Archives for January 2020

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Investing Blog Roundup: Is Vanguard’s “At Cost” Model Even Good Enough?

Vanguard’s claim to fame is that it runs everything “at cost” because of its ownership structure (i.e., no external shareholders demanding a profit). And the benefit to Vanguard clients has been tremendous over the years.

In a recent article for Financial Planning, Allan Roth pointed out that Schwab is now basically able to run their entire asset management business below cost — offering what many would see as superior service, while charging fees as low or lower than Vanguard’s.

The key point is that Schwab simply has a different business model (most especially, a key other revenue source), so they are able to use their asset management business as a loss leader, whereas Vanguard must break even on theirs.

Other Recommended Reading

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Can I Change the Beneficiary of My 529 Plan/Account?

A reader writes in, asking:

“Can I create a 529 account, contribute to it with my daughter named as the beneficiary, and then change the beneficiary to another family member if we end up wanting to help fund somebody else’s education?”

The short answer is: it depends on who exactly the family member is, but probably yes.

Naturally, Code section 529 is where we’d find information about 529 plans.

There, we find that there are no income tax consequences to changing the beneficiary of a 529 account, provided that you change the beneficiary to somebody who is a “member of the family” of the existing beneficiary. Members of the family include:

  • A child or a descendant of a child (i.e., a grandchild);
  • A brother, sister, stepbrother, or stepsister;
  • The father or mother, or an ancestor of either (i.e, grandparent);
  • A stepfather or stepmother;
  • A niece or nephew;
  • An aunt or uncle;
  • A son-in-law, daughter-in-law, father-in-law, mother-in-law, brother-in-law, or sister-in-law;
  • An individual who, for the taxable year of the beneficiary, has the same principal place of abode as the beneficiary and is a member of the beneficiary’s household;
  • The spouse of any of the above people;
  • The spouse of the existing beneficiary; or
  • A first cousin of the existing beneficiary.

Reminder: When going through this list, remember that these relationships are with regard to the existing beneficiary — not with regard to you or to any other person(s) contributing to the account.

If you change the beneficiary to somebody who is not in one of the above categories, the distribution will be taxable as income and will be subject to a 10% penalty.

Finally, section 529 also notes that the gift tax and generation-skipping transfer tax shall apply unless the new beneficiary is:

  1. In the same generation as (or a higher generation than) the existing beneficiary, and
  2. A member of the family of the existing beneficiary (as described above).

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Investing Blog Roundup: State-by-State Economic Insecurity Among Americans Age 65+

This week I came across a recent study that looks at economic insecurity among older Americans. The paper discusses the typical amount of income necessary in each state for a person age 65+ (or a couple age 65+) to maintain independence and meet daily living costs while staying in their own homes (providing separate figures for renters, homeowners with a mortgage, and homeowners without a mortgage). Then it shows what percentage of people in each state in that age range are below that necessary income figure.

What struck me most was not so much the differences between states, but rather the differences between single people and couples.

Other Recommended Reading

Thanks for reading!

Why Longer-Term Bonds Have Greater Price Volatility (Interest Rate Risk)

A reader writes in, asking:

“I am aware that bonds and bond funds with longer duration have greater price changes in response to interest rate moves than shorter-term bonds do. And given that, I understand that longer-term bonds generally have higher yields because of that higher risk. That makes perfect sense.

What I have never been able to wrap my head around is why do the prices of longer duration bonds fluctuate more severely?”

A bond’s market price is really just the result of a net present value calculation. That is, the price of a bond at any given time is the sum of the present values of each of the cash flows from the bond (i.e., the present value of each interest payment plus the present value of the payment upon maturity).

(See this article if you haven’t encountered the concept of present value before. It’s worth a read, as it’s one of the most fundamental concepts in finance.)

As a reminder, the present value of a given cash flow is calculated as follows:

PV = FV / (1 + r)^n

where:

PV = present value
FV = future value (i.e., the dollar amount of the cash flow in question)
r = annual discount rate
n = number of years before the cash flow is received

The greater the number of years, the greater the impact of the discount rate. Compare the two following examples.

Example 1: Given a discount rate of 2%, the present value of a $1,000 cash flow to be received one year from now is $980. If we raise the discount rate to 3%, the present value falls to $971, a change of $9.

Example 2: Given a discount rate of 2%, the present value of a $1,000 cash flow to be received five years from now is $906. If we raise the discount rate to 3%, the present value falls to $863, a change of $43.

Point being, a 1% increase in the discount rate had a much larger effect on the cash flow that was further in the future.

When we’re calculating the present value of a bond, the discount rate is the return that investors could expect to earn from other bonds with similar risk (i.e., other bonds with the same credit rating and same duration).

So when interest rates change, the discount rate changes. And the further in the future the cash flow is to be received, the greater the change in present value (i.e., market price).

So, the longer the duration of a bond (i.e., the further in the future its cash flows will be received, on average), the greater the change in present value (i.e., market price) when interest rates change.

How to Calculate the Deduction for Pass-Through Business Income

For tax years 2018-2025, there is a deduction for pass-through business income (i.e., income from sole proprietorships, partnerships, S-corporations, or LLCs taxed as any of the above).

What follows is my best attempt to explain the deduction clearly. Unfortunately, it is complicated. So if this deduction is relevant to your personal tax planning, I’d encourage you to meet with a tax professional and read the applicable Code section for yourself.

One point before we get started: I’m simplifying here by assuming that you have no qualified cooperative dividends, qualified REIT dividends, or qualified publicly traded partnership income. Each of those types of income gets special treatment under this new Code section.

Basic Calculation

If your taxable income* is under a certain threshold amount, the deduction is 20% of the pass-through income from your business(es), but it cannot be greater than 20% of your taxable income excluding net capital gains.

The threshold amounts for 2020 are $326,600 if you are married filling jointly or $163,300 if you are single, head of household, or married filing separately. (Of note, this is the top of the 24% tax bracket for each filing status.)

When your taxable income exceeds the threshold, two potential complications kick in:

  • A wage (or wage + property) limit, and/or
  • A phaseout for “specified service businesses.” 

Wage (or Wage + Property) Limit

If your taxable income exceeds a certain phaseout range (i.e., the threshold amount from above, plus $100,000 if married filling jointly or $50,000 if single/head of household/married filing separately), then your deduction for each business will also be limited to the greater of:

  • 50% of the W-2 wages paid by the business**, or
  • 25% of the W-2 wages paid by the business**, plus 2.5 percent of the unadjusted basis immediately after acquisition of all “qualified property” (basically, depreciable tangible property that is used by the business or held by the business and available for use).

If your taxable income is in the phaseout range, the calculation basically says, “If you were past the phaseout range, how much would the wage (or wage + property) limit reduce the amount of your deduction? Now, instead of reducing your deduction by that whole amount, we’ll multiply that reduction by a percentage that is the percentage of the way you are through the phaseout range.”

Example: You are single and in 2020 you have $150,000 of pass-through income from a sole proprietorship. Your taxable income is $188,300 (i.e., halfway through the phaseout range). The business has no qualified property. The business has two part-time employees to whom it paid a total of $40,000 of W-2 wages over the course of the year.

Without regard to the limitations, your pass-through business income deduction would be $30,000 (i.e., 20% of $150,000). But your taxable income is past the threshold amount of $163,300. If you were past the phaseout range, your deduction would be limited to $20,000 (i.e., 50% of the wages paid by the business). That’s a $10,000 reduction relative to what it would be without the limitation.

But you aren’t past the phaseout range. You are halfway through it. So your deduction ($30,000) is reduced by half of that $10,000 — for a total deduction of $25,000.

Specified Service Business Phaseout

If your business is a “specified service business,” there’s another limitation that can come into play. A specified service business is:

  • Any trade or business involving the performance of services in the fields of health, law, accounting, actuarial science, performing arts, consulting, athletics, financial services, brokerage services, or any trade or business where the principal asset of such trade or business is the reputation or skill of one or more of its owners or employees; or
  • Any trade or business which involves the performance of investing and investment management, trading, or dealing in securities, partnership interests, or commodities.

If your business is a specified service business, then we again calculate how far your taxable income is through the same phaseout range (i.e., the same threshold, plus either $100,000 or $50,000).

If you are past the phaseout range, you get no deduction for pass-through business income.

If you are in the phaseout range, then we calculate the deduction as normal, except we only consider a pro-rata share of all of the amounts from the business (income, gain, deduction, loss, W-2 wages from the business). So, for example, if your income is 70% of the way through the phaseout range, everything is 70% phased out, so only 30% of your income from the business would be counted for calculating the deduction.

A key point here is that this affects the amount of wages counted for applying the wage and wage+property limits! And this is where the complexity starts to get ugly.

Example: You are single and in 2020 you have $150,000 of pass-through income from a sole proprietorship. Your taxable income is $175,800 (i.e., 25% of the way through the phaseout range). The business has no qualified property. The business has two part-time employees to whom it paid a total of $40,000 of W-2 wages over the course of the year. The business is a specified service business.

Because you are 25% of the way through the phaseout range, all of the amounts from the business are 25% phased out, meaning we use 75% of each of them. So instead of calculating 20% of the income from the business, we calculate 20% of 75% of the income from the business (i.e., 20% of 75% of $150,000). That gives us a deduction of $22,500 before applying the wage-related limit.

As in the prior example, to apply the wage-related limit, we calculate what the reduction to the deduction would be if you were all the way through the phaseout range, then we apply only a portion of that reduction, based on how far you are through the phaseout range.

Again, the wage limit is 50% of the wages from the business, but because of the specified service business phaseout we are now calculating 50% of 75% of the wages from the business (i.e., 50% of 75% of $40,000). That gives us a limit of $15,000. That’s what the limitation would be if you were past the phaseout range. Relative to the $22,500 deduction you’d have without the wage limit, that’s a $7,500 reduction.

But you aren’t past the phaseout range. You’re 25% of the way through it. So we calculate 25% of the $7,500 reduction, which gives us a reduction of $1,875. So we take your initial $22,500 deduction and reduce it by $1,875 for a total allowed deduction of $20,625.

Other Assorted Points of Note

The deduction for pass-through business income is not an “above the line” deduction (i.e., it does not reduce AGI). But it is also not an itemized deduction; that is, you can claim it as well as the standard deduction. In other words, it works much like personal exemptions did prior to 2018.

As far as first-glance tax planning thoughts, I’ll offer three brief points:

  • For business owners below the phaseout range, this deduction is usually a point in favor of keeping sole proprietor taxation (or partnership taxation) rather than electing S-corp taxation, as the wages that the S-corp would have to pay to owner-employees would not be pass-through business income.
  • Business owners below the phaseout range will have two different marginal tax rates for different types of income. (Normal taxable income will have a normal marginal tax rate, and pass-through business income will have a lower marginal tax rate because it results in a larger deduction.)
  • For business owners in the phaseout range, those two marginal tax rates will be higher, because each additional dollar of income (whether from the business or not) will cause partial phaseout of the deduction.

*For brevity’s sake, I’m referring to “taxable income” throughout this article. In reality, we are concerned with taxable income without regard to the deduction for pass-through business income.

**For multiple-owner pass-through businesses (i.e., partnerships, S-corps, or LLCs taxed as either of the two), “W-2 wages” only includes that one owner’s allocated share of total wages paid. For example, if the business paid $60,000 of wages and there are two partners each with 50% ownership, $30,000 would be the amount of wages each partner would use when calculating the deduction.

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  • Self-employment tax: What it is, why it exists, and how to calculate it,
  • Business retirement plans: What the different types are, and which one is best for you,
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