Skipping this week...

Good morning all. I typically write these blog posts on Mondays and finish them up the following morning. Unfortunately I overscheduled myself yesterday and need to skip this week's post. We'll be back at it next week. Until then, take care and have a great day!

- Brandon

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Understanding Your 1099s

Tax season is frustrating for lots of people. Our system is incredibly complicated and, perhaps ironically, only gets more so when we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing like working hard, saving, investing, and so forth. Still, we have to tally everything up once a year and pay our share to keep the lights on, or so they tell us.

According to a 2021 survey by the IRS more than half of American taxpayers use a paid preparer to file their returns. Most people I know have a “tax person” and this also seems true for most of my clients. Personally, I did my family’s taxes for years using TurboTax but shifted to using a CPA about ten years ago when I started this business. Coordinating business and personal tax, and doing it well and accurately, is hard and I’m happy to pay a professional to do it for me.

Other surveys indicate that maybe 60% of people would prefer to do their own taxes with good software and a simpler system, so there’s DIY interest out there. Various websites suggest doing your own taxes when they’re “simple” and paying someone when your details are “complicated” – how helpful is that when it’s all complicated? And just because we want to do something doesn’t mean that we can or should. I’m sure I could spend time doing my taxes but I just don’t want to. It’s easily worth it to pay someone to do the sausage making but I still try to understand all the numbers and strategy.

One example of the issues a potential DIYer has is the complexity of the data and documents they have to use to complete their return. There are lots of tax forms but let’s look at a couple of the most common in my industry, the 1099 Composite and 1099-R.

By the way, I don’t intend this post to be a super-detailed examination of each form. Instead, this is more of a shorthand way to look at them along with the sections and numbers I often look at as a financial planner.

Let’s consider the 1099 Composite:

As the name implies, this form includes an array of tax-related data such as dividends, interest, and gains and losses for taxable (not IRAs, Roth IRAs, or otherwise tax-deferred) accounts.

Schwab and other brokerage firms need time to review transactions made in their system and transactions and other data from investment providers like mutual fund companies. This data sometimes comes in late or gets revised after the tax year has closed. It’s for this reason that Schwab does two runs of these forms, the first in late January into early February and the second, for more complex accounts, in mid-February.

Assuming your accounts are at Schwab and also assuming they spent some time at TD Ameritrade last year, you’ll be getting two 1099 Composites for 2023, one from each company. The formats are different but the essential data is the same.

Delivery of these forms is usually electronic but you can have a paper copy mailed to you if that’s your preference.

Schwab’s 1099 Composite contains forms such as the 1099-DIV, the 1099-INT, and the 1099-B showing realized gains and losses. Those forms start the document after a couple of intro pages and then you’ll see summaries of each maybe midway through. These summaries aren’t reported to the IRS like the individual forms are. However, I like to look at the summaries first because they’re a little easier to follow.

For example, you can jump ahead to page 23 of 55 where summaries begin in the sample document below. But I often will jump ahead to page 31 (again, in this sample – yours may have fewer pages) to look at gains and losses first. I’ll review the totals to ensure accuracy and then work backwards to confirm the individual transactions look right.

I’ll look for any large and/or unexpected numbers. Does anything appear to be missing? Maybe cost basis is missing? The information you see has been sent to the IRS so if anything is wrong you’ll need to have Schwab generate a new 1099 – you shouldn’t make corrections on your own. Otherwise, the 1099 Composite is a useful tool for assessing taxable activity for the year and that’s pretty much it. The document won’t give you rate of return information or investment analysis, but a clean form should give your tax preparer all they need.

Now let’s look at the 1099-R:

As with the Composite above, you’ll receive two 1099-R forms if you were taking distributions from your IRA while at TD Ameritrade and then at Schwab. Dividends, interest, gains, losses, and so forth aren’t normally reportable each year when they happen within a retirement account. All the IRS cares about is money leaving the account and why, so that’s what’s on the 1099-R.

That might sound simpler than the Composite, but it’s still challenging sometimes. Page 54 of 63 in the link below shows this form in detail.

I look at Box 1 for the year’s Gross Distribution amount, Boxes 4 and 14 for taxes withheld, and then Box 7 for the Distribution Code. This latter box can be problematic because sometimes the custodian codes a distribution incorrectly. These codes can have different tax ramifications so getting them right is key.

Code 7 is probably most common since it implies a “normal” distribution (meaning you’re old enough to draw without penalty and no other issues apply). All this is taxable as ordinary income.

Codes 1 and 2 are less common because they imply an early distribution that’s taxable as ordinary income plus a penalty, such as Code 1. Code 2 indicates there may be a penalty exception.

Also interesting is the box for “Taxable amount not determined”. This usually comes up when clients donated money to charity directly from their IRA. The gifted dollars aren’t taxable but Schwab doesn’t differentiate so they punt by checking that box. This leaves it up to the account owner to tell their tax advisor about the charitable gift but the box being checked typically flags the tax person to ask about it in case you’ve forgotten.

Other codes exist but review yours and let Schwab or your humble financial planner know if it seems wrong. Don’t manually correct it since the document needs to be reissued if there was a mistake.

Hopefully this helps you understand these tax forms a little better. I’m happy to help with further questions but specifics are probably best directed toward your tax advisor assuming you have one.

Here’s the guide I mentioned above.

Have questions? Ask us. We can help.

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Crypto Chango

Did you hear about changes in the digital assets/cryptocurrency realm a week or so ago? The SEC approved the first physical bitcoin exchange-traded funds, or ETFs. Even if you’re not into crypto it’s good to have at least a general understanding of popular investment products, so let’s talk about it.

Now I don’t want to sound overly negative or kid around too much but hearing the term “physical bitcoin” reminds me of learning about oxymorons in grammar school. I remember thinking that pretty ugly seemed funny and illustrated the point. I wonder if kids today would understand how that applies to cryptocurrencies.

Anyway, when I look in my system I now see dozens of different investment funds related primarily or entirely to bitcoin including the 11 physical ETFs just approved by the SEC. These funds are referred to as physical because they track the “spot” price of bitcoin versus tracking futures contracts. The spot price is the price of an investment for immediate delivery and is commonly associated with commodities markets such as gold and silver. I don’t want to hammer you with too much jargon but this physical/spot concept is important to understand if you’re at all interested in buying funds that hold bitcoin.

I phrased my last point purposefully. While I’m sure it’s obvious to you, dear reader, that there is no such thing as physical bitcoin (beyond something commemorative) and that was partly why it was created, investment salespeople would prefer you to think that these physical bitcoin funds offer something fundamentally different from futures-based funds. They even suggest that buying these funds is better than buying and holding bitcoin yourself. And they have a point but I’ll get to that shortly.

You may be familiar with physical gold funds from providers like Sprott. If you want gold exposure in your portfolio you can buy and sell shares of something like ticker symbol PHYS. The fund holds gold bullion and lets you redeem shares for physical gold if you’re interested in doing so and hold a lot of shares. Their website says the redemption has to be equivalent to 400 oz of gold, nearly $810,000 at today’s gold price. That’s unrealistic for most ordinary mortals but knowing that the actual commodity backs their investment is comforting for many investors who buy gold for various reasons other than pure price appreciation. Granted, much of this is personal preference but that shouldn’t be discounted too much. For them, these funds are ideal because they indirectly hold the commodity conveniently within their existing investment accounts.

And that convenience factor is more or less the common denominator of the sales pitches from the bitcoin funds.

A good example is the Grayscale Bitcoin Trust (ticker symbol BTC but formerly GBTC). Other companies are in on this now too, such as Blackrock and Fidelity. But the Grayscale fund has been around the longest (incepted in 2013, originally as a private fund based on futures contracts), has the most assets under management (nearly $29 billion) and was one of the funds recently approved by the SEC to start tracking bitcoin’s spot price. Now that it’s an ETF you can buy and sell it within your existing accounts.

Convenience is important but let’s dig a little deeper. The fund costs 1.5% per year while you hold it, about double the typical stock fund in the US but far more expensive than an S&P 500 stock index fund charging maybe 0.1% or less. I compare this to stock index funds because BTC tracks an index, the CoinDesk Bitcoin Price Index, much the same way a stock fund does. Maybe it costs more to manage a huge bitcoin portfolio but shareholders pay that management fee forever. The fund also doesn’t offer redemptions so you can’t swap shares for bitcoin. All you can do if you want out is sell your shares within your brokerage account. That’s straightforward and a reminder that, as I mentioned above, you don’t own bitcoin when you own these funds. Instead, you own shares of a fund that owns bitcoin. You get to participate in bitcoin’s price change, for better or worse, but that’s it. Now, one could say that’s like owning a stock index fund except that stocks represent real companies, many of which pay dividends, and most have long track records. Maybe bitcoin becomes a true currency but until then investing in it is pure speculation.

Maybe participating in bitcoin’s price change is enough for you but a lot of people who are interested in bitcoin also advocate for the democratization of finance, transaction privacy, and getting away from conventional markets. These bitcoin funds are the market.

So if you’re interested in owning bitcoin for any reason other than it’s price, I suggest shying away from bitcoin funds and instead buy and hold bitcoin yourself. You can do so at custodians like Coinbase and, while there’s some hassle there, the bitcoin will be yours and your transaction and holding costs will be a fraction of what you’d pay to the funds over time. Perhaps ironically, Grayscale uses Coinbase to hold its bitcoin so you’d be in good company.

Otherwise, if you’d just like some bitcoin in the overall mix of your portfolio and don’t care as much about the broader themes, these funds are perfect. Just understand what you’re buying and why. Bitcoin’s price is extremely volatile so you could dollar-cost-average into it or plan to buy on a major dip.

Also, it has been interesting to follow how bitcoin funds got to where they are today. Here are two press releases from the SEC about their recent fund approvals. The first is the general release while the second is a dissent from an SEC commissioner having to do with the likelihood for investor confusion and a misunderstanding of the risks of investing in cryptocurrencies in general.

Have questions? Ask us. We can help.

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Contrasting Narratives

Contrasting narratives about our strong economy post-Covid continue to mystify just about everyone. From the Federal Reserve on down it’s been interesting to watch how forecasts and opinions evolved over the past few years.

The economy was going to crash. We were supposed to be in a lengthy recession by now. High inflation was expected to be part of the new normal. And the government, overburdened by debt and intent on raising interest rates to fight inflation, was supposed to be the culprit.

Or… high government spending would be absorbed by the economy. There would be imbalances, but these would be overshadowed by a strong recovery coming out of the pandemic lows. Inflation and interest rates? Not to worry because we’re coming in for a soft landing…

How can these two diametrically opposed narratives exist at the same time while almost literally being at war with each other in the economy and culture? It’s fascinating.

There were selloffs in the markets, sure, but those happened amid a tide that still seems to be rising. That can’t last indefinitely so the trillion-dollar question is when the tide ebbs and nobody knows the answer with a high degree of certainty. Nonetheless, people seem certain of their opinions and they’ll only get louder as the year progresses. Just expect more volatility this year so you won't be surprised when it comes. 

Along these lines, I’d been thinking about the various camps that economic outlooks belong to when I saw this article in the WSJ and thought I’d share it with you. The author discusses three dominant narratives about why the economy is proving so resilient and how each leads to different investment implications.

A link is below if you’d like to read the whole article with charts, hyperlinks, etc.

From the WSJ…

Productivity is booming (buy Big Tech!)

Private-sector productivity, measured as output per hour, has been rising strongly since the first quarter of 2022 when the Fed belatedly started to increase interest rates. At the end of last year, it passed its pandemic peak, which anyway was a figment of statistics due to the distortions of the lockdown economy.

The bullish story is that productivity has been boosted by workers moving en masse to better-paid and more productive jobs. Rather than flipping burgers, recent graduates have been in demand as the economy runs hot and unemployment stays near half-century lows. 

Corporate investment has also rebounded much faster than it did after the 2007-2009 recession, now 10% higher than its prepandemic peak even when adjusted for inflation, against just 5% by the end of 2012, the same length of time from the 2009 low. The benefits of artificial intelligence, if they come through, might allow productivity to keep rising.

The bearish story is that productivity only rose because supply chains snarled by the pandemic were finally freed up, and that isn’t going to happen again.

The gains in productivity that have come through have allowed the economy to grow even as inflation comes down. If technology allows productivity to keep rising fast, the economy should be better able to resist higher interest rates—and stocks do well in the future even as the Fed keeps rates high.

The government financed everything, so of course it has been fine (sell Treasurys!)

Fiscal spending is also a good explanation for what happened. The Federal government ran a record peacetime deficit during the pandemic, and last year increased its deficit to 6.2% of GDP even as the economy grew strongly. Combine subsidies for anything with a hint of green with leftover stimulus savings and it is easy to see how the economy could resist higher interest rates.

Unfortunately, this can’t end well: Either the government will rein in spending, removing support and so most likely slowing growth, or it won’t, and higher borrowing will keep pushing up bond yields. Both are worth worrying about.

Monetary policy is taking longer than normal to bite (eventually it will, threatening growth)

The ineffectiveness of rate increases so far is obvious. Far from reducing demand, the economy grew faster as rates rose further. Much of that was just luck. But the risk is that the impact of rates on the economy hasn’t been abolished, merely delayed.

With hindsight, it is easy to see why higher rates didn’t immediately reduce corporate investment or household consumption. Big companies and homeowners had locked in record amounts of debt at record-low rates. Instead of Fed tightening hurting their income, major corporations and people with a mortgage kept paying the same rate but earned more in interest on their savings.

American nonfinancial companies are estimated by the Bureau of Economic Analysis to be paying about 40% less in interest, net of interest on savings, than they were before the Fed’s rate rises started. This shouldn’t be taken too literally, since recent data are calculated as the leftovers after adding up government, consumer and foreign interest, not measured directly. Still, assuming the direction of the data is right, it is the precise opposite of what the Fed’s been trying to achieve.

Not everyone in the U.S. benefited. The U.S. has a two-speed economy, something I’ll come back to in future columns. Small companies and those with poor credit ratings tend to have shorter-dated debt that needs to be refinanced at higher rates or have floating-rate debt. Individuals who borrowed on credit cards or to buy high-price secondhand cars are struggling, with delinquency rates now above prepandemic levels—and the young and poor have the biggest problems, according to the New York Fed.

As time passes and rates stay high, more and more debt needs to be refinanced. More borrowers who put off moving to avoid having to take a new mortgage at much higher rates will bite the bullet. More companies have to repay their bonds. And more economic activity that would have been financed by debt at lower rates just doesn’t happen.

For now, investors aren’t concerned that a delayed impact of higher rates will turn the two-speed economy into an overall slowdown. Even the worst-rated CCC junk-bond borrowers only yield about the same—13.5%—as they did in December 2019. Interest rates are higher, but offset by investors demanding a lower spread over safe Treasurys to compensate for extra risk.

The danger is that the mess in the slow-speed part of the economy drags down the rest. This could be transmitted via trouble in highly-leveraged private equity, commercial real estate or lenders such as regional banks particularly exposed to weaker borrowers. But it seems more likely just to be a slow burn as delinquencies and defaults steadily rise.

The problem for investors is that all three explanations of recent history are attractive and lead to completely different predictions if they continue to hold: Solid growth, government debt bomb or hard landing. 

In the past few months, the markets have swung from one extreme to the other, and back again. Expect that to continue. Nobody can get their story straight.

Here’s the link I mentioned. As before, let me know if you get blocked by the WSJ’s paywall and I’ll send you the article from my account.

Have questions? Ask us. We can help.

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Recasting Your Mortgage

I’ve received some questions about this and have recently gone down the decision road myself, so let’s talk about recasting your mortgage, how it works, pros and cons, and so forth.

What is a Recast?

Recasting a home loan isn’t refinancing. When you recast you’re working with the same loan terms, such as length and interest rate, while lowering your loan balance with a lump sum payment. Your lender then reworks your amortization schedule and lowers your monthly payment accordingly.

Here’s an example:

Say you’re five years into a 30yr loan with a $350,000 balance. At 3.5% interest your monthly principal and interest payment is about $1,796. If you paid $100,000 to the principal you’d now owe $250,000 with the same 25 years remaining. Your new payment would be $1,252, a savings of $544 each month for the life of the loan.

Why recast?

To save money, of course! The borrower in our simplified example would see their annual cash flow increase over $6,500 while also shaving off about $51,000 of interest expense if they made every loan payment. And you could potentially drop add-ons like private mortgage insurance if your loan-to-value ratio gets low enough, meaning more savings.

Here’s a good calculator to run an amortization schedule using your loan numbers. I’ve been using this guy’s site for years and it’s pretty straightforward.

Okay, so it’s clear why someone would want to recast but let’s consider the specifics.

You need to find out if recasting is possible since not all loan types and lenders offer this. My understanding is that FHA and VA loans don’t allow recasting, for example. Best bet is to reach out to your lender and ask.

Your lender likely has a minimum recast amount, such as $10,000 or maybe a percentage of your loan balance. Do you have that kind of cash sitting at the bank or maybe in a brokerage account? You won’t want to hit your retirement accounts for this so the cash has to be readily available.

There’s a processing fee and it takes a little time. My lender, Rocket Mortgage, had a $10,000 minimum, charged $250, and took about two billing cycles to lower my payment when I did a recast. And while they would have accepted a personal check I sent a wire transfer that cost $25, so add that cost as well.

Again, once the money is paid and the process completed you’re simply continuing your original loan terms but with a lower balance and payment. Recasting is really pretty simple but it’s not for everyone.

Here are some reasons why this may not work for you.

You don’t have an extra bundle of cash to put against your mortgage balance. Once you make the lump sum payment the only way to get the cash back is to borrow (assuming you qualify) or sell your home (assuming the market value remains high enough to cash you out). So this cash may be liquid now but it certainly won’t be when you’re recast is complete.

Also, while you can make extra principal payments on your loan anytime I don’t suggest paying a larger lump sum without first considering a recast. Doing so would save you interest expense over the long-term by paying your mortgage off early but would leave your contractually obligated payment the same in the meantime. Might as well reduce this too and give yourself some options since the recast expense is relatively low.

Your loan terms are bad, or at least not great. Maybe your interest rate is too high or maybe it’s an adjustable loan that you don’t intend to keep long-term. If so, maybe your financial situation has changed enough that you could refinance your loan instead of recasting. A good mortgage broker could help determine what you qualify for. If you think you fall into this category and have cash to put against your loan it’s reasonable to have a mortgage broker do a soft credit check so you can talk numbers. You could bring your cash to the refi to “buy down” your interest rate. And be sure to ask about the cost of any loan programs they mention. My recast cost $275 with the wire fee but the full cost of refinancing could easily be well over $5,000. Don’t make that decision lightly.

You’re not planning to stay in the home for at least the next five years. This is a facts-and-circumstances sort of thing but I suggest doing something else with your lump sum payment if this home isn’t a keeper.

You prefer maintaining your liquidity and, hopefully, are doing something productive with the money. My recast example used a 3.5% loan and a lot of homeowners are in that range now. You can buy 1yr bank CDs (at least right now) at about 4.9% and bond investments are there too with some potential upside (and downside but let’s be positive). Stocks have a higher expected return, of course, but I’ve always hated bringing stocks into comparisons like this because it’s really a different ballgame. Anyway, if the rate you’re earning on your excess cash is higher than your mortgage rate you may just want to ride that for a while. Or, like me, maybe you decide to keep liquid money working while also doing a recast – it’s great to have options.

Additionally, instead of a recast you could use extra liquidity to indirectly get more money into your retirement plan at work, fully fund your HSA, and maybe fund a 529 plan for your kids or grandkids. There are lots of options to consider and all are probably better than leaving a lump sum of cash to earn essentially nothing.

Ultimately, recasting a mortgage can be great for those who have a chunk of available cash, and a mortgage and home they prefer to keep a while. There are always other considerations but let me know if I’m missing anything important to you.

Have questions? Ask us. We can help.

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More Predictions...

Whenever I hear someone ask about market predictions I think about one of the many famous quotes from the Rocky saga. This time it’s from Rocky III, probably my favorite. It’s minutes before Rocky’s big rematch versus Clubber Lang and the villain is asked by a sports reporter for his thoughts on the coming fight. Here’s that eloquent exchange in brief.

Clubber: “Prediction?”

Reporter: “Yes, prediction…”

Clubber: “Pain.”

And then we have the famous prediction of more than 100 years ago from either Henry Poor, a founder of Standard & Poor’s, JD Rockefeller, or JP Morgan himself on what stock prices will do in the coming weeks: “I think they will fluctuate.” Sometimes the best predictions are the simplest.

All kidding aside, I bring this up because predictions can have a lot of biases built into them and it can be hard to see through the clutter. In my industry there’s a lot of financial bias, so to speak, that can make predictions and longer-term forecasts can seem more like product pitches. My favorites are often from the “permabears” who constantly expect the sky to fall. They cherry-pick data to craft compelling stories about impending pain before offering their own complicated and expensive investment products or services as the solution. There are permabulls too, but they don’t seem to get as much airtime as their bearish counterparts. Fear sells, as they say.

I think the goal when looking at market predictions is to get a sense for what reasonable people (very subjective these days, I know…) are expecting the economy and markets to do during the next year so we can plan accordingly. It’s less about which hot stock or precious metals to buy and more about context.

In that vein let’s look at predictions for the stock market this year. We’ll stick with JPMorgan and Schwab and links to more details from each are below.

JPMorgan – Dr. David Kelly, the firm’s Chief Global Strategist is sort of a guru in my industry and frequently holds conference calls for advisory firms. I’ve been following him for years and one of things I like is that he’s a macro guy and doesn’t push products or services. Anyway, he’s someone to pay attention to and here are some tidbits from his (and from others within the firm) 2024 predictions.

2024 = 2% economic growth, 0 recessions, 2% inflation, and unemployment at 4%. This catchy description is what the soft-landing scenario we’ve discussed might look like. JPMorgan expects 2024 to be more volatile than last year but the generally positive economic backdrop is expected to help hold up stock prices even as prices reset to an environment of higher interest rates. A handful of stocks within the S&P 500 are pretty expensive compared to long-term averages while the rest of the index is more reasonably priced. JPMorgan favors large cap stocks this year but suggests buying companies with “resilient profits, solid balance sheets, and favorable relative valuations.” Basically, stay invested but batten down the hatches.

Schwab – Liz Ann Sonders, the firm’s Chief Market Strategist, is always worth paying attention to. She and other strategists at Schwab suggest that while a traditional recession in the broader economy is still possible this year, a more likely outcome is a nuanced “rolling recession”, where some sectors struggle while others hold up well enough to average them out. That said, Liz Ann and her team at Schwab do seem a little dour, or perhaps just realistic, about our economy and the markets this year. Factors impacting this could be the declining financial health of consumers that has been showing up in reports lately and the yield curve being inverted for over a year, both of which usually imply recession.

The bond market may have adjusted quickly to the higher interest rate environment, but the stock market still has some catching up to do. Investors may be a little complacent about that, the firm says. Schwab is skeptical about current assumptions for corporate earnings growth and, like JPMorgan, suggests buying the stock of more profitable companies with manageable debt, not just those with huge (anticipated or actual) earnings and/or large debt loads. Diversification is important this year, Liz Ann says, and she emphasizes the importance of “adding low and trimming high” via rebalancing given the runup in portfolio values late last year.

There’s no shortage of other predictions out there but many seem within range of these two. Let me know if you find one that seems interesting.

All in, these two forecasts present a mixed picture while not being overly negative. There’s still a low chance of a major recession but some sectors, perhaps Consumer Discretionary and Technology, could feel some pain assuming the broader economy slows as expected. Stock prices are high but that’s skewed by a handful of popular companies mostly having to do with those two sectors. Fed policy, and potentially unrealistic investor expectations about it, should keep playing a major role in market dynamics this year as well.

To me it’s wise to expect more volatility as investors have these and myriad other issues to contend with. And it being an election year will certainly impact investor psychology. But don’t worry about that too much. According to my research partners at Bespoke Investment Group, since 1928 the fourth year of the presidential cycle has been positive almost 75% of the time with a median return of over 9%. If this year matches that, I’ll take it!

That said, this sort of environment demands detailed portfolio construction and big-picture rebalancing of stocks versus bonds at the allocation level in your portfolio. It’s also important to diversify and rebalance within asset classes and styles (growth versus value) to ensure your portfolio isn’t overweight in potentially overvalued areas. Beyond that, it’s best to reset expectations for this year. Positive, yes, but never easy.

As I mentioned last week, this is happening already on your behalf if I’m managing your investments but I welcome your questions.

Have questions? Ask us. We can help.

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