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Rising Rates: The Fed Takes Next Step Toward Normal

On December 14, the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) voted unanimously to raise the federal funds rate by 0.25% — to a range of 0.50% to 0.75%. This was the second increase since December 2008, when the benchmark rate was lowered to a near-zero level (0% to 0.25%) during the Great Recession.1

The rate hike was widely anticipated by investors, and the only element of surprise was a change in the forecast for the federal funds rate. The median projection for the end of 2017 is 1.4%, up from 1.1% in September, which suggests that Fed officials now expect three additional rate increases in 2017 instead of two.2

As the financial markets priced in the prospect of an extra rate hike, the yield on two-year Treasuries surged to its highest level since August 2009. The 10-year Treasury yield climbed to 2.523%, the highest level in more than two years and a full percentage point higher than the record low in early July 2016.3(Bond yields typically rise as prices fall.) The S&P 500 index declined 0.8% on the day of the Fed’s decision, but recovered quickly and rose 0.4% the following day.4-5

The December rate hike reflects the committee’s growing confidence in the health of the U.S. economy, but it’s also likely to push up borrowing costs for households and businesses.

Central Bank Influence

The Federal Reserve and the FOMC operate under a dual mandate to conduct monetary policies that foster maximum employment and price stability. The federal funds rate is the interest rate at which banks lend funds to each other overnight within the Federal Reserve system. It serves as a benchmark for many short-term rates set by banks.

Adjusting the federal funds rate is one way the central bank can influence short-term interest rates, economic growth, and inflation. The Fed has been tasked with loosening monetary policy early enough to keep inflation from flaring up, but not so quickly as to reverse economic progress or upset financial markets.

Second Time Around

A lot has happened since December 2015, when the stock market cheered the Fed’s first rate increase since the financial crisis. At the time, the Fed projected four rate hikes by the end of 2016, but tightening was put on hold when GDP growth and inflation were slow to materialize. A number of outside risks, including a weak global economy and uncertainty surrounding the June Brexit vote, threatened to dampen U.S. GDP growth in the first half of 2016.6

The Fed’s most recent statement acknowledged that “the labor market has continued to strengthen and that economic activity has been expanding at a moderate pace since midyear.”7 Unemployment fell to 4.6% in November, a nine-year low, and GDP growth improved to 3.2% in the third quarter.8-9

Inflation is still below the Fed’s 2% target but has started to firm in recent months. According to the Fed’s preferred measure, personal consumption expenditures (PCE), prices rose at a 1.4% annual rate through October, and core PCE (which excludes volatile food and energy prices) rose at a 1.7% rate.10

What About Investments?

When interest rates rise, the value of outstanding bonds typically falls. Longer-term bonds tend to fluctuate more than those with shorter maturities, because investors may be reluctant to tie up their money if they anticipate higher yields in the future. Bonds redeemed prior to maturity may be worth more or less than their original value, but if a bond is held to maturity, the owner suffers no loss of principal unless the issuer defaults.

Equities may also be affected by rising rates, though not as directly as bonds. Stock prices are closely tied to earnings growth, so many corporations stand to benefit from a more robust economy. On the other hand, companies that rely heavily on borrowing will likely face higher costs, which could affect their profits.

Considerations for Consumers

The prime rate, which commercial banks charge their best customers, is typically tied to the federal funds rate. Though actual rates can vary widely, small-business loans, adjustable rate mortgages, home equity lines of credit, auto loans, credit cards, and other forms of consumer credit are often linked to the prime rate, so the rates on these types of loans may increase with the federal funds rate. Fed rate hikes may also put some upward pressure on interest rates for new fixed rate home mortgages.

Although rising interest rates make it more expensive for consumers and businesses to borrow, retirees and others who seek income could eventually benefit from higher yields.

The FOMC expects economic conditions to “warrant only gradual increases,” but future Fed policies will depend on global financial developments, economic data, and growth projections. If inflation rises more or less than expected, rate adjustments will likely follow suit.

The financial markets could continue to react to Fed policies, but that doesn’t mean you should do the same. As always, it’s important to maintain a long-term perspective and make sound investment decisions based on your own financial goals, time horizon, and risk tolerance.

The return and principal value of stocks fluctuate with market conditions. Shares, when sold, may be worth more or less than their original cost.

1-2, 7) Federal Reserve, 2016
3-6) The Wall Street Journal, December 14-15, 2016
8) U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2016
9-10) U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, 2016

 

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Year End Tax Tips

It is time to make some year end tax planning moves.    Following is an article with some tips that I think will help most people.

https://www.yahoo.com/finance/news/5-things-to-do-by-new-years-eve-to-get-a-bigger-tax-return-185655740.html

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A Quick Look at the Presidential Candidates’ Tax Proposals

Though tax policies haven’t received top billing in this year’s presidential election dialogue, they’re still part of the conversation. Here’s a quick review of each candidate’s tax proposals based on information released by their campaigns. Keep in mind that regardless of who wins in November, any changes to tax policy would require congressional action.
Note: On August 8, 2016, Donald Trump announced a revised tax plan. Full details of the new plan were not immediately available on the campaign’s website. The following summary is based on the original plan announced by the Trump campaign and what we currently know about the revised plan.

Tax brackets
Plans released by the Trump campaign initially proposed reducing the current seven tax brackets to four, with the top rate dropping from 39.6% to 25%, and no tax due for individuals with incomes under $25,000 ($50,000 for married couples filing jointly).1 Trump has recently announced changes to his tax proposal, including a consolidation to three tax brackets: 12%, 25%, and 33%.2 This change moves the Trump campaign’s plan closer to the tax reform plan announced by House Republicans in June of this year.3 The Clinton campaign’s tax plans do not reflect changes to existing tax brackets, but do support a new 4% “fair share surcharge” on taxpayers with an adjusted gross income (AGI) exceeding $5 million.4.
Long-term capital gains and qualified dividends
Currently, lower tax rates generally apply to qualified dividends and to capital gains resulting from the sale of assets held longer than one year. Plans released by the Clinton campaign recommend adjusting the holding period schedule for long-term capital gains, increasing the minimum holding period from one to two years and adding medium-term holding periods that gradually reduce the top long-term rate down to 20% for assets held for more than six years.5 Plans initially released by the Trump campaign indicated that the top rate of 20% would continue to apply, with no change to current holding requirements.6

Alternative minimum tax (AMT)
The AMT is a separate, parallel federal income tax with its own rates (26% or 28%, depending on income) and rules. It is intended to ensure that taxpayers who use certain strategies to reduce their tax liability pay a minimum amount of tax. The Trump campaign has called for elimination of the AMT.7 The Clinton tax plan would presumably add a new tax layer, imposing a minimum tax due of 30% on those with incomes exceeding $1 million.8
Deductions, exemptions, and exclusions
Proposals released by both candidates would limit itemized deductions for higher-income filers. The Clinton team’s plan would limit the benefit of itemized deductions and certain items that are excluded from income (e.g., tax-exempt interest) to 28%, which means that the benefit of these items would be reduced for individuals in higher tax brackets; charitable deductions would be excluded from this limitation.9 The Trump team’s plan would accelerate the limitation of itemized deductions and the phaseout of personal exemptions for higher-income filers, though the treatment of deductions for charitable giving and mortgage interest would remain unchanged. The original Trump campaign tax plan also indicated that the ability to exclude earnings in life insurance contracts from income would be phased out for high-income individuals.10
Estate tax
The two campaigns have very different views of the existing federal estate tax. The Clinton campaign proposes increasing the top estate tax rate from 40% to 45%, and decreasing the estate tax exclusion from $5.45 million to $3.5 million.11 The Trump campaign proposes eliminating the federal estate tax.12
1, 6, 7, 10) “Tax Reform That Will Make America Great Again,” donaldjtrump.com/positions (July 2016)
2, 12) “Outline of Donald J. Trump’s Economic Vision: Winning The Global Competition,” donaldjtrump.com/positions (August 12, 2016)
3) Kyle Pomerleau, “Details and Analysis of the 2016 House Republican Tax Reform Plan,” Tax Foundation, July 5, 2016
4, 9, 11) “Investing in America by Restoring Basic Fairness to Our Tax Code,” hillaryclinton.com/briefing (July 2016)
5) Kyle Pomerleau and Michael Schuyler, “Details and Analysis of Hillary Clinton’s Tax Proposals,” Tax Foundation, January 26, 2016 (The 20% rate would be increased by the 3.8% net investment income tax, as well as the 4% surtax, if applicable.)
8) Richard Auxier, Len Burman, Jim Nunns, and Jeff Reheel, “An Analysis of Hillary Clinton’s Tax Proposals,” Tax Policy Center, March 3, 2016