Saving Simplicity

November 25, 2018

by Steve Stofka

Many individual investors understand the importance of saving something for retirement. In decades past, workers with mid to large companies were covered by defined benefit pension plans. The term “defined benefit” meant that a worker could expect certain income payments in retirement that would supplement Social Security. The “wizard” that made those pension payouts was hidden behind a curtain. Two employees working for the same company at the same job for the same amount of time were entitled to the same pension payout.

In the past thirty years, companies have transitioned to a “defined contribution” plan. The company puts some defined amount in a tax-advantaged retirement account for the worker. Each worker can choose from a menu of investment choices. Two employees working at the same job for the same amount of time will have different amounts in their retirement account.

Workers now have choices, but with choice comes clarity or confusion. There are so many terms to understand. The distinction between an account, a mutual fund, an ETF and a security is unclear. An account at a mutual fund company like Vanguard or Fidelity might contain several types of securities. On the other hand, the same security might be held under two different accounts at Vanguard or Fidelity. No wonder some investors throw up their hands and wish that the wizard would have stayed behind the curtain!

I’ll try to clear up the confusion and create a top down hierarchy. People belong to the group of legal entities. Those entities can be account owners. An account owner has an account with an account holder, a financial trustee or custodian. Vanguard, Fidelity, or Charles Schwab are included in this group. Accounts come in two flavors, tax-advantaged and taxable. Accounts have securities. There are two types of securities, equity and debt, but for simplicity’s sake, let’s deal with that another time.

Let’s go down the hierarchy like a person might do with their family tree, only it’s going to be much simpler. Mary Smith is a legal entity. She is on the top line. Mary Smith is an account owner with Vanguard, Fidelity, and U.S. Bank. That’s the second line.

On the third line or level, Mary Smith has two accounts with Vanguard. One account is tax advantaged – a traditional IRA, Roth IRA, SEP-IRA, 401K, and 403B, for example. The other account is taxable. She has a tax-advantaged 403B account with Fidelity, and a tax-advantaged traditional IRA with U.S. Bank.

Each of those accounts holds one or more securities. That’s the fourth line. Here’s a chart of the hierarchy.

InvestHierarchy
The Vanguard IRA has two securities – a SP500 index fund and a bond index fund. The Fidelity 403B employee retirement account has one security – a balanced fund. The IRA account at U.S. Bank has just one security – the CD.

Each of those securities except the CD holds a basket of securities. That’s the fifth line, but let’s put that off to avoid complications.

There are two type of accounts: tax-advantaged and taxable. Tax-advantaged accounts include traditional IRA, Roth IRA, SEP-IRA, 401K, and 403B. All accounts incur a tax liability for income payments or capital gains – changes in the value, or principal, of the securities in the account. For tax-advantaged accounts, the taxes are deferred or forgiven (Roth IRAs) on the dividend income and capital gains.

Almost anyone can open an IRA, traditional or Roth. If you have not opened one up, think about it. Account custodians often waive a minimum deposit to open an IRA as long as you make an initial commitment to a regular contribution schedule.

Electoral College

November 20, 2016

Did you know that the U.S. has the highest Presidential voting record in the world?  100%.  No other country comes close.  How do we achieve this extraordinary participation rate?  The Electoral College (EC).

What the heck is the Electoral College and why doesn’t any other democracy use this system?  Firstly, the U.S. is not strictly a Democracy, in which people vote directly for their leader.  It is a democratic (small ‘d’) republic.  Within this republic, the states are semi-autonomous regions in a Federal alliance.  It is the states, not the people, who elect the President.

Each Prez election is a survey conducted by the state asking its citizens: who do you want the state to vote for in the Presidential race?  The survey is voluntary.  Each state has its own rules for participation in the survey.  Federal election law specifies a set of common rules that each state has to follow in conducting their survey.

Each state gets a certain number of Electoral College votes based on population.  The survey in each state simply tells the state what the wishes of the people are for President. There is no requirement in the Constitution that a state must follow the survey results, but each state has, over time, passed state laws that promise to abide by the will of the people in that state.

In 2000 and again in 2016, the Democratic candidate won the popular vote of all the states but lost the state by state vote in the Electoral College.  Some people in dense urban areas who vote Democratic would like to abolish the Electoral College.  If there were no college, Presidential  candidates could concentrate their campaign resources and promises to win the vote in the urban areas and largely leave the less populous areas of the country alone.

In the current system, a candidate must mount a campaign that involves and employs people in each state, a difficult if not impossible task.  The appeal and focus of the campaign must be broader than just urban or rural areas.  Resources and time are limited so a candidate must make critical choices regarding the deployment of those limited tools.

A candidate must surround him or herself with smart people who can:

1) organize and  deploy human and media resources within each state,
2)  organize the outreach for financial support,
3)  search for and identify undercurrents of sentiment and concern in each state,
4)  compact a message that will resonate with those sentiments and concerns,
5)  sample and analyze the ongoing responses to a candidate’s message.

There is an algorithmic strategy used in many fields called “win-stay, lose-shift.” The problem is commonly called the multi-handled bandit.  In a casino with many one-armed bandits what is the best strategy to maximize profits and minimize losses?  Mathematically, the problem may be insoluble but a reliable quasi-solution exists that is better than chance.  Stay with a particular bandit as long as it wins, then shift when it loses and start again.

Donald is a casino owner so he may be familiar with the strategy and used it quite successfully to conduct an unusual campaign.  A campaign has a number of characteristics – a saying or slogan (“Si se puede” or “Build the wall”), a policy (foreign trade or national security), an issue (abortion or honesty), or an attitude (impassioned, combative, or calm and reassuring).  A candidate feeds people’s sentiments into each of these characteristics like one would feed coins into a slot machine.  Now pull the handle.  If that theme pays off the majority of the time, then stick with it.  If it doesn’t, then shift.

Now here’s the brilliant part that Donald played whether he was conscious of it or not.  Every political bandit that was a loser for Donald Trump was not only abandoned but moved over to Hillary’s casino.  In many cases, she couldn’t win at them either.

Honesty?  Donald had a problem.  Load up the honesty bandit and move it over to Hillary’s casino. Let her feed people’s sentiments into that bandit and see if it pays off.  The woman issue?  Another non-paying bandit for Donald.  Again, move it over to Hillary’s side and let her see if she can win with the machine.  In both cases, she pulled the handles over and over again with only modest success.

Each Presidential campaign seems to bring some new innovation.  Successes are often incorporated into later campaigns.  Obama’s campaign was noted for its ability to raise money online with many small donations.  The campaign carefully tested the appearance of different web pages, measuring even the appearance of one click button over another.  Obama outraised his opponents in the 2008 and 2012 campaigns.   In the 2016 race, Hillary Clinton and her superPACS outraised Donald Trump almost 2:1, yet he won. (Bloomberg)

We should all wish that a President has a successful term.  Unsuccessful terms are usually accompanied by economic and military events that are not good for ourselves, our families, and our communities.  Whether Donald Trump has a successful term or not, he has certainly made a long lasting impact on future campaigns for President.  Who can be out with the first book?  Already CNN is advertising a comprehensive look at the election. As we put a bit more distance in the hindsight mirror, expect a number of books on the election.  Masters’ theses and doctoral dissertations will explore the many aspects of the campaign.

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Election Autopsy 

After each Presidential election, those in the campaign business do an autopsy of both the losing and winning campaigns.  What worked?  What didn’t?  Dems need to ask themselves if they neglected the needs of everyday working Americans. In 2008, Obama promised that the needs, values and perspective of his grandparents, who raised him, would guide his decisions. Then he and his party started bailing out the banks, car companies and solar industry as many ordinary people struggled and suffered with job loss, home loss and bankruptcy. With majorities in both Houses, he fiddled with decades old Democratic dreams like healthcare and climate change while working class Americans felt discarded.

Some attribute the heavy Demcratic losses in 2010 to Obamacare but that was only a symbol for the larger betrayal that many Obama voters felt. Having control of both the Presidency and Congress is a mandate that a party can abuse.  It is given to that party to get something done fairly quickly.  When a political party uses it for pet projects, people turn away or vote the other way.  Many turned away in the 2010 election.  Six years later, Republicans control the majority of state legistatures, the governerships, the House and Senate.

As Majority House Leader, Nancy Pelosi certainly had a hand in the growing disaffection with the Party yet she insists that she should continue in her role as Minority Leader.  Her strength as a formidable fund-raiser may prove to be the winning card that trumps her past errors.

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Vaccines

A familiar meme on social media is that there is a vaccine conspiracy between pharmaceutical companies and the government who force parents to vaccinate their children and pad the pockets of Big Pharma.  The U.S. has a policy of giving infants and children more vaccines than any other developed country.  Do pharmaceutical companies make millions off vaccines? You be the judge.

The PVC13 vaccine given to older people costs the provider $16 per dose (CDC Price List). In March 2016, the discounted price from Kaiser was $313 for the vaccine alone. The labor to give the vaccine was a separate line item. That is a 2000% markup on the vaccine itself by Kaiser, not the manufacturer.

It is the providers who administer the vaccines who make the money.  Investors who own the stocks of a pharmaceutical company often pressure the company to get out of the vaccine business because most vaccines are low margin products and yet carry partial liability.

If the pharma companies don’t want to bother making many vaccines, should the government simply build their own vaccine manufacturing labs?  Patents and other intellectual property could be a hurdle but Congress could arrange to purchase them or use eminent domain to set a price and seize the intellectual property.

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Retail Sales

Average = Strong.  When growth is rather anemic, a return to average seems strong.  In October, retail sales rose 4.3% above October sales in 2015, a welcome bump up from the lackluster growth of the past two years.  Last month I showed that recent sales growth less population and inflation growth has been negative or close to 0.

The stock and bond markets have been shifting money around in anticipation of fiscal stimulus and more relaxed regulation from a Republican Party in control of the levers of government.  Small business stocks (VBR) are up more than 10% and financial companies (XLF, VFH) have shot up about 12%.  Consumer discretionary stocks (XLY, VCR) are up about 4% while the more defensive consumer staples stocks (XLP, VDC) are down 2%. Oil stocks (XLE, VDE) are up about 3%.

Will consumers put aside their cautions and spend more?  Active stock managers are certainly hoping so.

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Ideas for IRA contributions

Emerging market stocks are still up 8% YTD after falling more than 6% in November.  Much of that decline has come on the heels of Trump’s election win.

A broad bond index has fallen almost 4% in the past few months.

All Aboard!

July 17, 2016

I have changed the blogger template to make it easier to read on a mobile phone. On my Android phone, the dynamic template defaulted to classic view without all the widgets on the side and was easier to read. The graphs are easier to see in landscape mode, when the long part of the phone is horizontal to the ground. Perhaps some readers can give me some feedback if there are problems viewing on an Apple phone.  Now on to this week’s business!

As I noted last week, things can get a bit ugly when both stocks and Treasuries surge upward at the same time, as they have in the past few weeks following the sharp downward response to the Brexit vote in the U.K.  The buying of stocks signals that investors have more of an appetite for risk.  The buying of Treasuries and gold signal a desire for safety.  At the beginning of the week the world woke up to the news that the Japanese central bank was going to provide a lot of stimulus to goose economic growth.  This gave a boost to Asian stocks and the rally in equities was on.  By the end of the week, the Japanese stock market had risen 8% during the week and it’s currency, the yen, had fallen the most since 1999.

Economist Paul Krugman has called on Japanese policy makers to set higher inflation targets and provide even more stimulus to spur an economy now lethargic for two decades.  According to Krugman’s own textbook, the roles of an economist are 1) to describe the economic and market mechanisms; and 2) form predictions of how the economy and market would react if certain policy actions were adopted.

However, Krugman has a lot of visibility as an op-ed writer in the NY Times.  In this role, he often offers prescriptive solutions, and this week’s call is yet another prescription from Dr. Krugman.  Japan has been basing their policies on Krugman’s predictions for a decade with mixed or muted results. More stimulus seems to be the eternal cry from Krugman, a smart man who seems to have but one or two solutions for the majority of social and economic problems.

Most economists are rather circumspect, arguing among themselves the mechanisms and validation of varied predictions.  But there are a few stand outs who reach out to the general public, ready and willing to engage in the political debate.  The subfield of economics called macroeconomics forms a beautiful mud pit for the struggle of political policies, for politicians often cite macroeconomic rationale when championing a set of policies.  For thirty years, Nobel winner Milton Friedman espoused a more conservative and monetary model of the economy, emphasizing montetary, not fiscal, policy by the central bank as the chief intervention in the market economy.  Search YouTube and you will find many of his talks and lectures and they are both informative and entertaining.

Krugman is one of the more vocal macroeconomists who diagnose economic maladies, build a predictive model based on policy or monetary fixes, then diagnose their model when their predictions are in error.  The patient didn’t take enough of the medicine or there is some response lag or the full extent of the problem was not known or was disguised by something or other.  The descriptive aspect of macroeconomics doesn’t seem to help develop a predictive model.  Perhaps the study of economic phenomenon on a national and international scale is just too difficult to have much predictive ability. Let’s hope not.  For the past decade, so many really smart people have been wrong.

Once again this week, central bankers signalled that they were ready to adopt what are called accommodative policies to reassure markets.  If stock markets were an athlete with a knee injury, central bankers would be the good doctor who drains the knee then injects a bit of pain medication and cortisone into the joint before sending the athlete back onto the field.

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Retail Sales

Wildlife scientists may study herds of grazing animals to gain insight into both the seasonal behaviors of the herd and its response to conditions that alter the animals’ environment.  These include drought, war, or the burning of forests for farmland.  Economists follow a different kind of herd – people.

Macroeconomists focus on the behavior of the entire herd; microeconomists analyze the behavior of individuals acting within the herd.   Two telltale signs of human behavior are paycheck stubs and sales receipts, which act in tandem like entangled particles in a quantum dance.  In this consumerist economy, retail sales are fueled by the earnings of 140 million workers; the monthly reports on each activity guide the analysis of economists.

Each month a sample of paycheck stubs is gathered and reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  The Census Bureau produces an estimate of retail sales based on a survey of almost 5000 companies.  (For those interested in the methodology.) Year-over-year growth in real, or inflation adjusted, sales fell below 1% in March this year and spurred some concern that consumption power was being eroded by slow income growth. Following the extraordinary labor report a week ago, the monthly retail sales report, released this past Friday, was stronger than the consensus.  Inflation adjusted sales rose 1.67% over last year, rising up a 1/2% from May’s year-over-year reading.  2% real growth would be ideal but anything over 1.5% is a sign of a growing economy. Why the 1.52% threshold?  1% of each year’s growth can be discounted as simply population growth.
 
On a sobering note, the year-over-year growth in retail sales is gradually declining as we can see in the graph below.

What negative signs should an ordinary investor watch for?  Where is the herd going?  Investors should get cautious when year-over-year growth in real retail sales consistently falls below 1.5%.  After December 2006, growth remained below this threshold and did not cross back above it till March 2010 – a period of 3-1/4 years that darkened the lives and hopes of many Americans.  During that period January 2007 through March 2010, the SP500 index fell from about 1440 to 1170, a decline of 19%.  We are part of the herd but with some observant caution we may be able to move some of our savings to the fringes of the herd movement and avoid getting trampled.

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MyRA

Earlier this year the U.S. Treasury introduced a Roth IRA tool called myRA for employees who work at a company that does not offer a retirement savings account.  This is a fully guaranteed account similar to a savings account that grows tax free.  The maximum one can save in this kind of account is $15,000 and part of the contribution amount is entitled to a tax credit.  This can be a good way to get started with retirement savings.  The Federal Reserve has an article on the subject here.

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Amtrak Train Trance

On vacation in California recently, I rode Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner several times on day trips from Los Angeles.  Unlike the east-west Amtrak routes, these north south routes along the coast are more frequent, running several times a day sometimes only two hours apart. Part of the route is along the beach, part along a highway, and part travels the urban backcountry – the backyards of businesses, farms and homes that most of us do not see from a car.  The experience was a sightseeing delight, a meditative trance of motion.

Most of Amtrak’s lines do not make money and rely on government subsidies.  Like so much of our transportation infrastructure in this country, railroad infrastructure needs upgrade and repair.  Opponents of government subsidies often don’t realize how much of what they personally use is subsidized.  Here is a link to a Business Insider article on Amtrak’s operations and the political debate over federal subsidies for Amtrak.  The debate crosses party lines because rural politicians of both parties tend to support subsidies for Amtrak when the rail service crosses through their geographic region.

Air travel, the most frequent mode of long distance transporation, is heavily subsidized by the federal government.  Here is a USA Today article on that subject and the $2 billion in subsidy for one airport alone, LaGuardia airport in New York City.  Likewise are the massive amount of indirect subsidies for automobile transporation, which rely on roads maintained by federal, state and local tax dollars.  These repairs are only partially paid for with dedicated gasoline tax dollars; state and local taxes must make up the difference.  Let us also include the multi-billion dollar bailouts of the industry that arise every few decades because of poor planning by industry executives in response to market demand or foreign competition.

Amtrak subsidies look miniscule in comparison. The railroad suffers from a chicken and egg problem of investment and revenue.  Which comes first?  Without more investment the railroad can only offer once a day service on east-west routes, which does not attract strong ridership.  Without a show of rider demand, there is little incentive to provide investment. The California Zephyr leaves a major city like Denver enroute to the west coast at 8 A.M. only once a day.

Boarding times in a particular region may be inconvenient.  Barstow, CA is a city of 23,000 north of Los Angeles that is serviced by the southern east-west Amtrak route called the Southwest Chief.  Like the Zephyr, this train starts in Chicago but heads southwest through Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico before heading west through northern Arizona to the west coast.  The Barstow railroad station, if it can be called that, consists of a bench and a slight overhang typical of urban bus stops.  There is no bathroom or other facilities.  The 4-1/2 hour trip to Union Station in Los Angeles arrives and departs once a day in Barstow at 3:40 AM, a unwelcoming time for a train jaunt into the big city.  The large city of San Bernadino, CA has a slightly more hospitable departure time of 5:30 AM.

In the early 19th century, before the refinement of petroleum deposits into gasoline, railroads were developed and built in Britain, then spread to Europe.  Early investment in rail transportation both for goods and people embedded the concept and the technology in European politics, its economies and cultures.

Many decades ago, this country chose to subsidize the movement of people by car, reserving the rails for the transportation of goods.  The land was big, and population centers west of the Mississippi were distant.  Steam locomotives run on wood,  a precious commodity west of the 100th meridian (central Nebraska), where there was not enough rainfall for trees to grow on the vast plains.  Oil deposits were plentiful in several regions within the country and gasoline is portable and a rich source of energy, packing a lot of BTUs per volume.

We love our cars, the hum of tires on blacktop as we run down the highway. But a train has another quality that is difficult to get in a car – a reduced sense of movement, a trance like floating through space while staring out the picture window of a rail car at a movie in motion.  If you have a few days and you are not in a rush, take a seat and let the landscape unroll before you.

The Weathervane of Growth

April 10, 2016

CWPI (Constant Weighted Purchasing Index)

March’s survey of Purchasing Managers showed a big upsurge in new orders for the manufacturing (MFR) sector. Export orders were up 5.5% in both the manufacturing and services (SVC) sectors and overall output increased 2% or more.  After contracting for several months, MFR employment may have found a bottom.  The total of new orders and employment is still growing but below five year averages.

The broader CWPI is still expanding but at a slightly slower pace for the past seven months.  The cyclic pattern of declining growth followed by a renewal of activity has changed. While there is no cause to make any strategic changes to allocation, it does bear watching in the months ahead.

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IRA Standard of Care

Financial agents – investment advisors, stock brokers and insurance agents – have had different standards of care when they deal with their clients.  The first and highest standard is fiduciary: the agent should operate with the best interests of the client in mind.  Registered Investment Advisors (RIA) are registered with the SEC and follow this strict standard. The second and more lax standard is suitability: the agent should not sell the client anything that is not suitable for the client based on what the client has told them about their circumstances.  Here’s a short paper on the difference between the two standards.

This week the Obama administration issued new guidelines for agents servicing IRA account holders, requiring agents to maintain the higher fiduciary standard starting in 2017.  This requirement was left out of the Dodd-Frank finance reform bill because many in the investment industry lobbied against it.  Here is the first rule proposal in February.

Opponents will criticize the Obama administration for this “new” set of regulations but this policy has been recommended by some in the industry, on both sides of the political aisle, for at least 25 years.  During the 1980s Congress made several changes that made IRA accounts available to a wide swath of savers, most of whom were unfamiliar with the marketplace of financial products now available to them.

Some in the insurance and investment industries fought against the imposition of a stricter fudiciary standard because it would require more training and would likely reduce the sales commissions of agents.  The growing volume of tax deferred employee retirement plans has generated a steady stream of fees for those in the financial industry.

Keep in mind that the new policy only applies to retirement accounts.

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Debt

Banks are in the business of loaning money, meaning that they must loan money to stay in business.  Most of the time some part of the economy wants to borrow money.  Borrowers come in three types:  Household, Corporate and Government.  If households cut back on their borrowing, corporations may increase theirs.

A historical look at total debt as a percent of GDP shows several trends.  Keep in mind the leveling of debt since the financial crisis.  We’ll come back to that later.

In the thirty years following World War 2, debt levels remained fairly consistent with the pace of economic activity.  The three types of borrowers offset each other.  Households and corporations increased their borrowing while government, particularly the Federal government, paid down the high debt incurred to fight WW2.

In 1980 the Reagan administration and a Democratic House began running big deficits, contributing to a spike in the the total level of debt.  By 1993, when President Clinton took office, Federal and State Debt as a percent of GDP was about the same as it was at the end of WW2.

A combination of higher tax rates and cost cutting by a Republican House elected in 1994 led to a reduction in government spending as household and corporations increased their spending.  Total debt levels flattened during the late 1990s.

Following the 9/11 tragedy and a recession, government debt levels increased but now there was no offset in household borrowing as mortgage debt climbed.  Helping to curb the pronounced rise in total debt levels, a Democratic House at odds with a Republican president dampened the growth of government borrowing in the two years before the financial crisis.

Arguably the most severe crisis in eighty years, the financial crisis caused both households and corporations to cut back on their borrowing.  Offsetting this negative borrowing, the Federal government assumed an often overlooked role – the Borrower of Last Resort.  We are accustomed to the role of the Federal Reserve Bank as the Lender of Last Resort, but we might not be aware that some part of the economy has to be the Borrower.  That role can only be filled by the Federal government because the states and local governments are prohibited from running budget deficits.

Look again at the second chart showing the huge spike in government borrowing following the financial crisis.  Now remember the leveling off of total debt shown in the first graph.  The Federal government has increased its debt level by more than $10 trillion.  Almost $4 trillion of that has come from the lender of last resort, the Fed, but the rest of that borrowing has offset a significant deleveraging by corporations and households.  Had the Federal government not borrowed as much as it did, many banks would have experienced significant declines in profits to the point of going out of business.

There is a potential bombshell waiting in the $2 trillion in corporate profits that businesses have parked overseas to delay taxes on the income.  If Congress and the President were to lower tax rates so that corporations could “repratriate” these dollars, two things would happen: 1) corporations could lower their debt levels, using the cash to pay back the rolling short term loans they use to fund daily operations; and 2) the Federal government would lower its debt levels as the corporations paid taxes on those repatriated profits.

Great.  Lower debt is good, right?  Unless households were to step up their borrowing, total debt could fall significantly, causing another banking crisis.  Although politicians on both sides like to talk about bringing profits home, such a move will have to be done slowly so that the economy and the banking system can adjust in slow increments.

Partisans cheer when candidates express strong sentiments in rousing words, but cold caution must quench hot spirits. We can only trust that candidates for public office will temper their campaign rhetoric with prudence if entrusted with the office.

Ka-Ching to the Future

“Sell in May and go away” is an old maxim for stock traders and is based on the sentiment that in most years the summer stock market either goes down or sideways.  For the long term investor, would the summer “doldrums” be a good time to make one’s annual IRA contribution? 

The S&P500 index is a familiar benchmark for the U.S. stock market as a whole.  I ran three scenarios: 1) investing $3000 on July 1st of each tax year; 2) investing $3000 on Jan. 31st of the following year for the previous tax year (year end bonus?); and 3) waiting till the last minute, April 15th, to make one’s contribution.

I expected a big KA-CHING! for those investing on July 1st of each year.  Not only would an investor capture a supposed lull in the market  in July but would have the additional benefit of having one’s money invested several months longer each year.  I was surprised at the relatively small advantage that a July 1st contribution gives the investor.  Below is the number of shares an investor would have accumulated during the 17 tax years 1993 – 2009. (Click to open in separate tab)

At the end of 2010, the value of the shares bought during those 17 tax years is shown below.  The investor contributing each July has 2.5% more value than the person waiting till the deadline the following April.  But no Ka-Ching!

For nine tax years, an investor contributing on July 1st, got a good deal.  There were six years in which the investor got a better deal by waiting till January or April of the following year to make their contribution.  In two years, it didn’t matter which of the three dates an investor made the contribution.

Then I examined the frumpy, boring method of IRA investing – a monthly contribution to a mutual index fund that mimics the performance of the S&P500 index. Below is a chart of the shares accumulated by investing $250 each month.

KA-CHING!  While the July investor accumulated 2.4% more shares than the April investor, the monthly investor has 7% more shares than the wait-till-the-last-minute investor.  At the end of 2010, those extra shares totaled $3400 more than the July investor, and almost $9000 more than the April investor, an extra return of  three years of contributions!

It may be possible for an investor to gain additional return by “timing” one’s contributions to a retirement account.  One could backtest any number of longer term trading systems, keep a vigilant watch on the market and possibly achieve higher returns.  That would be the exciting way to build an IRA nest egg.  Waiting till April 15th each year to fund an IRA is another dramatic approach.  These solutions make for good stories to tell family and friends.  The third approach – I’ll call it the Third Way to make it sound more exciting – may be the (yawn) monthly system.

Whatever system one chooses, the charts above illustrate the returns provided by regular investment.  An investment of $51K during the 17 years of this example returned an additional $30K to $35K if valued at the end of 2010.   Even at the market low of July 2010, the monthly investor would still have “made” $18K, or six years worth of contributions, on their savings. A good scout helps old people across the street, don’t they?  Regular, disciplined contributions to a retirement account is like being a good scout to our future selves, a helping hand across the street of retirement. No, there is no badge, just some ease of mind.

Tax Myths

Like many people I believed in several tax myths.  Twenty years ago, my accountant helped me better understand some of the things I took for granted as true.  I had started a contracting business a few years before.

Myth: Tax rate. I believed that, because I was in a 28% tax bracket, I paid 28% of my income in taxes. 
“Too many people confuse their marginal tax rate, which is 28% in your case, with their effective tax rate,” my accountant said.  We were reviewing my corporate and personal income tax returns.  She pointed me to the Taxable Income line on my personal tax return. 
“That’s your taxable income,” she said.  Then she pointed me to the Tax line that followed.  “That’s your tax.  What is the percentage of the tax to your taxable income?” she asked. 
“About 16%,” I replied. 
“That’s your effective tax rate,” she said.

She continued, “I have other contractor clients who want to buy a new truck.  They reason that, because they can deduct the purchase from their taxable income and they are in a similar tax bracket as you, the government is effectively paying for 30% of the cost of the truck.  It sounds like a great deal to them and justifies the cost of a new truck.  I ask them whether the first dollar they make or the last dollar they make will go to the new truck payment.  This sounds puzzling at first. If the first dollar they make goes to the truck payment and that first dollar is taxed at only 10%, then the government is only picking up 10% of the cost for the new truck.  Is the extra cost of a new truck justified if the government only picks up 10%?  Do you see what my point is?  You can’t say that you buy groceries and other necessities with the first dollar you make and then say you’ll  buy the truck with the last dollar you make.”  I nodded.

“The decision whether to buy a new truck,” she said, “should be based on a number of factors: additional work capability, reliability, less down time, savings from truck repairs, to name a few.  Any tax savings is just one of those factors.  It shouldn’t be the prime factor.  Unless you pay cash for the truck, you’ll have interest charges that will add about 15% to the purchase price.  At your effective tax rate, the government is simply picking up the interest you would pay on a truck loan.”

Myth:  Capital Gains Tax. In the middle nineties, I wanted to sell some part of a mutual fund and put the money in a different mutual fund to diversify a little bit. I was a reasonably new and unsophisticated investor who had read that diversification was good.  I had held off selling any shares in the fund for about a year because I didn’t want to pay the capital gains tax on the sale.  Once again, my accountant gave me another tax lesson. 
“Many people don’t realize that when they sell a mutual fund, they often pay little in capital gains tax or they may report a loss.  For many funds, you have been paying the tax each year on any capital gains the fund has realized.” 
That surprised me. She pointed me to a form in my tax return (Schedule D).
“Here’s the capital gains your fund had this year,” she said.  That increased your taxable income and you paid tax on it.  For many people, tax considerations should not be the prime reason they buy or sell a mutual fund, especially a stock fund.  There are some bond funds and other less common investments which are not taxable and that’s a different story.”

Myth:  Tax deferred accounts. In the mid nineties, I considered whether my company should set up a 401K retirement plan but the administrative costs and restrictions were impractical for a company my size.
“For employees  the tax deferral feature and any matching employer contribution to a 401K plan are a big plus.  For small companies with just a few employees, you lose the benefit of the employer contribution because you are the employer.” 
“But what about the tax advantages?” I asked. 
“Unlike many employees whose work hours are more or less fixed,” she replied, “you can offset the tax advantage of a 401K by working a few extra hours a week.  In effect you are paying the taxes now so that you won’t have to pay them in the future.  30 years from now you won’t remember the extra hours you worked.  You will have more control of your retirement funds.  Who knows what Congress will decide to do with IRAs and 401Ks 30 years from now?” 
“But,” I asked, “I’ll be in a lower tax bracket when I’m retired and I’ll pay less taxes on the money I take out of my IRA or 401K.”
“That’s true.  But there is the matter of how a tax rate feels.  When you are 75 years old and are on a fixed income, believe me, a 10% income tax rate feels like 20% or 30%.  At a 10% tax rate, you have to take over $1100 out of your IRA or 401K to net $1000 to meet your expenses.  At that age, you are very conscious of your dwindling savings.  In your 30s, 40s and 50s, you can command more money for your labor than you can in your 60s, 70s and 80s.   You can work a little extra now in order to buy peace of mind later and hopefully avoid having to get a part time job in your 70s to make ends meet.”

Heirs Looking At You

In a (undeterminate date) 2005 WSJ article, Jonathan Clements shares some retirement advice from a Pittsburgh accountant and estate-planning lawyer, James Lange, author of “Retire Secure” and a web site devoted to IRAs and other retirement strategies. “Spend your after-tax dollars first, and then your IRA dollars and then your Roth dollars.”

Children inheriting a regular or Roth IRA have to start taking minimum withdrawals based on their life expectancy. For a regular IRA, they will owe tax on the amount of the withdrawal. Withdrawals from a Roth IRA are income tax free.

Most people will not leave estates large enough to trigger an estate tax (in 2009 the threshold is $3.5M).

Many employer sponsored 401K accounts require beneficiaries other than a spouse to cash out the account. In this case, it may be wiser to convert the 401K to an IRA.