Is Now The Time to Convert Your Traditional IRA to a Roth IRA?

 

With great adversity comes great opportunity. While nobody likes to see the account balances in their IRA drop 40% or more, the reduced value in your IRA may make it an opportune time to convert your Traditional IRA to a Roth IRA since it will cost you much less in taxes than it would have in any of the past 4 years.

Traditional IRA vs. Roth IRA Basics

A Traditional IRA allows you, with some limitations, to deduct your IRA contribution when you make it. Over time, your account grows tax-free until you start taking distributions. Once you begin to take distributions, the amount you take each year after age 59 ½ is taxed at your rate at your current income tax rate.

A Roth IRA on the other hand, does not provide you with an up-front tax deduction. Like the Traditional IRA, your account grows tax-free but, unlike a Traditional IRA, when you take distributions there is NO tax liability.

Why Convert?

Roth IRA’s have four big advantages:

1. Tax-free growth. Like a Traditional IRA, the growth in your account is not taxes.
2. Tax-free withdrawals. As long as you’ve owned your Roth IRA for five years or have reached age 59 ½, the amount you take out of the account is not taxed.
3. Contributions can be made after age 70 ½. While you can longer make contributions after age 70 ½ in your Traditional IRA, there is no such restriction for the Roth IRA.
4. No mandatory distributions. In a Traditional IRA, one you reach age 70 ½, you must start taking Required Minimum Distributions (RMD’s) each year from the account. Because you didn’t get an up-front tax deduction for your Roth IRA, you’re not required to take RMD’s.

Reasons Not To Convert

1. Taxes. When you convert from a Traditional to a Roth IRA, you’ll need cash to pay taxes on the earnings and pre-tax contributions you made. Warning: you can’t use your IRA to pay the taxes since the amount you use for taxes would be considered an early withdrawal, subject to income tax and a penalty.
2. You anticipate being in a lower tax bracket in the future. If you’re currently in the 35% tax bracket and you think you’ll be in the 25% bracket in retirement, you’ll be paying taxes at your higher current rate.

Who Is Eligible to Convert?

In 2009, in order to be eligible to convert your IRA, you must have an Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) of less than $100,000. In 2010, there will be no income limitation on a Roth conversion.

Do-Over

If the market continues to tank through 2010, the government has provided you with the ability to take a mulligan. Otherwise known as a ‘re-characterization’, this give you until October 15, 2010 to reverse your decision to do the conversion in 2009 and re-do it on the new lower amount in your IRA.

Consult a Professional

The tax code is a fluid, complex animal. Before undertaking this type of conversion, be sure to consult your CPA or tax professional to ensure that you do everything right to avoid an unnecessary complications.

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What’s a Terrified Investor Supposed To Do?

The Dow Industrial Average is down more than 35% so far this year, with an almost 679 point drop today alone.  There’s not doubt about it, but this market is in the midst of a full-blown panic.

Stocks are down, bonds are down or barely hanging on, oil and gold are down, real estate is down.  So given all the doom and gloom, what’s a shell shocked investor supposed to do?  Here are few tips to help you ride out the current market.

  • Don’t panic. Now is not the time to sell all your stocks.  If you were going to do that, the time was 12 to 18 months ago.  By selling now, you’ll simply lock in what is still a paper loss.
  • Remember your time horizon. If you’re young, this market will provide a great buying opportunity.  If you’re nearing retirement, you may want to follow the next piece of advice.
  • Scale back your equity exposure. Don’t sell everything, but it would be wise to have a little more cash than usual.  We currently have our clients with a lot more cash than usual so we can start buying again when the panic subsides.
  • Review your asset allocation. Some asset classes have gotten hit harder than others.  Now is a great opportunity to reallocate your portfolio without the tax bite you might get under more normal circumstances.
  • Talk to your advisor. If you haven’t spoken to, or heard from, your advisor, now is the time to be proactive and schedule an appointment to review the above items.  You’ll most likely leave that meeting knowing you’re doing everything in your power to minimize the damage of our current situation.

This has undoubtedly been a brutal market that has tested the stomachs of even the most seasoned professionals.  While you may have to make small adjustments to your current portfolio to reflect current circumstances, remember that your investment portfolio is built for the LONG TERM and that, over time, your patience and fortitude will be rewarded.

House Republicans Need to Get a Clue

Well, as cynical as I am about politics, the Republicans in the House of Representatives just dropped my own cynicism to a historic low.  The House just now FAILED to pass the bailout package that was negotiated over the weekend.  The result?  As this is being written, the Dow Industrial Average is down more than 500 points.

Republicans, who overwhelmingly rejected the bailout package, just had a press conference wherein they blamed not the package itself, but a ‘partisan’ speech given by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi that apparently angered some Republicans enough that they voted no, despite previously indicating that they would vote yes.  The bailout package didn’t change, but apparently hurt feelings are enough to change somebody’s mind.  Seriously, a no vote because you essentially got your feeling hurt?  What are we, in third grade again?  Are you so clueless that you truly cannot put aside partisan politics to help this country avoid economic calamity and get back on the road to recovery?

While our economic system is wounded, clearly our political system is completely broken, when a group of ELECTED officials find it impossible to do what’s right for the American public because they got their feelings hurt.

Life on some tropical Polynesian island run by a king is starting to look pretty appealing right about now.

This Time is Not Different

With the bankruptcy filing of Lehman Brothers and the shotgun wedding between Bank of America and Merrill Lynch, many investors are concerned with the viability of our financial markets.  Oh, how short our memories are.

Ten years ago, in 1998, a hedge fund, Long Term Capital Management, failed, creating market panic similar to what we’re seeing today.  The fear at the time was that, due to the size of the fund and its leverage, having to sell its positions could destabilize the entire financial system.

Similar to today, the Federal Reserve and other large banks worked to minimize the damage from the collapse and the world financial system was ‘saved.’  Not only did the doomsday scenarios fail to materialize, but the stock market went on to log one of the longest bull market runs ever.

The moral of the story is that, altough financial crises like this are scary, even for the professionals, this time is most likely NOT DIFFERENT and our financial system will not only survive, but most likely survive.

Market Euphoria Fades Fast

With yesterday’s announcement that the government would be taking over both Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, pundits and television talking heads began asking if the move signaled a bottom for both the housing market as well as the stock market.

Well, the market today responded with a resounding ‘NO’ and fell by almost the exact amount by which it rose yesterday.

The government’s move yesterday did have the effect of immediately dropping most mortgage rates by around 50 basis points.  The problem, as I was discussing yesterady with two friends who are mortgage brokers, is that unless lenders are willing to again start lending, the interest rate on loans is largely irrelevant.

Any time there is a bubble in the market, in this case the exceedingly easy access to financing we’ve seen the past few years, and that bubble bursts, the pendulum usually overreacts in the opposite direction.  Qualified borrowers, with high credit scores, low loan to value and adequate cash reserves are still finding it incredibly challenging to get real estate financing.   Not until LENDERS feel that the real estate market has stabilized will they begin to loosen up their underwriting a little allowing the credit markets to return to some modicum of normalcy.

I hope and wish that those pundits from yesterday were right and that we are forming a bottom in the market as it would be nice to be able to give friends, family and clients some good news for a change, but I’m not holding my breath.

Now Is Not The Time To Panic

If you read the newspaper, listen to the radio or watch TV, you can’t help but wonder if our financial system, as we know it, is coming to an end.  With record high oil and gas prices, falling real estate markets and bank failures, it’s no wonder that American consumer confidence is at its lowest level in 40 years.  In fact, many people now seem to be in full panic mode.

Now, however, is not the time to panic.  Why?  For a number of reasons.  First, there are protections in place against the failure of your bank or brokerage company, second, the government is being pro-active to try to prevent a full-scale meltdown and finally, the fact that this market will, as have others, rebound at some point.

Government Protections

Banks

In the middle of the Great Depression, in 1933, the Federal Government created the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) to protect the depositors who kept money in banks.  The FDIC provides insurance of up to $100,000 per depositor, per bank to guard against bank failure.  In 2006, they increased the protection on IRA’s to $250,000, which is in addition to the basic $100,000 coverage.  Also, with the correct use of trusts, you can increase the insured amounts further.

When a member bank fails, the FDIC steps in to run the bank, ensuring that you will have access to the insured amounts.  That means that your checks won’t bounce (assuming you have enough money to cover them!) and that you’ll have access to your cash.  There may be a short period of disruption, but, if you have deposits under the limits, there’s no reason to go down to the bank and pull your money out.

Brokerage Accounts

On the brokerage side, your investments are protected by the Securities Investor Protection Corporation or SIPC.  The SIPC replaces missing cash and securities from failed brokerage firms.  The limits of SIPC coverage are $500,000, with a maximum of $100,000 for cash accounts.

If you’re sold a stock that becomes worthless, the SIPC won’t step in, however, if a broker steals your money, the SIPC will step in.

Not all brokerages are members of SIPC so you need to be sure to ask your advisor if the brokerage firm they used is or isn’t an SIPC member so you’re ensured that you’ve got coverage.

Current Government Action

The Federal Government is doing as much as it can to minimize the damage.  In order to calm the mortgage markets, which are currently still a large part of the current market turmoil, they have pledged to bail out both the Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae) and the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (Freddie Mac), which provide funding for a huge percentage of home loans in the market.

The stimulus checks issued in the earlier part of this year, were intended to pump some more money into the economy, in an attempt to avoid a recession.  There is some evidence that this is in fact working.

Markets Go Up, Markets Go Down – This One Will Eventually Go Back Up

Investing in the stock market is intended for the long term because over short periods, markets go up and markets go down.  By responding to each market gyration, the average investor almost always gets it exactly backwards.  Their emotions tell them to buy more when the market is up and to sell once the market drops.  Many savvy investors know that what the average investor thinks is, in fact, what’s called a ‘contrary indicator’.  Since most investors get it wrong, the logic goes that when the public is incredibly positive on the market, we’re near a top so the professionals sell, and when average investors are at their most pessimistic, we’re at a bottom, presenting a buying opportunity.

One of the key tenets of successful investing is not to let your emotions drive your investments.  Studies have show, time and again that the important thing to long term growth is not TIMING the market but TIME IN the market.

Now is the time to review your portfolio to ensure it’s still allocated the way you want, take some losses to lower your taxes and position yourself to benefit from the next bull market.

The moral of the story here is to not pay attention to the doomsday scenarios presented by the popular press, make sure that you live within your means and that you maintain a long time horizon for your investment portfolio.  If you do all three of those things, you’ll sleep better and ride out our current economic challenges.

Another Bumpy Day

There’s no question that the stock market has been volatile so far this year.  In fact, in the first quarter of 2008, the Dow Jones Industrial Average had 35 days with triple-digit point moves and the S&P 500 had 31 days with a move of more than 1%.

Today’s action was no different.  The day started strong, with a better than expected rise in the GDP of .6%.  The was followed by the expected .25% rate cut by the Federal Reserve.  The end result was that the Dow reached a peak of roughly 13010 at little after two o’clock.  After the Fed cut was absorbed and a few more earnings, reports came out, the Dow closed at 12820.13.  For the day, the Dow  had a range from 12808.98 to 13010.00, for a swing of 201.02 points.

It looks like the Fed will now take a breather from the interest rate cuts that have trimmed a total of 3.25%  off rates since September.

With the summer months, which are generally fairly volatile, fast approaching, prepare for this seesaw up and down motion to happen for a little while longer.

As we always tell clients, as long as your portfolio is allocated the way it should be, although unnerving, these wide fluctuations are not unprecedented, nor are they particularly detrimental to your portfolio.

Hang in there.  This too shall pass.