Evidence in the Face of Uncertainty
We continue to watch with concern the spread of the new coronavirus. The uncertainty is being felt around the globe, and it is unsettling on a human level as well as from the perspective of how markets respond.
It is a fundamental principle that markets are designed to handle uncertainty, processing information in real-time as it becomes available. We see this happening when markets decline sharply, as they have recently, as well as when they rise. Such declines can be distressing to any investor, but they are also a demonstration that the market is functioning as we would expect.
Market declines can occur when investors are forced to reassess expectations for the future. The market is clearly responding to new information as it becomes known, but the market is pricing in unknowns, too. As risk increases during a time of heightened uncertainty, so do the returns investors demand for bearing that risk, which pushes prices lower. Our investing approach is based on the principle that prices are set to deliver positive future expected returns for holding risky assets.
We can’t tell you when things will turn or by how much, but our expectation is that bearing today’s risk will be compensated with positive expected returns. That’s been a lesson of past health crises, such as the Ebola and swine-flu outbreaks earlier this century, and of market disruptions, such as the global financial crisis of 2008–2009. Additionally, history has shown no reliable way to identify a market peak or bottom. These beliefs argue against making market moves based on fear or speculation, even as difficult and traumatic events transpire.
Another way some investors might react to a falling market is jumping ship and selling out of stocks. The intuition may be that sitting out of the market for a period of time can help avoid further losses. However, the weight of evidence and data suggest this type of market timing may instead actually reduce investors’ gains over time.
Financial downturns are unpleasant for all market participants. Investors can reduce exacerbating the experience by adhering to core principles. Two such principles supported by a long history of research are broad diversification and maintaining a consistent asset allocation. Investors who deviate from these principles by pursuing stock picking or market timing may undermine their ability to achieve their investment goals.
Action Steps That May Be Appropriate
What can we do while we hunker down at home, and wait for better days. As always, our specific advice and actions will vary, depending on circumstance and needs. Here are a few other areas of interest we’re keeping an eye on:
- Tax planning and money management: Helping optimize new tax breaks, loans, grants, unemployment benefits, and similar relief measures for individuals and businesses
- Financial life planning (pre-retirement, retirement, and everywhere in between): Deliberately assessing the impact of the current market on the overall financial plan. to the opportunities and challenges specific to your near- and long-term interests and concerns. What opportunities and challenges are now presented with the current market.
- For younger investors (or any investor with a decades long timeframe), current market conditions can actually benefit you greatly. You can buy equities now while prices are low (or at the very least not abandon the ones you already hold), and watch their expected growth compound over time. Especially if you can do this in a tax-sheltered account like a 401(k), traditional IRA, or Roth IRA, you can build even more long-term wealth, even more dramatically.
- If you are in or near retirement, with a significant (but appropriate) need for portfolio income, the truth is, the current market is not ideal for you. You might face what are known as sequence of return risks if you must sell depressed stock holdings to fund your current spending needs. Essentially, selling stocks at a loss early in retirement inflicts a double-whammy on your portfolio’s future growth potential. Detailed withdrawal strategies for managing sequence risk is beyond the scope of this piece. But best practices do exist. This is one critical reason we are glad to be here as your advisor, to help you weigh the challenges and possibilities ahead of you, and proceed in an informed manner.
- Investment management:
- Rebalancing, and maintaining structure in portfolio target allocations – a systematic, objective, and consistent way to buy low and sell high
- Creating beneficial tax-losses, and making other prudent moves to best position your portfolio for future expected growth
- Bringing to light the long-term perspective: Looking at the evidence, data, and reality of the crisis, and putting this into a long-term perspective. Avoiding fixating on daily returns or reacting rashly to scary market news
- We need remain informed about the evolving financial landscape – especially about changes that might directly impact life plans. The structure of the plans and investments should always be built in anticipation of periodic bear markets like the one we’re seeing now.
- Essentially, among the most important things we can currently do is to largely look past all the market’s mayhem, and focus instead on making the most of your life. Try to “set your egg timer to six months,” as this moving piece by Contrarian Edge’s Vitaliy Katsenelson suggests. Consider his advice (emphasis ours):
- “We have been given a very unique opportunity to divorce ourselves from material things and spend time with our family. To really spend time with them. We have been given the rare opportunity to prioritize what is most important to us without guilt. The material world is on pause, at least for a few weeks. Try to make the most of it while you can.”
CARES Act Overview
With much of the country in self-isolation, perhaps you’ve got time to read the entire H.R. 748 Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act. If you’d prefer, here is a summary of many of the key provisions we expect to be discussing with you in person (virtually), depending on which ones apply to you.
- Direct payments/recovery rebates: Most Americans can expect to receive rebates from Uncle Sam. Depending on your household income, expect up to $1,200 per adult and $500 per dependent child. To calculate your payment, the Federal government will look at your 2019 Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) if it’s available, or your 2018 AGI if it’s not. However, you’ll receive an extra 2020 tax credit if your 2020 AGI ends up lower than the figure used to calculate your rebate. This Nerd’s Eye View illustration offers a great overview:
- Retirement account distributions for coronavirus-related needs: You can tap into your retirement account ahead of time in 2020 for a coronavirus-related distribution of up to $100,000, without incurring the usual 10% penalty or mandatory 20% Federal withholding. You’ll still owe income tax on the distributions, but you can prorate the payment across 3 years. You also can repay distributions to your account within 3 years to avoid paying income taxes, or to claim a refund on taxes paid.
- Various healthcare-related incentives: For example, certain over-the-counter medical expenses previously disallowed under some healthcare plans now qualify for coverage. Also, Medicare restrictions have been relaxed for covering telehealth and other services (such as COVID-19 vaccinations, once they’re available). Other details apply.
For Retirees (and Retirement Account Beneficiaries)
- RMD relief: Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) go on a holiday in 2020 for retirees, as well as beneficiaries with inherited retirement accounts. If you’ve not yet taken your 2020 RMD, don’t! If you have, please be in touch with us to explore potential remedies.
For Charitable Donors
- “Above-the-line” charitable deductions: Deduct up to $300 in 2020 qualified charitable contributions (excluding Donor Advised Funds), even if you are taking a standard deduction.
- Donate all of your 2020 AGI: You can effectively eliminate 2020 taxes owed, and then some, by donating up to, or beyond your AGI. If you donate more than your AGI, you can carry forward the excess up to 5 years. Donor Advised Fund contributions are excluded.
For Business Owners (and Certain Not-for-Profits)
- Paycheck Protection Program loans (potentially forgivable): The Small Business Administration (SBA) Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) is making loans available for qualified businesses and not-for-profits (typically under 500 employees), sole proprietors, and independent contractors. Loans for up to 2.5x monthly payroll, up to $10 million, 2-year maturity, interest rate 1%. Payments are deferred and, if certain employment retention and other requirements are met, the loan may be forgiven.
- Economic Injury Disaster Loans (with forgivable advance): In coordination with your state, SBA disaster assistance also offers Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDLs) of up to $2 million to qualified small businesses and non-profits, “to help overcome the temporary loss of revenue they are experiencing.” Interest rates are under 4%, with potential repayment terms of up to 30 years. Applicants also are eligible for an advance on the loan of up to $10,000. The advance will not need to be repaid, even if the loan is denied.
- Payroll tax credits and deferrals: For qualified businesses who are not taking a loan.
- Employee retention credit: An additional employee retention credit (as a payroll tax credit), “equal to 50 percent of the qualified wages with respect to each employee of such employer for such calendar quarter.” Excludes businesses receiving PPP loans, and may exclude those who have taken the EIDL loans.
- Net Operating Loss rules relaxed: Carry back 2018–2020 losses up to five years, on up to 100% of taxable income from these same years.
- Immediate expensing for qualified improvements: Section 168 of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 is amended to allow immediate expensing rather than multi-year depreciation.
- Dollars set aside for industry-specific relief: Please be in touch for a more detailed discussion if your entity may be eligible for industry-specific relief (e.g., airlines, hospitals and state/local governments).
For Employees/Plan Participants
- Retirement plan loans and distributions: Maximum amount increased to $100,000 on up to the entire vested amount for coronavirus-related loans. Delay repayment up to a year for loans taken from March 27–year-end 2020. Distributions described above in In General.
- Paid sick leave: Paid sick leave benefits for COVID-19 victims are described in the separate, March 18 R. 6201 Families First Coronavirus Response Act, and are above and beyond any benefits received through the CARES Act. Whether in your role as an employer or an employee, we’re happy to discuss the details with you upon request.
For Employers/Plan Sponsors
- Relief for funding defined benefit plans: Due date for 2020 funding is extended to Jan. 1, 2021. Also, the funding percentage (AFTAP) can be calculated based on your 2019 status.
- Relief for facilitating pre-retirement plan distributions and expanded loans: As described above for Employees/Plan Participants, employers “may rely on an employee’s certification that the employee satisfies the conditions” to be eligible for relief. The participant is required to self-certify in writing that they or a direct dependent have been diagnosed, or they have been financially impacted by the pandemic. No additional evidence (such as a doctor’s release) is required.
- Potential extension for filing Form 5500: While the Dept. of Labor (DOL) has not yet granted an extension, the CARES Act permits the DOL to postpone this filing deadline.
- Exclude student loan pay-down compensation: Through year-end, employers can help employees pay off current educational expenses and/or student loan balances, and exclude up to $5,250 of either kind of payment from their income.
For Unemployed/Laid Off Americans
- Increased unemployment compensation: Federal funding increases standard unemployment compensation by $600/week, and coverage is extended 13 weeks.
- Federal funding covers first week of unemployment: The one-week waiting period to start collecting benefits is waived.
- Pandemic unemployment assistance: Unemployment coverage is extended to self-employed individuals for up to 39 weeks. Plus, the Act offers incentives for states to establish “short-time compensation programs” for semi-employed individuals.
- Student loan payments deferred to Sept. 30, 2020: No interest will accrue either. Important: Voluntary payments will continue unless you explicitly pause them. Plus, the deferral period will still count toward any loan forgiveness program you’re in. So, be sure to pause payments if this applies to you, lest you pay on debt that will ultimately be forgiven.
- Delinquent debt collection suspended through Sept. 30, 2020: Including wage, tax refund, and other Federal benefit garnishments.
- Employer-paid student loan repayments excluded from 2020 income: From the date of the CARES Act enactment through year-end, your employer can pay up to $5,250 toward your student debt or your current education without it counting as taxable income to you.
- Pell Grant relief: There are several clauses that ease Pell Grant limits, while not eliminating them. It would be best if we go over these with you in person if they may apply to you.
- A break for “non-designated” beneficiaries: 2020 can be ignored when applying the 5-year rule for “non-designated” beneficiaries with inherited retirement accounts. The 5-Year Rule effectively ends up becoming a 6-Year Rule for current non-designated beneficiaries.
As such, before proceeding, please consult with us and other appropriate professionals, such as your accountant, and/or estate planning attorney on any details specific to you. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to us with your questions and comments. It’s what we’re here for.
- DWC News Update, The CARES Act: Federal Coronavirus Relief. March 30, 2020.
- Financial Planning, “Major changes in RMDs and retirement contributions in $2T stimulus plan,” Ed Slott, March 27, 2020.
- H2R CPA, “Cares Act will provide billions of dollars of relief,” March 27, 2020.
- R. 748: Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
- Nerd’s Eye View, “Analyzing The CARES Act: From Rebate Checks To Small Business Relief For The Coronavirus Pandemic,” Jeffrey Levine, March 27, 2020.
- The Wall Street Journal, “How the Coronavirus Paid Leave Rules Apply to You,” Charity L. Scott, March 27, 2020.
- ThinkAdvisor, “3 Stimulus Bill Provisions Advisors Should Act On Now: Jeff Levine,” Jeff Berman, March 30, 2020.
- S. Chamber of Commerce, “Coronavirus Emergency Loans Small Business Guide and Checklist.”
- S. Small Business Administration, Paycheck Protection Program and Disaster Assistance.
Woodstone Financial, LLC is a fee-only financial advisor, specializing in retirement planning, comprehensive financial planning, and investment management firm located in Asheville, North Carolina. Contact us to learn more about our services.