Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Tax outlook

In short, shit.

Let's get to the specifics.
So we are heading to this "fiscal cliff" by the beginning of 2013. If you don't know what this term means, the short version is that we might face a sudden increase on tax and reduction on federal spending. It's the tax increase I particularly do not like.

Mind you, none of the following is definite, there are plenty of opportunities for the congress to act, and I think they will, otherwise we'd be facing another recession in 2013.

Federal marginal income tax brackets
10% ($0–$8,700)
15% ($8,701–$35,350)15.0% ($0–$35,500)
25% ($35,351–$85,650)28.0% ($35,501–$86,000)
28% ($85,651–$178,650)31.0% ($86,001–$179,400)
33% ($178,651–$388,350)36.0% ($179,401–$390,050)
35% (over $388,350)39.6% (over $390,050)
Married filing jointly:Married filing jointly:
10% ($0–$17,400)
15% ($17,401–$70,700)15.0% ($0–$59,300)
25% ($70,701–$142,700)28.0% ($59,301–$143,350)
28% ($142,701–$217,450)31.0% ($143,351–$218,450)
33% ($217,451–$388,350)36.0% ($218,451–$390,050)
35% (over $388,350)39.6% (over $390,050)

We see a 3% increase on tax for most people (35k+)

Capital gains
Short-term gains are taxed as ordinary income.Short-term gains will be taxed as ordinary income.
Long-term gains are taxed at 0% if total income
including capital gains puts you in the 10% or
15% brackets; 15% if total income including capital gains puts you in the 25% or higher bracket.
Long-term gains will be taxed at 10% if you're in the 15% bracket; 20% for all other brackets.
Additional Medicare tax on investment income depending on the annual income

This one is pretty bad. LT investment gains are now taxed at 20%. As for the additional Medicare tax, I'll get to it. 

Taxed at ordinary income rate unless held for more than
60 days during the 121-day period that begins 60 days before the ex-dividend date.
All will be subject to ordinary income rates. "Qualifying" dividends will disappear.
Additional Medicare tax on investment income depending on the annual income.

This one is really bad! The disappearance of "Qualifying" dividends are now gone! So corporate earnings are now taxed twice with no special treatment! For those who rely heavily on dividend earning stocks, this is really really bad news. Personally I think it's unfair, too. 

Estate, gift, and generation-skipping taxes
Exemption: $5.12 millionExemption: $1 million
Tax rate: 35%Tax rate: 55%


Medicare taxes
Flat 2.9% tax rate on salary and/or self-employment income.Additional 0.9% tax on salary and/or self-employment income:
Above $200,000, if single.
Above $250,000 (combined), if married filing jointly.
Above $125,000, if married filing separately.
Additional 3.8% tax on net investment income
(including long-term capital gains and dividends)
if adjusted gross income exceeds:
$200,000 (single).
$250,000 (married filing jointly).
$125,000 (married filing separately).

Grrr. Did I mention I hate Medicare tax? I probably didn't. Well now I did. I hate Medicare tax. And now for average American, you gotta lose another 1% income!

So having talked about the all the tax increases, does it mean we should take the LT gains now? Well, I don't suggest so. First of all, we do not know for sure if any of these will actually happen since all the presidential elections and other stuff will take place between now and the beginning of 2013. Secondly, the market might move favorably during this time, and as long as you are trying to avoid a wash sale, you will be prevented from enjoying the returns. As always, one should always set your goal to maximize return rather than minimize tax.

Conclusion? MOAR contribution to your tax-advantaged accounts! These are all shielded from all the tax fluctuations!

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Choosing Loans on P2P lending sites

Since I set forth in the realm of P2P lending, I read about how people choose notes, thought this through, and now I have something to share!

First, do not believe the ratings given by the P2P lending sites (from now onward,  I shorten it to sites to save some typing). Sure, they may use some sophisticated methods to determine the borrowers rating, and they may even have the incentive to be conservative, since they receive 1% of all transactions, i.e. the more a borrower pays over time, they more these sites make. But personally I would set my own standards since I sometimes do not agree with their models.

My current lending club filters are set as the following:

  • 0 delinquencies in the past 2 years.
    I don't want anyone who has been late or had a default recently. 
  • Max 2 delinquencies in the past 7 years.
    Same rationale, but since 7 years is a long period of time, I'd be more lenient. 
  • No public records in 10 years.
    I don't want anyone who had declared bankruptcy. 
  • Loan amount below 20k.
    Higher the amount, higher the risk. 
  • Loan term must be 36 months or shorter.
    Track records have shown that 60 months loans typically go bad much more frequently, exceeding their rate premium.
  • Must have a job, and must have had the job for more than 2 years.
    A steady income is essential for repaying their debt.
  • Debt to income ratio must be below 35%.
    Too much debt then the guy is in a shit hole. He will probably get overwhelmed soon. 
  • Loan purpose must be debt consolidation.
    This one is actually interesting. When I started out, I gave loans to people that want to start a business. But then I thought about it, more start-ups fail than succeed. And to justify the risk, the loan must be convertible, then one can reap profit if a start-up actually makes it. Plus, if someone is willing to take a debt consolidation, at least he does care about his credit history and does not want to make late payments. If in the future he ran out of money again, he might do another round of consolidation. 
Secondly, do not be too risk averse. Many people only buy notes that are rated A or higher. Well, that will cap your return. Sure, notes with lower ratings might have more defaults, but usually the rate premium more than makes up for that. You do get a higher expected variance on individual loans, but then if you diversify, statistically, you will always come out ahead if you invested on lower grade loans. In addition, higher grade loans often gets paid back early, which eats into your return since you have to wait another 10 days or so for your new loan to get reviewed and issued. Personally, I aim for a nominal rate of 16%.

Thirdly, do not invest more than 25 dollars on a single person unless you have more than 20k to invest in this P2P game. When you use lending club's tool, it will often assign investment amounts of more than 25 dollars to a certain loan in order to achieve the desired over interest rate you want, so be careful! The reason for this is that having more money per loan or per borrower, greatly reduces your ability to diversify, and is hugely detrimental to a successful investment. If you can not find enough loans to invest in, it's better to wait than investing multiples of 25 on a single loan. As for the 20k limit, it is there because once you hit 20k, you would have 800 notes each worth 25 dollars, and I think 800 is a large enough number that the chance of you being "unlucky" is very very slim, additionally, the time it takes to manage 800 notes is fairly substantial and you probably do not want to increase this number any further. 

Currently, I have about 7.6k invested in lending club, 600 invested in prosper. Prosper was more of an experiment I ran before I solidified my P2P lending strategy, it currently has a return of about 8.8%. I opened two accounts in lending club, one ordinary and one IRA. I did not follow my rules once in lending club and bought 2 notes on the secondary market that had the same borrower, of course since it is the secondary market, it is not that easy to filter on notes, now I am paying for the consequences: both of them are in grace period and I do think they are heading for default. They are only worth 40 dollars, but that is enough to wipe out most of my returns on the ordinary account that has a balance of 2.6k. Both accounts in lendingclub are currently showing between 16% and 17% returns. 

I will keep you updated on how my P2P lending experience.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Consumer Lending

It's been a while!
I was on a recruiting trip lately, and work has been a little heavy :)

Let's talk about consumer lending today. Consumer lending is the generic term used to describe lending to a someone to make purchases that they can't afford in cash, theoretically. The most common form of that is a credit card, essentially, the credit card issuer, usually a bank, offers the card holder a line of credit from which he can get an unsecured loan. By unsecured, it means that there is no collateral, and if the person fails to pay his debts, nothing physical can be taken away from him. (of course, his credit report will be heavily hit by delinquencies, but that is not technically physical).

How does consumer lending concern me, you ask? Well, it's pretty lucrative. Look at the credit card APR, they are 9.99% on the extreme low end and up to 35% on the higher end. Being unsecured, the risk of lending is significantly increased, which dictates a higher return, otherwise, who'd be willing to get involved in this kind of business?

Consumer lending is not strictly limited to banks. A couple of websites came into existence around 3 years ago, offering the opportunities for individual investors to get involved in the business of consumer lending. They call it the P2P lending, but whatever. The idea is that individual investors can elect to fund loans to borrowers, at a rate ranging from 5% ish to 25% ish. The underwriter of those loans are typically the websites themselves, as they will rate the loan and charge 1% of all transactions. The minimum contribution amount is 25 USD, which means you can invest in a couple of hundred loans with less than 10k.

Until a few years ago, this entire consumer lending business hasn't been very popular at all among individual investors, and it is easy to understand why. Firstly, the risk of each loan is pretty high. For a bank like Chase, which has very strict risk controls and utilizes who-knows-how-complex models to decide whether to approve someone's credit card application, the annualized default rate is approximately 6%. Now individual investors do not have the amount of resources available to assess every borrower's risk level, and therefore probably will have an even higher default rate. Secondly, given the high risk level, it becomes imperative for the lender to diversify, but it would be pretty hard to do if every single loan is approximately 10k, since then the requirement on capital is often prohibitively high. Thirdly, the transaction cost is going to be pretty high if one tries to diversify. For an individual to conduct all the researches about all his prospective borrowers, he will have to invest a large amount of time and possibly money, which effectively eats into his return. And lastly, the liquidity is probably less than ideal, i.e. one can not turn the investment into cash in a timely manner.

What changed all these are the websites like lendingclub and prosper. They kind of tackle the high risk issue by limiting borrowers to what they deem to be "prime" borrowers, i.e. people who are very likely to repay their debts. The need for diversification is dealt with by allowing investments at an increment of 25 dollar. The built in filter function reduces the time it takes to browse through notes significantly. And lastly, they introduced secondary markets for notes charging an extra 1% of all transaction value.

I think consumer lending is a fairly promising, although one must keep a clear mind. Here, I'll list some caveats.

  1. The return is often much lower than the websites promise. The nominal interest rate of my notes is 16% ish, but I am fully prepared to get only 6% ish in reality. The reason being that defaults are pretty common. 
  2. Another problem is that interest income is charged at your highest marginal income, which translates to roughly 38% for me. That further reduces effective income. But then, you can mitigate this by putting consumer lending into your IRAs. Personally, I think this is by far the most effective way of utilizing my 5k a year limit since the growth of this money is completely based on interest income. 
  3. In general, consumer lending is far less mature than other forms of investment, such as stocks or regular bonds. And by getting rid of banks as the intermediary, you effectively are losing the "pooling" function of the bank, therefore greatly increasing risk. 
  4. It is less liquid than ordinary bonds. The secondary markets for consumer debt notes have a much less volume, and sometimes takes a while to sell. In this aspect, lendingclub is generally much better than prosper, as once I tried to sell 5 notes at cost, and they sold within a day!
Because of those "drawbacks", I would not put majority of my money into consumer lending. My personal target is 20% of my entire portfolio. 

In the next post, I will discuss my personal approach towards choosing loans. 

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The big question: Risk vs Return, Part 6

Having discussed the risks and returns of two types of traditional investment vehicles, now let's conclude this somewhat long series :)

Now I am a young person, with a steady income, not very risk-averse, and have a financial goal that I want to meet in about 5 years' time. So my personal asset allocation would be this:

international stockus stocklong-term bondintermediate-term bondconsumer lending

Now I have not discussed consumer lending yet, for now, just understand then as short-term, high credit risk bonds.

So I have a 50-50 split between stocks and bonds.
I am not sure about how this allocation will turn out to be, since I am myself a new investor even though I've done my research. As a general rule, the more risk averse you are, the more you should allocate towards bonds. Even though bonds just had a gigantic decade long bull market, I am personally rather pessimistic as to bonds' performance over the next decade.

I've some data here that you might want to consider when you decide your own asset allocation. Keep in mind, the most important factor here is your time horizon: if you have 20 years or even 30 years, you will be much better off with riskier allocation as they generally return more over time.

Stock percentageBond percentageAnnual return 1926-2011

The assumption here is that you invest in very broadly diversified stock and bond funds with zero expense ratio, like funds that track MSCI US index for stocks or Barclays US Aggregate Float Adjusted index for bonds. Of course, no fund is without expense ratio, therefore, your return will always be slightly lower, probably by less than half a percentage point if your fund is relatively low cost. 

The conclusion should be that the more stocks you have, the higher return. So what about risk? Now here it is:

Stock percentageBond percentageNumber of years with loss

So generally the number of years that a loss occurs increases as you allocate more of your asset in stocks.

This should hopefully help you decide how to allocate your assets. :)

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The big question: Risk vs Return, Part 5

In this blog post, I'll discuss the probably very well known "credit risk", of bonds.

It is often the case that many people perceive that credit risk is the only kind of risk they are subject to when they invest in bonds, after all, it pains the most when suddenly your entire loan disappears after the other party's insolvency. But a lot of times, even if you buy the lowest rated bonds, the probability of a default is still relatively small. So although credit risk is certainly a type of risk that is worth paying attention to, you should not be completely bogged down by a loan's credit rating.

So, for those of you who don't already know what a credit risk is, it is the risk that, er, whoever you lend to ends up not having enough money to pay you back. In the worst case, they become Chapter 7 bankrupt.
Usually, there are tools that help you determine the credit risk for a particular bond, things called credit ratings. Ratings for large corporates and sovereigns (governments basically) are usually issued by large rating agencies, such as Fitch and Standard & Poor's. These agencies rate bonds based on whatever public information, usually for a fee, for the bonds issuer. The issuer then puts the bonds on the market branded with some kind of rating, ranging from A to D. The rating agencies actually use different rating schemes and A in Fitch may not necessarily mean A in S&P. But as an individual investor, I don’t actually think they matter that much. 

Unless you have a couple of millions to throw into this investment business, the chances are, you will not buy individual bonds straight from the issue. Reason being that most bond offerings require a purchases worth at least tens of thousand of dollars. Such big numbers greatly reduces the chance for people like you and I to diversify broadly, as we probably only have that much in total to invest. The reduced diversification is vastly detrimental to a successful investment, but the actual rationale for diversification will be the topic of a separate blog post. 

So ordinary folks usually buy bond indirectly from the secondary market in the form of mutual fund or some other kind of aggregate investment vehicle. There are two major advantages of buying a fund of bonds rather than actual bonds. Firstly, you get diversification. Many mutual funds contains a wealth of bonds within, in the order of thousands. For example, Vanguard Total Bond Market Index Fund has 5230 bonds with different maturities, different credit ratings and different sizes encapsulated. Seconds, the minimum investment requirement is a lot less. Take the same example, the Vanguard funds has a requirement of only 3k, that is probably 1/10 of what you need had you chosen to buy bonds from the original issuers. Of course, you have to pay the expense ratio on a mutual fund, so maybe if you had billions, you can achieve the same diversification without paying that annual 0.22%......

Now, back to credit risk. So I said that credit risk is not as bad as it looks. What I mean is, if you bought a mutual fund like the Total Bond Market Index Fund, with more than 7k bonds encapsulated, defaults are then truly just a statistics. And the good thing about statistics is that now things are predictable. Assuming those ratings are accurate (BIG caveat), then A-rated bonds should not default at all, while C-rated probably will default at 3%. If you simply subtract this percentage from the nominal yield, then you’ll have your expected return! That simple!

Junk bonds are perceived to have the worst credit risk, currently default at around 3-4%. They are not really “junk”, they are just “below investment grade”. Their default rate reached about 10% when Lehman Brothers went bust in the 2008 crisis. But junk bonds are especially sensitive to economic fluctuations since in bad times people try to flee from risky investments to safer ones, and one should not take that as a representation of the entire bond market. Most bonds in other ratings, although still suffered, had their default rate going up only slightly in 2008. 

So my take is that credit risk is far easier to control than interest rate risk for bonds with at least investment grade rating (B or higher), and therefore one should pay more attention to the latter rather than being bogged down in choosing between “A”s or “B”s. 

And personally, given both risks, I’d invest in intermediate-term investment grade bond funds. They offer OK yield with little credit risk. The bond market is at its historic highs, and interest rate is at a historical low. Intermediate-term bonds have only 5-10 years until maturity, which puts a limit on how much pain there will be when the interest rate starts to eventually go up. Given the Fed has indicated that the low interest rate environment will probably continue until 2014, my guess is that interest rate probably will go up by then.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The big question: Risk vs Return, Part 4

In this post, we'll discuss the risk involved in bond investment.

Bonds are fascinating! They really are. Different to how most stocks' return comes from appreciation (price increase), bonds often are perceived as "income generating". Psychologically, it feels much less "guilty" for someone to consume their "income" rather than "investment", at least for me.  Think about it, if you bought 10000 shares of Facebook at 20 dollars a couple of days ago, and now it's 21 dollars, you've made 5% gain! But would you sell 500 shares to buy something? Instead, if it were bonds, and the bond somehow magically generated 5% interest in a month, it probably is much easier to transfer the interest to a bank account and use it as your income. Anyway, that's not the only reason they are fascinating :)

So the gains from bonds are actually pretty counter intuitive. This can be demonstrated through a question: Is interest rate increase a good or a bad thing for a bond that you hold? For many people without any investment education, the intuitive answer would be: "of course it's good, because more interest rate means more income per month!" Well, it's not exactly that straight forward, and most of the time, it's the opposite to the straight forward answer.

If you bought a bond from someone with an annual rate of 5%, and later interest rate increases for new bonds purchased from the same person / entity, your bond does not benefit. At all. Most bonds are fixed rate bonds and their interest rates are set when issued. Now what then, does the increase in interest rate mean for the bond your currently hold? It means, its price will drop. In this particular case, a lot, because the 5% hike in interest rate. How does this work?

Let's do the math. Imagine you bought a bond for 10k with 5% interest rate, the bond matures after 10 years (i.e. the principal will be paid off after 10 years). For simplicity's sake, let's assume the principal is paid off at the end of the 10 years. This means that you would have collected 10k * 5% * 10 years + 10k = 15k. This number is the total payment including both principal and interest. Of which, 5k is your return. Now the interest rate has risen to 10%. A different person, interested in these bonds, then has two choices:

  1. buy the bond from the original issuer for 10k, and expect 20k total payment in 20 years (100% return). 
  2. buy the bond from you, with a price such that a return of 100% over 10 years can be secured. Now you'll have to sell your bond at an discount to convince people to buy it from you. In this case, you would have to sell it at 7.5k, which means 100% return in 10 year given your bond's 5% interest rate. 
Through this simple example, you can see how interest rate fluctuations go completely against bonds' prices. And maybe you can also see, that the longer the bond has to wait until maturity, the greater price volatility. But note, that even if a bond's interest rate suddenly surges, usually they still have a much lower volatility than stocks. 5% interest rate change is considered "extreme" for bond, which result in 25% price drop of a 10 year, 5% yield bond, and the price drop is even less pronounced when the original yield is higher. For example, should the original yield in the last example we used be 10%, the price drop would have been 20% instead of 25%. One must also keep in mind that technically, if you give up liquidity, you can still make a profit with that 5% bond you hold in the example, you just need to wait for the entire 10 years, which will enable you to pocket that 50% return.

So this is the so-called interest risk. It's a risk that is present in almost all bonds, regardless of their ratings. Longer-term bonds with lower interest rate are especially tied to this type of risk, whilst short-term bonds are much less sensitive to interest rate changes. So next time when you seek yield, which normally leads you to long-term bonds, make sure that you factor in interest risk.

In the next post, I will touch on the other side of bond risk, the often-mentioned "credit risk". 

Sunday, August 5, 2012

The big question: Risk vs Return, Part 3

Generally, there are two ways of approaching stock selection based on their fundamentals.

  1. Value:
    Value companies are those that have a consistent track record of performance. E.g. Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble ... These companies consistently generate profit, but they have little space to grow. These are sometimes also known as blue chips or dividend stocks. They typically have relatively low Price to Earning ratio, usually below 15.
  2. Growth
    Growth companies, as their name stands, are companies that are regarded to have a lot of potential in the future. They are typically new companies with limited history and possibly limited earning. Examples of this kind would be LinkedIn, Facebook, Salesforce, etc... Some of those companies don't necessarily have a positive income, (Salesforce), but the Wall Street regards them as future cash cows and is willing ignore their current earning. 
The idea is that value stocks should have less risk, less return, higher dividend payment. It's not necessarily true. The Vanguard U.S. Value fund's last 10 years has actually been a wilder ride than the Vanguard U.S. Growth fund, although the value funds dividend yield was indeed almost 4 times higher than the growth fund. 

Personally, I think both strategies make intuitive sense for long term investors, because I believe that in the long run, a company's stock price will be mirroring its performance. But I also think just like anything in investment, you need discipline for any of the strategies to work, since one must not get carried away by chasing "best performer"s. 

Another way of categorizing stocks is U.S. vs International.

Generally speaking, U.S. stocks are less risky for people who reside in the U.S. and spend U.S. dollars. This is because even if all else is equal, U.S. stocks lack any currency risks that foreign stocks inherently have, since they are traded not based on U.S. dollar but local currencies. Foreign stocks can offer higher returns in many occasions, so I would not completely shy away from them. This is true even now with the European turmoil. My international stock investment has returned 10 percent since June 1st, while my U.S. stock investment has returned less than 8%. 

My personal strategy towards equity investment is 60/40 U.S. to foreign. I've gone for passive broadly diversified indices rather than growth or value funds, but in the future, when I get more capital to invest, I think I'll keep passive funds as my equity portfolio core and add some actively-managed growth funds for possibly higher returns. 

In the next post, I'll discuss bonds in terms of risk and return. 

P.S. if you have any questions, you can leave them in the comment section. I'll try my best to answer them, but again, everything is just personal opinion, though I do guarantee you that I put my money where my mouth is. 

Friday, August 3, 2012

The big question: Risk vs Return, Part 2

So stocks.

These are high risk investments that involve very high volatility. You can experience gains of 1000% magnitude in a few years, you can also experience losses of close 100% in a couple of years. So how do we approach stocks?

One way, is to pick a few stocks yourself. Generally, the fewer stocks you pick, the higher volatility. Why? Well, unless stocks are at least 100% correlated, when one of the stocks' price changes, other do not follow suit proportionally, and therefore acts as dampening the change. Of course, if you happen to find stocks that are more than 100% correlated, then you can expose yourself to extra volatility by buying more stocks. This approach is heavily dependent on your luck (some call skill).

There are actually two camps on this approach: ones relying completely on technical data, and ones relying completely on fundamentals of a stock. Most people are actually in between. So the technical camp claims that the stock's fundamentals are already "considered" when it comes to stock pricing, and therefore all those nice curves are able to give us all the information we are ever gonna get about the company whose stock we are trading. The fundamentals guys, on the other hand, says that all that matters for a stock is how well the company behind it is performing, and therefore they pay attention to things like Price/Earning ratios (Actually P/E ratio is only a small part). Personally, I think the technical stuff is pure bullshit. Given a reasonable time frame, I am totally convinced that fundamentals guys will always outperform. Think about it, humans are often nuts, therefore those pretty curves mean nothing! They are the product of trading activities performed by some crazy, irrational beings, and how is that going to help me find stocks?

The other way is to broadly diversify, often through some kind of broadly diversified fund. The good thing is that the volatility is vastly lower. It's not uncommon for the price of a single stock to fall by 30 percent in a single day, (Zynga) but it is very rare to see the S&P 500 to fall even 5% in a day, in fact, a 3% percent drop would be termed as "plunge" by the new agents already. On the other hand, broadly diversified funds rarely rise 3% or more in a day either.

Remember, those two approaches do not have to be mutually exclusive. Personally, when it comes to equities investing, I'd like to have a core portfolio consisting of broadly diversified index funds, and then a few individual stocks here and there, acting as supplementary investments. Of course, since I am a complete non-believer of technical analysis, I'd only pick stocks based on their fundamentals. (hmm, FB is looking increasingly attractive at this point)

In the next post, I'll do a high-level discussion on stock picking strategies.

Monday, July 30, 2012

The big question: Risk vs Return, Part 1

Everyone loves higher returns. At least I assume so. All else given, I'd much prefer my money grows at 1000% compared to 100% annually. OK, I'm dreaming.

But still, everyone loves higher returns. So where do they come from? Investments. Let's start from the highest return.

  1. You start a company! Yes, if you start a company, your expected return will be huge. Let's see, Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page, etc... Just take these people as an example, they probably have 30 billion dollars each, so there's your 120 billion dollars. If they started with a combined total of 100k, then it's more than 1 million times in return! Even taking people who fail when starting up their own company, the average return is probably still well over 100 times. That's 10000% return in probably 20 years, a mouth-watering yearly average of 26%. Considering increasing the return by even 5 percentage points over the average of 8% is considered a major feat, this rate of return is simply astonishing. Now clearly, we don't see people flocking to start their own companies, why? Mostly because it's risky! Of all entrepreneurs, maybe 5% will succeed with millions in 20 years, 90% will fail with no return, and 5% probably will keep their investments. (I'm making numbers up here, but I'd say it's an educated guess) We must understand that for an average person, the pain of losing 1 million dollars is much greater than the joy of making 1 million dollars if they had 1 million to start with. Of course, other factors such as higher time / energy devotion required for one's own business may also play a part. 
  2. Equities. If we ignore the characteristics of derivatives such as leveraged funds, futures, options and the like, for the period of 1926 to 2011, the broad stock market, each individual stock weighted by their market value, had an annual return of 9.9%. A really high number. To put this into context, in 30 years, your portfolio is expected to grow by 16 time. I.e. what was 10k will become 170k. And the down side is that stocks are very volatile, meaning that their prices vary a lot from year to year. The worst year for 100% stocks was 1931, a year where the broad stock market dropped 43%. Take a moment and just imagine if all your savings, probably 100k, is now only 57k, in just a year! Ouch. What's more, in 25 years out of those 86, almost 30% of the entire duration, you'll end up with some kind of loss. Imagine the psychological effect it might have on you, a lot of people are not willing to bear this psychological pain, or they do not have enough time to wait for the market to "come back to normal". 
  3. Bonds. Bonds have risks too. You can get defaults and interest variations. But bond risks are significantly lower: for the same historical period of 1926 to 2011, the absolutely worst year for bonds were -8.1% in 1969. In other words, in almost 100 years, investors would have never lost more than a tenth of their investment had they gone for diversified bonds only. A price had to be paid to the low risk though, in this case a much lower return of 5.6% annually, not even two thirds of what equities can provide you with.
  4. Cash or cash equivalent (CDs). Now these have almost zero risk. All bank deposits in the U.S. are insured by FDIC for up to 250k. So essentially they are completely "safe".  I wasn't able to gather historical data back to 1926, but we currently have an average deposit interest rate of below 1%. 
The general trend is clear, higher risk, higher return. This may not hold true for short periods of time though, and "short" can actually be fairly long. For example, since the early 1980s, where interest rate was at sky-high 20%+, bond yield has kept dropping steadily, which created the biggest bond bull market. Therefore, for the most recent 30 years, bonds actually offered higher returns than stocks. But since interest rate can not  decrease forever (there is this magic number called zero), the potential gains from bonds will be limited. And personally I think over another 10 or 20 years, bond returns will come back to the normal 5% ish range. 

Personally I think this post has been rather chaotic, as I tried to take on too many things in a single post. I guess on the next post I'll start with just stock, and hopefully discuss risk involved in some depth when it comes to stocks. 

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Stock vs Bonds, tax comparison, Summary

This is the summary table.
Stock, Bond ST capital gainStock, Bond LT capital gainStock qualificed DividendStock non-qualified DividendTax-exempt bond interestTaxable bond interest
Tax rate28%15%15%28%0%28%

Now let's get familiar with the concept of asset location. Many of you might have heard of the term asset allocation, which we will discuss in the future posts, but asset location is a quite different beast that is still important for a successful investor.

If every other investment decision remains the same, a good asset location will maximize after tax investment return. Note, we always talk about after-tax return, not the actual amount of taxation. It does not matter how much Uncle Sam charges you, as long as we end up with more money in the pocket, that asset location is a successful one.

Personally, I employ this strategy for when it comes to asset location:

Maximize tax-free and tax-deferred (401k and IRA, maybe 529 as well) accounts with investments with the following priority
  1. Taxable bonds. These bonds are guaranteed to generate realized interest gains every year that are taxed at a hefty 28%.
  2. Actively managed stock funds. Actively managed funds tend to have high turn-over, which means that they may incur a lot of realized capital gains at 28%. 
  3. Foreign stocks. Foreign stocks are taxed heavily on their dividends at 28%.
The location of other types of investment does not matter too much if you are a buy-and-hold investor. If you often trade, then it makes sense to treat them the same way as actively managed stock funds with high turn-over.

So the idea is pretty simple, put the tax-efficient investments in your normal accounts and put those less tax-efficient into tax-advantaged accounts. 

At the end of this rather short post, I want to stress again, always aim for maximizing AFTER-TAX RETURN instead of minimizing tax. A lot of people have fallen to the trap of omg-I-don't-want-to-pay-tax.

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Saturday, July 28, 2012

Stock vs Bonds, tax comparison, Part 3

In this post, I'll discuss the tax implications of bonds.

Bonds are actually pretty inefficient when it comes to taxation, but hey, it makes sense, because stock dividends are actually double-taxed, once at the corporate level, and once at individual income level, whereas interest payments on bonds are tax-free on the corporate side.

Following the grand theme of 2s, let me introduce you to the two types of bonds: taxable and tax-exempt.

Taxable bonds are fairly easy to understand, their interest payments are taxed at the regular income tax rate, which means 28% federal and whatever state tax. Interestingly, treasury bills are taxable!

Tax-exempt bonds are slightly more complex. Most bonds marketed as tax-exempt actually only means that you are exempt on federal taxation for interest gain. If you state happens to tax your income, then you'll have to pay the state tax. Our beloved California will then get a 9.3% cut of your interest gains. I guess this is the price you have to pay for nice weather and the existence of silicon valley, huh? There is another kind of tax-exempt bond funds, those state specific. Usually, you can only buy state-specific bond funds only if you are a resident of that state. For example, the Vanguard California Long-term Tax-exempt Fund are only available to California residents, but the interest gains from this fund is then also exempt from CA taxation.

Two common misconceptions!

  1. "I bought a tax-exempt fund! Now all my gains are tax free!"
    Not true! As I mentioned, tax-exemption only applies to the interest earnings. If you sell a tax-exempt bond fund, you still have to pay tax on any capital gain. 
  2. "Tax-exempt bonds are always better because I pay no tax!"
    Not true! The ultimate goal of investment is to maximize after-tax return, not minimize tax. If you have two funds with exactly the same characteristics, except A is taxable with 5% yield and B is tax-exempt with 3% yield, then obviously you should take the 5% one. 5% * (1-0.28) = 3.6%.
You may have a question with regard to the 1st misconception, namely, how exactly do you get a capital gain from bonds? Are they not just instrument that generate income? Well, just like stocks' return consist of appreciation and dividend, bonds' return also consist of both. The price of a bond varies with its demand, the higher the demand, the higher the price. If you look at it from another angle, then it can be interpreted as a variation in yield. Let's take a look at an example.

You bought 10k worth of bond at 10% yield (yeah, super bond, or maybe super risky bond), it has a maturity of 10 years. The moment you bought it, suddenly the yield dropped to 0%. (Very unlikely to happen, but we do see zero or even negative bond yields, we've even seen them recently in the case of 3 month US treasury bills and German bunds) Now how much is your 10k bond? Since most of the bonds are fixed rate, your 10% yield will continue to provide 10% annual income for 10 years before the principal is paid back to you. So your 10k bonds in 10 years time will be worth 10k + 10k * 10% * 10 years = 20k. 
Now for people that bought the 0% yield bond right after you, in 10 years time, their bond will be exactly 10k. Therefore, your 10k bond with 10% yield now is exactly the same as 20k bond with 0%. So you can sell your bond for 20k and cash in an extra 10k! This is basically how capital gain occurs. Similarly, when the yield rises, the value of bond you hold will drop. 

Of course, bonds' yield don't change by 10 percentage points every day, most of the time, their price hardly changes. This is especially true for short-term bonds, as even if the yields fluctuate, the impact on the entire value of the bond is small. Take the made-up 10k 10% example again, if the maturity is only 1 year, you'll gain 10% instead of 100%. 

In the next post, I'll summarize what I touched upon, and introduce the concept of what's known as "asset-location". 

P.S. if you like what I write, don't hesitate to share or subscribe!

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Stock vs Bonds, tax comparison, Part 2

In this post, I'll write about tax implications of losses in investment.

As I mentioned previously, the IRS is actually pretty fair when it comes to capital gains / losses. What I mean is that it taxes you when you make money, and it refunds you when you lose money.

In case you still haven't noticed a theme with IRS and their enormous tax code, let me give you a hint, "two" lurks around everywhere. Yes, losses come in two types, too. And no, this is not going to be the end of "two"-types streak.

First type is "short-term" capital loss. These are losses due to selling shares before holding them for one year. The second type is "long-term" capital loss, originating from selling shares that have been held by you for more than a year. And when I refer to capital loss, I always mean realized losses, you need to have sold the shares for the losses to be realized. 

As you probably noticed, they are the exact mirror of ST and LT capital gains. When it comes to tax credits, the rules are closely tied to the ST and LT characteristics as well.

ST capital losses incurred in a year can be used to offset ST capital gains, if there is any excess, you can then use it to offset LT capital gains. In case you're a super loser (in the investment sense), and you lost so much in ST investment, you can then use the rest to offset your your net LT capital gains (defined by LT capital gain - LT capital loss). Now in the hyper loser case, you can then use what's left of your current year's ST loss to offset ordinary income, up to 3k. If you qualify for ULTRA loser, i.e. you exceed 3k a year, you get to carry the losses over to the next tax year. Combined with the new losses, you repeat the steps again.

LT capital losses work much the same way as ST capital losses. The only difference is that they are used to offset LT capital gains first, then net ST capital gain, then ordinary income.

Now people have noticed a potential loophole here. Imagine you bought Stock A for 10k, before the end of the tax year, it has fallen to 5k. (I know, tough luck). You could potentially sell the stock and incur a 5k realized ST capital loss. What you could then do, is to buy it back using 5k. Sure, you lost probably 7 dollars of trading fee, but assuming a combined federal and state tax rate of 30%, you saved 5k * 0.3 = 1.5k of tax money. Of course you'll end up paying more tax later when the stock's price goes up, but you essentially have 1.5k for free until you sell the stock at a gain. And if you have those 1.5k invested, you probably end up with more than 1.5k by the time you have to pay the tax on your gains by selling Stock A. Feels like free money, huh?

Well it doesn't work, sorry to burst your bubble. What I just described there is called a "wash sale", and it is a practice forbidden by IRS. Wash sale is defined as selling and buying investments that are "substantially the same" within 30 days. The window is actually more like 60 days, because if you buy something in July 1st, you couldn't sell between June 1st and July 30th. Well, I'm being sloppy here, yes you can "sell" or "buy", but you just can't take tax credits for your losses. Of course, the IRS being "fair", it also means that you don't incur capital gains in the same window.

Some people unintentionally introduce wash sales to their portfolio when the stock market is very volatile and one tries to chase performance and stop loss. This is fine, just pay attention to the tax filing, do not blindly include your ST capital losses if your financial institution does not take wash sale related regulations into account. Because the IRS may find you later with hefty fines and other undesirable punishments.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Stock vs Bonds, tax comparison, Part 1

Stocks and Bonds are the most common investment options, each has its own tax characteristics.

In this post, I'll primarily discuss the tax liabilities of stocks.

People make money from stocks through two methods, price increase (appreciation) and dividend. Both are fairly intuitive. You buy low, you sell high, then you have appreciation, in IRS's books, it's called capital gain. Companies pay their shareholders part of the earnings, and that's dividend.

Price appreciation, or capital gain, is taxed differently depending on how long you hold the stocks for. If shares of a stock is sold within 1 year of the purchase date, whatever you gain is categorized as short-term capital gain, which means the tax rate is exactly the same as your marginal ordinary income tax rate. In my case, that's 28% federal tax + 9.3% state tax. Ouch, more than a third of what I make is going to the government! Even though I don't hate the government, I don't like it too much either, not so much that I'm willing to part with 37.3% of my investment earnings. On the other hand, if shares of a stock is held for more than 1 year and then sold, it is taxed according to the rules of long-term capital gain, at a much more favorable rate of 15% federal + 9.3% state (I know, sucks to be in California, many other states differentiate between long-term and short-term capital gains though).

Conclusion here is that Uncle Sam loves buy and hold investors more! (I'm sure it loves everyone none-the-less, LOL)

Some caveats here:

  1. That 15% LT capital gain tax can change, and in fact, it's scheduled to increase to 20% starting January 2013. Moar tax plz...
  2. Many of us invest through mutual funds, myself included. The taxation for mutual funds are slightly more complex than individual stocks. In the eyes of IRS, what you are buying is not "THE FUND", you are buying individual stocks in some proportion. That proportion is dictated by the fund manager, and can change over the course of a year, sometimes drastically. Every time when this proportion changes differently than the prices of each individual stock, your fund manager is essentially selling / buying stocks on your behalf. And that is a taxable event, which follows the tax rules I described above. When you sell the fund, of course, that's another taxable event, because in essence you are selling every individual stocks that you own through that mutual fund. Therefore, when you select funds, it probably makes sense to pay attention to what's known as "turn-over rate", a number that measures how much the manager has traded in a year. 0% means the manager never exchanged any shares, and 100% means none of the shares that the fund had at the beginning of a year has remained at the end of that year (read: probably a lot of tax). Index funds usually have close to 0% turn-over, and actively-managed funds tend to be a lot higher. But don't just shy away from actively-managed funds, because if they offer much better returns such that earning - tax is higher than the index fund, it makes perfect sense to buy actively-managed funds. How you determine how much a fund will return in a year, is a completely different matter though.
Now dividends also have two categories since IRS loves complexity. Those "qualified" dividends are basically all the dividends that you get from U.S. companies. They are taxed identically to LT capital gain. Those "non-qualified" dividends, are mostly foreign company dividends, some banking accounts' "dividends" (interests really) , and pretty much anything that is not included in the lonely qualified category. They are treated the same way as ST capital gain (read: a lot of tax). 

If you choose to employ a dividend-oriented investment strategy, i.e. buying shares of stable companies that pay high dividends, such as Microsoft, it then makes sense to stick to U.S.-based companies, because otherwise you'll get hit pretty heavily with non-qualified dividend tax. 

Assuming you are in the 28% tax bracket, here is a summary table for you:

TypeLong-term Capital GainShort-term Capital GainQualified DividendNon-qualified Dividends
Applicable toShare price appreciation when held for more than 1 yearShare price appreciate when held for less than a yearDividends paid by U.S. companiesAny other kind of dividend
Tax rate15%28%15%28%
We discussed the "gain" situation in this post, as we know, stocks go down too, and they can go down by a lot, which means the "loss" situation is equally important. Luckily, the IRS is pretty fair when it comes to losses during an investment. I'll write out what I know in the next post. 

Monday, July 23, 2012

Thoughts on IRAs and 401k's for high income individuals, Part 3

Having written two posts about the relative pros and cons of IRA, Roth IRA, 401k and Roth 401k, in this post, I will try to give a somewhat comprehensive summary.

IRANon-deductible IRARoth IRA401kRoth 401k
Contribution limit5k5k5k17k17k
Income phase out start56kN/A110kN/AN/A
Income cap66kN/A120kN/AN/A
Withdrawal Tax after 59.5EntirityEarning onlyFreeEntirityFree
Early withdrawal penalty
(In addition to normal tax)
10%10% on earningFree after 5 years10%10% pro-rata

Personally, I'd maximize the Roth options of both as they are more flexible when it comes to early withdrawal, and they effectively increase the amount of money that you have which is tax-free! A simple calculation for maximizing IRAs that assumes 8% annual return, 30 years time frame, 28% federal tax and 2% state tax shows the following result:

Contribution (after tax)105000 (After tax equivalent)150000
Ending balance566416 + (150000-105000) = 611416566416
Tax due566416 * 0.3 = 169924.80
Total after tax441491.2566416
The traditional IRA's total asset after 30 years plus the sum of tax savings every year is only about 78% of the Roth IRA's total asset.
The situation is similar for 401k and Roth 401k.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Thoughts on IRAs and 401k's for high income individuals, Part 2

In the last blog post, I discussed some of the features and limitations of both IRA and Roth IRA plans, and came to the conclusion that for young high-incoming individuals, jumping through the hoops in order to achieve a "backdoor Roth" is probably the best option. Now let's see what are our options for 401k plans.

The main advantage of 401k over IRA is the contribution limit. For 2012, an individual is allowed to contribute up to 17k per year. That is quite a bit of money! It may not sound like too much, but the tax-deferred status of 401k really makes a difference. Let's imagine a hypothetical situation where you max out your 401k on some steady investment that returns 5%. Note, 5% is a very conservative number, most other sources assume that you get 8%. Over 30 years, assuming annual compouding, your total in your 401k account would be 1129460 dollars, of which only 510k is your principal! Of course, the 1.1M in 30 years may not buy you as much, but even if you take into consideration of inflation, assuming it will be at 2% per year(Fed has been trying to achieve that number), we'll still end up with  808k.

Now keep in mind this number is achieved using a very modest earning estimate. If we use the standard 50/50 asset allocation, according to Vanguard, for the period of 1926 to 2011, the annual return is 8.2%! Even though past performance is no guarantee for the future, we have reasonable confidence that the performance of the markets will not stray too far from this number given a long enough time frame. So that 17k per year, i.e. 510k principal, in 30 years time will end up as 1.9M after inflation!

Without the tax benefit from 401k, you basically reduce your earning by whatever percentage your highest tax bracket is. Assuming a 28% federal tax (which is potentially going to rise), and 2% state tax (probably an underestimate), our glorious 1.9M will be reduced to 1.25M, a 35% reduction in final value, and a 47% reduction in profit! So the tax deferral really makes a difference. Bear in mind though, this tax calculation method is a very simplified approximation, as it does not take into account the difference in tax treatment between long-term and short-term capital gains or the portfolio turn-over rate.

Employers are also able to "match" employee contribution, essentially doubling your 401k's, *if* they so choose to. In that case, by all means maximize your 401k, because the "matching" part is almost like a salary raise!

The bad thing for 401k though, is that you have a limited choice of investment options. Basically companies choose a custodian for you. Usually, companies choose decent financial institutions, but they can still be limiting. For example, the company I work for chooses Fidelity as our 401k custodian. Even though by no means is Fidelity a bad choice, we only have a limited sub-set of fidelity funds to invest in, and can not invest in some potentially more lucrative investment, e.g. P2P lending. This is not the end of the world though, since you can always rollover your 401k plans to IRA, which then gives you unlimited freedom :)

401k's, just like IRAs, come in two flavors. Roth and non-Roth. The non-Roth one are almost identical to IRA apart from the advantage and disadvantage I mentioned above. But the Roth one is slightly worse than the Roth IRA when it comes to distribution. Roth IRAs allow you to withdraw your principal after 5 years tax-free, but Roth 401k applies a "pro-rata" rule. E.g. Imagine you have 10k in Roth IRAs and Roth 401k's respectively, the newest contribution in both were made more than 5 years ago, and 5k from each type of accounts are earnings ( I know, super earning rate) . Now you want to withdraw 5k from each type. On the Roth IRA side, you pay no tax, but on the Roth 401k side, you have to pay tax on 2.5k of the distributions if you are younger than 59.5. Not too good huh? Of course, you can always wait for a job change and do a rollover from Roth 401k to Roth IRA, which then entitles you to tax-free principal withdrawals even before 59.5.

In fact, I'd argue that anyone with Roth 401k's should rollover all their assets into a Roth IRA whenever possible, for greater flexibility in both investment and withdrawal.

I'll be make some little tools for estimating growth, maybe I can do better than most of the tools on the internet :)

Thoughts on IRAs and 401k's for high income individuals, Part 1

As we know, tax in the U.S. can be pretty hefty for anyone with over 100k annual income. And many limitations also come into play as soon as you are slightly over the magic 100k number.

I did some reading on how IRAs and 401k's function, and came up with some personal opinions that I'd like to share with anyone who cares reading my little blog. :) Since I'm in my early 20s, I will mostly focus on info that's relevant to my own age group.

So the first question for many people would be, which one is the best? The answer is clearly ---- both. 
The reason is that you want to maximize the amount of money you have that has the ability to grow tax-deferred or even tax-free. There are limitations to each though, and some apply specifically to high-income individuals. Now let's discuss the relative pros and cons for each.

IRAs have a much smaller annual contribution cap, 5000 USD for people under 50. You put pre-tax money in, the money grows tax-deferred, and later when you withdraw, you pay tax on both the principal and the earning. But the traditional IRA in its original flavor is actually not available to us, since there is an income cap as well. For 2012, the income cap is 68000, which means that if you earn more than 68k a year, you can make zero tax-deductible IRA contributions. 

Now you're probably like, "waaaat". I know, I was the same when I read that line, but as the saying goes, "when god closes a window for you, he often opens an entire door", or something like that. OK, in this case, it's more like a series of hoops. So notice I said "zero tax-deductible IRA contributions", yes, it implies there is another form of IRA contribution, i.e. non-tax-deductible contributions. But wait a minute, if you have any idea of how the retirement accounts work in the US, you'd probably ask: "doesn't that mean Roth? "

The answer is unfortunately "no". It is not Roth, it basically has all the disadvantages and none of the advantages of Roth. A non-deductible IRA contribution is after-tax money, which means the principal will not be taxed again, but since the account is still an IRA, you'll end up paying tax on the earnings. Then why don't we just contribute to Roth?

The problem is, you can't do that either. There is a cap for Roth IRA contribution, too! For 2012, it is 120k. Admittedly, the complete cutoff is much higher, but you'll still get a phase-out issue starting at 110k. I.e. if you make 115k, you can only contribute 2.5k a year instead of 5k. This goes against our doctrine of maximizing tax-free growth! Now we are stuck with no normal traditional IRA and no Roth IRA. Is there another option other than sticking with the sub-par non-deductible IRA stuff?

Prior to 2010, the answer would have been "no". But since 2010, the IRS has decided to remove the cap on what's called a "Roth conversion". Essentially, you withdraw IRAs, pay tax now, and put them back into Roth IRAs within 60 days. It's the IRS's way of getting paid earlier. (much like killing a goose that lays golden eggs, ok, maybe not to that extent) This enables us to convert our non-deductible IRAs into Roth, essentially completely bypass the limitations on both flavors of IRAs. This method is also known as "backdoor Roth".

What you do is stack up 5k, contribute to an IRA, and immediately do a conversion. Since you already paid tax on the 5k, the conversion is free (unless you somehow made a bunch of money during the conversion processing time, in which case, good for you). Now we get to reap the benefit Roth IRA!

One added benefit of Roth IRA which I particularly value is the ability to withdraw the principal after 5 years. Since I'm still in my early 20s, I have ambitious in my life that will need money, such as starting a company or something. If I put a lot of money in retirement accounts, when I really do need money to kick-start my business, I'll probably find myself unable to retrieve them without paying a 10% penalty tax to the IRS. Not good! But if I don't use the retirement accounts, I'm essentially leaving money on the table! Much of the investment gains will be paid to the IRS due to the high income tax bracket. Not good either! Roth IRA solves this problem for me though. With Roth IRA, I can save 5k, let it grow, and withdraw that 5k after 5 years while leaving the earning to do further growth. 

In my opinion, Roth IRA is the best option for anyone that would like to save up for their retirement but don't want to lock themselves completely into the whole retirement saving thing. It is a shame the limit is only 5k, but I still think the benefit is completely worth jumping through these hoops to get the job done. 

On my next blog post, I'll discuss features and limitations of 401k plans.