Market Commentary Q1 2021

An optimistic start to the new year

With a March 2020 COVID-induced market bottom in the rear-view mirror, global equity markets raced ahead over the next twelve months, setting new highs and finishing a solid first quarter of 2021. The S&P 500 index (U.S. Large Cap stocks) gained 56.4% over the past twelve months and 6% during the past three months. It set 17 new highs in the first quarter of 2021 alone and reached the 4,000 level for the first time. Mega-cap technology companies drove returns at first, part of the Work-From-Home trade that characterized so much of 2020. As the year wound down, it became apparent that the Democrat-controlled Federal government would make good on its promises of increased fiscal spending alongside continued monetary stimulus from the Federal Reserve.  With that uncertainty gone, prospects shot up for a much stronger U.S. economic recovery, and economically sensitive stocks such as U.S. Small-Caps assumed the leadership mantle. As measured by the Russell 2000, U.S. Small-Cap stocks were up 95% over the past year and up almost 13% for the past quarter. International stocks have a greater proportion of cyclical stocks than the U.S. market, which along with increased stimulus from overseas central banks/governments and a weaker dollar, pushed them higher. For the past twelve months, Foreign developed (Europe and Japan) gained 45%, while Emerging Market stocks returned 58%. U.S. real estate (equity REITs) made a strong comeback, as well, up almost 9% and 38%, respectively, for the past 3- and 12-months.

Bonds made headlines in the first quarter of 2021, but not in a good way. Afraid that inflation would pick up with strong economic growth, Treasury bond investors sold off the 10-year bond. This liquidation pushed its yield up to 1.75% at the end of the quarter, an increase of 0.84% and the biggest one-quarter gain since 2016. Prices for broader U.S. investment-grade bonds, including corporate bonds, declined as well, dropping 3.4% during the quarter. U.S. municipal and international bonds (USD hedged) held up much better.

What is your BFA Investment Committee’s outlook for the rest of the year?

Your BFA Investment Committee believes that forecasts for more robust global growth particularly bode well for equities outside of the U.S., which are already undervalued compared to U.S. stocks. Our clients should thus benefit from their allocations to foreign stocks. We will also continue to keep an eye on any rising prices for goods and services. U.S. households are flush with cash from fiscal stimulus.  Those savings, in addition to pent-up demand stemming from COVID-19 restrictions, could unleash inflationary pressures not seen for a long time. We also believe that the Federal Reserve may have to confront increasing bond yields. The Fed has been content to let market forces play out, but a steeper yield curve may force the Fed to push back more forcefully. Finally, our clients should benefit from a diversified fixed income portfolio, going beyond core bonds to take advantage of higher yields, geographical diversification, and the shelter of taxable income when practical. 

Financial Planning Concepts

Biden Tax Proposals – Forewarned is Forearmed!

U.S. tax rates today are among the lowest U.S. citizens have ever experienced. But the newly unveiled $2.3 trillion (with a “T”) infrastructure plan will require some significant revenue to offset the spending. Taxes are once again front and center, so it is time to revisit key components of President Biden’s proposed plan. Nothing is permanent yet but “forewarned is forearmed” and we want you to be ready.

1. Corporate tax increases seem most likely. The President has had a long-standing commitment to increase corporate taxes. The corporate tax rate could increase from 21% to 28% and there could be an increase in taxation of international corporate income earned by U.S.-based companies. These increases could take effect as early as January 2022. According to Forbes, analysts from Goldman Sachs have predicted that Biden’s entire tax plan would reduce 2022 earnings-per-share on the S&P 500 by 9%. 

2. Is your net worth greater than $3.5 million? Unified gift and estate tax exemption amounts could decrease from $11.58M to $3.5M for individuals and $23.16M to $7M for married couples. There is talk of doing away with several common estate planning strategies like GRAT’s, family limited partnership discounts, and limiting dynasty trusts and defective trusts, all very effective tools for high-net-worth families. Planning tip: Consider aggressively gifting now, since there are no claw-backs on the gifts. Review all trusts and estate plans and potential estate tax changes and consider setting up trusts now. Life insurance could help if illiquid assets exist in your estate and taxes remain a concern. 

3. Do you own taxable assets that have appreciated in value? The new plan could eliminate the step-up in basis at death and potentially create a taxable event at that time. While this could be the most challenging of all to pass, it could also be the most impactful. Planning tip: Consider “basis management” as an ongoing strategy to bring down gains in your portfolio, particularly if the step-up in basis is eliminated. This may include paying more attention to annual rebalancing, placing stocks that are anticipated to appreciate into retirement accounts and transferring low-basis stocks to lower-income family members (up or down). 

4. Is your income above $400,000? Watch for an increase of the top ordinary income tax rate for income over $400,000 to 39.6% from 37%. Planning tip: Consider all strategies to bring down income, including funding traditional retirement plans, opening profit sharing/defined benefit plans, bunching deductions, etc. There may be an increase in long-term capital gains rates from 20% to 39.6% on income $1,000,000 and over, plus the Medicare Tax of 3.8% on top of those amounts. 

5. Tax-deferred exchanges for real estate performed under IRC 1031 may no longer be available. IRC 1031 applies to like-kind real estate. Planning tip: Consider performing like-kind exchanges this year to defer the gains, but make sure that any transaction qualifies under any tax law changes.