What I’m Watching This Week – 7 July 2014

The Markets

After generally positive economic data once again suggested that the economy really did begin to rebound this spring, the Dow industrials surpassed 17,000 for the first time, while the S&P 500 hit three new all-time records during the week. And as investors embraced stocks, worries about the potential impact of a strong economy on potential Fed rate increases also sent the benchmark 10-year Treasury yield up and the price down.

Market/Index 2013 Close Prior Week As of 7/4 Weekly Change YTD Change
DJIA 16576.66 16851.84 17068.26 1.28% 2.97%
Nasdaq 4176.59 4397.93 4485.93 2.00% 7.41%
S&P 500 1848.36 1960.97 1985.44 1.25% 7.42%
Russell 2000 1163.64 1189.49 1208.15 1.57% 3.83%
Global Dow 2484.10 2603.77 2638.59 1.34% 6.22%
Fed. Funds .25% .25% .25% 0 bps 0 bps
10-year Treasuries 3.04% 2.54% 2.65% 11 bps -39 bps

Chart reflects price changes, not total return. Because it does not include dividends or splits, it should not be used to benchmark performance of specific investments.

Last Week’s Headlines

    • The unemployment rate fell to 6.1% in June; that’s 1.4% lower than a year earlier and the lowest level in almost six years. The economy added 288,000 new jobs during the month, higher than the 272,000 monthly average since March. The data, coupled with upward revisions to payroll figures for April and May, suggested possible acceleration in job growth. The Bureau of Labor Statistics said the widespread job gains were led by professional/business services, retail, restaurants/bars, and health care.
    • A 2% increase in new orders placed with U.S. manufacturers put orders at their highest level since late 2013. Even though the Institute for Supply Management’s index showed that manufacturing growth didn’t accelerate in June, it still remained at a healthy 55.3% reading (any number above 50 represents expansion). The ISM’s measure of the services sector also showed slightly slower growth than the previous month, though the reading remained at a robust 56.3%.
    • After three straight monthly increases, new orders for U.S. manufactured goods slipped 0.5% in May, though most of the decline was in the volatile transportation sector. The Commerce Department also said inventories were at their highest level on record and have increased 18 of the last 19 months.
    • Commercial construction spending rose 1.1% in May, but the Commerce Department said that was largely offset by a 1.4% drop in the value of new home projects. The 0.1% overall increase in construction spending was weaker than April’s 0.8% gain, but the annual rate was 6.6% higher than a year ago.
    • As expected, the European Central Bank left two key interest rates unchanged, hoping that measures taken last month will be enough to help stimulate the economy.
    • Higher auto-related exports and less spending on imported oil and consumer goods helped cut the U.S. trade deficit by 5.5% in May to $44.4 billion, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis.
    • The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that closely held, for-profit companies can choose to opt out of a provision of the Affordable Care Act that requires that employees’ insurance include coverage for birth control. The court also ruled that workers who aren’t full-fledged public employees cannot be required to pay fees to a union even if they benefit from its collective bargaining efforts.
    • Two separate assessments suggested that China’s sluggish manufacturing sector may be rebounding. The reading on the Chinese government’s purchasing managers’ index nudged up slightly to 51 in May. Meanwhile, HSBC/Markit’s Manufacturing PMI was basically flat but stayed in expansion territory, apparently responding to small steps taken by the government to stimulate economic growth.

Eye on the Week Ahead

In a week that’s light on fresh economic reports, investors may begin to focus on the Q2 earnings season, which has its unofficial start on Tuesday when Alcoa reports. Minutes of the most recent Federal Open Market Committee meeting could shed new light on the debate over whether the Fed should be concerned yet about inflation.

 

 

 

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401(k) Loans

When You Need Your Money NOW

Ideally, you will never touch your retirement funds, allowing them to grow continuously until you retire. But we don’t live in an ideal world! In case of emergency, the funds in your 401(k) may be available to you in the form of a Loan.

One of the benefits of many 401(k) plans is being able to borrow against your retirement savings in times of need. Currently, about 20 percent of employees eligible for a plan loan have one, and the average outstanding loan balance is approximately $7,600. If your plan has a loan program you have the security of knowing that your money is available “just in case,” which means you can comfortably make a sizable commitment to retirement savings in your plan. Also, if you need money from your plan because of a financial emergency and your plan has a loan program you will be required in most cases to take a loan first. Now, let’s assume you have an unexpected crisis and you need your money – what should you know?

Loan Basics

  • Plans typically allow you to borrow 50 percent of the amount in your plan, up to $50,000.
  • In nearly all cases you must repay the loan in 60 equal monthly payment over a five-year repayment period. The one exception is for a loan that is a mortgage for your primary residence, then the repayment period may be longer.
  • The interest rate you pay will be determined on the day you take the loan. While interest rates vary by plan, the rate most often used is what is termed the “prime rate” plus one percent. You can find the current “prime rate” in the business section of your newspaper.
  • In nearly all cases you will repay your loan through payroll deduction. Only a few companies will allow you to repay in any other way.
  • You can always repay your loan at any time with no penalties.
  • Many plans will permit you to have more than one plan loan.
  • Plan loans usually have a minimum amount requirement, typically $1,000.

Pros and Cons

Plan loans are convenient, but they are not always the right solution. Consider both the positives and negatives to determine if a plan loan is best for you. And always compare the overall cost of a plan loan with other possible loans.

Plan Loan Advantages

 

Less Paperwork: No credit checks or long credit application forms. You may be able to obtain a plan loan simply by visiting your benefits office, calling your plan’s 800 number or going online.
No Restrictions: Most plans let you borrow for any reason. Check your plan.
Fast: You could receive a loan in mere days, depending on how often your plan processes transactions.
Good Rates: The prime rate is the interest rate that banks charge their best customers. The prime rate plus one percent is a very good rate of interest for an individual borrower.
Higher Return: The rate of repayment for your loan may be greater than the rate of return you were receiving on the fixed investments in your plan. For example, if you were to replace assets from your money market fund paying four percent with your plan loan paying seven percent you would be earning a higher rate of return.

 

Plan Loan Disadvantages

 

Loan Default: The consequences of a plan loan default are different than for the default of other types of loans. If you fail to repay the plan loan, you will have to pay both regular federal and state income taxes and if you are under age 59 1/2 an additional federal income tax equal to 10 percent of the outstanding balance.
Fees: 70 percent of all plans charge a one-time loan fee, ranging from $3 to $100. Another 25 percent of plans also charge a yearly service fee, ranging from $3 to $75.
Alters Financial Plan: You’ve done the work to determine your retirement goal and pick the right investment mix. But when you take a plan loan, money must be removed from your plan investments. If plan loan amounts must be taken money from your equity investments this could diminish your overall plan return.
Market Cost: Cash for your loan from selling shares from your stock funds when the market is down, may force you to sell your stock at a loss reducing your long term plan investment return.
Spousal Consent: Some plans require that you get your spouse’s permission for a plan loan.
Lower Returns: The rate of repayment for your loan may be lower than the rate of return you were receiving from the investments in stock in your plan. For example, if you were to replace assets from your diversified equity fund returning ten percent with your plan loan paying seven percent you would be earning a lower rate of return.

 

There is a popular misconception that paying back a plan loan is like “paying yourself.” Unfortunately, this is not true. When you take a loan from your plan, you are withdrawing money from your account balance and replacing it with an IOU. That IOU continues to generate interest from your repayments, but generates no special investment return.

In a sense, all fixed investments are a kind of loan. You are lending money to the government or a corporation through the stable value, money market or bond funds in your plan. However, the return (or interest) generated from these loans comes from a borrowing party. When you loan yourself the money you are simply replacing the interest you would already be receiving with interest payments from yourself.

Plan Loans and Your Investments

To preserve your asset allocation plan when taking a plan loan, you should withdraw the funds for the loan from the fixed income allocation side of your portfolio. Let’s assume you have 50 percent of your money invested in equities and 50 percent invested in fixed income. When you borrow 50 percent of the money in your plan, you want to take the funds entirely from the fixed income side and maintain all the equities. Some plans will ask you to make that determination, others will reduce all of your investments proportionally by the amount of your plan loan. In that event, you need to go back and rebalance the remaining investments to the proper equity and fixed allocation ratios. In others words be sure to take money for your plan loan from your lowest returning investment option.

Warning: Do Not Default on Your Loans

This is crucial: if you leave your current employer, have no outstanding plan loans. Whether you find a new position or you are laid off, in most cases your plan loan will come due when employment ends. You will be given a limited amount of time to pay off your loan, and if you cannot repay it will be placed in default. “In default” means your employer will report to the government that you were unable to pay the loan, and the government will then treat the defaulted amount of your loan as a distribution. This most likely will lead to regular taxes on the defaulted amount plus for those under 59½ the ten percent additional federal income tax penalty. Depending on your tax bracket and the tax rate of your state, you could be forced to pay the government as much as half of the defaulted amount. Some people take a cash advance on their credit card to pay off their plan loan when they change jobs, because 18 percent interest is still better than a 50 percent tax liability.

401(k) and Divorce

You have saved and invested for the long term in your 401(k) plan, accumulating a sizable nest egg. But what happens if you become divorced? In a divorce, your former spouse and any dependents may be entitled to a portion of you 401(k) assets. If this is the case, the court will issue a qualified domestic relations order (QDRO) as part of your divorce settlement that will define the what, when, and how of the division of your 401(k) or other retirement plan account.

A QDRO is a court judgement, decree, or order that names someone other than you as a recipient of you 401(k) assets. This other person, known as the alternate payee, may only be your spouse, your former spouse, your child, or other dependent. The QDRO is used in the division of assets in a divorce settlement for alimony payments, child support payments, or property rights payments. If you are involved in a divorce proceeding, be sure to ask your company’s plan administrator if there is a model QDRO form for your plan. Doing so early on in the process will save you time and expense.

There is one piece of good news in this situation. The money removed from your account for a properly processed QDRO is not subject to the 10 percent early withdrawal federal income tax penalty-even if you and your alternate payee are both younger that age 59 ½. Unfortunately, if the QDRO is not properly established, you will be subject to the 10 percent early withdrawal federal income tax penalty. In the midst of divorce and the distribution of your account to other parties, the last thing you want to face is a tax on money that is no longer yours.

Ensuring the Validity of a QDRO

In order for a QDRO to be valid, it must meet two legal requirements: It must be correctly created and it must be correctly verified. Checking the status of your QDRO at both stages is wise to ensure that your QDRO is acceptable under the law. If this seems like a lot of trouble, keep in mind that aside from preventing undo taxation, the other reason why such checking and double-checking takes place is to prevent someone from illegally accessing your 401(k) assets.

Creation of the QDRO

To be considered a QDRO, the division of your assets must first and foremost be directed by a court order issued in compliance with state laws. However, the QDRO must also include the following information to be valid:

  • Your name and your last known mailing address.
  • The name and address of your alternate payee.
  • The amount of percentage of your account to be given to your alternate payee.
  • The manner in which the amount or percentage is to be determined.
  • The number of payments or period to which the order applies.
  • The plan to which the order applies.

Verification of the QDRO

If your 401(k) plan assets are subject to a QDRO, you must provide your plan administrator with either the original court order or a court-certified copy of your QDRO document. Your plan administrator will then follow formal procedures to establish the legality of the QDRO and put it into motion. These procedures are part of the rules set down in your 401(k) summary plan description (SPD), and by law they must include:

  • Notifying you and the alternate payee that the order was received, and detailing the procedures that will be followed to verify the order.
  • Determining within a reasonable period of time (no longer than 18 months after the order is issued) whether the order is valid QDRO.
  • Accounting separately for any amount payable to your alternate payee during the evaluation period.
  • Notifying you and your alternate payee whether the QDRO is valid.

A QDRO Case Study

In a famous case, a man paid out $1 millions dollars from his retirement plan as part of his divorce settlement. The man assumed that the order was a QDRO, but missed several key elements that caused the order to be invalid. First, the man’s former wife was not identified as the alternate payee. Second, the order did not include the name or address of the alternate payee. Third, the man did not follow proper procedure for verifying the order.

Because the man was the administrator of the retirement plan in question, he argued that he did not need to file forms with himself, and that the order did not need to include the name and address of the alternate payee because he was personally aware of the details. The IRS did not agree, and deemed the settlement payment an early distribution and, therefore, subject to the 10 percent early withdrawal federal income tax penalty. This error cost him $100,000.

The Division of Funds in a Divorce

How your funds are divided relies in part on the state in which you live. In most states, your assets are subject to equitable distribution during a divorce settlement. This means that 401(k) assets accumulated during your marriage probably, but not necessarily, will be divided 50-50. Other factors, such as the division of the rest of your marital assets, the length of your marriage, or what each of you contributed to the marriage will also play a part in the decision. However, if you live in a state with a community property law, you may face an equal split in your 401(k) assets regardless of the other division of marital assets. Following is a list of states that include the community property law:

  • Arizona
  • California
  • Idaho
  • Louisiana
  • Nevada
  • New Mexico
  • Texas
  • Washington
  • Wisconsin

What to Do with QDRO Assets

If you have recently gone through a divorce and will receive money from your former spouse’s 401(k) plan a result of a QDRO, you have several options. Taking the money in cash can be useful to get through the rough divorce period, but keeping the assets within a tax-sheltered plan could be far more beneficial. If you receive a lump-sum distribution you will have to pay taxes on the entire amount immediately and you will lose the investing and earning power of that money for the future.

Instead, consider leaving the money in your former spouse’s 401(k) plan or rolling it over into an IRA. If you would like to leave it in the 401(k) plan, you can make this stipulation part of the QDRO agreement. When the money is divided, the plan’s administrator will create a separate account for you. You may not be able to add to this account or withdraw from it until your former spouse withdraws his or her money at retirement, but you will be able to mange the investments of this money yourself and keep it safely tax-sheltered. If you would instead prefer an account to which you can make contributions, rolling the money into an IRA is the best option. Rolling the money into an account not connected with your former spouse also provides you with more freedom as you are allowed to withdraw the money at your own discretion.

Monthly Market Review – June 2014

The Markets

After a rocky start, the quarter eventually made up for domestic equities’ earlier losses. As winter weather finally lost its chokehold on the U.S. economy, investors also grew increasingly comfortable with the Federal Reserve’s slow-and-steady approach to unwinding quantitative easing. As a result, they were willing to take on risk again, handing the Dow and S&P their 11th and 22nd all-time record closes of the year. As tech and biotech stocks rebounded from their early-spring slump, they helped push the Nasdaq back to a level it hadn’t seen since March 2000. By June, the small caps of the Russell 2000, which suffered the most in April, had managed to climb back into positive territory for the year, and the Global Dow’s year-to-date performance was more than triple that of its U.S. counterpart.

Bond investors continued to confound Fed-wary pundits, sending the benchmark 10-year Treasury yield down as demand pushed up prices. With Iraq joining Ukraine as a source of geopolitical anxiety, concern about oil supplies helped send the spot price above $107 a barrel. And despite some volatility that took the price of gold down to roughly $1,240 an ounce, a June rally allowed it to end the quarter at roughly $1,320.

Market/Index 2013 Close As of 6/30 Month Change Quarter Change YTD Change
DJIA 16576.66 16826.60 .65% 2.24% 1.51%
NASDAQ 4176.59 4408.18 3.90% 4.98% 5.54%
S&P 500 1848.36 1960.23 1.91% 4.69% 6.05%
Russell 2000 1163.64 1192.96 5.15% 1.70% 2.52%
Global Dow 2484.10 2605.62 1.61% 4.11% 4.89%
Fed. Funds .25% .25% .25% 0 bps 0 bps
10-year Treasuries 3.04% 2.53% 5 bps -20 bps -51 bps

Chart reflects price changes, not total return. Because it does not include dividends or splits, it should not be used to benchmark performance of specific investments.

Quarterly Economic Perspective

  • The end of winter weather brought greater relief than usual this spring, especially after gross domestic product was shown to have contracted strongly in Q1. The Bureau of Economic Analysis’s final -2.9% GDP estimate was the worst reading since early 2009 and a far cry from the 2.6% growth of the previous quarter. The BEA said most of the decline was caused by cuts in exports, business investments/inventory, and state and local government spending, while consumers spent more on higher heating costs. The slump caused the Federal Reserve to cut its economic growth forecast for all of 2014 to 2.1%-2.3%. Meanwhile, corporate profits were down 9.1% during the quarter–the largest drop since the end of 2008, according to the BEA.
  • The U.S. economy finally regained all of the jobs lost since the recession officially began in late 2007, and total employment was higher than when it previously peaked in January 2008. Also, the unemployment rate inched downward to 6.3%–its lowest level since September 2008.
  • By the end of the quarter, the housing market had begun to rebound from its winter slowdown as more homes came onto the market. According to the Commerce Department, sales of new single-family homes leaped 18.6% in May, and the National Association of Realtors® said that the 4.9% increase in home resales was the biggest monthly gain in nearly three years. Also, April was a strong month for both housing starts and building permits, though they had tapered off by the end of the quarter.
  • U.S. manufacturing also showed signs of strength. Industrial production rose for three months out of four, according to the Federal Reserve. And after three straight months of increases, durable goods orders slumped in May, but the Commerce Department said non-defense orders were up 0.1%. And once winter weather abated, retail sales also showed gains.
  • By quarter’s end, consumer inflation had risen at the fastest monthly pace (0.4%) in more than a year. The Bureau of Labor Statistics said the increases were driven by higher prices for housing, food, electricity, and gas. However, Fed Chair Janet Yellen called recent upticks “noisy” data and said the 2.1% inflation rate for the last 12 months isn’t a concern. The past year’s 2% increase in wholesale prices is substantially higher than the 1% of last May, but also within the Fed’s comfort zone. However, one of the Fed’s favorite inflation gauges–personal consumption expenditures–saw its biggest 12-month gain since October 2012, raising questions about possible future inflation.
  • The Federal Reserve’s monetary policy committee continued to unwind its economic support by cutting $10 billion worth of bond purchases each month. The committee now predicts that additional improvement in the economy and job market in coming months will allow it to increase the current near-zero target rate to 1.2% by the end of 2015 and 2.4% in 2016. Longer-term, however, it sees that rate leveling out around 3.75%.
  • To stimulate lending, the European Central Bank’s key interest rate was cut to -.01%; it’s now essentially charging banks to hold their funds rather than paying interest on deposits. The ECB also said it’s prepared to take additional steps later if necessary. The action is designed to stimulate lending, stave off the threat of deflation, and help jump-start the European economy, which grew 0.3% or less during Q1.
  • The Chinese economy showed signs of slowing. According to the country’s National Bureau of Statistics, the annual growth rate dropped below the official 7.5% target to 7.4%, the HSBC Purchasing Managers’ Index of Chinese manufacturing showed a slight contraction, and housing sales prices fell in half of 70 major cities.

Eye on the Month Ahead

The Fed will be watching the housing market this summer as it considers the timing of future interest rate increases. Also, the second week of July marks the unofficial start of the Q2 corporate earnings season. After the dismal Q1 GDP final reading, those reports may assume even greater significance than usual, as will the Bureau of Economic Analysis’s initial estimate of Q2 economic growth.

Is there a new one-rollover-per-year rule for IRAs?

Yes–starting in 2015.

The Internal Revenue Code says that if you receive a distribution from an IRA, you can’t make a tax-free (60-day) rollover into another IRA if you’ve already completed a tax-free rollover within the previous 12 months. The long-standing position of the IRS, reflected in Publication 590 and proposed regulations, was that this rule applied separately to each IRA you own.

Using an IRS example, assume you have two traditional IRAs, IRA-1 and IRA-2. You take a distribution from IRA-1 and within 60 days roll it over into your new traditional IRA-3. Under the old rule, you could not make another tax-free 60-day rollover from IRA-1 (or IRA-3) within one year from the date of your distribution. But you could still make a tax-free rollover from IRA-2 to any other traditional IRA.

Recently a taxpayer, Mr. Bobrow, did just what the example above seemed to allow, taking a distribution from IRA-1 and repaying it back to IRA-1 within 60 days, and then taking a distribution from IRA-2 and repaying it back to IRA-2 within 60 days. Unfortunately for the taxpayer, the IRS decided this was no longer the correct interpretation, and told Mr. Bobrow that his transactions violated the one-rollover-per-year rule. The case made its way to the Tax Court, which agreed with the IRS and held that regardless of how many IRAs he or she maintains, a taxpayer may make only one nontaxable 60-day rollover within each 12-month period.

Not surprisingly, the IRS has announced that it will follow the Bobrow case beginning in 2015 (more technically, the new rule will not apply to any rollover that involves a distribution occurring before January 1, 2015). For the rest of 2014 the “old” one-rollover-per-year rule in IRS Publication 590 (see above) will apply to any IRA distributions you receive. But keep in mind that you can make unlimited direct transfers (as opposed to 60-day rollovers) between IRAs–these aren’t subject to the one-rollover-per-year rule. So if you don’t have a need to actually use the cash for some period of time, it’s generally safer to use the direct transfer approach and avoid this potential problem altogether.

(Note: The one-rollover-per-year rule also applies–separately–to your Roth IRAs.)

Have the rules for 401(k) in-plan Roth conversions changed?

Yes. Thanks to the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 (ATRA), the rules for making 401(k) in-plan Roth conversions have gotten substantially easier. (These rules also apply to 403(b) and 457(b) plans.)

A 401(k) in-plan Roth conversion (also called an “in-plan Roth rollover”) allows you to transfer the non-Roth portion of your 401(k) account into a designated Roth account within the same plan. The amount you convert is subject to federal income tax in the year of the conversion (except for any nontaxable basis you have in the amount transferred), but qualified distributions from the Roth account are entirely income tax free. The 10% early distribution penalty doesn’t apply to amounts you convert (but that penalty tax may be reclaimed by the IRS if you take a nonqualified distribution from your Roth account within five years of the conversion).

While in-plan conversions have been around since 2010, they haven’t been widely used, because they were available only if you were otherwise entitled to a distribution from your plan–for example, upon terminating employment, turning 59½, becoming disabled, or in other limited circumstances. But in that case, you already had the option of rolling your funds over (converting) into a Roth IRA.

ATRA eliminated the requirement that you be eligible for a distribution from the plan in order to make an in-plan conversion. Now, if your plan permits, you can convert any vested part of your 401(k) plan account into a designated Roth account regardless of whether you’re otherwise eligible for a plan distribution. The IRS has also just recently issued regulations that provide additional clarity on how in-plan conversions work.

Caution: Whether a Roth conversion makes sense financially depends on a number of factors, including your current and anticipated future tax rates, the availability of funds with which to pay the current tax bill, and when you plan to begin receiving distributions from the plan. Also, you should consider that the additional income from a conversion may impact tax credits, deductions, and phaseouts; marginal tax rates; alternative minimum tax liability; and eligibility for college financial aid.