While most advisors appreciated the overall upbeat note of President Obama’s State of the Union address, representatives from all channels expressed deep concern about the direction, details and ability of the President to put his plans in motion.
Janice Henderson, an independent advisor at Law & Associates, a Washington, D.C., planning firm, zeroed in on taxes. “Taxes impact my clients the most, and there was some talk of that in the speech,” she says. “But the devil’s in the details and we don’t know what’s going to be in the actual proposal.”
Henderson says that while Obama claimed in his speech that there has been no rise in taxes, the government’s failure to raise exemptions in line with inflation have effectively raised them “by virtue of not doing anything.” One of her clients, a family of four in Pennsylvania, owes $5,000 more than last year thanks to the unadjusted alternative minimum tax. The $3.5 million estate tax exemption also needs to rise in order to keep up with rising costs, she says.
However, some tax issues hit the right note for Henderson. “Keeping capital gains where they are for small businesses, that’s important,” she says.
Henderson, whose firm manages $200 million in assets, also praised Obama’s pledge to free up $30 billion in repaid Troubled Asset Relief Program money for loans to small business through community banks. Of Henderson’s 300 clients, 20 or 30 are small-business owners. “Difficulty getting loans has been a concern because without loans they can’t grow their businesses,” she says.
For Jon Wax, a planner at Waller and Wax Advisors in Tampa, Fla., who works with a lot of pre-retirees, retirees and small-business owners, Obama’s State of the Union speech struck a positive note for the little guy. “Talk of shifting the balance from institutions to the average investor brings fairness to the game,” he says.
Wax, whose firm manages $250 million for 500 clients, also supports Glass-Steagall-type legislation to separate investment banking from traditional banking. “Hopefully, [Obama’s] intent is to reinstate some form of division between the two arms,” he says.
Clients will also appreciate tax credits for skyrocketing college-education fees, Wax says. Many of his pre-retiree clients are spending a great deal of money on their children’s education and need help to preserve assets for retirement. The 10% cap on college-loan repayments plus the proposal to forgive college loans for low-paid public servants could help his clients manage their children’s college expenses.
Wax’s favorite part of the speech was Obama’s assurance that the worst is behind us. “A lot of market trends arise from self-fulfilling prophesies,” he says. “If [Obama] follows it up with action through Congress, it could have a positive snowball effect,” on all clients’ investments.
Sean Fitzpatrick, part of the Raymond James advisor team Edwards Fitzpatrick in Houston, Texas, also lauded Obama’s overall upbeat message, with reservations. “It all sounded good but we’ll see what happens over the next six months,” he says.
Fitzpatrick’s team manages $250 million for 300 clients. About 40% of those customers are small-business owners. Fitzpatrick was also heartened by talk of helping small businesses and growing the job market, but he remains skeptical. “[Obama] is one of the best speakers, but how much is talk and how much is action? Addressing these things directly is encouraging; the question is whether anything will get passed.”
That, of course, is the trillion-dollar question. Randy Fields, an Investment Professionals advisor at Broadway Bank in San Antonio, Texas, points out that after Scott Brown’s election to the Senate by voters in Massachusetts, Obama is right to chide Republicans into dropping the rubberstamp “No” vote in favor of sharing the burden of governing. “[Brown’s appointment] forces both parties to cooperate on legislation that is reasonable from a business standpoint, and that’s a good sign.”
Fields also applauded Obama’s plan to create a deficit reduction committee. “That’s extremely important to my clients,” who fear both high interest rates and inflation, he says. The balance-of-payments deficit is also horrendous and needs urgent attention, Fields says, as it threatens the strength of the dollar. To hedge against this risk, the advisor ensures his clients hold “blue-chip foreign companies” and his large accounts generally hold 5% of their assets in gold, bought through exchange-traded funds. Fields manages $50 million in assets for 200 clients, 50 of whom are high net worth.
Charlie Schaaf, an independent advisor in Batesville, Ark., who clears through Investment Professionals, dispensed with any bright side to Obama’s speech. “I really was disappointed but not surprised,” he says. “I wanted to see some movement toward the center but I didn’t see anything—it was just business as usual.”
Schaaf questions whether voters will let things stand as they are. He says that most of his clients, concerned by rising deficits, particularly as a result of proposed healthcare reform, are simply sick with politicians on both side of the floor, and will make their displeasure felt at the elections this year. “My clients are fed up with Washington as a general rule,” he says. “I think there’ll be a big change come November.”