Wednesday, April 30, 2008

An answer to Ben Stein

Well, perhaps not a direct answer, but economist Gary Becker has weighed in on The Greater Regulation of Financial Markets? on the Becker-Posner blog. He first notes the extensive benefits that came from deregulation in the 1970s and 1980s, then observes of the current crisis:
commercial banks are probably the most heavily regulated group in the financial sector, yet they are in much greater difficulties than say the hedge fund industry, which is one of the least regulated industries in the financial sector.
How did this happen?
One reason why extensive regulation of commercial banks did not prevent many banks from getting into trouble is that bank examiners became optimistic along with banks about the risks associated with mortgages and other bank assets because the market priced these assets as if they carried little risk. It would run counter to human nature for regulators to take a skeptical attitude toward the riskiness of various assets when the market is indicating that these assets are not so risky, and when originating and holding these assets has been quite profitable. One can expect regulators to mainly follow rather than lead the market in assessing riskiness and other asset characteristics.
Becker allows that some regulatory changes are warranted, but concludes:
The financial sector has served the economy well by managing, dividing, and pricing different types of risks in the economy. It would be a mistake if Congress and the President allow the present financial turmoil to panic them into inefficient new financial regulations.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Stock returns, tax rates are both headed up?

Investment News is reporting on a new survey of millionaire investors conducted by Fidelity Investments. Reportedly 27% of the millionaires plan to increase their equity exposure this year, while just 7% plan a decrease. Additionally, the respondents were less concerned about the economy than they were in last year's survey.

However, more than 50% expect that tax rates on income, capital gains and dividends will be higher five years from now than they are today.

Does this tell us something about their expectations of the Presidential election?

Monday, April 28, 2008

What's That Ticking Sound?

If the financial world as we know it is coming to an end (and Ben Stein's column, which Jim Gust mentions below, leads to such gloomy thoughts) at least we can have a laugh along the way.

Case in point: A watch so expensive it does not need to tell time; the $300,000 bauble merely indicates whether it is day or night. See the Wealth Report blog. Don't skip the comments appended to the post. For instance:
Give me a hammer and a Timex and I’ll sell you a watch that won’t tell time for only $200,000.

my wrist actually serves the same function. if i can see my wrist, it is daytime, if not, it is most likely night.
Speaking of bad times, the previous post on the Wealth Report notes that banks are pulling back from loans to buyers of art. Not good news for Sotheby's and Christie's.

Wonder if the loan-refusers include Citibank, a pioneer in the field?

How we got to this point

Ben Stein explains the current mess on Wall Street, which he attributes to a too cozy a relationship between the wirehouses and the SEC. He concludes:

It looks to me as if the inmates are running the asylum. One truth, that deregulation is sometimes a good thing, has been followed down so long and winding a road that it has led to an immense lie: that deregulation carried to an extreme will not lead to calamity.

Friday, April 25, 2008

What Next? A "Catastrophe" Catastrophe?

Subprimes. CDO's. Credit-default swaps. Auction-rate bonds and preferreds. . . .

Gosh, it's no fun waiting for the next shoe to drop when you live in the apartment below a centipede.

What should wealth managers and their clients worry about next? Catastrophe bonds and other event-linked securities. See this warning from the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority.

Try to have a nice weekend anyway.

Monday, April 21, 2008

A Friend of Liberty and His Unfaithful Executor

In Maine and Massachusetts, today is a holiday. Patriots' Day marks the anniversary of The Shot Heard Round the World in April, 1775. Eleven months later, the British evacuated Boston. A few months after that, in July, 1776, the United States proclaimed its independence. The following month, a young European, recruited in France by Silas Deane and Ben Franklin, arrived in this country.

Thaddeus Kosciusko served the American cause so well that by war's end he was a brigadier general. Our grateful nation awarded him citizenship, a grant of land and a considerable sum of money. Thaddeus clearly believed that Jefferson's words in the Declaration of Independence, "All men are created equal," were the greatest ever written. He used the money to buy freedom for slaves.

Thaddeus became a close friend of Jefferson, and together they hatched a plan to change the course of history. As recounted here, the plan involved Thaddeus's will, and the will's executor was to be Jefferson. Alas, after Thaddeus died in 1817, Jefferson refused to serve.

* * *
If Kosciusko were easier to spell, Americans would remember Thaddeus as fondly as we do the marquis de La Fayette. If you know as little about him as I did, read up on this remarkable American, Belarusian, Lithuanian, and Polish national hero.

Ask a Trust Officer

The Wealth Management Articles Library is one of Merrill Anderson's very popular marketing programs. We create three new articles each month, which our clients can post to the internet or use in their internally generated mailing programs.

In January we added a new regular element to WMAL which we call Ask A Trust Officer. This is a somewhat lighter take on the kinds of problems that trust departments can help with, modeled along the lines of Dear Abby or Ann Landers. The pieces are short (about 300 words) and suitable for publishing in the local newspaper as well as web posting. The concept has been quickly accepted, endorsed by 75% of the respondents to our recent client survey.

Here's a sample—for more information, drop me an e-mail at

Help me off the roller coaster!

DEAR TRUST OFFICER: I was so pleased last October, as the Dow Jones Industrial Average was setting an all-time high. I felt confident that there was nothing but smooth sailing ahead for my portfolio. Now here we are less than four months later, and everyone is worrying about a recession! The Federal Reserve Board dropped interest rates by three-quarters of a percentage point after an emergency meeting, and Congress is talking about tax rebates again. I like roller coasters as much as the next person, but this is too much! Can you help?

DEAR WHIPLASHED: I wish that I could take all the risks out of investing for you. That’s not possible, though there are proven techniques to reduce risk. Market volatility has indeed been above normal lately, and there are several theories for that. The most publicized is that problems in the housing sector may have the potential to drag the entire economy into recession. Sales of new homes fell 26% in 2007, the biggest annual decline since the Commerce Department began tracking this statistic in 1963. Coupled with the drop in home values in many parts of the country, we are in uncharted economic territory here.

To help relieve yourself of worry over your portfolio, add a dose of professional oversight. Ask us about our investment management account.

Although the economy is under stress, unemployment remains low, and not all sectors have been adversely affected. The recent drop in stock prices has brought price-earnings ratios for many issues closer to historical norms. Some stocks are selling for prices that, in a few years, will be thought to have been tremendous bargains.

The question for investors is, which stocks are those?

We generally favor the “don’t-put-all-your-eggs-in-one-basket” approach. We promote disciplined portfolio diversification through asset allocation planning. With a balanced mixture of asset classes, risk can be brought down to tolerable levels, while some upside potential for the future is retained.

Do you have a question concerning wealth management or trusts? Send your inquiry to [].

Tips on Giving Without Gift Tax

See the retirement section in today's New York Times for helpful tips on how affluent Boomers can avoid gift-tax problems as they spend a little wealth on their parents, siblings or children.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Should Bank of NY Mellon Scrap Its Logo?

Andrew Cusack doesn't think much of Bank of New York Mellon's new logo. I didn't think much of BofNY's previous one. What's your opinion?

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Billionaire Bling-Bling – A New Asset Class?

The Hope Diamond: Wonder what The Smithsonian wants for it?

Jewelry is a must-have for the new crop of billionaire and hectomillionaire hedge funders. That's one finding from a new Prince & Associates survey reported in the Wealth Report blog. Ninety-nine percent of those surveyed invested in jewelry last year, spending $580,000 on average. Almost all expect to spend at least as much this year.

As we noted here last summer, brokers and private banks are beginning to treat jewelry as a new asset class. Looks like they're on to something.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Hunt is On

Cheer up, taxpayers. Things could have been worse if you hadn't paid. See this animation from The New Yorker.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Happy Blogiversary!

It's been three years since the founding of this blog. Well, a bit more, the actual anniversary was Saturday. I meant to blog then, but something came up.

My heartfelt thanks to JLM for his hundreds of persistently excellent posts.

Now if only I could figure out how to stimulate some commenting, we'd be all set.

Earned Wealth Often Buys Happiness

Folks who earn their wealth tend to be happier and less stressed than trust fund babies, according to the latest PNC Wealth and Values survey.
Three quarters (76 percent) of earners agree "My financial success lets me feel less stress and worry" as opposed to 50 percent of heirs. And 51 percent of earners agree "As I have accumulated more money in my life I have become happier" vs. 33 percent of heirs.
As noted in the WSJ Wealth Report, heirs are probably better bets when it comes to setting up trusts for their own kids. Fully two-thirds of those with earned wealth felt that “every generation should be responsible for creating its own wealth.”

A Growl from the Bear?

Auctiongoers may be bidding briskly (see preceding post) but today's Wall Street Journal reports that winning bidders have become slow pays:
Sotheby's accounts receivable -- the money owed by buyers who purchased art at auction -- more than doubled to $835 million in 2007, according to Sotheby's annual report. That is the largest total in Sotheby's history, and points to possible stress in an art world where Warhol and Rothko have become the ultimate luxury brands and the newly rich have been paying record prices for "wall power."

More than $520 million of Sotheby's increase in receivables was in the fourth quarter, following the summer's financial turmoil. The accounts-receivable number doesn't include $6 million in "doubtful accounts," or money that Sotheby's said probably won't be repaid.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Art and Antiques: Keeping the Bear at Bay

Shown here, a detail from a late 1500's Flemish tapestry– over seven feet wide – from a recent Sotheby's sale. Expected to fetch around $20,000, the tapestry sold for $55,000 including buyer's premium. Evidently there's no liquidity crisis in this sector of the auction market.

The tapestry must have been a 16th-century sportsman's version of large-screen home theater. Take a look at the enlarged image Sotheby's offers (free registration required). You'll encounter other hunters as well as creatures such as the birds at right.

Leona Helmsley's possessions also seem to be selling smartly. At Christie's, a pair of French commodes that once belonged to King George V of England and more recently graced the entrance hall at Dunellen sold for $421,000, way over the pre-sale estimate.

Is the Estate Tax Unfair?

What makes a tax "fair"? What do you mean by "fair"? Is the estate tax fair or unfair? Princeton prof Kwame Anthony Appiah explores those questions here.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Hedger Reduces Fee!

Talk about "Man Bites Dog!" Here's real news via Bloomberg. After one of its hedge funds reportedly lost about 18% this year, London Diversified Fund Management agreed to reduce its 3% fee to the "industry standard" of 2%.

The reduction is, of course, said to be temporary.

Other hedge-fund managers are taking a more conventional approach to hard times. Reuters reports they're folding their tents and moving on to seek new and greener pastures.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Top Estate Lawyers

Recently we noted that increasing numbers of women are stepping into the role of endowment manager. At Harvard, for instance.

A generation ago, women also were invisible, or nearly so, on lists of prominent trust and estate lawyers. No longer. A third of the attorneys on Portfolio's list of top estate lawyers are women.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Gone but Still Giving

"And to the DNC I hereby bequeath . . ."

Since 2001, Al Kamen reports in The Washington Post, The Democratic National Committee has received bequests totalling around $265,000.

Republicans have been less politically active in their estate planning. Bequests to the Republican National Committee over the same period total about $64,000.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Success Stories

Q. After being laid off from a part-time job, can a woman make a fortune selling insurance to owners of vintage motorbikes?

Q. Can bank wealth managers gain business by offering women entrepreneurs opportunities to network?

A. "Yes" and "Yes." See this Financial Times story.

Destined to be a classic, from The Wall Street Journal

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Another "why you need a will" story

The New York Times discusses the legacy of Bill Gottlieb, who owned an enormous portfolio of Manhattan real estate, much of it dilapidated. The estate planning bits don't come in until halfway through the lengthy write-up. Although Gottlieb paid millions for his properties, and although he consulted a number of law firms about estate planning, he just wasn't willing to pay the fees to have a will drafted.

The result was that a 1972 will, drafted before his acquisition of so much real estate, was controlling. Colorful family fighting ensued.

The most interesting detail to me is that the real estate portfolio has been estimated to be worth $1 billion. The family negotiated a settlement with the IRS for federal estate taxes of just $50 million, to be paid over 15 years. That's just a 5% federal estate tax rate! The family has some damn fine negotiators on their team.

Admittedly, real estate can be hard to value, and some of the experts quoted in the article felt that new zoning and other restrictions may have caused values to deteriorate. But even if the property was worth only half a billion dollars, that is a 10% tax rate.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

This Family Business Has Thrived Since 1385!

Got access to the online Wall Street Journal? Don't miss today's story on the ultimate family business:

"In 1385, Giovanni di Pietro Antinori branched out from his family's lucrative silk and wool business to join the Florentine wine-makers guild. Today, 26 generations on, the Marquis Piero Antinori heads a company that makes some of the most highly regarded wine in Italy, and has vineyards in Hungary, Chile and California's Napa Valley. In between, the Antinori family survived outbreaks of Bubonic plague, the invasion of Napoleon, two world wars, the arrival of globalization and the birth and death of the wine cooler. For more than six centuries, the Antinori family has managed one of the most delicate feats in business: passing on a company from one generation to the next."

Now overseen by the Marquis Piro Antonori, the venerable wine business might be winding down for lack of younger male Antonoris. Happily, the future looks bright. The Marquis' three daughters will keep the wine flowing.

How does a family business survive more than six centuries? Short answer: Avoid the fixation on short-term profit so prevalent among publicly-held businesses.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Timely Tales From the South Pacific

Who would have guessed that the unofficial school song for those madrassas turning out Taliban terrorists was written over half a century ago? By Rogers and Hammerstein, no less:
You've got to be taught
To hate and fear,

You've got to be taught

From year to year,

It's got to be drummed

In your dear little ear

You've got to be carefully taught.

You've got to be taught to be afraid

Of people whose eyes are oddly made,

And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade,

You've got to be carefully taught.

You've got to be taught before it's too late,

Before you are six or seven or eight,

To hate all the people your relatives hate,

You've got to be carefully taught!
If you have never read a genuine, unadulterated RAVE REVIEW of a major American musical, read Ben Brantley on Lincoln Center's recreation of "South Pacific."

The 1900s lacked 32-to-1 leverage and derivatives derived from derivatives. GIs in WWII didn't even have iPods. But maybe we can still learn something from the old century.

This is why we have estate taxes

The New York Times reports that a portion of the $1 billion art collection of Ileana Sonnabend has been sold to pay estate taxes, which come to about half the value of the estate.

I have never understood why wealthy people pay so much for art, especially art that is not particularly attractive or interesting to my undereducated eye. But if they are going to bid up the values to stratosphere, and given that there is a market for these things, I have no problem with the government imposing a toll on the transfer of these assets at death.

A case like this is powerful evidence that the estate tax should be retained.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Hedge Funds: Is That Alpha For Real?

"The secret of acting," George Burns once explained, "is sincerity.

"If you can fake that, you've got it made."

The secret of a successful hedge fund is alpha – an investment return above and beyond the beta return produced by the market as a whole. Too bad you can't fake alpha.

Or maybe you can. Knowledge at Wharton reports on a study by Dean P. Foster of The Wharton School and H. Peyton Young of the Brookings Institution:
It's easy for an unscrupulous hedge fund manager to make himself look better than he is, as Foster and Young demonstrate in their paper. "We show, in particular, that managers can mimic exceptional performance records with high probability (and thereby earn large fees) without delivering exceptional performance."
You can download the research paper, "The Hedge Fund Game: Incentives, Excess Returns, and Piggy-Backing," here.

Can Jonathan Clements Help Save Citi?

Citigroup may be down, as The New York Times details here, but it's not out. Among those riding to the rescue: Jonathan Clements, long-time author of the Getting Going column in The Wall Street Journal.

In his blog at, Jeff Bercovici reports that Clements is leaving the WSJ to work at Citi:
On April 14, he'll join Citigroup as director of financial education for a new unit created to advise the "emerging affluent," investors with less than $500,000 in assets. His duties will involve creating content aimed at those investors, including blogs, columns and videos. Even though it could be construed as a form of marketing, he sees the task as very much in line with what he's been doing at the Journal: "I have no intention of sacrificing the principles I've spent the last two decades advocating, and Citigroup hasn't asked me to do so," he says.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Invest in Art?

Hugh Grant bought this Warhol print of Liz Taylor for about two million pounds and sold it six years later for around £9m. So is art a good investment?

Not really, says Janine Racanelli, head of JPMorgan Private Bank's Advice Lab (see preceding post). She told the Financial Times the art market is opaque, illiquid and unpredictable. And once you hang art on the wall, it's "cash-flow negative."

That doesn't faze some hedge fund managers. An earlier Financial Times article spotlights the Art Trading Fund.

Launched last summer, the fund hopes to hedge against art-market hiccups by shorting assets, such as Sotheby's shares, that tend to move in tandem with art. The strategy may get a robust test this year.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Freeze That Estate!

Treasury bonds yield so little that you would think we're expecting less inflation, not more.

Here's the upside: As today's Wall Street Journal points out, this is an awesome time for the wealthy to practice estate-freezing techniques like GRATs and CLATs:
Fiduciary Trust started talking internally in December about the especially good opportunities for estate-freeze strategies, says [Sharon Klein, trust counsel and director of estate advisement]. Since then, the company has been talking up the idea with clients.

The Advice Lab of JPMorgan Private Bank at J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. has also weighed in. The lab recently issued an update to clients titled "Turning Lemons Into Lemonade: Using Planning Strategies to Take Advantage of the Current Market Environment." It outlines grantor-retained annuity trusts, or GRATs; charitable lead annuity trusts, or CLATs; intrafamily loans and family partnerships, another strategy.
* * *
Using an intrafamily loan -- in a hypothetical example from JPMorgan -- a person could lend $1 million to a child, locking in the March fixed short-term AFR of 2.25%, the midterm rate of 2.97% or the long-term rate of 4.27%, depending on the period of the loan.

If the child invests the $1 million over five years at a 10% annual rate of return, she will be able to keep any returns over the mid-term AFR of 2.97%.

The child would keep about $430,000 and pay no gift tax while realizing an estate-tax savings of about $215,000, and the parent would get back the original $1 million plus a 2.97% return.

A GRAT -- in another JPMorgan example -- would allow one to transfer $5 million in stocks to a beneficiary for a given term, say five years. The GRAT returns a fixed annual payment over the term; in this case, it's designed so that the present value of payments, calculated on the 3.6% hurdle rate for this month, equals the initial $5 million.

No gift taxes are due because the assets transferred in the GRAT aren't considered a gift.

If the stock in the GRAT returns to its high at the end of the first year, and then grows at 10% each year for the remaining four years, trust assets at the end of the five years will have grown well beyond the 3.6% rate. About $2 million would be transferred to beneficiaries, such as children or a family trust.