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Go Figure

John Goodell

A LOT OF INVESTMENT math focuses on how money grows over time. But as an attorney who’s worked with many clients hoping to retire in comfort, I find myself thinking more about risk—and how the math can work against us. Consider five sets of numbers:

Inflation’s toll: 0.98

Got cash? If you multiply that sum by 0.98, you’ll see your money’s purchasing power a year from now. This assumes 2% inflation, which is the Federal Reserve’s stated target. To be sure, inflation has averaged less than 2% over the past decade. But cumulatively, it has still totaled roughly 17%. An item that cost $10,000 in 2011 would cost $11,692.68 today. Think your wealth is safer sitting in cash? It isn’t.

Goodbye, marriage: 0.5

Half. That’s roughly what you’ll give up if you divorce. Just about any small-town family law attorney will tell you the annoying-but-true adage, “It’s cheaper to keep her.” Each state has its own laws that apply to the division of property in a divorce, but the number approaches 50% in many states. For instance, if you live in a community property state, the general rule of thumb is you give up 50% of commingled assets, regardless of who contributed what. While there are ways to hedge through pre- and post-nuptial agreements, divorce is a true wealth destroyer.

The taxman’s take: 0 to 0.2—or 0.1 to 0.37

Take the gain on any investment and multiply it by these numbers. The first two numbers tell you how much you might lose to federal taxes if you sell a winning investment that counts as a long-term capital gain, while the last two numbers are the potential tax hit if you have a short-term capital gain.

For couples with total taxable income of less than $80,800 in 2021, the long-term capital gains rate is 0%. Above that amount, the long-term capital gains rate is 15%, unless your taxable income exceeds $501,600, in which case it jumps to 20%. By contrast, short-term capital gains—which are triggered by selling winning investments owned for 365 days or less—are taxed at ordinary income tax rates, which means you’ll lose 10% to 37% of your gain to the taxman. Short-term capital gains are a killer of long-term wealth accumulation.

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Those with lower incomes are less affected by the difference between short- and long-term capital gains. Suppose you’re married and your combined taxable income is just above $81,000. Your recent foray into GameStop may have resulted in a quick profit (though probably not), but your tax rate is going to be seven percentage points higher because you didn’t own the stock for more than a year.

The higher you go up the income spectrum, the more draconian this disparity gets. Those in the top tax bracket pay 17 percentage points more on their investment winners to Uncle Sam if they don’t wait 366 days to sell. Does that mean taxes should wag the investment dog? No, but most investors ought to care more than they do about the tax tab—and financial advisors often don’t care at all, as they merrily buy and sell investments in their clients’ portfolios.

Paying the help: 0.01 and 0.25

The fees paid to financial advisors have a negative compounding effect. Those fees are often around 1% a year—equal to multiplying your portfolio’s value by 0.01—but sometimes much higher. Paying 1% in fees over 40 years to an advisor trims a portfolio’s total gain by roughly 25%.

Investing recklessly: 0

Over the past year, many Americans have begun day trading and using leverage to boost their investment returns. If the market sells off, those who are extremely levered run the risk of losing all of their money. It’s a story that’s been repeated over and over again.

Anything multiplied by zero is zero. It goes without saying that it’s a lot harder to come back from zero than any other financial setback. Maybe that’s why Warren Buffett says, “Rule No. 1 is to never lose money. Rule No. 2 is to never forget rule No. 1.”

What’s the best solution to avoid the above killers of compounding? For starters, find a spouse whose value isn’t just in his or her earning power, but also in the incalculable love and support that he or she offers. Meanwhile, the rest of the unfortunate math outlined above can be avoided by doing one simple thing: Buy low-cost index funds and hold on through thick and thin. The math is simple—but following through is much harder.

John Goodell is general counsel for the Texas Veterans Commission. He has spent much of his career advocating for military and veterans on tax, estate planning and retirement issues. His biggest passion is spending time with his wife and kids. Follow John at HighGroundPlanning.com and on Twitter @HighGroundPlan, and check out his earlier articles.

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Thorsten Kril
Thorsten Kril
6 months ago

Good article, but the math is inconsistent. The numbers used in the first and last item (0.98 and 0) are the factors to calculate what you get to keep, after inflation or your investment mistake. You multiply your balance with these numbers, and the result is what you net, after paying the cost of the item.

However the numbers used for the other 3 items represent the cost of those items. I.e. to account for “paying for help”, you multiply your balance with 0.01 to 0.25 to determine what portion of your account balance you need to give up each year.

I think the article would be easier to read if the numbers were used in a consistent way. Meaning either representing the net take, or the cost. For example, to make the inflation and the “paying for help” items consistent, we could use 0.98 for inflation and 0.75..0.99 for the help item. Or else, use 0.02 for inflation and 0.01..0.25 for the help.

Last edited 6 months ago by Thorsten Kril
Doug K
Doug K
6 months ago

there is another risk, which is the primary risk and unavoidable – market performance. A couple of bear markets at the wrong times and the power of compounding is destroyed. The math of investing doesn’t work without consistent stable returns, and we know those are only a matter of luck.

But investing is the only game in town – as with the laws of thermodynamics, you can’t win, but you can’t get out of the game either..

In the US, there’s also the healthcare risk. One hospital stay can produce bankruptcy. This is also unavoidable.

Thomas
Thomas
6 months ago
Reply to  Doug K

Yeah, I agree that medical risk is a big one, as is the risk of becoming permanently incapacitated. Also the risk of getting sued.

But if you have a long time horizon and invest in boring old, globally diversified index funds, market risk isn’t all that major in my humble opinion (well, at least it wasn’t historically). Retirees have to deal with “sequence of return” risk, but that can be mitigated in a variety of ways.

parkslope
parkslope
6 months ago

While those who purchase indivual stocks are much more likely to buy and sell, conceptually index funds are no better than individual stocks as a means for avoiding capital gains taxes. For example, the tax on the long term capital gain in an index fund investment wil be the same as the tax in a single stock that has the same return over the same time period.

Thomas
Thomas
6 months ago
Reply to  parkslope

While those who purchase indivual stocks are much more likely to buy and sell

That’s the key though, isn’t it?

You may not want to hold an individual stock for life for all sorts of reasons (like if the company’s market position changes drastically or its management changes). Whereas it’s quite sensible and psychologically easy to be a buy and hold forever indexer since index funds are “self cleansing”.

Richard Gore
Richard Gore
6 months ago

I often read about the tax advantage of holding index funds; however, I was wondering if a person’s stock portfolio is held entirely in a qualified plan if that argument still applies?

Jonathan Clements
Admin
Jonathan Clements
6 months ago
Reply to  Richard Gore

There’s no tax advantage to holding index funds in a retirement account. But there is the obvious performance advantage — that you’re guaranteed to outperform the majority of investors who are invested in the same market segment or segments.

Richard Gore
Richard Gore
6 months ago

Thank you! I also posted a question on the voices page related to international stock holdings but that question has been deleted that I’m hoping you would answer as well.

I was wondering if there is a non-recoverable cost from the foreign dividend WH tax on international stocks held in a retirement plan account?

Jonathan Clements
Admin
Jonathan Clements
6 months ago
Reply to  Richard Gore

I’ve never heard of any way to recover the foreign tax withheld on investments held within a retirement account, alas.

Richard Gore
Richard Gore
6 months ago

Do you know if this cost been estimated? If dividends make up a significant portion of total returns of international stocks over time it seems the cost may be relevant factor to consider. Do you suggest that investors adjust their allocation of foreign holdings between taxable and tax deferred accounts to avoid the issue?

Jonathan Clements
Admin
Jonathan Clements
6 months ago
Reply to  Richard Gore

I haven’t seen the cost estimated. Because of the tax issue, there’s obviously a case to be made for owning foreign stocks in a taxable account. But as the saying goes, you shouldn’t let the tax tail wag the investment dog. I hold foreign stock funds in my various retirement accounts. Those funds are crucial to owning a diversified portfolio — and I simply don’t have enough taxable account money to purchase enough foreign stock fund shares to get the diversification I want.

parkslope
parkslope
6 months ago

There is also no inherent tax advantage to holding index funds in a taxable account.

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