Friday, August 1, 2014

When Assets Get a ½ Step-Up in Cost Basis

Many people are aware that when the owner of a taxable asset passes away, the party that inherits that asset do so at a stepped-up cost basis. For example, suppose a husband owns a stock in a taxable investment account that he purchased for $100,000 but is now worth $150,000. If the husband sells the stock, there will be taxes due on the $50,000 of growth, or the difference between the current value and the cost basis. However, if the husband passes away and a wife inherits the stock, the wife’s cost basis gets increased to the full $150,000, the value of the account on the date the husband passed away. This enables the wife to sell the stock and keep the full $150,000 of value without paying taxes.

However, what happens to assets that are owned jointly with a right of survivorship when one spouse passes away? Did you know in this scenario, it is possible for assets to receive a ½ step-up in basis? The formula looks like this:

(Date-of-death fair market value + Old basis) / 2 = New Basis

In a practical example, suppose John contributes $10,000 to a joint account with a right of survivorship and Jane contributed $5,000 to the same account. When John passes, the account is valued at $20,000. This will cause Jane to get a step-up in basis to $17,500 on the taxable account.

($20,000 + $15,000) / 2 = $17,500

Jane receives a ½ step-up in basis on each position within the investment account. She is unable to claim a full-step up on one stock within the account and no step-up on other assets.

Notice that even though the spouse’s contributed different amounts to the account, they each share a full 50% share of the property for inclusion in their estates. However, this is unique to spouses with right of survivorship and the issue is more complex if the parties involved are not married.

To be clear, this step-up only occurs on taxable assets like physical property or taxable investment accounts. A step-up does not occur on tax-deferred investments like IRAs or 401(k)s.

Preparing For a Market Correction

History tells us that over a long enough time span catastrophes are likely to occur. Fires, flooding, earthquakes – none can be prevented and all can be potentially devastating. While these events can’t always be avoided, we can prepare for them. Running practice fire drills enables us to act appropriately during misfortune while maintaining emergency food storage ensures we won’t starve when tragedy strikes.

Just as physical calamity can turn lives upside down, financial upheaval can lead to an unrecoverable loss. Fortunately, we have the ability to prepare for financial uncertainty in the same way we prepare for other exposures. As the current bull market is now both the fourth longest in history (64 months) and the fourth largest (+192% gain), now would be a perfect time to ensure you are prepared for the next market pullback.

Run a Portfolio Fire Drill

You can run a fire drill for your portfolio by understanding the loss potential of your holdings. It is critical to recognize that the amount of volatility your portfolio will experience in declining market environments is dependent on your asset allocation – how much of your account is invested in stocks vs. bonds. The larger the percentage of stocks in a portfolio, the more the portfolio’s value will increase during bull markets but decrease when the market declines. Let’s look at the historical performance and risk levels of a range of diversified stock-to-bond ratios:

Asset Allocation – Risk & Return (1970-2013)
Portfolio Allocation
Average Annual Return
Largest Loss in a Calendar Year (2008)
100% Stocks
80% Stocks
20% Bonds
60% Stocks
40% Bonds
50% Stocks
50% Bonds
40% Stocks
60% Bonds
20% Stocks
80% Bonds

After determining the asset allocation of your portfolio, ask yourself how you would respond to another market correction like we experienced in 2008. For this exercise, considering loss in dollar terms is particularly productive. For instance, if 80% of your portfolio is invested in stocks, you might be able to convince yourself that you could sustain a 30% loss. However, supposing you have $500k invested, a 30% loss would mean your portfolio is suddenly depleted to $350k -- $150k of hard earned money just evaporated. To many, the thought of losing $150k is more uncomfortable than the thought of a 30% loss.

Next, picture every media outlet sending warnings day after day about how the market is only going to get worse. Imagine yourself checking what the markets are doing multiple times a day and constantly being disappointed that it is another day of losses. Lastly, visualize your occasional friend, neighbor or family member bragging about how he got out of the market before the collapse and telling you how you are a fool for not doing so.

How would you respond in such an environment? Would you have a hard time sleeping or digesting your food? It’s critical to be honest with yourself. If you would stray from your long-term investment strategy by selling after a market drop and waiting for the market to recover, your current portfolio may be too aggressive. If so, scale back the assertiveness of your portfolio by reducing your stock exposure now because selling stocks during a market decline is the last thing you want to do.

Sound financial planning suggests individuals should scale back the assertiveness of their portfolio as they approach retirement. While a young worker with 30 years until retirement can afford to be aggressive and has time to recover if a large loss in suffered, a person who is closer to retirement can’t afford to endure a significant loss right before the invested funds are needed to cover life expenses.

Maintain an Emergency Financial Storage

As stocks and bonds are the long-term portion of your investment portfolio, cash equivalents are your tool for dealing with short-term spending needs. Before even investing, everyone should have an emergency reserve holding enough cash to cover three to six months of expenses. These funds should only be tapped in the event of a job loss or a medical emergency.

Additionally, investors who are taking withdrawals from their portfolio in order to meet cash flow needs should also have the equivalent of two years of necessary withdrawals in cash at all times. These funds should be used to cover living expenses during the next market correction. Having this emergency financial storage will prevent you from having to take withdrawals in a down market and allow your portfolio time to recover.  

Be Prepared

No one knows when the next bear market will come. However, just like winter follows every fall, market corrections will ultimately come after every bull market.  Preparing for such a financial downturn will ensure you act appropriately when the time comes and prevent financial catastrophe.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

How Much of Your Social Security Benefit is Actually Taxed?

If Social Security is your only source of income, it is unlikely that your monthly benefit is subject to taxation. However, people with substantial income outside of Social Security may have to pay federal income taxes on their benefits. In fact, it is possible that as much as 85 percent of your Social Security payout is taxable.

To determine whether you are required to pay taxes on your benefit, the first step is to determine what the federal government deems your “combined income.” Your “combined income” is one-half of your Social Security benefit, plus all other income received during the year. Other income might include wages earned, capital gains recognized, dividends and interest collected, pension benefits received, and IRA funds distributed during the year.

For instance, consider a retired couple that receives an annual pension benefit of $20,000, takes an IRA distribution in the amount of $10,000, and receives $15,000 in Social Security benefits. This couple’s other income would total $30,000 (the pension and the IRA distribution). One-half of the Social Security benefit, or $7,500 would then be added to the other income to create a “combined income” of $37,500.

If a couple filing a joint tax return has a “combined income” of less than $32,000 ($25,000 for individuals), then all Social Security benefits are free of taxation. However, if the figure is between $32,000 and $44,000 ($25,000 and $34,000 for individuals), then as much as 50 percent of the Social Security benefit may be taxable. Further, if the “combined income” is greater than $44,000 ($34,000 for individuals), than as much as 85 percent of the Social Security payout may be taxable.

So should couples do everything necessary to keep their “combined income” below $32,000 (the 50 percent threshold), or even $44,000 (the 85 percent threshold)? Fortunately, the tax system is progressive, meaning that just because a couple might fall in the bracket causing as much as 50 percent of their Social Security benefit to be taxable, not all of their benefit is necessarily taxed as such. 

For example, our sample couple with a “combined income” of $37,500 might be concerned that they are paying taxes on 50 percent of their Social Security benefit because that is the bracket they fall in. This would cause half of their $15,000 Social Security benefit, or $7,500, to be taxable. Fortunately, it is only the $5,500 of benefits received that pushes the couple’s “combined income” over and above the $32,000 threshold that is actually considered 50 percent taxable. As a result, only $2,750 (half of the $5,500 of “combined income” over the $32,000 threshold) of Social Security benefits is taxable. In this instance, the taxpayers are only paying taxes on 18 percent ($2,750/$15,000) of their Social Security benefits.

Now suppose our imaginary couple received not $15,000 in total Social Security benefits, but $15,000 each, leading to a total benefit of $30,000. Assuming the same $20,000 pension benefit and $10,000 IRA distribution, the couple’s “combined income” would now be $45,000 (half of the $30,000 in Social Security benefits received plus the $30,000 of other income). 

This provides another illustration of how the progressive tax system prevents higher-income taxpayers from feeling the need to do everything they can to get their “combined income” under the $44,000 threshold just to avoid the 85 percent bracket. First, a “combined income” of $45,000 clearly fills the entire 50 percent bracket of $32,000 - $44,000. Consequently, the entire $12,000 of Social Security benefits received within that range will be 50 percent taxable (or $6,000 of benefits received will be taxable). Additionally, another $1,000 of benefits over and above the $44,000 threshold will be 85 percent taxable, meaning another $850 of benefits are taxed. This means a total of $6,850 ($6,000 from the 50 percent taxable bracket, and $850 from the 85 percent taxable bracket) of Social Security benefits received will be taxable. Still, however, of the $30,000 of Social Security payments received by our couple, only 23 percent ($6,850/$30,000) ends up being taxable.

Taking this one step further, we can deduce that income outside of a Social Security benefit (the combination of pension benefits, IRA distributions, capital gains, etc) must be greater than $44,000 for there to even be a possibility that as much as 85% of a Social Security benefit would be taxable. If this other income portion of the “combined income” is less than $44,000, then at least some of our Social Security benefit will fall in the 50 percent threshold, if not the 0 percent threshold.

Here is a useful calculator to determine the taxability of your Social Security benefit.

The point of this exercise is twofold. First, understanding the factors that may cause a Social Security benefit to be more or less taxable provides us with an advantage from a financial planning perspective. Second, it is important to realize that just because our “combined income” passes a threshold causing some of our Social Security benefit to be taxable doesn’t mean that the resulting tax liability is catastrophic. In fact, once realizing that the increase in tax liability from having some additional income is so inconsequential, some retirees may be more likely to spend and enjoy their retirement, which is the point of financial planning in the first place.

2014 Market Review: What Do We Know?

If you pay close enough attention to the news media you'll eventually learn that much emphasis is placed on pundits' forecasts, but very little consideration is given to how accurate the projections turn out. When 2014 started, there were some pretty widely-accepted expectations regarding the investment environment. Let’s take a minute to review those anticipations and analyze how precise they turned out to be.

One of the most universally accepted beliefs going into 2014 was that interest rates were on the cusp of rising, and that consequently, bond returns would drop. (Of course, this has been the expectation for around five years now, but that is a discussion for a later time.) Investors were questioning whether they should reduce or eliminate the bond portion of their portfolios until the rate increase occurred.

So have we experienced the rise in interest rates we were expecting? On 1/2/14, the yield on the 10-year Treasury note was 3%. As of 6/30/14, the yield on the same note was 2.516%. That's right -- interest rates have actually decreased over the last six months. Did those who stuck with their investment strategies and maintained their bond positions experience a decline in their portfolio's value? Here is how a variation of different bonds have performed year-to-date (as of 6/30/14):
  • US Government Bonds (IEF): 4.89%
  • US TIPS (TIP): 5.25%
  • Corporate Bonds (LQD): 5.37%
  • International Bonds (IGOV): 5.66%
  • Emerging Market Bonds (LEMB): 6.42%
How about the equities side of the portfolio? In January, predictions for stocks were all over the map -- some predicted a full out correction (a loss of more than -20%), some predicted that we would keep chugging along at 2013's pace, and most predicted something somewhere in between. There were, however, many factors that were a common cause of concern.

The most widely accept fear among equity investors was the phasing out of the Fed's Quantitative Easing (QE) program. Investors worried that the Fed would begin lowering the amount of loans the government would buy from commercial banks each month, which would lower the availability of capital in the economy. Historically, less money in the system leads to less investing in new businesses, less innovation, and fewer jobs created.

So was the reduction of the Fed's Quantitative Easing a legitimate fear? In fact, this possibility has come to fruition. In December, the Fed was buying $85 billion per month of financial assets from commercial banks and other private institutions. The Fed has reduced this monthly amount during every meeting it has held this year, and that amount is now down to $35 billion per month. However, the key question is what impact has this had on the stock market. Here is how a wide basket of equities have performed year-to-date (as of 6/30/14):
  • Large Cap Stocks (IVV): 7.08%
  • Mid Cap Stocks (IJH): 7.57%
  • Small Cap Stocks (IJR): 3.30%
  • Foreign Stocks (IEFA): 4.34%
  • Emerging Markets (IEMG): 4.70%
  • Real Estate (IYR): 16.09%
  • Commodities (DJP): 7.32%
  • Gold (GLD): 10.27%
The last widely-held viewpoint at the beginning of the year was that 2014 was likely to be a year more volatile than anything we had experience in 2012 or 2013. There was a lot of clatter about valuations and PE ratios being too high, concern about the war in Ukraine, a consensus that China was about to experience a drastic decline in both imports and exports, and a general feeling that the market was due for a significant (if not healthy) pullback. Additionally, how much have we heard about unfavorable weather patterns over the last six months?

So has 2014 been a wild ride? The S&P 500 dropped by -5.51% from 1/22/14 - 2/03/14, and by -3.89% from 4/2/14 - 4/11/14. These are the only declines of more than 2% that the S&P 500 has experienced all year! Additionally, as of 6/30/14, the S&P 500 has now gone 54 consecutive trading days without an up or down move of greater than 1%, the longest stretch since 1995! By historical standards, 2014 is considered to be a very smooth ride.

The most significant lesson inherent in these numbers is that market expectations are essentially useless. Near the beginning of the year, the vast majority of experts anticipated interest rates to rise, bond values to drop, and volatility to increase. Unfortunately, pundits making projections are rarely held to their inaccurate forecasts and are allowed to continue making a living showing they have no greater knowledge than the average investor.

Of course, this is not to say that interest rates will never rise, that bond values will never decline, and that the market won't return to the roller coaster it is. In fact, all those things are certain to happen. Unfortunately, anyone who contends to know the uncertain part of this equation -- when -- likely doesn't actually know anymore than you or me. For this reason, having and sticking to a diversified investment strategy that coincides with a detailed financial plan is the most likely path to financial success.