You can listen to the interview by going to the Family Living Trust Seminar website.
Ronald Reagan once said “the nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’ Yesterday, Vice President Biden issued the “Middle Class Task Force Annual Report” which included planned rule changes aimed at ensuring workers receive objective investment advice for their 401(k)s and IRAs.
Will the new rules really help employees? Only time will tell. Let’s start with what the White House announcement:
Also at today’s event, the Vice President announced that the Department of Labor is proposing new protections for workers with 401(k)s and IRAs. These new protections are an important step in the Administration’s efforts to make the retirement system more secure for middle class workers and families. The regulations will protect workers from conflicts of interest and expand the opportunities for employers to offer workers the expert investment advice they need to make the best possible decisions about how to save their hard-earned wages.
“A secure retirement is essential to workers and the nation’s economy. Along with Social Security and personal savings, secure retirement allows Americans to remain in the middle class when their working days are done. And, the money in the retirement system brings tremendous pools of investment capital, creating jobs and expanding our economy,” said U.S. Deputy Secretary of Labor Seth Harris. “These rules will strengthen America’s private retirement system by ensuring workers get good, objective information. When that happens, workers make the kind of decisions that are good for their families and the nation as the whole.” Source: http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/vice-president-biden-issues-middle-class-task-force-annual-report
So how will this affect financial advisors? Here’s what the Financial Times had to say:
The new rules would require retirement investment advisers and money managers to either base their advice on computer models that have been certified as independent, or they would prohibit them from suggesting workers to invest in funds with which they are affiliated or from which they receive commissions. Source: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/d81ac69a-22f3-11df-a25f-00144feab49a.html?nclick_check=1
This sounds ominous because financial advisors will either need to use independently certified computer models or no longer suggest funds for which they receive commissions. Remember that the rules have been proposed and could change. And they don’t affect all investors. Yet.
The Department of Labor issued a related press release which partly clarifies who would be covered by these proposed rules:
The first of the two rules would ensure workers receive unbiased advice about how to invest in their individual retirement accounts or 401(k) plans. If the rule is adopted, it would put in place safeguards preventing investment advisors from slanting their advice for their own financial benefit. Investment advisors also would be required to disclose their fees, and computer models used to offer advice would have to be certified as objective and unbiased. The department estimates that 2 million workers and 13 million IRA holders would benefit from this rule to the tune of $6 billion.
The second rule announced today establishes new guidelines on the disclosure of funding and other financial information to workers participating in multiemployer retirement plans — those collectively bargained by unions and groups of employers. It will ensure transparency by guaranteeing workers can better monitor the financial condition and day-to-day operations of their retirement investments. The rule will go into effect in April 2010. Source: http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/us-labor-department-rules-to-improve-retirement-security-announced-as-part-of-white-house-middle-class-task-forces-year-end-report-85499197.html
These rules stem from the Obama Administration’s goal of helping the middle class. Many 401(k)s became 201(k)s and with the stock market bounce might be back to 301(k) level now. Will these rules help? Only time will tell. Are the proposed rules realistic? Let’s end with a quote from a Reuters story:
“Expert advice can be helpful, but that advice must be unbiased and there must be no risk that the adviser will benefit from steering workers to particular investments,” Deputy Labor Secretary Seth Harris said at the event. Source: http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE61P26O20100226
You can watch the 29 minute White House announcement here. The part dealing with retirement account protection is the first 10 minutes.
Let’s remember what Milton Friedman said about tax cuts, “I am in favor of cutting taxes under any circumstances and for any excuse, for any reason, whenever it’s possible.” Is this always true? Not when Congress eliminates the federal estate tax while limiting the step up in basis. Some families will be helped and many others will be hurt.
Read this Wall Street Journal article and learn who is hurt by this change. It could be some of your best clients.
Why No Estate Tax Could Be a Killer
By Laura Saunders, The Wall Street Journal, 2/13/2010
Congress shocked everyone by letting the estate tax lapse on Jan. 1.
Now, here is the real stunner: For many, the lapse actually will raise taxes.
Under last year’s law, estates up to $3.5 million, or $7 million for married couples, were exempt from federal tax. This year that law has been replaced by a fiendishly complex levy raising taxes on the assets of those with little as $1.3 million. It will affect the heirs of at least 50,000 U.S. taxpayers who die this year, whereas the old law affected only about 15,000 estates a year, according to the Tax Policy Center.
“The new system is far worse for many people who have assets between $1.3 million and $3.5 million,” says veteran estate lawyer Ronald Aucutt, of McGuire Woods.
This little-understood facet of the current law was enacted as part of a deal brokered in 2001 with the expectation Congress would never let the estate tax actually expire. It isn’t clear when, or even if, a badly polarized Congress will take up the estate tax this year.
If lawmakers do bring back the estate tax, that would bring another set of problems. Reinstatement of the tax retroactive to Jan. 1, which many advocate, will bring legal challenges from wealthy estates that could take years to resolve. But if some version of the old system isn’t reinstated, heirs of smaller estates will suffer.
To see what is at stake, consider how differently this year’s and last year’s regimes treat the same asset held by two fictional widows: Ms. Bentley has total assets of $20 million, while Ms. Subaru’s total is $2 million. Each owns a $110,000 block of the same stock bought for $10,000 years ago. This simplified example uses a block of stock, but its logic applies to all appreciated assets, including houses and land.
Under current law Ms. Bentley and her heirs prosper. If she dies this year and the stock is sold, her heirs will owe only a $15,000 capital-gains tax, whereas last year the same move would have incurred nearly $50,000 in estate tax. By contrast, Ms. Subaru’s heirs would have owed nothing last year because the estate was below the $3.5 million exemption. This year they would owe the same $15,000 capital-gains tax Ms. Bentley’s heirs do.
The reason: Under the old estate tax, assets could be written up to their full value at the death of the owner, and neither widow had to pay capital-gains tax on the $100,000 increase in the stock last year. But current law fully taxes gains while imposing no tax on estates. Quite simply, the demise of the 45% estate tax helps Ms. Bentley and her heirs more than the 15% tax on appreciation hurts them. For Ms. Subaru, the reverse is true.
Winners and Losers
Beth Shapiro Kaufman, an attorney with Caplin & Drysdale, made estimates showing who is better off under last year’s versus this year’s system. She found that heirs of estates with assets totaling between $1.3 and $4.3 million would often have been better off last year, while those with bigger estates will do better this year.
Current law does give some relief to heirs of smaller estates. All estates receive at least $1.3 million of exemption from the tax on appreciation. The executor can “cherry-pick” assets after death and assign the exemption to maximize its value.
But the law is full of traps and demands detailed record keeping. Experts are telling those affected to avoid irrevocable actions, like distributing or selling assets, while the situation remains unresolved.
Some hope that Congress will wind up doing what it did when a similar tax regime was tried in the late 1970s. It was repealed after an uproar, but the estates of those who died while the law was in flux got to choose which system to use.
Such an approach could avoid some ugly family situations. Last December, some wealthy people were kept alive until the estate tax lapsed in January. “But if the tax comes back,” says Mr. Aucutt, “Relatives might be tempted to pull the plug.”
How can Congress solve this problem? I like the solution proposed in the article: let families choose between estate tax systems.
You better keep your clients up to date on what’s happening with the estate tax. Don’t wait for the annual review. And don’t let one of your competitors tell them about it first. You might lose a client.
On the other hand, you’d be doing your competitors’ clients a favor if YOU let them know what’s going on. One way would be to put on free public seminars on estate planning. Establish yourself as your city’s expert on estate planning. Take a look at my estate seminar system and you could be giving your first seminar in 30 days!
In a recent post, I warned advisors to be ready with answers to difficult questions. Here’s another one.
“If I follow your investment advice, will my retirement income keep up with inflation?”
In the past year, the Federal Reserve Bank has doubled the money supply. Will this cause higher retail prices? Imagine playing a game of Monopoly and starting the game with $3000 instead of the $1500 called out in the rules since the 1930’s. If you had twice the money, wouldn’t that make it easier to bid on Boardwalk and Park Place? Prices would rise because you’d have more money to spend.
When the Federal Reserve Bank pumps up the money supply, it causes prices to rise and bubbles to form. Bursting bubbles hurt owners of bubble-inflated assets such as tech stocks, mortgage backed securities, and real estate. Rising prices hurts families and especially hurts retirees.
Watch this short video to see how rising prices would affect a 92 year old who retired in 1973 at age 55.
Your clients want decent returns and to avoid losses. So where do you put their money? What’s hot one year may be cold as ice the next year. Hence the caveat that “past performance is no guarantee of future results.” Yet when investing for the long-term, it can pay to listen to those who made correct long-term calls in the past. Today’s guest columnist Bill Bonner made a dead-on long-term call 10 years ago…and he just made another for our new decade.
The Last Shall Be First
By Bill Bonner
01/22/10 Paris, France – The yen is falling. It’s down 5% against the dollar since November. Investors are finally noticing. With a deficit of 50% of GDP, the Japanese government walks where angels fear to tread. Americans aren’t far behind. To make a long story short, our money is on the angels.
Only an economist would dare to look 10 years ahead. Only a fool would put money on it. Today, we do both. But our new “Trade of the Decade,” is not so much a look into the future as it is a look at the past.
Ten years ago, your humble correspondent offered his first ‘Trade of the Decade.’ He should have stopped there, for the trade was a big success. It was a simpleton’s trade: Sell US stocks/buy gold. That was in the year 2000. At that time, US stocks had been going up for the previous 18 years, multiplying investors’ money 11 times. By then, stocks had been going up for so long that the memory of man ranneth not to the contrary. Investors’ imaginations saw no alternative. Stocks for the Long Run was the title of a popular book. It was also an investment formula that seemed unbeatable.
Alas, the formula proved beatable. It was time for stocks to go the other way. The first decade of the 21st century proved to be the worst time to hold stocks since the ’30s. Net returns were negative – especially when adjusted for inflation. Adjusted to the CPI, the Dow ended the decade down 40%.
The other side of the trade – the buy side – was just as simpleminded. Gold hit a high over $800 in 1980. Then, it slipped for the next 20 years. It didn’t come to rest until September 1999 at $260. That was the famous “Brown Bottom” in the yellow metal…when the then chancellor of the exchequer, Gordon Brown, sold Britain’s gold at the lowest price in two decades. (To bring readers up to date, now Mr. Brown applies his vision and energy to Britain’s economic recovery efforts.)
Gold is real money. But in the years when gold was being beaten down, other forms of money were running wild. Financial assets mushroomed all over the globe. A whole new ‘shadow banking’ system emerged…with new financial instruments, representing trillions…no, hundreds of trillions…of dollars. Prices on everything were soaring – equity, debt, real property. It did not take a genius to see that gold would have to catch up, sooner or later. As it turned out, no major asset class did better. Gold finished every single year higher than the year before. It doubled. Then, it doubled again.
What made the trade a success was neither clairvoyance nor omniscience; it was merely an observation known as ‘regression to the mean.’ The word ‘normal’ has been in the dictionary for a long time. It must be there for a reason. What it describes is where things tend to go when they’ve gotten out of whack. Regression to the mean is so powerful, no one escapes it. For every decade of walking around time, a person spends a million years dead. Over a century, practically every human regresses to the grave. So, what is so abnormal now that regression to the mean is as certain as death?
Almost all investments are expensive by most historical measures. But if all go down, what will they go down against? Money! That’s why real money – gold – is likely to go up again in the next 10 years. But gold is not cheap. It rose nearly 400% over the last 10 years and now is fairly priced. Gold in the treasure trove found in England last year is worth today about the same thing it was when it was buried 12 centuries ago. It cannot regress to the mean; it is already there.
On the buy side, we are looking for an investment that is despised…not one that is admired. And so, back to Japan, where equities peaked out in 1990 and have been going down ever since. While the Japanese government wanders among the stars, the private sector has dropped back to the ground. Or beneath it. Tokyo-listed stocks have lost 75% of their value, wiping out an entire generation worth of growth. Many Japanese companies sell for less than the value of their current net assets.
And now, after twenty years, Japan’s private businesses are finally benefiting from the stimulus programs. The government will go broke, but by destroying its own credit, Japan cuts the value of the yen and boosts profits for its exporters. Toyota’s local labor costs – in dollar terms – fell 5% in the last three months. And by the time the catastrophe is complete, Japan’s businesses could be the most competitive in the world. One way or another, 10 years from now, we’ll wager that Japanese stocks will be higher…if only relative to the rest of the world’s equities.
But of all the whack that investments might be out of, US Treasury debt stands above them all. For the last 27 years, the US government’s cost of borrowing has gone down. But while bond yields declined, the quantity of US debt exploded. Official, on-the-books debt trebled. Include off the books, unfunded financial obligations and the total reaches $118 trillion – 8 times GDP. And now the explosions come every month. As the depression continues, US deficit-financing needs could rise to $150 billion every 30 days. So far, the bond market has absorbed the shocks with good grace. But sometime in the next 10 years, the angels are bound to be proven right.
Sell US Treasury bonds. Buy Japanese stocks.
for The Daily Reckoning
Well, there you have it: Buy Japan and Sell Treasuries. We’ll all see how it all turns out in 2020.
For more insights on investments and the economy with a contrarian and witty twist, click through and subscribe to the Daily Reckoning e-zine.
For financial advisors, now is the best of times and the worst of times. Out-of-control government spending, massive deficits, and dicey markets combine to make investing much more challenging for everyone. Including financial advisors. And individual investors who look for professional help. And retirees have seen their nest eggs shrink from ostrich size to turkey size. Or chicken size to sparrow size. With the stock market’s bounce back in 2009, a lot of lost ground has been made up. But will it last? Should investors stay in the market or go to cash?
This screaming headline from The Telegraph got a lot of attention this week. This well-respected writer’s warning of hyperinflation in Japan has a lot of people thinking, “Could this really happen?” Ambrose Evans-Pritchard recommends staying in cash until the “real” recovery begins in mid to late 2010.
Give this a read and give it some thought. Your next client may walk in the door and ask, “Could this really happen?”
By Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, International Business Editor
Published: 6:15AM GMT 04 Jan 2010
The contraction of M3 money in the US and Europe over the last six months will slowly puncture economic recovery as 2010 unfolds, with the time-honoured lag of a year or so. Ben Bernanke will be caught off guard, just as he was in mid-2008 when the Fed drove straight through a red warning light with talk of imminent rate rises – the final error that triggered the implosion of Lehman, AIG, and the Western banking system.
As the great bear rally of 2009 runs into the greater Chinese Wall of excess global capacity, it will become clear that we are in the grip of a 21st Century Depression – more akin to Japan’s Lost Decade than the 1840s or 1930s, but nothing like the normal cycles of the post-War era. The surplus regions (China, Japan, Germania, Gulf) have not increased demand enough to compensate for belt-tightening in the deficit bloc (Anglo-sphere, Club Med, East Europe), and fiscal adrenalin is already fading in Europe. The vast East-West imbalances that caused the credit crisis are no better a year later, and perhaps worse. Household debt as a share of GDP sits near record levels in two-fifths of the world economy. Our long purge has barely begun. That is the elephant in the global tent.
We will be reminded too that the West’s fiscal blitz – while vital to halt a self-feeding crash last year – has merely shifted the debt burden onto sovereign shoulders, where it may do more harm in the end if handled with the sort of insouciance now on display in Britain.
Yields on AAA German, French, US, and Canadian bonds will slither back down for a while in a fresh deflation scare. Exit strategies will go back into the deep freeze. Far from ending QE, the Fed will step up bond purchases. Bernanke will get religion again and ram down 10-year Treasury yields, quietly targeting 2.5pc. The funds will try to play the liquidity game yet again, piling into crude, gold, and Russian equities, but this time returns will be meagre. They will learn to respect secular deflation.
Weak sovereigns will buckle. The shocker will be Japan, our Weimar-in-waiting. This is the year when Tokyo finds it can no longer borrow at 1pc from a captive bond market, and when it must foot the bill for all those fiscal packages that seemed such a good idea at the time. Every auction of JGBs will be a news event as the public debt punches above 225pc of GDP. Finance Minister Hirohisa Fujii will become as familiar as a rock star.
Once the dam breaks, debt service costs will tear the budget to pieces. The Bank of Japan will pull the emergency lever on QE. The country will flip from deflation to incipient hyperinflation. The yen will fall out of bed, outdoing China’s yuan in the beggar-thy-neighbour race to the bottom. By then China too will be in a quandary. Wild credit growth can mask the weakness of its mercantilist export model for a while, but only at the price of an asset bubble. Beijing must hit the brakes this year, or store up serious trouble. It will make as big a hash of this as Western central banks did in 2007-2008.
The European Central Bank will stick to its Wagnerian course, standing aloof as ugly loan books set off wave two of Europe’s banking woes. The Bundesbank will veto proper QE until it is too late, deeming it an implicit German bail-out for Club Med.
More hedge funds will join the EMU divergence play, betting that the North-South split has gone beyond the point of no return for a currency union. This will enrage the Eurogroup. Brussels will dust down its paper exploring the legal basis for capital controls. Italy’s Giulio Tremonti will suggest using EU terror legislation against “speculators”.
Wage cuts will prove a self-defeating policy for Club Med, trapping them in textbook debt-deflation. The victims will start to notice this. Articles will appear in the Greek, Spanish, and Portuguese press airing doubts about EMU. Eurosceptic professors will be ungagged. Heresy will spread into mainstream parties.
Greece’s Prime Minister Papandréou will balk at EMU immolation. The Hellenic Socialists will call Europe’s bluff, extracting loans that gain time but solve nothing. Berlin will climb down and pay, but only once: thereafter, Zum Teufel.
In the end, the Euro’s fate will be decided by strikes, street protest, and car bombs as the primacy of politics returns. I doubt that 2010 will see the denouement, but the mood music will be bad enough to knock the euro off its stilts.
The dollar rally will gather pace. America’s economy – though sick – will shine within the even sicker OECD club. The British will need the shock of a gilts crisis to shatter their complacency. In time, the Dunkirk spirit will rise again. Mervyn King’s pre-emptive QE and timely devaluation will bear fruit this year, sparing us the worst.
By mid to late 2010, we will have lanced the biggest boils of the global system. Only then, amid fear and investor revulsion, will we touch bottom. That will be the buying opportunity of our lives.