Posts Tagged ‘Traditional IRA

15
Mar
12

Roth IRA = Traditional IRA, a case for thoughtful Roth consideration

One of the most frustrating things to read in the blüg-o-sphere is how much better the Roth IRA is than a traditional IRA.  Heck, there is even a website fully dedicated to Roth IRA’s.  People seem to get caught up in paying fewer taxes and tax free growth.  These are all things which a Roth IRA offers, but is the Roth always better?  No, more times than not, it is not better.

It depends on what your definition of “better” is.  If your main goal in life is to stick it to Uncle Sam and pay the absolute minimum in tax, then yes, a Roth IRA is always better.  But, we propose this is not what the average working stiff who has retirement in mind wants.  We think everyone should look at after-tax dollars, not the amount of taxes paid, to weigh their options.

By definition, a Roth IRA has taxed contributions and earnings (growth and dividends) which are never again taxed (people with a year supply of ammunition in their fallout shelter may refute this).  Regardless of your conspiracy theories, the equation for computing after-tax return on an investment in a Roth IRA is:

By definition, a traditional IRA has pre-tax money used for the contribution and earnings which aren’t taxed until distribution, at which time they are taxed as ordinary income (but not FICA).  The equation to compute your after tax dollars of a traditional IRA is:

You see where we are going with this?  If you start out with the same principal investment (“P“), have the same return (“r“, they are the same because you would invest them the same) and you have the same taxes in retirement as you do now (“t“), then these equations leave you with the exact same after-tax dollars.

Of course, if you pay the taxes before compounding, it will be less than paying the taxes after compounding.  So, you do pay fewer taxes with a Roth than a traditional investment vehicle, but the after tax value is the same if the tax rates are the same at contribution time vs in retirement.  It should also be pointed out, that it may be appropriate to apply one’s effective tax rate at distribution time if they are completely in pre-tax dollars.

AH HA!  You wouldn’t take the taxes out of the Roth investment, P*t, instead you would invest the entire amount, P?  Well, that could very well be the case, but, you still have P*t to invest somewhere if you go the traditional route.  So, where do you put it?  Top off your 401(k), or maybe you top off a traditional IRA?  If you do this, you use the exact same equations above and end up in the exact same place as above.

What if you are able to max a 401(k) and an IRA and choose the traditional route?  You have no other tax advantaged accounts to invest in.  The difference would have to go into a taxable account.  If the tax rates are the same, the after tax dollars will favor a Roth investment vehicle.  But, it should be noted that there are other qualitative benefits to having money in a taxable account oppose to a tax advantaged account – liquidity of the money being probably the biggest benefit.

All this can be summed up in the following table which is an output of our nifty spreadsheet found at the bottom of this article.

The table above shows investments made in Roth investment vehicles, Traditional tax advantaged investment vehicles and taxable accounts.  The big surprise is the difference between Roth accounts and some of the traditional accounts is nothing!  It is no surprise that the Roth yields more than a traditional account with taxable accounts.  Even less surprising should be growth in a taxable account is more tax efficient than dividends (wink, wink young dividend investors).  But, don’t forget the qualitative characteristics of having taxable money.

Remember to compare apples to apples and oranges to oranges.  It isn’t fair to compare a Roth where the taxes haven’t been taken out of the principal to a straight traditional IRA where taxes are taken out at distribution and not invest the taxes to be paid for a Roth.

And for curiosity sake, what does the output look like if taxes are less in retirement than working?

Just as if taxes went up in retirement the Roth would be heavily favored, the traditional comes out ahead if taxes decrease.  What is interesting (wink, wink young dividend investors) is if you invest totally in dividends, you are better off in a Roth!

The choice to invest in a Roth should be based on the following:

  1. Income and source of income in retirement
  2. What tax rates will be in retirement
  3. “Intangibles” (e.g. using a Roth for estate planning, having a taxable account for liquidity)

Generally speaking, most people’s income in retirement will be less than what they were bringing home pre-retirement.  Very few people will be able to bring in more than their working income.

We think the Roth investment vehicles are very powerful, especially for those in lower marginal tax rates.  It is not, however, automatic or a “slam dunk” to always invest in a Roth.  We would by no means suggest anyone over the current 25% marginal tax bracket be a shoe in for investing after-tax money in a Roth account.  Yes, you pay fewer taxes now, but you are more than likely to be in a lower tax bracket in retirement, thus your after tax returns will be less.   Roth conversions or maxing out Roth 401(k) & Roth IRA’s are usually best utilized by younger workers (who hopefully have many years of income growth ahead of them), but regardless of age, one should always beware of what their income will be in retirement compared to their income today, their outlook on future tax structure and other “intangibles” such as estate planning or liquidity of other types of accounts.

What we didn’t look at

We aim to provide information applicable to the general readership.  We did not apply any state income or LTCG/Dividend tax.  Also, we assumed in some scenarios that all earnings are from dividends, and this is more times than not completely true.  Therefore, the scenarios in which we did this carry a bit of “penalty,” as some earnings will be growth and taxed at the time of distribution.  Also, tax loss harvesting is not accounted for in taxable accounts (people say that like tax loss harvesting is a good thing).

We’ve attached our spreadsheet for your pleasure (really, so someone doesn’t say, what about this or what about that).  As always, this was created by us, and is therefore our property.  We appreciate a little linky love if used to generate any published material (or if you just think it is cool).