Thursday, April 30, 2015

Art as Hot Investment (Again)

ANDY WARHOL, Dollar Signs $ (9), 1982
 The hot new asset class, The New York Times Magazine observed recently,  is art.
The wealthiest Americans have grown wealthier since the Great Recession, and many are investing their wealth in art. Especially with bonds and other assets offering rock-bottom yields, the art market — where reports of record-high sales now emerge regularly — has an obvious appeal. According to a survey last year by Deloitte and ArtTactic, an art-research firm, 76 percent of art buyers viewed their acquisitions as investments, compared with 53 percent in 2012.
To meet perceived demand, art marketing has gone digital, with online auctions and web sites offering "quotes" on investable works.  Thanks to high-tech depositories and storage facilities, today's art investors need not make physical contact with the artworks they trade. Better yet, they can replace one art asset for another without worrying about tax on capital gain. Like real estate investors, they can defer taxes by swapping one "property" for another.

Art investors do have a few nagging worries. Expected profits may vanish if an investor in contemporary art doesn't have an informed feel for value, and one court says that's the investor's loss. Also, tax-deferred swaps are getting too popular. The IRS is taking notice.

Biggest worry: investment fads are too good to last, and art is no exception. If you're not elderly enough to remember the last boom and bust, see this 1993 Times story: What's the Worst Place To Keep Art? A Portfolio.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Advertising Rule From Mad Men Days

If Sterling Cooper (the Mad Men agency now swallowed up by McCann) had a wealth management account, they would have known the rule well:

The bigger the bull market, the greater the ad spending.

Corollary: When bears emerge, wealth managers lose the urge to splurge.

True half a century ago, and probably true still.

The rule may seem illogical. Investors fear loss more than they desire gain, so bear markets should make them more willing to seek expert help. Wealth managers take the contrary view: They  find new accounts easiest to come by near market highs because bull markets make investors greedy.

This year, with the market near nominal highs, ads for wealth management are plentiful. Both BNY Mellon and Bessemer Trust had ads in last Sunday's NY Times magazine. Half a century ago, when the Dow flirted with highs it would not reach again until the 1980's, fiduciaries also were advertising briskly. For example:


In 1965 senior execs were paid a pittance by today's compensation standards, but this one didn't suffer. He got to fly on the new company plane! Chase Manhattan chose a more leisurely theme:


Vintage autos are just as appealing today as they were fifty years ago.  Here's a bonus ad from the same issue of The New Yorker, featuring a car that's still fondly remembered. So fondly that Lincoln may bring out a new Continental.


Art directors probably haven't received their due on Mad Men. It was the art director who realized the Continental ad required lots of white space and an understated headline.

Finally, one more colorful collage from Irving Trust:


Note the elephant on the Thailand medal at lower right.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Webber Case (Our Own Jarndyce and Jarndyce) Goes to Trial

First mentioned here in February 2013 (the link to the video of Webber signing her contested last will and trust seems to have vanished) the question of whether a helpful young police officer should inherit most of the elderly woman's  $2.7 million estate finally goes to trial tomorrow.

Unlike most "undue influence of perhaps not competent old person" cases, charitable beneficiaries under an earlier will, not disinherited family members, are the driving force in the contest. Last year a potential settlement was reached, leaving the police officer with more than $400,000, but  charitable beneficiaries objected.

A dozen or so  lawyers are now involved. If the police officer wins, considered a long shot, an appeal is possible. In Dicken's Jarndyce and Jarndyce, the lawyers finally got it all. Could it happen here?

See the Portsmouth Herald preview of the court proceedings.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

When Half a Million a Month Isn't Enough

H/T to Wealth Adviser for reminding us wealth can be relative.

The two children of Richard Mellon Scaife, who died last year, claim that his trustees should not have allowed Scaife to spend more than $300 million from a trust left by his mother, Sarah Mellon Scaife. The trustees may have been inclined to let Scaife spend freely (mostly on conservative causes and charitable gifts) because his mother left his two children a trust of their own. It pays each of the grandkids about half a million a month.

Most people can live well on $6 million a year. Perhaps because wanting more seemed unseemly, Jennie Scaife sought to have information about what her grandmother had left her expunged from court records. The court has refused.

Yet wealth truly is relative. When your father was a billionaire, your lifestyle and the maintenance of your various homes may seem crimped if you have less than $10 million a year to spend.

Half a million a month amounts to roughly $100,000 per week, before taxes. After taxes, perhaps no more than $60,000. These days, in places like Palm Beach and Nantucket, that kind of money may not go too far.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Financial Wisdom of the Scots

From proverbs collected by Ben Schott:

"Bashfulness is an enemy to poverty" sounds odd to modern ears. Perhaps bashfulness helped to build wealth because a shy Scot wasn't inclined to show off by squandering money on a gilded coach (or, in today's terms, on a gold-plated Bentley).

And, yes, wealth can be ruinous. Fortunately, trust companies exist to help today's wealthy families limit the harm. 

Monday, April 20, 2015

From Robo-Advisers to Real Robot Advisers?

Fans of human wealth management deride inexpensive, online investment services as robo-advisers. Where's the personal touch?  Where's the ability to encourage the timid, soothe the nervous and restrain the reckless?

It's coming, if not already here. As border agents, writes UNC professor Zeynep Tufekci, robot "avatars" with emotion-detecting software do a better job than humans in detecting visitors with invalid documents.
Today, machines can process regular spoken language and not only recognize human faces, but also read their expressions. They can classify personality types, and have started being able to carry out conversations with appropriate emotional tenor.
"Most of what we think of as expertise, knowledge and intuition," Tjufekci observes, "is being deconstructed and recreated as an algorithmic competency."

We'll see how far robots can go as wealth managers. Meanwhile, perhaps we should worry about their intrusion into domestic life. Husbands, beware! What woman wouldn't prefer a perceptive, sensitive companion that recognizes her every mood?

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Could Laurence Fink’s Capital Gains Tax Cut Save the Economy?

Recovery from the Great Recession has been slow. Economic growth, productivity gains and stock market performance are generally expected to remain sluggish. One reason: many major corporations seem more inclined to tread water or downsize, via stock buybacks, than to invest in new business opportunities and productivity enhancements.

Laurence Fink, who as head of Blackrock might be called the world's most important shareholder, wants CEOs to stiffen their spines. Rather than give in to "activist investors" seeking quick payoffs from buybacks and enhanced dividends, they should be running their companies the old-fashioned way: doing their best to get bigger and better for the benefit of their long-term shareholders.

To ease the pressure for short-term payoffs, Fink proposes that capital gains be taxed as ordinary income when investments are held for only one or two years.

“Since when was one year considered a long-term investment? A more effective structure would be to grant long-term treatment only after three years, and then to decrease the tax rate for each year of ownership beyond that, potentially dropping to zero after 10 years.”

This blogger will buy that. Can't imagine Congress joining me.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Death Tax Repeal Act of 2015 passes Ways and Means

On a party-line vote, H.R. 1105, The Death Tax Repeal Act of 2015, passed the Ways and Means Committee on March 25 and was sent along to the House for consideration.  The alleged "cost" of enactment is scored at a loss of $269 billion over ten years.

That the advocates for death tax repeal might get this far is not surprising.  The freshman Representative from South Dakota, Kristi Noem, has personally experienced the federal estate tax, and as a consequence has made it one of her life missions to repeal it. Her rancher father died unexpectedly, while she was at college.  She left school to help manage the farm. The devastating premature loss of her parent was made much worse when the family was slammed with the federal estate tax.

 “We made the decision to take out a loan, so we didn’t have to sell our land and potentially lose the farm. The decision impacted nearly every financial choice we made for a decade. No family should have to go through something like that. I am committed to repealing this unjust – and frankly, immoral – tax that hurts small businesses and family farms most. Today marks a step forward toward a time where hard work is respected and death is no longer a taxable event.”

The surprising part is the bill itself.  The estate and generation-skipping tax would be repealed, but the gift tax would be retained!  Why would we create an even greater incentive to not put estate plans into motion until death?

Still more odd, the basis rules would be retained--so, full basis step-up at death, carryover basis for gifts.  The fact that the gift tax rate would be reduced to 35% is small comfort.  The lifetime federal gift exemption and annual exclusion would be retained.

My guess is that, somehow, keeping the gift tax lowered the "cost" of death tax repeal. In practice, of course, it would do no such thing.  But that's the way tax scoring works in DC.

Friday, April 10, 2015

How the Rich Really Spend

A recent post refers you to data showing upper-income people spend more on education and financial products and less, proportionate to their incomes, on basics such as food or transportation.

Eeven B. Owen, prominent hedge fund manager, has expressed outrage:
Do you know how much I spend on meals? Even my breakfast – full English, with kippers, flown in daily from London– costs me a fortune. Transportation? When you need a private jet to get to Greenwich from your yacht in the Caribbean, your commuting costs are off the chart!
 Sorry, couldn't resist. Anyone who doesn't realize that people with high incomes spend proportionately less on the basics isn't likely to read The Atlantic or The Wall Street Journal.

What do upper-income people really spend their money on? Federal income tax. The top 20% of earners pay 84% of the tax.  The bottom 40% pay nothing; most receive money via tax credits.

When you expand the data to include payroll taxes, the bottom 40% does pay a little, but only 5% of the total. And as an expert at the Tax Policy Center observes, payroll taxes are different from the federal income tax because paying them brings the promise of a future benefit.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Another estate planning novelty from Robin Williams

Coming soon to Merrill Anderson's Investment and Trust Newsletter, "The Michael Jackson Problem, and the Robin Williams Solution."

Jackson's estate gave his his publicity rights only a nominal value, and the IRS valued those rights at hundreds of millions of dollars. The two side are currently battling in the Tax Court over $500 million in additional estate taxes and $200 million in penalties.

Perhaps that was the inspiration for an unusual element of Robin Williams' trust concerning the commercial use of his likeness.  First, such use is sharply constrained for the next 25 years.  That will dramatically reduce the theoretical value of his publicity rights.  More importantly, those rights pass to a charity.  No matter what value the IRS assigns to those rights, there will be a fully offsetting charitable deduction for them.

The Hollywood Reporter has the story, and suggests that this could be the wave of the future.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Spending by the rich

The Atlantic comments on a Wall Street Journal article.  I link to them because they are not behind a paywall.

The rich spend a lot of money to stay rich.  The top 10% spend more on pensions, education and insurance, both in absolute numbers and as a percentage of income, than do other groups.

Friday, April 03, 2015

Who Gets Robin Williams' Tux?

“I’ve sent three sons to very expensive Ivy League schools thanks to the dysfunctional nature of estate planning  for families with stepchildren,” says  attorney William Zabel.  

Current example: Robin Williams' Heirs Fight Over Assets With Sentimental Value.

Mad Men Ads of 1970 (the Worst Was Yet to Come)

Watching the last half of Mad Men's final season? Reportedly the story picks up in 1970, a bad year that ushered in a worse decade.

How bad? It was the year the Beatles broke up. The 1970s brought long lines at gas stations, double-digit drops in the purchasing power of a dollar, and the worst stock market bust, in real terms, since the Great Depression.

The 1970s are remembered as the decade that taste forgot. For good reason. See ad at right. (To all who were offended by my 1970s' plaid suit, sincere apologies.)

Even the 1970 ads from trust companies seemed to lose their zing.

This US Trust ad is OK, I guess (I may have written it) but it falls far short of the psychological insights that Merrill Anderson's founder crafted. (Had to look up congenerics. They are companies in the same or similar industry that offer noncompeting products or services. Investopedia labels Citigroup's merger with Travelers Insurance, now undone, as congeneric.)


By 1970 Chase Manhattan's iconic nest eggs had been replaced by a mess of pottery:


Is there a museum that would have accepted such a collection in 1970? What about now?

More than a nest egg is missing from the ad. Chase's trust division has become the "planning division."

Postscript: The New York Times has compiled an educational survey of cultural references in Mad Men.