Investors often worry about poor stock returns during election years, and that's not surprising, given the idea that markets dislike uncertainty. But while election years are often volatile, the truth is that over the years has tended to be good.

Between 1937 and 2022, for example, the S&P 500 index has posted an average annual return of 9.9% during presidential election years. You can rest assured that emotions will be in full swing as the November election approaches. But where your investment portfolio is concerned, it's important to be calm and rational, to minimize your risk and be ready to seize opportunities.

In presidential election years, the market volatility tends to be front-loaded into the first half of the year. That's when candidates, campaigning in the primaries, tend to make extreme policy proposals. It doesn't matter that they'd likely never become law: The point is to appeal to voters on the far ends of the political spectrum who play an outsized role in selecting presidential candidates.

By the time the general-election campaign is in swing, the rhetoric has typically calmed down a bit, and markets start to gain some traction. Opportunities to invest will present themselves throughout the year.

But first, it's important to evaluate the risk in your portfolio. That's because the large-cap stocks that carried 2023's big returns, including the big rally at the end of the year, will likely cool off.

If you've owned any of the "Magnificent 7" stocks over the past year or two—Apple, Microsoft, Alphabet, Amazon, NVIDIA, Tesla and Meta Platforms—those stocks could be seriously overweighted in your portfolio right now. And given their inflated prices, they could do a nosedive during the periods of volatility and set you back significantly.

In my view, small- and mid-cap stocks are poised to have a strong year. They were largely overlooked last year, and broadly speaking they're priced attractively. Furthermore, smaller-cap stocks tend to benefit strongly from falling interest rates, and it's widely believed that the Federal Reserve is done raising rates and will start cutting them in 2024.

As for new investments, there's plenty of opportunity, and many companies could become more efficient and profitable thanks to the widening adoption of artificial intelligence. I believe AI could spur the next growth wave of corporate profits. As always, we want to wait for an attractive price before buying any stock. In the meantime, you might want to park your cash in three-months Treasury bills, which are currently yielding an attractive 5.45%.

Don't hesitate to reach out to us if you'd like to review the risk level of your investment portfolio and identify the stocks that could power your portfolio for the coming year.

Every piece of legislation that's passed in Washington creates both winners and losers. If you're planning to leave an IRA to your kids, you may be one of the losers in the case of the SECURE Act.

Passed in 2019 and taking effect in 2020, the SECURE Act, was aimed at boosting retirement savings—a worthy goal at a time when too few people are saving enough for their later years. But it also killed what were known as stretch IRAs, creating serious consequences for heirs. The SECURE Act didn't ban stretch IRAs for everyone; exceptions exist for spouses, minors, and some disabled individuals. But plenty of families have been affected by the law, and many more will be in the future.

Stretch IRAs, also known as multigenerational IRAs, were an estate planning strategy that allowed the original owner's beneficiaries to inherit a traditional, tax-deferred IRA and take annual required minimum distributions (RMDs) based on their own life expectancy, not the original owner's. RMDs are just what they sound like: The government wants taxes to be paid, and for taxes to be paid, withdrawals must be made. So it requires chunks of money to be withdrawn every year starting at age 73. The stretch strategy was so valuable because it prolonged the tax-deferred growth of the account, often for decades, while limiting the taxes due every year.

Now that stretch IRAs are gone, most non-spouse inheritors must withdraw the entire IRA balance within 10 years. This speeds up tax revenue for the government, but it also means bigger tax bills and less time for IRA money to grow. Adding to the tax pain for heirs is the fact that adult children are often in their peak earning years—and thus in higher tax brackets—at the time they receive an inheritance.

One way that IRA owners can help their heirs out is by converting their traditional IRA to a Roth IRA. The funds in Roth IRAs grow tax-free, and are withdrawn tax-free. Converting an IRA to a Roth does trigger a tax bill, so it's necessary to have cash available to pay it; alternatively, some opt to convert their IRA over two years, thus splitting up the tax hit. The Roth conversion strategy has proven quite popular as a fallback in the wake of the SECURE Act. That testifies to the fact that even with the tax bill, families that make use of it are likely to come out way ahead.

Please don't hesitate to get in touch with us if you'd like to learn more about transferring wealth to the next generation tax-free.

The end of the year is in sight, and soon countless investors will start selling losing stocks in order to gain tax writeoffs. The practice, known as tax-loss harvesting or tax-loss selling, is extremely popular because it's essentially free money: Stocks (or bonds in some cases) are sold at a loss in order to offset the capital-gains tax bill created when winners are sold. The result is that your tax bill is slashed and you keep more of your money in your pocket.

For years, I've recommended and executed tax-loss selling for my clients, just as the vast majority of financial advisors have. But I plan to be more selective this year and won't sell positions that I like purely for the tax benefit. I'll harvest tax losses where it makes sense; for example with positions that I've lost confidence in. But I think the long-term potential for stocks I believe in outweighs the attractiveness of short-term tax savings.

A big reason I'm less enamored of tax-loss selling has to do with changes in market behavior. Traditionally, the massive year-end selling to harvest tax losses has led to lower security prices. Once the new year begins, the names that sold off in December—and are now cheap—have become buying targets. If investors purchase them soon enough, the continuing buying demand pushes up these stocks' prices to pre-selloff levels and nets a quick profit. That's known as the January effect.

Unfortunately, this strategy has become a victim of its own popularity. These days, the stocks that sold off in December are snapped up incredibly fast in January—often with the help of automated buying programs. The buying pressure drives up prices so quickly that it's become very hard to find them "on sale."

Compounding the problem is the "wash-sale rule." It prevents investors from claiming a loss on the sale of a security if a substantially identical security is repurchased within 30 days. The fact that you can't buy back the same security you've sold for 30 days means that, too often, you're waiting to make the trade while watching the price creep up a little further every day. Thus, the rationale for selling good stocks just for tax purposes has gotten a lot weaker.

If the goal is to maximize your wealth over the long term—and almost all investors should be focused on the long term rather than quick profits—then it's best to be very judicious about tax-loss harvesting. If a holding just doesn't seem like it will work out, then selling it for a tax advantage can definitely make sense. But holding those you believe in makes more sense than ever.

We’re beginning to hear predictions from some on Wall Street that a fourth-quarter stock-market rally is in the works. But I’d urge caution here. 

 

Optimists point out that since 1950, the S&P 500 index has risen in the fourth quarter 80% of the time. And they point to recent indications from the Federal Reserve, which has raised interest rates from nothing to 5.5% over the past year and a half, that the rate-hiking cycle may be over. That would be good news for stocks; while the S&P is still up 13% for the year, it’s dropped more than 5% since the start of August. The rate hikes have been especially hard on tech stocks, as the NASDAQ has fallen 20% this year.

 

But trying to guess what the Fed will do is tricky; after all, many market watchers thought it would be cutting rates by now. But even if the rate hikes, which the Fed deployed to fight inflation, are over, my belief is that we’re far from out of the woods.  

 

The end of a rate-raising cycle doesn’t necessarily translate into stronger results for companies. A lot of the effect of higher interest rates takes place a year or even two years after they’re raised. This lag effect means there could be plenty of pain yet to come for the economy and for businesses.

 

The most obvious impact of higher interest rates can be seen in the housing market. Home sales have fallen sharply as a result of rising mortgage rates. The unemployment rate is low but has started to creep up, from 3.5% in July to 3.8% in September, and it’s likely to continue rising.

 

A big worry is the fact that many companies loaded up on debt when interest rates were low. Much of that debt will have to be refinanced soon, at rates that could be triple those of the original debt. That will be a major headwind for earnings and thus for stock valuations. 

Furthermore, the Federal Reserve is predicting that consumer spending, which accounts for about 70% of the U.S. economy, is set to slow down markedly. That will be another big obstacle for corporate earnings.

 

And if and when companies’ debt problems lead to a significant number of layoffs, those consumers will not only curtail their spending but will have trouble paying their mortgages. Consumers are already heavily in debt; total U.S. credit card debt recently passed $1 trillion, and the average credit card interest rate is now more than 20%.

 

Then there are the conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East. The latter could result in higher oil prices, and both present a real danger of spreading to involve additional countries. The current dysfunction in Washington, and next year’s looming election are additional wildcards.

I always advise clients to stay in the stock market for the long run. Ultimately, it’s the best way to earn the kinds of returns you’re going to need to retire comfortably and meet other goals. But in the short term, we’re likely in for some instability. 

 

My advice to investors right now is to be very selective about what you buy, to avoid taking big swings on risky stocks, and to make sure your portfolio contains companies that are strong enough to make it through some turbulence. Remember that there will be opportunities to buy hard-hit, discounted stocks once the sharp rise in interest rates fully works its way through the economy. 

 

In times like these, an experienced investment advisor can provide good market perspective, help evaluate the strength of your portfolio and make sure you’re well positioned for when the market eventually does rebound. Don’t hesitate to reach out to us. 

"When is the right time to retire? And how much money will I need so be sure I’ll never run out?" 
 
Those are perennial questions asked by every Americans who doesn’t intend to work until they drop. They’re so popular that all the brand-name financial companies seem to have a rule-of-thumb formula for figuring it out. 
 
Fidelity's guideline is to save at least one time your salary by age 30, three times by 40, and so on. Vanguard recommends saving 12% to 15% of your pay each year. T. Rowe Price says you should have as much as 11 times your salary saved by the time you’re 60. 
 
People are especially nervous about their retirement savings now because of the nasty inflation we’ve experienced in the past couple of years, as well as last year’s market rout of both stocks and bonds. No one wants to retire just as their nest egg is taking a beating from bad markets and inflation is eating into their buying power.
 
So fretting over when to retire and what it will cost is warranted. It’s normal these days for retirements to stretch on to 30 or 40 years thanks to longer lifespans. The bad scenario is to have to cut way back on your lifestyle in order to stretch your savings. The extra-bad one is to have to move in with your kids, or worse. 
 
So it’s important as you save for retirement to make sure you're on track to reach your goals. But you shouldn’t rely on rules of thumb from the investment companies mentioned above. 
Let’s leave aside the possibility that these firms’ advice is skewed by a desire to have you invest as much money as possible in their funds. The real problem with retirement-savings rules of thumb is that they’re too general. 
 
There are some calculations that are helpful in getting started. Calculating your present income minus expenses can give you an idea of what your spending will look like in retirement, for example. But the right savings target for each individual depends on personal factors. How long are you likely to live? Family health history can yield some clues there. Do you want to live large in retirement or pursue a simpler lifestyle? And how much risk are you willing to take in your retirement portfolio in hopes of maximizing growth? If you’re a more cautious investor by nature, you’ll need to save more.
 
It's easy to make overly optimistic or pessimistic assumptions if you’re trying to calculate your savings target on your own. An experienced investment advisor can give you a factual, non-emotional perspective. I’ve had to persuade clients who were absolutely convinced that they could not retire that they were wrong. I’ve had others who expected to live off $5,000 a month in retirement when they were spending $10,000 per month in the present. I’ve told others they can retire if they’re willing to pick up some part-time work. Reality checks are the stock in trade of a good investment advisor. 
 
I strongly suggest working with an investment advisor to at least pinpoint a realistic nest-egg target. Look for an experienced advisor: There’s a big advantage in working with a 20-year professional because they’ve not only built retirement plans but executed them and seen the results. It’s also imperative to work with an advisor who is independent and a fiduciary—meaning they’re legally required to place your financial interests above their own. If you go to a big, marquee-name brokerage house, you may find yourself pushed toward whatever investment product is most lucrative for them, and your target number may be suspect as well.
 
What’s your retirement number? No formula or rule of thumb can really tell you—it’s a personalized question whose answer is unique to you.