While Many Suffer Financially, Some Manage to Profit off Pandemic

The Federal Reserve recently reported that the 50 richest people in the United States increased their net worth by $339 billion during the first half of 2020. There are two primary contributors to this near-unprecedented level of growth. The first is that many either owned or were heavily invested in tech companies that thrived during the pandemic. Increased technology demands for remote work, online shopping, streaming entertainment, and socially-distanced socializing created a lucrative COVID-19 economy in some sectors.

Another reason is that the U.S. Treasury and Federal Reserve proactively infused the economy with stimulus capital. That helped mitigate long-term market disruption that might have otherwise occurred.

The short explanation of how to leverage assets for greater wealth during a pandemic is to be well-capitalized and invested in the stock market. To wit, over 88 percent of the equity in corporations and in mutual fund shares is owned by the wealthiest 10 percent of Americans. In other words, they’re not sitting on their cash; it is continually working for them.

In fact, nearly every tragedy has some form of silver lining investment opportunity. For example, hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, and earthquakes are good for the construction and contracting industries. The pandemic is interesting because it has large and almost exclusively benefited technology companies – in as much as they serve other industries.

The obvious pandemic winners are streaming services such as Amazon and Netflix, but also consider the proliferation of video conference technologies, online financial services, and telemedicine. All of these innovations existed before COVID-19, but it took a global pandemic for them to become mainstream services. Moreover, it is unlikely that their popularity will wane once the virus is contained. After all, we love convenience, and few things are more convenient than being able to conduct daily activities – such as work and doctor’s appointments – from the comfort of your own home.

But just as the coronavirus boosted fortunes in many market sectors, it depressed others, such as cruise lines, movie theaters, and airline stocks, as well as oil prices. Unless you have a crystal ball, it’s always a good idea to diversify your portfolio across a variety of asset classes and market sectors. That way losses in some investments are likely to be offset by gains in others.

In recent years, the wealthy also have benefited from generous tax breaks provided by the Tax Cut and Jobs Act. To diversify gains achieved during the pandemic, they may take advantage of provisions from this legislation, such as the conservation easement charitable deduction. This can be claimed when purchasing land with strong development potential and then donating it to a land trust or government agency. This might create a higher tax deduction based on the appraised value. A similar approach can be used with the Opportunity Zone tax break. This eliminates taxes on capital gains earned from long-term investments in businesses or developments in specific low-income areas of the country.

Rest assured, while vaccines will lead the way to recovery from the pandemic, other crises will follow – as will opportunities to make money on them. Some of them are even easy to predict. After all, the exacerbation of climate change is evident in the increase and severity of extreme weather events. This offers two avenues for an investment opportunity. The first is reactive, such as rebuilding what has been damaged or destroyed. The second is preventive, which means investing in renewable energy resources that reduce carbon emissions, such as solar, wind, hydro, tidal, geothermal, and biomass energy solutions.

It is important to recognize, however, that we can’t always predict what type of crisis will happen next. Therefore, it is inadvisable to try to time the market for investments, particularly when saving for a long-term goal such as retirement. Instead, consider aligning your assets with investments that help build a stronger society, such as sustainable energy, technology advances, and healthcare innovation.

The biggest takeaway here is that the key to crisis opportunism is to be well-capitalized with liquid assets that can repositioned quickly. It is no accident that economic declines are often most advantageous to the extremely wealthy. If you were able to save more money during the pandemic due to less opportunity to travel or spend on other indulgences, consider using this windfall to position your investment portfolio for crisis opportunism in the future.

What To Know About Filing For Bankruptcy

About one million Americans file for personal bankruptcy each year, with one in 10 households having filed at some point. Given the loss of jobs, reduced income, and the coronavirus recession in 2020, those numbers could increase this year if the economic recovery is not both swift and omnipresent.

There are two main types of personal bankruptcy: Chapter 7 and Chapter 13. Chapter 7, which is the more common option, will liquidate the filer’s assets in order to discharge all or a portion of the outstanding debt. People generally choose this route because they are in way over their heads and do not earn enough income to pay their debts in any type of normal time frame.

Chapter 13, on the other hand, provides some immediate breathing room while helping the filer develop a payment plan based on a reduced percentage of the debt. This percentage is determined by how much he makes and what he can feasibly pay each month. While a Chapter 7 bankruptcy remains on your credit report for 10 years, while Chapter 13 bankruptcy is a bit less punitive staying on record for only seven years. As the filer works to pay down his debt and sticks to his plan, his credit score will gradually improve over time. In some cases, the debtor may be able to apply for an FHA, VA, or USDA home loan a year after his bankruptcy filing, or two to four years if applying for a conventional mortgage.

Bankruptcy can provide immediate relief from creditors calling and threatening to evict, foreclose, repossess, shut off, or garnish wages. However, be prepared for some level of pain, such as the bankruptcy court seizing property to be sold to pay your creditors, and/or your credit cards being canceled.

You may see television ads to get debt relief without having to file bankruptcy. Be aware that while these programs may negotiate a debt settlement to something you can better afford, they will not skirt the wrath of the dreaded credit rating agencies. Any time an entity negotiates a reduction in your debt, this will show up as a negative factor on your credit score, and will likely remain that way for many years. A more recent issue that not everyone is aware of is that some employers have started checking the credit reports of job applicants. This makes it all the more difficult to pay off your debt if you can’t get a job because of your past payment history. Your best option is to secure a reliable income before you work with a debt relief agency or file for bankruptcy.

Before entering any type of debt relief program, it’s a good idea to consult with a qualified, non-profit credit counseling agency for a free debt analysis. Don’t go to just anyone; make sure it is a legitimate resource which, by law, is required to serve your best interest. Shady debt counseling vendors are inclined to recommend a debt solution that works out better for the agency than their clients.

If you do decide to file for bankruptcy, be aware that court fees cost about $300, plus lawyer fees tend to run between $1,000 and $3,000 for a Chapter 7 filing and approximately $3,000 to $6,000 for a Chapter 13 filing.

Last Minute Financial Moves for Year’s End

There are certain year-end financial transactions that must clear by Dec. 31 to be reported on the 2020 tax return. It’s important to take a good look at your financial portfolio in light of the plethora of unusual events that occurred this year. Now is a good time to see if you have fallen off track and reposition your portfolio for better opportunities in 2021.

Investment Portfolio

Despite the dramatic stock market drop that accompanied the outbreak of COVID-19 on our shores, markets have recovered remarkably well. This means the traditional strategy of harvesting gains and losses at year-end could be appropriate for many investors. When your capital losses are more than your capital gains for the year, you can claim up to $3,000 to reduce your taxable income and even carry over remainder losses on next year’s tax return.

Harvesting is also a good way to rebalance your asset allocation strategy, so you are well-positioned to meet long-term goals starting in the New Year. If you are interested in selling winners and losers to mitigate your 2020 tax liability, make sure, these transactions are fully completed by Dec. 31.

Tip: Some investors might be tempted to sell shares for a loss and then buy back into that position. However, take pains to avoid running afoul of the “wash rule,” which is when an investor purchases a “substantially identical” security within 30 days of a loss sale. Doing so diminishes the losses you can claim on your taxes, even if you buy it back in January. This also can occur inadvertently through automatic dividend and capital gains reinvestment purchases – so monitor your holdings and make sure there’s a 30-day lag between sale and reinvestment.

Retirement Accounts

For workers who invest in an employer-sponsored 401(k) plan, you have until the end of the year to defer up to $19,500 ($26,000 if you’re age 50 or older) from your paycheck. If you’d like to stash away more money, the combined annual limit for traditional and Roth IRAs is $6,000 ($7,000 for age 50+) for 2020. Note, however, that contributions for these accounts may continue to be made up until you file your 2020 tax return.

Tip: Given the potential for higher taxes under the new administration, it might be wise to max out after-tax Roth IRA contributions while taxes are low. When taxes are higher, traditional IRAs and 401(k)s tend to be more valuable because tax-deferred contributions help reduce current income. You also might want to convert a portion of traditional IRA funds to a Roth this year to take advantage of the lower tax environment. Convert only a strategic portion to avoid tipping your current income into a higher tax bracket.

Retirement Plan Withdrawals

You have only until year-end to withdraw up to $100,000 without penalty from a retirement plan if you have been directly affected by COVID-19 this year. Note, too, that subsequent income taxes on this withdrawal either can be spread out over a three-year period or avoided entirely if you re-contribute the funds over the next three years.

Tip: Legislation passed early in the year permits retirees to skip taking required minimum distributions in 2020. However, because the stock market has recovered nicely, and in light of higher taxes in the future, it might be a good idea to go ahead and take this distribution before year-end.

Education Savings Accounts

If your college student received a tuition refund this year because the class experience moved online, be aware that any refunds of College Savings 529 plans must be deposited back into that account. Otherwise, that money is considered a distribution for non-qualified expenses. Make that deposit back into the 529 account by year-end to avoid any taxes or penalties.

Tip: Parents and grandparents can reduce their estates by making a year-end gift to a student’s 529 plan. You may gift up to $15,000 ($30,000 for married couples) per beneficiary without incurring gift taxes or affecting your lifetime gift tax exemption ($11.58 million).

A Realistic Picture: Will You Be Able to Afford In-Home Elder Care?

By the end of September, the nation had recorded over a quarter million cases of COVID-19 and nearly 60,000 deaths in nursing homes that were attributed to the disease. The recent pandemic offers yet another reason why more than 90 percent of seniors say they want to grow old in their homes rather than move into a senior housing facility.

But just how feasible is that goal, from a financial perspective? Much depends on how independently you can live for the rest of your life. That is something we cannot plan. Even elderly people with an excellent gene pool and no known health conditions can experience a fall or other accident that could render them helpless. And the older you get, the higher the risk of cognitive decline, which can make it unsafe to live alone.

However, you might still be able to live out your golden years in your own home if you can afford to pay for in-home care. Each year, Genworth Financial publishes a Cost of Care Survey that examines the cost of various types of long-term care. However, when you break down the assumptions, you might find the survey’s cost estimations are lower than what many people actually pay.

For example, the average fee for homemaker services (household chores, prepare meals, run errands, accompany to appointments) is $22.50 an hour. For a home health aide (help with bathing, dressing, toileting and simple first aid) the average hourly wage is $23. Depending on your location, you could pay more for a company that employs home workers or pay less for independent caregivers. Be aware that if you choose the independent route, you’ll have to vet abilities, trustworthiness and schedule your own back-up resources if they don’t show up for some reason.

However, according to the Genworth report, the average daily rate for a homemaker is only $141, or $4,290 a month. That breaks down to about six hours a day. What happens when you reach a point where it’s unsafe for you to mill about the house by yourself because you might leave the stove on, or you might fall and there’s no one to help. If you pay a caregiver to stay with you 16 waking hours a day, that would cost you $360 per diem, or about $11,000 a month.

If you don’t sleep well and tend to have to use the restroom at night, you might need to pay for a night shift caregiver just to make sure you get around OK. That means 24-hour care will run you more than $16,000 a month, or $195,000 a year – and that’s in today’s dollars.

If you’re planning on in-home care 10 to 15 years from now, those rates will probably be higher.

There are a couple of other issues to note. First, you don’t need to be completely incapacitated to require 24-hour care. It could be as simple as mild but gradual progressive dementia; a mobility issue; or fear of living alone after a spouse dies. Also, if a couple is living comfortably at home with 24-hour care, that expense probably won’t go away if one spouse dies – but household income will probably decrease.

There are alternative ways you might consider that would allow you to stay home throughout your elder years, and the earlier you plan for them the better they will work out. First of all, be nice to your grown children. Not only might you prefer to move in with them or they move in with you, but if things don’t work out, they will likely be the ones to determine where you live out your golden years.

Second, consider your housing situation and if you can negotiate room and board to one or more caregivers in exchange for their help. You might also consider cohabitating with an elderly friend or family member to help share caregiver fees, and perhaps eliminate the need for excess hours a day. Better yet, consider moving in together with several friends to help spread out the costs and improve your chances that some seniors will be less infirmed than others.

Since 2010, on average more than 10,000 Baby Boomers turned age 65 per day and by the year 2030, all Baby Boomers will be 65 or older. Among them, 52 percent will require long-term care in their lifetime. If you want to remain at home but worry about the cost of caregiving, you’ll have plenty of housemates from which to choose.

Long-Term Financial Impact of COVID-19

As bad as the economy is right now due to the COVID outbreak in the United States, many economists are predicting that the long-term outlook is much bleaker. Alas, Congress and the Federal Reserve’s efforts at stimulus and interest rate management have done much to keep the economy and stock market afloat. However, small businesses – the backbone of America’s employment growth – are closing every day. As consumer spending reduces further, the impact will likely affect Wall Street. Consequently, share prices may soon begin correcting to reflect the future more so than the present.

It should come as no surprise, then, that 88 percent of respondents admit they are worried about their finances, according to a recent survey conducted by the National Endowment for Financial Education.

This economic decline has presented an interesting mix of demographics who have or will be affected the most over the long term. For instance, many low-income workers have remained employed throughout the pandemic because their jobs are considered “essential services.” This includes check-out clerks at grocery stores; laborers who work outdoor jobs; nurses, orderlies, and nursing home attendants.

By contrast, many white-collar business owners – such as physicians and dentists– closed shop for a few months and/or have reduced the number of patients they see. Alas, 79 percent of those surveyed with a household income of more than $100,000 a year said they were at least somewhat concerned about their financial situation.

Millennials are the generation most likely to change the way they manage their finances in the future. Although many have remained employed in white-collar jobs – primarily due to their technology-enhanced skills and knowledge – they have reason to be concerned. After all, this generation has already lived through the market downturn following 9/11, the Great Recession, and now a historic economic decline caused by the coronavirus. In fact, once they finally got a foothold in their careers, this recent downturn obliterated the last five years’ worth of economic growth. Going forward, finance experts predict that these young adults will be more focused on stock-piling savings, buying modest homes when the real estate market corrects, and generally working on a long-term plan for financial stability.

While those strategies are mostly good, it’s a shame this generation had to learn the hard way – all while encumbered with historically unprecedented student loan debt. However, as these lessons are passed down through generations – much the way the Great Depression had a lasting impact on the Silent Generation – U.S. populations may see higher savings rates at the expense of lower GDP growth.

For households recovering from financial stress or looking to create a plan for stronger financial resiliency no matter what the future holds, consider the following strategies.

  • First priority: Save from three to six months’ worth of liquid, emergency funds should you encounter a large expense, such as an auto repair or a temporary loss of income.
  • Learn how to budget effectively, which includes examining if you overpay for basic household needs or do not know how much of your income is spent superfluously every month.
  • Take stock of the full scope of your financial resources, including:
    • Savings accounts
    • Investment accounts
    • Retirement accounts
    • Health savings accounts
    • College savings accounts
    • Whole life insurance
    • Real property
    • Structured settlements
    • Vehicles (auto, boat, motorcycle, recreational)
    • Art, jewelry, wine, or other high-value collectibles
    • Expensive furnishings and household items
  • Develop a Plan B to help supplement any income loss right now; a Plan C to help bolster your savings rate once you’re back to full income; and a Plan D strategy for income replacement in case you’re ever in a situation like this again.

Financial setbacks will come and go; it’s the lessons we learn from them that should have the most staying power.

Tips for Retiring in the Next 10 Years

The stock market continues to perform with relative resilience, despite the current economic decline. But to be clear, without 100 percent participation in the economy – in terms of small business job creation, consumer spending, and company growth and expansion – the stock market is apt to reposition prices to reflect slower growth. With no containment or control of the pandemic on the horizon, there is plenty of uncertainty associated with future financial planning.

Anyone looking to retire in the next 10 years or so may want to take a fresh look at their current retirement income plan. In fact, they might need a Plan A, B, and C in order to stay flexible – with C being the option to continue working longer. The following are portfolio tips to consider for a 10-year time frame until retirement.

Emergency Fund

If there was one financial tip worth following pre-pandemic, it was to have liquid cash savings of six months to a year’s worth of expenses available. Workers who did are probably pretty relieved about now if they lost their job or had hours reduced. Having substantial cash available can save you from raiding retirement accounts and/or your investment portfolio.

In preparation for retirement, that cash buffer is even more important. Some advisors recommend a liquid savings fund to cover one to three years’ worth of expenses. That’s because once you’re on a fixed income, you’re not likely to replenish that account. What it can do is supplement variable retirement income that is reliant on the markets. Having a cash buffer gives investments time to recover from temporary losses so you don’t have to plunder your principal.

Status of Social Security

While you may know what your benefit level is for retirement at a certain date, be aware that your benefit could change – even after you’ve retired. Recent research has found that thanks to the loss of FICA revenues resulting from COVID-19, the Social Security Trust Fund might run out of money four years earlier than predicted: as early as 2032. You may want to consider other forms of reliable income in case your benefits are reduced in the future.

Guaranteed Income

Speaking of reliable income, Olivia Mitchell, executive director of the Wharton School’s Pension Research Council, recommends that an annuity option become a staple in employer-sponsored retirement plans. Annuities generally offer an option for issuer-guaranteed income for life. With 10 years until retirement, allocating money to an annuity can help build a separate income stream to supplement Social Security benefits. Even if your employer doesn’t offer an annuity option in your 401(k) plan, you can purchase one separately using other assets.

Employer-Sponsored Retirement Plans

Speaking of the 401(k), consider that when this plan was first established in 1980, the marginal federal income tax rate was 43 percent. Today’s tax rates are historically quite low, so for the time being you might want to consider allocating more savings into a Roth IRA. This means you’ll pay taxes on that money at today’s low rates, but going forward it can grow tax-deferred and be withdrawn tax-free. But don’t leave money on the table if your employer offers a matching 401(k) contribution. Roth IRA contributions are limited to $7,000 (2020) and some deferred income can help reduce your taxes today – so plan accordingly.

Roth Conversion

By the same token, you may want to take advantage of today’s lower tax rates by converting at least some traditional IRA funds to a Roth or by making backdoor Roth IRA contributions. Be aware, however, that you must pay taxes on converted funds, so consider a gradual transition over multiple years to help you stay in a lower tax bracket.

Investor Portfolio

Some market analysts are predicting a “new normal” going forward, which could provide some interesting investment opportunities. Ideas include new operating business models based on a largely remote workforce, population spread as people move out of cities into more affordable rural areas, and innovations borne out of newly created demand. While a buy-and-hold strategy is a common advice for equities, it’s important to stay flexible. As long as you remain within your customized asset allocation strategy, you might want to use your equity portion to explore new ideas that could offer higher return opportunities over the next decade.

Borrowing From Your Retirement Plan: New CARES Act Rules

Borrowing From Your Retirement Plan: New CARES Act RulesIt’s been nearly half a year since Americans first became widely aware of the coronavirus contagion within the United States. While for a brief month it looked as if we had the virus in hand, since then it has spread wildly out of control in many areas.

People who did not suffer dramatic financial consequences in the early stages of the pandemic could see some hard days ahead. For this reason, it’s a good idea to become familiar with the new relaxed rules associated with withdrawals from tax-advantaged retirement plans.

In late March, Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES Act). This bill offered provisions related to distributions from retirement accounts such as an IRA or 401(k). One of the key goals was to enable workers to make penalty-free withdrawals from a retirement plan to help sustain them while out of work due to the coronavirus.

To be eligible to make penalty-free withdrawals, plan participants must meet one of the following criteria:

  • The account owner, spouse or a dependent is diagnosed with COVID-19
  • The account owner experiences one of the following financial consequences due to the virus:
    • Furloughed
    • Laid-off
    • Work hours reduced or place of business closed (including for self-employed)
    • No access to childcare
    • Quarantined

The Act stipulates that workers can self-certify that they meet at least one of the criteria. Be aware, however, that if it is later discovered that the account owner did not meet the criteria for a coronavirus-related distribution, he might be required to pay the early withdrawal penalty.

Also note that while this penalty is waived for qualified workers, they must still pay income taxes on the amount withdrawn. However, there are a few ways to mitigate the income tax burden on those withdrawals. The first is to through a regular distribution. These are the parameters:

  •  You have up until Dec. 30, 2020, to make a distribution
  • The total aggregate limit is $100,000 from all plans and IRAs
  • The distribution waives the 20 percent income tax withholding requirement
  • Income taxes will be due when filing a 2020 tax return
  • Retirement account owners who no longer work for an employer are free to take a distribution
  • Current employees may take a distribution only if the employer plan allows for a hardship or in-service distribution (note that the CARES Act permits employers to amend plan documents to allow coronavirus-related distributions)

While a retirement plan distribution does trigger income taxes for the tax year withdrawn, you can spread the tax burden out over three years. For example, let’s say you withdraw $18,000 this year. You may report the full amount as income on your 2020 tax return; or you can claim $6,000 a year on your 2020, 2021, and 2022 returns. This strategy reduces the chances of bumping your income into a higher tax bracket.

The second way is to pay the distributed amount back into your retirement plan. Initially, you will have to pay income taxes on the amount withdrawn. However, if you pay it back within three years, you can file to get the taxes you paid refunded. One caveat with this plan is that eligible retirement plans will treat repayment of this type of distribution as a rollover event for tax purposes. Be aware that if the retirement plan does not accept rollover contributions, it is not required to change its terms for this purpose.

Your third option is to withdraw money as a loan if your employer permits loans from the retirement plan. This is another scenario in which you must repay that money within a specified time period. You do not have to pay income taxes on the loan, but you do have to pay interest on the amount borrowed. The good news is that the interest you pay also goes into your account.

Under normal circumstances, retirement account loans are limited to $50,000 or 50 percent of the account balance, whichever is less. But for a coronavirus loan, you may borrow up to 100 percent of your vested balance or $100,000, whichever is less. You will need to repay that loan within the plan’s stated repayment period, although the CARES Act gives 2020 borrowers an additional year to repay this type of loan from an eligible retirement plan. Be aware though that you’ll owe both income taxes on the outstanding balance and the penalty for withdrawals made before age 59½ if you do not repay that loan in time.

Note that these CARES Act provisions are available only for the first 180 days after the Act was passed, which was on March 27, 2020. As Congress debates new legislation to aid struggling Americans suffering from the pandemic, this provision could be extended.

How To Use Qualified Charitable Distributions For Charitable Giving

Each year, millions of Americans make donations to charitable organizations and receive something in return – a tax break. However, the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act curbed this tax advantage because it reduced the number of people eligible to claim a charitable deduction by raising the standard deduction. For 2020, the standard deduction is $12,400 for individuals and $24,800 for married couples filing jointly. If your list of deductions is not greater than those amounts, there is no tax benefit to itemizing – which means you might not be able to claim your charitable donation.

Without the ability to claim a deduction, some retirees just take their normal required minimum distribution (RMD) and bank the money, pay taxes on it and then make charitable gifts or tithe to their church on a monthly basis. For example, say your RMD is $10,000 and you pay 15 percent in taxes on this distribution. If you want to donate the money as a charitable gift, you’ll have only $8,500 left to do so.

However, there is a way to do this that will give you a tax advantage. A Qualified Charitable Distribution from an IRA enables retirees to claim their standard deduction and receive a tax benefit for their gift. The key is to arrange for the distribution to be made directly from your account custodian to the qualified 501(c)(3) charitable organization so that you do not take possession of the assets.

IRA owners may gift up to $100,000 each year, or $200,000 for a couple that files a joint tax return. Note that this option is available only for IRA owners over age 70½; it is not allowed for 401(k)s, 403(b)s, thrift savings plans, or other qualified plans. The QCD will be reported to the IRS and should be claimed by you on Form 1040 as an IRA distribution, but it will not be taxable. Another perk of this strategy is that the QCD can satisfy your annual Required Minimum Distribution (RMD). Be aware that if your QCD does not meet the full distribution amount required, you will have to withdraw and pay taxes on the remaining balance.

Another benefit of using an RMD for a charitable donation instead of receiving it as income is that this could keep you in a lower tax bracket. Consequently, it can help minimize taxes on Social Security benefits and keep your Medicare premiums low.

Thanks to the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, RMDs are not mandatory in 2020. That’s because the initial market losses triggered by the COVID-19 outbreak were substantial; by not requiring distributions this year, retirement accounts have more time to potentially recover those losses.

Since it isn’t necessary to take an RMD this year, you might want to just make charitable gifts in cash. The CARES Act also enables this option by increasing the adjusted gross income (AGI) limit for individuals who qualify to itemize on their tax return. In 2020, you may deduct up to 100 percent of donations (up from 60 percent) against your AGI. For example, if you earn $500,000 in income, you may donate $500,000 and the entire amount is tax-deductible. This strategy is available to people younger than age 70½ and offers a benefit similar to the QCD.

Even if you don’t qualify to itemize, you may claim up to a $300 charitable gift deduction on your 2020 tax return. As always, it’s best to seek the advice of a tax professional in order to figure out what is best for your situation.

Why Sequence of Returns Risk Matters Now

That year or two when you are closing in on your retirement date, followed by a year or two after you retire, are the worst times for a sustained market decline. Market analysts call this scenario the sequence of returns (SOR) risk – because once your principal has been significantly reduced, there’s not enough time in the market left for you to recover those losses.

Two things will likely happen. First, the amount of retirement income you can withdraw each year is irrevocably reduced. For example, if you were planning to withdraw 4 percent a year from a $350,000 portfolio, you would have received a supplementary income of $14,000 a year. But if your principal drops to $280,000 a year, your 4 percent draw will generate only $11,200 a year. If you need that additional money, you will have to increase your draw to about 5 percent of the principal each year.

This leads us to the second consequence of a market decline: your principal will diminish faster. The longer you live, the greater your chances of running out of money.

How Big Is This Problem?

Because the coronavirus pandemic has sent stock markets reeling over the past few months, SOR risk has become a widespread concern. According to research by Spectrem Group, at the end of 2019, there were 11 million millionaires in the United States. By the end of March this year, at least half a million of those people were no longer millionaires.

While losses among millionaires may be disconcerting, the situation is far direr for middle-class investors, who might not have several hundred thousand dollars to spare in their retirement portfolio.

Strategies To Offset SOR Risk

If the last recession is any indicator, the economic recovery going forward could take several years. That’s not good news for people who were looking forward to retirement. This group may want to seriously consider the merits of delaying retirement and continuing to work longer, such as:

  • Allowing their portfolio time to recover
  • Continuing to contribute to tax-advantaged retirement accounts
  • Enabling their Social Security benefits to accrue higher

Another strategy to help protect your portfolio against future SOR risk is to position a larger allocation to fixed-income assets and/or an annuity. While this might limit your potential for income growth in the future, these assets are backed by more reliable payors and less subject to the vagaries of the stock market. By diversifying your current assets, you can build multiple streams of reliable income to protect you from the future threat of market losses, a global pandemic, or changes in Social Security benefits.

It’s worth considering that once we emerge from this current crisis, legislators will have to find a way to deal with the federal deficit and growing debt. The Social Security program was already projected to cut benefits by 2035 without any new funding solutions. Now, that threat is even further exacerbated by the enormous jump in unemployment numbers. This situation leaves even fewer people paying into the Social Security and Medicare programs.

All of this is why it’s very important to address today’s challenges presented by the sequence of returns risk. Explore ways to develop multiple income streams to protect your current assets and ensure they last throughout your lifetime.

SECURE Act Seeks to Help Americans Save More for the Golden Years

At the end of 2019, Congress passed the Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (SECURE) Act as part of a year-end appropriations package. This bill is designed to address specific issues related to retirement savings plans in an effort to help Americans save more for retirement.

Retirement Plan Contributions

People are living longer, and a decrease in employer-sponsored pensions has resulted in retirees relying more on Social Security benefits than in the past. So first, the SECURE Act eliminated the age limit on traditional IRA contributions so that people who work into their 70s and beyond may continue to contribute to the traditional IRA up to the annual limit. In 2020, the limit for all IRAs – traditional and Roth combined – is $6,000; $7,000 for individuals age 50 and older.

Retirement Plan Distributions

The SECURE Act also extends how long retirees may keep money invested in their traditional IRA, 401(k)s and other defined-contribution plans before mandating distributions. Starting this year, people who turn 70½ after Dec. 31, 2019 may delay having to start taking annual required minimum distributions (RMD) until age 72.

Inherited IRAs Reigned In

The Stretch IRA is an advantage bestowed to non-spouse beneficiaries who inherit an IRA. While a benefit still exists, the SECURE Act makes it somewhat less advantageous. Starting in 2020, assets in these inherited accounts must be fully distributed by Dec. 31 of the 10th year following the death year of the IRA owner. This means that annual distributions will be larger and the investment will no longer be able to grow beyond 10 years.

Employer-Sponsored Retirement Plans

The SECURE Act also made changes to employer-sponsored retirement plans. For example, it allows employers to increase the cap on automatic payroll contributions to 15 percent (up from 10 percent) of an employee’s paycheck. Research has found that automatic payroll deductions have been instrumental in improving both participation and savings rates among employer retirement plans. However, employees continue to have the ability to retain their current contribution level (or opt out of the plan entirely).

The legislation also requires employers that sponsor a defined-contribution plan to offer it to any long-term, part-time workers. The criteria for this requirement are that individuals must be age 21 or older and work at least 500 hours each year, for three years in row. However, the measurement time for this requirement doesn’t start until 2021.

The SECURE Act attempts to replace the secure pension plan by making it more attractive for employers to offer a lifetime income option as part of their 401(k) plan. Also known as an annuity, this option allows the worker to use his or her retirement plan contributions to purchase an annuity contract over time.

In the past, employers were reluctant to include an annuity option because they could be held liable if the annuity provider is unable to fund the retirement income guaranteed by the annuity contract. To help alleviate this concern, the SECURE Act protects the employer from liability as long as it chooses an annuity insurer that, for at least seven years, is 1) licensed by that state’s insurance commissioner; 2) has filed audited financial statements in accordance with state laws; and 3) maintains the statutory requirements for reserves among all states where the provider does business.

Employers that offer an annuity option must now issue a customized statement each year that estimates how much plan participants would receive in monthly retirement income based on the current balance of their annuity. When employees retire or take a new job, they can transfer their in-plan annuity to another 401(k) or an IRA without incurring fees or surrender charges.

The SECURE Act also provides new benefits for small businesses that sponsor a retirement plan for employees. They may now receive up to $5,000 to offset retirement plan startup costs, and can get an additional $500 tax credit per year for three years if their plan features auto-enrollment for new hires. The bill makes it possible for small employers in unrelated industries to open a multiple-employer 401(k) plan (MEP) in order to share administrative costs.

Conclusion

Overall, the various provisions of the SECURE Act described above are designed to make retirement savings easier and more accessible. Small businesses will find it less burdensome to offer both full- and part-time employees 401(k) plans by providing tax credits and protections on collective Multiple Employer Plans. Individuals will find they have more flexibility in managing their accounts later in life. Overall, the SECURE Act should ease the coming retirement crisis as demographics change by helping people prepare better.