Sunday, January 8, 2012

Two Levels of Investing:
For Progress and for Preservation

Wealthy individuals and governments face similar problems dealing with today’s and tomorrow’s issues. One of the major tools for dealing with these issues is through wise and contemplative investments. Eventually, choices have to be made that will result in major influences to future actions of the general population as well as to those near and dear to us. While the processes to reach critical investment decisions by governments/politicians and those of wealth are similar, the advisors to the decision makers are different as well as the critical time frames. Today’s blog will seek to initiate discussions as to the investment implications for both sets of long-term investors.

The big picture

There is hardly any government in the world, no matter at what level, that is truly popular. Governments are tolerated because the various political forces, be it in the ruling family or other power bases, cannot find much better alternatives. Those in power, unless they are truly statesmen or stateswomen, want to stay in power whether or not they have completed their perceived missions. In effect, they are striving for preservation of power. (For some wealthy, this requirement translates to preservation of capital.) Both governments and individuals are prisoners of past decisions, made by ourselves and others. These prior decisions force us to deal with situations as they are, not what we would like them to be. Only governments that are in a constant state of surplus are not in the deficit production and control business. The whole legitimizing concept of government is that individuals are willing to give up certain actions and other assets in exchange for a third party providing required services. The deficit creation comes from our collective desire not to pay full price for the services acquired. The way the political process works is that one can stay in power by promising to provide more services to more people. Just raising revenues either through taxes or fees, in many cases is similar to pouring oil on a fire; it just leads to more expenses. The sudden cessation of spending, some call it austerity, can panic a society into massive curtailment of discretionary spending, which in turn could produce lower tax revenues. From our provincial vantage point here in the US, this is what we perceive in Europe and Japan.

In the US we see a different pattern, where governments are laying off and/or not hiring workers at the same time that the private sector is ever so slowly adding jobs. Having had to deal with corporate and institutional cutbacks, I recognize that most of the time layoffs at the low end do not produce enough savings to bring the books into balance. Only when some of the senior executives and whole departments are made redundant can sufficient savings be generated. While this is painful in the private and non-profit sectors, it is almost impossible to meaningfully accomplish in government. For example, when a senior employee of the State of New Jersey receives notice of being laid off, he/she can “bump off” (replace) a more junior employee almost anywhere within the state government. Yes, there is a decline in total salaries, but the state is stuck with the senior’s productivity or lack thereof. We have not yet begun to shrink the number of cabinet departments or members of various legislative bodies. Nevertheless, in the US, we are doing something to recognize the deficit problems mostly at the state level. This is being driven by the legal requirement that most of our states must produce a balanced budget. From an investment point of view, this could suggest that a number of our states could be more reliable credit risks than our federal government. This abhorrence of owning most federal debt is reinforced by the belief that it is only a matter of time until the US will join other countries in debasing their currency/debts through inflation. Further, I wonder whether all governments will lose some of their attraction as counterparties in a commercial transaction. I suspect that some governments will try to get out of paying their trade obligations in full and on a timely basis. Thus I am approaching a view that the corporations that have large government contracts should carry a lower valuation than a pure corporate counterparty.

The important picture for the wealthy

With the possible exception of the pharaohs, most wealthy have shown an interest in how their worldly goods are passed on to various heirs. I have written about this topic in my book, MONEYWISE (St. Martin’s Press). Today, I am returning to the critical discussion of multi-generational wealth transfer using a Linkedin Group to promote discussion, and as a resource for all who wish to think about and contribute their thoughts.

After observing families up close and personal as well as from afar, I can say that there is no single expert on all of the aspects of transferring wealth to your heirs. But a number of different kinds of experts are needed to give critical advice to the source of significant wealth, often called the grantor.

Most wills and trusts are developed with the initial assistance of competent attorneys with lots of trusts and estate experience. Their main function is to develop the document that captures the intent of the grantor as nearly as possible. Unfortunately, this is where many people end their search for advice. Tax accountants familiar with federal and state tax laws and regulations are essential, particularly for the wealthy with numerous and complex assets. Further, those who have assets outside of their home country will need competent local accountants and lawyers in each location of the wealth. Again, all too many wealthy individuals stop their transfer thinking process here. In my opinion, there are five other experts that are needed. Future blog discussions will address each expert need in detail.

  1. The first expert required is someone wise enough to evaluate the current potential heirs as to their needs, prudence and experience in handling investment activities. As difficult as this task is, they or their successors need to update their views as various heirs mature, marry, divorce, get permanently sick, and leave their own estates and possibly trusts.

  2. The next expert is the supervisor of the administration of complex instruments and relationships. Details that are not properly executed can thwart the intent of the grantor. The ability to supervise is particularly critical in this era of mergers of law firms, accounting firms, banks and trust companies.

  3. Many wealthy believe that they have obligations to their definition of society, and at the same time do not want to make some or all of their other heirs too wealthy and destroy their fruitful life styles. In this case an expert is needed to review not just requests from various charities, but also their operations and leadership

  4. The next to last expert needed is one that can appropriately make corrections for unexpected changes including any of the heirs, supporting experts, laws and regulations. I have often seen in beautifully drawn, long-term trusts, some need to adjust the then-new reality that was not in the mind of the grantor when he/she approved the document. Too often the only recourse to get changes are the courts who will be guided by the written law and the specific trust language, not the current cast of characters and current thinking as to the natures of well-being, investment structure changes, etc.

  5. The final person that is needed for a successful wealth transfer plan is the investor advisor. Actually he/she should be involved all the way along the process. The grantor needs advice as to what is going to be the composition of the transferred assets which may include operating and financial liabilities. Often investment organizations want you to put all the money in one big pool and have each heir get a designated slice at a specific time. This is the easiest way to administer the pot of wealth. It may not be the best as different heirs, including charities have different needs for current income, “real” income, tax adjusted income, long-term capital production, collateral for other obligations, etc.

Wealthy families around the world have these challenges in common. Through the mechanism of a Linkedin group titled Multi-Generational Wealth Transfer, I hope to explore many of the aspects of successful wealth transfer, and respond to your questions and comments. My goal is to assist in the optimum multi-generational wealth transfer.
Did you miss Mike Lipper’s Blog last week? Click here to read.

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