© Ike Z. Devji, J.D.

Another version of this went to my clients in December of 2007. I hope your advisors shared similar insights with you.

As 2009 draws to a close we look back at the lessons learned and forward to new opportunities. Below are some critical points we have seen illustrated many times by those we work with, some of the most successful and intelligent people in their various professions and businesses. Despite the phenomenal track record many of them have in terms of making money safely, predictably and responsibly for many years, no one was left untouched by the recent crisis. Here are some of the 2008and 2009 “lessons” we feel it is most important to reflect on and examine for yourself as we start 2010. As always contact me for more specific information on any of these issues.

The right financial advice matters now more than ever. We have seen that at the worst, some clients lost as much as 60% of their investment portfolios due to the market and their investment allocations while others were down only a fraction of what the market lost and are relatively free of anxiety. Why the huge disparity in results between advisors? What we see is that it is relatively easy to make money in good times by using a simple allocation table that at first glance seems well diversified between different types of investments such as technology, energy and etc. What those plans, such as the ones we see from big commercial brokerage firms or “wire-houses” are typically lacking in is a good down-market strategy that values principal protection as highly as it does growth. There are ways to get all or most of the market growth available with guaranteed rates of return or principal guarantees. These types of strategies, when properly allocated are the backbone of what saved the second, more fortunate group of investors described above. These clients are not only whole or close to it, but are now poised and financially equipped to take advantage of emerging opportunities.

Again, as the economy and income and profit slow, never taking a step back, or at least taking as few as possible, becomes more important than ever before. Remember, a portfolio that is down 50% will need to DOUBLE to get back to where it was. How long did it take you to double your money the last time? Do you have that kind of time left? If you don’t like the way you answered those questions for yourself, perhaps it’s time to take a good look at how you are structured and what kind of stop-loss measures you have in place. In many cases it is not too late to make some positive changes and “buy and wait” is not the right answer for every investor or every investment.

NOW is always the best time to act on preventative legal planning. This year we saw many successful people who always meant to complete essential planning like Asset Protection and advanced Estate Planning precluded from doing so either wholly or completely. In some cases their unexpected legal exposures made the planning ineffective or illegal, in others their financial positions in terms of debt, credit and cash flow changed so rapidly they were locked out. We understand that doing this kind of planning takes time, energy, and resources that are already scarce for the dynamic individuals we work with, and that it seems to lack the kind of time sensitivity that other matters, like responding to a lawsuit, would justify. The real truth however is that every day that passes without these issues being properly addressed jeopardizes your net worth and your family’s security, the thing that many of you are working so hard to create. We have countless stories from the last 6 months alone of fortunes lost because of the way easily protectable assets were held and exposed to creditors, families thrown into crisis when the bread winner passes away in an accident without adequate estate planning and life insurance or is disabled without disability coverage in place, and unexpected liabilities taking away dreams.

We equate this lack of attention to these issues to driving to work every day on a busy freeway without auto insurance or operating without a malpractice policy in place. These are odds that most cannot afford to bet on. Take the time and make the investment in YOURSELF and the years you have put into your current level of success and address these issues now. Preserving what you already have when money is harder to make is a good first step.

No program lasts forever, when the door is open seize the opportunity. Many of the most productive and sophisticated wealth preservation techniques such as Accounts Receivable Financing to leverage and protect future income and Premium Financing for large estate planning cases have disappeared or slowed to a crawl as the banking and insurance industries continue to be devastated. Even clients with nine-figure net worth levels are having trouble obtaining the kind of low cost financing that was available for them to help leverage their wealth and avoid estate taxes even 6 months ago. Add to that increasingly stringent underwriting by insurance companies and you have the worst possible storm for the affluent. We are now in the unfortunate position of having to tell many of those we counseled on these issues a year ago and who skeptically heard us say that there was a time pressure involved that the programs are not available or that they are no longer qualified under more stringent underwriting guidelines. Of course, they can still pay for the planning, but at the full cost and by paying the premiums directly in cash at a time when cash flow is king as opposed to 6 months ago when they could have had it for as little as interest only at less than 6% fixed rate loans. What does this mean? In one case it meant a client with an eight figure estate tax exposure looking at a premium of over $250K per year as opposed to less than $50K. It’s just math.

We like leveraging wealth and using credit, but you must have a disaster plan. Those in the real-estate business are the most obvious example of what a lack of credit and financing can do, but all types of industries have been crippled by current economic conditions. We have many of the most successful real estate professionals in the country as clients and have felt and shared their pain. What has been less obvious is the impact on other businesses like shipping, dining, small businesses that rely on services and discretionary income, banking, appraisal services, elective medical procedures, health and beauty businesses, the list is infinite. We have seen that those who have weathered this storm most effectively and with a minimum amount of trauma shared several characteristics:
– They and their advisors were aware of potential exposures and were proactive in addressing them;
– They are able to make their personal, family overhead commitments from existing resources for an extended period of time, even without additional cash flow;
– They were willing and able to adjust their lifestyles and expenditures to current economic conditions;
– They lived very well, but well within their means, as opposed to at the limits of their means;
– They had assets that allowed them to meet existing business financing burdens and other fixed costs in a form that they were able to liquidate at minimal delay and expense;
– They had top counsel in place on tax, business and estate issues, and that counsel used a variety of strategies that not only served the primary goals but also protected those assets for the family. Some examples are the use of Insurance and Annuity Products and ILITS and Split Dollar agreements that preserve certain assets for the family by statute;
– They had great credit and relationships with banks that allowed them to agree on terms that were best for all parties involved, and had these relationships with several institutions;
– They had long term assets that were able to be made liquid with minimal penalty and delay, despite that liquidation not being part of the original plan, i.e. long term investments with an escape or liquidity plan built in;

No business is recession proof. Diversify and properly insulate your income streams if possible and be ready to be flexible and spot ways to identify new opportunities for your business and your skill set. Realize that your niche, as you have defined it, may come to an end and know when to direct your assets and energy to those new opportunities. As examples, some of our clients who were major players in single family housing are now in the “economy” apartment market segment and are doing well. Doctors are expanding their practices and adding high value cash services like medically supervised weight loss to practices that were focused solely in other areas. Others have created booming new businesses like debt and credit repair that directly reflect the current economy.

Don’t take your market position for granted. In a down economy discount solution, product and service providers emerge in every market. These competitors will be selling price first and many consumers won’t see the differences until they have been poorly served and you have lost the business. Some steps to fight this:
– Make sure that your network and professional relationships are as strong and developed now as they were before you reached your current level of success;
– Look for ways to distinguish yourself and your business and maintain the highest standards of professionalism and service;
– Look for every way to add value and collaborate with other top services providers you work with so that you are a natural and logical part of every project or client they are involved with. Become part of a best of class team of teams that delivers the highest value to the consumer. This is true of everything from medical services to commercial contracting;
– Continue to be the best, or at least great at what you do. “Good enough” should not be part of your vocabulary.

Guard your credit like gold. Good credit has always been important on both personal and business fronts, but it is now more important that ever. As credit markets have tightened even the wealthy are having trouble obtaining credit for every day issues like home and auto purchase or leasing. Banks are scared and have pulled in the reigns on lending to all but those who have sterling credit, “good” is no longer good enough. They are also using late payments of any kind to move to the default interest rates permissible under various types on loan and consumer credit agreements as a way to generate fees and increase revenue internally. On a personal level this could mean that your VISA ay 8.9% jumps to 29.99% APR if your spouse sends in the check late. On a business level it is much worse. If your course of business has been to pay certain credit lines down late to a friendly creditor, it could now put you into default or cause an acceleration. We are also hearing that clients who have used revolving credit lines for years as part of their business model either for capitalization or to pay recurring expenses are suddenly finding that their credit lines have been terminated or drastically reduced as is permissible in the fine print of most such agreements. This is despite the fact that the client has had no change in income or credit. Banks are simply deciding that they have too much exposure and are proactively limiting your ability to draw that money out. Solution? – If you have a credit line that you know you are going to need or cannot risk losing – draw the money out now and look at the interest cost like an insurance premium; you may not want to pay it but if you need the “insurance” of having that money available it will not be available at any cost, certainly not in any short term scenario. There are services out there that we have referred friends and clients to with great results. For an investment of a few hundred dollars many negative or inaccurate items can be removed in a short period of time increasing your credit score by dozens of points. Check your business and personal credit reports and see if they are accurate. We are also seeing that banks that are in financial trouble and which need to reduce their outstanding debt balances are playing dirty tricks like re-appraising property they financed over 18 months ago to “current market value” at ridiculously low valuations then going back to the borrower and saying they need more collateral or they will call they note as the “fine print” entitled them to do. How bad can this be? In one case the bank re-appraised my client’s multi-million dollar commercial property at about 50% of current fair market value and wanted an additional seven figures in collateral. Fortunately, this client had sterling credit and good professional relationships that allowed him to re-finance at a lower rate with a more solvent and ethical bank.

Keep more of every dollar you earn. There are many things each of us could do to maximize our retained earnings. Again, now that money is harder to make, another way to increase revenue is to devote a small amount of resources to increasing efficiency. These are just a few of the most obvious ways we see clients successfully achieving this goal:
Cost segregation Studies. These studies allow huge tax deductions now when you need them most as opposed to spread over 30 years at about 3% per year the way they are typically taken. Most commercial property, even leased, qualifies for the study and the deductions and we can even arrange for a free feasibility study for commercial property with an aggregate value of at least $1MM, an easily attainable entry level. As a bonus, you can ever re-capture lost depreciation for as much as the last 20 years!
Energy Studies. Again, owners of commercial properties are seeing energy tax credits of up to $1.80 per square foot when the study is completed and simple low cost changes are made. Would that kind of recurring savings be valuable enough to you to change the kinds of light bulbs you use and add a skylight? In most cases it is.
Increasing Business Tax Structure efficiency. You walk around turning off lights, but is your business tax structure maximized? One of my Associates, Mr. Tom Maguire of Hebets and Maguire, as just one example, routinely saves both public and private corporation clients a significant amount of money on a re-occurring basis by refining and perfecting the choice of corporate formation, stock ownership options and identifying the most efficient business succession and executive compensation models. This goes far beyond the CPA taking the right deductions.
Increasing personal tax efficiency. We deal with high net worth clients every day and are continually surprised by the amount of money that they leave on the table for the government by not maximizing their legal options. For most, a 401K is not adequate tax planning. Even if the money you save is “long term” or retirement money that cannot be used now, you still get to keep it. Many of the most sophisticated programs provide multiple benefits and may also serve or support goals like estate planning and asset protection.

One glaring example is the use of special life insurance policies with high cash values that grow tax free, allow withdrawals tax free, and which offer statutory protection against creditors in many states. As an example, in Arizona that creditor protected amount is “unlimited” after 24 months in a plan. Other examples of planning to consider includes section 79, post retirement medical reimbursement, 412i defined benefit programs. Don’t know where to start? Don’t worry, we can help show you which plans apply to your unique situation and which are guarantee of principle, no market risk, tax deductible and Asset Protected programs.

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