I Keep Hearing We're Nearing a Recession. Are We Nearing a Recession?

I Keep Hearing We’re Nearing a Recession. Are We Nearing a Recession?

There’s been more than a few news headlines recently claiming that we’re on the verge of an economic recession.  For many business owners and investors the word recession is a lot like Voldemort.  It’s so evil and scary that you’re not even supposed to say it.  “Recession” evokes fears of falling stock prices, unemployment, and scarcity.

So what exactly is a recession?  And should we treat them with the same respect that Harry Potter treats Lord Voldemort?

Recessions are technically two or more consecutive quarters where national gross domestic product contracts.  Gross domestic product (GDP) is sum of all the goods and services a country produces.  It’s the broadest and most common way to measure economic activity and the strength of the economy.  Growing GDP is a good sign, falling GDP is a bad sign.  This is what US GDP growth has looked like since 1930.  Lots of major swings between 1930 and 1950, and relatively steady since about 1985.  Note that by that time the US dollar was the world’s reserve currency, we were off the gold standard, and interest rates had started to stabilize after stagflation in the 1970s.

I Keep Hearing We're Nearing a Recession. Are We Nearing a Recession?

Now on to why you should care.  The more goods and services a country produces, the better off its citizens are financially.  There’s more wealth being created, more jobs available, and usually faster rising wages.  For businesses this means that your customers have more stable employment and more discretionary income to buy your products.

In a recession GDP contracts.  There’s less economic activity.  From a business’s perspective your customers have fewer jobs, lower wages, and less discretionary income.  Revenue dries up, and you may be forced to lay employees off yourself.  Times are tough.

From an investor’s perspective, recessions are tough on asset prices.  The value of your stock holdings, including index funds, depends on the market’s expectation of future cash flows & profitability.  Recessions are tough on cash flow, tough on profitability, and tough on stock prices.  Recessions often coincide with bear markets.

So where are we now?  Are we actually nearing a recession, or is the rhetoric we’re hearing on the news just propaganda?  I’m no economist, but I do have some background and stay informed as part of my day job.  Here’s my take on whether we’re nearing a recession.

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The Home Office Deduction 101: Simplified Method vs. Actual Expense Method

The Home Office Deduction 101: Simplified Method vs. Actual Expense Method

Even though we don’t currently prepare tax returns for clients at my financial planning firm, tax is a topic that comes up a lot.  Many of our clients own businesses, and most of them share two opinions:

Alongside that there are several tax related questions that come up fairly frequently with our clients.  One of them is the home office deduction.  How can you take it?  Are you even eligible?  What can do to take a larger home office deduction this year?  What are your options?

Whereas employees and small business owners alike were eligible to take the deduction prior to 2018, the Tax Cut & Jobs Act eliminated home office expenses as a miscellaneous itemized deduction.  That means that rather than deducting home office expenses on Schedule A as an itemized deduction, they’re now claimed on Schedule C.  And since Schedule C only contains information related to self-employment, the tax law change essentially means that employees are no longer eligible to take the deduction.

For business owners still eligible to take the home office deduction, there are two options for calculating the amount: the simplified method and the actual expense method.  This post will cover both in detail, and explain what you need to know to take the deduction yourself.

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A Review of the CalSavers Retirement Savings Program

A Review of the CalSavers Retirement Savings Program

If you’ve been following the California legislative process at all, or if you own a business that employs people in California, you may have heard of the CalSavers Retirement Savings Program.  In 2016, Governor Jerry Brown signed Bill 1234, requiring development of a workplace retirement savings program for private sector workers without access to one.  The resulting program is known as CalSavers.

Basically, the program forces employers with more than 5 employees to defer a portion of their employees’ paychecks into a state run Roth IRA.  These contributions are invested in default target date retirement funds, unless the employee directs their investments otherwise.  Employees may also opt out entirely, if they choose.

The benefit of such a program is easy access to a retirement savings account.  Employees could contribute to one on their own, of course, but that would require opening an account at a brokerage firm & making investment decisions.  CalSavers greases the wheels by providing a “done for you” program that employees are defaulted into.

The positive spin here is that the program will certainly result in more retirement savings for many thousands of employees.  The negative side of the story comes from the business community.  Businesses without retirement plans will be forced to take the time to open a plan, enroll their employees, and deposit their contributions.

CalSavers isn’t at all unprecedented.  At this point 21 states have enacted similar legislation.  The law is taking a good amount of “heat” though.  Several industry groups are suing the state treasurer in an attempt to derail the rule.  Some plaintiffs don’t care for the state government telling them what to do, while others in the financial industry probably see the program as a competitive threat.

Whatever your take on the matter, businesses will be required to comply beginning in June of 2020 as the law stands today.  This post will provide a quick overview of the program, including its benefits and shortcomings.

 

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What I Learned at XYPN Live 2019

What I Learned at XYPN Live 2019

Today’s post is a follow up to last week’s post.  There are a few conferences I try to fit into my travel schedule every year.  XYPN Live is one of them.  XYPN is an acronym for the “XY Planning Network” – it’s a professional organization for financial planners who work with generations X and Y.  (Unlike much of the industry).

This year the conference was held in St. Louis for the second year in a row.  Attendees are mostly all financial planners, with a few reporters, CPAs, and tech providers sprinkled in.  I make it a point to attend this conference for a few different reasons:

  • This is the only time throughout the year that my study group meets in person (I have a weekly study group)
  • Many of the XYPN members who attend have firms similar to mine
  • Many of the attendees are exploring new, innovative service models and ways to provide value to their clients.

For me, XYPN Live is an opportunity to connect with my study group, reconnect with friends I don’t otherwise see or talk to, and pick up bits of wisdom from other professionals in the industry.

Attending these conferences takes some time away from my family, my clients, and the firm.  But because the learnings ultimately benefit all three, I find a lot of value in going.

Here’s what I learned at XYPN Live this year.

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What I Learned at FinCon2019

What I Learned at Fincon19

Like most jobs, my work requires a little bit of travel every year.  Since we moved down to Sacramento from Portland, I head back up to Oregon 2-3 times per year to see clients.  I also attend 2-3 conferences each year, to keep abreast of what’s going on in the industry and to make sure I’m consistently able to deliver the best advice to my clients.

This year I had two conferences on the agenda.  The first conference I had penciled in was one I’ve been trying to attend for several years: FinCon.  FinCon is a gathering of bloggers, podcasters, YouTubers, reporters, financial planners, and others who produce or promote financial content.  FinCon was held in Washington D.C. this year, directly before the second conference on my agenda: XYPN Live, which I just returned from this week.

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6 Reasons Basic Estate Planning is So Important for Business Owners

In general I am not a fan of “listicles”.  They feel like a cheap, click-baity, headline grabbing way to produce content and drive traffic to your website.  Reading them can feel…yucky.  So I typically try to avoid publishing them.  I care greatly about the integrity of this site, and avoid content that I don’t think is genuinely valuable.

Recently I’ve run across a number business owners who’ve done ZERO estate planning.  No idea who steps in to run their business if they’re not around.  No will.  No trust.  Nothing.

This is pretty common, unfortunately.  Hundreds of thousands of small businesses out there have done no estate or succession planning.  A study of 200 by Wilmington Trust found that 58% had no plan in place whatsoeverI’ve written on this subject recently.  Because this is such an important topic, I’m going to break my rule about listicles today to drive the point home.  (Hey, in moderation they can be an effective way to communicate.  Who doesn’t like digestible, bite sized snippets?).

Here are my top six reasons estate planning is so important for business owners.

 

 #1: You & Your Family Probably Depend On It

For most business owners I speak with about financial matters, a substantial portion of their net worth consists the equity in their business.  And when I say substantial, I mean up to 75-80%.  Without any type of plan in place, there’s a very high likelihood that the value of this equity dissolves entirely if you become incapacitated or die unexpectedly.

Even if you have a long term disability insurance policy in place, losing the equity in your business would probably have a significant financial impact on your family.  Having a succession plan in place in just in case something does happen is the only way to preserve your equity.  And therefore your family’s balance sheet.

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How Long Is Your Runway? Establishing a Cash Reserve When Starting a Business

Starting a business involves a great deal of risk.  You’ve probably run across this statistic from the small business administration before: 30% of new businesses fail in the first 12 months of operations.  50% fail in the first 5 years, and 66% fail in the first 10.  The odds are not terribly good that a new venture will grow into a viable company.

For many businesses that do end up failing, the problem usually isn’t that there’s no market for new product or service and the founder’s idea doesn’t work.  The problem is that the founder runs out of money.  I’ve heard the story at least a dozen times: entrepreneur quits a stable job to start a new business.  Their objective is to make the new venture profitable enough to fund their living expenses before their savings run out.  It takes a little longer to get up and running than initially thought, and their savings accounts falls to dangerously low levels.  They can’t hold out any longer, and are forced to cease operations, take a step back, and find a job that offers a steady income.

The amount of cash you have in the bank is commonly known as your “runway”.  The longer your runway, the more likely a business will succeed.  So how long should your runway be, exactly, when starting a business?  If you’re about to take the leap into entrepreneurship, these are the exact steps I’d take to figure that out.

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A Beginner's Guide to Cash Balance Plans

A Beginner’s Guide to Cash Balance Plans

In my financial planning practice I work with a good number of business owners who want to make aggressive contributions to their tax deferred retirement accounts.  This helps put them on strong footing for retirement, but also provides a generous tax deduction.  While the 401k plan is the primary retirement plan most business owners are familiar with, a cash balance plans is one I often recommend in addition.  In fact, cash balance plans can actually allow for far greater contributions & tax advantages.

A cash balance plan could be a good fit if you’d like to contribute over $50,000 per year to a tax advantaged retirement plan.  They don’t come without their nuances though.  This guide will explain how cash balance plans work and whether they might be a good fit for you.

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It's Never too Early to Start a Succession Plan

It’s Never Too Early to Start a Succession Plan

So here’s a topic that all business owners have thought about but few have taken action on: succession planning.  I was reading a study by Wilmington Trust the other day that polled 200 different owners of privately held businesses.  Personally, I’ve yet to meet a business owner who doesn’t agree that succession planning is important to their company and stakeholders.  Yet in this study, 58% of the businesses polled don’t have one in place!

Successions impact…everything: your family, your legacy, your finances, your employees, your partners, your customers, your stakeholders, and anyone else who touches your company.  My guess is that you want all these pieces intact throughout your transition and after you leave.  Yet most business owners don’t tackle the issue until a) it’s high time to exit, or b) they’re forced to for a reason out of their control.

Why?  Many people start to realize that the emotions involved are heavy and deep.  Your business is probably something that you’ve poured your heart and soul into for a long period of time.  You may have taken significant financial risks that have impacted your family along the way.  The decision making required in succession planning brings up a lot of emotion, and many business owners prefer to kick the can down the road rather than deal with them.

Problem is, there are many situations out of our control that could force a succession at an inconvenient time.  Health problems, car accidents, or even changes in the economy or your industry could easily force your hand.  Rather than rush into a transition unprepared (and in a potential fire sale), you’ll reach a far more desirable outcome when your succession is planned for.  What happens if you get into an accident and come out with diminished mental capacity?  What happens if you have a heart attack & die tomorrow?  What’s the game plan?  Who will step in, and how will your family, employees, customers, and other stakeholders be taken care of?  These are the questions a good succession plan answers.  They’re also the questions that must be made while you’re in a calm, stable, and clear state of mind.

 

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Investing in Yourself as an Entrepreneur

Investing In Yourself as an Entrepreneur

Many of us feel an innate need to make contributions to tax advantaged retirement plans every year.  When it comes to personal finance, much of what we read, hear, and see in the media centers on plowing money into your 401k every single year, no matter what.

In general it’s great advice.  Save early and often, and take advantaged of tax deferred compound income.  And if you’re lucky, your employer might match your contributions or make a profit sharing contribution.  If we’re going to build up enough savings to sustain our lifestyle through retirement, this makes perfect sense.

Every once in a while I’ll speak with an entrepreneur who is really working hard to build their business, but they can’t quite scratch together enough cash to fund their retirement plan for the year.  They’re putting all their effort into their company and things are still just a bit tight financially.  They feel like they should be contributing to the 401k they set up for themselves and their employees, but they can’t quite pull the funds together to do so.

For many business owners I speak with, the fact that they can’t fund their 401k for the year makes them feel inadequate.  Like they’re not good at their job.  Like they’re unsuccessful.

I wanted to write a post on this topic because entrepreneurs who feel this way are missing the forest from the trees.  Regardless of whether you contribute to a retirement plan in a certain year, it’s far more important to sustain & grow your business.  Because if you can find a way to grow your business each year, the increased value in your ownership stake will dwarf what you could ever contribute to 401k!

 

It’s OK to Skip a Few 401(k) Contributions

Aswath Damodaran is a professor at NYU who teaches corporate finance, investing, and business valuation.  He publishes estimates of EBITDA multiple benchmarks for use by his students, and anyone else who’s interested.  EBITDA is an accounting measure that stands for “earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, or amortization”.  It’s a decent proxy for free cash flow, and is often used in quick and dirty business valuations.

For example, let’s say your business does $350,000 in revenue one year.  If your costs & operating expenses totaled $250,000, you’d be left with EBITDA of $100,000.  Here are Professor Damodaran’s valuation estimates for 2018.  The list of multiples ranges from 5-6x EBITDA on the low end to nearly 20x on the high end.  Meaning, it’s very possible that a business with $100,000 in recurring annual EBITDA is worth at least $500,000 ($100,000 * 5).

Now, when I mean quick and dirty, this example is very quick, and very dirty.  Business valuation is a field of its own, and not something I claim to be half way competent in.  There are a ton of factors that go into what a business is worth, and EBITDA certainly doesn’t paint the whole picture.  Nevertheless, the takeaway is important: if you can build a business with recurring annual revenue, that will persist even if you’re not around to drive sales, there’s a good chance you’re creating far more wealth than what you would maxing out your 401k contributions.

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