400% Top-Line Deductions?

Despite the explosive growth and substantial tax benefits of cash balance plans, most Americans are unfamiliar with one of the best tax-deferred savings opportunities in existence. When combined with a 401(k) profit-sharing plan, cash balance plans substantially increase the contribution limits for retirement plans, sometimes increasing available top-line deductions by over 400%. This means that participants, particularly older contributors, can accelerate their retirement savings and simultaneously take advantage of significant tax savings.

Cash balance plans are classified as “hybrid” retirement plans: defined benefit plans (think traditional pension plan) that function like defined contribution plans (think 401(k)). Like a defined benefit plan, the ultimate benefit received is a fixed amount, independent of investment performance. The plan sponsor directs investments and ultimately bears investment risk. What sets a cash balance plan apart, though, is its flexibility and hybrid nature that makes its function appear similar to that of a 401(k).

When businesses choose to add a cash balance plan, they generally do so on top of an existing 401(k) profit-sharing plan. This allows high-earning employees to put away more money for retirement at a much faster rate while providing significant tax savings.

Those who stand to benefit the most from a cash balance plan include:

• Professionals with high incomes such as doctors, engineers, lawyers, orthodontists, etc.

• Business owners over 45 looking to substantially increase their retirement savings in the coming years

• Highly-profitable companies

• Business owners wanting to contribute more than the traditional 401(k) limits to their retirement while accruing substantial tax savings

For Americans earning over $400,000 per year, cash balance plans are a game-changer. With the potential for hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual tax savings, a closer look is well worth the time.

How do Cash Balance Plans differ from 401(k) plans?

Cash Balance Plans are defined benefit plans. In contrast, 401(k) plans are a defined contribution plan. There are four major differences between typical Cash Balance Plans and 401(k) plans:

  1. Participation – Participation in typical Cash Balance Plans generally does not depend on the workers contributing part of their compensation to the plan; however, participation in a 401(k) plan does depend, in whole or in part, on an employee choosing to make a contribution to the plan.
  2. Investment Risks – The employer or an investment manager appointed by the employer manages the investments of cash balance plans. Increases or decreases in plan values do not directly affect the benefit amounts promised to participants. By contrast, 401(k) plans often permit participants to direct their own investments and bear the investment risk of loss.
  3. Life Annuities – Unlike 401(k) plans, Cash Balance Plans are required to offer employees the choice to receive their benefits in the form of lifetime annuities.
  4. Federal Guarantee – Since they are defined benefit plans, the benefits promised by Cash Balance Plans are usually insured by a federal agency, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC). If a defined benefit plan is terminated with insufficient funds to pay all promised benefits, the PBGC has authority to assume trusteeship of the plan and begin to pay pension benefits up to the limits set by law. Defined contribution plans, including 401(k) plans, are not insured by the PBGC.

For more information, please contact us.

Pension Protection Act of 2006

The Pension Protection Act of 2006 (PPA) is long and hard to read, but it played a crucial role in establishing cash balance plans as a viable and legally recognized retirement savings option. Before 2006, cash balance plans faced frequent legal challenges. Those bringing the suits argued that cash balance plans violated established rules for benefit accrual and discriminated against older workers. The rulings on these cases were inconsistent, and many business owners were reluctant to risk establishing a plan that just didn’t have firm legal footing.

The Pension Protection Act ended this uncertainty about the legality of cash balance plans. The legislation set specific requirements for cash balance plans, including:

  • A vesting requirement: Any employee who has worked for their company for at least three years must be 100% vested in their accrued benefits from employer contributions.
  • A change in the calculation of lump sum payments: Participants in a cash balance plan can usually choose to receive a lump sum upon retirement or upon the termination of employment instead of receiving their money as a lifetime annuity. Before 2006, some plans used one interest rate to calculate out the anticipated account balance upon retirement, but, when participants opted to receive an earlier lump sum, the plan called for using a different interest rate to discount the anticipated retirement balance back to the date of the lump sum payment. This could lead to discrepancies between the hypothetical balance of the account (as determined by employer contributions and accumulated interest credits) and the actual lump sum payout, an effect known as “whipsaw”. The PPA eliminated the whipsaw effect by allowing the lump sum payout to simply equal the hypothetical account balance.
  • Clarification on age discrimination claims: A cash balance plan does not violate age discrimination legislation if the account balance of an older employee is compared with that of a similarly situated younger employee (i.e. with the same length of employment, pay, job title, date of hire, and work history), and the older employee’s balance is equal to or greater than the younger employee’s.

There are, of course, many other points included in this lengthy piece of legislation, but the takeaway is this: the Pension Protection Act of 2006 removed the legal uncertainty surrounding cash balance plans and made them a much more appealing option for small business owners.

At the end of 2016, the number of cash balance plans in America more than tripled after the implementation of the PPA.  Additional regulations in 2010 and 2014 made these hybrid plans an even better option, and we anticipate that their popularity will continue to grow. There are thousands of high-earning business owners out there who can reap huge, tax-crushing benefits from implementing cash balance plan – they just have to know about them first.

Cash Balance Plans

Source: Ascensus Consulting, Inc.

More professional practices (and practice groups) should look into Cash Balance Plans.

In corporate America, pension plans are fading away: 59% of Fortune 500 companies offered them to new hires in 1998, but by 2015, only 20% did. In contrast, some legal, medical, accounting, and engineering firms are keeping the spirit of the traditional pension plan alive by adopting cash balance plans.

Owners and partners of these highly profitable businesses sometimes get a late start on retirement planning. Cash balance plans give them a chance to catch up.

Contributions to these defined benefit plans are age dependent – the older you are, the more you can potentially sock away each year for retirement. In 2016, a 55-year-old could defer as much as $180,000 a year into a cash balance plan; a 65-year-old, as much as $245,000.

These plans are not for every business as they demand consistent contributions from the plan sponsor. Yet, they may prove less expensive to a company than a classic pension plan, and offer significantly greater funding flexibility and employee benefits compared to a defined contribution plan, such as a 401(k).

How does a cash balance plan differ from a traditional pension plan?  In a cash balance plan, a business or professional practice maintains an account for each employee with a hypothetical “balance” of pay credits (i.e., employer contributions) plus interest credits. There can be no discrimination in favor of partners, executives, or older employees; the owner(s) have to be able to make contributions for other employees as well. The plan pays out a pension-style monthly income stream to the participant at retirement – either a set dollar amount or a percentage of compensation. Lump-sum payouts are also an option.

Each year, a plan participant receives a pay credit equaling 5-8% of his or her compensation, augmented by an interest credit commonly linked to the performance of an equity index or the yield of the 30-year Treasury (the investment credit can be variable or fixed).

Cash balance plans are commonly portable: the vested portion of the account balance can be paid out if an employee leaves before a retirement date.

As an example of how credits are accrued, let’s say an employee named Joe earns $75,000 annually at the XYZ Group. He participates in a cash balance plan that provides a 5% annual salary credit and a 5% annual interest credit once there is a balance. Joe’s first-year pay credit would be $3,750 with no interest credit as there was no balance in his hypothetical account at the start of his first year of participation. For year two (assuming no raises), Joe would get another $3,750 pay credit and an interest credit of $3,750 x 5% = $187.50. So, at the end of two years of participation, his hypothetical account would have a balance of $7,687.50.

An employer takes on considerable responsibility with a cash balance plan.  It must make annual contributions to the plan, and an actuary must determine the minimum yearly contribution to keep the plan appropriately funded. The employer effectively assumes the investment risk, not the employee. For example, if the plan says it will award participants a fixed 5% interest credit each year, and asset performance does not generate that large a credit, the employer may have to contribute more to the plan to fulfill its promise. The employer and the financial professional consulting the employer about the plan determine the investment choices, which usually lean conservative.

Employer contributions to the plan for a given tax year must be made by the federal income tax deadline for that year (plus extensions). Funding the plan before the end of a calendar year is fine; the employer just needs to understand that any overage will represent contributions not tax-deductible. The plan must cover at least 50 employees or 40% of the firm’s workforce.

Cash balance plans typically cost a company between $2,000-5,000 to create and between $2,000-10,000 per year to run. That may seem expensive, but a cash balance plan offers owners the potential to keep excess profits earned above the annual interest credit owed to employees. Another perk is that cash balance plans can be used in tandem with 401(k) plans.

These plans can be structured to reward owners appropriately. When a traditional defined benefit plan uses a safe harbor formula, rank-and-file employees may be rewarded more than owners and executives would prefer. Cash balance plan formulas can remedy this situation.

Benefit allocations are based on career average pay, not just “the best years.”  In a traditional defined benefit plan, the eventual benefit is based on a 3- to 5-year average of peak employee compensation multiplied by years of service. In a cash balance plan, the benefit is determined using an average of all years of compensation.

Cash balance plans are less sensitive to interest rates than old-school pension plans. As rates rise and fall, liabilities in a traditional pension plan fluctuate. This opens a door to either over-funding or under-funding (and under-funding is a major risk right now with such low interest rates). By contrast, a cash balance plan has relatively minor variations in liability valuation.

A cash balance plan cannot be administered with any degree of absentmindedness. It must pass yearly non-discrimination tests; it must be submitted for IRS approval every five years instead of every six. Obviously, a plan document must be drawn up and periodically amended, and there are the usual annual reporting requirements.5

Ideally, a cash balance plan is run by highly compensated employees (“HCE”s) of a firm who are within their prime earning years. Regarding non-discrimination, a company should try to aim for at least a 5:1 ratio – there should at least be 1 HCE plan participant for every 5 other plan participants. In the best-case scenario for non-discrimination testing, the HCEs are 10-15 years older than half (or more) of the company’s workers.

If a worst-case scenario occurs and a company founders, cash balance plan participants have a degree of protection for their balances. Their benefits are insured up to their maximum value by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC). If a cash balance plan is terminated, plan participants can receive their balances as a lump sum, roll the money over into an IRA, or request that the plan sponsor transfer its liability to an insurer (with the pension benefits paid to the plan participant via an insurance contract).

Cash balance plans have grown increasingly popular. Some businesses have even adopted dual profit-sharing and cash balance plans. Maybe it is time for your business to look into this intriguing alternative to the traditional pension plan.

Oberservations and Outlook July 2017

Selected Index Returns 2nd Quarter/ Year to Date
Dow Jones Industrials    3.95%/ 9.35%          S&P 500   3.09%/9.34%         MSCI Europe   7.37%/15.36%

Small Cap (Russell 2000)   2.46%/4.99%     Emerging Mkts  6.27%/18.43%     High Yld Bonds   1.37%/15.3%

US Aggregate Bond 1.45%/2.27%   US Treasury 20+Yr   4.18%/5.66%    DJ/UBS Commodity -3%/-5.26%

2017 and its second quarter continue to be kind to financial assets, with both stocks, bonds and gold all climbing year to date.    European and Emerging Market equities have been the strongest this year, rising smartly after falling by 10% during the second half of 2016.  Emerging Market equity funds are back to a price area that stretches back to 2009!

Bonds continue to vacillate in an upward trend since mid-December. The commodity index is down primarily due to oil, as agriculture and base metals are essentially flat on the year after a recent climb.

Correlations between stocks and bonds have increased recently, with equities being flat over the past 6 weeks as bond prices have declined over the last two weeks.   While this phenomenon is negative for investors, equities appear to remain well inside their uptrend while bonds (and gold) appear to be near medium-term support levels.  We may see both stocks, bonds, and gold again climb concurrently reflecting a continuation of the year to date behavior.

What has been driving stock prices?  Growing earnings, low interest rates, lack of inflation, and ‘moderate’ GDP growth are the most common reasons to explain how prices have gotten to these levels.  Earnings have been on the rise since the end of the ‘earnings recession’ that lasted from June 2014 through March 2016.   After a decline of some 14% we’re now growing again, even robustly, given the low base from the previous year.  Earnings are still one or two quarters away from hitting new all-time highs, yet the S&P500 is roughly 20% higher than in early 2015.  The chart below gives us a visual of what prices rising faster than earnings looks like. Anytime the ratio is moving up indicates prices climbing faster than earnings.

shiller cape 6 30 2017Source: www.multpl.com

By this metric (and there are many others) stocks are valued at a level only exceeded by the roaring ‘20s and the dot-com era.  Can earnings continue to grow to support valuations?  The continued lack of wage growth and continued generationally low labor participation rate are headwinds to growth in consumer spending.  Consumer credit growth has slowed dramatically over the past six months and without wage or credit growth it’s difficult to see how the consumer will spend more to support ‘moderate’ GDP growth.  Low interest rates, or the comparison of low rates to dividend and earnings yield have provided much support over the past several years to the reasoning behind bidding up stocks faster than their earnings growth.

Interest rates bottomed one year ago at 1.3% (10-year treasury) and then ran up to 2.6%, mid-range since 2010 and the upper range of rates since late 2013.  The jury is out still on whether this marks the end of the bond bull market that has lasted since 1981.  The problem is that if consumers and businesses must increase their interest expense, there is that much less left to expand their consumption and investment.   Low rates had been a key enabler of more borrowing, leading to more consumption, and higher profits.  Now, in some areas, analysts are saying that higher rates are ALSO good for stocks because it represents growth expectations.  Frankly we’ve been ‘expecting’ growth now for several years, and the only positive representation of growth (GDP) we have seen is due to a willful under-reporting of inflation.   Gains in expenses in housing, healthcare, and education have far outstripped the general inflation rate.  At the same time, official statisticians tell us our TVs, cell phones, and other tech devices are far cheaper, because we ‘get more’ for our money.  This is called hedonic adjustments.  Look this up and you will understand why one’s personal experience with the cost of living doesn’t mesh with the official inflation statistics.

It seems the main reasons we are given for buoyant stock prices appear tapped out or stretched.  The thing is, it’s been like this for a few years now.  So then, what really is driving prices?  Some of it has to do with FOMO, Fear Of Missing Out.  No one wants to get left behind as prices rise, even if said prices already appear expensive.   As fundamentals have deteriorated over the past few years what is causing or who could be that marginal buyer who always seems to have more money to put towards financial assets? Perhaps this chart has something to do with it.

Central-Bank-Balance-Sheets-Versus-MSCI-World-Index

As central banks have purchased outstanding bonds (and equities in the cases of Japan, Switzerland and Israel among others) the cash or liquidity provided has found its way back into the equity markets.  Additional effects have been to put a bid under bonds, increasing prices and lowering rates.  What many investors in the U.S. don’t realize is that the European and Japanese central banks continue to this day putting approximately $400 billion per month into the financial markets.  If this is the true reason behind stock and bond price levels today, any cessation, slowing or even anticipation of slowing will likely have negative effects on asset prices.  The chart below shows where the U.S. Fed ended its QE efforts while Japan and Europe picked up all the slack and then some.  The astute observer can see where the Fed tapered, while the ECB was not adding liquidity, from 2014 to 2015.  From mid-2014 to early 2016, the Vanguard FTSE Europe ETF dropped by 29%.

central bank buying 4 2017

Beyond central bank liquidity creation there is also the concept of growth in the private sector.  Here too we see that a phenomenal amount of debt must be created to sustain growth.   New debt creation in China dwarfs the rest of the world.  China has put up high growth numbers the past several years, more than 7% annually.

private sector debt creation qe

Going forward it will be crucial to watch for central banks’ behavior as to ending current ‘QE’ policies.  Japan is still committed to a 0% 10yr bond rate, yet the ECB has begun to state that its bond buying won’t last forever, and is likely to slow by mid-2018.  The U.S. Fed has indicated continued tightening via rate hikes (likely one more this year) and to begin to let ‘roll off’ maturing bonds.  The roll-off will take liquidity from the markets.  It will start small and gradually increase in 2019 and thereafter.  These cessation tactics are done under the current understanding that financial conditions are ‘easy’.  Put another way, the banks will start to slow new liquidity and then drain liquidity as long as financial conditions, which include stock market levels, don’t get to difficult.   What exactly is the Fed’s downside tolerance is unknown.  What is knowable, is that the decision-making process takes months to be put into effect and by that time, markets could move down and growth could halt.

Near Term vs Long Term

The concepts of credit creation and central bank balance sheets and their respective monetary policies are will have impacts on asset prices over the longer term.   Year over year earnings growth forecasts, specific companies’ ‘beats’ or ‘misses’ and monthly data on inflation, job growth, and wages all have short term impacts on the stock market.  Currently, earnings are expected to grow robustly, official inflation is subdued and official unemployment are all in the “very good” range.  Combine that with the Fear Of Missing Out concept and that should help keep the markets up and even higher for a while longer.  The problem is that simply because we want markets to move higher doesn’t mean they will.  At some point paying 30x earnings will seem too expensive and the markets will lose some marginal buyers and some will become sellers, for whatever reason.   Based on current valuation metrics and the business cycle, we know that equity returns over the next several years will be very low.  If rates go up, and/or credit (the ability to pay) worsens for individuals and businesses bond funds will likely suffer as well.  Over the long term, avoiding large losses or drawdowns, even while lagging the market on the upside, can have a dramatic positive impact over a full market cycle.

What Can Be Done

If one suspects returns will be lackluster, and prices volatile, should one endure it?  The solution is at once simple and difficult at the same time given our cultural of equity ownership and the media’s constant focus on one asset class: equities.

Diversifying amongst the other 6 asset classes is a start.  Most advice revolves around two classes, stocks and bonds.  If one truly wants to buy low and sell high, one must identify the other areas that are “low”, increase exposure there, and reduce exposure to “high” asset classes.  Not only does this smooth out volatility but can increase long term returns.   Given the outlook for more volatility in stock and bond prices; very low prices (historically and relative to other assets) in precious metals, agriculture and oil; there should be many opportunities to take advantage of short term swings to benefit and move some ‘eggs’ from the equity side into other, non- and lower-correlated asset classes that are currently much lower in price.

Easier said than done, yes.  This is exactly why investors should seek out Investment Advisors willing to do this difficult work and that have a strategy to deal with changing markets.  For more information on how I am doing this for my clients, please contact me.

Adam Waszkowski, CFA

This commentary is not intended as investment advice or an investment recommendation. Past performance is not a guarantee of future results. Price and yield are subject to daily change and as of the specified date. Information provided is solely the opinion or our investment managers at the time of writing. Nothing in the commentary should be construed as a solicitation to buy or sell securities. Information provided has been prepared from sources deemed to be reliable, but is not guaranteed by NAMCO and may not be a complete summary or statement of all available data necessary for making an investment decision.  Liquid securities, such as those held within managed portfolios, can fall in value. Naples Asset Management Company, LLC is an SEC Registered Investment Adviser. For more information, please contact us at awaszkowski@namcoa.com.

Problem ahead for bond investors?

Bloomberg Barclays US Aggregate has a duration of over 6 (orange line) and a yield of just 2.5% (white line). If we see more corporate refinancing on the longer end (while rates are still low) and at some point a 50 or 100 year US treasury makes its way into the index (https://lnkd.in/gFvUF5g), this could be very problematic. 

 

Add to that a higher duration of Agency MBS if rates increase and prepayments slow (extension risk). 

 

This all looks like a huge amount of interest rate risk for investors with very little upside. The solution: Talk to your Portfolio Manager! 

Student Loan Debt Triples in Past 15 Years, Loan Rates Resetting Way Higher

Student loan debt has tripled as a percentage of total debt owed by U.S. households in less than 15 years, Shahien Nasiripour of Bloomberg News recently reported — https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-05-18/student-debt-is-eating-your-household-budget

In 2003, student loans accounted for 3.3% of total household debt, or $240.7 billion, according to estimates by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Now that figure stands at ~ $1.3 trillion, or 10.6% of all household debt. The Federal Reserve Bank of Washington pegs that figure even higher at over $1.4 trillion. (https://www.newyorkfed.org/microeconomics/topics/student-debt)

The larger amount of debt reflects higher tuition and campus-related costs as well as declines in state appropriations to public colleges and federal student grants relative to rising college costs. 1 in 6 American adults, 44 million, has student loan debt outstanding.

And student loan debt is only set to rise further as interest rates on federal student loans for the 2017-18 academic year reset on July 1st.

Undergraduate students will pay 4.45% in interest on new Stafford loans, up from current 3.76% rate. For graduate students, the interest rate on new Direct loans will climb from 5.31% to 6.0%. Parents who take on federal debt to help their children pursue a degree can expect to pay 7.0% on a PLUS loan, up from 6.31%. This is comes at a time when interest rates, in general, are quite low – U.S. 10-year Treasury notes currently yield ~ 2.20%.

Because many students and their families have to borrow money each year, continued annual increases could take a significant toll.

The new rates track closely with projections from the Congressional Budget Office, which anticipated rates to top 6 % on undergraduate loans, 7.5% on graduate loans and 8.5% on PLUS loans by 2018.

The government resets interest rates on student loans every year based on the spring rate of the 10-year Treasury note (this year, May 10th the 10-year Treasury was 2.4%), plus a fixed margin (2.05%, 3.6%, and 4.6%, respectively, for Stafford, Direct and Plus loans). Next July’s rates could be higher as interest rates look set to rise, but there are protections for families.

To keep rates on education loans from skyrocketing, Congress has set a ceiling. Interest rates on undergraduate loans are capped at 8.25%, graduate loans are capped at 9.5%, while the limit on PLUS loans is 10.5%. Lawmakers decided several years ago to tie federal student loan rates to the market, rather than setting them.

Even given the higher federal student loan rates, they are still a better bet than private loan rates. And since these interest rates are fixed, they won’t go up later and come with protections such as an income-driven repayment plan that’s tied to a percentage of one’s wages so one can manage their loan repayments.

There are ways to help students and families manage the cost of college, particularly if they don’t qualify for aid, such as federal education tax credits and tax-advantaged savings plans – 529 college savings plans.

If you need guidance on college funding, ask me or one of my fellow advisors in your area how to maximize the bang for your academic buck. Summer is a great time to review contribution strategies, such as 529 college savings plans, for your children or grandchildren to meet these ever-rising educational costs.

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” – Nelson Mandela

Lead story, “Student Debt is Eating Your Household Budget,” by Shahien Nasiripour of Bloomberg News, May 18, 2017. Link – https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-05-18/student-debt-is-eating-your-household-budget

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed herein are those of the author or the sources cited. The article is for general education and information about investing and economic matters. Nothing should be construed as advice, nor any of it considered an offer or solicitation of any kind to buy or sell any investment products. I/we are not responsible for the accuracy or content on third party websites or sources cited; any and all links are offered only for use at your own discretion; and our privacy policies do not apply to linked websites. Eric Linser is an investment advisory representative of Green Valley Wealth, a dba of Naples Asset Management Company, LLC, a federally registered investment advisor.