Saturday, December 16, 2017

Wealthy Donor's Bitcoin Dilemma

You've already used up your $5-million plus estate and gift tax exemption. Now you want to pass  along another asset, worth $2 million, to your heirs.

Should you make the transfer immediately and pay federal gift tax? Or wait until next year, when you'll pay no tax because the new tax legislation will double the exemption?

A no-brainer? Not necessarily, suggests Paul Sullivan in his Wealth Matters column. If that $2 million is in Bitcoin, who knows its value next year? $20 million? $50 million? You might be smarter to pay tax on $2 million this year.

Or, you might wait for the Bitcoin bubble to burst. No $50 million, no $2 million, no tax problem.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Nothing Beats an Aston Martin for Christmas

Is your wealthiest client still looking for "something special" to give her husband this Christmas? How about an Aston Martin?

No, not the car. Too common. Think boat.

The Aston Martin AM37 will cost your client about $1.64 million ($2.1 million for the souped-up version). Beauty seldom comes cheap.

Your client's husband already owns a superyacht? Then she might consider the latest superyacht accessory – the Aston Martin Neptune, a three person submarine. Order now for delivery in a year or so. Price: about $4 million.

Wealth isn't always a burden. Cannily deployed, it's fun.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Tax Plans Stranger Than Fiction

 Generally, well-compensated employees should pay income tax at higher rates than business owners and investors. 

However, certain high-income business owners should pay tax at a marginal rate of 85.2%.

Haste and input from billionaires have produced weird taxation possibilities.

Friday, December 08, 2017

Don't Like the Parrot? How About Bitcoin?

Eager investors are getting rich quick with Bitcoin. But  Bitcoin reminds an Economist blogger of  a certain parrot. A real live currency it ain't.
It seems that every day, Bitcoin seems to hit a new high. But the reported price can move up and down by $1,000 or so within a few hours. This might have made it a great investment for those who got in at the right price and are nimble enough to get out in time. But it doesn't make it a useful means of exchange. When the price is rising fast, those who use bitcoin will be reluctant to part with it; when the price falls, those who sell goods will be reluctant to accept it.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Inheritance REDUCES Inequality?

As great wealth spreads from generation to generation, it provides more and more people with smaller and smaller inheritances.  Maybe, The Times (London) suggests, inheritance actually reduces inequality.  Not likely, but there's some interesting Swedish research.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Death Taxes on Life Support

Estates of the newly deceased have long been a tax target. Augustus, the first Roman emperor, imposed the vicesima hereditatium or "20th of inheritance" in 6 AD. 

Have death taxes finally run their course?

Could be, according to The Economist. Australia, Canada, Russia, India, Norway and Sweden are among the countries that have abolished their death duties.

Although the US Congress seems unlikely to abolish the federal estate tax this year, the exemption might be raised high enough to eliminate tax for families that are not at least entry-level rich.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Happy Thanksgiving

We borrowed this image of a Currier and Ives print,  G. H. Durrie's "Home for Thanksgiving," from a Yale Art Gallery post. Durrie was a Connecticut artist, born in Hartford in 1820. He died in New Haven, where he had a home on Temple Street, in 1863. That year Currier and Ives published two of his winter scenes. They became popular (nothing like death to enhance an artist's career) and Currier and Ives reproduced six more Durrie paintings.  "Home for Thanksgiving," issued 150 years ago, was the last.

Monday, November 20, 2017

The Ivies push back

Apparently, Harvard thinks a 1.4% tax is too much for it to pay.

It's because they understand the "camel's nose" phenomenon.

I'd much prefer we simply end "nonprofit" status for everyone, and ditch the charitable deduction to boot.  But it's a start.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Incredible Shrinking Stock Market

In 1996, writes Jason Thomas of the Carlyle Group in his WSJ($) op-ed, there were 7,322 domestic companies listed on U.S. stock exchanges. Today there are only 3,671. The Wilshire 5000 is down to around 3,500 companies.
Easy access to venture, growth and private-equity capital means that companies no longer need to pursue an initial public offering to fund growth or access liquidity. Increases in regulations, shareholder lawsuits and activist demands have also diminished the appeal of a public listing. Over the past two decades, the number of annual IPOs has fallen sharply, to 128 in 2016 from 845 in 1996.
Successful new companies prefer to stay private to avoid hassle. Thanks to eased rules, they can acquire plenty of capital and hundreds of direct or indirect shareholders without going public.
The trend away from IPOs has benefited private market players at the expense of everyday investors. With companies like Uber, Airbnb and other successful startups delaying their IPOs for so long, there is little prospect for public returns on a scale similar to those enjoyed by Amazon’s early stockholders.
Yesterday’s growth stocks have migrated to private portfolios. As a result, stock pickers have slimmer pickings. Investors in index funds face leaner returns. "Today," Thomas asserts, "it isn’t possible to assemble a portfolio with the same makeup as the stock market of 1997 without exposure to private markets."

Another drawback, not mentioned by Thomas: Investing in nonpublic stocks through private equity partnerships or hedge funds is way more expensive than buying an index fund. Private investors face high fees and must hand over a share of the profits.

The world of everyday investing is in transition. Over the next decade or two the changes are likely to be drastic. Now if we just had 20-20 foresight….

Related post: The Stock Market is Disappearing Before Our Eyes.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Art Appreciation

Approximate sales prices for a damaged, heavily restored painting now considered to be the work of Leonardo da Vinci:






Sources: Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Harvard Will Invest the Yale Way

In a move Jim Gust has frequently deplored, some years ago Harvard laid off its endowment's "overpaid" investment whiz. The endowment's returns have suffered. Now Harvard has decided to try the Yale model: a small in-house staff overseeing the efforts of carefully selected outside investment managers. (The system works great when the selecting is done by Yale's David Swensen.)

Take a second look at the Yale Daily News article linked above. Strikes me as pretty professional. Better than I'm likely to read in our local paper.

Who's Jinghi Cui, the student journalist? Glad you asked. She's a Yale soph who graduated from the Experimental High School attached to Beijing University. You pronounce her name JING-ee SOO-ee.

Here's another example of her reporting, this time on the pension burdens borne by Yale and other universities. Does any large private or public employer not have a pension problem?

Fun and Taxes

The tax legislation being hurried through Congress is serious business. Still, haste sometimes makes humor.

Reinventing the bubble that killed the 1986 tax reform
Back in '86, last-minute tinkering increased the nominal top income-tax rate from 28% to 33%. But it was just a "bubble" – for the highest incomes, the rate dropped back to 28%. Without this silliness, the '86 reforms might have survived longer.

So what did House Republicans just come up with? A new bubble that would raise the current top tax rate of 39.6% to 45% before dropping back to 39.6%. (Members of Congress will do anything for a laugh.)

Before-tax loss, after-tax gain
Senate Republicans propose delaying the 20% corporate tax rate for a year while allowing immediate deductions of some business expense from income taxable at 35%. Professor Dan Shaviro of New York University Law School gave the NY Times an example of the fun possibilities:
Normally no one would invest $100 to earn only $90 back. But under the Senate plan, where some business expenses could be immediately deducted at a 35 percent rate, you would get $35 back in 2018. So your actual cost is $65. By the time your $90 earnings are paid in 2019, though, the tax rate would be 20 percent. That would cost you $18 in taxes, and leave $72 in your wallet. So even though your investment lost $10, you are still coming out ahead: with $72 on a net investment of $65.)
Best new tax acronym
"To reduce their home tax bill, " the Times reports, "companies like Google and Pfizer, for instance, often relocate patents and copyrights in tax havens and then sell use of that intellectual property back to their American subsidiaries at eye-popping prices." This Global Intangible Low-Tax Income is known as GILTI.

The tax bill will seek to cut off GILTI, but the restrictions could prompt companies to move more research and manufacturing off shore.

Friday, November 10, 2017

This Year 50 to 80 Family Farms or Businesses Face Estate Tax

Most owners of family farms or businesses needn't worry about federal estate tax. Most, but not all.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that 50 estates consisting mostly of a farm or business will pay the death tax this year. Data from the Tax Policy Center suggest the number is 80.

Repeal of the estate tax would make life easier for those 50 to 80 families. But repeal would also allow more than 5,000 other wealthy families to retain their diversified wealth tax free.

At the moment, chances of repeal have dimmed. The House version of the tax bill leaves the federal estate tax in place for seven years, albeit with a doubled exemption. The Senate version deletes the delayed repeal.

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

If It Smells Like a Tulip . . .

This year…

The value of Bitcoin has increased by more than 600 percent.

One hundred hedge funds have been set up to invest exclusively in Bitcoin.

And as of the end of last month, nearly a third of Bill Miller's hedge fund was said to be invested in Bitcoin.

Nathaniel Popper of the Times provides a lucid introduction to this year's steaming hot investment.

“You could get a possible run on the bank if one large investor withdraws and that causes the price to tank," says one trader. But that appears to be a minority worry. Almost everybody frets about a possible collapse of stock prices. Almost nobody, aside from grumps like JPMorganChase's Jamie Dimon, seems to think that Bitcoin will wilt in the heat of irrational exuberance.

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

The Agonies of Wealth

Why can't I be sure I won't go broke?
Why can't my money buy love?
Why doesn't my money boost my self esteem?
Is everyone after my money?

The average member of Tiger 21 has over $87 million in investable assets. (It takes a minimum of $10 million to join.) Yet the Tiger 21 member mentioned in this NY Times story finds wealth a source of anxieties and insecurity.

Many Times readers, including your obedient blogger, find it hard to sympathize with the burdens of life as an UHNWI.

Wealth managers, on the other hand, welcome the new-business opportunities offered by traumatized Gilded Agers. Wealth worries also help support groups such as Tiger 21 and (minimum wealth $30 million) the Institute for Private Investors.

$300 million per year

That is how much will be raised by the scant 1.4% tax on the net investment income of private university endowments.  So if it were 14%, as it should be, it would raise $3 billion per year.  Real money.

However, this estimate is probably high, for two reasons.  First, the tax has already been watered down--initially, it applied to endowments of $100,000 per student and more, but now it applies only to endowments of $250,000 and up.  So Harvard and Yale still pay, but many schools have been let off the hook.

More important, what is "net investment income"?  It's not the same as total return.  I'm sure the endowments will adjust their investment strategies for maximum tax avoidance.

Saturday, November 04, 2017

I don't like tax bubbles

The new tax legislation has one, for those earning $1 million and more in a single year.

Why I support the tax reform bill

I've been arguing for this for years:

Some endowments will be taxed.

The tax rate is too low, but the camel's nose would get into the ten.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Famous Owner? Bigger Bucks!

Three factors are said to determine the value of real estate: location, location, location.

When art and collectibles are auctioned off, the prices they fetch also reflect three factors: provenance, provenance, provenance.

This BMW Z8, for example. At an upcoming auction it might sell for $200,000. But because its first owner was Steve Jobs, it may fetch as much as $400,000. (If Steve had been more of a car buff. expectations might be even higher.)

Paul Newman drove race cars. His wife gave him a Rolex Daytona. How much did that provenance add to the value of the watch? A lot. This month the coveted chronometer sold at auction for $17.8 million.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Tax Reform‘s Fierce Foe

Alarmed by talk of lost deductions for mortgage interest and state and local taxes in the Republican tax bill, the National Association of Home Builders flexed its lobbying muscle to promote a homeownership tax credit. No luck, apparently, but give the builders full credit for chutzpah.

Homebuilders don't like the current effort at tax reform any better than they liked the 1986 version. They blame the '86 act, explains Damian Paletta, for discouraging real estate investment and thus triggering the savings and loan crisis.
There were numerous causes of the savings and loan crisis, but the home builders aren’t the only ones that think the 1986 tax law is a precipitating factor. During congressional testimony in 1991, then-real estate developer Donald Trump made the same argument. He called the 1986 tax law an “absolute catastrophe.” 
"It has taken all the incentive away from investing in real estate," Trump complained. Nevertheless, he soldiered on for another twelve years before launching his career on reality TV.

Even Dogs Diversify

A guy we know received this birthday card from his financial adviser.

Monday, October 23, 2017

The Sound of Trial Balloons Popping

Every Congress has to learn the lesson: Cutting income tax rates is easy; expanding the tax base is difficult. Every tax break has beneficiaries who claim they can't live without it.

Legislators seeking ways to limit the cost of President Trump's tax plan  realize that citizens regard deductions for mortgage interest and charitable gifts as inalienable rights.

Could SALT, the deduction for state and local taxes, be a candidate for elimination? Nope. Republicans from high-tax states wouldn't hear of it.

Next trial balloon: a suggestion that the annual limit for contributions to 401(k) plans be cut from $18,000 to $2,400. Pop! After widespread criticism, that idea has suffered death by tweet.

Back in the Reagan years, cutting tax rates was relatively quick and easy.  Cutting rates and broadening the tax base in the 1986 tax reform act was not.

At Last! Family Farms Worth Taxing

Opponents of the federal estate tax habitually warn that it imperils family farms. But they've hemmed and hawed when asked for examples. Now some family-owned farms actually may be large enough for death tax. Two thirds of our national agricultural output, the WSJ($) reports, comes from super-sized farms with annual sales of $l million or more.

Example described in the article: a Kansas farm that stretches for over 30 miles and encompasses more than 30,000 acres.

Saturday, October 21, 2017


I have routinely written in my trust articles how a living trust avoids the need for guardianship, in the event of incompetency.

This article from the New Yorker puts that idea in a whole new light.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Was Tulip Mania Fake News?

For generations, economists and financial writers have illustrated the folly of investment bubbles by referencing the 17th-century  tulip mania. As colorfully described by Charles Mackay in Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, Amsterdam went nuts over "broken tulips," bidding astronomical prices for virus-inflected bulbs that produced exotic blooms.

But we may have to find another financial frenzy with which to scare investors. There was no tulip fever, Smithsonian asserts. Prices for "hot" bulbs did soar and eventually crash, but trading was largely limited to urban upward strivers, eager to obtain the exotic status symbol of the day. Mackay fell for tall tales told by Dutch moralists dramatizing the evils of trying to get rich quick.

For the moment, looks like we'll have to settle for the millennial dot-com bubble to illustrate the dangers of irrational investor exuberance. But have patience – bitcoin mania may have legs.
Like to learn more? Peter M. Barber's Famous First Bubbles can be read online here. YouTube offers numerous treatments of tulip mania – this two-parter will tell you more than you may want to know.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

No sir, Reagan did not need years for tax reform

From Tax Notes:
Trump alluded to former President Ronald Reagan’s long journey to pass tax reform, noting that he has been in office for only about nine months. “I would like very much to see it be done this year. . . . If we get it done, that’s a great achievement. But don’t forget, it took years for the Reagan administration to get taxes done,” 
This is not accurate.

Reagan "got taxes done" with the Economic Recovery Tax Act in 1981,  enacted in the first year of his Presidency.  That law slashed the top income tax rate from 70% to 50%.  How did that happen?  Reagan made it a priority right out of the gate, he didn't defer all legislative action until after the August recess.  As the Republican Congress did.

I am generally a Trump supporter, but this comment makes me wonder if the President has any idea what he is talking about.

Oh, I suppose Trump might be referring to the 1986 bipartisan tax reform, the law that briefly brought the top rate down to 28%.  That was an historic achievement, and the country would be well served by simply re-enacting that legislation, word for word.

But it was ERTA '81 that ignited the stock market and the economy in the 1980s. The boom was well under way by the 1984 election, which was two years before the 1986 tax bill.

Trump needs to get this done.  Republicans need to stop dithering.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Dartmouth 14.6, Yale 11.3 – But Not Exactly

Dartmouth's football team beat Yale, 28-27. Dartmouth's endowment has won more convincingly. For the fiscal year ending last June, Dartmouth achieved an investment return of 14.6%. Yale lagged at 11.3%.

In reality, there's less to all those numbers than meets the eye. Yale's one-point football loss resulted from an erroneous out-of-bounds
 ruling on an end-zone catch that video showed to have been a touchdown. As for the endowment returns, their precision is partly the result of accounting fiction, as Yale School of Management's Roger Ibbotson has pointed out:

"When you have private equity and venture capital assets that are not priced every day, it is difficult to know exactly what the real performance is. I don’t really like ranking the endowments annually because there’s such a significant measurement error."

Long term, the investment performance of Yale's endowment remains remarkable: an average of 12.1% per annum over the last 20 years.  The endowment's domestic equities returned 12.2%,  trouncing the benchmark return of 7.5%. Makes you wonder why David Swensen allocates only 4% of Yale's endowment to shares in U.S. companies.

Friday, October 13, 2017

“Death Cleaning”

From the WSJ ($), here's an idea executors and heirs should applaud:
If your family doesn’t want your stuff when you’re alive, they sure won’t want it when you’re dead. 
That’s the blunt assessment of yet another self-help author from abroad who is trying to get Americans, who have an addiction to collecting and storage units, to clean up their acts.

The latest volley in the decluttering business comes from Stockholm, where 80-ish artist Margareta Magnusson has just published a slim yet sage volume, “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning.” The book will be published in America in January.
In Sweden, it seems, custom requires senior citizens to declutter before they pass on. Splendid idea, but wicked difficult to execute. Although your obedient blogger knows he's reached decluttering age, progress comes hard. Soon as you get rid of some stuff, more stuff shows up.

Out in our garage, we still store containers of miscellaneous nails, miscellaneous screws and miscellaneous odd bits of metal that my thrifty father figured might come in handy some day.

Throw them out? How can I? They might come in handy.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

A death tax cloud over family businesses clears

The IRS has promised to revoke the Section 2704 valuation rules, proposed last year, after getting 28,000 negative comments on them.

The rules were projected to raise taxes on family business by $18 billion over ten years, a massive and targeted tax increase.  Why them?  Why was that a good idea?  Why single out family business for punishment?

That revenue projection was from the Obama administration, so I'd take it with a grain of salt. I can't imagine that valuation adjustments to family businesses come to over $3 billion every year (roughly the amount needed to generate $1.8 billion in annual tax savings). Still, it was an obviously terrible idea, one that galvanized small business owners around the country.

Sunday, October 01, 2017

When Deficits Meant Tax Hikes, Not Cuts

From half a century ago, August, 1967, comes this Life magazine editorial. 

"The case for a tax increase…is a persuasive one." Although the U.S. had run deficits in nine of the previous 10 years, "the sheer size of the one now confronting the nation is fearsome."

Current deficits run bigger, in terms of GDP, than they did half a century ago. Can you imagine our president or any member of Congress proposing a tax increase? 

Life also mentions the need to restrain high inflation? How high? Three percent, a level today's fiscal engineers seek to promote.

You're right, Dorothy. We're not in the 20th century any more. 

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Tax Legislation, Anyone?

Last spring the Trump administration came up with a vague, one-page proposal for revising the Internal Revenue Code. After months of reportedly serious effort, a six-man task force has expanded  the proposal to a vague, nine-page plan.

But "it's not really a plan," as Catherine Rampell points out in The Washington Post:
At best it’s an outline, offering barely more detail than the bullet points the Trump administration released in April. It doesn’t even specify the thresholds for the individual income-tax rates it proposes. It also doesn’t identify a single individual tax preference it would kill, despite claiming to simplify the code and close lots of “loopholes.” Even the state and local tax deduction, which administration officials have talked about eliminating, isn’t explicitly mentioned.
While we wait for Congressional Republicans to come up with an actual tax bill, there's plenty to wonder and worry about. How can abuse of the proposed 25% tax rate on income "passed through" businesses such as partnerships  be prevented? What if repeal of the estate tax (which affects almost nobody) exposes millions of Americans to capital gains tax on inherited assets?

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Wealth Management Clients Should Be Careful with Their Checks

Frank Abagnale Jr. ("Catch Me If You Can") in a WSJ interview:
Think about this: You go into a convenience store today and write a check for $9. You have to hand the clerk the check with your name and address, phone number, your bank’s name and address, your account number at your bank, the routing number into your account. That’s your wiring instructions. Your signature that’s on the signature card at your bank. And then the clerk has written down your state driver’s license number on the front and your date of birth. You don’t get the check back. You can get an image of the check; the physical check goes to [the store’s] warehouse, where eventually, six months from now, they will destroy it. 
In the meantime, anyone who would see the face of that check—from the clerk who took it at the counter to the one that made the night deposit—could draft on your bank account tomorrow, would have all the drafting instructions. Or they could go online [and order checks] that look exactly like your checks, but put their name on it and put your account number on it. So every check they write gets debited against your account. It’s so simple to do. 
It’s amazing to me that people are writing $9 checks from their wealth-management account, their private banking account, and giving them to some stranger in a store.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Ray Dalio's “Slightly Better” Returns

Now that real life has blended with reality TV, you can't blame the Main Stream Media for stressing out. Still, this lengthy NY Times piece on Ray Dalio, who runs Bridgewater, world's biggest hedge fund firm, seems a bit snarky. For instance:
Since it began, Pure Alpha has made investors an annual average return after fees of 11.9 percent, slightly better than the 9.5 percent average yearly return for the Standard & Poor’s 500.
Slightly better? Any stock picker who can beat the S&P by one percentage point over long periods is
Bridgewater's Westport, CT headquarters
exceptional. Two percentage points? Almost miraculous. With Pure Alpha Dalio has done better by 2.4 percentage points. Compare:

At the S&P's 9.5% average annual return, in ten years a $100,000 investment grows to 247,823.

At Pure Alpha's 11.9%, in ten years a $100,000 investment grows by an additional $60,000, to $307,823.

Over extended periods, that "slightly better" return will make you seriously richer.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Should We Tax Gifts the British Way?

(English Wikipedia)
Bruce Forsyth, the British TV icon who died last month, disliked the 40% U.K. inheritance tax. So he left everything to his wife tax free, thanks to the U.K. equivalent of our unlimited marital deduction. Wilnelia, his widow, will have the task of distributing some or most of Forsyth's £17-million estate to his numerous children and grandchildren.

And a quick glance at the U.K. inheritance tax rules suggests she can do it at little or no tax cost.

Instead of taxing gifts when made, the U.K. requires lifetime gifts to be added back into the estate taxable at the donor's death. Thanks to Forsyth's unused inheritance tax exemption and her own, Wilnelia can give or bequeath £650,000 without tax.

But she should be able to do better. Much better. The U.K. counts lifetime gifts as part of the donor's estate only if they are made within seven years of death. As a relatively young widow, Wilnelia presumably has time to parcel out millions of pounds tax free to Forsyth's descendants.

Even if Wilnelia should die within seven years of fulfilling Forsyth's estate plan, some tax might be saved. "Taper relief" reduces the tax rate on gifts made more than three years of death.

Should the U.S. adopt the British approach to taxing lifetime transfers of wealth? Or would it unduly favor those wealthy enough to give millions tax free?

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Fifty Years Ago, Married Women Got a Charge Card

Those "Her reaction is Chemical" ads we showed you "might have a place in Ms. magazine's hall of shame," Jim Gust suggests. Actually, the idea of a woman hiring her own investment adviser probably raised a few eyebrows among old-school males.

Here's a better candidate for the Ms. hall of shame. This 1967 Carte Blanche ad assures the traveling man with a wife back home he'll be glad "to have someone with influence looking after her while they're away."

But remember the context of the times. Married women were routinely denied credit because it was assumed they had no income. Carte Blanche comes to the rescue by offering them a card of their own, though surely backed by their husbands' credit – and it's pink!