Two Bad Choices in Tax Debate

I found this article very informative and I think it is worth sharing.

 

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By Patrick Watson

Remember when everyone wanted to cut the federal deficit? Fiscal policy was much simpler back then: balanced budget good, deficits bad. Times change. Now the House and Senate are considering tax legislation that, according to their own numbers, will add $1.5 trillion to annual deficits over the next 10 years.

This is okay, we’re told, because the tax cuts will stoke economic growth, thereby delivering added tax revenue that offsets the rate reductions.Note the bigger point here. Republicans still say they don’t like deficits—but apparently, this particular plan lets them cut taxes without adding more debt. It’s a miracle.

Is their claim really true? Will the GOP tax plans boost economic growth?

That’s the 1.5-trillion-dollar question.

Theory vs. Reality

The Republican plan’s centerpiece is a reduction in corporate tax rates from a 35% top bracket to only 20%. That would put the US more in line with other countries.

What you seldom hear is that most other developed countries also have value-added tax (VAT), a kind of consumption tax. The US doesn’t. Our tax system will remain different, and not necessarily better, under the new proposal.

Anyway, the theory is that lower tax rates will entice businesses to bring back operations they currently conduct overseas. They will build new factories and hire more US workers. Those workers will spend their higher incomes on consumer goods, and we’ll all be better off.

Unfortunately, that thinking has several flaws.

For one, as we saw in the NFIB Small Business Economic Trends report that business owners say that finding qualified workers is their top challenge right now. Reducing corporate tax rates won’t make new workers magically appear, nor will it improve the skills of those already here.

What increasing labor demand might do is spark that inflation the Federal Reserve has wanted for years. There’s also a good chance it could spiral out of control, forcing the Fed to hike interest rates even faster than planned—which could offset any benefit from the tax cuts.

Fortunately, such added labor demand will appear only if businesses respond to the lower tax rates by expanding US production capacity.

Will they? Let’s ask.

“Why Aren’t the Other Hands Up?”

This month, in one of its regular business surveys, the Atlanta Federal Reserve Bank asked executives, “If passed in its current form, what would be the likely impact of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act on your capital investment and hiring plans?”

Here are the results.

Image: Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta

Only 8% of the executives surveyed said the bill would make them increase hiring plans “significantly.” Only 11% said they would significantly increase their capital investment plans. A solid majority answered either “no change” or “increase somewhat.”

Other surveys reached similar conclusions.

White House Economic Advisor Gary Cohn had an awkward moment last Tuesday at a Wall Street Journal CEO Council meeting. Sitting on stage to promote the tax cuts, Cohn watched as the moderator asked the roomful of executives whether their companies would expand more if the tax bill passed.

When only a few hands rose, Cohn looked surprised and said, “Why aren’t the other hands up?”

So maybe they were distracted or needed a minute to think. Fair enough. A few hours later, White House Economist Kevin Hassett appeared at the same event and asked the same audience the same question.

He got the same result: only a few raised hands.

Pocketing Profits

None of this should surprise us. Tax rates are only one factor businesses consider when deciding to expand. The far more important question is whether consumers will buy whatever the new capacity produces.

Think about it this way: if you’re a CEO and you have difficulty selling your products profitably now, why would lower taxes make you produce more? Even a 0% tax rate is no help if you lack customers.

Former Brightcove CEO David Mendels explained how big companies view this:

As a CEO and member of the Board of Directors at a public company, I can tell you that if we had an increase in profitability, we would have been delighted, but it would not lead in and of itself to more hiring or an increase in wages. Again, we would hire more people if we saw growing demand for our products and services. We would raise salaries if that is what it took to hire and retain great people. But if we had a tax cut that led to higher profits absent those factors, we would ‘pocket it’ for our investors.”

By “pocket it,” Mendels means executive bonuses, share buybacks, or higher dividends. That’s what 10 years of Federal Reserve stimulus produced. A corporate tax cut would likely have a similar effect.

Choose Wisely

As I’ve said for months, I don’t think the House and Senate can agree on any significant tax changes. The two chambers have different political incentives they probably can’t reconcile.

So I think we’ll be stuck with the current tax system. The economy will limp along like it has been and eventually go into recession. The hope-driven asset bubble will pop, hurting many investors.

If I’m wrong and the GOP plan passes in anything like the current form, we will get higher deficits but little additional growth. The tax cuts will flow to asset owners and shareholders, probably blowing the market bubble even bigger. That will make the inevitable breakdown even more painful.

 

Do you agree with Patrick?

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A few suggestions on how to invest a $300,000 inheritance

Last week’s post contained a real life Canadian couple’s financial dilemma on how to invest a surprised inheritance. I asked writers and readers of financial blogs to email me their suggestions. This couple is in their mid-fifties and are hoping to retire in 8 to 10 years. They are debt free, have poor paying jobs and only managed to save $55,000 for retirement. Unfortunately, my bullet point list of Canadian tax info wasn’t very clear.

Additional clarification of  the Canadian Tax system

Canadians have three choices for saving for retirement if they don’t have a company pension.

Registered Retirement Saving Plan (RRSP)

  • Contributions are limited to 18% of working income (max. $25,370 investment income not included)
  • Tax deductible, refund based on your tax rate (lowest 20%, highest is 53%)
  • Tax free compounding, withdrawals are 100% taxable at your personal tax rate (lowest 20%, highest is 53%)
  • Government requires you to make withdrawals at age 72
  • Not usually recommended for low income families

Tax free Savings Account (TFSA began in 2009), geared to low income families

  • Personal contributions are limited to $5,500 per year, not tax deductible
  • Unused contributions are carried forward indefinitely
  • Tax free compounding, withdrawals are not taxable
  • No restrictions on withdrawals, money can be taken out and put back in the following year.

Taxable investment account

  • Interest income, foreign interest and foreign dividends are 100% taxable at your current tax rate (lowest 20%, highest is 53%) Plus there is 15% foreign tax withheld. If personal your tax rate 30%, foreign dividends of $100 minus  $30 personal tax – $15 of foreign tax = $65
  • Canadian Dividends have an eligible tax credit that increases the after tax yield. In theory, a Canadian could earn $40,000 in dividends tax free if they had no other income.
  • Capital gains has the lowest tax rate because only 50% of the gain is included in income, so only $50 of a $100 gain would be included. High income earners (53% tax bracket) would only pay 26.5%  in income tax.

I only received two suggestions and didn’t receive any input from any Canadian bloggers or readers.  So, I asked a financial planner who works at one of my local bank branches to weight in.

From the United States, Bear with the Bull offered the following:

I am not sure I am most qualified to be a financial adviser and I really do not know Canadian tax laws. I would think they might want a mix of income, bond, possibly cash, and growth stocks.  For my 401, I have about a 60/40 split of stocks and income/bond allocation. So if they are looking for more cash / income, maybe they would be more comfortable with something more 40/60 instead. 

They probably would look to a portion to be cash or bond fund that could be used to maximize yearly retirement contributions and or have readily available should they need it.  Since the Canadian real-estate market is seemingly doing well, how about investing in some Canadian REITs?  It would have a short term growth opportunity and dividends as well.  ETF’s also seem to be the latest investing vehicle and generally have lower fees than mutual funds.

  • The 40% equities ($120,000) 50% Canada 40% U.S 10% Emerging markets
  • The 60% fix income ($180,000) Perhaps a 1/3 split.  $60,000 Bonds, $60,000 Reits, $60,000 Cash

Realize that this response and $5.00 will get you a good cup of Starbucks so take it for what it is worth.

From Belgian, Amber Tree Leaves offered the following:

Here is a potential solution, as I am not sure to fully understand the Canadian system, I will skip that part.

General comment: As they have not yet accumulated a lot of assets, it might be tough to retire in the next 8-10 years. It is reasonable to expect a severe correction in that period. As it seems that they have little investing experience, it might be better to go for an approach that generates cash from dividend stocks. The assumption here is that it generates higher yields than ETFs. 

  • allocation: 70 % stock and 20 % bonds and 10 % gold.
  • The 70% equities 20% in Canadian dividend stocks, 50% world wide in dividend paying stocks

The gold is there as a hedge against the really bad times. It should be managed in a way that it needs to be sold and converted into stock/bonds when the price rises a lot. Timing this is hard, it is not the goal to get the absolute top.

Bank Financial Planner

First of all, I believe that money has different weights or “gravity” depending on how you acquire it.  Inheritance money seems to have the most weight as often people feel they “owe” a higher degree of care of duty to it and are less likely to deal with it the way they would a lottery win or an insurance settlement.

Obviously, the first thing I would need to do is get a better understanding of their situation and their time horizon and risk tolerances.  Let’s assume they are comfortable with a balanced approach. I would recommend 60% equity/40% fixed income.  ($180,000 in equity and $120,000 in fixed income.)

I would recommend they start by contributing fully to TFSAs, which would account for $102,000 between the two of them.  In the TFSA, I would use a ladder of market linked GICs to give them diversification, security of capital and the potential for higher returns than offered by traditional GICs.  This allows them their only chance to earn interest without paying tax on every penny of it.  It also means there are no fees to pay on almost one third of their investments. 

For the non-registered account, I would recommend a core holding of a growth ETF portfolio ($100,000 with additional positions in our Canadian ($30,000), US ($15,000 and International ETF funds $25,000), with a portion in our US Dollar ETF $15,000) for additional diversification on currency. 

After the initial investment occurred, I would want to have an annual strategy to move the maximum TFSA contribution for each of the clients.  This would involve selling a position of the non-registered investments (unless there are additional savings available) and reinvesting in the same fund inside the TFSA to maintain the balance in the overall account.   This would allow the gradual transition into the TFSA accounts, helping with taxes and probate fees down the road.  A portion of capital gains (or losses) would be triggered each year, smoothing the tax impact on the clients.

I am not sure if this inheritance is big enough to bail out this couple’s retirement plan. A key element is understanding after tax returns when investing.

 

 

 

A reality check on Trump’s tax reform agenda

Still etched in my brain was the great income trust debacle that took place on Halloween of 2005. The Canadian conservative government won re-election promising not to change the tax preferred treatment of income trusts. That promise was broken and Canadian investors lost billions of dollars overnight. The value of my income trust holdings fell by 40% instantaneously.

Needless to say, as an investor in U.S. stocks, failure to appeal and replace Obamacare (ACA) makes me very nervous. Trump’s promise of massive tax cuts and infrastructure spending will need support from the Freedom Caucus (tea  party) who want a border adjustment tax to offset some of the loss revenue.

There is also a complicated Senate rule that would prevent Democrats from blocking the tax bill. Under the rule, the bill cannot add to long-term budget deficits. That means every tax cut has to be offset by a similar tax increase or a spending cut.

‘‘Yes this does make tax reform more difficult,’’ said Ryan. ‘‘But it does not in any way make it impossible.’’

Nevertheless, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Friday the administration plans to turn quickly to tax reform with the goal of getting an overhaul approved by Congress by August.

House Republicans have released a blueprint that outlines their goals for a tax overhaul. It would lower the top individual income tax rate from 39.6 percent to 33 percent, and reduce the number of tax brackets from seven to three. The House plan retains the mortgage interest deduction but repeals the deduction for state and local taxes.

However, nearly 34 million families claimed the mortgage interest deduction in 2016, reducing their tax bills by $65 billion. Also, more than 43 million families deducted their state and local income plus personal property taxes from their federal taxable income last year. The deduction reduced their federal tax bills by nearly $70 billion.

On the corporate side, the plan would repeal the 35 percent corporate income tax and replace it with a 20 percent tax on profits from selling imports and domestically produced goods and services consumed in the US. Exports would be exempt from the new tax. (border adjustment tax)

The general goal for Republicans is to lower income tax rates for individuals and corporations and make up the lost revenue by reducing exemptions, deductions and credits. Overhauling the tax code is actually hard because every tax break has a constituency and the biggest tax breaks are among the most popular.

Over the past week, some investors are starting to doubt that the tax cuts will get passed. The value of the U.S. dollar has weaken and ten year bond yields have fallen  from 2.62% to 2.4%. Eight of the ten sectors that make up the S&P 500 were negative for the week. The biggest losers were U.S. financials (-3.72%), energy (-1.78%) industrials (-1.75%) and materials (-1.3%).

There is a lot of money on the sidelines that missed the Trump rally and are waiting for a stock market correction. I took some profits before the Canadian federal budget that hinted at tax increases so I also have some money to re-invest. The Canadian conservative government taught me a valuable lesson back in 2005. What government promises to do and what they actually do can have a negative affect on your investments.

 

Still doing tax returns for my adult children & their spouses

Every year I ask myself, should I continue to offer to do tax returns for my adult children and their spouses? All of them have university degrees and are smart enough to file their own tax returns. My daughter was willing to do it one year using tax preparation software with only a little help from me.

Part of my problem is Canadians are not even aware of how much tax they pay. Plus we keep voting for governments that buy votes using our tax dollars. The average Canadian family will pay 42.9% of their income in taxes imposed by all three levels of government in 2016. (Federal, provincial and local) Tax freedom day was June 7, 2016 if Canadians paid their total tax bill up front. Our U.S. neighbours tax freedom day was April 24th and they will only pay 31% of their income in taxes.

There are a number of reasons why I continue to offer to do tax returns for the whole family. Having worked as a financial advisor, tax planning is a key element when putting a financial plan together. My tax knowledge and skill comes from working many years with accountants and tax lawyers ensuring that my whole family pays the least amount of tax.

Plus, the Canadian tax system is very complicated and is constantly changing with every federal and provincial budget. For example: many tax credits that were given by the Conservative government have been taken away completely by a new Liberal government.

For the 2015 tax year, the Liberals cancelled income splitting for families, a maximum tax credit of $2,000 for transferring up to $50,000 of income to a spouse with a lower income if they had a child under 18 years of age.

Some changes for 2017 include the elimination of the following credits:

  1. Education and textbooks credit
  2. Children’s fitness credit
  3. Children’s arts credit
  4. Public transit tax credit

Now, most retired Canadian seniors who don’t have a pension from their former employer are not even aware of a $2,000 pension credit. It requires opening a RRIF account, transferring $2,000 from their RRSP and then taking it out. They don’t have to wait until they reach the age of 71 in order to open a RRIF account. Plus, RRIF income can be split with your spouse if both of you are 65 years of age which could potentially add up to $4,000 of income tax free per year.

The Federal Liberal government will introduce a new budget on March 22 and there are rumors of more tax increases. Three things that Canadians should worry about;

  1. Higher capital gains inclusion rate from 50% to 75%
  2. Reducing the dividend tax credit
  3. Taxing your principal residency 

I will end this post with two well known proverbs. ” In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” & “A penny saved is a penny earned.”

 

10 Reasons to be cautious on equity markets

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David Rosenberg is chief economist with Gluskin Sheff + Associates Inc. and author of the daily economic newsletter Breakfast with Dave.

Here are my 10 reasons to be cautious on equity markets right now.

Valuations are stretched

Trailing and forward price-to-earnings multiples are now in the top quintiles historically and the most expensive in 15 years.

Only in 1929 and the “Dotcom” bubble has the cyclically-adjusted multiple (CAPE) been as high as the case today.

We are heading into the ninth year in the cycle and have logged an epic 250-per-cent surge in the process. As retail investors now plow in to this market in the late innings, one could legitimately ask what it is they could possibly know that corporate insiders do not, considering the latter have been selling their company’s stock this year at a pace not seen since the data began to be published in 1988.

Extended leverage

U.S. margin debt has surged at a 27-per-cent annual rate since immediately prior to the election to stand at $513-billion, the highest level on record (eclipsing the high from April 2015).

Retail inflows

After an eight-year hiatus ($200-billion of net outflows), private clients have thrown in the towel and plowed nearly $80-billion into mutual funds and ETFs since the November election.

Remember Bob Farrell’s Rule No. 5: “The public buys the most at the top and the least at the bottom”.

Narrowing leadership

For the past four sessions, we have seen more new 52-week lows than new highs (the longest streak since Nov. 4) — a technical sign of a toppy market.

Moreover, the Russell 2000 index is now flat for the year and off 4 per cent from the high — again, we know from history that the generals tend to follow the privates.

Tack on the fact that the S&P 500 recently traded as much as 10 per cent above the 200-day moving average, and we have a market ripe for a near-term correction.

Complacency abounds

From a VIX of 11.9 to nearly 60-per-cent Bulls in the Investors Intelligence poll — though this has begun to roll off its highs in a sign of the “smart money” beginning to take profits.

The S&P 500 has gone 57 days without so much as a 1-per-cent intraday swing, something we have not seen in at least 35 years. The proverbial calm before the storm.

The Fed is in play

The front-end Treasury yields are rising discernibly — the two-year T-note yield has gapped up to nearly 1.4 per cent and futures market is in the process of pricing in an extra two rate hikes after the likely March tightening (the overnight index swaps market currently has priced in 70 basis points of tightening by year end).

The Fed has met its twin objectives and the fed funds rate consistent with that is 3 per cent, not the 0.75 per cent currently.

By the time the Fed reaches that level, the yield curve will likely have inverted long before and that’s when the clouds will come rolling in.

This could be next year’s story, which means a forward-looking market begins to discount this prospect sometime later this year.

Inflation pickup

Cyclical price pressures are showing through, with the core PCE inflation rate at a 30-month high of 1.738 per cent year over year.

As was the case in 1990, 2000 or 2007, this likely is not sustainable, but is a classic late-game signpost nonetheless.

All one needs to see is the latest blow-off in the commodity complex, which is now on pause, to notice how late cycle we are. Remember what oil did, for example, in 2008?

Lofty expectations

The survey data are at extremely high levels at a time when actual economic growth is running barely above a 1% annual rate.

Gaps like this, once again, are classic near-end-of-cycle developments.

The prospect of there being huge disappointment over the pace of policy change in Washington is also very high.

Over-ownership

While households were not net buyers of equities until very recently, the near-quadrupling in the stock market has still boosted their exposure to a 21.1-per-cent share of total assets. Only five times in the past 16 years has the share been this high or higher — this is 42% above the norm.

Frothy credit markets

Bonds lead stocks, just know that. And the risk-premium on U.S. high-yield corporate bonds very recently approached lows for the cycle at a super-tight 335 basis points.

However, they now are widening again, and with the overall narrowing path of the Treasury curve, this is well worth monitoring for those equity investors who are still long this market.

Nobody ever lost money by booking a profit, especially for a cycle that is now heading into year number nine.

Do you think that David is right?

Being Canadian, I am worried about the Federal Budget scheduled for March 22 because there are rumours of an increase in the capital gains tax. I have been taking some profits in my taxable accounts and for investment club just in case. I do believe it is impossible to time the market so I am still fully invested in my tax sheltered accounts.

 

Panama Papers: Tax Avoidance and Tax Evasion

panama

The recently leaked “Panama Papers” exposed the existence of thousands off shore bank accounts including some high and mighty political figures. The super-rich have been taking advantage of tax havens since World War I, paying tax lawyers to find loop holes in tax rules to avoid paying taxes isn’t something new.

Key differences between Tax Avoidance and Tax Evasion

Definition of Tax Avoidance

An arrangement made to beat the intent of the law by taking advantage of the shortcomings in the tax rules. It refers to finding out new methods or tools to avoid the payment of taxes which are within the limits of the law. The only purpose behind tax avoidance is to postpone or shift or eliminate the tax liability. This can be done investing in government schemes and offers of tax credits, tax privileges, deductions, exemptions, etc., which will result in the reduction in the tax liability without breaching any laws.

Definition of Tax Evasion

An illegal act, made to escape from paying taxes. Such illegal practices can be deliberate concealment of income, manipulation in accounts, disclosure of unreal expenses for deductions, showing personal expenditure as business expenses, overstatement of tax credits or exemptions. Tax evasion is a criminal activity and is subject to punishment under the law.

trust fund baby

A trust fund baby is the perfect example of tax avoidance by the rich. A trust fund is a legal entity that allows the rich to establishment an investment account for their children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews. The income earned in the account and the release of the funds to the beneficiaries are under specified conditions. (The U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry married Teresa Heinz who has a trust fund valued around 500 million dollars).

I am not a tax expert but many tax filers will pay more in taxes this year than they should. It is a simple case of missing available deductions and tax credits. The problem is understanding the tax rules, knowing what is available and whether you qualify.

Some unclaimed deductions & credits for U.S. citizens

  • Tax Preparation Fees
  • Child and Dependent Care Credit- summer camps fees are eligible
  • American Opportunity Tax Credit
  • Lifetime Learning Credit
  • Energy Credits
  • Savers Credit – for people with low to moderate income who make contributions to an eligible retirement plan
  • Mortgage Points – to lower an interest rate on a home loan
  • Moving expenses

Some unclaimed deductions & credits for Canadians

  • Equivalent-To-Spouse Credit – single mothers
  • Medical expenses – any 12 month period , combine with spouse and children under 18
  • Charitable donations – spouses can pool them together to get a bigger deduction
  • Childcare Expenses – include hockey schools and summer camp fees
  • Pension Income Credit RIF payments qualify
  • Moving expenses

Tax planning in order to defer taxes, to maximize deductions & credits and divide income among family members is something that all tax payers should consider doing.

Just remember that both Tax Avoidance and Tax Evasion are meant to ultimately reduce tax liability but in the eyes of the law, avoidance is legal and evasion is not.

Beware of identity theft & tax-return fraud

Tax season is the one time of year that a lot of sensitive personal data is on the move. Employers and financial institutions are sending you tax documents, you are then transmitting them to your accountant or using tax filing software. Take care to safeguard that data every step of the way. Tax season is already stressful enough, individuals increasingly have to contend with the possibility of fraud or identity theft involving their tax return. Tax return fraud is a huge problem for U.S. citizens.

Tax-return fraud is a mounting problem. In 2013, according to a Government Accountability Office report released last year, the Internal Revenue Service thwarted $24.2 billion in fraudulent refunds requested — but paid out $5.8 billion.”

Scammers can easily whip individuals into a panic, aggressive efforts to steal data and cash by masquerading as IRS officials. Some scam artists try to convince you that you are a victim of a fraudulent return and need to verity your personal information. Others threaten audits, fines, arrests and all manner of other dire consequences to victims who don’t wire cash immediately or click-through a link to confirm their personal information.

Here’s a conspicuous flaw in the system as currently set up: To file a tax return electronically, all someone needs is a name, date of birth and an SSN. The IRS accepts tax filings as soon as Jan. 1, but employers aren’t required to submit correct employment information to the agency until March, by which time roughly half of all refunds have been paid out. (For that matter, the IRS doesn’t begin matching employer-submitted data to tax returns until the summer.)

You might see official-looking seals and language in an email that have been pulled from legit IRS communiques, or hear background noise in a voice mail meant to resemble a call center. Don’t click on any links in emails or call back any numbers left for you in a voice mail. Pushing calls and emails are the easiest tax fraud to avoid. Your best defense, keep calm and think it through.

“The IRS and the CRA have said repeatedly that its first point of contact with you is going to be by mail. Not an email and not a phone call.”

The agency has suspended processing of 4.8 million suspicious returns so far this year, worth $11.8 billion, the IRS said in an email to CNBC. Among that number are 1.4 million returns with confirmed identity theft, totally $8.7 billion.

Additional pre-cautions:

  1. Not receiving an expected form could be a red flag of old-fashioned mail theft.
  2. Make a check list of documents or forms with the approximate date that they should have arrived.
  3. Use a secure file service to transmit documents electronically to your tax preparer
  4. Avoid sending tax information by email
  5. Personally drop off documents to your tax preparer.
  6. Delays in receiving last year tax refund could signal that you could have been targeted by scam artists.

When in doubt, your best bet is to hang up. Contact the entity directly through a phone number that you know is legitimate or by email. Even if you’re not a victim, be aware that government authorities have put in place safeguards to thwart tax fraud which could delay your refund or snarl your return.

This post was inspired by my daughter who reminded me that sending tax information via email isn’t very safe.