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Avoiding the Cliff but what about the Abyss?

US Capitol-WinterCongress and President Obama finally reached an agreement to solve the “fiscal cliff.”  The compromise, the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012, was reached in the early morning hours of January 1, 2013.

Many of our illustrious leaders in Washington tried to sound reasonable by saying no one got what they wanted but it was the best deal they could reach.   Essentially, they were saying you may not be happy, but be satisfied.

It’s a sad day if this was the best they could do.  I have two primary contentions with the deal they reached.  First… the timing and process of the solution, and secondly, the absence of any meaningful changes in federal spending.

The process was extremely political, and the American electorate should expect more… no demand more… of our leaders.  The fiscal cliff was primarily created by two pieces of legislation.  In December 2010, Congress temporarily extended the “Bush tax cuts” until December 31, 2012.  Thus, they have known for two years tax rates would increase unless they passed legislation to extend or change the rates.  The other part of the equation was the spending cut provisions agreed to in August 2011 to settle an impasse on increasing the debt limit.  Thus, Congress and President Obama have known for 18-24 months the fiscal cliff was coming but didn’t resolve it until after the deadline passed.

I have many smart and successful clients.  It has been exceptionally frustrating and difficult for them to make business and financial decisions without knowing what the future tax rates and rules will be.  Even on December 31st, no one knew what the rules would be the next day.  In my opinion, it was an absolute lack of leadership and prudence on behalf of both branches of government, both houses of Congress and both political parties.

Although the process was frustrating, the most upsetting part of the compromise was the complete absence of spending cuts.  The tax increases are projected to raise over $600 billion of additional revenue over the next 10 years, and all spending cuts are postponed, at least for another two months.

Fiscal Cliff statementPresident Obama campaigned on a balanced approach to deficit reduction.  How can you consider $620 billion of additional revenue and no spending cuts a balanced approach?  Our political leaders have promised the spending cuts will come soon, but that’s what they promised when they passed the law in August 2011.  It was easy to promise future cuts, but when it came time to actually implement a spending reduction, they postponed them once again.

Don’t be deceived into thinking the new tax revenues will make any significant dent in our debt or deficit.  $620 billion is a lot of money, but it’s over the next 10 years.  The U.S. Government is currently overspending by $1.3 trillion each year.  The additional revenues will help, but we’ll still rack up an additional $10+ trillion in debt over the next decade, based on current spending.  The exclusion of spending cuts in this deal was another missed opportunity.  Spending cuts are never easy or popular, but I’ll offer two guarantees; 1) spending cuts will come and 2) the longer we wait, the more painful they will be.

There may have been some political winners from the whole fiscal cliff debacle, but I believe we, the American public, were the real losers.  The deal cut may have averted the fiscal cliff, but the absence of any real spending cuts pushes us closer to a financial abyss.

Check Please

November 1, 2012 1 comment

The Congressional Research Service  issued a report to the Senate Budget Committee outlining the federal spending for benefits to lower income people in the U.S. during Fiscal 2011 (year ending September 30, 2011).  The U.S. government spent $746 billion on programs for lower income people.  If you add in state spending, the total exceeds $1 trillion.

According to the Census Bureau, there were 16.8 million families living below the poverty level in 2011 ($23,000 for a family of 4).  By simple math, this means the federal and state government spent nearly $60,000 for each family in poverty, which is nearly three times the amount they earned during the year.

Less than 10% of the support is in the form of direct cash payments.  Of the $746 billion spent by the federal government, $318 billion is for Medicaid and prescription drug subsidies.  Approximately $66 billion is in the form of direct cash assistance and $73 billion is in the form of tax credits.  The remaining $290 billion of support is delivered through 80 different programs designed to help lower income families.

Given the choice, a number of families might choose to ask for a $17,000 in lieu of the other programs.

It might seem crazy, but do you think it’s efficient to have 84 different programs to help needy people?  Each program has its own objective and purpose, but there is a cost for employees, office space, computers, etc.   The more money spent on overhead, the less is being spent on actually helping people.

A few years ago I helped a school with a grant for an afterschool educational program.  I was surprised and dismayed to discover that over 20% of the grant money was going to be spent for a grant administrator, who would do nothing but complete reports and monitor the work of others.  Sadly, I think that grant is indicative of how many government programs and grants operate; a large chunk of the money is gobbled up in administrative costs.

I’m not against helping lower income families.  In fact, I think we have an obligation to help those who are most vulnerable and in need.  The issue is how the assistance is delivered.

It has been nearly 50 years since Lyndon B. Johnson declared a war on poverty and introduced the Great Society.  Trillions of dollars have been spent over the past 5 decades, yet the poverty rate in the U.S. is almost exactly the same as when this great endeavor began. 

Maybe we should consider eliminating a number of programs and giving more cash to those who are in need.  This seems outrageous to most conservatives, who often think people are abusing the system.  Many of us have witnessed people using their food stamps to purchase cigarettes and alcohol.  There will always be people who abuse the system, and they should be punished when possible.  I also believe the current bureaucratic morass often aids them in taking advantage of the system.

Conservatives frequently complain about people being dependent upon the system.  Part of the solution may be giving people more money, which will allow them to be more independent and self-sufficient.  However, this independence must be coupled with more responsibility for their choices.

Your willingness to embrace such an idea is probably influenced by your view of people.  Do you see them as lazy and untrustworthy, requiring a rigid bureaucracy to monitor and keep them in line, or do you trust people to be independent, make good decision and do what’s right when given the opportunity?  Personally, I would rather be trusted to do the right thing, than have some bureaucrat watching over me.  Given the choice, I would prefer to forego all the programs and simply say… “Check Please.”

Should I Refinance My Mortgage?

Mortgage interest rates are at historically low rates.  Consequently, you may be wondering if it makes sense to refinance your mortgage.  Although there may be a variety of reasons for refinancing your mortgage, there are probably three primary reasons for you to refinance your mortgage.

  1. Lower your payments by borrowing money at a lower interest rate
  2. Convert your adjustable rate mortgage to a fixed rate
  3. Access some of the equity in your home (this isn’t as common or easy as it was a few years ago)

Since there are costs associated with refinancing a mortgage, the decision to refinance may not be a slam-dunk.  Essentially, you are paying money today, to save more money later.  As an example, assume that refinancing reduces your monthly payments by $50 per month.  If you have 25 years remaining on your mortgage, you will save $15,000 over the life to the loan.  If you assume you will pay $5,000 in closing costs to refinance, you save $10,000… over the next 25 years.

There are many different mortgage calculators available which will help you calculate your savings.  You can click here for one, or search the internet.  Keep in mind, internet calculators are only estimates, and the computations from your lender may be different.

Here are a few additional things to consider in your decision to refinance.

  • The time value of money – In my simple example above, you save $15,000 over the next 25 years, but you have to pay $5,000 up front.  Not only does it take you over 8 years to recoup your $5,000, you also lost the opportunity to invest that money and earn a rate of return (hopefully).  With interest rates on liquid assets near zero, the time value consideration may be nil.
  • Income taxes – The only refinance costs you can deduct are points paid to reduce the interest rate.  Unlike points you pay when you initially purchase your home, points paid on a refinanced mortgage must be amortized over the life of the loan (25 years in our example).  With a lower interest rate, your current mortgage interest deduction will also decrease, which could cause your current tax liability to increase slightly.  Although you’ll come out ahead by paying less interest over the life of the loan, your total benefit might be reduced by a smaller mortgage interest deduction.
  • Length of ownership – Since it’s likely to take you a couple of years of reduced payments to recoup the closing costs, you need to consider how long you plan to stay in your home.  If you expect to move in the next few years, the monthly savings may not be sufficient recoup your out-of-pocket costs for the refinance.
  • The loan process – The mortgage financing industry has changed dramatically.  It’s not easy for anyone to get a mortgage in today’s market.  I’ve had clients who experienced difficulties and delays in getting their refinancing approved, even though they could have easily written a check to pay off their existing mortgage.  The aggravation may be worth it, but expect the approval to be a hassle.
  • Market value – The fair market value of your home may be one of the biggest stumbling blocks to a refinance.  Market value is what prevented many people with subprime and adjustable rate mortgages from being able to refinance.  If you don’t have sufficient equity in your home, you won’t be able to refinance, even if you’re making your current payments, and the refinance will make it easier for you to continue making your payments.

Many advisors will tell you that the interest rate should at least 0.75-1.00% lower than your current rate for a refinance to be economically feasible, but depending upon your situation and long-term goals, a smaller rate differential might still be beneficial.

My advice is to run the calculation with an online calculator and see if it makes sense to you.  If the closing costs can be recouped within the next 5-7 years, and you don’t plan to sell before then, talk to a mortgage broker and get their advice.  A reputable broker will be able to give you a more accurate estimate of what it’s going to cost, the savings you can expect, and the process involved.

Refinancing your mortgage can save you money.  However, there are costs involved, and you want to make sure the benefits exceed the cost.

Can credit card debt management help you to save dollars?

People in this part of the world are used to using credit cards rather than cash for their day-to-day expenses. The proportion of credit use is far more than their retirement savings. Credit cards have given them immense portability and convenience to make frequent purchases. However, this has given rise to several financial diseases which is affecting the fragile US economy. One of the major setbacks is the accumulation of credit card debt. This makes it imperative for the people to know the ways of credit card debt management to avoid getting into a financially sticky situation.

The ways of credit card management

Here are few methods of reduce credit card debt as well as save dollars:

  1. Transfer your credit card balances – This means transferring all your multiple credit card balances into a zero interest credit card. This may be for a year or so as offered by the credit card company. This creates a great opportunity to clear out all your outstanding bills within the promotional period. In this process, you’ll be paying for the principal balance and not for the interest. However, there is a transfer fee for this procedure which hovers around 3-5% of the balance amount. By this method, you’ll save a lot of money even after paying the transfer fee.
  1. Create a budget: Start developing the habit of spending less. Vow to start living a frugal life. This is because the more you spend on useless things, the less you save. Therefore, to fight back such irresponsible behavior, plan a budget that will be comfortable for you to follow. Keep in mind that this budget should not become a burden for you; instead it should motivate you to spend smartly and save money for the rainy day. Use those savings towards debt repayment and you’ll see a remarkable decrease in the number of outstanding bills.
  1. Lower your interest rates: This is one of the most effective steps in the credit card debt management plan. Be vigilant and do your market research to learn about the recent market offers which various creditors are making. After a getting a thorough knowledge of the market offers, contact your current creditors. Request them to lower your card’s interest rate. The creditors will welcome this sort of gesture from you and will readily oblige. If you’ve been a good customer who has been punctual in making the payments, then the creditors will surely consider your request.

During the negotiation phase with your creditors, tell them that you are considering balance transfer as an alternative to lowering the interest rate. This will give them the necessary nudge to accept your terms.

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This article was written by Grace Ruskin.  Grace is a financial writer and is associated with DebtCC Community.

The Buffett Rule

On Monday President Obama unveiled his deficit reduction plan.  In addition to reducing the deficit, he outlined his ideas to pay for the American Jobs Act he proposed two weeks ago.   No surprise his plan includes tax increases on more wealthy Americans.  Phrases such as “shared sacrifice” and people paying “their fair share” make for good sound bites.  However with Washington, the challenge is often deciphering what their pithy sayings mean.

He referenced the “Buffett Rule” as one of his proposals.  It’s named after Billionaire Warren Buffett who has been rather outspoken about the need to raise taxes on the super-wealthy.  Cueing off of a New York Times op-ed piece written by Mr. Buffett a few weeks ago, the Buffett Rule is supposed to make sure people who make over $1 million a year will pay a higher percentage of their income in taxes than someone who makes less than the $1 million threshold.

You may agree or disagree with the concept of the Buffett Rule.  Regardless if you think it’s a good idea, I have three primary issues with the proposed Buffett Rule.

  1. Additional Complexity.  As a tax professional, I can attest that the tax code is exceptionally complex and at times unwieldy.  With the myriad of deductions, exemptions and exceptions, it will be virtually impossible to make sure some making over $1 million will pay taxes at a higher rate than someone making less.  Everyone’s tax situation is unique, so it’s near impossible to offer such a guarantee.  It may sound simple, but it’s going to be very difficult to achieve.
  2. Increased Tax Avoidance.  While it may be good for those of us in the tax business, I can assure you that there will be a host of tax professionals looking for ways to minimize the tax liabilities of their clients under whatever new rules are enacted.  It’s simple economics.  The higher the tax rate, the more cost-effective it is to pay someone to find strategies which minimize your taxes.   You may have your opinions about what’s fair and right, but there is nothing illegal or immoral about structuring your affairs to pay less tax.  Tax evasion is illegal, but tax avoidance is not.  As I recently wrote, if you personally feel like you aren’t paying your fair share, then I would encourage you to make a voluntary contribution to the U.S. Treasury.  Trust me… they’ll take your money.  Political discourse and debate are fine, but it’s wrong to castigate someone who is abiding by the law because you don’t think the result is fair.
  3. Unintended Consequences.  Congress has a lousy track record of using the tax code to target certain persons.  The Law of Unintended Consequences often kicks in, and the negative ramifications are often much more detrimental than anyone anticipated.  Two great examples come to mind; one recent and one from decades ago.  The 1099 reporting provision included in the health care reform is the most recent Congressional bumbling.  As soon as it was passed, it became clear the administrative nightmare would far exceed any benefits obtained.  Fortunately, Congress repealed it before it became effective.  The Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) is the classic example of unintended consequences.  The AMT was enacted in 1969 to tax 155 wealthy families who were viewed as not paying their fair share.  By 2008, 3.9 million taxpayers were subject to AMT, and 27% of them made less than $200,000. This probably isn’t what the 91st Congress had in mind.

The Buffett Rule may cause some wealthy people to pay more in taxes, but if history is a predictor of the future, the long-term results will be much different than expected.  Such targeted tax policy generally hasn’t yielded the desired results.  I’m not sure why they think the Buffett Rule will be any different.

Raising Taxes on the Super-Rich

Billionaire Warren Buffett made headlines last week with an opinion article he wrote for the New York Times.  His statement “My friends and I have been coddled enough by a billionaire-friendly Congress” attracted a lot of media attention and discussion.

In writing, “It’s time for our government to get serious about shared sacrifice” you can deduce his apparent attempt to sway public opinion and encourage Congress to increase the tax burden upon the wealthiest individuals in the country.  He generally described the targets for the additional sacrifice as those making over $1 million each year, but he didn’t offer specific proposals or suggestions of what additional sacrifice they should be required to make.

In the article, Mr. Buffett disclosed his 2010 tax liability of $6,938,744, which he said was 17.4% of his 2010 income.  It’s a hefty sum; not surprising for one of the world’s richest men.  Most of us would be happy to earn $6,938,744 in our lifetime, let alone pay that much in taxes in one year.

I have no qualms with Mr. Buffett sharing his opinion and participating in the debate over U.S. tax policy.  It’s part of his First Amendment rights to free speech.  Hypothetically, I would ask Mr. Buffett one question… if you believe your taxes are too low, what’s stopping you from paying more?

If Mr. Buffett thought $6,938,744 was insufficient or not his fair share, what prevented him from paying more?  I contend the only thing preventing him from paying a greater sum was himself.   If he chose, Mr. Buffett could have voluntarily added to his 2010 tax liability whatever additional amount he thought was fair.  The U.S. Treasury would have gladly accepted his additional contribution.

His tax liability of $6,938,744 is a rather exact number.  While not explicitly stated, it’s implied this was the statutory amount he was required to pay.  Thus, he paid the minimum amount he was legally obligated to pay, which is what everyone does, irrespective of their socio-economic status.

I may be cynical, but I know many wealthy people who advocate for government spending and programs, yet are constantly trying to minimize their personal tax liabilities.  There is nothing wrong with minimizing your tax liability.  It is part of what I do for people on a daily basis.  However, I see a tinge of hypocrisy when you think others should pay more tax, yet look for “loopholes” for yourself.

I think Mr. Buffett’s credibility in advocating for higher personal income taxes would be bolstered if he chose to make a voluntary contribution above and beyond the minimum required tax liability. His convictions would be demonstrated by his actions and not just his words.

That’s my opinion. What’s yours?

Effects of the Credit Downgrade

Late Friday afternoon, Standard & Poor’s (S&P) announced it was downgrading the credit rating of U.S. Treasury securities from AAA to AA+ and retained its negative outlook.  Although S&P previously announced it was considering a downgrade, the announcement was a bombshell dropped at the end of a tumultuous week of economic and political news.

  • After weeks of political posturing and rancorous debate, Congress passed the Budget Control Act of 2011, increasing the debt ceilingPresident Obama signed the legislation on August 2, thereby avoiding a potential default by the U.S. government.
  • After the debt deal was done, Moody’s and Fitch Ratings announced they would retain their AAA rating of U.S. Treasuries but continue to monitor U.S. fiscal health.
  • The Dow Jones Industrial Average ended a 9-day losing streak with a blistering 334 point decline; wiping out all of the gains for 2011.
  • S&P capped the week by announcing their downgrade.

Since Friday afternoon, politicians, economists, and pundits have been discussing the impact of the downgrade.  There has also been a lot of pointing fingers of who is to blame for  tarnishing the image of the U.S.  It has also left a lot of people wondering about the real implications of a downgrade in the credit rating of the U.S. Government.

Here are a couple of things I think you can expect from the downgrade.

  • There is a bruising to the American pride and psyche.  Nothing has changed since Friday, but most Americans want to believe we are the best of the best.  The downgrade is likely to increase the uncertainty and pessimism of the American consumer.
  • Interest rates won’t change immediately.  Interest rates are effectively determined by the free markets, not by S&P.  A credit ratings agency simply tries to assess the risk of a particular security, but it’s up to the market to decide the interest rate.  Don’t expect interest rates to change in the near future, but there could be some upward pressure on rates if investors become more leery about the fiscal stability of the U.S. government.
  • The stock markets aren’t going to crash.  As anticipated, the markets were battered yesterday and lost about 5% of their value, but it’s not a direct correlation to the S&P ratings change.  Remember the Dow took a 334 point hit last week before S&P made its announcement.   Furthermore, the 10-year Treasury yield fell from Friday’s rate of 3.558%. This means investors bought more Treasuries; the very securities that are supposedly more risky.  The selloff is more attributable to the poor outlook of the global economy and European sovereign debt worries.  Investors are seeking stability, so they’re buying up Treasuries and gold.

There is one potential redeeming element which may come from the downgrade, but it’s far from certain.  This might serve as a wake-up call for our political leaders to get serious about the fiscal future of our country.  As I wrote last week, the debt deal was long on promises and short on spending cuts.  In my opinion, a 0.6% cut in spending for 2012 is a pittance in light of overall spending.  The rating downgrade could prompt our leaders to get serious about tackling the debt and deficit.

No longer is it just extreme fiscal conservatives who think it unrealistic for the U.S. government to overspend by $1 trillion each year without consequence.  Standard & Poor’s is a significant player in the global economy.  You may question the timing and motivation of their downgrade, but it should serve as a clarion call of the long-term risks and ramifications of our debt and deficit spending.  I can only hope our politicians are listening and have the courage to do something about it.