Five Things To Do When The Market Is Down

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When the market is down, it hurts to look at your portfolio and see your account values dropping. And when we experience pain, we feel the need to do something. Unfortunately, the knee-jerk reaction to sell everything almost always ends up being the wrong move, a fact which although obvious in hindsight, is nevertheless a very tempting idea when we feel panicked.

Even when we know that market cycles are an inevitable part of being a long-term investor, it is still frustrating to just sit there and not do anything when we have a drop. What should you do when the market is down? Most of the time, the best answer is to do nothing. However, if you are looking for ways to capitalize on the current downturn, here are five things you can do today.

1) Put cash to work. The market is on sale, so if you have cash on the sidelines, I wouldn’t hesitate to make some purchases. Stick with high quality, low-cost ETFs or mutual funds, and avoid taking a flyer on individual stocks. If you’ve been waiting to fund your IRA contributions for 2015 or 2016, do it now. Continue to dollar cost average in your 401k or other automatic investment account.

2) If you are fully invested, rebalance now; sell some of your fixed income and use the proceeds to buy more stocks to get back to your target asset allocation. Of course, most investors who do it themselves don’t have a target allocation, which is their first mistake. If you don’t have a pre-determined asset allocation, now is a good time to diversify.

3) Harvest losses. In your taxable account, look for positions with losses and exchange those for a different ETF in the same category. For example, if you have a loss on a small cap mutual fund, you could sell it to harvest the loss, and immediately replace it with a different small cap ETF or fund.

By doing an immediate swap, you maintain your overall allocation and remain invested for any subsequent rally. The loss you generate can be used to offset any capital gains distributions that may occur later in the year. If the realized losses exceed your gains for the year, you can apply $3,000 of the losses against ordinary income, and the remaining unused losses will carry forward to future years indefinitely. My favorite thing about harvesting losses: being able to use long-term losses (taxed at 15%) to offset short-term gains (taxed as ordinary income, which could be as high as 43.4%).

4) Trade your under-performing, high expense mutual funds for a low cost ETF. This is a great time to clean up your portfolio. I often see individual investors who have 8, 10, or more different mutual funds, but when we look at them, they’re all US large cap funds. That’s not diversification, that’s being a fund collector! While you are getting rid of the dogs in your portfolio, make sure you are going into a truly diversified, global allocation.

5) Roth Conversion. If positions in your IRA are down significantly, and you plan to hold on to them, consider converting those assets to a Roth IRA. That means paying tax on the conversion amount today, but once in the Roth, all future growth and distributions will be tax-free. For example, if you had $10,000 invested in a stock, and it has dropped to $6,000, you could convert the IRA position to a Roth, pay taxes on the $6,000, and then it will be in a tax-free account.

Before making a Roth Conversion, talk with your financial planner and CPA to make sure you understand all the tax ramifications that will apply to your individual situation. I am not necessarily recommending everyone do a Roth Conversion, but if you want to do one, the best time is when the market is down.

What many investors say to me is that they don’t want to do anything right now, because if they hold on, those positions might come back. If they don’t sell, the loss isn’t real. This is a cognitive trap, called “loss aversion”. Investors are much more willing to sell stocks that have a gain than stocks that are at a loss. And unfortunately, this mindset can prevent investors from efficiently managing their assets.

Hopefully, now, you will realize that there are ways to help your portfolio when the market is down, through putting cash to work, rebalancing, harvesting losses for tax purposes, upgrading your funds to low-cost ETFs, or doing a Roth Conversion. Remember that market volatility creates opportunities. It may be painful to see losses today, but experiencing the ups and downs of the market cycle is an inevitable part of being a long-term investor.

Why You Should Harvest Losses Annually

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This time each year, I review every client’s taxable accounts in search of losses to harvest for tax purposes. While no one likes to have a loss, the reality is that investments fluctuate and have down periods, even if the long-term trend is up. I’ll be contacting each client in the next two weeks and will let you know if I suggest any trades.

Even though we may make some sales, we still want to maintain our overall target asset allocation. Under US tax rules, we cannot buy a “substantially identical security” within 30 days in order to claim a tax loss. This precludes us from taking a loss and immediately buying back the same ETF or mutual fund. It does not however, prevent us from selling one large cap ETF and buying a different ETF that tracks another large cap index or strategy. This means that we can harvest the loss without being out of the market for 30 days and missing any potential gains during that time.

When we harvest losses, we can use those losses to offset any gains we have received and reduce our taxes in the current year. The criticism against tax loss harvesting is that it just serves to postpone taxes rather than actually saving taxes.

For example, let’s say that we purchased 10,000 shares of an ETF for $10 per share and today those shares are only worth $9.00. Our cost basis is $100,000 and if we sold today for $90,000 we could harvest a loss of $10,000. We replace that position with a different ETF and invest our $90,000. Fast forward a couple of years and the position is now worth $120,000. If we sell for $120,000, we would have a $30,000 gain, whereas if we had not done the earlier trades, our gain would be only $20,000. Apply a long-term capital gains rate of 15% and the savings of $1,500 in taxes this year is offset by $1,500 in additional taxes down the road.

So, why bother? There is an additional benefit to tax loss harvesting besides deferring taxes for later: you may be able to use those losses to offset short-term capital gains or ordinary income, which can be at a much higher tax rate than the 15% long-term capital gains rate.

The rules for capital gains are that you first net short-term gains and short-term losses against each other. Separately, you will net long-term gains and long-term losses. If you have net losses in either category, those losses may be subtracted from gains in the other category. So if you had $10,000 in net long-term losses, you could apply those losses against $10,000 of short-term capital gains. For someone in the 35% tax bracket, that $10,000 long-term loss could be worth $3,500, if you can apply that loss towards short-term gains, instead of the $1,500 we would normally associate with a long-term loss.

If you have more capital losses than gains in a year, you can apply $3,000 of those losses against ordinary income, and carry forward the remaining losses into future years indefinitely, until they are used up. If we can use our $3,000 loss against ordinary income, a taxpayer in the 35% bracket will save $1,050 in taxes, which is a lot better than the $450 we would save in long-term capital gains if we did not harvest the $3,000 loss.

After deferring gains for many years, taxpayers may be able to avoid realizing gains altogether two ways. First, if you have charitable goals, you can give appreciated securities to a charity instead of cash. If you give $1,000 worth of funds to a charity, the charity receives the full $1,000; you get a full tax deduction AND you avoid paying capital gains on those shares.

The second way to avoid capital gains is if you allow your heirs to inherit your shares. They will receive a step-up in cost basis and no one will owe capital gains tax. That’s a rather extreme way to avoid paying 15% in capital gains taxes, and most people are going to need their investments for retirement. However, the fact is that delaying taxes can be beneficial and that the tax is not always inevitable.

The reason I share this is that the argument that tax loss harvesting only serves to delay taxes ignores quite a few benefits that you can realize. You may be able to use those capital losses not just to offset capital gains at 15%, but potentially to offset short-term gains at a much higher rate, or to offset $3,000 a year of ordinary income.

Since we primarily use ETFs, we already have a great deal more tax efficiency than mutual funds, and we should have little capital gains distributions for 2015. If you’re not with GLWM and have mutual funds in a taxable account, be aware that many mutual funds have announced capital gains distributions for the end of this year.

There are quite a few ways we aim to add value for our clients and we take special interest in portfolio tax optimization. If there’s a way to help you save money in taxes, that’s going to help you meet your financial goals faster.

Year-End Tax Loss Harvesting

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Each December, I review taxable accounts and look at each investor’s tax situation for the year.  I selectively harvest positions with a loss so those losses may offset any capital gains realized by sales or distributed by your funds this year.  If realized losses exceed gains, $3,000 of the losses may be applied against your ordinary income and any excess loss is carried forward into future years.

Depending on the time of your purchases, some investors have small losses in International and Emerging Market stocks for the year.  Although these positions may be down and have lagged US stock indices, I’m not suggesting that we abandon an allocation to these categories altogether.

What we can do is swap from one ETF (or mutual fund) to another ETF or fund in the same category.  This enables us to maintain our overall target allocation while still harvesting the loss for tax purposes.  And thankfully, with a proliferation of low-cost ETFs available in most categories today, it is easier than ever to make a tax swap while maintaining our desired investment allocation.

Tax loss harvesting reduces taxes in the current year, but is primarily a deferral mechanism, as new purchases at a lower cost basis will have higher taxes in the future.  Still, there is a value to the tax deferral, plus a possibility that an investor might be in a lower tax bracket in retirement or could avoid capital gains altogether by leaving the position to their heirs or through a charitable donation.

Most of our ETFs have no taxable capital gains distributions for 2014, a nice feature of ETFs compared to actively managed mutual funds, many of which are generating sizable distributions, even for new shareholders.  Focusing on individual after-tax returns is another way we can add value for our clients.

If you’d like to study tax loss harvesting in greater detail, I recently read an excellent article, Evaluating The Tax Deferral And Tax Bracket Arbitrage Benefits Of Tax Loss Harvesting, by Michael Kitces.