The “fiscal cliff” has made year-end financial planning especially daunting this year.
Uncertainty, the saying goes, breeds uncertainty. And it’s up in the air as to whether Congress will take action to head off a significant reduction in federal government spending and the expiration of Bush-era tax cuts that are scheduled to take effect Jan. 1. Nor is there any clarity on what alternatives Congress might decide on.
Don Olmstead, managing director of Novare Capital in Charlotte, said the first step is not to panic.
“This fiscal cliff, whether we go over it or not, is more of a slope,” he said. Though it would hurt the economy, there are positive signs elsewhere – including consumer confidence and employment.
But at the same time, he advises to take some risk out of your portfolio to prepare for the market to sell off a bit. Holding more in cash is prudent, Olmstead said, until falling prices provide attractive investment opportunities.
Many – but not all – investment advisers counsel that the prospect of the nation possibly plunging over the fiscal cliff isn’t cause for overhauling a sound investment portfolio.
“Take a long view. This is something that will pass,” said Chip Hymiller, a principal at Beacon Financial Strategies, a financial planning and investment firm in Raleigh. “A long-term investment strategy shouldn’t be influenced by shorter-term issues like this. This is going to be solved at some point and life will go on.”
In any case, the prospects of higher taxes next year has transformed the landscape.
“Throw out all of the typical year-end planning strategies that we’ve had in the past,” said Melissa Labant, tax director at the American Institute of CPAs. “Throw them out the door.”
For example, a typical year-end tax maneuver would be to sell off losers in your investment portfolio.
“Hold off this year,” Labant said. “Don’t run out and trigger capital losses to offset capital gains or ordinary income” given that this year’s tax rates on both capital gains and ordinary income are likely to look like a bargain compared to the rates that take effect in 2013.
Also because of the tax uncertainty, Olmstead said it might make sense for families to speed up their charitable giving to the end of this year instead of next.
What makes the current situation tricky is that people have until Dec. 31 to address tax issues that may not be resolved before the end of the year.
Here are a few strategies worth considering as 2012 draws to a close:
Be prepared: A multitude of what-if scenarios could play out in the next few weeks.
Kendrick Mattox, a Charlotte-based partner of Edge Capital Partners, said his firm is keeping more money as cash, high-quality dividend-paying stocks, and in areas less affected by the fiscal cliff – such as Asia, Brazil and natural gas.
“We’re not bearish, but we are going to trade an offensive asset and move toward defense,” said his colleague, Will Skeean, who is chairman of Edge’s research team.
Skeean said the firm expects market uncertainty to persist for several years regardless of a deal as investors try to weigh whether the plan is working.
As the market sells off, Edge Capital plans to look for relatively cheap assets to put money in.
“Prepare emotionally and financially for a decline and be ready to reinvest,” Skeean said.
Ben Brooks, director of wealth management at Capital Investment Companies in Raleigh, suggested investors have a conversation now about what actions might make sense depending on what Congress decides.
If you do that spade work, “when and if things change, you can act quickly” if necessary, Brooks said.
Capital gains: Take advantage of historically low taxes on long-term capital gains, which apply to stocks and other investments owned for at least a year.
Regardless of what tax bracket you’re in, many expect taxes on capital gains to rise. Currently, individuals with ordinary income above $35,350, or married couples with ordinary income above $70,700, pay 15 percent in capital gains taxes. Those below that level pay no capital gains taxes. Ordinary income includes all income except for income eligible for reduced tax rates, such as dividends and long-term capital gains.
Because of the tax uncertainty, some investment advisers say it makes sense to look at selling stocks that have appreciated significantly before the end of the year to avoid a higher tax bill down the road.
Something else to consider: If you’re selling a stock and taking a gain on it, there are no negative tax implications if you turn around immediately and buy the stock again. That’s different than when you sell a stock for a loss. In that scenario, you can’t claim a loss if you buy the stock again within 30 days.
IRA withdrawals: If you’re older than 59 1/2 and you’re planning to tap your IRA for cash in the near-term, consider doing it before the end of the year.
If tax brackets on ordinary income rise next year – as many think they will – then taking cash out now would mean a lower tax bill. That’s because IRA distributions are taxed as ordinary income.
Once you’re older than 59 1/2, you can draw money out of your IRA without paying a penalty.
Roth IRA: If you’ve been contemplating converting your traditional IRA to a Roth IRA, the time may be ripe.
With traditional IRAs, you invest pre-tax dollars and pay taxes when you withdraw funds. With a Roth IRA, however, you invest after-tax dollars but pay no taxes when you withdraw funds.
Now could be a good time to convert to a Roth IRA, said Chip Hymiller, a principal at Beacon Financial Strategies in Raleigh.
“In future years, your tax rates are likely to be higher,” he said.
A conversion is not to be taken lightly, however, because you’ll have to pay taxes on the converted funds.
“You need to have a good handle on the tax implications,” Hymiller said. “You need to have a good relationship with your CPA or someone who can do a tax plan for you.”