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Stock Buybacks and the American Dream

President Trump, trumpeting the new tax law that took effect this year, promised that the massive corporate tax cut from 35% down to 21%, on top of the "tax holiday" on approximately $2.1 trillion of corporate profits held tax-free overseas would result in increased investment in factories, workers and wages, and would invigorate the American economy.

The numbers are now in -- only 4% of workers are getting salary increases or bonuses. 80% of the tax windfall is going toward stock buybacks, in which corporations use the cash on hand to buy back their own stock.¹ Because this removes stock from the open market, it creates a scarcity value and drives up the share price.

This is good for the senior executives of these corporations, who tend to be big owners of their companies' stock. It also benefits the 10% wealthiest Americans who own 84% of all stocks.² However, the bottom 40% of Americans (125 million people) own nearly nothing in stocks, and continue to balance the rent, the grocery bill, and the rising cost of gas and electricity.

Until the early 1980s, stock buybacks were considered illegal because they were an artificial way to manipulate share prices.³ They were an easy way to create phantom profits, compared to hiring workers, spending on research and development, and building new plants.

Corporations tend to put share value first, ahead of customers, employees, the community or public interest, but wield control over the American economy and politics. In order to understand how corporations got this powerful, we have to go back to the end of the Civil War. The 14th Amendment was passed to protect fundamental human rights. It granted emancipated slaves full citizenship, and protection of life, liberty, property, and due process of law. However, using lies and a twisted interpretation of the Amendment, railroad barons pushed Congress to grant corporations the status of "persons." Corporations used the shelter of the 14th Amendment to overturn economic regulations, child-labor laws, zoning laws, and fair wage laws. 

150 years later, "corporate personhood" has snowballed into an overturn of the democratic system. In the last 4 years, the Supreme Court dramatically expanded corporate rights, and in 2010 ruled that corporations have full rights to spend money as they wish in candidate elections -- federal, state and local. It unleased a flood of campaign cash and corporate influence over elections, the budget and public policy. Corporations play it both ways -- they reap the benefits of "personhood," but unlike real people they can keep and grow their assets in perpetuity, and are not subject to the laws of inheritance.

Much of what Americans perceive to be wrong with America has roots in this ideology -- rising income and asset inequality, swings from boom to bust, unemployment, crumbling infrastructure, and unaffordable education.

Corporate stock buybacks are just one manifestation of this ethic. When corporations' primary role is to boost short-term shareholder value at the expense of everything else, what's lost is a long-term investment in the future. To get the largest "return on investment," corporations want the biggest return from the smallest investment. Costly new factories are a no-no. Investing in education for the surrounding community is irrelevant. Hiring expensive workers who receive health and retirement benefits is counter-intuitive. Corporations as "job creators" is a myth -- creating shareholder value and creating good jobs is incompatible. Stock buybacks, though, are a no-brainer -- they create profits out of thin air.

What does this mean for the American Dream? Wages are stuck. College degrees are out of reach. Medical costs are skyrocketing. A recent study by a team of the nation's leading economists at Stanford, Harvard and the University of California Berkeley reported that for the first time, it's extremely unlikely that this generation of American children will earn more than their parents, after adjusting for inflation. Much of the anger fueling last year's presidential election stemmed directly from the concerns of Americans who feel they are losing ground economically. Corporations pumped over $2 billion into the 2017 elections⁵, and found scapegoats to target -- immigrants, people of color, unions, international trade agreements, and workers in other countries.

One positive aspect to the current administration is that many Americans have received an education about the political system. They didn't receive the tax cuts that they expected. Jobs that were promised did not materialize. The vulnerability of the electoral process to social manipulation became exposed. The swamp overflowed. The coming mid-term elections may be an opportunity for an energized electorate to take back the democratic system, and roll back a fake prosperity that only benefits a few at the top.

 

¹ Americans for Tax Fairness, 4/9/2018

² CNN Money, 2/16/2018

³ New York Times, 2/26/2018

⁴ Washington Post, 12/8/2016

⁵ Fortune, 3/8/2017

This commentary on this website reflects the personal opinions, viewpoints and analyses of the Kondo Wealth Advisors, Inc.  employees providing such comments, and should not be regarded as a description of advisory services provided by Kondo Wealth Advisors, Inc.  or performance returns of any Kondo Wealth Advisors, Inc.  Investments client. The views reflected in the commentary are subject to change at any time without notice. Nothing on this website constitutes investment advice, performance data or any recommendation that any particular security, portfolio of securities, transaction or investment strategy is suitable for any specific person. Any mention of a particular security and related performance data is not a recommendation to buy or sell that security. Kondo Wealth Advisors, Inc. manages its clients’ accounts using a variety of investment techniques and strategies, which are not necessarily discussed in the commentary. Investments in securities involve the risk of loss. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

 

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Social Security Options Remain

In November 2015, President Obama signed into law the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015.  One significant byproduct of the legislation is the elimination or curbing of two Social Security filing strategies that married couples may have been planning to use to optimize their lifetime Social Security benefits.  The two programs include the “File and Suspend” and “Restricted Application” for spousal benefits filings. 

Training about the new legislation was meager at its onset and just weeks before the new rules became effective, many Social Security benefits coordinators were still uninformed.  In January 2017, the Social Security manual was updated to guide benefits coordinators to better service the public and allow those born before 1954 to take advantage of the Restricted Application benefit that remains.[i] 

 

Expired Benefits

File and SuspendThis was when an individual, who was at least at Full Retirement Age (age 66 for most claimants), filed for his or her own retirement benefit and then immediately suspended receipt of those benefits with the Social Security office.  This allowed a spouse or dependent to collect benefit payments based upon the original filer’s record, without affecting their own benefits. 

Under the Bipartisan Budget Act, as of May 1, 2016, no future claimants were allowed to access this benefit.  Those already using the strategy were grandfathered under the old rules.
 

Limited Benefit Remaining

Restricted Application – When an individual is at least Full Retirement Age (FRA), has not filed for any previous benefits, and has a spouse who is collecting Social Security benefits, they may file a Restricted Application (RA) to receive ONLY the spousal benefit based upon the spouse’s record.  Collection of Social Security benefits under the Restricted Application does not affect the individuals’ own pool of benefits. 

This strategy allows a person to collect spousal benefits and concurrently delay their own future retirement benefit so it may grow 8% per year.  Upon reaching age 70, the Restricted Application filer would switch from the spousal benefit income to their own Social Security benefit. This strategy increases the filers benefit to be 32% greater than if they had simply collected their own benefit at age 66.  For example, say you were eligible to collect $1,360/mo. of benefits at age 66.  By employing the RA strategy and deferring collection to age 70, your monthly benefit would increase to $1,795/mo., or an additional $5,220/yr. of income.  For those dependent upon Social Security in retirement, the benefit increase can make a big difference. 

Restricted Application on Ex-Spouses – It may be possible to file a Restricted Application to claim Social Security benefits on an ex-spouse if you were married for 10 years or more and have not remarried.  Your ex-spouse does not have to file for their own Social Security benefits in order for you to file your Restricted Application, but they do have to qualify for Social Security benefits.  The maximum benefit you could receive on an ex-spouse is limited to 50% of their Social Security benefit at Full Retirement Age, regardless of when they actually claim their benefit.  Filing for RA benefit on an ex-spouse in no way affects their own pool of benefits.

 

Under the Bipartisan Budget Act, the Restricted Application filing is no longer available to anyone born Jan. 2, 1954, or later. However, it is still available for those born Jan. 1, 1954, or earlier who have not yet collected their Social Security benefits.  In the next two years, the last of those eligible for the Restricted Application benefit will reach Full Retirement Age and hopefully take advantage of this remaining benefit. 

Many who went to the Social Security office to claim on this benefit were initially, and incorrectly, told the Restricted Application benefit was eliminated when the File and Suspend benefit expired in May 2016.  That is not true. 

New literature and training has been conducted within the organization to help Social Security recipients claim benefits they rightfully deserve.  However, if after speaking with a Social Security representative, they give you an answer that is different than your understanding of your benefits, ask for a Tier 2 representative who might be better trained. 
-----------------

Determining when and how to claim Social Security benefits has always been a challenging task. A Financial Planner can help you determine how to best align yourself and take advantage of the benefits you’ve earned.  If you are age 66 now, or will turn 66 within the next couple of years, speak with your Certified Financial Planner™ or CPA about taking advantage of these claiming strategies before you lose the option to do so.

Source/Disclaimer:

Financial Ducks in a Row, “File & Suspend and Restricted Application are NOT Equal”

Market Watch, "Millions of Americans just lost a key Social Security strategy"

Market Watch, “New Social Security Rules Change Claiming Strategies”

U.S. News & World Report, "How the Budget Deal Changes Social Security"

Wall Street Journal “A Strategy to Maximize Social Security Benefits”

This commentary on this website reflects the personal opinions, viewpoints and analyses of the Kondo Wealth Advisors, Inc.  employees providing such comments, and should not be regarded as a description of advisory services provided by Kondo Wealth Advisors, Inc.  or performance returns of any Kondo Wealth Advisors, Inc.  Investments client. The views reflected in the commentary are subject to change at any time without notice. Nothing on this website constitutes investment advice, performance data or any recommendation that any particular security, portfolio of securities, transaction or investment strategy is suitable for any specific person. Any mention of a particular security and related performance data is not a recommendation to buy or sell that security. Kondo Wealth Advisors, Inc. manages its clients’ accounts using a variety of investment techniques and strategies, which are not necessarily discussed in the commentary. Investments in securities involve the risk of loss. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.


[i] https://www.forbes.com/sites/kotlikoff/2017/05/29/ask-larry-%E2%80%8B%E2%80%8B%E2%80%8B%E2%80%8B%E2%80%8B%E2%80%8Bcan-i-still-file-a-restricted-application-for-spousal-benefits-only-at-fra/#4904207226bc

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The First Quarter & The Market Outlook

Is the bull market over? In the first quarter of this year, the U.S. investment markets have experienced the first correction (a decline of 10% or more) in three years. The VIX index (known as Wall Street's "fear index") had its biggest quarterly jump since 2011, rising 81%.

The downturn hit most parts of the market, both domestically and globally --

  • The Wilshire Total Market Index finished the quarter down 0.76%.¹
  • The Russell 1000 Large-Cap Index fell 0.69%.²
  • The Russell Midcap Index dropped 0.46%.²
  • The Wilshire U.S. Small-Cap Index lost 0.73%¹
  • The EAFE (Europe/Australasia/Far East) Index went down 2.37%.³
  • The Wilshire U.S. REIT (Real Estate Investment Trust) Index fell 7.42%¹

The reasons are varied. Some are due to Trump's self-inflicted wounds --

  • The White House is in chaos. Thirty-seven staff have been fired by President Trump, or have left on their own since the inauguration, eleven just since January.
  • Trump is at risk for impeachment for one or more violations -- collusion with Russia, obstruction of justice, and/or illegal campaign financing.
  • Trade tariffs on steel and aluminum and on Chinese products announced by Trump have created uncertainty. Even if these tariffs are quietly walked back and amount to little in the end, they have caused a temporary roiling of the markets.

Some of the volatility has resulted from a strong economy --

  • The unemployment rate is near record lows.
  • Salaries have risen 3%, and 18 states have increased their minimum wages.
  • Companies in the Standard and Poors 500 index of the largest U.S. firms are enjoying a 7.1% boost in earnings in the first quarter of this year, the quickest rise since 1996.⁴

Because of the robust economy, Jerome Powell, the chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank, has announced that he will likely increase interest rates at a faster pace than he did in 2017. This is a reasonable and prudent move. The Fed would like to see controlled growth, as opposed to runaway growth that could spark inflation. However, his announcement was one of the causes of the current volatility.

One of the keys to understanding the current market is not to panic, and to view current events from a long-term perspective --

  • The VIX "fear index" although higher than last year, is now near its historical average. In other words, the current volatility is "normal" compared to the steady, uninterrupted growth we had last year.
  • A big concern last year was that stocks were overvalued. That is, the Price Over Earnings (P/E) ratio was inflated at 18.6. That means that the price of one share of stock was 18.6 times projected annual earnings. After the correction in the last quarter, the P/E ratio is at a more reasonable 16.1. Because of this, we might be able to avoid a more severe bear market later on.⁵
  • Corporations profited from a huge tax cut, from 35% down to 21% in the new Tax Law. The benefits of the tax cut are going to be felt later in the year. Consequently, the strong earnings by corporations in the first quarter can only get better.

Most investors are trying to accomplish long-term goals, intending for the growth of their investments to fund college for their children, a home purchase, or retirement. Because of a better diet, more exercise, and improved medical care, many couples spend 25 to 30 years in retirement. Over a long period of time, the ups and downs of the market even themselves out, and the potential for a good return becomes more predictable.

The increased volatility in the first quarter is just a reminder that the market never goes up in straight line. The bull market that we had last year was only temporary. If we enter a bear market, when stocks go down, that will end too. In the context of long-term goals, the performance of the market during a quarter or even a year shouldn't scare you from sticking to your plans.

¹ Wilshire index data: http://www.wilshire.com/Indexes/calculator/

² Russell index data: http://www.ftse.com/products/indices/russell-us

³ International indices: https://www.msci.com/end-of-day-data-search

⁴ S&P index data: http://www.standardandpoors.com/indices/sp-500/en/us/?indexId=spusa-500-usduf–p-us-l–

http://money.cnn.com/2018/04/01/investing/stocks-week-ahead-valuation/index.html

This commentary on this website reflects the personal opinions, viewpoints and analyses of the Kondo Wealth Advisors, Inc.  employees providing such comments, and should not be regarded as a description of advisory services provided by Kondo Wealth Advisors, Inc.  or performance returns of any Kondo Wealth Advisors, Inc.  Investments client. The views reflected in the commentary are subject to change at any time without notice. Nothing on this website constitutes investment advice, performance data or any recommendation that any particular security, portfolio of securities, transaction or investment strategy is suitable for any specific person. Any mention of a particular security and related performance data is not a recommendation to buy or sell that security. Kondo Wealth Advisors, Inc. manages its clients’ accounts using a variety of investment techniques and strategies, which are not necessarily discussed in the commentary. Investments in securities involve the risk of loss. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

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Trade Tariffs and Your Investments

Earlier this month, President Trump roiled the stock market by announcing that he would impose a 25% trade tariff on steel imports coming into the U.S. from foreign countries, and a 10% tariff on aluminum imports. The Dow Jones Industrial Average stock market index immediately dropped 2%.

Then last week, Trump proclaimed additional tariffs on $60 billion of imported goods from China, sending the market tumbling further.

The worst-case scenario would have been a global trade war, in which countries engage in a tit-for-tat retaliation against each other. The European Union, for example, would impose tariffs on U.S. motorcycles, bourbon, peanut butter and orange juice.

Trump used national security as a justification for imposing these tariffs. He would have had difficulty getting approval from the World Trade Organization. Many of the countries he targeted, like Canada, Japan and the European Union, already have mutual defense treaties with the U.S. A tariff on aluminum would have no impact on national security. The manufacturing process for aluminum requires bauxite, and the last U.S. bauxite plant closed 30 years ago.¹

Even from the point of view of protecting jobs in the U.S., the tariffs make no sense. Steel tariffs, for example, might have benefited 140,000 American steel workers, but it would have endangered the jobs of 6 1/2 million workers in construction, auto manufacturing, oil and gas pipelines, beer cans, agriculture and food processing.²

Already, Trump has granted exemptions to the foreign metal tariffs to Canada, Mexico, the European Union, Australia, Argentina, Brazil and South Korea. These exempted countries account for more than half of the $29 billion in steel sold to the U.S. in 2017. He also left the door open to other allies, like Japan, that did not get an initial exemption. Instead of tariffs, Trump is now talking about quotas. Quotas, compared to tariffs, might be welcomed by foreign exporters, since they would benefit from higher prices. With tariffs, the U.S. government collects the higher duties.³

It may be that Trump had no intention of actually imposing broad tariffs, but wanted to use the threat of tariffs as a bargaining chip to wrest concessions from other countries. The U.S., Canada and Mexico are in the midst of renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). South Korea is also renegotiating its own free-trade agreement with the U.S.

One of Trump's main beefs with China was its requirement for U.S. companies manufacturing or trading in China to have a Chinese corporate partner, who would own 51% of the joint venture, and would have access to the American company's trade secrets and intellectual property. Even before the tariffs were announced, the Chinese government had agreed to lift the majority stake rule for U.S. securities firms and insurance companies. After three years, all caps would be removed. It will be the largest liberalization of China's financial services industry in eleven years.⁴

Global currency markets are very sensitive to trade flow because currency pricing is dependent on the stability or disruption of trade. However, the South Korean won, the Taiwanese dollar and Singapore dollar are all trading near their strongest levels in three years. World trade overall is expanding at the fastest rate in six years. China has responded with their own tariffs against U.S. products, but in a very muted way -- $3 billion in tariffs against U.S. products, versus $60 billion in tariffs against Chinese products.⁵ 

Since the initial panic, investor sentiment has warmed, and the market has already made back half of its initial losses. It seems as though the President is pursuing his common pattern of tapping out a dramatic tweet, followed by quietly walking back from his initial pronouncements. In the end, the "tariff turmoil" may turn out to be much ado about nothing.

¹ Wall Street Journal 3/9/2018

² Marketwatch 3/5/2018

³ New York Times 3/22/2018

⁴ South China Morning Post 11/10/2017

⁵ www.bobveres.com 3/1/2018

 

This commentary on this website reflects the personal opinions, viewpoints and analyses of the Kondo Wealth Advisors, Inc.  employees providing such comments, and should not be regarded as a description of advisory services provided by Kondo Wealth Advisors, Inc.  or performance returns of any Kondo Wealth Advisors, Inc.  Investments client. The views reflected in the commentary are subject to change at any time without notice. Nothing on this website constitutes investment advice, performance data or any recommendation that any particular security, portfolio of securities, transaction or investment strategy is suitable for any specific person. Any mention of a particular security and related performance data is not a recommendation to buy or sell that security. Kondo Wealth Advisors, Inc. manages its clients’ accounts using a variety of investment techniques and strategies, which are not necessarily discussed in the commentary. Investments in securities involve the risk of loss. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

 

 

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Medicare Under Attack

In our last article, we talked about a cynical aspect of the Social Security "Cost of Living Adjustment." The 2% increase is actually fully offset by a simultaneous increase in Medicare premiums. We have seen other "give with one hand, take with the other" strategies in the new tax law. For example, the increase in the Standard Deduction is cancelled out by the repeal of the Personal Exemption. 

However, these shell games pale in comparison to the overall impact of the new tax law. The main beneficiaries of the tax law are mega-corporations. Not only did they receive a "tax holiday" on $620 billion of tax-free profits sheltered overseas, but they were granted a massive tax cut from 35% down to 21%. Unfortunately, only 6% of this windfall has gone towards employee raises and bonuses.¹

Back in 2008, the government bailed out banks with taxpayer money during the recession. In a similar way, the new tax law gifts mega-corporations but leaves taxpayers to pay for the resulting $1.5 trillion federal budget deficit. Lawmakers have been somewhat vague about what they will do to reduce the federal debt, but deficits have consequences, and what they have already said is telling --

House Speaker Paul Ryan said, "We're going to get back to entitlement reform, which is how you tackle the debt and the deficit."²  Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla), after voting to create the gigantic deficit, announced, "The driver of our debt is Social Security and Medicare."² It seems likely that Congress will use the pretext of higher deficits to attack Medicaid (Medi-Cal in California), Medicare, Social Security and anti-hunger programs.

Medicare began in 1965 when seniors were unable to go out and buy health insurance on their own. Insurance companies did not want to sell affordable policies to older people because they were more expensive to insure. We have now come full circle -- Republicans are proposing that seniors get a voucher in place of Medicare. The voucher would defray some of the cost of buying a health insurance plan, but once again, elderly Americans would be on their own to try to get coverage.³

Before he resigned last September, Secretary of Health and Human Services, Tom Price, wanted to replace the Federal Medical Assistance Percentage, which is the federal government's commitment to fund Medicaid. Instead, he proposed block grants given to states. Block grants are typically small and fixed, and shift the healthcare burden to states. In the event of an economic downturn or emergency health crisis, states would find it difficult to fund necessary services. Price is gone, but Congress continues to promote his policies.

The existing cost of Medicare is already a significant burden to many people. The National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare reports that, "45% of retirees spend more than 1/3 of their Social Security benefits on health care, from co-pays, to premiums, deductibles, and out-of-pocket fees for services -- such as going to the eye doctor, dentist or audiologist -- that are not provided."³

Indicative of things to come, Trump signed into law a dismantling of Medicare's Independent Payment Advisory Board. This board was authorized to serve as a check to prevent higher Medicare premiums.

It's fairly certain that cuts to Medicare and Social Security will be the next target for Trump and the Republican leadership. It's only a question of when. It will be difficult for Republicans to press for these cutbacks ahead of the 2018 midterm elections. There is an anti-Trump wave building in many of the swing states and districts that Republicans want to hold onto, and there is a growing contingent of well-funded Democratic challengers, many of them women. Republicans recognize that Medicare is a very popular program to the very people that voted for Trump. After the midterm elections, however, GOP representatives won't have to worry about retribution from angry voters and can proceed with, "entitlement reform."

If the 2018 midterms result in a Democratic surge, the soon-to-be replaced Republican majorities may try to push through cuts to Medicare and Social Security during a lame duck session after the November elections, but before the next Congress is sworn in in January 2019. 

[1] http://money.cnn.com/2018/03/05/investing/stock-buybacks-inequality-tax-law/index.html

² https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2017/12/01/gop-eyes-post-tax-cut-changes-to-welfare-medicare-and-social-security/?utm_term=.754575565af9

³ http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/39715-you-re-on-your-own-republicans-plan-attack-on-medicaid-medicare-and-social-security

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/01/18/republicans-want-to-fund-medicaid-through-block-grants-thats-a-problem/?utm_term=.ca16b768bde8

 

This commentary on this website reflects the personal opinions, viewpoints and analyses of the Kondo Wealth Advisors, Inc.  employees providing such comments, and should not be regarded as a description of advisory services provided by Kondo Wealth Advisors, Inc.  or performance returns of any Kondo Wealth Advisors, Inc.  Investments client. The views reflected in the commentary are subject to change at any time without notice. Nothing on this website constitutes investment advice, performance data or any recommendation that any particular security, portfolio of securities, transaction or investment strategy is suitable for any specific person. Any mention of a particular security and related performance data is not a recommendation to buy or sell that security. Kondo Wealth Advisors, Inc. manages its clients’ accounts using a variety of investment techniques and strategies, which are not necessarily discussed in the commentary. Investments in securities involve the risk of loss. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

 

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EDUCATIONAL WORKSHOPS

2019 TENTATIVE SCHEDULE 

YOUR 2019 INVESTMENT STRATEGY

Saturday, March 16, 2019

10:00 a.m. - 12:00 p.m.

South Pasadena Public Library Community Room**

1115 El Centro St.

South Pasadena, CA  91030

**This activity is not sponsored by the City of South Pasadena or the South Pasadena Public Library

 

 

YOUR 2019 INVESTMENT STRATEGY

Saturday, March 23, 2019

9:00 a.m. - 11:00 a.m.

Ken Nakaoka Center*

1670 W. 162nd St.,

Gardena, CA  90247

*not sponsored by the City of Gardena

 

 

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