So what happened? After a crummy 2018, 2019 has been great for shareholders. If I’d had the slightest inkling that stocks would take off in 2019, I sure wouldn’t have been selling at year-end 2018 to take tax losses. Oh well.
Welcome to my year-end column, in which I try to put things in perspective, own up to my mistakes and follow up on some topics that I’ve discussed but haven’t had a chance to revisit.
To Boeing. When I named this wretched company the turkey of the year in my Thanksgiving column, which I write in a playful way, some people claimed that I was making light of the two Boeing crashes that killed a total of 346 people. Believe me, that’s not the case.
Now that Boeing’s chief executive has been fired, it’s time to pursue the corporate directors who presided over this moral and financial disaster. Their basic Boeing package totals $346,000 a year in cash, stocks and matching charitable contributions. If they had any sense or decency, they would turn down their compensation or else donate it to Boeing’s victims. Will that happen? I doubt it.
And get this: My first column of 2018 talked about how Boeing’s soaring stock price was driving the Dow to new highs. This year, the Dow is up about 22 percent, while Boeing is up a mere 7 percent, close to half of which came on Monday when its chief executive, Dennis Muilenburg, was fired. What goes around . . .
One of the things I try to do is to be unpredictable. That’s why I departed from form this year and wrote two unusually complicated numbers-based articles.
The first one, which ProPublica (where I’m an editor at large) and Fortune co-published, argued that about $1 trillion of losses have been inflicted on home values throughout the country by the 2017 tax bill. That’s because of the $10,000 cap on federal deductions for state and local taxes and because the huge and growing federal budget deficits have pushed mortgage interest rates higher than they would otherwise be.
The second, which I wrote as an opinion piece that The Washington Post ran earlier this month, discussed a major flaw in the recent book by Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, economists at the University of California at Berkeley who are the intellectual godfathers of Elizabeth Warren’s and Bernie Sanders’s proposed wealth taxes.
The book asserts — wrongly, in my opinion — that lower-income people in the United States have higher-percentage total federal, state and local tax bills than the 400 richest taxpayers do.
I’m linking the two pieces to show that I go after liberal gods the same way I go after President Trump and his lackeys.
I wrote quite a lot about negative interest rates, which appeared for the first time in financial history last year as the Japanese and European central banks cut rates below zero to try to stimulate their economies. I find it creepy (to use a noneconomic term) that borrowers get paid to borrow money. I see signs that we may be nearing the end of the negative-rate and ultra-low-rate experiment, but that may be wishful thinking on my part.
Speaking of ultralow interest rates, I hope that the Federal Reserve governors keep fighting off Trump’s attempts to strong-arm them into adopting negative interest rates, which would hurt our country, our economy and the world economy very badly.
If you’re a big borrower like Trump — and your properties had six Chapter 11 bankruptcies and numerous other defaults — zero-interest rates are a blessing.
However, they’re a curse for people who’ve lived below their means and would like to get decent interest income on their lifetime of savings. They’re also a curse for pension funds, insurance companies, banks and other important institutions.
Speaking of curses, I can’t help but comment on the decline of Rudolph W. Giuliani, whom I once respected. He’s been a total disaster for Trump, his client. Even if both client and lawyer are telling the truth about Trump getting Giuliani’s services for nothing, he’s still overpaying.
On the optimistic side, I had fun writing about how Amtrak offered travel vouchers to my fellow passengers and me because our Acela train to Washington died in Delaware. Talk about win-win. I not only got a column out of this, but I also got a really cheap ticket for a second ride to Washington.
One of the more useful things I did this year, judging from the reaction I got, was writing about qualified charitable distributions. QCDs, as they’re called, let those of us who are at least 70½ years old and taking required minimum distributions from IRAs to have up to $100,000 a year of such distributions sent to charities rather than to our personal accounts.
This allows people taking the standard deduction on their federal taxes to in effect deduct charitable contributions by reporting less taxable income. Back before the 2017 tax bill targeted blue states by limiting deductions for state and local taxes, QCDs didn’t make all that much difference to many people. Now, they do.
And to answer a question I’ve been asked several times: If you are taking required distributions from an inherited IRA, you can’t use QCDs to reduce your taxable income unless you’re at least 70½.
I don’t know enough about the effect of the new retirement rules to analyze them now. I’ll probably be writing about those new rules in the new year.
Two final notes: one sad, one happy.
The sad one: Hugh Lamle, the inspiration for the my lost-home-value story, died at the age of 74 on Dec. 11.
Hugh taught me a lot, even though I’m not exactly an ideal student. At dinner a few years ago, Hugh, a zillionaire a bit younger than me who ran M.D. Sass Investors Services for years, showed me the reduced-fare New York City subway card he applied for when he turned 65. When I said that as a New Jersey resident, getting my own card wasn’t worth the trouble, he looked at me funny. After I got home, I discovered I could apply by mail, and I did. So Hugh saved me a lot of money.
Last year, he sent me an economic model showing the loss he figured the 2017 tax bill inflicted on New York City home values. It took me about forever to produce the home-value-loss story, but he never nagged me, even though his time on earth was rapidly running out because of late-stage amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. I’m glad he lived long enough to see the story published.
The happy note: We’re finally nearing the end of the most divisive year I can remember — and I was of draft age during the Vietnam War.
So in the spirit of civility, I wish all of you a happy, healthy, peaceful and prosperous new year. Whether you agree with what I write or not.