers to borrow. Despite the low rates, consumers continued to shed debt for another year. How effective was Operation Twist – maybe a little bit (Survey).

As the price of oil declined in late 2014 and the Fed ended yet another round of QE (QE3), there was a real danger of moving into a recession. Notice the decline in GDP growth (red) and money velocity (blue).

The downward trend barely reversed itself in the 3rd quarter of 2016, just before the election, but not by much.


The election of Donald J. Trump and a single party controlling both houses of Congress kindled hope of a looser regulatory environment and tax reform. Only then did the speed of money turn consistently upward. But we are not out of the woods yet. A year later, in late 2017, money velocity is still negative. As I said earlier, buyers and sellers still cannot agree on price. There is a mismatch in confidence and expectations. Until that blue line turns positive, GDP growth will remain tepid or turn negative.


M*V = P*Q is an identity that equates money supply (M) and demand (V) to inflation (P) and output (Q).




by Steve Stofka

December 3, 2017

What can I expect from my portfolio mix? Portfolio Visualizer has a free tool  to analyze an asset mix. We can also get a quick approximation by looking at a fund with that mix.
An investor with a 40/60 stock/bond mix might go to the performance page of Vanguard’s Wellesley Income fund VWINX. It’s 50-year return is close to 10% but that includes the heady days of the 1970s and early 1980s when both interest rates and inflation were high. The ten-year performance of this fund includes the financial crisis and is close to 7%.

An investor with a slightly aggressive 65/35 stock bond mix could look to Vanguard’s Wellington Fund VWELX, which has a similar weighting. It’s 90-year return is 8.3% but that includes the Great Depression and WW2. It’s 10-year return is – wait for it – close to 7%.

Two funds – a conservative 40/60 and a slightly aggressive 65/35 – both had the same ten-year returns. All it took was one bad year in the stock market – 2008 – to even up the returns between these two very different allocations. On a year-by-year comparison of the two funds we see a trend. During the two negative years of this fifteen period, I charted the absolute value to better show that trend. Also, compare the absolute values of the returns in 2008 and 2009. The collapse and bounce back was about the same level.


During this fifteen year period, the cautious mix earned 88 cents to the $1 earned by the slightly aggressive mix. Looking back thirty years, cautious made only 75 cents. In the past fifteen years, the difference between positive and negative years was important. In good years, cautious earned 20 cents less. But in negative years, like 2002 and 2008, cautious made 73 cents more by losing that much less.


Personal Saving Rate

The savings rate is near all-time lows. We’ve seen a similar lack of caution in 2000 and 2006. As housing and equities rise, families may count those gains in their mental piggy bank. Asset gains are not savings. Asset prices, particularly equities, will decline during a recession. Jobs are lost. Without an adequate financial cushion, families struggle to weather the downturn. The rise in bankruptcies and foreclosures further exacerbates the downturn.



A good explanation of the various types of annuities.  The graphics that the author presents might help some readers understand the role of annuities, and the advantages of deferred vs. immediate annuitues.  I have also posted this on the Tools page for future reference.