Tax Bill Passes; Strategies for Musicians

Two weeks ago, we posted how musicians would lose their tax deductions under the proposed tax bill in the Senate. Let me again state that this applies to musicians who take itemized deductions on Schedule A against their W-2 income. For 1099 income or self-employment income reported on Schedule C, there will be little or no change in claiming those business expenses.

While there have been many last minute changes to the version passed in the Senate, I am sad to report that all of concerns which I have for my clients (and myself) have made it into the final version passed at 1:51 AM in Washington. The last step will be for a committee to reconcile the House and Senate bills into a final version to be signed by President Trump. They will begin work on the process on Monday.

The bill applies to your 2018 tax year, so your 2017 tax return (due April 15, 2018) is still under the old rules. Here is an overview of significant changes which will be relevant to musicians as you prepare your taxes.

  1. The Senate version keeps our current seven bracket structure, but lowers everyone’s marginal tax rate by a percent or two. The current brackets of 10, 15, 25, 28, 33, 35, and 39.6 percent will become 10, 12, 22, 24, 32, 34, and 38.5 percent. Additionally, the income levels for these brackets are increased at the high end. The income brackets will be linked to inflation, but the IRS will use chained CPI, which will likely have a lower growth rate than the current method of calculating CPI. Most significantly, the lower tax brackets have a sunset after 2025 at which time, the higher rates return. (Note that the corporate tax reduction from 35% to 20% is permanent. That will have to be a conversation for another day!)
  2. The Standard Deduction will increase from $6,350 single ($12,700 married) to $12,000 single ($24,000 married). However, the personal exemption of $4,050 is eliminated. So the net change is only from $10,400 to $12,000 single, or $20,800 to $24,000 for a married couple. Additionally, since the personal exemption applies to dependents, a family of four would actually see their standard deduction and personal exemptions drop from $28,900 to $24,000. Offsetting this is the child tax credit, which will increase from $1,000 to $2,000 in the Senate bill. The additional $1,000 increase under the Senate plan will be non-refundable, meaning it can reduce your tax liability to zero but will not be paid back.
  3. With a higher standard deduction, it will be more difficult for musicians to have enough itemized deductions to claim a tax deduction. As a reminder, itemized deductions currently include state and local income, sales, and property taxes, mortgage interest, charitable donations, and miscellaneous itemized deductions such as unreimbursed employee expenses.
  4. The Senate Bill eliminates the tax deduction for state and local income and sales taxes and caps the property tax deduction to $10,000. Starting in 2018, you will no longer be able to deduct home equity loans or interest on a second home. Another change: in order to receive the capital gains exclusion on the sale of your home, you must have had the house serve as your primary residence for 5 of the past 8 years. (An increase from 2 of the past 5 years.)
  5. Also eliminated are the Miscellaneous Itemized Deductions. This is on page 83 of the Senate Bill. This category includes unreimbursed employee expenses which are very significant to many musicians. You will no longer be able to claim the following as itemized deductions: tools and supplies, required clothing, home office expenses, mileage and travel, union dues or professional organization dues. Again, this applies to your expenses in generating W-2 income and not to 1099 income. It is essential to know how you are paid.
  6. The Senate version increased the above-the-line deduction for teacher classroom expenses from $250 to $500. This was eliminated in the House bill, to universal outrage. You do not have to itemize to take this deduction. Let’s hope this makes it into the final bill.
  7. There are many other changes to Alternative Minimum Tax, the Estate Tax, the individual mandate of the ACA, pass-through entities, and allowing 529 Plans to pay for private and religious schools for K-12. The student loan interest deduction is eliminated. We’re aware of these changes and others and are happy to discuss those on an individual basis.

While I cannot provide personal tax advice to non-clients, I can make some general recommendations you may want to consider for your own tax situation.

If you currently itemize, you may want to accelerate as many of your deductions into 2017. Before December 31, consider:

  • Paying your property taxes. Next year, you will be capped to $10,000. But even if you are below $10,000, only your itemized deductions above $24,000 will net you any additional tax savings versus the standard deduction. Will you have more than $24,000 in itemized deductions in 2018? It will be more difficult under the new rules.
  • If you have unreimbursed employee expenses, you might want to make those purchases in 2017: concert clothes, sheet music, tools and supplies, or musical instruments. Buy your plane tickets now for 2018 travel. Pay your dues and subscriptions. Remember that to count as a 2017 expense, you just have to put these on a credit card by December 31.
  • Making your charitable donations. If you are over age 70 1/2, you really have to look into doing a Qualified Charitable Donation from your IRA rather than trying to deduct a charitable donation.
  • Reviewing your sources of 1099 /  Schedule C income. If you have both W-2 and 1099 income, you will want to tie your expenses to your Schedule C business expenses instead of Schedule A itemized deductions starting in 2018. If you are primarily W-2, having some 1099 gigs may allow you to claim expenses which will otherwise be lost.

As a musician and the spouse of a musician, I have spent hundreds of hours in keeping receipts and detailed records of expenses which will no longer be tax deductible for us. It’s frustrating, and I believe our taxes will be higher in 2018 as a result. Being a musician is already a challenging way to make a living and this change will complicate things further for many of us.

Musicians want financial security and we can help you achieve those goals. If you’re ready to have a financial plan that is specific to your life and needs, please contact me and we can discuss how we work with musicians.

As an aside, I’d like to applaud Senator Bob Corker who was the sole Republican to vote against the Bill, because it will increase deficits by $1 trillion over the next decade. Corker – who is retiring and not running for re-election – was the only Senator who did not vote along party lines. The Bill passed 51-49. Interesting times, indeed.

Musicians, You’re About to Lose Your Tax Deductions

Musicians have been asking me if the new tax bill passed by the House yesterday will have any impact on us. Yes, the legislation, if passed in the Senate, will greatly reduce the ability of professional musicians to deduct many of the expenses we incur in our work.

I should state right at the outset that it is possible that your taxes may be lower under the current proposal. That’s because the plan will increase the standard deduction from $6,350 (single) and $12,700 (married) in 2017 to $12,000 and $24,000 in 2018. As a result, it is believed that instead of 33%, the number of taxpayers who itemize will fall to only 10%. But it also means that if you have itemized deductions below $12,000 (single)/$24,000 (married), you will no longer receive any benefit from those expenses in 2018.

And if you have $25,000 of itemized deductions as a married couple, you are actually getting only $1,000 more in deductions than someone who has zero deductions and claims the standard deduction of $24,000. That means you spent $25,000 to only get an additional $1,000 deduction; in the 25% tax bracket, you will save $250, a 1% benefit of the $25,000 you spent.

I think many of us have had more than $12,000 or $24,000 in itemized deductions in the past, however, starting in 2018 the Bill also eliminates many itemized deductions, except for these three which will remain:

  • Charitable Donations
  • Property Taxes, now with a $10,000 cap
  • Mortgage Interest, reduced from two properties to one, and reduced from a $1 million loan to $500,000 maximum 

You will no longer be able to deduct:

  • Unreimbursed Employee Expenses
  • Medical Expenses that exceed 7.5% or 10% of your income
  • Tax Preparation Fees
  • Moving For Work (over 50 miles)
  • Gambling Losses or Casualty Losses
  • The $7,500 tax credit for a plug-in electric vehicle will be repealed

The first one, Unreimbursed Employee Expenses, is a huge hit to musicians who often spend tens of thousands on an instrument and supplies. There aren’t too many other jobs where an employer expects you to have $5,000, $50,000, or $500,000 in “tools” as a requirement of your employment. In addition to “Tools and Supplies”, losing Unreimbursed Employee Expenses also means you can no longer deduct:

  • Union membership and work dues
  • Dues to professional societies
  • Home office expenses
  • Educator expenses and college research expenses
  • Travel, mileage, and meals for work
  • Required concert clothes

This applies to musicians who are “employees” and receive a W-2 at the end of the year. When you are an employee, expenses go on Schedule A as itemized deductions. Other times, however, musicians are “independent contractors” and receive a 1099. If you are an independent contractor, you list business expenses on Schedule C and these expenses will continue to be valid under the Bill. It may be more advantageous for a musician to be an Independent Contractor if this Bill becomes a Law.

Many musicians have both W-2 income (say from a school or full-time orchestra) and 1099 income (church gigs, part-time orchestra, etc.). You will probably want to apply as many expenses as possible towards your 1099/Schedule C income going forward.

Please don’t take any steps until the final version has been made into law. However, if the House version passes the Senate, I think many musicians will want to be prepared to take steps to pay 2018 expenses before December 31, 2017. If you wait until January, either you will either lose those miscellaneous itemized deductions or may be below $24,000 under the new rules and end up taking the standard deduction. Better to take those expenses in 2017 and receive a benefit.

  1. Consider paying your property taxes in December 2017 rather than January 2018
  2. Make your 2018 charitable donations in 2017
  3. If you have unreimbursed employee expenses, go ahead and purchase reed supplies, music, concert clothes, etc. before the end of 2017
  4. Where musical expenses are genuinely part of your 1099 income, you will still be able to subtract those expenses on Schedule C. Look at past tax returns, how much of your income is W-2 versus 1099? If you continually lose money on your Schedule C, the IRS may rule that your “business” is actually a hobby and disallow your losses.
  5. If you want to reduce your taxes further, look instead at increasing your contributions to pre-tax accounts such as a 401(k), 403(b), Traditional IRA, SEP-IRA, HSA, or FSA. These are still going to be valid ways to reduce your taxable income.

Does your financial planner understand what it means to be a professional musician? We have deep expertise in helping musicians succeed with their financial goals. Send me an email and we can help you, too.

 

How To Be A World Traveler

When asked to describe The Good Life, many musicians include a desire to travel and see the world, often in our top three or four goals. Yet, often we find reasons why it seems impractical or impossible to do so today. My Oberlin roommate, Marty Regan, travels more than anyone I know, and I have always found it fascinating to talk with Marty about how he does it. Here’s my interview with Marty.

SS: We met up in Taos in May and now you are in Tokyo for the summer. Give us a rundown of where you’ve been in the last 12 months.

MR: Last year I was conducting research in Cambridge, UK, and during the summer I traveled to Ireland, Italy, and Iceland. I returned to the USA in late August and have since taken domestic trips to Maine, New York, California, and New Mexico. Over Christmas and New Year’s I traveled in New Zealand for five weeks.

To be a world traveler, a lot of people think you have to be very wealthy. Did you win the lottery or inherit a family fortune? This is all from your college music professor salary?

Yes, it is. However, I am single with no children, have no debt and lead a simple lifestyle in an area with a relatively low cost of living, so I have dispensable income to spend as I wish.

What do you enjoy most about travel? What have you learned from other cultures? 

As a composer, I have always been fascinated with the relationship between life experiences (including travel!) and artistic expression. If a writer, artist, or composer experiences a cathartic moment when doing something significant like cycling through the Netherlands when the tulips are in full bloom or witnessing an architectural masterpiece like the Pantheon in Rome, how are those experiences manifested when they begin their next work? For writers and visual artists, it seems to me that the relationship is often quite direct. For example, a writer could attempt in prose to capture the details of a particular scene or space, while an artist could be inspired to render the scene realistically or perhaps more abstractly in a painting. In either case, one could argue that the resultant work was directly inspired by the experience. For a composer however, this relationship is a bit more slippery. For me, musical “inspiration” often involves finding myself in a new and unfamiliar environments and allowing myself to be stimulated by the experiences that await me.

I strongly suggest reading Pico Iyer’s article Why We Travel.

I think many people – myself included – could work from anywhere in the world, as long as we have internet. How has travel impacted your work?

As long as I have my computer or iPad with me, I can conduct most of my work remotely. Travel has not negatively impacted my work in anyway.

You’ve obviously figured out how to travel on a budget, because you spend weeks or months in some of the most expensive cities in the world. I imagine that hotels in these cities can cost $500 a night and up. How do you make this work?

Well, I am very lucky in that I have a network friends and colleagues all over the world. I sometimes plan trips where friends of mine reside, not for the promise of free accommodation, but because of the companionship and benefit of having a local teach you about their city. If I travel to a place where I do no know anyone, then I find other ways to keep costs low by living like a local. I rarely stay in hotels.

Let’s talk more about lodging. Where do you stay? How do you find places? 

When I stay in a place for a long period of time, Airbnb is my preferred accommodation option. VRBO is also dependable. Some cities I have used Airbnb for extended visits include London, Rome, Paris, Prague, Helsinki, Shanghai, and Seoul, among others.

Outside of lodging, any advice for saving money on transportation, food, and entertainment while you are travelling?

I don’t purchase plane tickets until I have spent time exploring the market for a while and I am confident that I am getting a fair price. I try to stick to the Star Alliance network and pay with my United Chase Plus credit card because purchases add up really quickly that can redeemed for free flights. I always try to stay somewhere with access to a basic kitchen so that I can buy food at local groceries to save on meal expenses. As far as entertainment is concerned, I rarely book in advance but rather show up the day of the performance (symphony orchestra concerts, ballet, theater, etc.) and inquire about last minute rush tickets. Often I am given tickets for free by patrons who can’t use them and have left them at the box office. This happened recently for a performance of Götterdämmerung at the Houston Grand Opera. I was prepared to pay $150+ for a good seat!

You rent your house in College Station through Airbnb. How has that helped you with your travel?

I started renting my house on Airbnb in 2011. Basically, I use the rental income that I receive from Airbnb to pay for expenses that I incur when I travel. At the moment, I am currently residing in Tokyo for 2+ months, but rental income from my home covers my rental expenses here. Here is a link to my home.

Who is a good candidate for Airbnb? If someone is thinking of making their house available, what should they know? 

A good candidate for Airbnb would include a person who can appreciate the unique quirks that you might encounter when living in someone’s home. If you are hoping for a cookie-cutter Hyatt or Hilton experience, then Airbnb is not for you. If you are thinking of making your house available, be aware that fielding questions from guests can sometimes take a lot of time! Create a profile in which answers to the most commonly-asked questions are available. Have a system in which guests can check in and check out without you being there, such as having a lock box on the door or installing a keyless entry system. Consider providing amenities that will make their stay memorable. In my case, I usually leave a snack and fruit basket along with fresh-squeezed orange juice. I also leave a hand-written welcome letter as well as a guest book where I request that guests leave their comments.

Do you set a daily or weekly budget for when you travel?

I have never planned daily or weekly budgets!

Favorite travel memory?

Taking a snowmobile tour in Iceland to the top of a glacier in August for my birthday to view a filming location for the Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

Best place to visit that has a surprising value?

Czech Republic.

Many thanks, Marty, and safe travels! See you in Texas in the Fall.

Originally from Long Island, New York, Marty Regan is an Associate Professor at Texas A&M University and lives in Bryan-College Station. He is a composer who specializes in composing music for traditional Japanese instruments. Marty graduated from Oberlin College, lived in Tokyo for 6+ years, and received a Ph.D. from the University of Hawaii, Manoa.
martyregan.com

What is Critical and Declining Status?

If you are a participant in the Musicians’ Union Pension, the AFM-EPF, you may have received an email this week that said that thanks to good investment performance, the plan would remain in Critical status but not move into “Critical and Declining” status. The message notes that it is still possible that the plan will become “Critical and Declining” next year or in the future. What does this mean to the future of the plan if you are an active participant or a retiree? Here’s what you need to know.

The US Department of Labor’s Employee Benefit Security Administration (EBSA) is charged with enforcing ERISA regulations regarding retirement plans, including multi-employer pension plans, such as the AFM-EPF. Under ERISA Code Section 305, multi-employer plans which are underfunded fall into three categories. Here is a simplified summary:

  1. Endangered Plans have a funded percentage under 80%. They are required to adopt a Funding Improvement Plan to increase the plan’s funded percentage.
  2. Critical Plans have a funded percentage under 65%. Plans in Critical Status (“red zone”) must implement a Rehabilitation Plan which will enable the plan to emerge from Critical Status.
  3. Critical And Declining is reserved for plans which are projected to become insolvent within 15 years (or in some situations, 20 years).

The current 2016 Rehabilitation Plan from the AFM-EPF indicates that Milliman (the plan actuaries) now projects that the plan will not emerge from Critical Status. The steps taken in 2010 will not be sufficient for the plan to remain solvent.

Once a plan is in the Critical And Declining category, the plan administrators are allowed (but not required) to reduce current and future benefits in order to try to save the plan or increase the amount of time that assets will last. They can reduce benefits to no lower than 110% of the Federally guaranteed minimum under the Pension Benefits Guarantee Corporation (PBGC) rules. Please read my previous article on how to calculate the PBGC guarantees.

As independent fiduciaries, I believe the pension administrators would legally need to consider reducing payouts, even to current retirees, if the plan was labeled as Critical and Declining. Their duty would be to try to save the plan. Needless to say, no one wants to see the pension cut payouts which were promised to participants and retirees. However, the actuaries have already said that the Rehabilitation Plan is not going to work and we should now take “reasonable measures to forestall possible insolvency.”

If you are 80 years old, you might not live to see the plan terminate. But if you are 50 years old, the plan might be taken over by the PBGC before you retire and then you may face a big cut in benefits. For active participants, you would want cuts now to try to save the plan or delay for as long as possible its insolvency. Current participants are already receiving less than 1/4 the payout, $1 versus $4.65, for every $100 contributed compared to contributions made before 2004.

For a retiree, however, having the pension renege on the payment they were promised could be financially devastating. At least the current participant has the option of working longer or getting another job. But in the end, if the plan becomes insolvent, all participants will be reduced to the PBGC payout regardless of what we had been promised or had “earned”.

Unfortunately, there is no easy solution to this mess. We are seeing the same situation in pensions around the country, not just multi-employer plans, but also municipal plans like the Dallas Fire and Police Pension, and even Social Security faces insolvency in less than 20 years. The Pension Industry made fatal mistakes in what they thought they could provide and now participants are going to be left holding the bag. There are only two choices, reduce payouts or increase contributions. But the amount of increases that would be needed to make pensions whole is unfeasible, so I believe we will be forced to accept cuts at some point in the future. The question is whether we will make these changes in a deliberate, well-planned manner, or if we are going to continue to deny the problem until the ship has sunk.

What Would Happen If The AFM-EPF Fails?

Pensions offer what may be the ideal source of retirement income. I have written a number of times about the critical status of the American Federation of Musicians Employer Pension Fund (AFM-EPF), a multiemployer pension plan which covers 50,000 professional musicians in America. Given that the Actuaries do not believe that their rehabilitation plan will enable the plan to emerge from critical status, you may wonder: What would happen to your pension if the plan were to terminate or fail?

The AFM-EPF is covered by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, a federal agency that was chartered to protect pension plan participants. The PBGC is funded through required employer contributions and receives no tax dollars.

Even though the pension plan is insured, there are limits on the amount of coverage available to individuals through the PBGC. If a plan terminates and you are vested, but not yet retired and receiving benefits, you would be covered only for your currently vested benefits and would not receive any further credit for future work. This is important: The PBGC will only cover vested benefits and a plan termination will halt the accrual of future benefits.

If you are retired and already receiving benefits, the PBGC has limits on the monthly benefit they would cover. If a plan terminates and is taken over by the PBGC, you could see your monthly benefit drop by a significant amount. The PBGC provides different levels of coverage for single-employer plans and multiemployer plans. All the information below relates to multiemployer plans, such as the AFM-EPF.

(If you are also a participant in a single-employer plan, you can find information on PBGC coverage here: PBGC Monthly Maximum Tables.)

For participants the AFP-EPF, your maximum coverage under the PBGC is based on your years of service. If your pension benefit is above the monthly guaranty amount, and the plan were to fail, your benefit would be reduced to the PBGC maximum. Here’s how the PBGC calculates their coverage:

PBGC formula for Multiemployer Plans
100% of the first $11 of monthly benefits,
Plus 75% of the next $33 of monthly benefits,
Times the number of years of service.

The maximum monthly benefit under the PBGC then is $35.75 times the number of credited years of service. For example, if you were a participant for 30 years, your maximum benefit would be $1072.50 a month, or $12,870 a year. And in order to get $35.75 from the PBGC, you’d have to be receiving at least $44 from the pension. In other words, to get the PBGC benefit of $12,870 a year, your pension benefit amount would need to be at least $15,840.

Please note that this example is based on 30 years of service; if you had more or less than 30 years of service, your benefits under the PBGC could be higher or lower. The amounts for Multiemployer plans are not indexed for inflation and do not receive Cost of Living Adjustments. There is no plan to increase these amounts. Link: Multiemployer Benefit Guarantees.

Musicians need to have multiple legs on their retirement plan: pension, Social Security, investment accounts including IRAs, and other sources of income. If you try to have a plan that rests entirely on one leg, you are potentially asking for trouble. The trustees of the AFM-EPF are looking to forestall possible insolvency, but the plan actuaries do not calculate that the plan will ever recover to a fully funded status. In your planning, please consider not only the benefit offered by the EPF, but also make sure you understand and calculate what your benefit would be if the plan were to terminate and be taken over by the PBGC.

Reducing the Costs of Healthcare

We may soon see the repeal or defunding of the Affordable Care Act (ACA or “Obamacare”). No matter your political perspective, there is no doubt that rising costs of health care are a significant financial problem for many working musicians, especially those who rely on an individual health insurance plan to cover their family. These spiraling costs threaten our ability to save and accumulate, as well as to secure our retirement. In our financial plans, we calculate a higher rate of inflation for health care costs than other living expenses, but cost increases for those using individual plans on the ACA exchange have grown much faster than the overall 5-6% rate nationwide.

As a society, we are going to need to curb these costs while making sure all Americans have access to care. What concerns me today is that the new administration is pushing forward with the repeal while replacement plans remain vague and uncertain. We know what they are against, but what is the best solution?

Here’s a Financial Planner’s perspective on how America might reduce the cost of healthcare. My hope is that we can have a more educated and thoughtful conversation about this complex subject.

1) Covering Pre-existing Conditions
Requiring insurance companies to accept new participants and cover their “pre-existing conditions” is a fair and compassionate move from a consumer protection standpoint. But it’s a major change to the insurance model.

It means that insurers have to worry about self-selection bias, where people who are sick will sign up, but people who are healthy decide to forgo coverage. The more insurance premiums go up, the more self-selection occurs. That’s why the ACA included a provision to penalize people who do not have coverage, to create a financial incentive for everyone to participate.

The penalty is 2.5% of your income, with a floor of $695 and a ceiling of $2,085 per adult for 2016 and 2017. The ACA forces a painful decision between paying a penalty versus spending thousands more on coverage that has a high deductible and may offer little benefit unless you have a catastrophic illness or injury.

Unfortunately, requiring insurance companies to accept pre-existing conditions is like requiring auto insurers to cover your car after you’ve already had an accident. To afford covering pre-existing conditions, we need all Americans to participate in health insurance and not let healthy folks opt out. That’s why covering pre-existing conditions combined with rising costs is causing self-selection: people who are healthy are choosing to forgo coverage or cannot afford it.

Similarly, allowing young adults to stay on their parent’s coverage through age 26 under the ACA sounded like a great idea to keep those children insured. Unfortunately, it removed healthy young people from the risk pool, which made costs more expensive for everyone else who needed coverage through the exchange.

In this regards, the ACA coverage of pre-existing conditions has increased costs more than anticipated. Maybe the best solution would be a single-payer, government health plan, like in many European countries. Our tendency is to reject these plans out of hand, but maybe we should look more carefully at their costs, benefits, and features. We cannot afford to think we have nothing to learn from the rest of developed world.

2) Cost of insurance versus healthcare
Insurance companies have a mandate legally requiring a large, fixed percentage of their premiums go directly to medical costs and not to overhead. Insurance premiums have not been rising because of greedy insurance companies making profits. In fact, the opposite, companies are leaving the ACA exchange after losing tens or hundreds of millions of dollars. Insurance costs are going up because the costs of healthcare are skyrocketing.

What we need to be doing is looking at ways to reduce healthcare costs; insurance just passes through those costs to consumers. The US spends 50% to 100% more than other developed countries per person. We spent 17.8% of GDP on healthcare in 2015, the highest in the world. Universal healthcare programs in Europe, Canada, and elsewhere costs much less, no more than 10-11% of GDP.

Why do we spend so much on healthcare in the US?

  • US patients may pay 3-4 times as much for medicines than in Mexico or Canada. This is frequently for drugs that were invented or manufactured in the US. We need to examine why the free market isn’t pushing those costs down.
  • The threat of lawsuits, and magnitude of awards, hurts Americans two ways. Directly, the cost of malpractice insurance is ultimately passed on to consumers. Indirectly, doctors may order additional tests, procedures, or medications that may be unnecessary or more costly than other alternatives, because of the threat of malpractice, rather than medical need.
  • To some extent, private insurance subsidizes hospitals who receive low reimbursements from Medicare and from uninsured patients who do not pay. Your insurance company is likely paying a hospital much more than they would receive from Medicare. Many public hospitals, like Parkland in Dallas, serve the 15% of Americans who are uninsured. And when the uninsured have a $50,000 hospital bill, that amount will seldom be collected.
  • Patients often do not have any incentive to reduce costs or share in expenses. Once your deductible and out-of-pocket is met, for example, the patient’s cost of a $15,000 procedure is the same as a $50,000 procedure. Which procedure is a doctor or hospital more likely to recommend if you have good insurance?
  • We spend a significant amount of our Medicare and Medicaid budget on caring for people in their last 3-6 months. Dying is a natural process, but modern medicine often assumes we should prolong life for as long as possible regardless of the quality of that life. I am glad that we do not tie end-of-life decisions to cost, but perhaps it would be both sensible and compassionate to focus on comfort rather heroic procedures for an elderly patient with significant health issues. Being hooked up to machines and tubes may keep you alive, but it is not the same as living.
  • Many health issues such as heart disease, blood pressure, and diabetes are exacerbated by the obesity problem in the US. An education on smarter food choices and more exercise should start at an early age. Prevention is less expensive.

We cannot expect the cost of health insurance to decrease unless we address the cost of healthcare. We need to encourage everyone to have health insurance coverage, because the very nature of insurance is spreading out risks so that the pooled money covers claims for those who need it. We are keeping our fingers crossed that whatever plan Washington develops, more people can be insured and that we look long-term to keep healthcare costs better under control. For our musician clients, we will continue to help you sort through your options, but know that having access to a group plan through an employer or spouse, continues to be your best bet for coverage.

Four Investment Themes for 2017

Each November and December, I undertake a complete review of our Premier Wealth Management Portfolio Models and make tactical adjustments for the year ahead. We have five risk levels: Conservative (roughly 35% equities / 65% fixed income), Balanced (50/50), Moderate (60/40), Growth (70/30), and Aggressive (85/15).

Our investment process is tactical and contrarian. Each year we look for those market opportunities which have attractive and low valuations, and increase our weighting to those segments, while decreasing those categories which appear more expensive. We include Core positions, which offer broad diversification and are the essential and permanent foundation of our portfolios. And we purchase Satellite positions which we feel offer a compelling current opportunity in a more narrow or niche investment category. Typically, there are 12-15 positions in total, consisting of Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) and Mutual Funds.

While we are not afraid to make changes to our models, we believe that when it comes to trading, less is more. We want to minimize taxable sales and especially to avoid short-term capital gains. That’s why we only change the models once a year, although we also believe that more frequent trading would be likely to be detrimental rather than return enhancing.

For 2017, our portfolio changes will be based on three considerations:
1) Relative valuations (reducing expensive stocks and adding to the inexpensive segments).
2) Replacing our holdings in a few categories, where another fund appears to offers a better risk/return profile.
3) Our world view of the markets in 2017, which is more focused on identifying risk than trying to predict the top performing investments. No matter what, diversification remains more valuable than our opinions about investment opportunities.

Here then are our four investment themes for 2017:

1) Low for Longer
Although interest rates may have bottomed in 2016, it does not appear that there will be a V-shaped recovery. We think interest rates, inflation, Domestic and Global GDP will all remain quite low for 2017.

2) Full Valuations
US Equities are no longer cheap. Years of central banks holding interest rates near zero (or actually negative in some countries this year) has forced investors into risk assets. This has driven up PE multiples. And while I would not call this a bubble, you can’t say that the US market is cheap today. That means that equity growth going forward is likely to be tepid.

Low bond yields pushed investors into dividend stocks, specifically to consumer staples and utilities, which are perhaps the most “bond-like”. These categories seem to be especially bloated and could underperform.

Turning to bonds, the yield on the 10-Year Treasury has increased from 1.6% to 2% in the past three months. Time will tell, but could this summer have been the peak of the 30-year bull market in bonds? I don’t know, but when yields are this low, prices on long-term bonds can move dramatically. We invest in bonds for income and stability and to balance out the equity risk in our portfolios. We’re not interested in using bonds to speculate on the direction of interest rates.

While there may not be an equity level of risk in bonds, it is safe to say that the price of bonds globally is higher in 2016 than it has ever been before. Bonds are much less attractive than five years ago, although we find some pockets that interest us and may at least give us a chance of exceeding inflation and earning a positive real return on our money.

3) Leadership Rotation
I believe we are going to see a very gradual shift in three areas:

A) From Growth to Value. Since 2009, growth stocks have dominated value stocks. This tends to be cyclical, but over the long-term, value has outperformed. We see a widening valuation gap between popular growth stocks, some of which are trading at PEs of 100 or higher, and out of favor value companies. Value is showing signs of life in 2016, and we think that there will be mean reversion at some point that favors value.

B) From Domestic to Emerging. Over the past 5 years, US stocks have reigned. Boosted by a strong dollar and a global flight to quality, US stocks have outperformed others and become more expensive than international stocks. Emerging markets have languished and are now trading at a big discount to developed markets. But emerging economies have higher growth rates and overall, have less debt and more favorable demographics than developed markets. While volatility will be higher, Emerging markets could greatly outperform if you are looking out 10 or 20 years from now.

C) From Bonds to Commodities. In 2016 we have already seen a rebound in oil, gold, and other commodity prices. After years of commodity prices falling, have we put in a bottom? We don’t have commodities in our models currently, but when inflation and interest rates start to pick up, I expect to see commodities gain and bonds suffer. That’s why the bull market in bonds may well end at the same time as the bear market in commodities. 2017 may be a good year to start diversifying for long-term investors.

4) High Risk, Low Return
With full valuations in equities and very low interest rates in bonds, expected returns for a Balanced or Moderate allocation are likely to be noticeably lower than historical returns. While volatility has been actually very mild for the past several years, investors should not be lulled into thinking that their portfolios will continue to grind higher without the possibility of a 10% or 20% correction.

Unfortunately, in today’s global economy, it seems less likely that a traditional diversification, for example, adding small cap and international stocks, will provide any sort of defense in the next bear market. We are expanding our investment universe to look for alternative strategies which can offer a true low correlation to equities. When the market is booming or even just recovering (like 2009), equities are often the top performers. But in a high risk, low return environment, we want some positions that offer the potential for positive returns with lower, different, or uncorrelated risks. If you want to explore these in greater detail, see our new Defensive Managers Select portfolio model.

These four investment themes are important considerations for how we position for 2017. You can get investments anywhere and they are becoming a low-cost commodity. However, what you cannot get anywhere is insight, personal service, and a custom-tailored individual financial plan. Investments are interesting, but we view them as a means to an end. Investments should accomplish your financial goals with the absolute least amount of risk necessary. The more interesting angle is how we can use investments to fulfill your plan just for you.

Orchestra Substitute Etiquette

I have been principal trombone of a regional orchestra for the past 15 years. During that time, I’ve seen a lot of substitutes who we wanted to hire again, and unfortunately, a number who we did not want to have back. Sometimes, that’s because of poor technique, but too often, we simply didn’t enjoy working with that individual. This may seem ridiculous to talk about conservatory graduates not being invited back to sub with a part-time group, but there are so many good players out there. Are you someone who we would want to have back?

If you’re trying to make a living as free-lancer, your income depends on people wanting to hire you next time they need a sub. Here are my top 7 tips for substitute etiquette, along with actual events which have occurred. Don’t be that player who makes us say “never again!”.

  1. Be responsible. A few years ago, we had a tuba sub who showed up 20 minutes late to the first rehearsal. At the second rehearsal, he left at the break, not realizing we were not yet done! At the first concert, he forgot his music at home, sending our poor librarian into a panic to locate and print parts. Is this someone you would want to have back? Does it even matter how he played? Be early, and make sure you have a pencil and any mutes or equipment you might need.
  2. Prepare your music in advance. Do not sight read on a gig, you will stick out! At one “movie score” program, the conductor emailed the orchestra in advance encouraging us to look at specific sections of a very difficult score by Dimitri Tiomkin. At the first rehearsal, he must have noticed that the other trombones had not picked up their folders. After the orchestra tuned, he immediately asked the trombone section to play a difficult sixteenth-note passage alone. It did not go well and we spent the first 10 minutes of that rehearsal having a trombone sectional, while the rest of the orchestra sat there and listened. Say what you will about the conductor’s behavior, it was a humiliating moment which may have been lessened or avoided if my colleagues had practiced their music. Sections play together for years. When you are a sub, you need to focus 100% of your attention on fitting into the section, not learning notes. Learn your music before the rehearsal, if you want to be called back to sub again. Myself, the bass trombone and tuba have played together for 15 years. If it is out of tune or not together, it is probably the sub on second.
  3. Don’t be a distraction. Be still when you play. Do not move or fiddle with anything before or during a colleague’s solo. You will probably see members of the orchestra playing with their phones during rests, and think it is okay to do this. I would keep your phone put away. You risk missing an entrance or not hearing what a conductor is saying. Similarly, you may hear others carrying on conversations during rehearsal. Again, as a sub, I would not. It’s not the time to talk about sports, politics, or equipment. You may unknowingly be distracting and irritating those around you who are trying to concentrate on the music. It may seem hypocritical to not also criticize the other musicians for this behavior, but they already have the gig and are respected colleagues. You are a sub and should be on your best behavior. Please do not turn around and look at players behind you.
  4. Be a great second player. In school, most studies are focused on audition excerpts or principal parts. Most calls for subs will be to play second. There is an art to being a great second player, and it is not the same as being a principal player. Blend. Do not play louder than the principal. Follow. Do not lead from the second or third chair. Listen to the principal for dynamics, style, phrasing, note lengths, and releases. Adjust to make the principal sound good. Be flexible, even if you heard it, learned it, or prefer it another way. Do not play too loudly. Do not let notes “hang over”. Be open to feedback and be willing to adjust. Why do I have to write this? Because I hear these problems all the time in groups. If I have to say something to a sub, they’re not listening to my playing.
  5. What not to play. Before the rehearsal or during breaks, please do not practice excerpts, concerti, or passages from other player’s parts. If you are there early, don’t be that player who is practicing on stage while the harp is tuning or the oboes are working on their reeds. If you are a brass player, bring a practice mute and the musicians in front of you will be much happier.
  6. Don’t complain. In many orchestras, there are the resident curmudgeons who are always unhappy. Even if they air their gripes, it is not appropriate for subs to complain about the music, the hall, the conductor, or other conditions. Those complaints may be valid, but sharing those thoughts creates a negative environment. If I say my dog is fat and stupid, that’s okay. If you say my dog is fat and stupid, it is an insult. Subs who complain come across as ungrateful and arrogant. Negativity can feed on itself and become a downward spiral. Have an attitude of appreciation. Or as my mom always said, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all!”
  7. Be positive. Several years ago, we played Bolero on our season opener. I spent all summer staying in shape, knowing that for our first week back, I had a heavy program that ended with one of the best known trombone solos. We had a sub on second, who literally did not say one word to me about the solo all week. It went well, and it would have been appropriate to say “nice job” or something resembling a compliment. I don’t need this for my vanity, it’s simply being a supportive colleague. By the third performance, it just felt awkward that he didn’t say anything. We want to be around people who are positive, who appreciate having the opportunity to make music together, and who support each other. Life’s too short to spend it working with people who are downers. If you want to be asked back as a sub, it doesn’t hurt to be a friendly colleague who people want to be around.

As a sub, you may not realize that it can be very stressful on a section to have a different person playing. We play together for years and develop an unspoken way of blending, tuning, and approaching different styles of music. When a sub comes in, that all goes out the window. It can be very unsettling. Like it or not, people don’t enjoy having subs. You are an unknown, a risk, someone who could make their section look bad in front of their colleagues and conductor. There is not a lot of upside to having a sub play for a week. Think about how you can use these seven tips to put them at ease and lower their anxiety.

As a free-lancer, I have had a chance to sub with a fair number of orchestras over the years. I am very grateful to those who invite me to play again. But sometimes I think I played well, and still never get a call back. I think about subs in my orchestra who have not gotten called back, and the reasons why. I am sure I have probably broken every one of these seven tips at one time or another. Mea culpa. Hopefully, I can continue to grow as a person and improve as a musician!

Remember that you never get a second chance to make a first impression. Imagine yourself as a member of the orchestra and ask whether you would want to have yourself back. Be prepared, be professional, be polite, and be positive.

7 Financial Tips for Professional Musicians

Just like a career in music, achieving prosperity is the product of years of planning, deliberate work, and making sound choices. Being a professional musician is different from other traditional careers and can pose a unique set of financial challenges. Here are seven ways professional musicians can improve their financial future:

  1. Think like an entrepreneur. You are dedicated to your art; be sure to not neglect your business, because you are indeed a business. What would a business owner do? Develop multiple sources of revenue (different gigs, styles, teaching, administration, etc.) to diversify your income stream and have the flexibility to change when opportunities arise or go away. Entrepreneurs don’t do everything themselves or try to know everything. They enlist professionals – financial planners, CPAs, attorneys – to make sure they are doing things right.
  2. Set Goals. The myth is that all musicians were born with a talent. The reality is that we’ve spent thousands of hours over many decades practicing, learning from masters (and colleagues), and competing to reach the highest levels of performance. If musicians spent even a small fraction of that energy on setting financial goals, taking steps to save, and educating themselves about money, they would be incredibly successful. Professional musicians are as driven and dedicated as Olympic athletes or chess champions. If we can apply that same process and focus to financial planning, the sky’s the limit. It doesn’t matter if you change your goals later on, the important thing is to get started today and not wait another year to start saving and planning for your future.
  3. Emergency Fund. The common rule of thumb is to keep 3-6 months of living expenses available in cash for emergencies. For musicians, I’d extend this to 6-12 months if you can. Your income can be highly variable, and if you can’t work, your income goes to zero. Read my top tips on How to Save More as a Musician.
  4. Be proactive to reduce taxes. The more money you keep, the more you have earned. Be organized with your receipts and records and aim to learn and improve your tax situation each year. Don’t wait until April to think about your deductions. If you have a dedicated practice room, be sure to use the home office deduction. Read The Musicians Guide to Mileage and Deducting Concert Clothes. If you have both salary (W-2) and self-employment (1099) income, try to deduct general expenses against your self-employment income on Schedule C. Take every opportunity to reduce your taxes. This takes some time, effort, and organization, but is well worth the effort.
  5. Think in terms of Assets and Liabilities. Grow your assets (investments, retirement accounts, cash, real estate) and have a plan to eliminate your liabilities (credit cards, student loans, mortgages, etc.). Aim to be debt free before retirement and get that stress out of your life. The earlier you start a retirement plan, the more you will have at retirement age. Read The Musician’s Guide to Choosing a Retirement Plan.
  6. Don’t skip insurance. I know a lot of musicians who are uninsured or under-insured. Don’t forgo health insurance at any age. Make sure you have coverage for home and auto that will actually protect you. If you can get a disability policy, make sure it covers “own occupation” (being a musician) and not “any occupation”. If other members of your family are dependent on your income, you need a life insurance policy. I recommend term insurance for 95% of the people I meet. Learn about Umbrella Policies.
  7. Be a good colleague. Working musicians know that their livelihood depends not just on their skills, but on their relationships with other musicians. Being easy to work with is essential to getting called back, being recommended for other gigs, being granted tenure, and maybe even winning a job or audition. A positive attitude is a tremendous asset in a field which is competitive, high pressure, and full of challenges. Be someone that you’d want to be around. Optimists are going to be more successful as musicians, as well as with their finances.

If you want to discuss what steps to take with your finances, you don’t have to go it alone. Give me a call and let’s talk about what you want to achieve.

AFM Pension Plan Slide Continues

Participants in the AFM Employers’ Pension Fund (AFM-EPF) received the annual funding notice and notice of critical status this week. Unfortunately, this year’s report is not good, and this notice does little to explain why.

Each year, pension administrators are required to evaluate their plan’s “funded percentage” as a measure of the plan’s financial capacity. The funded percentage is the actuarial value of the plan’s assets divided by the actuarial value of its liabilities. A funded percentage of 100% or higher would indicate a fully funded plan. Our plan has been in critical status since 2010, as have many plans, following the crash of 2008-2009 which greatly impacted asset values.

Two years ago, the AFM-EPF, reported a funded percentage of 85.7%. This declined to 81.6% last year, and then to 76% this year, which means that the plan presently has only 76 cents for every dollar of future benefits promised. The funded percentage is based on “actuarial” values, which means that these numbers are actually adjusted to smooth out stock market fluctuations and to discount future benefits back to today’s dollars. Also alarming is a large decline is the actual, “fair market value” of assets.

The fair market value of plan assets sat at $1,823,000,326 as of 3/31/2014, and stayed fairly level over the following year, to $1,818,080,945 as of 3/31/2015. Over the past year, however, assets declined by $114 million to $1,703,971,000, a drop of over 6%. During the most recent plan year (April 1, 2015 to March 31, 2016), the S&P 500 Index delivered a total return of 1.78%, so this wasn’t due to a terrible stock market environment.

It is also worth noting that the fair market value of assets is substantially lower than the actuarial values. As of April 1, 2015 (the most recent value made public), the actuarial value of assets was listed as $2,066,699,976, or $248 million more than the fair market value. That is a quarter billion dollars in smoothing! Over time, as we get further away from 2009, this gap should narrow. The actuarial values should eventually decline towards the fair market values – meaning that the funded percentage is unlikely to improve significantly even if the market performs strongly next year.

Over this same time period, the actuarial value of liabilities has been steadily increasing, from $2.39 billion in 2013 to $2.46 billion in 2014 and $2.53 billion in 2015. Increasing liabilities and decreasing assets are why the funded percentage has worsened.

One of the most significant changes to the plan has been dramatic reduction in the Benefit Multiplier. Put bluntly: the current participants are going to receive less than one-quarter of the benefits promised to previous beneficiaries and are going to bear the pain of the rehabilitation plan, while older participants will still receive their full benefits. Over time, the lower Benefit Multiplier should help improve the funded percentage.

The Benefit Multiplier is used to calculate a monthly payment for each $100 that has been contributed to the plan in your name. The multipliers below are all for retirement at age 65, and contributions earned in the following dates:

  • Before 1/01/2004: $4.65
  • Between 1/01/2004 and 4/01/2007: $3.50
  • Between 4/01/2007 and 4/01/2009: $3.25
  • Between 4/01/2009 and 1/01/2010: $2.00
  • After 1/01/2010: $1.00

Over this time period, the monthly benefit fell from $4.65 per $100 contribution to $1.00. I have to admit, I am baffled how the old payout was ever going to work. Someone who had $100 in contributions in 2003 and retired in 2004 at age 65 would get $4.65 a month, or $55.80 a year for the rest of their life? From $100?

I studied Pension Accounting in the CFA Program, and I understand how these decisions were made. The assumptions are crucial decisions. They assume a rate of return, a number of new and retiring participants, wage and contribution growth, and even the life expectancy of the average beneficiary. Unfortunately, many of these assumptions have proved overly optimistic, not just for the AFM-EPF, but for many pension plans. The rate of return has been lower in stocks since 2000, and is going to be much lower in bonds, going forward. Participants are living longer than the mortality tables (created decades ago) predicted. Growth in contributions and inflation make what seems like high pension payments possible in the future. Unfortunately, employers in music – specifically orchestras and the recording industry – are not areas of high contribution growth either in the number of musicians employed or in covered wages.

The EPF created the Rehabilitation Plan in 2010, which the Actuaries originally thought would enable the plan to emerge from critical status by 2047. Today, they no longer believe that the rehabilitation plan will work, only that it should forestall insolvency for at least 20 years. Past 20 years, they say that it is difficult to predict. This is a troubling development, and it’s not information which was shared in the plan mailing. If you want to find this information, you have to go online and download the June 27, 2016 update to the Rehabilitation Plan. On page 9:

“Currently, Milliman does not project that the Plan will emerge from critical status. Accordingly, the objective of the Rehabilitation Plan is to take reasonable measures to forestall possible insolvency.”

What does all this mean to you?

  1. The plan remains in critical status, and may worsen. The plan actuaries now believe that the rehabilitation plan will not enable to the plan to emerge from critical status. The funded status would be even worse if they used the fair market value of assets rather than the actuarial value.
  2. The plan has already slashed benefits going forward, but may need to lower payouts further if they want to guarantee solvency.
  3. Each year that the funded ratio declines, we are closer to the eventual possibility that the plan will be taken over by the Federal Government, via the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation, or PBGC. Note that the PBGC provides a reduced benefit and has a maximum guarantee of $35.75 times the number of years of service. (For example, if you participated for 30 years, your maximum monthly benefit would be $1072.50, even if the AFM-EPF had planned to pay you $2,000 a month.)
  4. Even in the best case scenario, musicians who joined the plan since 2010 will receive a small fraction of the benefits paid to those who had earnings before 2004. Newer participants had better have other sources of retirement income.
  5. The conversation we are having now on the AFM-EPF, all Americans should be having about Social Security. It is also in jeopardy and will not work as originally designed. Benefits promised cannot be delivered. We must make changes, including lowering benefits, lifting the retirement age, and increasing personal savings.

I trust our AFM Leadership to take the steps to fix the EPF. As a multi-employer plan with contribution rates determined by hundreds of CBAs and union agreements throughout the country, increasing contributions further is not a feasible option. Getting the plan to be fully funded may require tough decisions about cutting benefits. If you are concerned about your retirement, whether it is next year or 35 years away, give me a call and we will create a plan for your needs and goals.