What investments to hold in your IRA?

What investments to hold in your IRA?

I wrote a post to recommend Roth IRA earlier. Another article The Best Investments for Your IRA let me recall a class I took.

I took a PhD level tax class cross-listed in the finance department two years ago. I’ve forgotten most things learned in the class, since it’s pretty theoretical. However, sometimes the professor discussed some very practical questions at the request of the students. Think finance or economics PhD students are all financially savvy? Some students didn’t know what IRA was and asked this question to the professor.

There is no absolute answer. The common wisdom is to hold bonds and CDs in tax sheltered account since dividends and interests are usually not deferrable and taxed as ordinary income’s higher marginal rate. On the other hand, a buy-and-hold strategy for stock investments could defer the capital gain from price appreciation almost forever, which is much more tax efficient (same effect as a 401K type of tax deferment without employer matching). As a famous example, Warren Buffet argues that dividend is much worse to a shareholder than stock price appreciation, thus Berkshire Hathaway does not distribute any dividends despite being one the most profitable companies in the world.

However, some people argue that stocks should be kept in tax sheltered account because the expected annualized return for stocks is much higher than savings and bonds over the long term (>20 years). Given same contributions, stocks grow much faster. Therefore, this strategy gives more assets the tax benefit. This strategy makes even better sense for Roth IRA, since its future earning is tax-free, not tax deferred.

Assuming you have a portfolio of $10,000 bonds and $10000 stocks, with a marginal tax bracket of 33% (including both Federal and state income tax). The long term annualized return of bonds and stocks are 6% and 9% respectively. Compare strategy 1 of holding bonds in Roth, and stocks in regular account, and strategy 2 the opposite, what’s the outcome in 30 years? To simplify, let’s assume a passive stock investment using a highly tax-efficient ETF on market index, with 0.5% taxed on capital gain and dividends annually. Capital gains and dividends are reinvested.

Strategy 1 = 10000*1.06^30+10000*((1.085^30-1)*0.67+1) = 57.4K+80.7K=138.1K
Strategy 2 = 10000*1.09^30+10000*1.04^30 = 132.6K+32.4K = 165.1K

So keeping stocks in Roth IRA will win (Strategy 2). There are a few caveats on this conclusion:
This conclusion relies upon the 3% difference in annualized return between stocks and bonds. If as some authors have argued in their books that the future difference between the rate of return of stocks and bonds are about the same at 6-7%, you should hold bonds in Roth, and use a buy-and-hold strategy to defer taxes on capital gains from stock price appreciations.
The stock investment strategy is also critical. If we assume that the difference in the rates of return of the two are not that large, however, if you really trade your stocks frequently, then it’s still advantageous to keep your stocks in Roth.
I also learned both in class and from my experience how tax policy exerted distortion in your trading decision. I had hold stocks just to get the long-term capital-gain tax rate even though the market condition for that stock had turned south. If you want pure undistorted trading decision for yourself, hold stocks in Roth. On the other hand, you lose the leverage on claiming loss on your trades as well.

I hold stocks in my Roth and have done some trading. I really love the tax-free capital gains. Roth IRA is really a very powerful tool for us to catch up.

I only discussed bonds versus stocks. People have used IRA holding to buy futures, options, land contracts etc., which enable them to have larger leverage and gain larger tax-free earnings. However, if you are old enough to believe no free lunch, you will probably want to think about the risk carefully before shooting for the “big gain”.

Any questions and comments?