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December 31, 2008

Year-end tax planning? Here's how gains and losses work

Question: If I have a capital gain of $5,000 and a loss of $10,000, can I write off the entire loss plus the $3,000 to offset ordinary income?
-Steve
Answer: No.You haven’t made quite enough in capital gains to do that this year.
The tax law allows you to use capital losses to offset capital gains, which are typically profits on stocks or mutual funds. So you’d take $5,000 of your loss and use that the offset $5,000 of your gains. From the $5,000 in losses that you have left, you could use another $3,000 to offset ordinary income, typically the kind you earn from your job.
You’ll have $2,000 in losses left, to use in future tax years. You get to roll it over until the losses are all gone. You can use up to $3,000 a year to offset your ordinary income.

Send me your questions on personal finance and I'll find the answers. Either use the comments section here or email them to helpline@SunSentinel.com. I prefer to respond to people who provide me with their name and the city where they live.

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December 16, 2008

Bernard Madoff, some questions

How do you pull off a $50 billion ponzi scheme, as the Securities and Exchange Commission alleges? How do you do it with no one seemingly knowing it's going on? Here are my questions:

-Who were Bernard Madoff's clients?

He was running a hedge fund, correct? So his clients should have been deemed to be qualified investors, which, by the SECdefinition, means someone who has a net worth of $1 million or at least annual income of $200,000. The notion of "qualified" is that this person is sophisticated about investments and understands risks. Why then are we hearing from investors who said they didn't understand what they were getting in to?

-Who could understand his statements?

It took The Wall Street Journal about a day to figure out that he couldn't possibly have transacted the volume of options trading that he said he did. So what was on his statements and did anyone ever call up and ask for an explanation?

Steve Pomeranz, a Boca Raton certified financial planner, told me he reviewed Madoff's statements and couldn't make sense of how he could do what he claimed to do.

Why, then, did anyone believe the statements were true? Does complicated equal smart, sophisticated, trustworthy? Not in my book.

-Why were people silent?

Because they were making money. Until now. They thought they had the smartest money manager ever, the one who knew more than anyone else. The one who had the secret to making money when markets were only losing money. It's a fiction. It continues because of secrecy.

It all has an air of a quiet, secretive club where it worked until it didn't.

It does not sound like the kind of investing that an ordinary working schlub does, going down to the broker or telling his employer to put his 401(k) savings into a mutual fund.

Oh yeah, and this one,
Where were the regulators?
No answers there

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December 12, 2008

Congress Changes Retirement Rules

Congress slipped a big change for Individual Retirement Accounts into the pension bil that passed Thursday.

Lawmakers inserted a provision that would suspend required minimum distributions temporarily. People over age 70 and a half must take a certain amount of money out of their IRA's every year. These required "distributions" have become quite controversial this year, because of how they are calculated.

This provision suspends the required minimum distributions or RMD's next year, for 2009.

Here's why RMD's have suddenly become controversial:

The law says you have to use the value of your account at the end of the prior year and you must take out a certain percentage based on your life expectancy. Retirees were protesting, because almost everyone's portfolio was larger last year than it is now. If they had to take money out based on last year's value, it would be a big hit to what is now a smaller portfolio. If they don't take the RMD, they're still in the hole, because the tax code says they have to pay a penalty of half of the amount that should have been withdrawn.

Watch for President Bush to sign it into law.

The proposal is HR 7327.

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December 11, 2008

How are your funds doing?

Investment News had an article last month reporting that most, seven out of ten, top mutual funds that are actively managed were doing worse than the market.

That means, in the first ten months of the year, if you were paying a manager of your mutual fund to pick stocks for you, the manager was doing worse than the Standard & Poor's 500 index. You could have bought an index fund and probably paid a fraction of what you paid your active manager and lost less money. Because everyone's losing money.

The winners are losing less.
The winners are not the stock pickers.

How are your funds doing? And what do you think of my cousin's idea, that your investment advisor -- your financial planner or stockbroker or whoever -- ought to see his or her pay go down when the investments they chose decline in value?

She's talking about your personal investment advisor. She thinks that person ought to be paid based on performance, not for just showing up.

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December 10, 2008

On TV Tonight


I'm going to guess that plenty of people will disagree with what I say on The Nightly Business Report tonight. My commentary is about whether people should consider giving securities as holiday gifts this year. So tell me, what do you think? Going to give stock to the kids this year? Watch the Money File segment on WPBT Channel 2. The show airs at 7 p.m.

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December 9, 2008

Homebuyers, Don't Give Up

You want to buy a house but you don’t think you could get a mortgage.
Bad credit? Not much a down payment?
Don’t forget FHA mortgages, one broker pointed out to me recently.
FHA loans can still be had with as little as a 3 percent down payment. And FHA itself doesn’t impose a minimum credit score requirement (although some lenders do). So those who would not qualify for a bank loan may be able to do it this way.
My point: Don’t assume you won’t get financing. It’s tough these days, but not impossible.
And,
Don't forget to send me your personal finance questions at helpline@SunSentinel.com

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December 4, 2008

Mortgage rates fall

Good news: Mortgage interest rates did fall again, as expected.

Freddie Mac is reporting the average 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage this week was at 5.53 percent, the lowest rate since Januray.

We've already seen a boom in refinancings, as people rush to cash out of expensive loans or ones that are about to reset to higher rates.

Bet that boom continues.

And look at 15-year, fixed-rate mortgages, they're averaging 5.33 percent, Freddie Mac says. That's the lowest since March.

A year ago, 30-year , fixed-rates were closer to 6.

This would be a great time to refinance, if you qualify.

Consider a 30-year, fixed rate mortgage of $100,000 at 5.5 percent. The principal and interest payment would be $567.79. If that rate were 6 percent, the payment would be $599.56.

The difference is a savings of $381.24 a year.

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Mortgage rates

I'm watching mortgage rates. The Mortgage Bankers Association reported Wednesday that mortgage refinancing activity shot up Thanksgiving week, as interest rates fell. Then bond guru Bill Gross of Pimco went on CNBC and predicted that rates on 30-year mortgages would fall to 4.5 percent as the economy recovers, down from 5.97 percent now. Today, Freddie Mac will tell us what happened to rates in this past week. And that may send even more people off to their lenders to refinance. Might be a good idea for struggling homeowners.

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December 2, 2008

The recession: When will it end?

The recession is here to stay. Already longer than the average recession, it will hang around through most of 2009.

“It looks like (the recession) will last at least through the middle of next year,” said Wachovia Corp. Senior Economist Mark Vitner. “Probably it will bottom out then but the recovery process is likely to be very long and agonizing.”

He said that typically after a recession ends, unemployment tends to continue rising for at least a year.

“We are not likely to see a return to good economic times until late 2010 or early 201l,” he said Monday.

Florida, he said. “may take longer than the rest of the country.”

Florida’s recession started about six months earlier than the nation's recession.

University of Florida Economist David Denslow says the state’s economy started declining during the summer of 2007. The National Bureau of Economic Research said yesterday that the nation entered a recession one year ago, last December.

Denslow expects the downturn to continue through 2009. “My guess is we’ll see declining output in the first half of 2009 and essentially flat in the second half,” Denslow said Monday.

Recovery, he says, may come for Florida in the first half of 2010.

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About the author
You've got the job of managing your money. No one in school taught you how. But you and I, we can teach each other, how to handle it, how to save for retirement, how to make money last, how to educate the kids, how to make a budget work. The conversations I have with my readers are fun. Money's important, but discussing it does not have to be boring.

Harriet Johnson Brackey Harriet Johnson Brackey, the personal finance columnist for the Sun Sentinel, is an award-winning business reporter. Her columns for 2008 were named "The Best in the Business," a national award chosen by her colleagues at the Society of American Business Editors and Writers.

Brackey has worked at Business Week magazine and at USA TODAY, where she was a founder and part of the original staff of the Money section at the country's first national newspaper. After nearly 11 years there - spent covering the 1980s bull market, the insider trading scandals, the 1987 crash - Brackey left Washington, D.C., and came to The Miami Herald. She spent the next decade writing a column about personal finance that chronicled the stock market's Internet boom and bust, as well as the popular Money Makeover features.

Brackey also has done commentaries for Marketplace Money, which airs on National Public Radio and The Nightly Business Report which is broadcast on more than 250 PBS television stations nationwide. She also has been a radio guest on WLRN’s Miami Herald News.
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