FA Playbook

As 2014 nears, advisors stress strategic thinking about taxes, downturns

Ilana Polyak, Special to CNBC.com
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This time last year, financial advisors were scrambling to put into place last-minute tax strategies before lower rates were set to expire. In the end the deal that was reached in Congress—after the Jan. 1 deadline—wasn't as onerous as many had anticipated. This year financial advisors have some breathing room.

"From a planning standpoint, there isn't the same urgency to act at year-end as there was last year," said Tim Steffen, senior vice president and director of financial planning at Robert W. Baird & Co.

As 2014 approaches, advisors are finding themselves talking about some of the same themes they do year in, year out—at least, on the tax front.

This year, said Steffen, wise investors will be more aggressive about harvesting their losses to offset any gains. "Higher taxes make your losses more valuable because you're offsetting gains at a higher rate," he said.

Financial planner Sheryl Rowling, certified public accountant and principal of Rowling & Associates LLP, said she, too, is focused on helping her clients minimize the impact of both today's higher taxes and the potentially even higher taxes of tomorrow.

Some clients are finding that their income is lower this year than they had anticipated. That makes it a good time for a Roth IRA conversion, Rowling said. Ordinary income tax will be owed on the value of the conversion, but those in a lower bracket this year will owe less than in "normal" years.

(Read more: Key tips that can minimize the tax bite)

It's worth doing, Rowling said, provided that the Roth IRA will have time to grow large enough to make up for the initial tax drag. "For one of my clients, Social Security is her only source of income," she explained. "She will have the opportunity to convert a significant amount of her 401(k) [plan] contribution into a Roth [IRA]."

Meanwhile, Jim Wright, president and chief investment officer of Harvest Financial Partners, is concerned that his clients are too focused on rising interest rates. To be sure, rates are up one percentage point from where they were in May, before Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke sparked a sell-off by saying the Fed would start tapering its $85-billion-a-month bond-buying program known as "quantitative easing."

Wright and his partner John Fattibene use a so-called "bond-laddering" strategy to help investors take advantage of rising interest rates. They buy a selection of bonds, set to mature annually in different years throughout a seven-year period, and hold each until maturity.

(Read more: 5 bond questions to ask your financial advisor now)

When a given bond matures, they reinvest the proceeds into a longer-dated one. This way, as rates rise, investors are stuck with lower rates for only a short time. Regularly reinvesting into newer, higher-yielding bonds provides the whole portfolio with a yield upgrade.

"We're not going to lose money with rising rates," Wright said. "We lock in higher returns the day we buy the bonds."

It doesn't matter how much money you make in this market if you lose it all suddenly.
James McDonald
CEO, chief investment officer, Index Strategy Investors

In other parts of the portfolio, Wright thinks, it pays to be more strategic. Stocks are not the bargain they were just a few years back, he said, and it's time to be cautious.

(Read more: Here's some prizewinning advice for investors)

In some cases, Wright and Fattibene are downright defensive. They like consumer staples and technology as a hedge against a possible reversal of stock market fortunes. Consumer staples tend to hold up better than other sectors in a downturn, they believe, as consumers rein in spending on all but the necessities. And they like technology companies because of their strong balance sheets that show plenty of cash to ward off tough times.

For James McDonald, CEO and chief investment officer of Index Strategy Investors, the biggest risk to portfolios right now is a cyberattack against exchanges. There's been a recent spate of such Internet-based electronic attacks, including one apparently directed at Nasdaq in August by an Iran-based hacking collective.

It's important to discuss the possibility with clients, McDonald said, because "what happens if someone loses 10, 15 [or] 20 percent of their portfolio because of a flash crash?"

(Read more: Investor year-end "to do" list)

McDonald said he's started to use futures to hedge positions against market attacks that bring trading to a halt, adding that "it doesn't matter how much money you make in this market if you lose it all suddenly."

—Ilana Polyak, Special to CNBC.com