Berkshire Hathaway 2017 Annual Letter by Warren Buffett

brk2016Berkshire Hathaway (BRK) has released its 2017 Letter to Shareholders. Instead of reading various media coverage about one aspect, I recommend reading the entire thing straight from the source. It’s only 17 pages long and (as always) written in a straightforward and approachable fashion. Even if you aren’t interested in BRK stock at all, reading the letter can be educational for individual investors of any experience level. Here are my personal notes with quoted exceprts.

Never use borrowed money to invest (leverage).

Our aversion to leverage has dampened our returns over the years. But Charlie and I sleep well. Both of us believe it is insane to risk what you have and need in order to obtain what you don’t need. We held this view 50 years ago when we each ran an investment partnership, funded by a few friends and relatives who trusted us. We also hold it today after a million or so “partners” have joined us at Berkshire.

There is simply no telling how far stocks can fall in a short period. Even if your borrowings are small and your positions aren’t immediately threatened by the plunging market, your mind may well become rattled by scary headlines and breathless commentary. And an unsettled mind will not make good decisions.

Lack of acquisitions. Berkshire hates paying too much for a company. They are also quite patient. Right now, there are many other competing buyers willing to pay high prices, so that is why their cash hoard keeps growing.

The less the prudence with which others conduct their affairs, the greater the prudence with which we must conduct our own.

Cash (Treasury Bills) is king.

During the 2008-2009 crisis, we liked having Treasury Bills – loads of Treasury Bills – that protected us from having to rely on funding sources such as bank lines or commercial paper. We have intentionally constructed Berkshire in a manner that will allow it to comfortably withstand economic discontinuities, including such extremes as extended market closures.

At yearend Berkshire held $116.0 billion in cash and U.S. Treasury Bills (whose average maturity was 88 days), up from $86.4 billion at yearend 2016. This extraordinary liquidity earns only a pittance and is far beyond the level Charlie and I wish Berkshire to have. Our smiles will broaden when we have redeployed Berkshire’s excess funds into more productive assets.

Be patient.

The light can at any time go from green to red without pausing at yellow.

Wells Fargo and Bank of America stock. If you’re looking for individual stock ideas, many people copycat the holdings of Berkshire Hathaway.

Charlie and I view the marketable common stocks that Berkshire owns as interests in businesses, not as ticker symbols to be bought or sold based on their “chart” patterns, the “target” prices of analysts or the opinions of media pundits.

I would also consider the overlap between the holdings of Berkshire Hathaway and Daily Journal Corporation (Chairman Charles Munger). Both have significant stakes in Wells Fargo and Bank of America in an approximate 3:2 ratio. (Both also own a much smaller amount of US Bancorp.) Keep in mind these are bought for the long run:

Stocks surge and swoon, seemingly untethered to any year-to-year buildup in their underlying value. Over time, however, Ben Graham’s oft-quoted maxim proves true: “In the short run, the market is a voting machine; in the long run, however, it becomes a weighing machine.”

Hedge fund bet. As expected, the S&P 500 index fund won against a group of actively-managed hedge funds, but there were some interesting details in the final results. Something to discuss further in a separate post.

Risk vs. time horizon.

Investing is an activity in which consumption today is foregone in an attempt to allow greater consumption at a later date. “Risk” is the possibility that this objective won’t be attained.

I want to quickly acknowledge that in any upcoming day, week or even year, stocks will be riskier – far riskier – than short-term U.S. bonds. As an investor’s investment horizon lengthens, however, a diversified portfolio of U.S. equities becomes progressively less risky than bonds, assuming that the stocks are purchased at a sensible multiple of earnings relative to then-prevailing interest rates.

Past shareholder letters.

Recent Timeline of Stock Market Corrections

The currently-accepted definition of a “market correction” is a price drop of 10% from its peak. There have now been five corrections to the S&P 500 stock index since the bear market of 2009 (seven if you count the 9.8% and 9.9% drops). Here’s a nice visual timeline from the NY Times.

correct1

Here’s a corresponding list of all the cited reasons from Bloomberg for the corrections and near-corrections.

correct2

If you look at all of those concerns, they all seemed pretty legitimate and scary at the time. The general idea of these articles is that corrections happen regularly, so don’t freak out. Of course, I could also repeat another one of those investing truisms: “A bear market is coming. I’m not saying it’s now… but you know, there will be another bear market in the future.”

This is another item in my big folder of things that are “interesting but not going to change my investment plan”. My plan remains still to buy, hold, rebalance, and keep collecting those dividends and interest payments. David Merkel has a nice summary of how to create a portfolio that allows this hands-off attitude:

[…] my final point is this: size your position in risk assets to the level where you can live with it under bad conditions, and be happy with it under good conditions.

Robinhood App Review: Free Stock Trades, Free Options Trading, No Minimum Balance

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Updated. The Robinhood app just announced free Bitcoin trading, which expands their suite of services to the following:

  • Unlimited free stock and ETF trades with no minimum balance requirement.
  • Free options trading. No commission and no per contract fee, plus no exercise or assignment fees.
  • Trade Bitcoin & other cryptocurrencies, 24/7 & commission-free. I’m not into Bitcoin myself, but hey y’all are adults.
  • Sleek smartphone app (Android and iOS) + Robinhood for Web option + API integration.
  • Free real-time market data.
  • Free share of stock for new users with referral.

Also, check out this new Bloomberg article Brokerage App Robinhood Thinks Bitcoin Belongs in Your Retirement Plan.

Background. I’ve been Robinhood beta user since mid-2014. I was skeptical as I’ve been an long-time early adopter of free trading platforms (read: cheapskate investor). In August 2015, they rolled out both iOS and Android app and reported processing over 2 million free trades. As of 2017, they have over a million users and processed $30 billion in trades. According to Bloomberg, they recently raised money at a $1.3 billion valuation.

Application process. You must provide your personal information including Social Security number, net worth, income, investing experience, etc. This is the same as any other brokerage firm, but this may also be the first such account for many users. Everything was done online; there were no paper documents that required mailing or faxing.

Core features review.

  • Legit. Robinhood Financial is a member of the SIPC which protects the securities in your account up to $500,000. Data is encrypted with SSL. Apex is their clearing firm.
  • $0 commission trades. Yes, it works, all with no minimum balance requirement. You could open an account, put in five bucks, and buy a single share of Zynga (ZNGA) if you wanted to (maybe two on a bad day…).
  • Market orders, limit orders, stop limit orders, and stop orders available. Certain orders may be entered as good for the day or good till canceled (GTC).
  • Individual cash or margin accounts available.
  • Free options trading: No commission and no per contract fee upon buying or selling options, as well as no exercise or assignment fees. Level 2 self-directed options strategies (buying calls and puts, selling covered calls and puts) as well as Level 3 self-directed options strategies such as fixed-risk spreads (credit spreads, iron condors), and other advanced trading strategies are available.
  • Customer service details. You are encouraged to go through their e-mail “support@robinhood.com”, but they have added a phone number now during market hours (9:30am – 4:00pm EST) at (650) 940-2700.

Funds transfers. You can manually link any bank account with your routing number and account number, but you can also directly use your username and password at these banks: Chase, Bank of America, Citibank, Wells Fargo, U.S. Bank, Charles Schwab, PNC, Silicon Vally Bank, and USAA. ACH transfers are free and take approximately 3 business days (same as other brokerages). There is also a automatic deposits feature where you can schedule ACH transfers on a weekly, biweekly, monthly, or quarterly basis.

ACAT account transfers. Robinhood now accepts incoming stock transfers from outside brokerage accounts. To do this, go your app account menu, select “Banking”, then select “Stock Transfer” and follow the on-screen instructions. Incoming transfers are free. Outgoing transfers will incur a $75 fee.

Robinhood Instant. Robinhood Instant is a free upgrade that gets you a “limited margin account” that has the following features:

  • Immediate access to funds from selling stock. That means you can reinvest those funds without waiting two days for settlement. (All brokerage margin accounts offer this.)
  • Limited instant deposits. Use up to $1,000 of your pending bank deposits right away. No waiting 2-3 days for a bank transfer to complete.

What’s the catch? Getting free trades is great, but be aware of the following:

  • Although they announced that a web interface is available, I have been on the waitlist since early November (currently #600,000 in line). Full rollout is not scheduled until some time in 2018. Everyone can access their account via a mobile Apple iOS or Android device (iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch, Android phone, Android tablet).
  • There are unofficial sites that use the Robinhood API to provide web access, but I would be wary of sharing your login credentials with a 3rd-party.
  • I’m currently on a wait list for the free options trading as well.
  • Broker-assisted phone trades are $10 each, according to their fee schedule.
  • Electronic statements are the default and only free option. I don’t even see an option to enable paper statements in the app, but according to their fee schedule paper statements cost $5 a pop.

How do they make money? First, Robinhood will make some money the same way other brokers do: collect interest on your idle cash, charge you interest for margin loans, and sell order flow. The most innovative prospect is to the plan to sell API access to other financial apps.

The fact that Robinhood sells order flow may leave you with a slightly worse execution price as compared to other brokers with more complex order routing. If you are making large value trades, then this small percentage difference may add up to something significant that matters more than commission price. With my tiny order volume, I am fine with them selling my order flow if they are giving me commission-free trades.

Robinhood Gold is their premium service tier that gives you extending trading hours and interest-free margin for $10 a Month. My Robinhood Gold review.

User interface. Over the last 10 years, I’ve opened an account at the majority of the “discount” brokerage firms. I’ve had $0 trades before, along with $2 trades, $2.50 trades, $4.95 trades and so on. What makes Robinhood special is their modern, app-centric approach. I agree with this quote from Wired:

But the app’s simplicity is meant to be about more than style. Ease of access and understanding is meant to make Robinhood compulsively engaging for a new generation of investors that don’t find the stock market very accessible from the mobile screens at the center of their lives.

Screenshots.

robin1 robin2

robin3 robin4

Recap. Robinhood delivers on their $0 stock trades promise with no minimum balance. The app interface is clean and intuitive. Customer service is on the lean side, but my requests were responded to within a day or so. They continue to make incremental improvements. They’ve been open to the public since March 2015, which is honestly longer than I expected. They announced a web interface on November 1, 2017. They announced free options trading in December 2017.

Sign up for Robinhood with my referral link and get a free share of stock, and I’ll get one too. Details on this promotion here.

Callan Periodic Table of Investment Returns 2018

callan2016clipWe’ve all been told that past performance is no guarantee of future returns, but it’s still hard to buy an investment that has been performing poorly. We should remember the historical power of diversification and that even though something may look horrible now, good news may be just around the corner. We also need to remember that whatever is hot today won’t stay that way forever.

Callan Associates updates a “periodic table” annually with the relative performance of 8 major asset classes over the last 20 years. You can find the most recent one at their website Callan.com. The best performing asset class is listed at the top, and it sorts downward until you have the worst performing asset. Here is the most recent snapshot of 1998-2017:

callan2018

The Callan Periodic Table of Investment Returns conveys the strong case for diversification across asset classes (stocks vs. bonds), investment styles (growth vs. value), capitalizations (large vs. small), and equity markets (U.S. vs. non-U.S.). The Table highlights the uncertainty inherent in all capital markets. Rankings change every year. Also noteworthy is the difference between absolute and relative performance, as returns for the top-performing asset class span a wide range over the past 20 years.

I find it easiest to focus on a specific asset class (Color) and then visually noting how its relative performance bounces around. Last year, I noted that Emerging Markets (Orange) and MSCI World ex-US (Light Grey) have been near the bottom for a while and I was still holding them and waiting for them to bounce back. In 2017, my diversification and patience paid off and they were indeed at the top again.

dilbert_divers

ICYMI: E-Trade Super Bowl 2018 Commercial “This Is Getting Old”

E-Trade’s newest commercials (remember the baby?) have the basic premise of (1) you don’t have enough money and (2) to solve this, you should open an E-Trade brokerage account. The Super Bowl commercial was more specific: Don’t be 85 years old and #stillworkin. Here’s the full commercial from YouTube:

Best Interest Rates on Cash – February 2018

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Short-term interest rates continue to rise, as are inflation expectations. Meanwhile, the megabanks make billions by pay you nothing for your idle cash. Here is my monthly roundup of the best safe rates available, roughly sorted from shortest to longest maturities. Check out my Ultimate Rate-Chaser Calculator to get an idea of how much additional interest you’d earn if you switched over. Rates listed are available to everyone nationwide. Rates checked as of 2/4/18.

High-yield savings accounts
While the huge brick-and-mortar banks rarely offer good yields, there are a number of online savings accounts offering much higher rates. Keep in mind that with savings accounts, the interest rates can change at any time.

  • AbleBanking at 1.70% APY, DollarSavingsDirect and Live Oak Bank at 1.60% APY, CIT Bank at 1.55% APY, all with no minimum balance requirement. SalemFiveDirect, Marcus/GS Bank at 1.50% APY.
  • I currently keep my “hub” account at Ally Bank Savings + Checking combo due to their history of competitive rates, 1-day external bank transfers, and overall user experience. I then move money elsewhere if the rate is significantly higher (and preferably locked in via CD rate). The free overdraft transfers from savings allows to me to keep my checking balance at a minimum. Ally Savings is now lagging a bit at 1.35% APY.

Money market mutual funds + Ultra-short bond ETFs
If you like to keep cash in a brokerage account, you should know that money market and short-term Treasury rates have been rising. The following money market and ultra-short bond funds are not FDIC-insured, but may be a good option if you have idle cash and cheap/free commissions.

  • Vanguard Prime Money Market Fund currently pays an 1.45% SEC yield. The default sweep option is the Vanguard Federal Money Market Fund, which has an SEC yield of 1.29%. You can manually move the money over to Prime if you meet the $3,000 minimum investment.
  • Vanguard Ultra-Short-Term Bond Fund currently pays 1.88% SEC Yield ($3,000 min) and 1.98% SEC Yield ($50,000 min). The average duration is ~1 year.
  • The PIMCO Enhanced Short Maturity Active Bond ETF (MINT) has a 1.75% SEC yield and the iShares Short Maturity Bond ETF (NEAR) has a 1.86% SEC yield while holding a portfolio of investment-grade bonds with an average duration of ~6 months. More info here.

Short-term guaranteed rates (1 year and under)
I am often asked what to do with a big wad of cash that you’re waiting to deploy shortly (just sold your house, just sold your business, legal settlement, inheritance). My usual advice is to keep things simple. If not a savings account, then put it in a short-term CD under the FDIC limits until you have a plan.

  • CIT Bank 11-Month No-Penalty CD is at 1.55% APY with a $1,000 minimum deposit and no withdrawal penalty seven days or later after funds have been received. The lack of early withdrawal penalty means that your interest rate can never go down for 11 months, but you can always jump ship if rates rise. Full review. You can open multiple CDs in smaller increments if you want more flexibility.
  • Live Oak Bank has a 12-month CD is at 2.10% APY with a $2,500 minimum deposit. Early withdrawal penalty is 90 days of interest. Ally Bank has a 12-month CD at 2.00% APY again, but with $25,000 minimum deposit. Early withdrawal penalty is 60 days of interest.

US Savings Bonds
Series I Savings Bonds offer rates that are linked to inflation and backed by the US government. You must hold them for at least a year. There are annual purchase limits. If you redeem them within 5 years there is a penalty of the last 3 months of interest.

  • “I Bonds” bought between November 2017 and April 2018 will earn a 2.58% rate for the first six months. The rate of the subsequent 6-month period will be based on inflation again. At the very minimum, the total yield after 12 months will be 1.29% with additional upside potential. More info here.
  • In mid-April 2018, the CPI will be announced and you will have a short period where you will have a very close estimate of the rate for the next 12 months. I will have another post up at that time.

Prepaid Cards with Attached Savings Accounts
A small subset of prepaid debit cards have an “attached” FDIC-insured savings account with exceptionally high interest rates. The negatives are that balances are capped, and there are many fees that you must be careful to avoid (lest they eat up your interest). The offers also tend to disappear with little notice. Some folks don’t mind the extra work and attention required, while others do.

  • Insight Card is one of the best remaining cards with 5% APY on up to $5,000 as of this writing. Fees to avoid include the $1 per purchase fee, $2.50 for each ATM withdrawal, and the $3.95 inactivity fee if there is no activity within 90 days. If you can navigate it carefully (basically only use ACH transfers and keep up your activity regularly) you can still end up with more interest than other options. Earning 4% extra interest on $5,000 is $200 a year.

Rewards checking accounts
These unique checking accounts pay above-average interest rates, but with some risk. You have to jump through certain hoops, and if you make a mistake you won’t earn any interest for that month. Some folks don’t mind the extra work and attention required, while others do. Rates can also drop quickly, leaving a “bait-and-switch” feeling. For example, Northpointe Bank was mentioned for several months here but recently stopped accepting new applications. Unclear how long existing accountholders will be grandfathered. That’s just how it goes with these types of accounts.

  • Consumers Credit Union offers up to 4.59% APY on up to a $20k balance, although getting 3.09% APY on a $10k balance has a much shorter list of requirements. The 4.59% APY requires you to apply for a credit card through them (other credit cards offer $500+ in sign-up bonuses). Keep your 12 debit purchases small as well, as for every $500 in monthly purchases you may be losing out on 2% cashback (or $10 a month after-tax). Find a local rewards checking account at DepositAccounts.

Certificates of deposit (greater than 1 year)
You might have larger balances, either because you are using CDs instead of bonds or you simply want a large cash reserves. By finding a bank CD with a reasonable early withdrawal penalty, you can enjoy higher rates but maintain access in a true emergency. Alternatively, consider a custom CD ladder of different maturity lengths such that you have access to part of the ladder each year, but your blended interest rate is higher than a savings account.

  • Live Oak Bank has an 18-month CD at 2.30% APY ($2,500 min) and a 24-month CD at 2.35% APY ($2,500 min). The early withdrawal penalty is the equivalent of 90 days of interest on the principal amount withdrawn for CD terms less than 24 months or 180 days of interest on the principal amount withdrawn for CD terms of 24 months or longer.
  • Ally Bank has a 5-year CD at 2.50% APY ($25,000 minimum) with a relatively short 150-day early withdrawal penalty and no credit union membership hoops. For example, if you closed this CD after 2 years you’d still get an 1.99% effective APY even after accounting for the penalty.
  • Connexus Credit Union has a 5-year Share Certificate at 3.00% APY ($5,000 minimum deposit) with a 365-day early withdrawal penalty $5,000 minimum deposit. Anyone can join this credit union via partner organization Connexus Association for a one-time $5 fee. I ran a Ally vs. Connexus 5-year CD comparison to show the effect of a larger early withdrawal penalty. Note that Ally rates have risen a bit since that post was published.

Longer-term Instruments
I’d use these with caution due to increased interest rate risk, but I still track them to see the rest of the current yield curve.

  • Willing to lock up your money for 10+ years? You can buy certificates of deposit via the bond desks of Vanguard and Fidelity. These “brokered CDs” offer the same FDIC-insurance. As of this writing, Vanguard is showing a 10-year non-callable CD at 2.85% APY (Watch out for higher rates from callable CDs from Fidelity.) Unfortunately, currently CD rates do not rise much higher even as you extend beyond a 5-year maturity.
  • How about two decades? Series EE Savings Bonds are not indexed to inflation, but they have a guarantee that the value will double in value in 20 years, which equals a guaranteed return of 3.5% a year. However, if you don’t hold for that long, you’ll be stuck with the normal rate which is quite low (currently a sad 0.10% rate). I view this as a huge early withdrawal penalty. You could also view it as long-term bond and thus a hedge against deflation, but only if you can hold on for 20 years.

All rates were checked as of 2/4/18.


Premier High Yield Savings

401k Millionaire By Age 45: How Was It Possible?

millWith the ongoing bull stock market, more people are reaching $1,000,000 balances in their 401k every day. However, a more extreme claim is that someone reached this mark at age 45 with total employee contributions of only $300,000. Is that really possible? Let’s take a look at what would need to fall into place for that to happen…

Consistently high contributions from salary. If you divide $300,000 by a theoretical 25 years of savings, that works out to $12,000 per year. That is within 401k historical contribution limits, but even with 25 working years, that means nearly maxing out your 401k contributions every single year. (Employer company matches don’t count and can push you above that limit.) According to Redditor Subject_Beef, s/he indeed saved regularly in 1995 with contributions close to the max most years. Consider that only about 10% of participants max out their 401ks each year, and most of those people were over the age of 45.

401kmill

High investment gains. Next, you must have the growth of $300,000 to $1,000,000, which would require a high stock allocation, avoidance of a prolonged bear market, and not panicking during market losses. Even with a lump-sum invested 25 years ago, going from $300k to $1000k would require a compound annual growth rate of 6.2%. However, with a 401(k), you have to do this through regular contributions and dollar-cost-averaging over time. Therefore, the actual growth rate would have to be significantly higher than that. By my rough calculations, the average would have to have been around 9% annually. The current asset allocation was shown to be roughly 37% S&P 500 Index fund, 33% US Small Cap Stock Index fund, and 30% International Stock Index fund. The annualized return of the S&P 500 has been about 10% over the last 23 years, so the numbers are quite possible.

No IRA rollovers. Finally, you’d need a steady career as most people who change companies either cash out or roll their 401(k) funds into an IRA with more flexibility. It is possible to do repeated 401k-to-401k rollovers, which is apparently the case here. I can’t think of too many compelling reasons to do so besides enabling the Backdoor Roth IRA. This is also why I don’t think tracking aggregate 401k balances is a good way to measure savings or wealth. People move funds out of 401ks into IRAs all the time.

Altogether, I believe this story and the numbers do check out. However, this is not a common occurrence given the factors above that have to align. The poster does mention a significant employer match that would have help increase the effective contributions above $300,000 and make it a bit more realistic for an average worker. In any case, becoming a 401(k) millionaire by age 45 is an impressive accomplishment.

401k, 403b, 457, TSP Historical Contribution Limits 2009-2018

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Employer-based retirement plans like the 401(k), 403(b), most 457 plans, and the federal government’s Thrift Savings Plan are not perfect, but they are often the best available option to save money in a tax-advantaged manner. For 2018, the employee elective deferral (contribution) limit for these plans increased to $18,500 (they are indexed to cost-of-living). The additional catch-up contribution allowed for those age 50+ is $6,000.

Here’s a historical chart of contribution limits for the last 10 years (2009-2018).

401k_limits_2018

Year 401k/403b Elective Deferral Limit Additional Catch-Up Allowed (Age 50+)
2009 $16,500 $5,500
2010 $16,500 $5,500
2011 $16,500 $5,500
2012 $17,000 $5,500
2013 $17,500 $5,500
2014 $17,500 $5,500
2015 $18,000 $6,000
2016 $18,000 $6,000
2017 $18,000 $6,000
2018 $18,500 $6,000

 

The limits are the same for both Roth and “Traditional” pre-tax 401k plans, although the effective after-tax amounts can be quite different. Employer match contributions do not count towards the elective deferral limit. Curiously, some employer plans set their own limit on contributions. A former employer of mine had a 20% deferral limit, so if your income was $50,000 the most you could put away was $10,000 a year.

Also see: IRA Historical Contribution Limits 2009-2018

Sources: IRS.gov, IRS.gov COLA Table [PDF]

Historical IRA Contribution Limits 2009-2018

ira_heartIndividual Retirement Arrangements (IRAs) are way to save money towards retirement that also saves on taxes. Each year, an individual’s total contributions to both traditional and Roth IRAs cannot be more than a certain dollar limit. If you are age 50+ at some time during the year, you can also contribute an additional amount. (You can’t contribute more than your taxable compensation for the year.)

Note that there are also income restrictions on Roth IRA contributions, although you may be able to get around these income restrictions with a Backdoor Roth IRA (non-deductible Traditional IRA + Roth conversion).

If your income is low enough (less than $63,000 AGI for married filing joint), the Saver’s Credit can get you back 10% to 50% of your contribution (of up to $2,000 per person) when you file your taxes.

Since I enjoy visual aides, here’s an updated historical chart and table of contribution limits for the last 10 years. I’m happy to say that we’ve both done the max since 2004. Have you been taking advantage of your potential IRA tax break?

ira_limits_2018

Year IRA Contribution Limit Additional Catch-Up Allowed (Age 50+)
2009 $5,000 $1,000
2010 $5,000 $1,000
2011 $5,000 $1,000
2012 $5,000 $1,000
2013 $5,500 $1,000
2014 $5,500 $1,000
2015 $5,500 $1,000
2016 $5,500 $1,000
2017 $5,500 $1,000
2018 $5,500 $1,000

 

Also see: 401k, 403b, 457, TSP Historical Contribution Limits 2009-2018

Sources: IRS.gov, IRS.gov COLA Table [PDF]

Infographic: Asset Type Breakdown by Net Worth

There are many things that can make up your net worth: cash savings, primary residence, car, IRA, taxable bonds, or private business interest. Visual Capitalist has a infographic called What Assets Make Up Wealth? that shows how this mix changes with net worth. The data is taken from the 2016 Federal Reserve Survey of Consumer Finances.

assets-net-worth

Some overall observations:

  • As net worth increases, the following components tend to make up a smaller percentage of the pie: liquid cash, primary residence, and vehicles.
  • As net worth increases, the following components tend to make up a larger percentage of the pie: taxable investments (stocks, bonds, mutual funds) and business interests.
  • Most multi-millionaires have business interests as the biggest component of their net worth.

I noticed a few unique quirks in the trends. At the $100k level, primary residence has its biggest share among all of the tiers. Perhaps as you go from the $10k to $100k, you are more likely to own a home and thus it temporarily becomes a bigger component of the picture.

At the $1 million level, pensions/IRAs have their biggest share among all of the tiers. Perhaps above that level, more of your net worth goes into taxable investments. Due to contribution limits, it is hard to hold more than a certain amount in tax-sheltered IRA and pension accounts.

At the $1 billion level, perhaps my eyes are deceiving me, but it appears that the vehicles sliver is nearly twice as wide than for the $10 million level. If a $10 million household has 1% in vehicles, that works out to $100,000. Okay, that’s a Mercedes S-Class or Tesla Model X. If a $1 billion household has 2% in vehicles, that’s $20 million in vehicles! Wow, those $10 million households now seem really tight! It takes a lot more money before they let loose and splurge on some fun toys.

Backdoor Roth IRA: Now Officially Supported by Congressional Intent?

rothheartIn 2010, the tax laws were changed to eliminate the income limits on conversions from Traditional IRAs to Roth IRAs. Since Roth IRAs still have income limits on direct contributions, this opened up a “backdoor” where high-income individuals could first contribute to a non-deductible Traditional IRA and then immediately convert to a Roth IRA. If there were no capital gains upon conversion, there would be no taxes due. Thus, the term “Backdoor Roth IRA”.

Some financial experts fretted about the legality of this move due to something called the step transaction doctrine. Some financial advisors instructed people to take special steps to help ensure the legitimacy of their Roth IRA conversions. You also have to be careful if you have other Traditional IRA accounts that you are not rolling over (“IRA aggregation rule”).

Even with all this discussion, there was never any official acknowledgement of this tax move. In past years, there were explicit budget proposals that would have curbed this option. Some argued that this talk itself was implicit acknowledgement that it was legal. Confused yet?

Apparently, the official acknowledgment finally came with the new tax law when they stopped allowing Roth IRA recharacterizations (undos). According to this Forbes article Congress Blesses Roth IRAs For Everyone, Even The Well Paid, a conference committee report by Congress included the following footnotes. Thanks to reader Abel for the tip.

268 Although an individual with AGI exceeding certain limits is not permitted to make a contribution directly to a Roth IRA, the individual can make a contribution to a traditional IRA and convert the traditional IRA to a Roth IRA, as discussed below.

269 Although an individual with AGI exceeding certain limits is not permitted to make a contribution directly to a Roth IRA, the individual can make a contribution to a traditional IRA and convert the traditional IRA to a Roth IRA.

276 The provision does not preclude an individual from making a contribution to a traditional IRA and converting the traditional IRA to a Roth IRA. Rather, the provision would preclude the individual from later unwinding the conversion through a recharacterization.

277 In addition, an individual may still make a contribution to a traditional IRA and convert the traditional IRA to a Roth IRA, but the provision precludes the individual from later unwinding the conversion through a recharacterization.

Do these footnotes end all speculation? Ed Slott seems to think that this indicates “intent” by Congress, and he is a respected tax source. The same conclusion is also drawn by Natalie Choate in this Morningstar article.

Both my wife and I have made non-deductible Traditional IRA contributions every year since 2010. I think if it was really an “unintended loophole”, they would have closed it by now (as with Social Security benefits). I am not a tax professional, I’m just a guy who wishes we didn’t need experts to interpret every little thing. If there were any people who needed additional convincing, perhaps this will give them the confidence to proceed.

Royalty Exchange: Buying Music Royalty Rights as Income Investment

sesameFor many songwriters and musicians, their primary asset is the rights to their music. Instead of a house, they have intellectual property. Every time their song is bought for a film, streamed online, or aired on TV they receive a royalty payment for the rest of their lives + 70 years. But what if the artist wanted a lump sum? They would usually sell their rights privately. Royalty Exchange is an online marketplace that aims to do this via public auction instead.

Until recently, you probably never had the opportunity to own income-producing intellectual property. That’s where Royalty Exchange comes in. We’re a marketplace where these types of royalty assets are bought and sold. We specialize in intellectual property with a documented track record of regular, consistent income.

You can view their live and closed listings here. Past auctions include works by Rihanna, Taylor Swift, Jay Z, Dr. Dre, Chris Brown, and Earth, Wind and Fire. You could have bought rights to “Elmo’s Song” from Sesame Street or Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth’s “See You Again” (Fast and Furious 7 soundtrack). I wonder if you get paid from any of the 3 billion YouTube views?

You do not need to be an accredited investor, but know that most auctions have ended between $10,000 and $100,000. Often, you are only bidding on a percentage of the complete royalty stake. Royalties are generally paid to you on a quarterly or biannual basis. There may be admin fees charged that vary per listing.

I like the idea of receiving an lifetime income stream, but I am not nearly familiar enough with the music industry to invest in royalties of individual artists or songs. You would think the artist has much more information than you. If they thought their income was going to decrease from the current level, wouldn’t they be much more likely to sell than if they thought income would stay high. I suppose you could say this for any business sale, though.

I’d also worry that the income stream wouldn’t be very reliable as songs go in and out of fashion quickly. The starting yields appear to be in the 10% to 15% range (i.e. $10k to $15k earned last year on a $100,000 investment) at least partially in consideration of this risk. Perhaps these sales are more about risk reduction for the artists.

For a music insider, royalties might be a nice non-correlated asset. But for me, this would be more of a consumer purchase than an investment. It’s fun to look through the listings and imagine owning the rights to a lesser-known song of a favorite artist.