Monday, November 23, 2009

Beware the Roth IRA

... or at least the hype around the Roth. As you will soon learn, starting in 2010 anyone will be able to convert an IRA into a Roth IRA.

The brokerage firms see this as the opportunity of the year. As Fidelity excitingly promotes "With more than $1 trillion in IRAs ... advisers who get to their clients and prospects first ... will gain competitive advantage." The same thing is happening at all the big brokers ... the Roth is being actively promoted as a "no-brainer" for anyone with money to pay the tax now. Its highly likely that in the next few months some-one will try get you to convert your IRA to a Roth.

Simply put a Roth conversion allows you to pay all the tax on an IRA now and then withdraw the funds tax free in retirement.

The argument is that taxes will inevitably rise and so paying them now is just smart. While there are some cases where conversion makes sense, they are relatively rare among people with high current marginal tax rates.

The reason is that your high marginal rate - say 35% federal- is a function of you working and earning several hundred thousand dollars per year. In retirement you stop earning money - and your tax bracket plummets. If you retire with no more than $5 million in investments including IRA's - your federal marginal tax rate probably won't be much more than 15%. Rates would need to go up dramatically before conversion makes sense.

It is possible that you are a good Roth conversion candidate but its not a "no-brainer". Before converting make sure your adviser gives a detailed projection of your taxes in retirement and compare the rates to what you are paying now.