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Tax Strategies to Embrace, or Avoid, Before the November Election

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In unpredictable times, the desire to create a better tax strategy becomes more urgent, but that could result in some regrettable changes to perfectly good plans.

For example, many advisers counseled their wealthy clients in 2012 that the estate and gift taxes exemptions were going down and that the rates on those taxes were going up. But the opposite happened the next year, and people who had given away more than they might have otherwise were caught off guard.

This year, few respectable financial advisers are handicapping the election and what it might mean for taxes and investment returns next year. But that doesn’t mean they are not providing counsel.

“We can’t make predictions better than anyone else can,” said Ani C. Hovanessian, chair of the New York Tax and Wealth Planning Group at Venable, a law firm. “But if we fail to plan, we plan to fail. Individuals aren’t going to work with me because we’re frozen like a deer in the headlights.”

Here’s a look at different planning strategies that taxpayers may want to embrace, avoid or even hedge, all with an acknowledgment that no one knows what next year will bring.

The main criterion for committing to a new plan now is that it is something you would have done eventually. Adjustments should not be something that springs to mind out of fear of the November election.

One easy change is converting an individual retirement account to a Roth retirement account. The money in a traditional I.R.A. is taxed when it is taken out. With a Roth I.R.A., you pay the tax on the deposits, and the money grows tax free. But a conversion requires the tax to be paid now, which can be a hard check to write, even if the long-term gain is better.

There are ways to offset the tax owed by claiming a loss this year. People who own rental properties that have generated passive income, or revenue that requires little to no effort to earn, can depreciate the value of the property and use that to offset the tax owed on a Roth conversion, said Stephen A. Baxley, director of tax and financial planning at Bessemer Trust.

Another simple change involves charitable giving. A provision in the CARES Act allows for 100 percent of charitable donations made in cash to be counted against your income this year. Normally, the deduction is capped at 50 percent of your income, with any amount more than that carried forward to subsequent years.

The provision was meant to spur immediate giving during the pandemic. But there are ways to comply with the spirit of the provision and not give entirely in cash.

Mr. Baxley said taxpayers could give 30 percent of their income in long-term appreciated stock and top that off with 70 percent in cash. Or they could also give 60 percent in cash to a donor-advised fund — which allows them to make grants at a later time — and 40 percent in cash to a public charity.

Pairing these charitable contributions with a Roth conversion can also offset the cost, he said.

Giving to heirs before the end of the year also makes sense as a tax strategy, said Jeremy Geller, co-head of J.P. Morgan Private Bank in New York. And as the exemption level goes up each year, he advises clients to top the gift off annually.

In a tax overhaul passed by Republican lawmakers in 2017, the exemption on the estate tax was doubled to more than $23 million for a couple (with a 40 percent tax rate on any amount over that). But that benefit expires in 2025. One concern among wealthy taxpayers is that a Democratic sweep on Election Day could bring that date forward, lowering the exemption amount back to what it was in the Obama era and increasing tax rates to pay for the ballooning federal deficit.

Whether that will happen is hard to predict, so advisers are counseling clients to make big tax-free gifts now only if they were planning to do so anyway.

Image“We don’t want people freaking out ahead of the election,” said Julio Castro of Evercore Wealth Management.
Credit…Hilary Swift for The New York Times

Julio Castro, who runs the Florida offices of Evercore Wealth Management, said he feared “impetuous planning.”

“We don’t want people freaking out ahead of the election and implementing planning strategies that don’t make sense for them,” Mr. Castro said. “There’s always a chance that things will change.”

It is easy enough to avoid a repeat of the giving mistake of 2012: Don’t give away more than you can afford. But a fear of increased income taxes by a new Congress could prompt people to change plans that still make sense.

“The only thing worse than making a decision driven purely by taxes is to make a decision driven by speculation of what the taxes might be,” said Bryan D. Kirk, director of estate and financial planning at Fiduciary Trust International.

One strategy to avoid is selling stocks and paying capital gains tax now, out of fear that the capital gains tax rate could go up next year. There is value in those unrealized capital gains, even if the prospect of the tax rate’s jumping to more than 40 percent from 20 percent is daunting.

Advisers cautioned against changing any investment plan based on what might happen. “If it makes sense along a 10- or 15-year time period, then it’s fine,” Mr. Geller said. “It all ties back to what is your long-term objective.”

Mr. Kirk said he tried to harness his clients’ desire to do something that could be detrimental to begin a broader conversation about what they were trying to accomplish. He called concern over taxes the first step of a dozen before changing an investment plan.

“The election will happen, and we’ll know the results,” he said. “But we won’t know what the tax plan will be this year.”

In life, having an acceptable hedge is always a bonus.

Roth I.R.A. conversions can fit in here. A good hedge would be to convert some portion now and more after the election. Another strategy would be to see how the public markets respond to the election. If stocks go down, complete the Roth conversion then; the lower market value will translate into a smaller tax bill.

There are risks. Income tax rates could actually fall, and “you could end up paying a lot of taxes you don’t need to pay,” said Kim Bourne, chief executive of Playfair Planning Services.

People looking to transfer money to heirs can make a loan to a trust now and then, depending on how the election goes, keep the loan in place or forgive it. If the loan is forgiven, that amount will count toward their gift exemption, said Alison Hutchinson, managing director at Brown Brothers Harriman.

One of her clients lent money to a trust she created for her children and grandchildren this month. The trust has to pay her a small amount of interest on the loan, but if it looks like the exemption levels for gifts are going down, her client will forgive the loan. Ms. Hutchinson said that process would be as simple as writing a letter to say she forgave it.

“We’re focused on flexible and resilient structures that can withstand different outcomes,” Ms. Hutchinson said.

The ultimate flexibility for couples is to create trusts that move the money out of one spouse’s estate but maintain the other spouse’s access to it. Called spousal lifetime access trusts, they can act as a safeguard against changes to a tax strategy that could backfire.

“You’ve completed and made a full transfer into the trust,” Ms. Hovanessian said. “You have cut off personal rights, but you can have your spouse as a beneficiary. It’s your backdoor strategy to have access to the funds.”

One downside, though, is that your spouse could die or divorce you, shutting off your access to the money. The money will go to other beneficiaries named in the trust.

Regardless of what changes you are considering, check with your adviser first.

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The Trump campaign celebrated a growth record that Democrats downplayed.

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The White House celebrated economic growth numbers for the third quarter released on Thursday, even as Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidential campaign sought to throw cold water on the report — the last major data release leading up to the Nov. 3 election — and warned that the economic recovery was losing steam.

The economy grew at a record pace last quarter, but the upswing was a partial bounce-back after an enormous decline and left the economy smaller than it was before the pandemic. The White House took no notice of those glum caveats.

“This record economic growth is absolute validation of President Trump’s policies, which create jobs and opportunities for Americans in every corner of the country,” Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign said in a statement, highlighting a rebound of 33.1 percent at an annualized rate. Mr. Trump heralded the data on Twitter, posting that he was “so glad” that the number had come out before Election Day.

The annualized rate that the White House emphasized extrapolates growth numbers as if the current pace held up for a year, and risks overstating big swings. Because the economy’s growth has been so volatile amid the pandemic, economists have urged focusing on quarterly numbers.

Those showed a 7.4 percent gain in the third quarter. That rebound, by far the biggest since reliable statistics began after World War II, still leaves the economy short of its pre-pandemic levels. The pace of recovery has also slowed, and now coronavirus cases are rising again across much of the United States, raising the prospect of further pullback.

“The recovery is stalling out, thanks to Trump’s refusal to have a serious plan to deal with Covid or to pass a new economic relief plan for workers, small businesses and communities,” Mr. Biden’s campaign said in a release ahead of Thursday’s report. The rebound was widely expected, and the campaign characterized it as “a partial return from a catastrophic hit.”

Economists have warned that the recovery could face serious roadblocks ahead. Temporary measures meant to shore up households and businesses — including unemployment insurance supplements and forgivable loans — have run dry. Swaths of the service sector remain shut down as the virus continues to spread, and job losses that were temporary are increasingly turning permanent.

“With coronavirus infections hitting a record high in recent days and any additional fiscal stimulus unlikely to arrive until, at the earliest, the start of next year, further progress will be much slower,” Paul Ashworth, chief United States economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a note following the report.

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Black and Hispanic workers, especially women, lag in the U.S. economic recovery.

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The surge in economic output in the third quarter set a record, but the recovery isn’t reaching everyone.

Economists have long warned that aggregate statistics like gross domestic product can obscure important differences beneath the surface. In the aftermath of the last recession, for example, G.D.P. returned to its previous level in early 2011, even as poverty rates remained high and the unemployment rate for Black Americans was above 15 percent.

Aggregate statistics could be even more misleading during the current crisis. The job losses in the initial months of the pandemic disproportionately struck low-wage service workers, many of them Black and Hispanic women. Service-sector jobs have been slow to return, while school closings are keeping many parents, especially mothers, from returning to work. Nearly half a million Hispanic women have left the labor force over the last three months.

“If we’re thinking that the economy is recovering completely and uniformly, that is simply not the case,” said Michelle Holder, an economist at John Jay College in New York. “This rebound is unevenly distributed along racial and gender lines.”

The G.D.P. report released Thursday doesn’t break down the data by race, sex or income. But other sources make the disparities clear. A pair of studies by researchers at the Urban Institute released this week found that Black and Hispanic adults were more likely to have lost jobs or income since March, and were twice as likely as white adults to experience food insecurity in September.

The financial impact of the pandemic hit many of the families that were least able to afford it, even as white-collar workers were largely spared, said Michael Karpman, an Urban Institute researcher and one of the studies’ authors.

“A lot of people who were already in a precarious position before the pandemic are now in worse shape, whereas people who were better off have generally been faring better financially,” he said.

Federal relief programs, such as expanded unemployment benefits, helped offset the damage for many families in the first months of the pandemic. But those programs have mostly ended, and talks to revive them have stalled in Washington. With virus cases surging in much of the country, Mr. Karpman warned, the economic toll could increase.

“There could be a lot more hardship coming up this winter if there’s not more relief from Congress, with the impact falling disproportionately on Black and Hispanic workers and their families,” he said.

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Ant Challenged Beijing and Prospered. Now It Toes the Line.

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As Jack Ma of Alibaba helped turn China into the world’s biggest e-commerce market over the past two decades, he was also vowing to pull off a more audacious transformation.

“If the banks don’t change, we’ll change the banks,” he said in 2008, decrying how hard it was for small businesses in China to borrow from government-run lenders.

“The financial industry needs disrupters,” he told People’s Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper, a few years later. His goal, he said, was to make banks and other state-owned enterprises “feel unwell.”

The scope of Mr. Ma’s success is becoming clearer. The vehicle for his financial-technology ambitions, an Alibaba spinoff called Ant Group, is preparing for the largest initial public offering on record. Ant is set to raise $34 billion by selling its shares to the public in Hong Kong and Shanghai, according to stock exchange documents released on Monday. After the listing, Ant would be worth around $310 billion, much more than many global banks.

The company is going public not as a scrappy upstart, but as a leviathan deeply dependent on the good will of the government Mr. Ma once relished prodding.

More than 730 million people use Ant’s Alipay app every month to pay for lunch, invest their savings and shop on credit. Yet Alipay’s size and importance have made it an inevitable target for China’s regulators, which have already brought its business to heel in certain areas.

These days, Ant talks mostly about creating partnerships with big banks, not disrupting or supplanting them. Several government-owned funds and institutions are Ant shareholders and stand to profit handsomely from the public offering.

The question now is how much higher Ant can fly without provoking the Chinese authorities into clipping its wings further.

Excitable investors see Ant as a buzzy internet innovator. The risk is that it becomes more like a heavily regulated “financial digital utility,” said Fraser Howie, the co-author of “Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China’s Extraordinary Rise.”

“Utility stocks, as far as I remember, were not the ones to be seen as the most exciting,” Mr. Howie said.

Ant declined to comment, citing the quiet period demanded by regulators before its share sale.

The company has played give-and-take with Beijing for years. As smartphone payments became ubiquitous in China, Ant found itself managing huge piles of money in Alipay users’ virtual wallets. The central bank made it park those funds in special accounts where they would earn minimal interest.

After people piled into an easy-to-use investment fund inside Alipay, the government forced the fund to shed risk and lower returns. Regulators curbed a plan to use Alipay data as the basis for a credit-scoring system akin to Americans’ FICO scores.

China’s Supreme Court this summer capped interest rates for consumer loans, though it was unclear how the ceiling would apply to Ant. The central bank is preparing a new virtual currency that could compete against Alipay and another digital wallet, the messaging app WeChat, as an everyday payment tool.

Ant has learned ways of keeping the authorities on its side. Mr. Ma once boasted at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, about never taking money from the Chinese government. Today, funds associated with China’s social security system, its sovereign wealth fund, a state-owned life insurance company and the national postal carrier hold stakes in Ant. The I.P.O. is likely to increase the value of their holdings considerably.

“That’s how the state gets its payoff,” Mr. Howie said. With Ant, he said, “the line between state-owned enterprise and private enterprise is highly, highly blurred.”

China, in less than two generations, went from having a state-planned financial system to being at the global vanguard of internet finance, with trillions of dollars in transactions being made on mobile devices each year. Alipay had a lot to do with it.

Alibaba created the service in the early 2000s to hold payments for online purchases in escrow. Its broader usefulness quickly became clear in a country that mostly missed out on the credit card era. Features were added and users piled in. It became impossible for regulators and banks not to see the app as a threat.

ImageAnt Group’s headquarters in Hangzhou, China.
Credit…Alex Plavevski/EPA, via Shutterstock

A big test came when Ant began making an offer to Alipay users: Park your money in a section of the app called Yu’ebao, which means “leftover treasure,” and we will pay you more than the low rates fixed by the government at banks.

People could invest as much or as little as they wanted, making them feel like they were putting their pocket change to use. Yu’ebao was a hit, becoming one of the world’s largest money market funds.

The banks were terrified. One commentator for a state broadcaster called the fund a “vampire” and a “parasite.”

Still, “all the main regulators remained unanimous in saying that this was a positive thing for the Chinese financial system,” said Martin Chorzempa, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

“If you can’t actually reform the banks,” Mr. Chorzempa said, “you can inject more competition.”

But then came worries about shadowy, unregulated corners of finance and the dangers they posed to the wider economy. Today, Chinese regulators are tightening supervision of financial holding companies, Ant included. Beijing has kept close watch on the financial instruments that small lenders create out of their consumer loans and sell to investors. Such securities help Ant fund some of its lending. But they also amplify the blowup if too many of those loans aren’t repaid.

“Those kinds of derivative products are something the government is really concerned about,” said Tian X. Hou, founder of the research firm TH Data Capital. Given Ant’s size, she said, “the government should be concerned.”

The broader worry for China is about growing levels of household debt. Beijing wants to cultivate a consumer economy, but excessive borrowing could eventually weigh on people’s spending power. The names of two of Alipay’s popular credit functions, Huabei and Jiebei, are jaunty invitations to spend and borrow.

Huang Ling, 22, started using Huabei when she was in high school. At the time, she didn’t qualify for a credit card. With Huabei’s help, she bought a drone, a scooter, a laptop and more.

The credit line made her feel rich. It also made her realize that if she actually wanted to be rich, she had to get busy.

“Living beyond my means forced me to work harder,” Ms. Huang said.

First, she opened a clothing shop in her hometown, Nanchang, in southeastern China. Then she started an advertising company in the inland metropolis of Chongqing. When the business needed cash, she borrowed from Jiebei.

Online shopping became a way to soothe daily anxieties, and Ms. Huang sometimes racked up thousands of dollars in Huabei bills, which only made her even more anxious. When the pandemic slammed her business, she started falling behind on her payments. That cast her into a deep depression.

Finally, early this month, with her parents’ help, she paid off her debts and closed her Huabei and Jiebei accounts. She felt “elated,” she said.

China’s recent troubles with freewheeling online loan platforms have put the government under pressure to protect ordinary borrowers.

Ant is helped by the fact that its business lines up with many of the Chinese leadership’s priorities: encouraging entrepreneurship and financial inclusion, and expanding the middle class. This year, the company helped the eastern city of Hangzhou, where it is based, set up an early version of the government’s app-based system for dictating coronavirus quarantines.

Such coziness is bound to raise hackles overseas. In Washington, Chinese tech companies that are seen as close to the government are radioactive.

In January 2017, Eric Jing, then Ant’s chief executive, said the company aimed to be serving two billion users worldwide within a decade. Shortly after, Ant announced that it was acquiring the money transfer company MoneyGram to increase its U.S. footprint. By the following January, the deal was dead, thwarted by data security concerns.

More recently, top officials in the Trump administration have discussed whether to place Ant Group on the so-called entity list, which prohibits foreign companies from purchasing American products. Officials from the State Department have suggested that an interagency committee, which also includes officials from the departments of defense, commerce and energy, review Ant for the potential entity listing, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Ant does not talk much anymore about expanding in the United States.

Ana Swanson contributed reporting.

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