2013 Tax Bill: Who *Really* Gets Hit

Drum roll please:

3. Anyone (the 53%) who pays federal income taxes.
2. Single No kids (SNOKs).
1. DINKs:  Dual-Income No Kids.

The 2013 tax compromise hits everyone who files because of the change in Social Security tax.  From the very first dollar rates go from 4.2% to 6.2% for Social Security.  Compared to 2012, virtually everyone pays more taxes in 2013.

Having no kids really hits taxpayers.  Don’t miss my message… children are expensive to raise, and having children will not save you money!  But having children will reduce your tax bill due to myriad credits from the child tax credit, to extra exemptions, to 529 college savings plans.

Having no children hits single taxpayers some, but DINKs get hit harder for total incomes above the 15% tax bracket (approx $71,000).  Married couples making $248,000 per year — not quite Obama-rich — will pay $4548 more in Social Security taxes alone than they did in 2013 if the partners make similar incomes.  If, however, another couple with a single wage earners (SINK: single income no kids), SocSec tax would be half, $2274 due to the $113,700 Social Security cap, which is assessed per person, not per couple.

The marriage penalty, which never fully went away, is back with a vengeance in 2013.  The higher the income, the greater the marriage penalty.  The more equal the incomes, the greater the penalty.  It is almost like the tax code is telling married women to stay home and get pregnant.  It is hard to believe it is 2013, because it feels like the tax code is still written with a 1950′s mentality.

 

Financial Life 2.0

Three quarters of the way through another busy year.  I married my girlfriend of six years, and we are thriving despite the dismal economy.    I have a rewarding electrical engineering job, working on some of the most advanced technology on the planet.  My wife has her own successful business, and based on current projections, she has a good chance of  passing me in earned income this year.

My wife and I are compatible in many, many ways — but finance has historically not been one.  At heart, I am a saver, and she is a spender.   That is one reason we have a prenuptial agreement.

When we met my wife was in debt.  In contrast I was looking for new ways to invest my money.  Those ways included paying off my home  mortgage in full, starting several small businesses, and purchasing my first income (rental) property.  With lots of coaching and encouragement (and no out-of-pocket money), I helped her become debt free.  It was very important to me that she do it on her own, because early on I did believe she was the one for me.  On the flip side, I knew that there would be too much tension between us if she could not get here finances together.  Luckily, she listened and adapted.

I have my flaws, but discipline with money is not one of them.  Over time, I have become less frugal.  That has always been part of my plan.  Save and grow wealth early; spend and enjoy later.  We are living well, and putting away money for the future.  I have little doubt that before I turn 40, we will be a millionaire household.  Depending on how one counts, we are already.  Having at least one million dollars in (reasonably) liquid assets is a goal.

My dreams are bigger than this.  I have created a financial portfolio software business I believe has the potential to be worth tens or hundreds of millions of dollars.  It is because of this software,and the ideas built into it, that I have largely stopped blogging here.  The software simply has a better business model.  The prospects of Balhiser.com, as a financial blog, making even $100,000 a year are very small.   It just took me a while to swallow that truth.  I haven’t given up on this website, I’ve just put it on the back burner.

Anyhow, back to wedded bliss.  There is one truth that mars our bliss: the marriage penalty.  Simply put — when we got married our taxes went up.  Just for kicks we ran the numbers both ways: single and married.  The difference was over a $1000 marriage penalty.  And the way things are going, the tax penalty is only going to get worse.

All in all, though, I am happy to be married to my lovely wife.

Wishing my readers all the best.  When in doubt, diversify – at least in matters of finance.  (Probably best not to diversify in matters of fiancée(s))

 

 

 

 

Making Money

When I last updated my “play money” (Crazy Ivan) account info it was worth $25,953.  As of market close yesterday it is worth $28,174.  Equity and ETF positions have changed slightly. Then now include DTN, INTC, IVV, JNK, PBP, SPLV and XLE.   I like all of these positions, however XLE has been a short-term disappointment.  I hold XLE as only a hedge against rising gas prices.

All in all not bad performance for an account valued at $15,784 in October 2005.  (There have been no deposits or withdrawals  during the whole time.)  This is about 11.2% annualized performance.

High-Tech Portfolios

When I think about the phrase “high-tech portfolio”, I don’t think tech stocks.  Instead I think about using technology to build a smarter portfolio.   Most actively-managed portfolios are constructed, in full or part, using 50-year-old “modern portfolio theory” methods.  I’m working to change this by bringing superior portfolio technology to market.

So, while writing for this financial blog remains a passion of mine, I will likely be spending much more time refining software and building a financial software business.  Much of that effort will be off-line at first.  Occasionally, however, I will provide business and software updates on the Sigma1 Financial Software Blog.

Developing portfolio-optimization software combines two of my long-term passions:  software development and finance.

Rest assured, that I will keep this blog up and going.  I think it contains some hidden gems that are worth discovering.  I will also continue to blog here when inspiration strikes.

Top 6 Investment Innovations in Recent Decades

These are my top picks for innovations that most benefit personal investors.

#6:  Decimal pricing.    Do you remember when stocks were priced in fractions?  Like 23 and 3/8?  This was not cool.  Not only was it clunky, but it meant that bid/ask spreads were usually stuck at 1/8 of a dollar per share, or 12.5 cents per share.  Luckily, today most investments are priced in decimals.  Some exceptions include bonds and the interest rates on most mortgages.  How archaic!

#5: Free online investment info.   Information used to largely come in paper form, and cost money.  Or you could pay tons of money for Quotron… really not practical.

#4: Discount online brokers.   My Dad used to pay $50-$100 per stock trade — over the phone with a broker.  Today some of my ETF trades are free, many of my trades average about $1, and my most expensive trades cost $8.

#3: Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs).  ETFs fix most of the problems with mutual funds such as high(er) expenses and lack of intra-day trading.  ETFs also open up a wide variety of investment options including access to commodities, leveraged funds, and precious metals.

#2: Index investing.  Index investing brings two huge advantages.  First, incredibly low costs.  Second, maximum diversification.  Index investing has, and continues to revolutionize the investing playing field.

#1: 401(k)s (and IRAs).   Named after a once-obscure IRS code, 401(k)s, or 401Ks, offer investors decades of tax-deferred growth opportunity.  IRAs offer a similar advantage.  Finally Roth IRAs offer similar tax-deferral opportunities where the tax benefit is back-loaded.

Stock Beta Computation, 6 Closing Thoughts

When I wrote about computing stock betas in 2010, I had no idea it would be this blog’s third most popular topic. I wrote a handful of blog posts about stock beta, but my heart wasn’t in them.  Today, driving home from the airport, I was inspired to blog about beta for perhaps the last time.  Previously I held back and focused on the mechanics of beta computation, and the discrepancies I was seeing between various website’s beta values.  This time I provide an example beta-computation spreadsheet and don’t hold back on the math or the theory.  Before I launch into this final word on beta, here a few highlights.

  1. Beta is easy to find online.  Not all sites agreed on value, but the delta seems less than it was 2 years ago.   Why compute beta when you can simple look it up?
  2. Beta is less useful if it has a low R-squared.  Luckily, sites like Yahoo! Finance provide R-squared values.
  3. Even with a high R-squared, beta is not a very useful risk measure.  Standard deviation is better in many ways.
  4. In theory high-beta stocks (>3) should go up dramatically when the market goes up.  In practice this is often not the case.
  5. In theory low-beta stocks (<0.5) should be “safer” than the market.  Again not so true.
  6. In theory low-beta stocks (<0.5) should “under-perform.”  Not necessarily.

If you are still interested in beta, simply click to read the full-beta blog.

Naked Capitalism in Las Vegas

Here I am in Las Vegas, staying at the Encore.  I’ve lost $297 today at the craps tables.  I’ve been using my “comp” card and out of curiosity asked the “casino services” representative why is a small-timer such as me even bothering to use my comp card at the tables.  He said that every player can get a comp, even if it is just a cup of coffee… all the way up to a private jet ride home.  I handed him my card and asked, “so if I keep playing like this for 3 days where do I fit on that spectrum”.   His answer:  “a cup of coffee… but please use the card.”

Hot dice!

Lady Luck?

The folks at the Wynn/Encore are exceedingly polite and professional.  Their job is to 1) make money for the casino, and 2) provide a positive experience for the customer while doing so.

So no private jet for me!  That said, I think I will quit using my comp card.  What’s in it for me?… nada.

I understand very well the rationale of the casino.  First, table games are expensive to operate… craps takes 4 dealers to run.  Second, the way I play is least favorable to the house.  I place pass line and come bets, and place odds bets on the points.  Other than tips, that’s it.  No “field”, no placed bets, nothing.  Given a thousand people like me the casino probably, on average, breaks even after expenses.

So why do they want my data?   My hunch is that players like me still fill a role.   We  seed the tables and have fun.  Some high rollers like that.   The guy next to me at one craps table walked away with $16,000 and change.  He mentioned that at one point he had $25,000, but he had lost a bit.  Still, he said, he was up overall.   I assume this guy rolled in comps.  He is the gambler casinos covet.   He tipped generously, perhaps $500/hour.

I have decided that my privacy is worth more than a cup of coffee.  (Perhaps I would have settled for a room-service breakfast for two).  I will try to keep a lower profile, but in Vegas that is a difficult game.  Cameras, RFID-enabled chips, facial-recognition software… good luck keeping a secret here.  But I’m gonna make them work that much harder, because that’s how I roll.

Stay tuned if you want to learn some of the worst craps advice I’ve heard in a while.  Until, then, best of luck!

Update:  The terrible craps advice?  To use “placed” bets rather than pure “odds” bets on numbers in order to get more “comps” and more “comps action”.  Follow this advice and you will see your $10 bet on “4″ pay back $18 instead of $20.  The $2 fee will get you about 2 cents worth of comps!  Plus you’ll get less action than you think because you’ll lose your money faster.

Simple Plan to Tackle the Home Mortgage Crisis

Houses Up

5&7 Plan

The idea is so simple, it is surprising that no one (that I have heard about) has proposed it.  One big problem the US government faces is the enormous pile of mortgage-backed debt held by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.  Another problem is that many “home owners” are underwater with their mortgages.  [How can you be a home owner if you have negative equity?]  Finally, the popping of the housing bubble continues to be a drain on the US economy.

The solution I propose is making interest on mortgage-backed securities tax free for five years.  This plan would immediately drive up the value of these “toxic” assets and drive down mortgage interest rates below historic lows.  This would provide a tremendous boost to Fannie and Freddie and even the Federal Reserve.  Increased demand for tax-free MBS would spur banks to issue more mortgages under easier terms, which would help prop up home prices.  Naturally, fewer home owners would be under water.

This would also be a boon for investors, giving them access to another tax-free asset class.  The incentive of tax-free MBS would be so powerful, it would threaten to take money away from tax-free municipal bonds.  To help offset this risk, part II of my plan would make long-term capital gains on municipal bonds tax free for seven years.  Like Cain’s 9-9-9 Plan, my plan would have a numeric title, the “5&7 Plan”.  (To avoid confusion with the 5-7 Pistol, the “&” symbol is used rather than a dash.)

The long-term capital gains provision gives investors an incentive to hold municipal bonds for at least one year.  The extra two years for municipal bond gains gives investors an added incentive to hold long-maturity municipal bonds.

The 5&7 Plan would expand the tax-free bond universe and introduce the concept of tax-free interest investing to a new group of investors… the middle class.  Typically only high-income earners benefit from tax-exempt bonds because they offer lower interest rates than taxable bonds.  Because high-income taxpayers face higher marginal tax rates, tax-free municipal bonds make sense despite lower interest rates.  If the 5&7 Plan becomes law, higher-yielding MBS will become lucrative to savvy middle-class investors.

I encourage the 2012 presidential candidates to consider adopting the 5&7 Plan.  I could see Romney offering the 5&7 Plan as a way of “cleaning up Newt’s Fannie and Freddie mess.”  Similarly I could see Gingrich pitching the 5&7 Plan as a way of “fixing the Democrat’s Fannie and Freddie problems.”  Finally, I could see Obama selling the 5&7 Plan as “an innovative way to clean up America’s mortgage crisis”.

If the 5&7 Plan gets enough press, it will revitalize the mortgage debate.  It will help turn the debate towards real solutions and away from political blame games.  And, if passed, 5&7 will energize the mortgage and housing markets in explosive ways compared to the tepid response all the other failed legislation of the past 3 years.  If you like the 5&7 Plan, share this link.  If you don’t, please share why.  I will publish all non-spam replies.  Let’s get the 5&7 debate started!

5 Ways to “Show Me the Money”

Ask whether these people are showing you the money. Hold them accountable for your money.

1. Your boss/company. Ask yourself first if you had a good year. If so, do some research on at you should expect to be earning.  Try starting with Glassdoor.  If you are not making what you want and are not moving in the right direction, consider moving to another company.  But, be sure to do through research and then line up a job (in writing) before giving your notice.

2. Politicians.  Are you getting reasonable benefit for your taxes?  Grade by region.  Here’s my grading:  City C, County B, State B+, Federal D.   If your grade is C or less, consider voting the bums out!

3. Social Security.  Ever work out the rate of return on your projected Social Security payments versus the amount you have and will put in.  Mine is about 0% return.  And that is *if* I ever get *any*.  Not much you can do about it, but something to consider when planning your own retirement…. What if I get nothing from Social Security when I retire?

4.  Investment Adviser.  How does my return stack up to A) The S&P500 total return (including dividends)?  B) A 100% bond profile such as Vanguard Total Bond Market Index Fund Admiral Shares (VBTLX)?  If, overall, it is under-performing both, fire your adviser.  If it beats one… ask questions like why it didn’t do better.   If it beats both, ask “what risks are you taking with my money!”?  If you are your own investment adviser ask yourself the same questions.  And, if you decide to fire yourself, consider getting advice from someone reputable and sane like Vanguard.

5.  Your credit score.  Know your credit score (FICO score).  Guess what?  If it’s below 711, it’s below average! [Technically below "median", but let's not split hairs.]  720 used to be golden, but today 750 is the new golden score.  In some cases 770.  If your score is below where you’d like it to be, start getting financially fit.  And remember, success doesn’t happen overnight.  Success takes time.

What Baseball and Finance Share

A Litte Baseball

Baseball before Moneyball

In a word: stats.  Baseball has statics for almost anything of relevance that happens on the field.  Finance has statics like expense ratio, yield, price-to-earnings ratio, total return, alpha, beta, R-squared, Sharpe ratios, and the Greeks (delta, vega, theta, rho)… just to name a few.  I  suspect most of my readers are more familiar with baseball stats like batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS, ERA, K%, BB%, GB, and the like.

Today’s blog will start with the simple concept of batting average.  In baseball batting average is the number of hits divided by the number of official at bats.  Since a typical baseball player can have 400 at bats per baseball season, there is a lot of statistical significance to his batting average for one year.

In contrast, a fund manager could be said to have about 4 at bats per season — one per quarter.  It would take a 100-year career to have as many “at bats” as baseball player has in one.  Even if you decided to count fund performance on a monthly basis, it would take 25 years to match a baseball season’s worth of data.

The most common financial definition of batting average counts a hit as outperforming the market (say the S&P 500) over a given time period, say 3 months.   An out is under-performing the market.  Generally a .500 batting average is analogous to the the Mendoza line in baseball.  Sadly, many fund managers and financial planners bat below .500.   And often those that do exceed .500 get there by early luck… luck which generally fades (back below .500) with time.

Just like in baseball batting average is not the most useful static in finance.  OPS (on base plus slugging percentage) is probably a better financial stat… if it existed.  Instead financial stats like Sharpe Ratio and alpha fulfill a similar role of financial performance measurement.  The problem with all these financial stats for measuring fund managers is there are simply not enough “plate appearances” to reliably measure a fund manager’s performance until his or her career is almost over!   It is only after a long financial career that the difference between skill and luck can be accurately sorted out… a bit late I’d say for investors looking to pick fund or fund managers.

There is a factor other than stats that financial and baseball matter share.  In a recent conversation someone mentioned that baseball is the only major sport where the player scores [directly].  In other words the runner himself (herself) scores by getting safely to home plate.   Basketball, football, and hockey require an object (ball or puck) to cross a threshold.  Football requires a ball + a player to score a touchdown, but a field goal does not directly require a player to fly through the uprights!  Only in baseball does the player himself score a run.

This analogy can be extended to the idea that the investor herself can be the only thing that matters (that scores).  At the end of the day it the investor who determines how successful she is at meeting her financial goals.  The Sabermetrics of finance may help her get there, but ultimately it is the investor herself who has a winning, losing, or World-Series-Championship financial season.