Spring Has Sprung: Will the Equity Market “Spring” Continue?

Spring has arrived here in the Bay Area and across most of the nation. Just as we have seen declining rainfall after the wintery “El Nino” conditions, the new season has recently brought a break from the significant volatility we experienced in the first two months of the year.

park practice 052 (1)However, although there is increased clarity on several issues that cast a cloud (was it the El Nino effect?) of uncertainty over financial markets in January and February, it would be unwise to forget that heightened volatility is likely not gone for good.

The first quarter of the year was historic. After being down more than 10% at its lows, the S&P 500 bounced back in March and finished the quarter positive. The S&P 500 hasn’t erased a 10% quarterly loss to finish positive since the Great Depression.

Experiencing market volatility like this is not easy; yet witnessing this kind of reversal reminds us of the importance of maintaining a long-term perspective. So, what changed between January and February and today to help calm markets?

The mid-winter market malaise largely revolved around the Federal Reserve (Fed), China, oil, corporate profits, and the U.S. dollar. Investors were likely concerned that the four 25 basis point (0.25%) rate hikes the Fed projected for 2016 would lead to a recession and exacerbate the imbalances emerging in the global economy.

These imbalances stemmed from a series of missteps by Chinese policymakers, the oversupply of oil, weak corporate profits, and unprecedented strength in the U.S. dollar. In the past couple of months, many of these issues have started to resolve.

2000px-US-FederalReserveSystem-Seal.svgAt its March policy meeting, the Fed changed its tune slightly from the December 2015 meeting and reduced its forecast for rate hikes this year from four to just two, citing concerns around global imbalances and economic growth. This more market-friendly projection helped to push the dollar lower and oil higher, alleviating some stress in global financial markets.

Meanwhile, China, which said or did all the wrong things managing its currency, economy, and financial markets during the second half of 2015 and again in early 2016, has mostly turned that around recently. The weaker dollar, soothing words from China, and the rebound in oil prices helped to renew a slightly more positive corporate profit outlook and sparked an impressive market rebound.

After the market dips, reversals, and dramatic shifts in investor sentiment, what can we expect as we look ahead? In my opinion, the second quarter of 2016-and the rest of the year-may look a lot like the first quarter, as many of the areas of concern we faced (such as Fed rate hikes, oil prices, earnings declines) remain in the background.

Although it is very possible that the heightened volatility throughout the rest of 2016 might continue, some investment management firms, including the LPL Financial Research department, think that the broad US equity market might deliver mid-single-digit returns in 2016 if the U.S. economic expansion continues. Only time will tell whether these prognostications will come true.

To help you maintain perspective and stay on track, please feel free to browse on the right my previous newsletters and a sample of the educational articles from the blog section of my website. And, as always, if you have questions or are seeking clarification about your current situation, please email me at bill.pollak@lpl.com or call me at (925) 464-7057.

Correlation and Portfolio Performance

Different types of investments are subject to different types of risk. On days when you notice that stock prices have fallen, for example, it would not be unusual to see a rally in the bond market.

arrows_sq_452689341Asset allocation refers to how an investor’s portfolio is divided among asset classes, which tend to perform differently under different market conditions. An appropriate mix of investments typically depends on the investor’s age, risk tolerance, and financial goals.

The concept of correlation often plays a role in constructing a well-diversified portfolio that strikes a balance between risk and return.

Math that matters
In the financial world, correlation is a statistical measure of how two securities perform relative to each other. Securities that are positively correlated will have prices that tend to move in the same direction. Securities that are negatively correlated will have prices that move in the opposite direction.

Working people in the officeA correlation coefficient, which is calculated using historical returns, measures the degree of correlation between two investments. A correlation of +1 represents a perfectly positive correlation, which means the investments always move together, in the same direction, and at a consistent scale.

A correlation of -1 means they have a perfectly negative correlation and will always move opposite one another. A correlation of zero means that the two investments are not correlated; the relationship between them is random.

In reality, perfectly positive correlation is rare, because distinct investments can be affected differently by the same conditions, even if they are similar securities in the same sector.

Correlations can change
While some types of securities exhibit general trends of correlation over time, it’s not uncommon for correlations to vary over shorter periods. In times of market volatility, for example, asset prices were more likely to be driven by common market shocks than by their respective underlying fundamentals.

fixed-income-investment-strategies-1_1-800X800During the flight to quality sparked by the financial crisis of 2008, riskier assets across a number of different classes exhibited unusually high correlation. As a result, correlations among some major asset classes have been more elevated than they were before the crisis. There has also been a rise in correlation between different financial markets in the global economy (See Note 1 Below).

For example, the correlation coefficient for U.S. stocks (represented by the S&P Composite Total Return index) and foreign stocks (represented by the MSCI EAFE GTR index) increased from 0.75 over the last 25 years to 0.89 over the last 10 years (See Note 2 Below).

Over the long run, a combination of investments that are loosely correlated may provide greater diversification, help manage portfolio risk, and smooth out investment returns. Tighter relationships among asset classes over the last decade may be a good reason for some investors to reassess their portfolio allocations.

However, it’s important to keep in mind that correlations may continue to fluctuate over time because of changing economic and market environments.

The performance of an unmanaged index is not indicative of the performance of any particular investment. Individuals cannot invest directly in an index. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. All investing involves risk, including the possible loss of principal. Asset allocation and diversification strategies do not guarantee a profit or protect against investment loss; they are methods used to help manage investment risk.

Investing internationally carries additional risks such as differences in financial reporting, currency exchange risk, as well as economic and political risk unique to the specific country. This may result in greater share price volatility. When sold, investments may be worth more or less than their original cost.

1 International Monetary Fund, 2015

2 Thomson Reuters, 2015, for the period 12/31/1989 to 12/31/2014

Earn Too Much for a Roth IRA? Try the Back Door

Roth IRAs, created in 1997 as part of the Taxpayer Relief Act, represented an entirely new savings opportunity–the ability to make after-tax contributions that could, if certain conditions were met, grow entirely free of federal income taxes.

These new savings vehicles were essentially the inverse of traditional IRAs, where you could make deductible contributions but distributions would be fully taxable. The law also allowed taxpayers to “convert” traditional IRAs to Roth IRAs by paying income taxes on the amount converted in the year of conversion.

Unfortunately, the law contained two provisions that limited the ability of high-income taxpayers to participate in the Roth revolution. First, the annual contributions an individual could make to a Roth IRA were reduced or eliminated if his or her income exceeded certain levels. Second, individuals with incomes of $100,000 or more, or whose tax filing status was married filing separately, were prohibited from converting a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA.

In 2005, however, Congress passed the Tax Increase Prevention and Reconciliation Act (TIPRA), which repealed the second barrier, allowing anyone to convert a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA–starting in 2010–regardless of income level or marital status. But TIPRA did not repeal the provision that limited the ability to make annual Roth contributions based on income. The current limits are set forth in the table below:

Phaseout ranges for determining ability to fund a Roth IRA in 2016*
Single/head of household $117,000-$132,000
Married filing jointly $184,000-$194,000
Married filing separately $0-$10,000
*Applies to modified adjusted gross income (MAGI)

Through the back door…
Repeal of the provisions limiting conversions created an obvious opportunity for high-income taxpayers who wanted to make annual Roth contributions but couldn’t because of the income limits. Those taxpayers (who would also run afoul of similar income limits that prohibited them from making deductible contributions to traditional IRAs) could simply make nondeductible contributions to a traditional IRA and then immediately convert that traditional IRA to a Roth IRA–a “back door” Roth IRA.

The IRS is always at the front door…
For taxpayers who have no other traditional IRAs, establishment of the back-door Roth IRA is essentially tax free. Income tax is payable on the earnings, if any, that the traditional IRA generates until the Roth conversion is complete. However, assuming the contribution and conversion are done in tandem, the tax impact should be nominal. (The 10% penalty tax for distributions prior to age 59½ generally doesn’t apply to taxable conversions.)

taxes1But if a taxpayer owns other traditional IRAs at the time of conversion, the tax calculation is a bit more complicated because of the so-called “IRA aggregation rule.” When calculating the tax impact of a distribution (including a conversion) from any traditional IRA, all traditional and SEP/SIMPLE IRAs a taxpayer owns (other than inherited IRAs) must be aggregated and treated as a single IRA.

For example, assume Jillian creates a back-door Roth IRA in 2016 by making a $5,500 contribution to a traditional IRA and then converting that IRA to a Roth IRA. She also has another traditional IRA that contains deductible contributions and earnings worth $20,000. Her total traditional IRA balance prior to the conversion is therefore $25,500 ($20,000 taxable and $5,500 nontaxable).

She has a distribution (conversion) of $5,500: 78.4% of that distribution ($20,000/$25,500) is considered taxable ($4,313.73), and 21.6% of that distribution ($5,500/$25,500) is considered nontaxable ($1,186.27).

Note: These tax calculations can be complicated. Fortunately, the IRS has provided a worksheet (Form 8606) for calculating the taxable portion of a conversion.

There’s also a side door…
Let’s assume Jillian in the example above isn’t thrilled about having to pay any income tax on the Roth conversion. Is there anything she can do about it?

One strategy to reduce or eliminate the conversion tax is to transfer the taxable amount in the traditional IRAs ($20,000 in our example) to an employer qualified plan like a 401(k) prior to establishing the back-door Roth IRA, leaving the traditional IRAs holding only after-tax dollars. Many 401(k) plans accept incoming rollovers. Check with your plan administrator.

Pros and Cons of Working at Home

Imagine that your employer gives you the choice between either working from home or commuting to the office throughout your work week. You might think the obvious choice is to work from the comfort of your own home; after all, staying in your pajamas all day and avoiding stressful commutes sound appealing. But there are some considerations to think about before you decide that telecommuting is right for you.

Advantages
file0001992856476Working from home could end up saving you a considerable amount of money. It eliminates the cost of commuting by cutting down what you spend on gas, public transportation and parking fees, and car maintenance. And depending on your company’s dress code, you could save what you might spend on expensive work-related clothes.

Besides reducing some of your daily expenses, working from home could provide you with more opportunities and increased productivity. Telecommuting might mean you are no longer tied to a single location, which could allow you to explore more flexible work opportunities within the company. Working from home may also motivate you to use your time more effectively and accomplish more for your company because you’ll save time commuting.

Balancing work and family life could be easier when you work from home, as well. Time that you might spend traveling to work, appointments, and family obligations will be saved when you no longer have to schedule around a daily drive to and from the office.

Depending on your company’s flexibility and the demands of your job, working from home may even eliminate or reduce child-care needs for your children, giving you more time to spend with your loved ones in addition to saving you money.

It’s possible that you could be healthier by working from home. Your exposure to co-workers who come to work with a cold or the flu is reduced, which prevents you from having to take a sick day to visit your doctor. You may also wind up feeling less stressed when you don’t have to worry about commuting or potential work-life issues.

Disadvantages
Before you get too excited about the appeals of working from home, consider the drawbacks. For instance, telecommuting could affect your work performance. Isolation from the office may result in your professional achievements being overlooked, which could potentially delay a promotion or raise.

Less opportunity to interact regularly with co-workers might mean missing out on important information, as well as feeling lonely. Plus, distractions around your home can interfere with your daily responsibilities and could result in a negative response from your employer.

Another financial downside of working from home is the prospect of providing your own office materials. Does your company provide you with supplies such as a computer, printer, and fax machine? Will you need to pay for office setup, postage services, or scanners, among other items?

file00032137357You might think that a home office tax deduction could alleviate the cost of home office expenses, but you’ll need to be careful with your home office use in order to qualify. The space you claim a deduction for must be used for business-only purposes. Any use of this space not related to your work may prevent you from taking this tax break. For more information, review IRS Publication 587, Business Use of Your Home.

You’ll also need to think about how your increased presence at home may result in an increase in your home utility usage. Specifically, you’ll probably spend much of your time using energy-consuming technology to perform your job. In turn, this could cause your electric bill to spike. Practicing energy efficiency may help reduce the bill, but you still might have to pay more than you’d like each month as the cost of working from home.

What works for you?
If your employer allows you to work from home, think about a few other things besides how it would affect your wallet:

1) Consider whether your home has appropriate space to accommodate a home office.
2) Understand that you may need to seek remote tech support on occasion to perform your job.
3) Think about whether you’re self-directed and able to work well independently in a home setting.
4) Set expectations for yourself.
5) Be familiar with any company policies that may apply to remote employees.

It’s possible that you can strike a balance and choose to work from home one or two days a week, thereby reaping more of the telecommuting positives than negatives. You could also ask to undergo a trial period to make sure that working from home is truly what works best for both you and your employer.

Changes to Social Security Claiming Strategies

The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 included a section titled “Closure of Unintended Loopholes” that ends two Social Security claiming strategies that have become increasingly popular over the last several years. These two strategies, known as “file and suspend” and “restricted application” for a spousal benefit, have often been used to optimize Social Security income for married couples.

SocSecurityTriColiStock_000008528384_sqIf you have not yet filed for Social Security, it’s important to understand how these new rules could affect your retirement strategy.

Depending on your age, you may still be able to take advantage of the expiring claiming options. The changes should not affect current Social Security beneficiaries and do not apply to survivor benefits.

File and suspend
Under the previous rules, an individual who had reached full retirement age could file for retired worker benefits–typically to enable a spouse to file for spousal benefits–and then suspend his or her benefit. By doing so, the individual would earn delayed retirement credits (up to 8% annually) and claim a higher worker benefit at a later date, up to age 70. Meanwhile, his or her spouse could be receiving spousal benefits.

For some married couples, especially those with dual incomes, this strategy increased their total combined lifetime benefits. Under the new rules, which are effective as of April 30, 2016, a worker who reaches full retirement age can still file and suspend, but no one can collect benefits on the worker’s earnings record during the suspension period. This strategy effectively ends the file-and-suspend strategy for couples and families.

The new rules also mean that a worker cannot later request a retroactive lump-sum payment for the entire period during which benefits were suspended. (This previously available claiming option was helpful to someone who faced a change of circumstances, such as a serious illness.)

Tip: If you are age 66 or older before the new rules take effect, you may still be able to take advantage of the combined file-and-suspend and spousal/dependent filing strategy.

Restricted application

Under the previous rules, a married person who had reached full retirement age could file a “restricted application” for spousal benefits after the other spouse had filed for Social Security worker benefits. This allowed the individual to collect spousal benefits while earning delayed retirement credits on his or her own work record.

In combination with the file-and-suspend option, this enabled both spouses to earn delayed retirement credits while one spouse received a spousal benefit, a type of “double dipping” that was not intended by the original legislation.

Under the new rules, an individual eligible for both a spousal benefit and a worker benefit will be “deemed” to be filing for whichever benefit is higher and will not be able to change from one to the other later.

Tip: If you reached age 62 before the end of December 2015, you are grandfathered under the old rules. If your spouse has filed for Social Security worker benefits, you can still file a restricted application for spouse-only benefits at full retirement age and claim your own worker benefit at a later date.

Basic Social Security claiming options remain unchanged. You can file for a permanently reduced benefit starting at age 62, receive your full benefit at full retirement age, or postpone filing for benefits and earn delayed retirement credits, up to age 70.

Although some claiming options are going away, plenty of planning opportunities remain, and you may benefit from taking the time to make an informed decision about when to file for Social Security.

Rates on the Rise: Strategies for Fixed-Income Investors

A long period of low yields has been challenging for many fixed-income investors, but owning bond investments in a rising interest-rate environment could become even trickier. When interest rates go up, the prices of existing bonds typically fall. Consequently, the Federal Reserve’s rate-setting decisions could affect the entire fixed-income market.

RisinginterestratesiStock_000078549611_MediumStill, bonds are a mainstay for conservative investors who prioritize the preservation of principal over returns, and for retirees in need of a predictable income stream. Although diversification does not guarantee a profit or protect against investment loss, owning a diversified mix of bond types and maturities is one way to manage interest-rate and credit risk in your portfolio.

Consider duration
Overall, bonds with shorter maturities are less sensitive to interest-rate fluctuations than long-term bonds. A bond’s maturity is the length of time by which the principal and interest are scheduled to be repaid. A bond’s duration is a more specific measure of interest-rate sensitivity that takes cash flow (interest payments) into account.

For example, a five-year Treasury bond has a duration of less than five years, reflecting income payments that are received prior to maturity. A five-year corporate bond with a higher yield will have an even shorter duration, making it slightly less sensitive to interest-rate fluctuations. If interest rates increase 1%, a bond’s value is generally expected to drop by approximately the bond’s duration. Thus, a bond with a five-year duration could lose roughly 5% in value. (U.S. Treasury securities are guaranteed by the federal government as to the timely payment of principal and interest.)

Build a ladder
Bond laddering is a buy-and-hold strategy that could also help cushion the potential effects of rising rates. This process puts your money to work systematically, without trying to predict rate changes and time the market.

file0001084609609Buying individual bonds provides some certainty, because investors know how much they will earn if they hold a bond until maturity, unless the issuer defaults. A ladder is a portfolio of bonds with maturities that are spaced out at regular intervals over a certain number of years. When short-term bonds from the low rungs of the ladder mature, the funds are reinvested at the top end of the ladder.

As interest rates rise, investors may be able to increase their cash flow by capturing higher yields. A ladder may also help insulate bond portfolios from volatility, because higher yields on new bonds may help offset any paper losses on existing holdings.

Bond ladders may vary in size and structure, and could include different types of bonds depending on an investor’s time horizon, risk tolerance, and goals. Individual bonds are typically sold in minimum denominations of $1,000 to $5,000, so creating a bond ladder with a sufficient level of diversification might require a sizable investment.

Rise with rates
Adding a floating-rate component to a bond portfolio may also provide some protection against interest-rate risk. These investments (long offered by U.S. corporations) have interest payments that typically adjust based on prevailing short-term rates.

The U.S. Treasury started issuing floating-rate notes with two-year maturities in January 2014. Investors receive interest payments on a quarterly basis. Rates are tied to the most recent 13-week Treasury bill auction and reset weekly, so investors are paid more as interest rates rise and less as they fall.

Note: Bonds redeemed prior to maturity could be worth more or less than their original cost, and investments seeking to achieve higher yields also involve a higher degree of risk. Interest payments are taxed as ordinary income. Treasury bond interest is subject to federal income tax but exempt from state and local income taxes.

‘Tis the Season To Unwrap Your Crystal Ball!

It’s that time of year again! No, I am not referring to the Holidays which brings the hustle and bustle of gift buying, parties, and hopefully special time with family and friends. Those subjects could produce material for an interesting read, but there is another annual tradition which I have been thinking about.

file9821301453431I am referring to the scores of prognostications offered by many financial, investing and economic gurus. In a ritual as widely practiced as Holiday gatherings and New Year celebrations, we are hearing (or will soon hear) predictions about what 2016 “will” bring in the world of finance, including the direction and pace of economic growth, the path of interest rates, the outlook for oil prices (a hot topic!), and more!

Some of these pronouncements may sound convincing and could even be very well-reasoned. They will sometimes even come along with advice about the moves you can make to profit from those opinions or how to avoid losses. But I would caution anybody reading these missives to avoid making bold moves, no matter how compelling the prediction.

That’s because I have learned over the years to take these forecasts with a gigantic grain of salt. The business of making reliable forecasts about the sometimes arbitrary movements of the economy and financial markets is a very tough endeavor. As the late, great baseball icon and “philosopher” Yogi Berra once said, “Making predictions is difficult, especially about the future”!

That idea was recently underscored by research I have read from two prominent researchers at the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the well-known international financial organization. In a study published in May, 2014, Prakash Loungani and Hites Ahir, two IMF researchers, studied forecasters’ ability to predict recessions.

This paper, along with previous research compiled by Loungani and other economists, showed that forecasters possess a “record of failure to predict recessions” which “is virtually unblemished.” Ouch!

IMG_1312Does this mean you should ignore all prognostications? Not necessarily! I do read commentaries from many economists and investment experts. Understanding different perspectives about the financial world, especially when there are differing views, can be helpful. They can provide a measure of context and awareness.

But it is important to remember they may not be useful as an infallible investment or financial manual for the next 12 months. The workings of the economy and financial markets are extremely complicated and dynamic, making it extraordinarily difficult to forecast their movements, especially over a relatively short timeframe like one year.

In fact, if a forecaster says they know exactly what’s going to happen next, you might want to view such opinions, based on the aforementioned research, with skepticism. Alternatively, forecasts which acknowledge the possibilities of different outcomes might actually help inform you about unexpected developments.

Regardless of the quality of the forecast and research, I think most individuals and families may likely be much better off by placing their primary focus on having a long-term financial plan and following a disciplined process in making financial and investment decisions.

This approach might actually offer more long-term promise than placing too much emphasis on short-term forecasts which appear to be unreliable, no matter how credible the source.

To help provide context and perspective, this month’s blogs provide information about the recent interest rate hike by the Federal Reserve Bank as well as guidance about potential year-end tax moves:

Federal Reserve Bank Rate Hike: What Does It Mean?

Should You Worry About a Federal Reserve Interest Rate Hike?

2015 Year end Tax Planning Basics

As always, if you have any questions about your situation, I encourage you to email me at bill.pollak@lpl.com or at (925) 464-7057.

The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.

Federal Reserve Rate Hike: What Does it Mean?

The events of the past week bring one word to mind: finally. Last Wednesday, the Federal Reserve (Fed) finally raised the target for the federal funds rate by 0.25%. By raising this key overnight borrowing rate, the Fed raised interest rates for the first time in nine years—an event that has been receiving a great deal of attention recently. Surrounding the past several Fed meetings, there has been much talk of “will they” or “won’t they.” Leading up to this meeting, the Fed implied it would raise rates, and the market was expecting it.

file000821289525However, until the announcement was made today, a degree of uncertainty remained. So, what does this really mean? It means the potential for key rates to tick up, such as mortgage or credit card rates. Most bonds have “priced in the hike,” but some could still feel a slight negative impact. However, overall, we should take this as a positive sign. We have not experienced a rate hike in nine years, and, perhaps more importantly, we have not had rates above the 0–25 basis point range (0–0.25%) since late 2008.

The Fed said it would only raise rates if the economic data signaled a healthy economy. We have seen strong numbers posted over the past few months, and the Fed affirmed today it believes this trend should continue. To sum up, the Fed has raised rates because it believes the economy is strong and likely to continue to grow without the added support of near zero interest rates.

For the market, this is potentially a positive event. Yet, rate hikes also reaffirm that we are in the mid-to-late stage of the economic cycle. In this part of the cycle, we can expect additional market volatility. We especially anticipate it in the coming weeks and months, as investors become comfortable with the “new routine” for U.S. monetary policy.

Although we have just experienced the first raise, many will immediately start thinking about what’s next. The debate will continue regarding how fast the Fed will raise rates, how far it will raise them, and when it will stop. Today, the Fed’s own projections put the fed funds rate at 140 basis points (1.4%) a year from now, while the fed funds futures market puts the fed funds rate at just 80 basis points (0.80%) by year-end 2016.

arrowThis difference implies a gap between what the Fed says it will do and what the market thinks the Fed will do. How this gap is resolved will play a key role in the future direction of financial markets, particularly fixed income markets. Luckily, Fed Chair Janet Yellen is aware that markets will continue to debate what may lie ahead. Her comments during the post-meeting press conference suggest the Fed will continue to proceed cautiously, taking into consideration the impact of rising rates on consumer spending, the housing market, business capital spending, the value of the dollar, and overseas economies and financial markets.

A slow path for further increases will give the economy and markets time to adjust to the changes. It has been a long time since we last saw the Fed hike rates. It does feel unusual, but also positive, and hopefully this change is well worth the wait. It means that we are returning to a more typical economic environment, which is a welcome change from the atypical environment we have lived in since the Great Recession.

And even though this is a big change in Fed policy, what shouldn’t change is our commitment to the long-term investment plan that is ultimately our blueprint for success. As always, if you have any questions, I encourage you to email me at bill.pollak@lpl.com or at (925) 464-7057.

The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual security. To determine which investment(s) may be appropriate for you, consult your financial advisor prior to investing.

Economic forecasts set forth may not develop as predicted.

Investing in stock includes numerous specific risks including: the fluctuation of dividend, loss of principal, and potential liquidity of the investment in a falling market.
Bonds are subject to market and interest rate risk if sold prior to maturity. Bond and bond mutual fund values and yields will decline as interest rates rise and bonds are subject to availability and change in price.

This research material has been prepared by LPL Financial.

Securities offered through LPL Financial. Member FINRA/SIPC.

Tracking #1-449334 (Exp. 12/16)

Comparing Health Insurance Options during Open Enrollment

The decisions you make during open enrollment season regarding health insurance are especially important, since you generally must stick with the options you choose until the next open enrollment season, unless you experience a “qualifying” event such as marriage or the birth of a child.

Fun Medical MGD©As a result, you should take the time to carefully review the types of plans offered by your employer and consider all the costs associated with each plan. With most health insurance plans, your employer will pay a portion of the premium and require you to pay the remainder through payroll deductions.

When comparing different plans, keep in mind that even though a plan with a lower premium may seem like the most attractive option, it could have higher potential out-of-pocket costs.

You’ll want to review the copayments, deductibles, and coinsurance associated with each plan. This is an important step because these costs can greatly affect what you end up paying out-of-pocket. When reviewing the costs of each plan, consider the following:

1) Does the plan have an individual or family deductible? If so, what is the amount that will have to be satisfied before your insurance coverage kicks in?

2) Are there copayments? If so what amounts are charged for doctor visits, specialists, hospital visits, and prescription drugs?

3) Will you have to pay any coinsurance once you’ve satisfied the deductible?

You should also assess each plan’s coverage and specific features. For example, are there coverage exclusions or limitations that apply? Which expenses are fully or partially covered? Do you have the option to go to doctors who are outside your plan’s provider network? Does the plan offer additional types of coverage for vision, dental, or prescription drugs?

In the end, when reviewing your options, you’ll want to balance the coverage and features offered under each plan against the plan’s overall cost to determine which plan offers you the best value for your money.

If you have any questions about how to approach your decisions, please email me at bill.pollak@lpl.com or call my office at (925) 464-7057!

2015 Year-End Tax Planning Basics

As the end of the 2015 tax year approaches, set aside some time to evaluate your situation and consider potential opportunities. Effective year-end planning depends on a good understanding of both your current circumstances and how those circumstances might change next year.

TaxesSMBasic strategies
Consider whether there’s an opportunity to defer income to 2016. For example, you might be able to defer a year-end bonus or delay the collection of business debts, rents, and payments for services. When you defer income to 2016, you postpone payment of the tax on that income.

And if there’s a chance that you might be paying taxes at a lower rate next year (for example, if you know that you’ll have less taxable income next year), deferring income might mean paying less tax on the deferred income.

You should also look for potential ways to accelerate 2016 deductions into the 2015 tax year. If you typically itemize deductions on Schedule A of Form 1040, you might be able to accelerate some deductible expenses–such as medical expenses, qualifying interest, or state and local taxes–by making payments before the end of the current year, instead of paying them in early 2016.

Or you might consider making next year’s charitable contribution this year instead. If you think you’ll be itemizing deductions in one year but claiming the standard deduction in the other, trying to defer (or accelerate) Schedule A deductions into the year for which you’ll be itemizing deductions might let you take advantage of deductions that would otherwise be lost.

Depending on your circumstances, you might also consider taking the opposite approach. For example, if you think that you’ll be paying taxes at a higher rate next year (maybe as the result of a recent compensation increase or the planned sale of assets), you might want to look for ways to accelerate income into 2015 and possibly defer deductions until 2016 (when they could potentially be more valuable).

BF-AA310_401k_D_20101210153343Complicating Factors
First, you need to factor in the alternative minimum tax (AMT). The AMT is essentially a separate, parallel federal income tax system with its own rates and rules. If you’re subject to the AMT, traditional year-end strategies may be ineffective or actually have negative consequences.

That’s because the AMT effectively disallows a number of itemized deductions. So if you’re subject to the AMT in 2015, prepaying 2016 state and local taxes probably won’t help your 2015 tax situation, and, in fact, could hurt your 2016 bottom line.

It’s also important to recognize that personal and dependency exemptions may be phased out and itemized deductions may be limited once your adjusted gross income (AGI) reaches a certain level. This is especially important to factor in if your AGI is approaching the threshold limit and you’re evaluating whether to accelerate or defer income or itemized deductions.

For 2015, the AGI threshold is $258,250 if you file as single, $309,900 if married filing jointly, $154,950 if married filing separately, and $284,050 if head of household.

NRT-SEPPQ113_02IRA and retirement plan contributions
Deductible contributions to a traditional IRA and pretax contributions to an employer-sponsored retirement plan such as a 401(k) could reduce your 2015 taxable income. (Note: A number of factors determine whether you’re eligible to deduct contributions to a traditional IRA.)

Contributions to a Roth IRA (assuming you meet the income requirements) or a Roth 401(k) plan are made with after-tax dollars–so there’s no immediate tax savings–but qualified distributions are completely free of federal income tax.

For 2015, you’re generally able to contribute up to $18,000 to a 401(k) plan ($24,000 if you’re age 50 or older) and up to $5,500 to a traditional or Roth IRA ($6,500 if you’re age 50 or older). The window to make 2015 contributions to an employer plan generally closes at the end of the year, while you typically have until the due date of your federal income tax return to make 2015 IRA contributions.

Important notes
The Supreme Court has legalized same-sex marriage nationwide, significantly simplifying the federal and state income tax filing requirements for same-sex married couples living in states that did not previously recognize their marriage.

A host of popular tax provisions (commonly referred to as “tax extenders”) expired at the end of 2014. Although it is possible that some or all of these provisions will be retroactively extended, currently they are not available for the 2015 tax year.

Among the provisions: deducting state and local sales taxes in lieu of state and local income taxes; the above-the-line deduction for qualified higher-education expenses; qualified charitable distributions (QCDs) from IRAs; and increased business expense and “bonus” depreciation rules.