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

Image result for david rosenberg

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.

 

Seven helpful hints to avoid getting audited

The majority of tax payers’ efile their tax returns using tax preparation software. It is really cheap and easy it use. It also increases your odds of receiving an audit notification letter. The tax department wants to reduce the amount of paperwork that it receives so it will spot check around 20% of all returns. They will send out letters asking for some of your receipts. 

No need to panic but it is very important to avoid red flagging your account by making unintentional errors. A simple error of entering the same receipt twice may increase the chances of receiving an audit letter the following year.

What can trigger an audit?

Home office, hobby claims

Blurring the lines on your home-based business expenses is never a good idea. Remember, you can’t claim home/office expenses if your work area is not used exclusively for business. Also keep in mind that a hobby — such as reselling antique rocking chairs on eBay — remains a hobby and is not a “business” if you haven’t made any money on it this year … or last, or the 5 years before that.

Business Use of a Vehicle

The tax man is very skeptical of claims that taxpayers are using their cars 90 percent for business. Two of my friends are currently going through an audit regarding their deductions for vehicle expenses. In Canada, you must keep a mileage log, the CRA requires actual gas receipts and doesn’t accept the amounts on credit card statements.

Reporting large losses

Auditor’s ears prick up when they hear that you’re claiming a big loss. File paperwork for a business or trading loss often enough and expect to attract their attention. Losses on real estate holdings also hold particular appeal for auditors.

Working in a high-fraud field

Auditors reportedly show extra interest in tax returns from people working in certain fields of employment that are statistically more prone to fraud or at least fudging figures. These include home renovations, commission sales people, self-employed and restaurant servers.

Installment payments

If you are consistently underpaying your taxes year after year and can’t offer a good explanation as to why, you might get the tax man wondering if you deserve closer scrutiny. Don’t ignore instalment requests or reminders, paying them something is better than nothing at all.

Questionable deductions, credits

Claiming a lot of implausible or questionable deductions and credits on your tax return will raise eyebrows. Among deductions, it seems home, charity and alimony claims spark the greatest auditor interest.

Missing income

Thinking about not reporting substantial freelance earnings, tips, etc., especially if whoever provided the payout may be reporting the amount to the federal government. Don’t forget about your foreign bank account or earnings? Just because you earned or saved it overseas doesn’t mean it’s “free money.” Its better to be safe than sorry.

Having multiple sources of income or making too much

The more you make, earnings that fluctuate a lot or if you have a complicated return creates more interested by auditors in your return. According to Intuit TurboTax, 12% of millionaires earnings more than $1 million annually are getting an audit notification letter. (I would love to have that problem)

Just remember to keep good records, educate yourself regarding the tax code and when in doubt consult with an accountant.

Investing Outlook for 2016: Cloudy with high volatility & increasing risks for negative returns

2016

Over the past three weeks I have been trying to separate what is noise from the business media and what is reality. I am preparing for my investment club’s annual shareholders’ meeting. Facing a room full of financial advisors can be nerve racking. They expect my experience in option trading to produce positive returns regardless of market direction. My 2015 results will not disappoint them.

However, I found investment trends in 2015 to be very obvious but 2016 is going to be much more difficult. Last week I posted that world economic growth in 2016 is going to suck. World growth estimates came down on Thursday from 3.5% to 2.9%. Fourth quarter GDP growth estimates for the United States have been reduced to a range of 0% to 1.2%. Trying to find companies that can grow their revenue and profits in a slow growth environment will be challenging.

Why my 2016 crystal ball is cloudy

  1. Most experts were wrong with their predictions on the price of oil in 2015. Their current prediction is for low oil prices for the first half of 2016 and a rebound to the $50.00 range later in the year. If they are wrong again, many oil producers will default on their high yield debt, leading to bankruptcies that could cause panic in the stock markets.
  2. The Federal Reserve has been communicating 4 interest rate hikes but Wall Street experts believe that only 1 or 2 hikes will actually happen. If they are wrong, the U.S. dollar will increase in value causing lower profits for U.S. multi-national corporations. Plus higher interest rates will reduce share buybacks which isn’t very positive for stocks prices.
  3. China is struggling to manage their economy. Economic growth in China, the second largest economy, is questionable at best. China buys Brent crude oil which usually trades higher than WTI. The price spread has been narrowing confirming weak oil demand and slower economic growth. (Brent $33.34, WTI $32.92)
  4. A stock is considered to be in a bear market when it trades 20% or more below its 52 week high. More than half the stocks within the S&P 500 are in a bear market. Current price to earnings ratios are high in comparison to lower profit growth.
  5. No Santa Claus rally and January started with five straight down days in spite of a positive jobs report. (Scary)
  6. The Canadian stock market is down 20% from its Sept 2014 high which is already in bear market territory. Many fund managers believe that a rebound in oil could cause the Canadian market to outperform the U.S. One young fund manager recently stated that his energy fund is 100% invested in the oil patch. (Foolish?)

bear

Here is a small portion of what I am going to say at our shareholders meeting

I took some profits leading up to the Dec 16, Fed meeting and also did some tax lost selling. Our current portfolio contains 55% cash, 5% in Canadian stocks and 40% in U.S. stocks. I expect market volatility to increase during 2016 making option trading more profitable. It will also make buying put options for downward protection more expensive.

The three biggest unknowns are the future price of oil, the number of interest rate hikes by the Fed and GDP growth in the U.S. and China. I believe that the Canadian stock market is pricing in a recession in Canada. If crude oil doesn’t rebound in the second half of 2016, the Canadian dollar could fall further and we should consider moving more of our Canada cash to U.S. dollars. I will also ask them for their views on the current market turmoil and for some of their recommendations to clients.

Stay tuned for my next post which will hopefully have some investment ideas.

roller

I am very sure that the roller coaster ride that started in 2015 will continue in 2016.