EagleStone Tax & Wealth Newsletter – August 2016

Mid-Year 2016: An Investment Reality Check

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Market volatility is alive and well in 2016. Low oil prices, China’s slowing growth, the prospect of rising interest rates, the strong U.S. dollar, global conflicts–all of these factors have contributed to turbulent markets this year. Many investors may be tempted to review their portfolios only when the markets hit a rough patch, but careful planning is essential in all economic climates. So whether the markets are up or down, reviewing your portfolio with your financial professional can be an excellent way to keep your investments on track, and midway through the year is a good time for a reality check. Here are three questions to consider.

1. How are my investments doing?

Review a summary of your portfolio’s total return (minus all fees) and compare the performance of each asset class against a relevant benchmark. For stocks, you might compare performance against the S&P 500, Russell 2000, or Global Dow; for mutual funds, you might use the Lipper indexes. (Keep in mind that the performance of an unmanaged index is not indicative of the performance of any specific security, and you can’t invest directly in an unmanaged index.)

Consider any possible causes of over- or underperformance in each asset class. If any over- or underperformance was concentrated in a single asset class or investment, was that consistent with the asset’s typical behavior over time? Or was recent performance an anomaly that bears watching or taking action? In addition, make sure you know the total fees you are paying (e.g., mutual fund expense ratios, transaction fees), preferably as a dollar amount and not just as a percentage of assets.

2. Is my investment strategy on track?

Review your financial goals (e.g., retirement, college, house, car, vacation fund) and market outlook for the remainder of the year to determine whether your investment asset mix for each goal continues to meet your time frame, risk tolerance, and overall needs. Of course, no one knows exactly what the markets will do in the future, but by looking at current conditions, you might identify factors that could influence the markets in the months ahead–things like inflation, interest rates, and economic growth projections from the Federal Reserve. With this broader perspective, you can then update your investment strategy as necessary.

Remember, even if you’ve chosen an appropriate asset allocation strategy for various goals, market forces may have altered your mix without any action on your part. For example, maybe your target was 70% stocks and 30% bonds, but now you have 80% stocks and 20% bonds. To return your asset mix back to its original allocation, you may want to rebalance your investments. This can be done by selling investments and transferring the proceeds to underrepresented asset classes, or simply by directing new contributions into asset classes that have been outpaced by others. Keep in mind that rebalancing may result in commission costs, as well as taxes if you sell investments for a profit.

Asset allocation does not guarantee a profit or protect against loss; it is a method used to help manage investment risk.

3. Am I maximizing my tax savings?

Taxes can take a significant bite out of your overall return. You can’t control the markets, but you can control the accounts you use to save and invest, as well as the assets you choose to hold in those accounts. Consider the “tax efficiency” of your investment portfolio. Certain types of investments tend to result in larger tax bills. For example, investments that generate interest or produce short-term capital gains are taxed as ordinary income, which is usually a higher rate than long-term capital gains. Dividing assets strategically among taxable, tax-deferred, and tax-exempt accounts may help reduce the effect of taxes on your overall portfolio.

All investing involves risk, including the loss of principal, and there can be no guarantee that any investing strategy will be successful.

Q&As on Roth 401(k)s

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Q&As on Roth 401(k)s

The Roth 401(k) is 10 years old! With 62% of employers now offering this option, it’s more likely than not that you can make Roth contributions to your 401(k) plan.1 Are you taking advantage of this opportunity?

What is a Roth 401(k) plan?

A Roth 401(k) plan is simply a traditional 401(k) plan that permits contributions to a designated Roth account within the plan. Roth 401(k) contributions are made on an after-tax basis, just like Roth IRA contributions. This means there’s no up-front tax benefit, but if certain conditions are met both your contributions and any accumulated investment earnings on those contributions are free of federal income tax when distributed from the plan.

Who can contribute?

Anyone! If you’re eligible to participate in a 401(k) plan with a Roth option, you can make Roth 401(k) contributions. Although you cannot contribute to a Roth IRA if you earn more than a specific dollar amount, there are no such income limits for a Roth 401(k).

Are distributions really tax free?

Because your contributions are made on an after-tax basis, they’re always free of federal income tax when distributed from the plan. But any investment earnings on your Roth contributions are tax free only if you meet the requirements for a “qualified distribution.”

In general, a distribution is qualified if:

  • It’s made after the end of a five-year holding period, and
  • The payment is made after you turn 59½, become disabled, or die

The five-year holding period starts with the year you make your first Roth contribution to your employer’s 401(k) plan. For example, if you make your first Roth contribution to the plan in December 2016, then the first year of your five-year holding period is 2016, and your waiting period ends on December 31, 2020. Special rules apply if you transfer your Roth dollars over to a new employer’s 401(k) plan.

If your distribution isn’t qualified (for example, you make a hardship withdrawal from your Roth account before age 59½), the portion of your distribution that represents investment earnings will be taxable and subject to a 10% early distribution penalty, unless an exception applies. (State tax rules may be different.)

How much can I contribute?

There’s an overall cap on your combined pretax and Roth 401(k) contributions. In 2016, you can contribute up to $18,000 ($24,000 if you are age 50 or older) to a 401(k) plan. You can split your contribution between Roth and pretax contributions any way you wish. For example, you can make $10,000 of Roth contributions and $8,000 of pretax contributions. It’s totally up to you.

Can I still contribute to a Roth IRA?

Yes. Your participation in a Roth 401(k) plan has no impact on your ability to contribute to a Roth IRA. You can contribute to both if you wish (assuming you meet the Roth IRA income limits).

What about employer contributions?

While employers don’t have to contribute to 401(k) plans, many will match all or part of your contributions. Your employer can match your Roth contributions, your pretax contributions, or both. But your employer’s contributions are always made on a pretax basis, even if they match your Roth contributions. In other words, your employer’s contributions, and any investment earnings on those contributions, will be taxed when you receive a distribution of those dollars from the plan.

Can I convert my existing traditional 401(k) balance to my Roth account?

Yes! If your plan permits, you can convert any portion of your 401(k) plan account (your pretax contributions, vested employer contributions, and investment earnings) to your Roth account. The amount you convert is subject to federal income tax in the year of the conversion (except for any after-tax contributions you’ve made), but qualified distributions from your Roth account will be entirely income tax free. The 10% early-distribution penalty generally doesn’t apply to amounts you convert.2

What else do I need to know?

Like pretax 401(k) contributions, your Roth contributions can be distributed only after you terminate employment, reach age 59½, incur a hardship, become disabled, or die. Also, unlike Roth IRAs, you must generally begin taking distributions from a Roth 401(k) plan after you reach age 70½ (or, in some cases, after you retire). But this isn’t as significant as it might seem, because you can generally roll over your Roth 401(k) money to a Roth IRA if you don’t need or want the lifetime distributions.

1Plan Sponsor Council of America, 58th Annual Survey of Profit Sharing and 401(k) Plans (2015) (Reflecting 2014 Plan Experience)

2The 10% penalty tax may be reclaimed by the IRS if you take a nonqualified distribution from your Roth account within five years of the conversion.

Be Prepared to Retire in a Volatile Market

In an ideal world, your retirement would be timed perfectly. You would be ready to leave the workforce, your debt would be paid off, and your nest egg would be large enough to provide a comfortable retirement–with some left over to leave a legacy for your heirs.

Unfortunately, this is not a perfect world, and events can take you by surprise. In a survey conducted by the Employee Benefit Research Institute, only 44% of current retirees said they retired when they had planned; 46% retired earlier, many for reasons beyond their control.1 But even if you retire on schedule and have other pieces of the retirement puzzle in place, you cannot predict the stock market. What if you retire during a market downturn?

Sequencing risk

The risk of experiencing poor investment performance at the wrong time is called sequencing risk or sequence of returns risk. All investments are subject to market fluctuation, risk, and loss of principal–and you can expect the market to rise and fall throughout your retirement. However, market losses on the front end of your retirement could have an outsized effect on the income you might receive from your portfolio.

If the market drops sharply before your planned retirement date, you may have to decide between retiring with a smaller portfolio or working longer to rebuild your assets. If a big drop comes early in retirement, you may have to sell investments during the downswing, depleting assets more quickly than if you had waited and reducing your portfolio’s potential to benefit when the market turns upward.

Dividing your portfolio

One strategy that may help address sequencing risk is to allocate your portfolio into three different buckets that reflect the needs, risk level, and growth potential of three retirement phases.

Short-term (first 2 to 3 years): Assets such as cash and cash alternatives that you could draw on regardless of market conditions.

Mid-term (3 to 10 years in the future): Mostly fixed-income securities that may have moderate growth potential with low or moderate volatility. You might also have some equities in this bucket.

Long-term (more than 10 years in the future): Primarily growth-oriented investments such as stocks that might be more volatile but have higher growth potential over the long term.

Throughout your retirement, you can periodically move assets from the long-term bucket to the other two buckets so you continue to have short-term and mid-term funds available. This enables you to take a more strategic approach in choosing appropriate times to buy or sell assets. Although you will always need assets in the short-term bucket, you can monitor performance in your mid-term and long-term buckets and shift assets based on changing circumstances and longer-term market cycles.

If this strategy appeals to you, consider restructuring your portfolio before you retire so you can choose appropriate times to adjust your investments.

Determining withdrawals

The three-part allocation strategy may help mitigate the effects of a down market by spreading risk over a longer period of time, but it does not help determine how much to withdraw from your savings each year. The amount you withdraw will directly affect how long your savings might last under any market conditions, but it is especially critical in volatile markets.

One common rule of thumb is the so-called 4% rule. According to this strategy, you initially withdraw 4% of your portfolio, increasing the amount annually to account for inflation. Some experts consider this approach to be too aggressive–you might withdraw less depending on your personal situation and market performance, or more if you receive large market gains.

Another strategy, sometimes called the endowment method, automatically adjusts for market performance. Like the 4% rule, the endowment method begins with an initial withdrawal of a fixed percentage, typically 3% to 5%. In subsequent years, the same fixed percentage is applied to the remaining assets, so the actual withdrawal amount may go up or down depending on previous withdrawals and market performance.

A modified endowment method applies a ceiling and/or a floor to the change in your withdrawal amount. You still base your withdrawals on a fixed percentage of the remaining assets, but you limit any increase or decrease from the prior year’s withdrawal amount. This could help prevent you from withdrawing too much after a good market year, while maintaining a relatively steady income after a down market year.

Note: Asset allocation is a method used to help manage investment risk; it does not guarantee a profit or protect against investment loss.

1Employee Benefit Research Institute, “2016 Retirement Confidence Survey”

Should I pay off my student loans early or contribute to my workplace 401(k)?

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For young adults with college debt, deciding whether to pay off student loans early or contribute to a 401(k) can be tough. It’s a financial tug-of-war between digging out from debt today and saving for the future, both of which are very important goals. Unfortunately, this dilemma affects many people in the workplace today. According to a student debt report by The Institute for College Access and Success, nearly 70% of college grads in the class of 2014 had student debt, and their average debt was nearly $29,000. This equates to a monthly payment of $294, assuming a 4% interest rate and a standard 10-year repayment term.

Let’s assume you have a $300 monthly student loan payment. You have to pay it each month–that’s non-negotiable. But should you pay more toward your loans each month to pay them off faster? Or should you contribute any extra funds to your 401(k)? The answer boils down to how your money can best be put to work for you.

The first question you should ask is whether your employer offers a 401(k) match. If yes, you shouldn’t leave this free money on the table. For example, let’s assume your employer matches $1 for every dollar you save in your 401(k), up to 6% of your pay. If you make $50,000 a year, 6% of your pay is $3,000. So at a minimum, you should consider contributing $3,000 per year to your 401(k)–or $250 per month–to get the full $3,000 match. That’s potentially a 100% return on your investment.

Even if your employer doesn’t offer a 401(k) match, it can still be a good idea to contribute to your 401(k). When you make extra payments on a specific debt, you are essentially earning a return equal to the interest rate on that debt. If the interest rate on your student loans is relatively low, the potential long-term returns earned on your 401(k) may outweigh the benefits of shaving a year or two off your student loans. In addition, young adults have time on their side when saving for retirement, so the long-term growth potential of even small investment amounts can make contributing to your 401(k) a smart financial move.

All investing involves risk, including the possible loss of principal, and there can be no guarantee that any investing strategy will be successful.

How many types of government savings bonds are there, and what’s the difference between them?

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While the U.S. government has issued 13 types of savings bonds, there are currently only two series available for purchase through the U.S. Treasury Department: Series EE bonds and Series I bonds. U.S. savings bonds are nonmarketable securities, which means you can’t resell them unless you’re authorized as an issuing or redeeming agent by the U.S. Treasury Department. Savings bonds are guaranteed by the federal government as to the timely payment of principal and interest.

You can buy Series EE bonds and I bonds in any amount from $25 up to $10,000, which is the maximum amount you can purchase for each bond type per calendar year. In other words, you may buy a total of $10,000 annually in both EE and I bonds, for an annual total of $20,000 for the two types combined.

Series EE bonds earn a fixed rate of interest as long as you hold them, up to 30 years. You’ll know the interest rate the bond will earn when you buy it. The U.S. Treasury announces the rate each May 1 (for new EE bonds issued between May 1 and October 31) and November 1 (for new EE bonds issued between November 1 and April 30).

Series I bonds are similar to EE bonds, but I bonds offer some protection against inflation by paying interest based on a combination of a fixed rate and a rate tied to the semi-annual inflation rate. The fixed rate component doesn’t change, whereas the rate tied to inflation is recalculated and can change every six months. The total interest (fixed and inflation adjusted) compounds semi-annually.

In any case, the interest on EE or I savings bonds isn’t paid to you until you cash in the bonds. You can cash in EE bonds or I bonds any time after one year, but if you cash them out before five years, you lose the last three months of interest.

The interest earned on both EE and I bonds is generally exempt from state income tax but subject to federal income tax. Interest income may be excluded from federal income tax when bonds are used to finance higher-education expenses, although restrictions may apply.

 

IRS Circular 230 disclosure: To ensure compliance with requirements imposed by the IRS, we inform you that any tax advice contained in this communication (including any attachments) was not intended or written to be used, and cannot be used, for the purpose of (i) avoiding tax-related penalties under the Internal Revenue Code or (ii) promoting, marketing or recommending to another party any matter addressed herein.

Prepared by Broadridge Investor Communication Solutions, Inc. Copyright 2016

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