Two things are certain after election: volatility and taxes

Wed Nov 7, 2012 4:24pm EST

Nov 7 (Reuters) - The election results have given financial advisers two things to plan for: higher taxes for the wealthy and likely volatility in the markets.

Neither will be welcomed by investors, and larger questions remain surrounding the looming fiscal cliff. But for advisers, who have been hamstrung by a deadlocked Washington, the little clarity the election has brought is better than nothing.

"I don't think I've seen as much uncertainty in all the years I've been doing this," said Mitch Drossman, a nearly three-decade veteran of the industry and head of national wealth strategies for U.S. Trust, a division of Bank of America Corp. . "Clients are just begging for answers."

Post-election, advisers are focusing on lowering their clients' tax bills and protecting them against market swings that are expected for the rest of this year.

TAX STRATEGIES

Conventional wisdom has it that people should defer taxes whenever possible. But advisers will be making exceptions to that rule now that the elections have killed what little hope the wealthy had for avoiding higher taxes next year.

Advisers are encouraging clients make big gifts to their heirs before the likely cutback of the gift tax exemption in 2013. Currently, Americans can give $5.12 million to their heirs tax free, and double that for married couples pooling their resources. Next year that exemption is slated to fall to its lowest level since 2002 - $1 million.

Lawmakers may find a middle ground on this change, but wealth management experts agree that this benefit will probably never again be as generous.

Clients "look at this as perhaps the golden age of estate planning," said U.S. Trust's Drossman, who said gifting levels are currently the highest he has ever seen.

Another tax strategy expected to pick up steam is converting a traditional tax-deferred IRA into a Roth IRA, in which taxes are paid upfront but not owed later.

This is a good fit for clients who won't need the money for a while - say a decade or more - so the interest has time to make up for the initial t a x bill, said Richard Weeks, managing director at HighTower Advisors' VWG Wealth Management in Vienna, Virginia. The conversion isn't a good fit for clients who may be in a lower tax bracket at and during retirement, Weeks noted.

Advisers are finding ways for clients to take advantage of current capital gains rates before their scheduled increase from 15 percent at year end, to as high as 39.6 percent.

Investors with concentrated positions in a highly appreciated stock are in most cases wise to sell, b ut shouldn't let the tax tail wag the investment dog, advisers said. In short, don't give up a big stock gain to cover a small tax loss, they said.

INVESTING STRATEGIES

During the debt-ceiling crisis in August 2011, the Dow Jones Industrial Average posted four straight days of 400-plus point swings. That kind of volatility could reappear at the end of this year as legislators wrestle over federal spending cuts and tax hikes that will automatically start at year end, advisers said.

To prepare, VWG Wealth's Weeks said his firm, which manages $750 million in client assets, has been looking to diversify away from index-based funds and into non-dollar denominated assets, like equity holdings in emerging markets. He's also been looking for fund managers who have a record of outperforming in down markets.

"I don't think now is the time to add risk assets," he said.

Other advisers were more optimistic.

Thomas Moran, senior portfolio manager of the Moran Edwards Asset Management Group, part of Wells Fargo Advisors, said he's hopeful that Washington will resolve the fiscal cliff crisis, and in turn, unlock equities from their currently positions, which he sees as undervalued. That's motivated him to move into more growth-oriented sectors, like technology and consumer discretionary.

The tough part for optimists will be converting clients, who are still stuck in "obsessive crisis disorder" mode, according to Tony Roth, head of wealth management strategies at UBS Wealth Management. [ID: nL1E8LIBN7]

Advisers have to shake clients out of the pattern of constantly worrying about the next big issue, he said. There is hope they'll finally listen: In UBS' most recent Investor Watch Survey, 50 percent of clients said they wanted to review their plans right after the election.

"I think there is a desire on the part of investors to get re-engaged, and it's up to the advisers to get them off the sidelines," Roth said.