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Roth 401(k) Conversions Explained

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Earlier in 2013, with the passage of ATRA (American Taxpayer Relief Act) there was a provision to loosen the rules for 401(k) plan participants to convert monies in those “regular” 401(k) accounts to the Roth 401(k) component of the account.  Prior to this, there were restrictions on the source of the funds that could be converted, among other restrictions.  These looser restrictions apply to 401(k), 403(b) and 457 plans, as well as the federal government Thrift Savings Plan (TSP).

Recently, the IRS announced that guidance was available to utilize the new conversion options.  As long as the 401(k) plan is amended to allow the conversions, all vested sources of funds can be converted, even if the participant is not otherwise eligible to make a distribution from the account.

This means that employee salary deferrals, employer matching funds, and non-elective payins to the 401(k) account can be converted to a Roth 401(k) account (as long as the plan allows it).  Previously, only employee deferrals were eligible to be converted, and then only if the participant was otherwise eligible to make distributions from the 401(k) account, such as being over age 59½ (if the plan allows) or having left employment.

The converted funds will remain under the purview of the 401(k) plan’s distribution restrictions.  Administrators of 401(k) plans can choose to amend their plan to allow these new conversion options or limit existing conversions as they see fit.

Any conversions will cause the converted funds to be included in your ordinary income for the tax year of the conversion, most likely triggering income tax on the additional ordinary income.  If you don’t have funds outside the 401(k) plan to pay the tax on the conversion, the whole operation becomes less attractive, since you’re having to take a (presumably) unqualified distribution of funds to pay the tax on the conversion.  In the future, qualified distributions from the Roth 401(k) account will be treated as tax-free (as with all Roth-type distributions).

For example, if you have a 401(k) account with $100,000 in it and you wish to convert the entire account to your company’s Roth 401(k) option.  If your marginal tax bracket for this additional income is 25%, this means that you would have a potential tax burden of $25,000 on this conversion.  If you have other sources to pull this $25k from, then you can convert the entire $100,000 over to your Roth 401(k) plan.

However (say it with me: “there’s always a however in life”), if you don’t have an extra $25,000 laying around to pay the taxes, you might need to withdraw the money from your 401(k) plan to pay the tax – which would also trigger a penalty on the withdrawal of an additional $10,000.  So now your conversion has cost 35% overall – and the chance of such a conversion paying off due to higher taxes later becomes less likely.

And then there’s the additional rub: most 401(k) plans have significant restrictions on taking an in-plan distribution such as the one mentioned above to pay the tax.  Your plan may allow the Roth 401(k) conversion distribution, but not the regular distribution while you’re participating in the plan, so you’re stuck – and will be stuck with a huge tax bill the following April.

What You Can Do If Your 401(k) Has High Fees

Image courtesy of anankkml at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of anankkml at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Now that we’ve all been receiving 401(k) plan statements that include information about the fees associated with our accounts, what should you do with that information?  Some 401(k) plans have fees that are upwards of 2% annually, and these fees can introduce a tremendous drag on your investment returns over a long period of time.

There are two components to the overall cost of your 401(k) plan.  The first, and the easiest to find, is the internal expense ratios of the investments in the plan.  Recent information shows that, on average, these investment fees are something on the order of 1% to 1.4% or more.  The second part of the costs is the part that has recently begun to be disclosed: the plan-level fees.  These are the fees that the plan administrator has negotiated with the brokerage or third-party administrator to manage the plan.  These fees can average from 1% up to around 1.5%.  When added together, these fees can amount to nearly 3% for some smaller 401(k) plans.  Larger employers’ plan fees average about 1% less, at approximately 2% per year.

For example, if average investment returns are 8% you should be doubling your investments (on average) every 9 years.  However, if there is just a 1% fee deducted from the average investment return (so that now you’re only earning 7% annually) the doubling will take a bit more than 10 years.  A 2% fee brings you down to a 6% net average return, and so now your account won’t be doubled until 12 years has passed.  If you started our with $10,000 in your account, this would result in a differential of more than $42,000 over the course of 30 years – at 8% your account could grow to $100,627, while at a 6% return would only grow to $57,435.

The information about fees used to be kept pretty much secret, but beginning in 2012 the plan-level fees have begun to be disclosed to participants in the plans.  Now you know more about the overall fees that are charged to your plan and thereby reduce your overall investment returns.

What Can You Do?

So, now that you know what your expenses are in your 401(k) account, there are a few things that you might do to improve the situation.  While it’s unlikely that you can have an impact on the plan-level fees, you may be able to control some of your exposure to investment fees.  Listed below are a few things you can do to reduce your overall expenses in your 401(k) account.

  1. Lobby for lower fees.  Talk to your HR representatives and request that your plan has lower-cost options made available.  Index funds can be used within a 401(k) plan to produce the same kinds of investment results as the (often) high-cost managed mutual funds, with much lower expense ratios.
  2. Take in-service distributions, if available.  If your plan allows for distributions from the plan while you’re still employed, you can rollover some or all of your account to an IRA, and then choose lower-cost investment options at that time.  Typically a 401(k) plan may offer this option only to employees who are at least 59½ years of age – but not all plans offer in-service distributions.
  3. Balance the high-fee options with lower-cost options outside the plan.  If your 401(k) plan is unusually high-cost, if available do the bulk of your retirement investing in accounts outside the 401(k) plan, such as an IRA or Roth IRA, if you are eligible to make contributions.  Review the investment options in your 401(k) plan for the “diamonds in the rough” – such as certain institutional funds with very low expenses – that can be desirable to hold.  Then complete your allocations using the open marketplace of your IRA or Roth IRA account.

Don’t forget that there are sometimes very good reasons to leave your money in a 401(k) plan, even if the expenses are high.  See the article Not So Fast! 9 Special Considerations Before Rolling Over Your 401(k) for more information on why you wouldn’t want to make a move.

When Rolling Over a 401(k) to an IRA Isn’t a No-Brainer

Stibnite-121128

Stibnite-121128 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Oftentimes when folks are considering leaving employment, the decision to rollover 401(k) to an IRA is a no-brainer.  After all, why would you leave your retirement funds at the mercy of the constricted, expensive investment choices and other restrictions of your old company’s 401(k) administrator, when you can be free to invest in any (well, most any) investment you choose, keeping costs down, and completely within your own control in an IRA?

Well, for some folks this decision isn’t the straightforward choice that it seems to be, for the very important reason of access to the funds before reaching age 59½ (see this article for more info about The Post-55 Exception to the 10% Penalty for Withdrawals from 401(k)).  Since only within a 401(k) (or other employer-sponsored plans) can you take advantage of this early withdrawal exception, it might be in your best interests to think about your rollover choice before automatically rolling over into an IRA.  This is only important if you are under age 59½, of course – and much more important if you’re under age 55 when you leave your old employer.

Why it’s important

If you are under age 59½ and you have a sudden need for the funds that you’ve saved over the years in your old 401(k), and you’ve rolled over the funds into an IRA, you will have to pay a 10% penalty in addition to the ordinary income tax on your withdrawal, unless you meet one of the other exceptions to the early withdrawal penalty.

However, if you rollover the old 401(k) into another 401(k) (or 403(b), et al), you will preserve your opportunity to withdraw those funds if you leave employment at the job associated with the new 401(k) plan after you’ve reached age 55.

How can this work in your favor?

If you start work with another employer, as long as the new employer offers a 401(k) plan that accepts “roll-in” of 401(k) plan money and IRAs, you can rollover those old plans into the new plan, which will keep your options for access open should you need them upon leaving employment after age 55.

That’s not really under your control so much, is it? How about this: as you’re leaving employment at the old employers, if you have the opportunity to start your own business – such as consulting, or perhaps some part-time business – you can start your own Solo 401(k) plan and rollover the funds from your old plan(s) and IRAs if you have them.  Then, on the chance that you’d need the money later on after you’re at least age 55 (but not yet 59½), assuming that you can end your employment in your consultancy or other self-employment activity, you can then have access to those funds in your Solo 401(k) plan without penalty.

Some Cautions

If you go the self-employment route, you need to make sure that the business that you’ve created is valid and legitimate.  The IRS doesn’t at all take this lightly – if your business isn’t making money (or at least validly attempting to make money), your actions in creating a 401(k) plan and everything else associated with the business can be considered fraud.

This also applies to the dissolution of the business in order to have access to the retirement funds.  If it’s deemed that the only reason you did this was simply to have access, this action could be considered fraud as well.  This could come about if you dissolved the original business and then shortly afterward started a similar business again, for example.

The Downside

Of course, as with attempts to “work the system” in your favor, there are usually downsides to the matters.  In addition to the concerns about fraud mentioned before, there is the matter of control.  If you roll-in your funds from the old employer to another 401(k) plan and you remain employed with that new job past age 59½ you will give up access to those funds unless the new plan allows in-service distributions.

Say for example you left an old company at age 50 and started work with a new company, rolling over your money from old employer’s 401(k) plan to the new plan.  Then you work until age 65 at the new employer.  Unless the new employer’s 401(k) plan allows in-service distributions, you can’t get to the funds until you retire at age 65.  Had you left the money at the old employer (or rolled it over to an IRA) you would have had access to the money from the old plan free of penalty or restriction once you reached age 59½.

What do you think?  Do you see any other downsides to this type of plan?  How about other ways to use these rules to your advantage? I’d love to see your thoughts on the subject – leave a comment below.

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Did the Advent of 401(k) Plans Hurt Americans?

The 87-vehicle pile up on September 3, 1999

The 87-vehicle pile up on September 3, 1999 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There’s been quite a bit of press lately about the recent Economic Policy Institute study (see this article “Rise of 401(k)s Hurt More Americans Than It Helped” for more), which indicates that the 401(k) plan itself is the cause of American’s lack of retirement resources.  I think it has more to do with the fact that the 401(k) plan (and other defined contribution plans) were expected to be a replacement for the old-style defined benefit pension plans, and the fact that those administering the retirement plans did little to ensure success for the employees.

Traditional defined benefit pension plans didn’t ask the employee to make a decision about how much to set aside – this was determined by actuaries.  Then the company made sure that the money was set aside (in most cases) so that the promised benefit would be there when the employee retires.  In the world of 401(k) plans, the employee has free choice to decide how much and whether or not to fund the retirement plan at all.  Human nature kicks in, and the nearer term needs of the employee win out over long term needs – of course the long-term requirements get short shrift!

It’s the same as when we turn over the car keys car to a 16-year-old.  Up to this point, the child has just ridden along, not having to know anything about rules of the road, car maintenance, or paying attention.  You wouldn’t just toss Johnny the keys and say “You know where you want to be. Do your best to get there!”  Of course you’re going to make sure that he has all the training necessary to operate the vehicle safely, and that he knows when to put fuel in the car, as well as that he knows how to navigate to his destination on time.

If the playing field had been level – that is, if when 401(k)-type plans were introduced as replacements for pension plans that there was no choice regarding participation and funding level, we’d see a much different picture.  I don’t think education alone is the answer, because the importance of continual funding is so difficult to comprehend.  Forced participation runs counter to the “American Way”, but that would have changed our outlook dramatically.

The problem isn’t the 401(k) plan itself – it’s that when companies dropped pension plans in favor of 401(k) plans they didn’t provide employees with the correct message about the importance of participation.  Free will is a good thing, don’t get me wrong.  But I think employers could have done much, much more to emphasize the importance of participation, of making long-term investment decisions, and of providing for your future with today’s earnings.

It wasn’t the account that is the problem, it’s in the implementation.

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Why Diversify?

Diversity

Diversity (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Remember Enron? I think we all do. Enron was once a powerhouse company that saw its empire crumble and took the wealth of many of its employees with it. Why was that the case? Many of Enron’s employees had their 401(k) retirement savings in Enron stock. This was the classic example of having all of your eggs in one basket and zero diversification.

Let’s say that the employees had half of their retirement in Enron stock and half in a mutual fund. Enron tanks but their mutual fund stays afloat. This means that they lost, but only lost half of their retirement, all else being equal.

Imagine if they had only a quarter of their retirement in Enron and the remaining 75% in three separate mutual funds. Enron’s demise is only responsible for a fourth of their retirement evaporating. This could go on and on.

The point is that when you choose to diversify you’re spreading your risk among a number of different companies. That way if one goes belly-up you’re not left with nothing.

Mutual funds are an excellent way to diversify among an asset class. For example, if you purchased a total stock market index fund you’d have nearly the entire US Stock Market in your portfolio which amounts to approximately 4,100 different stocks.

That’s great diversification but we can do better. The US equity market is only one area. We can diversify into domestic bonds, international stocks, international bonds, real estate, and so on. This is called diversifying among asset class. The point is that you want to spread your risk and diversify as much as possible so one market or asset class doesn’t ruin your entire portfolio.

A term we use often in the industry is correlation. This simply means how one particular security moves in relation to another. If I own two large cap growth funds they’re pretty closely correlated; meaning that if large cap companies fall both of these funds are going to fall very similarly.

If I own a large cap fund and a bond fund, then if large cap stocks fall, the bonds may rise or may stay the same or even fall slightly. This is because they are a different asset class and move differently than equities. Keep adding different assets to the mix and you have a potential portfolio that can withstand the dip and turns of the market.

Even the Oracle of Omaha, Warren Buffett diversifies. Granted he may have all of his eggs in one basket, Berkshire Hathaway, but own Berkshire Hathaway stock and you’ll get exposure to insurance, bricks, candy, cutlery and underwear to name a few. Admittedly, not many people have $175,000 to buy just one share of BRK stock, but the point is that even Mr. Buffett diversifies.

Diversify. It works.

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Book Review: A Random Walk Down Wall Street

A Random Walk Down Wall Street

A Random Walk Down Wall Street (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Right from the start this book will be an excellent read for both financial advisors as well as their clients. Dr. Malkiel provides academic insight on the reasons why passive management works and some great commentary on the use of index funds as part of someone’s overall portfolio.

This was the second time I read this book and certainly not the last. It’s great reinforcement on why we invest our clients’ money the way we do and provides solid academic evidence that doing anything to the contrary is counterproductive, more expensive and simply playing a loser’s game.

Some of the bigger takeaways from the book are Dr. Malkiel’s thoughts and research on the different part of the Efficient Market Hypothesis or EMH. The EMH consists of three parts – the strong form, the semi-strong form and the weak form. The EMH essential admits that markets are efficient – meaning that current prices of stocks reflect all available information and prices adjust instantly to any changes in that information.

The weak form of the EMH rejects technical analysis as a way for beating the market and getting superior returns. Technical analysis can best be described as using past information to exploit future stock picks. Examples of exploiting such information are through charting, which is analyzing a stock based on its pattern of movement on a chart. Other examples given are those of anomalies that investors try to exploit such as the January Effect and the Dogs of the Dow.

The semi-strong form of the EMH says that analyzing a company’s financials, managers, and quarterly and annual reports will not help an investor or manager find stocks that will beat the market overall, thus bot technical and fundamental analysis of companies is futile.

The strong form of the EMH goes even further by stating that even inside information (think Martha Stewart and ImClone) won’t lead investors to superior returns over the market. So technical and fundamental analysis along with insider information are useless.

Admittedly, we know that anomalies exist and there are going to be differences here and there. Even Dr. Malkiel admits this – which is why it’s called a hypothesis and not a law. But the point to remember here is that even though markets have anomalies they are generally efficient and to the extent markets are inefficient, we won’t be the ones to beat them.

Think of it this way: if hundreds of Wall Street professionals and analysts can’t get it right, what makes us think we can?

So don’t try to beat the market; buy the market.

And that’s the meat and potatoes of this book.

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Rolling Over a 401(k) into a New Employer’s Plan

Beethoven

When you change jobs you have a choice to make regarding your retirement plan at former employer.  If the plan is a 401(k), 403(b), or other qualified plan of that nature, you may have the option to roll the old plan into a plan at your new employer.

The new employer’s plan must allow rollovers into the plan – this isn’t always automatic.  Most plans will allow rollover of former employer’s plans, but not all.  Once you’ve determined that the plan will accept a rollover, you should review the new plan to understand whether or not it makes sense to roll your old plan into it, or choose another option.  Other options may be: rollover the old plan into an IRA, convert the old plan to a Roth IRA, leave the old plan where it is, or take a distribution from the old plan in cash.

In this article we’ll just deal with rolling over the old plan to your new plan.

If the new plan has some compelling features, such as access to very low cost institutional investments or attractive closed investment options, or if the plan has very low overhead and great flexibility, you might want to rollover your old plan into it.  Other reasons that might compel you to rollover the old plan might be – to have access to loan features (IRAs don’t have this), access to your funds when leaving your employer after age 55 but before age 59½, and ERISA protection against creditors.

There may be reasons to leave your old plan at the old employer though.  The two that come to mind are NUA treatment of stock of the old employer, and if you think you’ll need access to the funds before you leave the new employer (especially if you’ve left that employer after age 55).

So after reviewing the options and features, you’ve decided to rollover the old plan to the new employer’s plan.  It’s a relatively straightforward process:  you contact the old plan’s administrator and request a rollover distribution form. You should have already contacted the new plan’s administrator to ensure that the new plan will accept a rollover.  Once you have the rollover distribution form from the old employer, get any pertinent information from the new employer, such as your employee id, or an account number for the new plan.

On the rollover distribution form, you’ll have the option to send the distribution directly to the new plan – called a trustee-to-trustee transfer.  In this manner, the funds never come into your possession.  This is important, because if you take distribution in cash from the old plan, the IRS requires that 20% is automatically withheld from the distribution.  You could still send the distribution to the new plan – but you’d have to come up with the 20% that was withheld in order to make the transfer “whole”.  It’s not required that you make a complete transfer, but if you take any of the funds in cash, including the withheld 20%, this money will be taxable as ordinary income, and if you’re under age 59½ it will likely also be subject to an additional 10% penalty.

After all of this has occurred, your new plan will have the additional old plan money rolled into the account.  Most likely this will be entirely in cash when it arrives in the account – so you will need to make investment allocation choices for the new addition to the account.

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Pros and Cons of the Roth 401(k)

Christine Roth

The Roth 401(k) first became available in January 2006, is an option available for employers to provide as a part of “normal” 401(k) plans, either existing or new.  The Roth provision allows the employee to choose to direct all or part of his or her salary deferrals into the 401(k) plan to a separate account, called a Designated Roth Account, or DRAC.

The DRAC account is segregated from the regular 401(k) account, because of the way the funds are treated.  When you direct a portion of your salary into a DRAC, you pay tax on the deferred salary just the same as if you had received it in cash.  This deferred salary is subject to ordinary income tax, Medicare withholding, and Social Security withholding if applicable.

The unique thing about your DRAC funds is that, upon withdrawal for a qualified purpose (e.g., after you have reached age 59½, among other purposes) the growth that has occurred in the account is not subject to tax.  If this sounds familiar, it’s because this is the same type of tax treatment that is applied to a Roth IRA.  Conversely, the regular 401(k) growth and contributions are subject to ordinary income tax upon withdrawal – just the same as a regular (non-Roth) IRA.

Pros of a Roth 401(k)

Among the positive aspects of a Roth 401(k) versus a regular 401(k) are:

  • Future taxation is eliminated (for qualified purposes).  Growth and contributions are tax-free when withdrawn after age 59½.
  • Concerns over future tax rates are eliminated since you’ve already paid the tax on your contributions. If the future tax rates are greater you’d pay the higher rates on regular 401(k) distributions – no tax is due on qualified Roth 401(k) distributions.
  • Contributions could be withdrawn tax-free, with restrictions, prior to age 59½ – after you have left the employer.
  • Early distribution options for education, home down payment, or medical expenses are not available for a DRAC as they are from a regular 401(k).

Benefits of a Roth 401(k) versus a Roth IRA:

  • Higher contribution amounts for the Roth 401(k) – up to $23,000 in 2013, versus $6,500 for a Roth IRA (catch-up contributions have been included, the maximums are $17,500 and $5,500 if under age 50).
  • Employer matching contributions are available, although these must be directed to a “regular” 401(k) account, not the DRAC.
  • Income restrictions that are applied to Roth IRA contributions are more-or-less eliminated with the DRAC.
  • Contributions can be made to the account after reaching age 70½ if still employed and not a 5% or greater owner of the employer.
  • Loans may be available against the balance in the Roth 401(k) account while still employed, if allowed by the plan administrator.

Cons of a Roth 401(k)

Negative aspects of a Roth 401(k) compared to a regular 401(k):

  • You must pay tax on the salary deferred into the DRAC, whereas deferrals to a regular 401(k) are not subject to ordinary income tax.
  • If tax rates are lower for you in retirement, you have paid a higher rate on the contributions to the account, although the growth is still tax free for qualified withdrawals.

When comparing a Roth 401(k) to a Roth IRA, the following downsides are evident:

  • Upon reaching age 70½ your DRAC account will be subject to Required Minimum Distributions, just like a regular 401(k) or IRA.  This can be mitigated by rolling over the Roth 401(k) to a Roth IRA upon leaving the employer.
  • You can’t access the contributions to the DRAC before you leave employment, while you can always have access to the contributions to a Roth IRA account.

Decision-point

The decision of whether to participate in a Roth 401(k) if your employer provides one is primarily the same as the decision-point of contributing to a Roth IRA versus a regular IRA.  Actually, the decision between the two types of IRA is a bit more complicated due to restrictions on income levels and deductibility, which don’t apply here.  The primary questions that need to be asked are:

  1. Can you afford the tax on the maximum contribution to a Roth 401(k) account?
  2. Do you think the tax rates will be higher or lower when you reach retirement age?

Affordability

If you can’t afford to pay the additional tax on the deferred salary (as compared to when you place the money in a regular 401(k)), then it would probably be better to choose the regular 401(k).

For example, if you’re in the 25% tax bracket deferring the maximum $23,000 into a regular 401(k) will reduce your taxes by $5,750 – and so if you chose the DRAC instead, you’d have to pay that much more in tax.  If this kind of additional tax will have a negative impact on being able to pay your day-to-day expenses, the Roth 401(k) is probably not a good option for you.

Keep in mind that the decision isn’t all-or-nothing: you could choose to direct a portion of your deferral to Roth 401(k) and the remainder to the regular 401(k), which would allow you to manage the amount of extra tax that you pay.

Future Tax Rates

If you believe that the future tax rates will be greater than they are for you now, it will be to your advantage to use the Roth 401(k) – so that you pay tax at the lower rate now and avoid the future higher rate.  On the other hand, if you believe that the rates will be lower for you in the future, deferring tax on regular (non-Roth) 401(k) contributions will be more to your advantage.

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