INVESTING: Seeding, Feeding and Weeding your IRA
It’s now 1990. Do you know where your IRAs are?
We’re waiting for your answer.
We’re still waiting.
Once, your Individual Retirement Accounts might have been the focus of your investment life. But since the Tax Reform Act of 1986 drastically curtailed the deductibility of IRA contributions, many Americans have lost more than their incentive to contribute; they have lost interest in tending to their old ones as well.
“Those who once had green thumbs for their investments have become weekend gardeners at best,” says Paul Westbrook, a retirement planner in Watchung, NJ. Nearly one of five Money subscribers surveyed in our latest Americans and Their Money poll admitted not knowing how much money was in their IRAs, and more than one in 10 were unsure how their funds were invested (see the box below.
Yet neglecting your IRA can be a costly mistake. Many IRAs now hold substantial sums. Nearly a third of the subscribers in our poll reported having $15,000 or more in their accounts, and that did not include any funds rolled over from company savings plans. With that kind of money involved, even a small improvement in your annual return can add up to a big difference in your retirement fund. In 20 years at 7%, $15,000 grows to $58,045; at 8%, it reaches $69,914; and at 9%, you’re talking about a sizable $84,066.
That’s the lesson Ronald Wingate, 59, of Atlanta learned. In August 1986, he decided to switch his $15,400 in IRAs from his credit union’s savings account to a balanced mutual fund invested in stocks and bonds. If he had stayed with the credit union, his return would have averaged about 7.5% for the past three years; instead, the balanced fund returned an average of 11 % a year.
Perhaps you have been complacent about your IRAs because you figured that you wouldn’t be able to touch the money for years. Think again. Under a plan put forward by President Bush, some people would be permitted to withdraw as much as SI0,000 from their IRAs penalty-free to help them purchase a home. (Don’t get too excited: the penalty-free withdrawals would be available only to people who had not owned a home within the past three years and who were buying a house that cost no more than 110% of the local median price.) Texas Democratic Senator Lloyd Bentsen wants to go beyond that by permitting penalty-free IRA withdrawals for education expenses as well as buying a first home. Bentsen also wants to allow a 50% up-front deduction for all IRA contributors who currently cannot deduct their IRA contributions.
No one, however, thinks Congress will restore the old rules, under which all workers could make tax-deductible contributions to an IRA of as much as $2,000 a year. Currently, your contribution is not fully deductible if you are covered by a pension plan and your adjusted gross income is $40,000 or above for married couples filing jointly ($25,000 for individuals). Couples who have AGIs between $40,000 and $50,000 can deduct part of their contributions (singles can if their AGI is $25,000 to $35,000).
As far as new savings initiatives are concerned, the debate is likely to center on President Bush’s family savings account, unveiled in January. People who contributed to family savings accounts (FSAs) would pay no tax on their interest, provided they kept their money on deposit for at least seven years. The maximum annual deposit would be $2,500 for individuals, $5,000 for couples (the contributions would not be deductible). Who would be eligible? Single taxpayers with AGIs of less than $60,000, heads of households with AGIs under $100,000 and couples filing jointly with AGIs of less than $ 120,000.
Clearly, if Bush’s proposal passes, there will be even less reason to add to a nondeductible IRA. While you do not pay taxes on IRA earnings as they accumulate, you do pay tax when you withdraw the funds. With the FSA, as well, you would not have to wait until you are 59ji years old to make penalty-free withdrawals. You would pay a 10% penalty, plus tax on the interest, for withdrawals from the FSA during the first three years; from three to seven years, there would be no penalty but your withdrawals would be taxed as ordinary income.
Whatever happens in Washington, it will still be important to tend to the money stashed in your old IRAs. Your first chore may be simply to make a list of your accounts and total how much is in each. Did the double-digit yields available in the mid-’80s lead you to put everything into CDs? Today those CDs are probably returning no more than 7% to 8%. Indeed, 49% of the people responding to our poll admitted making less than 10% a year on their IRAs. Or perhaps you sampled a different investment each year and are now left with a ragtag assortment of accounts. “I am continually amazed at the number of different accounts that people have,” says Jack Bonne, an investment adviser in New Milford, Conn. Some other planners report that they have had clients with as many as 15 separate accounts.
Once you determine how much you have and where it is, you can begin to organize your portfolio. Your strategy will depend on several factors, including how much risk you want to take, the number of years before you retire and how much income you will need. An often-quoted rule of thumb: it will take 70% to 80% of your current income to maintain your lifestyle in retirement.
Most financial experts share one basic belief: over the long term, meaning at least 10 years, equities offer investors the best total return and the best chance to stay ahead of inflation year to year. So even if you are squeamish about the
stock market, keeping at least 25% of your retirement portfolio in equities is prudent. In addition, Westbrook believes you should be more aggressive when you are younger. shifting to more conservative fixed-income investments as you get closer to retirement. His guidelines: 30-year-olds should have 75% in equities and 25% in fixed-income investments. If you’re 40, consider a fifty-fifty mix. At age 50, shift over five years or so to 25% equities, 75% fixed income.
When deciding on your asset mix, remember to include all your retirement accounts, such as 401 (k)s and Keoghs, along with your IRAs. Say you are a moderately conservative, growth-oriented 40-year- old with $45,000 in your 401 (k) and $ 15,000 in your IRA. Under Westbrook’s formula, your money should be evenly divided between equities and fixed-income investments. To achieve this mix, begin with your 401(k). If your company plan offers an attractive guaranteed investment certificate (GIC), which typically yields 8% to 9% today, and a quality equity fund, you might consider putting $30,000 in the GIC and $15,000 in the equity portfolio. You would then want to stash your $ 15,000 IRA money in two or three no-load or low-load mutual funds invested in stocks; the average general equity fund returned a solid 16% annually over the past five years.
Among the stock funds that Westbrook recommends: Neuberger & Berman’s Partners Fund (no load; 800-8779700; 17.65% five-year average annual return: $250 IRA minimum) and the Janus Fund (no load; 800-525-3713; 19.7% five-year average annual return; $500 IRA minimum). Another frequently mentioned favorite is Vanguard’s Index Trust-500 Portfolio (no load; 800-6627447; 19.9% five-year average annual return; $500 IRA minimum), which is designed to mirror the performance of Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index and has outperformed 72% of all general equity mutual funds over the past decade. (For more detailed information on the performance of 960 funds, including Money’s risk-adjusted grades, see “Picking the Best Funds,” Money, February 1990.1 Some mutual funds cater to IRA contributors. (For an analysis of two examples. see Fund Focus on page 44.)
If you want to take a more defensive approach, you might consider equity-income funds or growth and income funds, categories that have averaged 14.7% and 16.8% annual returns respectively over the past five years. The income portion of such funds, which consists mainly of dividend-paying stocks, may prove more stable in this uncertain investing climate. Steven Enright, president of Enright Financial Advisors in River Vale. N.J., likes Mutual Beacon (no load: 800-448-3863: 19.8% five-year average annual return: $2,000 IRA minimum) and Evergreen Total Return (no load; 800-235-0064: 14.2% five-year average annual return: no IRA minimum).
For the nonequity part of your portfolio. some planners recommend that you buy Treasury securities. and in particular. they like zero-coupon bonds. The pricing and commissions on bonds can vary widely, so shop around and check with a discount broker. Or you can invest in bond funds. Andrew Chipok. a planner with L.J. Altfest & Co. in New York City, recommends Vanguard’s Fixed Income GNMA Fund (no load: 800- 662-7447; 11.4% five-year average annual return; $500 IRA minimum) and Dreyfus’ A Bonds Plus Fund (no load: 800-645- 6561; 11.8% five-year average annual return: S75O IRA minimum).
For the highest-yielding federally insured IRA CDs. recently paying about 8%, see Money Scorecard in the February issue.
Once you do get your portfolio in order. make sure you maintain an asset mix that suits your goals and age. And you should review your investments at least once a year. No one suggests that you try to time the stock and bond markets or interest rates. “The biggest mistake people make is selling out at the bottom and buying in at the top,” says Gary Strum, senior vice president of marketing at Quest for Value Funds in New York City. Instead, your goal should be to make sure that your mutual funds are not lagging those with similar objectives.
Take a tip from Kevin Donovan, a 47- year-old tax lawyer in San Francisco who is president of the local branch of the American Association of Individual Investors. Donovan says he has achieved 17% average annual returns on his IRAs since 1982. His portfolio is weighted toward growth with four no-load mutual funds with excellent long-term records. And while he does go to a library to read investment newsletters every three months to check the funds’ performances. he will get out of a fund only if it returns less than 12% for two consecutive years. “Nobody can time the market,” says Donovan. “I’m in it for the long haul.”