The Investment Scientist

Archive for the ‘Prudence & Fiduciary Duty’ Category

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Captive Insurance

I went to a conference for CPAs last week, and my biggest takeaway was a concept called captive insurance.

This is the concept of a business owner setting up an insurance company to insure the risk of his/her own business. Thus the name captive.

But what’s in it for one to have one’s own insurance company?

Tax Mitigation

It turns out that Congress has created legislation to encourage captive insurance – some would call that a tax loophole. IRC 831(b) states that small insurance companies ($1.2m or less in annual premium income) pay tax only on investment incomes. In other words, they don’t pay tax on premium income.

Can you see the tax loophole here? If a business pays its captive insurance company $1.2m in insurance premiums, the premium is deductible to the business and yet tax exempt to the captive insurance company. Depending on the tax structure of the business, this could mean a tax saving of 40% to 70%.

But tax savings aren’t the only major benefit!

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investment-portfolio

When I write a blog post, I like to drive home one and only one point at a time.

In my last blog post, the point I wanted to make was that cost matters. In case you didn’t notice, not only did I reduced my new client’s cost by 85 basis points, I also reduced the number of funds in her portfolio from 39 to 4.

With such a small numbers of funds, is the portfolio diverse enough?

Emphatically yes. In fact, it is much more diversified than the previous portfolio of 39 actively managed funds.

What I use are asset class funds; DFQTX holds all 5000+ stocks traded in the US equity market; DFTWX holds all foreign stocks; DFGEX holds all domestic and foreign REITs and of course VBTIX holds all bonds. With these four portfolios, you are holding all of the world’s productive assets. How much more diversified can you get?

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Morgan Stanley Smith Barney

Morgan Stanley Smith Barney

Last weekend, I went to New Jersey to meet a potential client who is an executive at a pharmaceutical company.

He told me that, as part of the executive benefit package, the company refers executives to Morgan Stanley where they get “free” financial advice. I smirked and said: “Well, we will find out how free it is. One thing I know, though, Wall Street firms are not known for charity.”

It turns out that Morgan Stanley advised him to open several, separately managed accounts (SMA), each with a management fee of 1.5%. The reason for the multiple accounts?

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Retirement Nest EggI met with three prospective clients on my trip to Los Angeles last week. I did a quick financial review with each one of them and gathered some lessons learned as well.

Prospective client A is a physician in his late 60s. He has already reached retirement age but he needs to keep working since he has less than $1mm saved for his retirement.

All that money is in tax deferred accounts, meaning far less than $1mm is available for his retirement. This is NOT retirement security.

Client A is not an extravagant person, so why is he in such dire straits?

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New York Stock Exchange

New York Stock Exchange

The S&P 500 closed the first quarter at a record high. Should that worry investors? The short answer is, No.

When the market was 30% below the high three years ago, I did some research. I categorized all market conditions into:

1. Breaking a new high.

2. Less than 10% below historical high.

3. Between 10% and 20% below historical high.

4. Between 20% and 30% below historical high.

5. Between 30% and 40% below historical high.

6. More than 40% below historical high.

Then I calculated the one year forward returns of the six conditions.

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pump-jack group

Oil and Gas Investment Scam

In the last month alone, I’ve gotten calls from two clients asking me if they should invest in tax advantaged oil and gas investments being pitched to them?  Both of these clients are physicians.

The pitch is that oil and gas investments are like IRA accounts, but without the contribution limit. Whatever amount you invest can be written off right away.

The pitch is quite alluring to high-income professionals like physicians who are facing higher taxation. But it sounds too good to be true, so I did a study.

It turns out what is being pitched as “tax advantaged” is in fact the riskiest part of an oil and gas investment.

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Old AgeRecently, a client of mine fell, broke his hip and ended up lying on the floor for 20 hours before he was rescued. I went to visit him in the hospital a couple of times. The good news is: he is out of immediate life-threatening danger. The bad news is: he may be wheelchair bound for the rest of his life.

When John first came to me to seek my help with his personal finance, I looked at his overall financial big picture and was pleased overall. He worked at federal and state jobs and enjoyed good pensions. On top of that, he had a decent investment account.

But there was a gaping hole in his retirement security: he was turning 70 then, was divorced, and his children lived far away. That meant if he were to get sick, nobody would be there to take care of him; he would need to hire caregivers. Right then, I insisted that he buy long-term care insurance.

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Approaching the fiscal cliff

Approaching the fiscal cliff

The cliff deal struck between Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is a good deal overall for high income folks.

Make no mistake, some of them will have to pay more in taxes, but the amount is far less than if there is no deal and all is set back to the Clinton tax regime.

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Tax planning tips

Tax planning tips

In the past, I have advised my clients to defer income recognition and capital gain realization so that they can pay taxes later. Not this year! Under current law, major tax changes are set to happen at the end of the year. These include:

  • Tax rates on ordinary income will rise. The rates for most brackets will increase by 3%. The highest top marginal tax rate (which was for income above $388,350 for both single and married filing joint filers in 2012) will go from 35.0% (in 2012) to 39.6% (in 2013).

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New York Stock Exchange

When talking to prospective clients, I am upfront about what I can and can not do. I can NOT beat the market.

Recently, that straightforwardness caused me to lose a prospective client to a major Wall Street firm. Apparently, the financial advisor from that firm was able to convince him that with their exclusive location, expensive brochure, and nice Armani suits, they could beat the market.

This led me to do a mental exercise.

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Golf ball

Is a round of golf all the value you get from your financial advisor?

Why do you charge me 1% every year regardless how well you do for me? I would rather not pay you anything for the first 5% return and split anything above and beyond that.

This is a question a prospective client of mine asked me. Let me explain why this fee arrangement is not in the client’s best interest.

Historically, the mean return of the market is 10%, and the standard deviation of return is 15%. This means the market is equally likely to go up 25% in one year and go down 5% in another.

Despite what they want you to believe, financial advisors have very little control over the market.

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Judge’s gavel

Why do I need an expensive lawyer to do estate planning for me? Why can’t I just write my will on a piece of paper with two people as witnesses?

This is a question I got from a woman who owns 11 properties in 5 different states. Here is how I explained it to her.

It’s a bad idea to write your own will. Each state has its own descent and distribution law that governs the distribution of the estate of the deceased.

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Leap of faith

Recently, I went to the monthly meeting of the Chicago Booth Entrepreneur Advisory Group. The group is made up primarily of University of Chicago alumni, and it provides a forum for entrepreneurs to share their issues.

I was blown away by one entrepreneur’s unbridled optimism. He invented a technology that makes changing TV channels on a PC feel as fast as on a real TV. He plans to challenge the cable companies by convincing all of us to watch TV on our PCs.

Yes, cable companies charge us an arm and a leg for their channels, many of which we don’t watch. And nobody loves their cable company. But they have been in business for years. How could a solo entrepreneur working in his bedroom take them on?

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Facebook Scam

Facebook Scam

Two months ago, I got a call from client of mine, who asked my opinion about an opportunity to invest in pre-IPO Facebook shares. He explained that he and his business partner were offered the opportunity to invest in a private fund that will hold Facebook shares.

I know nothing about these funds, but I told my client to stay away. As a general principle, I always steer my clients away from private funds unless they run the funds themselves. The reason is very simple: these are unregulated vehicles where there is no government oversight and there is no transparency whatever. You don’t know what monkey business they do with your money. Most business people intuitively grasp that if the private deal is about starting a restaurant; but once the deal is about buying Facebook shares, many of them throw caution to the wind.

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They don’t necessarily overlap

I met Joseph in a startup networking event. He was trying to attract investors for his latest venture. He has an impressive resume: he founded a tech company that was later sold for tens of millions of dollars in the 1980s.

I was immediately struck by the “never say old” motto of this 75-year-old entrepreneur. But one thing did come across as odd: he was trying to raise a mere $500k for his new venture. Why didn’t he just fund the venture out of his own pocket?

A few months later, I invited him to a charity fundraising dinner where the ticket is $100 per person. He finally admitted to me: “Michael, I don’t have an extra $100 to spare.”

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Author

Michael Zhuang is principal of MZ Capital, a fee-only independent advisory firm based in Washington, DC.

Twitter: @mzhuang

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