Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Fiscal Cliff: Laurie Weston Luncheon - by Craig Fuhrmann, CFA

On November 14, 2012 the CFA Society of Milwaukee welcomed Laurie Weston, CPA, tax Manager at Wipfli LLP, to discuss the expiration of the Bush tax cuts and the implementation of new health care taxes. The majority of time was devoted to a legislative outlook and changes affecting taxes on individuals. Some of the content was detailed and more relevant to those in the audience that implement tax management strategies, yet there were also more general takeaways for those less involved in tax planning. Key points from the discussion are summarized below.

One of the larger messages on the legislative front was that a similar cast in Washington, post elections, likely means gridlock will continue. If the election had resulted in Romney win, significant tax legislation updates would have likely come no sooner than February of 2013. With Obama winning, each party may dig in its heels even more and delay that timeline. Both parties have commented on desires to simplify the tax code, but based on Laurie’s expectations, these hopes can be put to rest because lobbyist will get involved and insist on exceptions. We should expect last-minute tax bills, temporary patches, and more “unreasonable complexity”.

For the individual, the looming changes to the tax code could result in sizable tax increases. Without an extension of the Bush cuts, income taxes will increase 9% to 13% depending on income level. The 2% reduction in FICA taxes will expire and the marriage penalty will return. Investment income will also be harder hit with the preferential 15% capital gains rate reverting to 20% and the dividend rates for the highest bracket filers increasing from 15% to 43.4% (189%!). Implementation of the Affordable Care Act will also affect those in the higher two brackets, causing a 0.9% rate increase on incomes and a 3.8% increase on long-term capital gains, dividends, and certain other investment interests.

These and other changes have turned traditional planning on its head. For example, it is typically advantageous to defer paying taxes in part due to the time value of money. However, in the current environment it may now make sense to realize gains in the 2012 calendar year rather than deferring. An audience member asked about implementing Roth IRA conversions in 2012 and Laurie confirmed that doing so might be a good idea for many individuals.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Martin Feldstein Economic Outlook, by Matt Alexander, CFA

The Lubar School of Business sponsored a lunch presentation by Dr. Martin Feldstein at the University Club on Thursday, October 4th. Martin Feldstein has served as President Reagan’s chief economic adviser and, among other intervening high profile appointments, served on President Obama’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board. He is currently the George F. Baker Professor of Economics at Harvard University and serves as President Emeritus of the National Bureau of Economic Research. A summary of his current thoughts on Europe and the United States is presented below.

Europe: sowing the seeds

The establishment of the Euro currency bloc was always part of a larger effort to unite Europe politically. However, European leaders are now confronted by mounting obstacles that are undermining this effort and, in particular, one of their own making. The establishment of the Euro itself has created a series of traps for European citizens early on, and for European leaders today.

In its first decade, the currency was a boon to the weaker, higher inflation economies that are now labeled ‘peripheral'. Governments binged on easy financing as did households, particularly via mortgage debt, as inflation and interest rates approached German levels. But the competitive disparities among national economies did not improve as planned. Alarmingly, they have diverged further in recent years. Financial markets “missed it all” in Feldstein’s analysis. Europe’s wake-up call came in 2010 when Greece could no longer hide its fiscal emergency.

Four challenges face Europe today:

1. Fiscal deficits and the difficulty financing them

2. Weak banks in Spain and Italy. Pan-European financial markets have collapsed into national financial markets. Wholesale credit is now restricted between banks and depositors have expatriated their balances to stronger countries

3. A deep, Euro-wide recession

4. And the most serious in Feldstein’s assessment; trade deficits. How can you finance them?

Today, the trade surplus is $250 billion in Germany while the rest of Europe combined has a $150 billion trade deficit. Unemployment ranges from 4.5% in Austria to 25% in Spain. No doubt, trade, employment, GDP and other vital economic statistics are interrelated. Pre-Euro, weaker countries could restore trade balances by devaluing their currencies. The underlying problem today is that currency devaluation is now an all or nothing proposition- a one-size-fits-all wealth transfer that punishes savers and rewards debtors which, within Europe, falls largely along national lines.

"More Europe"

The European answer to date is “More Europe”, meaning, greater fiscal union. More Europe allows more time to sort out the structural issues in weaker economies. The Stability and Growth Pact was a first attempt at harmonizing fiscal policies among member nations, an agreement that was regularly flouted by even stronger members of the Eurozone. The latest iteration of this idea is the Fiscal Compact, set to take effect in 2013. Feldstein suggests its firewall of restricting budget deficits to 3% of GDP already looks threatened.

Meanwhile, ECB President, Mario Draghi, has won a major victory in expanding the influence of the ECB over deep opposition from the Bundesbank, buying time for fiscal reform. Known as Outright Monetary Transactions, the ECB will buy Italian and Spanish bonds with maturities of less than 3 years without limit of magnitude. Draghi hopes to force compliance on member countries via the ECB’s purse strings. However, election politics continue to loom large in Europe. Feldstein wonders what policy options will be available if and when member countries fail to comply. Draghi may be trapped in a deeper hole after the program has run its course.

United States:

Feldstein sees the U.S. economy deteriorating. His earlier-year forecasts of 2% GDP growth for 2012 seem nearly impossible now, in his assessment. Recent manufacturing readings across the ISM, NY Fed and Chicago Fed are weak, and durable goods orders have recently fallen a staggering 13%. Regarding employment, the U.S. would need GDP growth of about 4% annually for five years to reach the long-term unemployment rate of 5.5%. 150k jobs per month are required simply to absorb new entrants to the labor force. Feldstein attributes the entire decline of the U3 unemployment rate from 9.1% to 8.1% (at time of his presentation) to declines in the participation rate. Combined, these are dismal stats.

One bright spot is the rebound in housing. However, Feldstein puts its importance into context. The 8% rebound in residential housing in the second quarter contributed only about 0.2% to Q2 GDP growth. Moreover, readings have been deteriorating here as well.

Fed Policy:

What about policy? “The Fed is being aggressive without being helpful.” Despite historically low mortgage rates of 3.5%, underwriting terms remain very tight. Small businesses without access to capital markets have also felt the effect of tight credit. More broadly, the business community is reluctant to invest. Feldstein believes that Bernanke is attempting to inflate the stock market to raise wealth and encourage spending. Quantitative easing worked well in the fourth quarter of 2010, but completely collapsed in Q1 2011. Feldstein suspects that any growth from future easing will be ephemeral.

The Election:

Despite a strong showing by Romney in his first debate (the prior evening), Feldstein believes the odds still favor an Obama victory. Continuing on present course, the financing of entitlements will drive external debt as a percentage of GDP from 70% today to 100% within 10 years. Interestingly, Feldstein believes that both Obama and Romney are open to Social Security reform. He believes this could be on the docket within a year in either election outcome.


A need for tax reform is evident. Including state income taxes, the US has the highest corporate tax rates of all OECD countries, stymieing incentives to invest. Furthermore, unlike other OECD countries, the US is the only country to penalize the repatriation of foreign assets.

Feldstein says there is a false dichotomy between cutting spending and raising revenues. Continuing a wonkish theme from the first presidential debate, Feldstein suggests that reductions in tax credits and deductions (technically known as tax expenditures) should be considered spending cuts via the tax code. The difficulty in execution is that each tax subsidy has its own political constituency that protects it. Imagine the difficulties involved in reducing the mortgage interest subsidy.

Feldstein’s solution is to leave tax expenditures in place, but put a cap on itemized deductions to limit their use by upper income households to, say, some percentage of AGI. Alternatively, he pointed to Romney’s $25,000 or $50,000 cap on the dollar value of such deductions, which would have similar effects. By phasing out tax expenditures, revenue is raised. In addition, more people will opt for the standard deduction, thereby simplifying tax preparation for a large portion of the tax base.


In the Q&A, several interesting questions came up.

On the future of Europe, Feldstein believes that Greece, Portugal and, perhaps Finland, may exit the Euro within 5 years. However, the core of Europe is too dedicated to fiscal union to allow a complete breakup of the Euro.

On the absence of bond vigilantes for US Treasuries, Feldstein believes they are lying in wait. Currently, there is too much purchasing power from the Fed and from China. The Fed will buy $40 billion of mortgages per month while China will continue to take in Treasuries. However, China’s five year plan entails increasing consumer spending which, if effective, will result in the reduction of its trade surplus and, correspondingly, its need to finance a US trade deficit. At that point, bond vigilantes may make their presence known in the Treasury market.

On inflation. Commercial banks have accumulated vast deposits in interest paying accounts with the Federal Reserve. If and when the Fed begins to see inflation, it may have to raise rates on these deposits to restrict money supply to the banking system. When this happens, Feldstein believes unemployment will still likely be over 7%. Nodding to how the Fed has become more politicized, he suggests that Congress may not allow rate increases necessary to hold inflation to acceptable levels –via this scenario, higher inflation is a real possibility in the intermediate term.


The CFA Society of Milwaukee would like to thank the Lubar School of Business for the opportunity to report a summary of this timely economic outlook to its membership.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Kristi Mitchem - The DC Ecosystem, by Matt Alexander, CFA

When considering Defined Contribution plan design, Kristi Mitchem of State Street Global Advisors thinks of creating a sustainable ecosystem. In this context, sustainability is defined as the average plan participant’s likelihood of achieving an adequate income replacement ratio upon retirement. Academics usually peg this ratio at 50% while practitioners say that 70% or more may be appropriate on average, especially in light of increases in projected health care costs for retirees. Whatever the appropriate target ratio, Mitchem points to three factors that influence sustainability: 1) participation levels, 2) asset allocation and 3) menu design.

Why think of an ecosystem? Because these three factors interact with each other. Furthermore, manipulation of any one of them can lead to unintended consequences. Mitchem focused her presentation on some of these issues.

Auto-enrollment is a fairly recent design feature that has had great success in broadening participation among eligible employees. Studies have shown stark differences in income replacement ratios for plans with auto enrollment vs. those with no auto-enrollment feature (60 to 67% for the former, and 9 to 47% for the latter). However, participants tend to cluster around the default deferral rate chosen by the plan sponsor, sometimes causing those who would otherwise save more without an auto-enrollment feature to accept the default. Thus, unintended per capita declines in savings rates have been associated with this innovation.

The antidote may be another innovation; auto-escalation of deferrals. Automatically increasing the participant deferral rate over time has been shown to improve income replacement ratios vs. non-escalating plans. Contrary to common plan sponsor fears, this is accomplished without adversely impacting participation rates. Mitchem highlighted a number of research findings that, in summary, indicate an initial default deferral of 6% with auto-escalation to 10% ­­deferral, lead to optimal income replacement ratio outcomes without diminishing participation.

What about menu design? In this case, less is more. Faced with more than 16 to 18 choices, participants become confused and lower their participation rates. What’s more, they allocate inefficiently among the available asset classes. Mitchem described the tendency to make a 1/N allocation which, in the typical plan menu, often leads to an overallocation to US equities and small caps, and underallocation to international funds. Where employer stock is a choice, a typical allocation is 23%. Even if ample opportunities for diversification are available in a large plan menu, participants simply don’t know how, resulting in undue concentrations.

One way to counter this behavior is through “white labeling”. This practice combines allocations among major asset classes into a single investment choice (i.e. a single choice could contain a standardized exposure to US equities across the capitalization and value/growth spectrum). This also reduces complexity from the standpoint of the participant and may foster improved participation rates among eligible employees. Tangentially, while target date funds accomplish some of the results of white labeling, they should not be the only options available to participants. Individuals will likely wish to retain more transparency to available investment choices and be able to tailor their portfolio to individual return objectives and risk tolerances.

Finally, what ecosystem doesn’t respond to evolution? Mitchem points to exogenous developments in the broader investment landscape that have rendered a couple of typical menu options as dying breeds.

Most fixed income investment choices are benchmarked to the Barclay’s Aggregate, an index that, in recent years, has taken on greater Treasury exposure and reduced credit exposures by way of MBS and Corporates. Furthermore, International bonds are rarely available on the plan menu. A white labeling approach to fixed income that increases credit and international exposures may be appropriate here, particularly for those participants desiring higher yields. For international equities, a white labeling approach may also be appropriate for putting developed and emerging market exposures into balance, akin to an ACWI allocation.

Thanks again to Kristi Mitchem and State Street Global Advisors for their insights on this topic.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Press Release - Wisconsin School of Business MBA Students Named Winner of Milwaukee CFA Institute Research Challenge

Madison, Wis. – The CFA Society of Milwaukee announced today the Wisconsin School of Business team from UW-Madison has won the local competition of the CFA Institute Research Challenge and now advances to the Americas regional challenge, where it will compete with universities from Canada, the United States, and South America.

The winning team from the Wisconsin School of Business: Brian Bernard, Canan Ozkan, Vincent McClendon, Andrew Bushey, and Andrew Lane.

The students presented their analysis and investment recommendation on Joy Global, a worldwide leader in high-productivity mining solutions. Their presentation at the Milwaukee finale was the result of three months of research, interviews with company management, discussions with competitors and dealers and presentation preparation. Members of the winning team include Brian Bernard, Andrew Bushey, Andrew Lane, Vincent McClendon, and Canan Ozkan from the Hawk Center for Applied Security Analysis. Drew Justman, CFA, an equity analyst at Madison Investment Advisors, served as Mentor to the team. Brian Hellmer, CFA, who is Director of the Hawk Center for Applied Security Analysis, served as the group’s faculty advisor. The panel of judges included Andy Romanowich, CFA, Daniel Murphy, CFA, and Greg Schroeder.

Wisconsin School of Business students competed against students from UW-Oshkosh, UW-Stevens Point, and UW-Whitewater. Each university sent a team of three-to-five students to participate in the challenge, which is hosted by CFA Institute, the global association for investment professionals. The Madison competition was the first step for a local team to advance to the Global Research Challenge. The students from UW-Madison will now travel to the Americas regional challenge, held on April 9-10, 2012 in New York where they will match wits and their analytical, presentation, and research skills with student teams from Canada, the United States, and South America.

“I’m very proud of this group of talented students” said Brian Hellmer, who serves as Director of the Hawk Center after a long career of managing institutional equity portfolios. “In addition to the normal demands of our MBA program, they worked many additional hours researching this company and preparing a presentation highlighting their conclusions. This is the third year in a row that our students have won the local Research Challenge championship, and it is a tribute to their hard work and dedication. We thank the Milwaukee CFA Society for putting on this event, and look forward to the next round of competition in New York.”

The Research Challenge offers students the unique opportunity to learn from leading industry experts and their peers from the world’s top business schools. This annual educational initiative is designed to promote best practices in equity research among the next generation of analysts through hands-on mentoring and intensive training in company analysis and presentation skills. This year, more than 100 CFA Institute member societies will host local competitions with more than 2,500 students from more than 546 universities in 45 countries participating.

The CFA Institute Research Challenge consists of the following components:

• Analysis of a public company – Teams research a publicly traded company, and company management presents to the team and participants in a question-and-answer session.

• Mentoring by a professional research analyst – Each team works with an investment professional who mentors the team on the research process and reviews their report.

• Writing a research report – Students produce an initiation of coverage report on the chosen company. The report is reviewed and scored by a group of judges.

• Presentation of research to a high-profile panel of industry professionals – The team with the highest presentation score is the winner.

The winners of the four regional challenges (Americas, New York, Europe, and Asia Pacific) will advance to compete in the global finale on April 11, 2012, also in New York.

CONTACT: Brian Hellmer, (608) 262-9039,

About the CFA Institute Research Challenge
The challenge gathers students, investment industry professionals, publicly traded companies and corporate sponsors together locally, regionally, and globally for a world competition. In order to promote best practices in equity research and company analysis, students research, analyze, and report on a company as if they are practicing analysts. Local CFA societies host and launch a Research Challenge in conjunction with the participating universities. The universities assemble teams of three to five business and finance students who work directly with a company in researching and preparing a company analysis. The team’s final presentations are locally evaluated by high-profile panels of heads of research, portfolio managers, and chief investment officers from the world’s top firms. The local champions advance to regional competitions in the Americas, Asia, and Europe and then to the global finale.

About CFA Institute
CFA Institute is the global association for investment professionals. It administers the CFA and CIPM curriculum and exam programs worldwide; publishes research; conducts professional development programs; and sets voluntary, ethics-based professional and performance-reporting standards for the investment industry. CFA Institute has more than 107,000 members, who include the world’s 97,890 CFA charterholders, as well as 135 affiliated professional societies in 58 countries and territories. More information may be found at

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Dr. Michael G. McMcmillan - Ethical Decision Making Presentation Summary

Director of Ethics and Professional Standards for CFA Institute, Michael G. McMillan, addressed a joint gathering of CFA Charterholders, CPAs and CFPs at the Palms Bistro. Dr. McMillan reminded attendees of the goals of ethics training.

1.To encourage you to become more conscious about your thoughts and behaviors, to increase the likelihood that you will notice and act upon ethical issues before they become destructive.
2.To recognize that ethical dilemmas are a normal and predictable part of most jobs.
3.To discuss approaches for dealing with ethical issues. On the first point situational influences have more to do with unethical behavior than a person’s character. Under the right conditions, good people can be led into acting in an unethical manner. Furthermore, the ethical dilemmas in which people find themselves often have more to do the culmination of small decisions and actions people take than unethical character traits. Therefore, it often requires an elevated situational awareness to understand that conditions for unethical decision-making may be present.

Secondly, recognize that ethical challenges are part of everyday decision-making. They can stem from an obedience to authority, the need to conform to an expectation, incremental movements toward unethical behavior, group thinking, and overconfidence or optimism. Tangential to this larger point, there is a difference between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. Dr. McMillan stresses that the law is a minimum level of expected conduct. The role of ethics is to address situations not covered by the law and, subsequently, often lead to creation of new laws. The key point is that abiding by the law is no guarantee that one will behave ethically.

Finally, he offers advice on resolving ethical dilemmas. First, acknowledge that there is an ethical issue to deal with, determine who is effected by the problem and gather relevant data on the issue. Determine the right vs. wrong decision parameters and potential ethics-grounded resolutions. Finally, make a decision and be sure to reflect on what you’ve learned from the decision.