Atlantic Capital Management

Atlantic Capital Management (103)

Thursday, 22 May 2014 00:00

Actively Managing Passive Investments

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Exchange-traded funds, or ETFs, are a popular and effective investment product utilized by many individual and institutional investors. Generally speaking, an ETF fund models the performance of a particular market or market sector index; when you invest in an ETF, your money grows or diminishes according to the performance of the index as a whole. ETFs run the gamut from mild to wild. For example, you can invest in ETFs which model a broad U.S. stock market such as the S&P 500 or the DJIA; you can also find ETFs which model foreign stock markets, like emerging market stocks.  There are also indices which mirror other markets such as commodities, real estate, bonds or currency.   ETFs provide a easy way to diversify at low cost with greater tax efficiency than you would find in the traditional mutual fund.   This is why ETFs a popular choice for many DIY investors.

Because you are investing in a basket of securities and not individual securities ETFs are considered a passively managed investment. This approach differs from the traditional actively managed fund in the sense that the securities in a mutual fund are actively managed throwing off taxable activity. Passively-managed funds are essentially binary: you are either “all in” or “all out.”

The portfolios we build for our clients often include ETFs for cost savings and diversification. Our experience has shown that ETFs are an excellent choice for portfolios built for “the long run,” and that they complement our actively-managed funds nicely. (Our investment strategy is generally “active.”)

If you’re considering making ETFs a part of your DIY investment strategy, we strongly recommend that you avoid tying up too much of your portfolio in passive investments. There are literally thousands of ETFs available, and the “point and click” ease with which you can buy into them makes it easy to overweight a portfolio with passivity. Incorporating some passive investments in a generally active portfolio is a solid strategy for most DIYers. Leave yourself some room to move pieces of your portfolio around if you need to, without the pressure of being “all in” on passive investments.

Having said that, we’re not advocates of “timing the market” or being impulsively active; we believe that the truest course to financial security is a long-term one. But we review our clients’ portfolios regularly and actively make adjustments based on their goals and tolerance for risk. Including ETFs in the portfolio mix gives us the flexibility to make adaptations with both the short term and the long haul in mind while still preserving the focus on diverse, low-cost investments. This is an approach to asset allocation that works well for us, and translates equally well for most individual or DIY portfolios. It’s a good long-term strategy; recent research from Morningstar indicates that on average, active funds outperform passive funds in market downturns, and passive funds outperform active funds when the markets are on the upswing. Funding a diverse portfolio never goes out of style.

While it still feels very much like winter here in the Northeast, weather forecasters and the calendar assure us that Spring will, indeed, get here soon. With the arrival of the first robin in the front yard also comes a day that many Americans dread, or at the very least loathe: April 15, the deadline for filing Federal and state taxes. Tax season can be stressful under even the best of circumstances. Adding to the unease for many people is the possibility of an arbitrary investigation of their tax returns, known as an audit, that the IRS sometimes performs. While most Americans will fortunately never have to deal with the tax man showing up at their door, there are some well-established red flags that make certain returns more likely to be audited. I’ve listed 3 of the most common below; your tax professional or accountant can discuss the rest with you. (Don’t have an accountant? Give us a call…we can refer you to one of our many local and national tax attorneys or CPAs.)

A quick note: Historically, the IRS audits less than 1% of the tax returns it receives every year. Given the recent scandals, budget cuts and staff eliminations, it’s likely that that percentage will drop for the ~250 million returns the agency receives in 2014. The scenarios I discuss below are the ones that raise the the likelihood your lucky number will be chosen.

You might be more likely to face an IRS audit if you:

1.    Earn a well-above-average income. The median household income in the United States is currently a little over $51,000 per year.  If you’re a “one percenter” with an income over $200,000, you are about 3 times more likely than the average person to be audited by the IRS. If you make over $1 million per year, your chances of being audited go up to 1 in 8. Obviously, we’re not going to counsel you to earn less income! But if you’re in a higher income bracket, be aware that you face more scrutiny.

2.    Claim excessive deductions on Schedule C. The IRS has been cracking down on self-employed taxpayers who over-report deductions on the Sole Proprietorship Profit and Loss form, otherwise known as Schedule C. This is due mostly to “paraprofessionals” like part-time real estate agents, day traders and others reporting rental and trading losses on Schedule C instead of the appropriate forms. We encourage honesty, obviously, but be wary that you might be paying for others’ sins if you are self-employed as a sole proprietor.  Word from the wise, there is a fine line between tax avoidance and tax evasion – evasion however is still illegal.

3.    Take a lot of charitable deductions. Auditors pay close attention to charitable deductions, and they specifically scrutinize how the amount of charity giving or gifting you report stacks up against your income. If there’s a large disparity, your return is more likely to spur unwanted interest. If you do a lot of charitable giving, understand the regulations, and relentlessly document everything.

These are just a few examples of the types of issues that can raise the likelihood of an IRS audit. As noted above, we’re happy to share our experience in this area with you, or refer you to a qualified CPA for more information.

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