Are They Made from Real Girl Scouts?

I spotted a headline online recently announcing that a new flavor of Girl Scout cookies would have a secret ingredient.  I laughed out loud.  I immediately thought of that line from the “Addams Family” movie, delivered so well by Christina Ricci, “Are they made from real Girl Scouts?”  (Look it up on You Tube.) 

As it turns out, the secret ingredient is not Girl Scouts; it is a vitamin cocktail.  I looked at the ingredient label on their website.  Yes, you get a small dose of vitamins when you eat 3 cookies…along with 8 grams of fat.  Am I supposed to feel better when I eat more than 3 cookies, because the cookies are “good for me?”

We all know that, no matter how nutritious new forms of cookies, potato chips, and burgers may claim to be, they cannot replace a balanced diet that contains fruits and vegetables.  Fad diets come and go.  You might lose a few pounds, only to regain them because who can eat mango smoothies all the time? 

You can apply the same principle to your investments.  Chasing the latest fad in investment strategy can be costly.  It is important to be very thoughtful about your asset allocation.  As we have said many times, it is easy to have an allocation of 100 percent equities in an up market.  It is extremely difficult to stick with that strategy when the market drops 500 points in one day. 

Your investment advisor is here to help you.  If you have not taken a look at your asset allocation in awhile, now is a good time to begin the conversation.  Have your goals changed?  Has your family expanded?  Have you started a new business?  All of these events, as well as many others, can prompt a change.  We are here to help, so put down the Girl Scout cookies and give us a call.

Cristy Freeman, AAMS
Senior Operations Associate

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The Fiscal Cliff, Taxes and Investment Decisions

This morning CNBC had a headline “Fending off the Fiscal Cliff”.  I turned off the TV.  You have to beware of headlines that create a sense of urgency to do something in your portfolio.

This sort of reporting promotes what I call the “I’ve got a feeling” trade.  This is when you take some action in your portfolio based on the mood of the day. Currently, there is a lot of focus on the Presidential election.  If you are concerned about the other candidate winning, keep in mind that someone is equally concerned about your candidate winning.  Don’t make investment decisions based on emotion.

Taxes can be a factor, but should not be the sole driver of an investment decision.  Tax planning for this year is particularly difficult due to the uncertainty of future tax rates.  The Bush tax cuts are set to expire on 12/31, which would cause the tax rate on qualified dividends to increase from a current maximum of 15% to as high as 39.6%, depending on your tax bracket.  We likely will not know anything on income tax, estate tax, alternative minimum tax, the possible return of the IRA charitable deduction for those over 70.5, etc. until after the election or even later in December.  It’s also possible that these tax rates could be finalized in the first quarter of 2013 and made retroactive to 12/31.

This year is unusual in that some of the usual rules of thumb about capital gains may not apply.  Typically, people want to delay paying taxes whenever possible.  However, you way want to realize some long-term capital gains in 2012 in order to lock in the 15% tax rate which will likely be higher next year.  In addition, capital gains rates are currently 0% for taxpayers who are in the 10% or 15% tax brackets based on their taxable income.  The 0% tax rate for these people also expires on 12/31/2012.

You may not want to realize capital gains early under certain circumstances.  For example, if you have investments that are highly appreciated and you are advanced in age or in poor health.  Depending on the size of your estate and what happens with estate tax law, the beneficiaries of these assets may receive a step-up in basis for all or a portion of the assets upon the taxpayer’s death.   Therefore, it wouldn’t make sense to sell assets and pay taxes on the gain when a step-up might be available in the near future.

We recommend that you avoid making major decisions or changes to your portfolio based on fears or possibilities that may or may not materialize. While some limited amount of portfolio rebalancing may make sense, you should discuss your particular situation with your Parsec advisor if you have questions.

Disclaimer:  we are not licensed CPAs and do not give tax advice.  We offer some general guidance with respect to the mechanics of tax issues, but we encourage you to consult with your CPA or a qualified tax professional before making any decisions or taking action.

Bill Hansen, CFA

Managing Partner

October 12, 2012

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Saving for College

It is that time of year when the air turns cooler, the leaves begin to change color, and the kids return to school.  Some of you may already have children in college and know the financial burden a good education can be.  Others may be setting up a savings plan for the first time.  This post is geared toward you.

You have probably heard of something called a “529 plan.”  This type of college savings plan is named after the section of the Internal Revenue Service code in which the plans were created.  I found an excellent article on, of all places, the SEC’s website.  In plain English, it explains the difference between the two types of 529 plans, tax benefits, and other interesting tidbits.  Here is the link:  http://www.sec.gov/investor/pubs/intro529.htm

Another great site to visit is www.savingforcollege.com.  You can learn about the 529 plans offered in your state.  The site has information about financial aid, scholarships, and lots of other things.

At Parsec, we are familiar with the basics of 529 plans.  Your financial advisor will be happy to answer any questions you might have, although we do not personally setup 529 plans.  We can guide you to resources with which we have experience.

Saving for your child’s college education does not have to be a painful experience.  As you have learned with your retirement savings, the best approach is to develop a plan and stick with it.  Utilizing a 529 plan might be a way to accomplish your goal.

Cristy Freeman, AAMS
Senior Operations Associate

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When Things are Going Well, Watch Out!!!

 

Before you cross the street,
take my hand.

Life is what happens to you
while you’re busy making other plans.

 -John Lennon, “Beautiful Boy”

When I built my house, there were certain things I really wanted.  Unfortunately, I did not discover a money tree on the property.  I had to face reality and eliminate some “wants.”  Lately, I have been thinking about tweaking the kitchen a bit.  I would like a new countertop and maybe a tile backsplash. 

Of course, life has a way of altering your plans.  One of my cats fell ill.  In six days, I racked up a sizable bill at the vet’s office.  Sadly, she did not survive.  As devastating as the event was, it would have been even worse if I had not squirreled away some cash in an emergency fund.  Knowing that I was financially able (to a point) to do as much as I could to save her was a relief. 

We have talked many times in this blog about saving for the inevitable rainy day.  It is one of the best financial decisions you can make.  You never know when your car might need repair, when one of your kids (human or furry) might be sick, or when you may lose your job.  These events are stressful.  Not having the funds to pay for them compounds the stress.

Automatically transferring funds to an emergency account is a great way to save.  Banks and brokerage firms will allow you to sweep a pre-determined amount from one account to another.  You determine when you want to transfer to take place. 

Conventional wisdom says to save 6 to 9 months of expenses.  I found it easier to first calculate the large, recurring bills – insurance, property taxes, et cetera.  I then added a certain amount for routine savings and overall maintenance items – upkeep of house and car; vet visits; and so on.  I took that figure and divided it by 12 months.  At every payday, my bank sweeps that sum from my checking account into my savings account.  I cannot access my savings account unless I visit the bank, so I avoid the temptation of withdrawing funds for something silly.

The automatic deduction has been wonderful.  I do not “feel the loss” because the money never stays in my checking account.  My emergency fund has saved me on so many occasions. 

You can setup automatic deductions with your investment accounts too.  I also have a sweep in place for a Roth IRA contribution.  We would be happy to assist you with setting up automatic deductions into your brokerage or other investment accounts.  Please contact your advisor if you are interested.

Cristy Freeman, AAMS
Senior Operations Associate

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Scared Money Don’t Make Money

Recently, I heard the above phrase in a rap song by Pitbull.  I was surprised to hear mention of investment risk/reward in a popular song.  He did not go on to discuss European economic instability or currency valuation.  That would have been truly shocking.

The statement provokes thought, though.  People who are willing to take the most risk have the potential for greater reward – and greater loss.  It is easy to have an asset allocation of 100 percent equities in an up market.  Can you keep that allocation when the market is significantly down?  Will you still sleep at night?

On the other hand, holding money in a money market fund earning near-zero interest is also a risky proposition.  You must find some vehicle in which to invest because you cannot afford to earn nothing for your money.  Inflation continues to rise, even when interest rates are not.  The dollar you stash in a mattress will not be worth the same 10 years from now as it is today.

Finding the right allocation is very tricky.  It requires a great deal of evaluation on your part.  What is your current age?  Do you have enough time to recover from a short-term loss?  What are your investment goals for the next 5, 10, 15 years?  When do you want to retire? 

This is just a sample of some of the questions you should ask yourself.  A thoughtful review of your situation with your investment advisor will help the two of you to determine the best asset allocation.  Being brutally honest with yourself and communicating your goals, thoughts, and concerns with your investment advisor will allow you to work as a team.  The two of you will be able to find the right allocation that can help you sleep a little better at night.

Cristy Freeman, AAMS
Senior Operations Associate

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I Hate Debt

Don’t we all??  I worry about placing myself in a situation where an unexpected event (car accident, illness, et cetera) could create a financial disaster.  As a result, I carefully monitor the level of both short- and long-term obligations I have. 

With interest rates at historic lows, I decided to take a closer look at refinancing my house.  I have refinanced two times already; should I do it again?  Some of you may be considering the same thing, so I thought I would talk a bit about how I made my decision.

It is important to understand what you are trying to accomplish.  In my regard, I want to pay off my house within 15 years, while keeping the monthly payment at a reasonable level.  Others may want to tap home equity so that they can pay down loans with higher interest rates or do some repairs to the home.  If this is the case with you, calculate in advance how much you need. 

The next step is to take a look at your credit report.  Some people have had some dings from the Great Recession.  Resolve any reporting issues in advance of applying for a loan.  It will save you a lot of aggravation later.

Now, let’s figure out if it is feasible to refinance.  I used the calculators that are available on the bankrate.com website.  Here is a link:  http://www.bankrate.com/calculators.aspx. They have a great mortgage amortization calculator that shows you total interest paid over the life of the loan.  You can also see the impact of extra amounts paid toward principal. 

Using this tool, I entered my current interest rate and loan terms.  I analyzed the impact of the extra payments I have been making toward principal each month.  Then, I entered a 15-year term but with a lower interest rate. 

I compared the total interest expense with my current rate vs. a lower estimated rate.  The difference in total interest paid for my current loan vs. the lower interest rate loan is about $5,000, as long as I continue to make extra payments toward principal.  Closing costs and refinancing fees add up, so I suspect that net difference between the two loans would be much lower. 

As long as I continue making extra payments toward principal, I will accomplish my goal of paying off the loan within 15 years.  The lower interest rate loan would also require a larger monthly payment.  I am not comfortable with that.  With my current loan, I can keep my lower payment amount, giving me some security in the event of a serious financial crunch. 

Lower interest rates can be very enticing.  In the long run, though, you could sacrifice financial peace-of-mind just to save a few dollars.  A careful analysis of your personal situation can help you make the right decision.  If all of this seems overwhelming, we are always here to help.  Your financial advisor is just a phone call away.

Cristy Freeman, AAMS
Senior Operations Associate

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The “not-so Super” Committee

As expected, this week the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction (the “Super committee”) failed to come to any agreement on what measures would be recommended to reduce the budget deficit by $1.2 Trillion. Therefore, automatic spending cuts are scheduled to begin in 2013.  The major rating agencies did not undertake a further downgrade of U.S.debt as a result of the impasse. 

Much of the deadlock revolves around whether tax increases will accompany spending cuts in order to move closer to a balanced budget.  At the same time, across many cities in the US, protestors are demonstrating against a combination of things like outrageous executive bonuses and the perception that the distribution of wealth in the country is becoming more skewed towards the top income earners.  I have seen signs both on the news and in person saying “we are the 99%”.  Before you go creating your own sign and joining the movement, let’s have a quick review of the math. 

According to a recent study going back to 1922, the peak level of wealth disparity was in 1929, when the top 1% of households controlled 44% of the country’s wealth.  In 2007, it was 34.6%.  Therefore the concentration of wealth in the country is down over the long run, although it has risen significantly since the 1976 low of 19.9%. 

Now let’s move on to income taxes.  According to the National Taxpayers Union, for the 2009 tax year, the top 1% of household incomes paid 36% of total Federal income taxes. This is approximately in proportion to the overall level of wealth that they control.  The top 10% of taxpayers paid over 70% of the total. 

In 1999, the top 10% of taxpayers paid 66% of Federal income taxes.  Therefore, over the last 10 years, the proportion of taxes paid by the top 10% of taxpayers actually increased. 

The top 10% can pay at most 100% of the income taxes.  So the current argument comes down to what number between 70% and 100% they should pay.     

The top 10% starts lower than many people might think.  For 2009, Adjusted Gross Income on your Federal tax return of $112,124 would put you in the top 10%.  This is within reach of many households, particularly for a married couple where both spouses work.  For a family of four who are fortunate enough to enjoy this level of income, I suggest their lifestyle is comfortable but not extravagant.  For the 90% below this level, things are more challenging. 

The current stalemate about taxes is annoying, and it is likely that some combination of tax increases and spending cuts will be needed to achieve any meaningful reduction in the budget deficit. 

Increasing taxes on the top 1% may be part of the solution.  Over the last 10 years, the top 1% paid a relatively stable proportion of taxes, while the tax burden on the next 9% has increased. But there are simply not that many people in the 1% to where they can be expected to pay the tax burden for the entire country. 

How about increasing taxes on the top 10%? The problem here is that the top 10% includes many dual-income families, and this group already pays a disproportionate amount of Federal income taxes (9% of taxpayers are paying about 44% of the taxes). 

Another part of the solution might be to replace part of the income tax with a consumption tax.  This would capture some tax revenue from the underground economy of people currently working for cash, when they eventually go to a store and spend the money they have earned but not declared as income.  As the election approaches over the next 12 months, particularly in light of the Super committee’s failure, taxes are going to be a pivotal issue.  Hopefully there is a chance for true reform.

Bill Hansen, CFA

Managing Partner

November 23, 2011

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Where Does The Time Go?

When I was a little kid, it seemed to take FOREVER for Christmas to get here.  The tree would be up for ages, the presents underneath teasing me.  When my parents were at work, I would shake the presents and try to determine the contents.  I confess I sometimes lifted the corner on some of the packages.  It’s a great way of learning whether or not you are getting that Barbie you wanted.  It worked well until my little sister tattled.  No one likes a snitch, Amanda.

In my adult life, time flies by.  It seems like only yesterday we were celebrating a new year; now Thanksgiving is almost here, and the holiday madness is about to begin.  Everything kicks into overdrive as we rush from holiday party to family event.  We spend hours in the kitchen, preparing dishes that will be engulfed in minutes and forgotten almost as quickly.  It seems that chaos reigns during the holiday season.

In the midst of all this activity, let’s not forget our financial lives.  If you plan to donate appreciated stock to charity or give it to relatives, take care of it now.  Do not wait until late December.  Go ahead, and cross it off your list.  The later you wait, the more difficult it becomes to process the transaction before December 31.

It is also important to take a look at your portfolio.  Do you have any gains that could be offset by losses?  Do you anticipate any big financial events next year (i.e. your child will be starting college; you plan to remodel your home; et cetera)?  A quick conversation with your financial advisor sets up for a smooth start to 2012.

Take a deep breath.  It will be okay.  The holidays will be over before you know it!  I hope you and your family have a happy, healthy, and peaceful holiday season.

Cristy Freeman, AAMS
Senior Operations Associate

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The Asset Allocation for College Funds

Asset allocation, the proportion of stocks, bonds and cash in a portfolio, is one of those topics that financial advisors think about constantly.  Because we have clients with such a variety of needs and changing financial scenarios, we are always working with someone to help them find the appropriate investment allocation for their personal situation.  For the typical investor however, it shouldn’t be so hard.  Once you’ve chosen the appropriate allocation, you should stick with it as long as your financial or life circumstances haven’t changed much.  This type of “set it and forget it” mentality is the mark of a disciplined investor.

But what about the asset allocation for a college fund?  For a newborn child you only have 18 years before you have to pay out a significant portion of the fund, which you will then deplete over 4 years.  If you start saving later, the time frame is even shorter.  This is very different from a retiree who will often have a longer time frame than 18 years.  Also, for a retiree, typically the intention is to spend around 4 to 5% of the retirement portfolio value every year, so that the retirement funds continue to grow over time.  This isn’t the case with a college fund.  It can be both long-term (18 years to grow) and short-term (all paid out over 4 years) at the same time.  It makes the asset allocation decision a conundrum.  Now throw in the fact that somehow children grow up faster than you can possibly imagine and each year the time until payout grows exponentially closer, requiring more frequent allocation tinkering.

If you are able to save when your children are babies, the allocation decision is fairly easy.  With an above-average risk tolerance you might choose 100% equities.  Once kids are in their teens though, you could switch to a more conservative allocation with a mix of stocks and bonds.  As they approach their final year of high school, you could move to all fixed income.  There is no easy solution here, and often it depends on the parents outside resources.  If the parent is entirely dependent upon the college funds to pay for college, the fund should be more conservative as they approach age 18.  The give up is potentially less money for college if the stock market is doing well during these years.

If you have multiple children with 529 plans for each, and outside resources in addition to this, you may choose to stay with a higher equity allocation.  If the stock market doesn’t perform well during the college years, the parent could choose to pay some expenses out of pocket and then roll any excess 529 funds to younger siblings.

Regardless of the allocation you choose, you are taking a risk.  If you’re too conservative you may not have enough money to pay for college.  Conversely, if you’re too aggressive, you stand the chance of losing money you’ve saved all along just at the time that you need to withdraw it.  My advice is to discuss the allocation with your financial advisor.  Your risk tolerance will be the main driver in this decision.  Other important factors will be outside resources for paying for college, as well as your family’s unique circumstances.

Harli L. Palme, CFA, CFP®

Financial Advisor

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I Bonds Revisited

With interest rates remaining at very low levels, there are few options for earning any sort of a return on cash balances.

 Current yields:

Schwab Bank High Yield Savings                    0.40%

1 Year CD National Average                            0.46%

5 Year Treasury Note                                   1.85%

5 Year TIPS Note                                         -0.32% (plus inflation)

10 Year TIPS Note                                        0.70% (plus inflation)

Series I Savings Bonds                                4.60% (for the next 6 months)

One thing to consider for smaller balances is Series I Savings Bonds (“I Bonds”) issued by the U.S. Government.  The new rates came out May 1, and I was surprised to see that I Bonds are currently earning an annual rate of 4.60% for the next 6 months.  Please refer to my earlier blog posting “How to Make a Little More Money on Your Excess Cash (with a Bit of Work on Your Part)” or visit www.treasurydirect.gov for a more detailed description of I Bond features.

The earnings rate for I Bonds is a combination of a fixed rate, which applies for the life of the bond, and an inflation rate that changes semi-annually (think “I” as in “inflation”). The 4.60% earnings rate for I Bonds purchased through October 31, 2011 will apply for their first six months after issuance. I Bonds cannot be redeemed for 12 months after issuance, and there is a penalty of 3 months’ interest if they are redeemed before 5 years.  Purchases are limited to $5,000 per Social Security Number in electronic bonds and $5,000 in paper bonds, so a couple could purchase up to $20,000 annually.

If you act by October 31, you are in effect creating a 1 year CD with a yield of at least 2.30%.  For the next six months, I Bonds will earn interest at an annual rate of 4.60%.  The inflation rate will then reset.  Since the fixed rate is zero for the life of the bond, the earnings rate for the next 6 months will be the inflation rate.  If the semi-annual inflation rate stays the same at 2.30%, the earnings rate for the next 6 months will also be an annual rate of 4.60%.  In this case, you would earn about 3.83% for 1 year after factoring in the penalty for early redemption.  Even if the inflation for the second 6 months is zero, which is unlikely, you would earn a return of 2.30% over the next year versus 0.46% in a bank CD.

What if there is an emergency and you need the money?  Since you cannot redeem the bonds for 12 months, you need to leave some liquid cash on hand.  After 12 months, a penalty of 3 months’ interest is deducted from the redemption value.  But even after paying the penalty you would still be ahead of a bank CD, and considerably ahead if the change in inflation continues at its current level. In addition, I Bond interest is exempt from State income taxes and is tax-deferred until you redeem the bond.  Also, if you buy the bonds on the last day of the month, you still get interest for the full month.

All I Bonds have the same inflation component.  The only difference is in the fixed rate that each bond offers.  If the fixed rate increases significantly in the future, just redeem some bonds and pay the penalty.  Then buy some new bonds with the higher fixed rate (but remember the $10,000 annual limit on purchases for each Social Security Number).  After 5 years, there is no penalty on redemption. 

Another possibility is a short-term, high quality bond fund.  However, these do carry some interest rate risk.  For example, a popular short-term bond fund has a current yield of 1.41% and an effective duration of 1.85 years.  This means that if interest rates were to suddenly move up by 1%, the value of the fund would be expected to fall by about 1.85%.  This would wipe out over a year’s worth of interest, making it a less attractive alternative for cash balances.

Bill Hansen, CFA

May 13, 2011

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