5 Tips for Protecting Your Credit from the Capital One Data Breach

Every day seems to present an opportunity for a new data breach at some large financial institution. The most recent news occurred this week when Capital One released the following message (in part):

Date: July 29, 2019

“Capital One Financial Corporation (NYSE: COF) announced today that on July 19, 2019, it determined there was unauthorized access by an outside individual who obtained certain types of personal information relating to people who had applied for its credit card products and to Capital One credit card customers.

“Based on our analysis to date, this event affected approximately 100 million individuals in the United States and approximately 6 million in Canada.

“The largest category of information accessed was information on consumers and small businesses as of the time they applied for one of our credit card products from 2005 through early 2019. This information included personal information Capital One routinely collects at the time it receives credit card applications, including names, addresses, zip codes/postal codes, phone numbers, email addresses, dates of birth, and self-reported income.

“Beyond the credit card application data, the individual also obtained portions of credit card customer data, including:

  • Customer status data, e.g., credit scores, credit limits, balances, payment history, contact information
  • Fragments of transaction data from a total of 23 days during 2016, 2017 and 2018

“No bank account numbers or Social Security numbers were compromised, other than:

  • About 140,000 Social Security numbers of our credit card customers
  • About 80,000 linked bank account numbers of our secured credit card customers

“We will notify affected individuals through a variety of channels. We will make free credit monitoring and identity protection available to everyone affected.”

If you find your information has been compromised (or even if it hasn’t), here are Five Tips to help protect your credit and identity:

  1. Request a copy of your credit report today.

You are allowed to request a free copy of your credit report once a year from each of the three credit reporting agencies: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion —at: AnnualCreditReport.com.

You can do this every 122 days by rotating among the agencies. Look for suspicious accounts or activity that you don’t recognize—such as someone trying to open a new credit card or apply for a loan in your name. If you DO see something, visit: IdentityTheft.gov/databreach to find out how to mitigate the damage.

  1. Monitor your online statements.

The credit report won’t tell you if there has been money stolen from a bank account or suspicious activity on your credit card.  Unfortunately, you’ll have to turn this into a habit.  In most cases, theft happens over time, starting with small amounts stolen from across your accounts.

review online accounts
Photo by Sergey Zolkin on Unsplash
  1. Place a credit freeze and/or fraud alert on your account with all the major credit bureaus by visiting:AnnualCreditReport.com.

You can put a fraud alert, for free, by contacting one of the credit agencies, which is required to notify the other two.  This will warn creditors that you may be an identity theft victim, and they should verify that anyone seeking credit in your name is really you. The fraud alert will last for 90 days and can be renewed.

Consider putting a freeze on your credit. A freeze blocks anyone from accessing your credit reports without your permission—including you. This can usually be done online, and each bureau will provide a unique personal identification number that you can use to “thaw” your credit file if you need to apply for new lines of credit sometime in the future. Fees to freeze your account vary by state, but commonly range from $0 to $15 per bureau. You can sometimes get this service for free if you supply a copy of a police report (which you can file and obtain online) or affidavit stating that you believe you are likely to be the victim of identity theft.

  1. Consider signing up with a credit monitoring service.

Many Americans have opted to sign up for a credit monitoring service, which won’t prevent fraud, but WILL alert you when your personal information is being used or requested. In most cases, there is a cost involved, but Capital One appears to be offering protection for free for those affected.

  1. Opt out of prescreened credit offers.

ID thieves like to intercept offers of new credit sent via postal mail.  If you don’t want to receive prescreened offers of credit and insurance, you have two choices: You can opt out of receiving them for five years by calling toll-free: 1-888-5-OPT-OUT (1-888-567-8688) or by visiting: optoutprescreen.com

To opt out permanently, you must return a signed Permanent Opt-Out Election form, which will be provided after you initiate your online request.

It appears that data breaches are a part of the world we live in but it doesn’t take much to ensure that you are a bit more protected. Please let us know if there is anything we can do to help.

Market Commentary Q2 2019

The markets keep rolling along. Every asset class finished the first half of 2019 with gains.

After a rough May, stocks rebounded in June and the S&P 500 index (U.S. Large Cap stocks) turned in its best first-half performance since 1997. Real estate stocks continued their winning streak, as well, with both U.S. and Global REITs up 16-17% year-to-date. During the same time, U.S. Core bonds were up over 6% and Foreign and Emerging market stocks gained 14% and 11%, respectively. Even commodities participated in the rally, earning 5% over the first six months of 2019.

Bond and stock investors have diverging views of the U.S. economy. In June, the Federal Reserve discarded their “patient” stance and hinted they would lower rates by year-end. There are two ways to interpret this news: U.S. bond investors have focused on a looming recession, continued low inflation, and possible interest rate cuts. The demand for bonds has significantly lowered bond yields. U.S. stock investors, on the other hand, have viewed mixed economic indicators through rose?colored glasses, are anticipating an end to the trade wars and have driven stock returns to record levels. Only time will tell who is correct.

U.S. Large Cap Stocks 18.5% U.S. Aggregate Bonds 6.1% Global Real Estate 16.2%
U.S. Small Cap Stocks 17.0% International Bonds 5.4% Allocation 30%-50% Equity  9.8%
Overseas Stocks  14.0% Commodities  5.1% Allocation 50%-70% Equity 12.2%
Emerging Market Stocks 10.6% U.S. Real Estate 17.1% Allocation 70%-85% Equity 13.6%

Economic Outlook

The U.S. economy is slowing down.

In July, the current U.S. economic expansion became the longest in U.S. history. However, signs of slowing momentum continue to mount as evidenced by the gradual decline in the annualized U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) figures for the past 12 months:

2018 – Q1: 2.2%, Q2: 4.2%, Q3: 3.4%, Q4: 2.2%
2019 – Q1: 3.1%, Q2: Various analyst estimates for 2nd quarter 2019 GDP are still positive but in the sub-2% range.

Global economic growth is slowing, as well.

Like the slowing U.S. economy, global economic growth projections continue to be revised downward due to threatened tariffs, or those already in place, driving reductions in trade. Brexit (the divorce between the United Kingdom and the European Union) and its October deadline have also raised trade worries in the European markets. In response, global central banks have begun to lower interest rates and/or ease financial conditions. Despite the short-term risks, however, attractive valuations suggest that investments in European and emerging-market stocks will still significantly outperform U.S. stocks over the next five to 10 years.

Global economic reports continue to be mixed but you can count on the media to focus on the bad news. Recessions and their corresponding market declines are inevitable, but it is impossible to forecast when a recession will hit. We will continue to monitor the economic and market environments for you and will adjust as needed.

*U.S. Large Cap=S&P 500, U.S. Small Cap=Russell 2000, Overseas Stocks=MSCI EAFE, Emerging Market Stocks=MSCI Emerging Markets, U.S. Bonds=Barclays Aggregate Bond Index, International Bonds=FTSE WGBI, Commodities=Bloomberg Commodity, US Real Estate=MSCI US REIT, Global Real Estate=S&P Global REIT: Data Source: Morningstar®. Economic Data: Litman Gregory Analytics and Vanguard Investments. Allocations=Morningstar® U.S. Fund Allocation Categories: Data Source: Morningstar®. Tax Planning Data Source: KPMG 2019 Tax Planning Guide. 1“Important”: ssa.gov/oact/NOTES/as120/LifeTables_ Body.html, 2https://www.onefpa.org/MyFPA/Journal/Documents/March2017_Contributions_Blanchett.pdf#search=annuity. Index returns are for illustrative purposes only and do not represent actual performance of any investment. Client returns will differ from the results shown. Index performance returns do not include any management fees, transaction costs or expenses. The performance data quoted represents past performance and does not guarantee future results. The investment return and principal value of an investment will fluctuate; thus an investor’s shares, when redeemed, may be worth more or less than their original cost. Current performance may be lower or higher than return data quoted herein. Indexes are unmanaged and one cannot invest directly in an index. Please review your allocation regularly and notify BFA immediately if your circumstances should change.

The 5 Steps You Aren’t Taking to Prepare for a Hurricane

Living on the Gulf Coast, everyone is aware when hurricane season rolls around. Each year, you begin sorting through your garage, shed, or storage bins to make sure you have all of your storm-prepping essentials. Things like batteries, bottled water, plywood, fuel, and food are often at the top of the list. However, what often gets overlooked, and what is arguably just as important, is making sure your home-related financial affairs are in order.

view of hurricane from space
Photo by NASA on Unsplash

Here are five essential steps to make sure you are ready for that next hurricane.

  1. Review your homeowner’s insurance policy.

Does your homeowner’s policy contain a rider for wind, hail, and named storms? If not, do you have a separate wind and hail policy? Have you made any improvements to your home or have construction costs risen in your area? If so, it’s important to make sure you’ve updated your policy to cover the value of the improvements and that your policy provides Replacement Cost Value (RCV) coverage rather than Actual Cost Value (ACV). Without RCV coverage, you may not have adequate coverage to rebuild your home.

  1. Set aside an emergency fund to cover unexpected expenses. 

It’s important to know how much your deductible is for a named storm. Often times, the deductible for a named storm is higher than your typical wind and hail deductible. Just as you would have an emergency fund for unexpected events such as a disability, you may want to set aside enough funds to cover your insurance deductible, especially if it is more than you can cover through your normal cash flow.

Your homeowner’s policy may cover some of your expenses if you are displaced from your home, but there is usually a daily, weekly, or monthly limit. Make sure you’re aware of these limits so you aren’t adding additional financial stress to an already stressful situation.

  1. Maintain a good inventory of everything in your home.

Should the unthinkable happen and your home is ravaged by a storm, will you have the documentation you need to replace all of your belongings that were destroyed, or will you be trying to remember how many socks were in your drawer, how many pictures were hanging on the wall, and how many towels were in the linen closet? You should read your insurance policy and understand what documentation is needed to verify your lost possessions. Without a detailed inventory, you might not receive the insurance payout you were expecting to replace your belongings.

Bonus Tip: use your smartphone to take short video walk-throughs of each room in your home. Then, upload those videos to cloud-based storage for easy access from anywhere you have an internet connection.

  1. Take steps to protect your home from damage.

You’ve probably heard someone say they are waiting on a hurricane to hit so they can have their deferred home maintenance taken care of while only paying a deductible. It might sound logical, in theory; however, the truth is that it is much more costly (and stressful) to go through a claims process than it would be to protect and maintain your home over time. After a severe storm where thousands of homes have been damaged, it may be weeks or months before the insurance company is able to settle your claim. It may be even longer before you are able to have the repairs made as the skilled labor force is likely to be overwhelmed by the volume of work to be done.

Take action now, in advance of the storm. Invest in storm shutters, cut weak branches and trees that could fall on your home, secure outdoor furniture, and move your valuables away from windows and to higher points in your home.

  1. Compare your insurance coverage against other providers.

Your insurance company may be the best for your needs, but there’s a chance they may not be. Speak with your agent about your current policy to make sure you understand your coverage. Then, check around with other carriers to see how your policy compares. You may find some substantial differences between the policies. If these differences are important to you, you may ask your current agent whether or not these items can be added to your policy. If not, it may be worth switching carriers.

Don’t, however, base your decision solely on price. Even though a policy may be less expensive and appear to have the same coverage, they may not have the best customer service. Customer service may not seem like an issue now, when nothing is going wrong, but when you are going through a claims process, it will make all the difference in the world knowing you have someone who understands your situation and is going to do their best to serve you well.

By taking these five steps, you can feel confident your financial stress due to a storm will be minimal. Be prepared! Don’t wait until you hear a hurricane is in the Gulf. When that time comes, it will be too late.

If you’re not planning for your financial future, it’s about like waiting on the hurricane to hit. Why not begin planning now so you’re ready when the storm comes your way? Give us a call and schedule your no-cost introductory meeting today.

Market Commentary Q1 2019

What a start to the new year! In a switch from 2018, every asset class finished the first quarter of 2019 with gains. In fact, U.S. Large Cap stocks (propelled by a resurging technology sector) and U.S. Real Estate had their best quarters since 2009, up 14% and 16%, respectively.

U.S. stock indexes have now recovered almost all of their declines from the latter part of 2018 but have yet to reach their record highs from last fall. Bonds participated in the rally, as well, with U.S. Core bonds up 3%. U.S. oil prices gained 32% in the first quarter, helping Commodities to earn over 6% during that time.  Foreign stocks (including emerging markets) gained 10% during the quarter, during what has been a challenging time for them, especially for developed markets. 

The markets mainly focused on three developments during the quarter. First, the U.S. Federal Reserve signaled its intentions to stop raising short-term interest rates and to slow the pace at which it was shrinking its $4 trillion asset portfolio.  Central banks across the globe, including in China and the Eurozone, also announced similar plans to stop tightening, or in some cases to put in place stimulus measures, to offset declining economic growth. Bond prices rallied as a result, pushing bond yields lower. Real estate stocks also rallied, as did small company stocks, whose earnings benefit from lower borrowing costs.

Second, news reports kept hinting that the U.S. and China were close to resolving their trade conflict, which affects other countries than just those two. Emerging market stocks in particular benefitted from these positive reports. Negotiators continue to meet to iron out their differences.

Third, disappointing Brexit and economic news from the Eurozone (mainly relating to difficulties in its members’ manufacturing sectors) kept coming during the quarter, creating headwinds for foreign stocks. However, foreign stocks did not have the headwind of the dollar this quarter, which was flat against a broad basket of currencies.

U.S. Large Cap Stocks 13.7% U.S. Aggregate Bonds 2.9% Global Real Estate 14.4%
U.S. Small Cap Stocks   14.6% International Bonds 1.7% Allocation 30%-50% Equity   7.1%
Overseas Stocks   10.0% Commodities 6.3% Allocation 50%-70% Equity  8.9%
Emerging Market Stocks 9.9% U.S. Real Estate 15.9% Allocation 70%-85% Equity 10.3%

Economic Outlook

What about the yield curve? The range of bond yields for short-term to long-term maturities has been flattening during the Fed’s interest rate hikes over the past few years, but the short-end of this “curve” had not yet inverted since 2007, meaning a higher yield on the 3-month Treasury bill versus the 10-year Treasury note. As most news outlets reported on March 22, 2019, the yield curve did invert, although the actual spread was only 0.022% and the inversion righted itself by early April. It is true that the 3-month Treasury yield has exceeded the 10-year Treasury yield ahead of every recession since 1975.

However, there have also been two false positives—an inversion in late 1966 that was followed by economic growth, and a largely flat curve, like the current one, in late 1998 that also wasn’t followed by a recession. Also, many analysts and fund managers believe that the power of an inverted yield curve to predict a recession is no longer as robust given the Fed’s interference in the credit markets from its almost decade-long Quantitative Easing (i.e. buying government bonds for their balance sheet to increase the money supply and lower yields). Finally, it is nearly impossible to predict the actual timing of a recession, and a study by Credit Suisse shows that the S&P 500 has risen around 16% in the 18 months following a curve inversion, going back to 1978.

So what are we to think and do?  First, ignore the 24/7 news. Second, know that we will eventually experience a recession, and the stock and credit markets will continue to chug along with some potholes (possibly deep) in the road. Third, know that your Brown Financial investment committee is monitoring economic and market developments on an ongoing basis and is committed to diversified portfolios that should help you navigate the road ahead.

This Is Important

There is good news and bad news associated with recent research. The good news is, according to Social Security Administration research1, you are expected to live longer after age 65 than any previous generation; approximately seven years longer for males and five years longer for females compared to those retiring in 1900. The bad news? You are responsible for paying for it.

In a 2017 study published in the Journal of Financial Planning, Blanchett, Finke and Pfau make the case that “historically high stock and bond prices will lead to lower future investment returns” which, when combined with a longer life expectancy, will make it harder than ever to navigate retirement successfully. Their conclusion2 is to either save more or delay retirement to compensate for the low-return environment.

But what if you have already retired? There is a solution: They suggest utilizing “the potential benefits of strategies that provide greater value in a low-return environment, such as the ability to earn mortality credits through later-life annuitization.” This simply means that you can buy “insurance” to protect your retirement income. This insurance comes in many forms but ultimately can provide a substantial increase in the sustainability of your savings and give you an increased sense of peace of mind that you will not outlive your nest egg. Nearly every retiree can benefit from this protection, but historically, you could only buy this protection from a commissioned insurance broker. Now we can provide these strategies to you on a fee-only, fiduciary platform. If you are concerned and would like to learn more, please let us know.

We truly appreciate the opportunity to work with you and look forward to talking with you again soon!

Planning With Purpose

“Discover a purpose that gives you passion. Develop a plan that makes you persistent…” -Israelmore, Ayivor

Are you living the life you intended or is life happening to you?

Time and again clients come into our office looking for financial guidance, which is understandable. Most people spend more time planning a vacation than they spend on their finances in a year. They are usually seeking answers to legitimate questions regarding their money.

  • Am I saving enough for retirement?
  • Should I be contributing to my Roth IRA?
  • What investments should I choose for my 401(k)?
  • Will my family be taken care of if something were to happen to me?
  • Should I start a 529 plan for my kids’ college?
  • Which retirement plan should I implement in my business? A Simple IRA, a SEP IRA, or a 401(k)?

All of these questions are important and should absolutely be addressed. However, what is often overlooked is WHY these things are important. It’s not typically because you love trying to figure out whether U.S. Large Cap Value will outperform Large Cap Growth over the next 10 years or because you aren’t sure if you’ll have enough tax-free income during retirement. No, most of the time, the reason why these things are important isn’t related to money at all. Rather, the purpose stems from our desire to feel a sense of well-being, comfort, and assurance that we and our loved ones will be okay. We want to know we have the ability to do the things we most enjoy in life without hindering our ability to meet our basic needs.

planning checklist
Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

So, do you have a plan that ensures your comfort, well-being, and security? Are you making it a point to do the things you most enjoy? Or, are you like most everyone else…letting life happen to you? You go from one day to the next, putting out fires and always hoping tomorrow will give you that much needed breakthrough. You have so many places you would like to see, people you would like to spend time with, and things you would like to do, but there’s never enough time—and resources are always less than you would hope. You think, “one day I’ll have a chance to make these things happen.”

A successful plan isn’t about having a fixed path

Instead of staying in this cycle of waiting on tomorrow, why not make a change? Discover what you are passionate about and what you want most out of life. Then, build a plan that you feel confident will help you fulfill those goals. A successful plan isn’t about having a fixed path to your goals. It’s about going through the planning process over and over as your circumstances change. Each time, you make the necessary adjustments to point you back towards your goals. There’s always going to be the unexpected setback. If there wasn’t, there would be no need for planning.

Make a decision to live with purpose

Don’t let life happen to you. Make a decision to live with purpose. Set your focus on what is most important to you. Then, as you are faced with decisions about how much life insurance you need, how much money to save for your kids’ college, which investments to choose, or which account type would be the most tax-efficient, you can consider each one of those questions in light of your goals. Maybe you need to buy more life insurance, maybe not. Your goals will help you determine the steps to take.

If you’ve discovered “…a passion that gives you purpose,” but you you’re still trying to “develop a plan that makes you persistent,” maybe it’s time to consider working with a financial planner. Let us show you potential strategies for reaching your goals so that you can find the plan you are passionate about and can be persistent in your efforts.

6 Financial Planning Mistakes Small Business Owners Make (and How to Avoid Them)

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, for the 10 years ending March 2018 21% of businesses failed in their first year, 49% failed in their first 5 years, and 66% failed in their first 10 years.1 This means that only 34% of small business owners prepared well enough to survive over the long term.

So let’s suppose you are one of the few that have made it beyond 5 years. At this point your business is profitable, you have a better outlook on your fixed costs, you’ve likely hired a few employees, and you’re (finally) starting to pay yourself a decent income. Now that you feel all of your ducks are in a row and you aren’t running scared, you start mapping out a plan to maintain your customer base as you expand. Here’s the question…

During these first five years, did you ever focus on your personal financial well-being, or were you like most small business owners—you never felt like you had enough money, let alone time, to even think about it?

If you answered like most small business owners, you’re not alone. This is a common theme among many small business owners, even those who have been extraordinarily successful. Too often their time and talent is focused so intently on growing their business that they neglect their own personal financial planning. As a result, they experience success within the business but become prone to making mistakes that hinder their financial future.

Here are some of the most common mistakes small business owners make and what you can do to address them.

  • They do not establish a business disruption plan.

    Unfortunately, many small business owners are the sole “key” to the success of the business. If something were to happen that keeps the owner from working for an extended period of time, there is nothing in place to help cover overhead expenses such as utilities, rents, employee salaries, equipment, insurance premiums, or hiring additional help during this time.

This is where having Business Overhead Expense insurance and Key Person Disability insurance can prevent your business from failing. These types of insurance policies pay benefits to your business to keep things running while you are unable to work. It’s also important to consider who you would like to step in to temporarily fill your role.

  • They do not provide protection for their families should an unexpected disability or death occur.

    Have you considered how long your personal savings would carry you if you became disabled? Your personal expenses won’t stop just because you’re unable to work. Having a disability insurance policy in place makes sure you and your family are cared for while you’re out of the workforce.

What happens if you pass away unexpectedly? Is your thought that your family would be able to sell your business to successfully provide for their future? Many business owners feel this way. However, have you considered that your business may be worth far less without you there? It’s important to have the right type and amount of life insurance to provide the best outcome for your family.

photo of desk with notes and plans
Photo by Helloquence on Unsplash
  • They do not consider the value of adding benefits plans.

    As your business is getting started, you are often running lean and adding benefits for you and your employees may be cost-prohibitive. However, as your business grows, it is important to add benefits such as health insurance, disability insurance, life insurance, and retirement plans early on. These benefits will not only help you retain employees, but they will often allow you to save on costs and reduce your tax liability.

Flex spending accounts (FSAs) and Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) allow you to pay for medical expenses more efficiently, and implementing the right retirement plan allows you to maximize your retirement savings while accounting for variations in cash flow. Not only can you maximize your savings with the right retirement plan, but you can also drastically reduce your income tax liability.

  • They do not set aside savings outside of their business for future goals.

    As you are pouring money into your business so it can grow and prosper, are you neglecting to save for your own financial future? Many business owners enjoy a very comfortable lifestyle while the business is successful and assume that once they are ready to retire they can sell the business and live on the proceeds. They use this as motivation to continue to put money back into the business. However, doing so may lead to heartache should the business suffer a setback or fail altogether.

It’s important to balance personal savings with capital reinvestment. By considering your personal goals alongside the goals of the company, you can be proactive in drawing funds from the business when it’s profitable and directing those funds towards your personal goals. 

  • They do not consider their business as part of a diversified investment portfolio.

    Similar to the previous mistake, looking at your business as your sole means of wealth is dangerous. As the adage goes, “don’t put all of your eggs in one basket.” You should consider your business an investment just as you would an investment in stocks, bonds, mutual funds, and other investment vehicles.

While you may have more control over your business, you cannot control outside events that might have a significant impact on it any more than the next business. By diversifying your portfolio, you greatly reduce the risk of losing everything and not being able to retire. 

  • They do not develop an exit strategy or succession plan.

    As many business owners get close to retirement, they begin to think about what they are going to do with their business. They have spent much of their lives building their business into a successful enterprise. They have nurtured it, pruned it, and poured their blood, sweat, and tears into it. Now, they are not sure how to let it go. Many times, this realization comes at a time when they “need to” retire rather than being something they’ve planned for. At that point, there is often less control over the outcome which could result in not being able to provide the retirement income they were counting on.

Instead of waiting until there is an urgency to figure out how to part from the company, you should put a plan in place now. Decide whether you want to sell to a child, employee, competitor, or someone outside the industry. Develop a plan you feel comfortable with and make sure you have a clear vision for your life beyond the business. You’ll be glad you did.

business owner working with team
Photo by Helloquence on Unsplash

If you find yourself neglecting your own personal financial planning, like many business owners do, stop for a moment and decide you are going to be successful—not just in your business, but with your personal finances as well.

Consider partnering with a fiduciary financial planner to help you evaluate your options. A knowledgeable planner will help you choose appropriate workplace benefits and analyze retirement plan options that align with both your personal savings goal and your business’s cash flow. He will also work with you to create a 360° view of your finances so you always know where you stand. 

If your life currently revolves around your business and you want to alleviate some of the chaos, contact us today. When your circumstances are most chaotic, that’s when good guidance can have the most impact.

Source: 1 https://www.bls.gov/bdm/us_age_naics_00_table7.txt

Market Commentary: 4Q 2018

In a complete reversal from 2017, 2018 saw the bull market in US large cap stocks almost come to a halt amid a return to volatility.

Equities set several records during the fourth quarter, and none of those records were good. Global equities, real estate, and commodities were all negative for 2018; the last time this happened was in 2008. December 2018 was one of the worst Decembers for US equities since the 1930s. Also, US small cap stocks officially ended its almost 10?year bull market in December 2018 by declining more than 20% from its August peak. The main thing that 2017 and 2018 have in common is that most asset classes moved in one direction—a pattern that’s not seen in a typical year. In 2017, markets seemed to overlook the looming economic challenges. But markets finally reflected those challenges in their prices in 2018. While we don’t like the downturn, we are not alarmed by it. 

Investing in foreign developed and emerging market stocks appears wise, despite their underperformance in 2018. Conflict with our international trading partners continued to be a big factor in foreign stock underperformance this year. Also, global central banks have begun mirroring the US Federal Reserve policy of tighter money conditions. Both have weighed on equity prices across the globe. However, foreign developed and emerging market stocks held up better than US stocks during the fourth quarter. Additionally, after the dollar’s strong performance the past several years, the inflated U.S. budget deficit and the overvaluation we see in U.S. stocks, we believe the U.S. dollar is a risk factor that investors would be wise to avoid. Our allocation to foreign stocks provides our portfolios with protection and diversification away from the U.S. dollar. 

Here are the broad index returns through the Fourth Quarter of 2018*:

U.S. Large Cap Stocks -4.4% U.S. Aggregate Bonds 0.0% Global Real Estate -4.8%
U.S. Small Cap Stocks -11.0% International Bonds -0.8% Allocation 30%-50% Equity -5.0%
Overseas Stocks -13.8% Commodities -11.3% Allocation 50%-70% Equity -5.8%
Emerging Market Stocks -14.6% U.S. Real Estate  -5.8% Allocation 70%-85% Equity -7.9%

Economic Outlook

Many analysts are forecasting lower US GDP growth for 2019. The US economy is in the late stage of its expansion, ahead of Europe, the UK, and Japan, who are still in the middle stage of their expansions.  Additionally, going forward, US corporate earnings will not have the bump from tax cuts as they did in 2018. However, one wildcard continues to be the Federal Reserve’s campaign of rising interest rates. Recent indications from Fed officials, including Chairman Jerome Powell, suggest that the Fed is now more flexible regarding future rate increases and could even take a pause if economic conditions warrant. Inflation is projected to remain tame and unemployment is expected to remain low. It truly is a mixed-bag regarding the US economy in 2019.

Headlines are now turning from the US to Overseas. Brexit (the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union on March 29th) has been getting much press lately. The worst-case scenario would be that the UK leaves the EU without the necessary treaties and agreements in place and the British start to experience economic hardships like higher inflation and unemployment. Although UK stocks only comprise about 1-3% of our portfolios, we will continue to monitor the situation and adjust, if necessary. Another headline that keeps popping up is the projected slowdown in global growth beginning in 2019. However, the most current forecasts by both the World Bank and The Conference Board predict a drop in World GDP of only 0.2% over the next two years; clearly not the earth-shattering decline the media trumpets. Despite the risks we see over the short term, we have high conviction that our investments in European and emerging-market stocks will earn significantly higher returns than U.S. stocks over the next five to 10 years.

Over the next year, the range of potential equity market outcomes is just as wide as it was going into 2018. Our approach and preparation remain the same. We construct and manage portfolios to meet our clients’ longer-term return goals, which means successfully investing through multiple market cycles, not just the next 12 months.

Tax Planning – 5 Strategies for 2019

The first quarter is the time to begin tax planning for the year. Here are five things to remember for your 2018 tax return and to lower your taxes in 2019:

  1. If you are over 70 ½ years old and taking minimum required distributions from your IRA, consider a qualified charitable distribution (QCD) for your charity and church giving. When you use the QCD to give your gifts you lower your adjusted gross income. If you performed a QCD in 2018, remember to remind your tax preparer that the contribution is NOT tax-deductible.  
  2. Prior to the changes introduced by the new tax law, allowable itemized deductions were subject to phase-out for taxpayers whose income exceeded certain thresholds. The new tax law abolishes this limitation on itemized deductions for tax years 2018-2025. This makes giving during years of high income even more powerful.
  3. Starting in 2018, tax-free distributions from 529 plans can also be used to pay up to $10,000 of expenses per student per year for elementary and secondary schools. Alabama also provides a state income tax deduction for contributions to the state plan of up to $10,000.
  4. It may be time for you to update your will. Because the tax laws significantly increased the amount that can be passed tax-free to your heirs, the provisions in your will may no longer apply. Check with your estate planning attorney to see if it makes sense for you to have an update.
  5. Decide if this is the year to “bunch” your deductions. Remember that the standard deduction for couples will be $24,400 this year. In order to maximize the benefits of the higher deduction, alternate years of giving and deductible expenses to exceed the standard deduction every other year. 

We truly appreciate the opportunity to work with you and look forward to talking with you again soon!

*U.S. Large Cap=S&P 500, U.S. Small Cap=Russell 2000, Overseas Stocks=MSCI EAFE, Emerging Market Stocks=MSCI Emerging Markets, U.S. Bonds=Barclays Aggregate Bond Index, International Bonds=FTSE WGBI, Commodities=Bloomberg Commodity, US Real Estate=MSCI US REIT, Global Real Estate=S&P Global REIT: Data Source: Morningstar®. Economic Data: Litman Gregory Analytics and Vanguard Investments. Allocations=Morningstar® U.S. Fund Allocation Categories: Data Source: Morningstar®. Tax Planning Data Source: KPMG 2019 Tax Planning Guide. Index returns are for illustrative purposes only and do not represent actual performance of any investment. Client returns will differ from the results shown. Index performance returns do not include any management fees, transaction costs or expenses. The performance data quoted represents past performance and does not guarantee future results. The investment return and principal value of an investment will fluctuate; thus an investor’s shares, when redeemed, may be worth more or less than their original cost. Current performance may be lower or higher than return data quoted herein. Indexes are unmanaged and one cannot invest directly in an index. Please review your allocation regularly and notify BFA immediately if your circumstances should change.

Market Commentary: 3Q 2018

The third quarter saw stock market performance vary widely across global markets.

The US market was propelled by continued strong profit growth, thanks in large part to the Trump corporate tax cuts. S&P 500 operating earnings per share grew 27% year over year in the third quarter and a record-high 80% of S&P 500 companies reported earnings that beat the consensus expectation. The S&P 500 index hit a new all-time high in late September.

Emerging market stocks fell 1.0% and developed international equities had a slight gain of 1.4%. There are always multiple factors behind short-term market moves, but the intensifying trade conflict between the United States and China was an important one for foreign markets and specifically EM stocks in the third quarter. Another factor was the US dollar, which appreciated against other currencies again this quarter. This currency appreciation created a drag on foreign stock market returns for dollar-based investors.

In the bond markets, the yield on the 10-year Treasury rose to 3.05% at the end of the third quarter, flirting with a seven-year high. As such, the core bond index had a negative 0.5% return in September and was flat for the quarter.

Here are the broad index returns through the Third Quarter of 2018*:

U.S. Large Cap Stocks 10.5% U.S. Aggregate Bonds -1.6% Allocation 30%-50% Equity 1.1%
U.S. Small Cap Stocks 11.5% International Bonds -3.6% Allocation 50%-70% Equity 3.1%
Overseas Stocks -1.4% Commodities 11.8% Allocation 70%-85% Equity 3.9%
Emerging Market Stocks -7.7% U.S. Real Estate  2.1%

Economic Outlook

The longer-term growth outlook remains intact for Emerging Market and US stocks.

Conditions in emerging markets still appear favorable. Given the negative headlines concerning emerging markets in recent months, there are several points worth highlighting based on additional research and analysis in this area. First, the prospect of an expanding trade war between the United States and China intensified in the third quarter and has caused investor sentiment to turn against emerging markets. Uncertainties remain, but logic suggests that a full-fledged trade war is unlikely since it’s in neither country’s interest. Second, a strong US dollar, as we’ve seen lately, lowers EM stock returns for US dollar–based investors and negatively impacts emerging markets with dollar-denominated debt. However, the US fiscal stimulus (tax cuts) implemented at a time when the economy is at or near full employment will likely cause fiscal deficits and debt levels to rise. This should be a longer-term headwind for the US dollar and a positive for EM stocks. Finally, the economic crises in Argentina and Turkey have made headlines. However, these economies and their financial markets are very small and the risk of contagion to other, more meaningful emerging markets is low. In contrast to the late 1990s EM crisis, most other EM countries’ fundamentals are healthier and their prospects positive.

The US market is a horse of a different color.

No one knows exactly when this record-longest and second-strongest US bull market will end. The fiscal stimulus from the tax cuts has goosed corporate earnings growth this year, but those benefits will fade soon. And as is often the case at turning points in financial markets, it is precisely because the recent cycle for US stocks has been so strong and market participants view the US as the best game in town, that the outlook for the next phase of the cycle is darkening. There are three things to anticipate: 1) S&P 500 earnings growth expectations are now exceedingly high and the US economy is operating at or near full capacity and full employment. These conditions are unsustainable and a negative for future stock returns. Strike one. 2) The tight labor market has finally translated into wage increases. History and economic theory suggest wages will continue to rise, negatively impacting corporate profit margins and earnings growth. Rising wages could also cause companies to raise prices, stoking inflation and forcing the Fed to tighten even more. Strike two. 3) The recent rise in the dollar is likely to be another headwind for US multinational corporate profits, as it was in 2015 when the dollar rose. Trade wars, if they continue to escalate, will also have a depressing effect on sales growth and margins—both are negative for earnings and stock prices. Strike three. So, US stocks are over-earning but still expected to grow earnings even faster than normal over the next year and are expensive based on the most reliable valuation metrics. That is not a recipe for good returns looking forward.

In times of unusual volatility, it is critically important to keep the longer-term perspective and diversification in mind. It is easy to be fooled by temporary divergence in the performance of the various asset classes, but a disciplined, fundamental approach will ultimately win in the end.

New Insurance Partner

BFA has established a partnership with a commission-free, low-cost insurance provider for our clients. By cutting commissions, this company can lower the costs of life and long-term care insurance as well as some annuity products. If you or anyone in your family has an insurance need, please let us know and we will be happy to help you access this low-cost provider.

We truly appreciate the opportunity to work with you and look forward to talking with you again soon!

*U.S. Large Cap=Russell 1000, U.S. Small Cap=Russell 2000, Real Estate=Dow Jones US Real Estate Index, Overseas Stocks=MSCI EAFE, Emerging Market Stocks=MSCI Emerging Markets, Commodities=S&P GSCI, U.S. Bonds=Barclays Aggregate Bond Index, International Bonds=JP Morgan EMBI Global Core: Data Source: Blackrock Benchmark Returns Comparison September 2018. Economic Data: Litman Gregory Analytics. Allocations=Morningstar® U.S. Fund Allocation Categories: Data Source: Morningstar®. Index returns are for illustrative purposes only and do not represent actual performance of any investment. Index performance returns do not reflect any management fees, transaction costs or expenses. Indexes are unmanaged and one cannot invest directly in an index. Past performance does not guarantee future results.

 

Market Commentary: 2Q 2018

The second quarter reinforces the random nature of short-term performance.

As we pause to reflect at the midpoint of the year, 2018 has served as another reminder to investors that over the short term, markets are driven by innumerable and often random factors that are impossible to consistently predict. In the first quarter, US stocks experienced their first major losses since 2016 and a return to more “normal” market volatility. Many market prognosticators speculated that this could indeed be the end of the nearly decade-long US bull market.

Fast-forward through three more eventful months and US stocks have been the net beneficiaries, gaining 3.4% on the back of a surging dollar while the rest of the world has slowed. The dollar’s 5% appreciation translated into a meaningful return headwind for dollar-based investors in foreign securities as foreign currencies depreciated against the dollar. Developed international stocks fell 1.8% and European stocks declined 1.6% for the quarter. Emerging market (EM) stocks fared the worst, dropping 9.6% in dollar terms. 

In bond markets, the benchmark 10-year Treasury yield pierced the 3% level in May, hitting a seven-year high. Yields then fell back, ending the quarter at 2.85%. The core investment-grade bond index had a slight loss for the quarter and remains in negative territory for the year. 

Here are the broad index returns through the Second Quarter of 2018*:

U.S. Large Cap Stocks 2.9% U.S. Aggregate Bonds -1.6% Allocation 30%-50% Equity -0.7%
U.S. Small Cap Stocks 7.7% International Bonds -6.0% Allocation 50%-70% Equity -0.1%
Overseas Stocks -6.7% Commodities 10.4% Allocation 70%-85% Equity 0.4%
Emerging Market Stocks 5.9% U.S. Real Estate 1.4%

Economic Outlook

It was a difficult quarter for equity holdings, particularly in the emerging markets.

In 2016, as the global economy began firing on all cylinders for the first time since the financial crisis began, EM stocks surged, gaining 12% in 2016 and 32% last year. EM stocks then bolted out of the gates in 2018, with an additional 11% return through late January. Since then, however, these holdings have declined sharply, and returns are now in negative territory for the year. The selloff in EM stocks appears to have been driven by a combination of investor concerns about 1) a potential trade war with China, the European Union, Mexico, and Canada; 2) how EM economies will manage a deceleration in global growth outside the United States; and 3) a stronger US dollar coinciding with rising US interest rates and tightening Fed monetary policy. 

These macro developments, specifically the risk of a US trade war with China and the rest of the world, are indeed risks to EM stocks in the shorter term. However, these are not new risks and are not likely to overwhelm the attractive fundamentals, valuations, and potential longer-term returns of EM stocks. Analysis suggests that emerging markets are fundamentally better placed today than in past cycles. The sector composition of EM indexes has changed meaningfully over the past decade, from traditional heavy-cyclical industries like materials and energy to more growth-oriented technology and consumer-driven sectors that are less sensitive to shifts in global growth.

It is understandable that fears of a global trade war are rattling financial markets.

Any resolution of the current trade tensions is a meaningful uncertainty—our relationship with China being the most fraught—with the potential to seriously disrupt the global economy at least over the shorter to medium term. President Trump’s unconventional negotiating approach adds an additional wildcard dimension. The process is likely prone to several more twists and turns before things become clear. It is in the best interest of both the United States and China to negotiate a resolution and prevent trade skirmishes from becoming an all-out trade war. However, the potential for a severely negative shorter-term shock to the global economy and risk assets (like stocks) can’t be dismissed. Even absent an actual trade war, the negative impact on business and consumer confidence from the uncertainty and fear of a trade war is a risk to the remaining longevity and strength of the current economic cycle.

Globally diversified portfolios are structured to perform well

Globally diversified portfolios are structured to perform well over the long term while providing resiliency across a range of potentially negative short-term scenarios.Should the current trade tensions resolve and the global economic recovery continue, outperformance should come from international and emerging market stock positions and flexible bond funds. Alternatively, should a bear market strike, “dry powder” in the form of lower-risk fixed-income and alternative investments should hold up much better than equities. This capital will be put to work aggressively following a market downturn by reallocating to equities at lower prices. The portfolios are built to weather the volatility.

We truly appreciate the opportunity to work with you and look forward to talking with you again soon!

*U.S. Large Cap=Russell 1000, U.S. Small Cap=Russell 2000, Real Estate=Dow Jones US Real Estate Index, Overseas Stocks=MSCI EAFE, Emerging Market Stocks=MSCI Emerging Markets, Commodities=S&P GSCI, U.S. Bonds=Barclays Aggregate Bond Index, International Bonds=JP Morgan EMBI Global Core: Data Source: Blackrock Benchmark Returns Comparison June 2018. Economic Data: Litman Gregory Analytics. Allocations=Morningstar® U.S. Fund Allocation Categories: Data Source: Morningstar®. Index returns are for illustrative purposes only and do not represent actual performance of any investment. Index performance returns do not reflect any management fees, transaction costs or expenses. Indexes are unmanaged and one cannot invest directly in an index. Past performance does not guarantee future results. Long-term care data: Genworth 2017 Cost of Care Survey, conducted by CareScout®, June 2017, genworth.com/aging-and-you/finances/cost-of-care.html

 

Medicare Features Often Overlooked

Although Medicare is America’s largest payer for healthcare, participants are often unaware of the features and limitations of the program. It is a costly mistake to sign up for coverage, choose a supplement and drug plan and then never revisit the coverage. Want to save thousands? Here are some simple things to know about your coverage:

• Medicare does not cover medical care in a foreign country. Only Medigap plans C through G and M and N cover part of the cost of emergency care abroad during the first two months of a trip.

• You are paying too much for your prescriptions (probably). Choosing the right Part D prescription plan can save you thousands of dollars each year but a 2012 study showed that only 5.2% of beneficiaries picked the cheapest Part D coverage. And while you may have the least expensive policy this year, the coverage is rarely the least expensive two years in a row.

• Not all pharmacies charge the same price. Drug plans often offer “preferred retail cost sharing” to their members, meaning the pharmacy has contracted with the insurance company to provide lower-cost drugs than other pharmacies.

• You cannot buy a Medigap Policy to go with a Medicare Advantage plan. Medigap policies are only applicable when you are enrolled in Original Medicare.

• Cost of Medicare Part B goes up if your Modified Adjusted Gross Income is above $85,000 for a single and $170,000 for a couple. Your monthly premiums could be as much as $4,432 per year more for the same coverage!

Medicare Action Steps:

1. Purchase travel insurance before leaving the country. There are multiple companies that offer coverage that will provide you medically equipped transportation back to a hospital in your home country.

2. Go to www.Medicare.gov/find-a-plan/ to reprice your prescriptions each year. This handy tool allows you to input your regular prescriptions and compare plans to see which ones cover the prescriptions.

3. Shop the pharmacies with your coverage to ensure you receive the lowest price. Speak with the pharmacy to find out which insurance companies they have partnered with for lower costs or go directly to the insurance company to see if there is a pharmacy in your area they partner with.

4. Stop your Medigap policy while enrolled in a Medicare Advantage plan. If you’re switching from original Medicare to an Advantage plan, your Medigap policy becomes unusable. You have a short window to determine whether or not to keep your Advantage plan. If you decide you don’t like the Advantage plan, you can go back. However, if you keep the plan past the deadline, in most every case you cannot go back.

5. Manage your income to stay below the income thresholds. If your income falls below this threshold after paying the higher premiums, file a Medicare Income Life Changing Event form to reduce your payments.

6. Always review your coverage during annual open enrollment, from October 15th to December 7th. Don’t miss your opportunity to review your coverage. There may be some real savings to be found, but you won’t know unless you check.