FEDERAL RESERVE Chairman Jerome Powell appeared before Congress late last month and spoke in serious terms about the country’s debt situation. It’s worth understanding what Powell said—and how that might impact your investments.
Powell’s message: “The U.S. federal government is on an unsustainable fiscal path.” Specifically, “debt as a percentage of GDP is growing, and now growing sharply, and that is unsustainable by definition.”
Powell’s remarks mirrored those of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). In June, the CBO reported that, “Under current law, federal debt held by the public is projected to increase sharply over the next 30 years” to 152% of GDP. “That amount would be the highest in the nation’s history by far.” To put that in perspective, the CBO explained that interest payments alone would grow to equal what we spend on Social Security, the government’s largest budget item.
Why dwell on these grim figures? It’s important, I believe, because ultimately there are only a few solutions to this problem—and one of them is to raise taxes. In fact, it isn’t that taxes might go up. Rather, they’re currently scheduled to go up. At the end of 2025, most of the favorable 2017 tax rate changes will expire. Unless Congress acts to prevent it, personal tax rates will revert to 2017’s levels.
To be clear, my goal isn’t to worry you. If economic growth is better than expected or interest rates are lower than expected, our debt would grow more slowly and Congress might delay the increases. Still, no one has a crystal ball, so it makes sense to prepare. What planning steps can you take today to protect yourself against higher tax bills down the road?
For the most part, your tax bill in any given year is simply a function of your income. Yes, you can make adjustments around the margins—with charitable contributions and tax-deferred savings, for example—but you don’t have a whole lot of options from year to year. Where you do have more control, however, is with your tax rate once you’re retired. But it requires planning. Here are three steps to consider.
First, build tax-free savings. There are a few ways to build tax-free savings, but the most efficient is a Roth account, which allows your investments to grow entirely free of income and capital gains taxes. In fact, if you can build up assets in a Roth account, there’s a double-barreled benefit: Roth withdrawals are tax-free and, because of that, you may end up with a lower tax rate on all of your other income. There are at least four ways to build Roth savings:
Second, don’t overlook taxable savings. If you’re in a high tax bracket, you may feel compelled to contribute as much as possible to tax-deferred accounts. In general, this makes sense. But don’t overlook the value of saving in a taxable account. This will allow you to further diversify your sources of income in retirement. Depending upon your particular mix of income and assets, this may allow you to better control your tax rate over the years, especially after age 70½, when you’ll be required to take minimum withdrawals from your traditional retirement accounts.
Finally, don’t forget about estate taxes. Following the 2017 rule changes, federal estate taxes are no longer much of a consideration for most people. The exclusion—meaning the amount one can pass to heirs tax-free—doubled to more than $11 million per person, or almost $23 million for a married couple. Many people took this as an opportunity to cross estate taxes off their list of concerns.
But keep in mind that, historically, estate tax rates have seen more frequent and more significant changes than income tax rates. It’s entirely possible that a future administration might bring the exclusion back down. For that reason, if you have assets greater than $5 million, I would still consider taking steps to reduce your family’s potential estate tax burden.
Adam M. Grossman’s previous articles include Moving Target, No Free Lunch and Private Matters. Adam is the founder of Mayport Wealth Management, a fixed-fee financial planning firm in Boston. He’s an advocate of evidence-based investing and is on a mission to lower the cost of investment advice for consumers. Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamMGrossman.