Archives for May 2020

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Investing Blog Roundup: the Three Sides of Risk

You know the feeling when you come across a piece of work that is so good that you don’t even want to try to describe it? That’s how I feel about Morgan Housel’s deeply personal article below. I encourage you to read it.

Other Recommended Reading

I hope you are well (and stay that way), and thank you for reading!

Why is the Market Doing Well Lately?

A reader writes in, asking:

“We’ve basically had a full blown bull market since the bottom in March. VTI has a positive 34% return in just two months. How does that make any sense at all? Unemployment is higher than any time since the Great Depression. The death toll continues to climb, and everybody still says that a vaccine is a year away at least. What gives? It seems like the market has become completely disconnected from reality.”

The first thing to understand is that there’s a big difference between “the stock market” and “the economy.” And this distinction is not a new COVID-19-related phenomenon.

The value of the stock market at any given time is essentially the market’s consensus as to the present value of the expected future earnings of publicly traded companies. That is, the stock market is concerned with the profitability of publicly traded companies. Nothing more or less than that.

So unemployment only affects the stock market to the extent that it affects expectations of profitability. If unemployment goes up by, for example, 10%, that doesn’t mean profits will go down by 10%. The change in expected profits could be greater or smaller than the change in unemployment. Relevant factors there would include:

The second critical point to understand is that that the stock market’s valuation is based on an “expected” (i.e., probability-weighted) value of earnings.

The easiest way to understand this concept is to imagine a company that is undergoing a massive lawsuit. If the suit fails in court, the company would be worth $100 billion. But if the suit succeeds, the company will be bankrupt. Given those facts, what is the company worth right now? That depends on the likelihood of the suit succeeding. If the suit has a 30% probability of success, the company should be worth $70 billion right now (that is, 70% chance that it ends up being worth $100 billion, 30% chance it’s worth zero). If the suit has a 50% probability of success, then the company should be worth $50 billion right now.

As the apparent probability of success of the lawsuit changes, the firm’s value will change.

In the middle of March, extremely catastrophic COVID-19 scenarios (e.g., millions of deaths in the U.S.) were being discussed as real possibilities. We really didn’t know what to expect, and the range of potential outcomes was very wide.

Now, those very worst-case scenarios appear quite a bit less likely. Even if the most likely outcome is approximately the same as it was two months ago (i.e., still not good at all), the probability-weighted outcome can be quite a bit better, because the very worst outcomes have become (apparently) less likely.

But of course that means that the market could still fall again in the near future. If something happens to make the really bad outcomes appear more likely — or if something happens that makes the most likely outcome appear somewhat worse — or if something happens to make the best-case scenario outcomes no longer as good — then the market would probably fall again.

Investing Blog Roundup: the 8% Return Myth

This week, Christine Benz tackles the myth/misconception that delaying Social Security provides an 8% return, while test-driving the Open Social Security calculator as well as the SSA’s own benefit calculator.

Other Recommended Reading

I hope you are well, and thanks for reading!

Beware of Tax Planning “Cliffs”

A tax cliff occurs when one additional dollar of income beyond a certain threshold causes a sudden increase in your tax bill (or, in some cases, health insurance costs).

Most tax provisions don’t include tax cliffs. Instead, the effect of additional income is “phased in” over time. For example, with the American Opportunity Credit (for higher education expenses), you can claim the full credit if your income falls below a given threshold ($80,000 if single, $160,000 if married filing jointly). Then, as your income passes that threshold, the amount of credit you can claim is gradually reduced (“phased out”) until it reaches zero.

But with provisions that include tax cliffs, the change happens all at once. You either get the full deduction/credit or no deduction/credit. There’s no room in between. In such situations, that one dollar of income that puts you beyond the threshold can cost you hundreds or even thousands of dollars.

For example, all of the following provisions include cliffs:

There are many at the state level as well.

Avoiding Tax Cliffs

When possible, the goal is to avoid a situation where you end up just barely on the wrong side of a given cliff threshold.

The area in which people are most likely to have flexibility (i.e., ability to adjust income on demand, in order to avoid a cliff) is with regard to retirement accounts (i.e., by adjusting the balance of Roth/tax-deferred contributions if still working or distributions if no longer working).

A tricky point, however, is that the income being measured varies from one provision to another.

  • The retirement savings contribution credit is concerned with your adjusted gross income;
  • The tuition and fees deduction is concerned with modified adjusted gross income;
  • ACA premium tax credit and cost-sharing reductions are concerned with household income;
  • IRMAA is concerned with modified adjusted gross income (but the “modifications” to adjusted gross income are different than they are for the tuition and fees deduction); and
  • The EITC cliff is concerned with investment income.

Using tax prep software can be a helpful way to test for such cliffs. For instance, it can be helpful to prepare a hypothetical return in advance (e.g., using the 2019 version of the software to prepare a hypothetical return now, for 2020). See what your projected tax bill would be, then see how it would change if, for instance, you made an additional $1,000, $2,000, $3,000 etc. of tax-deferred contributions. At some point you might find that there’s a sharp decrease in the projected tax bill.

To be clear though, that method is not perfect, for a few reasons. Firstly, it won’t catch cliffs that affect something other than your taxes (e.g., IRMAA or Affordable Care Act cost-sharing reductions). In addition, it’s imprecise given the fact that you’d be using 2019 software for a 2020 return, and the relevant thresholds can change from one year to the next. And in situations in which major tax legislation has been passed, the exercise could be entirely off the mark.

Still, it’s often useful as an easy way to do a quick check.

More broadly though, it’s helpful to develop an awareness of which provisions involve cliffs, and then to be mindful of the one(s) that are most likely to affect you, so that you can look up the relevant threshold(s) when necessary. (For instance, if you buy health insurance on the exchange, you generally want to have Affordable Care Act subsidies in mind when making any tax-related decisions.)

For More Information, See My Related Book:


Taxes Made Simple: Income Taxes Explained in 100 Pages or Less

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  • Several money-saving deductions and credits and how to make sure you qualify for them,
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"Very easy to read and is a perfect introduction for learning how to do your own taxes. Mike Piper does an excellent job of demystifying complex tax sections and he presents them in an enjoyable and easy to understand way. Highly recommended!"

Investing Blog Roundup: Another Look at Bucket Strategies

Bucket strategies are a popular approach to asset allocation in retirement. They’re also a hot topic as far as whether (relative to a more traditional static asset allocation strategy) they improve results, worsen results, or offer no meaningful financial (i.e., non-psychological) change.

Joe Tomlinson recently took a look at such strategies and came to a conclusion that was different from what he had anticipated.

Other Recommended Reading

I hope you are well, and thank you for reading!

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