Archives for February 2020

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Investing Blog Roundup: Is Your Investment Plan Reasonable?

One of the messages I’ve tried to deliver over and over on this blog is that there’s no perfect portfolio, but there are countless perfectly fine portfolios.

Jim Dahle recently shared a similar message, with some guidance on how to tell if your portfolio is in fact perfectly fine.

“I often tell people to choose a reasonable asset allocation (written investing plan) and stick with it. In this regard, the investor matters far more than the investments. Of course, that requires that the investing plan first be REASONABLE. Those of us who have been doing this for a long time can tell at a glance whether a plan is reasonable or not.”

Other Recommended Reading

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Inflation-Adjusted Annuities No Longer Available: Now What?

A reader writes in, asking:

“I’ve read on Bogleheads that the last insurance company stopped selling annuities with a CPI adjustment, meaning that there’s no nowhere to buy an annuity that has inflation protection. What are the implications for somebody nearing retirement?”

It’s true: sometime in the second half of 2019 (I’m unsure of the exact date), Principal stopped offering inflation-adjusted lifetime annuities, so they’re now unavailable commercially at all, as the other insurance companies that had been offering them stopped a few years ago.

So what impact does this have on retirement planning?

The first thing that comes to mind is that delaying Social Security is now the only option at all to buy an inflation-adjusted lifetime annuity. But I’m not sure how much this actually changes any decision-making, because it was already the case that delaying Social Security was the most desirable option available for somebody looking for safe lifetime income (with the possible exception of the lower earner in a married couple).

If I personally were in that critical stage of “just about to retire or recently retired” my overall plan for funding retirement spending would have looked something like this, back when inflation-adjusted annuities were available:

  1. Higher earning spouse delays Social Security to age 70,
  2. Lower earning spouse delays Social Security until the point at which our safe income satisfies what we consider to be our “necessary” spending,
  3. Buy an inflation-adjusted lifetime annuity if we needed more safe income than what we would get from Social Security if both of us were already planning to file at age 70,
  4. Use primarily stocks for any remaining assets, since such assets would be intended for discretionary spending (i.e., non-necessities).

But, step #3 is no longer an option.

The primary options to consider as alternatives would be Treasury Inflation Protected Securities (TIPS), a nominal annuity (i.e., one with no cost of living adjustment), or some combination of the two.

This is probably a good time to point out that annuities with a fixed annual cost of living adjustment (e.g., 2% per year) are still available. But as we’ve discussed previously, that doesn’t really protect you from inflation. (And in fact they perform worse in inflationary scenarios than annuities without any COLA at all.)

Creating a TIPS ladder would work well in that it creates a predictable, inflation-protected source of spending. But it has the downside of leaving you exposed to longevity risk (e.g., you build a 30-year TIPS ladder but end up living beyond 30 years).

A nominal annuity eliminates longevity risk, but it leaves you with inflation risk.

As for me personally, I have to admit that if I were recently retired, or just about to retire, I’d have a hard time devoting a particularly large chunk of my retirement savings to a nominal lifetime annuity. But it’s worth pointing out that some researchers have found that nominal annuities tended to be a better deal than inflation-adjusted ones anyway (see Wade Pfau’s An Efficient Frontier for Retirement Income, or David Blanchett’s article in Advisor Perspectives last year, for example).

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Roth IRA Withdrawal Rules

The whole point of an IRA (Roth or otherwise) is to save for retirement. Unfortunately, things don’t always go as planned, and you may find yourself needing to withdraw money from your Roth IRA before age 59½.

The most important thing to know is this: Contributions (that is, the money that you put into your Roth) can come out at any time, free of taxes and penalties.

Distributions of Earnings

When it comes to distributions of earnings, however, things get a bit more complicated. That’s why I prepared this handy flowchart (and the following explanations) to help you determine whether or not distributions of earnings will be subject to income taxes and/or penalties. 🙂

Please note, this flowchart only applies to earnings when your Roth does not include any amounts converted from a traditional IRA or other retirement plan. If your Roth does include such amounts, please see “Distributions After a Roth Conversion” below.


Qualifying Reasons for Distributions

The following are the “qualifying reasons for distributions” referenced in the first step of the flowchart:

  • You have reached age 59½.
  • The distribution was made to your beneficiary after your death.
  • You are disabled.
  • You use the distribution to pay certain qualified first-time homebuyer amounts.

5-Year Rule

Any earnings distribution prior to the first day of the fifth year after your first Roth was established will be taxed as ordinary income, at whatever your tax rate is at the time.

Example: You open a Roth IRA on May 18, 2016. The 5-Year Rule is satisfied as of January 1, 2021.

Other Exceptions to 10% Penalty

Even if your distribution is not for a “qualifying reason,” you may be able to escape the 10% penalty (but not ordinary income taxes) if any of the following situations apply:

  • You have unreimbursed medical expenses that exceed 10% of your adjusted gross income.
  • You are paying medical insurance premiums after losing your job.
  • The distributions are not more than your qualified higher education expenses.
  • The distribution is due to an IRS levy of the qualified plan.
  • The distribution is a qualified reservist distribution.
  • The distribution is a qualified birth or adoption distribution (up to $5,000 per birth/adoption).

All Roth IRAs Are Viewed as One

When applying each of the above rules, the IRS views all of your Roth IRAs together as one big Roth IRA. For example, once you’ve met the 5-Year Rule for one of your Roth IRAs, you’ve met it for all of them. Also, distributions from a Roth will not count as distributions of earnings until you’ve withdrawn an amount greater than the total of all of your contributions to all of your Roth IRAs.

Example: In 2015, you contribute $2,000 to a Roth. In 2016, you open a Roth with a different brokerage firm, and contribute $3,000 to it. By 2017, each Roth has grown to $5,000. You could withdraw $5,000 from either (but not both) of the two Roth IRAs without having to pay taxes or penalties because your total contributions were $5,000 and because the IRS considers them to be one Roth IRA.

Distributions After a Roth Conversion

If, you’ve converted money from a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA, things get slightly trickier.

Distributions of converted amounts will not be taxable as ordinary income (because they’ve already been taxed). The question is whether or not they’ll be subject to the 10% penalty.

Any distributions of converted amounts (assuming they were taxable at the date of the conversion) will be subject to the 10% penalty (though, again, free from ordinary income taxes) if the distribution occurs less than 5 years after the first day of the year in which the conversion occurred. If, however, the distribution was for a “qualifying reason” or you meet one of the “other exceptions” above, the distribution will be free from penalty.

If the conversion included amounts that were not taxable (because they came from a nondeductible IRA), those amounts will not be subject to the 10% penalty even if they are withdrawn from the Roth prior to the first day of the fifth year after the date of the conversion.

Order of Distributions

According to IRS Publication 590B, distributions are assumed to occur in the following order:

  1. Regular contributions.
  2. Conversion and rollover contributions, on a first-in-first-out basis (generally, total conversions and rollovers from the earliest year first). Take these conversion and rollover contributions into account as follows:
    • Taxable portion (the amount required to be included in gross income because of the conversion or rollover) first, and then the
    • Nontaxable portion.
  3. Earnings on contributions.

Example: During 2017, you contribute $5,000 to a Roth IRA. You also convert $20,000 from a traditional IRA into your Roth IRA. Of that $20,000, $13,000 was taxable upon the conversion, and $7,000 was not because it came from nondeductible IRA contributions.

In 2018, you withdraw $8,000 from your Roth. The first $5,000 is free from tax and penalty because it’s a return of your contributions. The next $3,000 is assumed to come from the taxable portion of your converted amount. As a result, it will be free from income tax, but it will be subject to the 10% penalty because the distribution occurred prior to the first day of the fifth year after the date of the conversion (unless there is a “qualifying reason” or you meet one of the “other exceptions” above, in which case there would be no 10% penalty).

In 2019, you withdraw another $15,000 from your Roth. The first $10,000 will be the remainder of the taxable portion of the conversion (and will again be free from income tax but subject to the 10% penalty — unless a qualifying reason or other exception to the penalty applies). The remaining $5,000 will be considered to have come from the nontaxable portion of the conversion, and it will be free from both tax and penalty.


Admittedly, things can get a bit tricky. Hopefully this helped to clear things up. 🙂

Investing Blog Roundup: Fama French Value Premium Update

Eugene Fama and Kenneth French recently released a new paper looking at the value premium (i.e., the additional returns earned by stocks with high book-to-market ratios — “value” stocks — relative to the overall stock market).

The point of the paper was to determine whether the expected value premium declined or disappeared after the publication of their initial papers on the topic in 1992 and 1993.

That is, the value premium has been quite a bit lower since the publication of their papers. But there’s a question of whether that was because:

  1. The expected premium has declined/disappeared, or
  2. The expected premium is still there, but the random nature of the stock market happened to result in a lower premium (in much the same way that stocks have an expected risk premium relative to bonds, but over any particular period they may not actually earn more).

Their conclusion:

“The high volatility of monthly value premiums clouds inferences about whether the declines in average premiums reflect changes in expected premiums. Comparing the first and second half-period averages, we don’t come close to rejecting the hypothesis that out-of-sample expected premiums are the same as in-sample expected premiums. But the imprecision of the estimates implies that we also can’t reject a wide range of lower values for second half expected premiums.”

In other words, “we don’t really know.” The value premium is sufficiently volatile that we can’t say conclusively whether the expected value premium has declined or not.

Other Recommended Reading

Thanks for reading!

What Counts as Compensation (Earnings) for IRA Contributions?

I’ve received a few questions recently about what types of income count as “compensation” for IRA contribution purposes.

The definition of compensation is important because your IRA contributions for a given tax year are limited to the amount of your “compensation that is includible in your gross income” for the year. (If you are married, you and your spouse’s combined IRA contributions are limited to your combined such compensation.)

There are two key points here:

  1. The income in question must be something that is included in your gross income (e.g., foreign earned income that is excluded would not count), and
  2. It has to be income that counts as compensation.

So what counts as compensation?

Treasury Regulation 1.219-1(c) provides the following definition:

For purposes of this section, the term compensation means wages, salaries, professional fees, or other amounts derived from or received for personal service actually rendered (including, but not limited to, commissions paid salesmen, compensation for services on the basis of a percentage of profits, commissions on insurance premiums, tips, and bonuses) and includes earned income, as defined in section 401 (c) (2), but does not include amounts derived from or received as earnings or profits from property (including, but not limited to, interest and dividends) or amounts not includible in gross income.

In plain language, that means that the following count as compensation:

  • Wages/salary,
  • Commissions,
  • Net earnings from self-employment,
  • Scholarship or fellowship income if the income is reported in Box 1 of Form W-2 (i.e., reported as wages),
  • Taxable alimony and separate maintenance (i.e., for divorces that became finalized prior to 2019), and
  • Nontaxable combat pay.

And compensation does not include:

  • Interest or dividend income,
  • Other earnings or profits derived from property (e.g., rental income),
  • Social Security benefits,
  • Pension or annuity income,
  • Deferred compensation,
  • Income from a partnership for which you don’t provide services that are a material income-producing factor, and
  • Any income (other than combat pay) that isn’t included in your gross income.

For tax years 2020 and beyond, the SECURE Act made an additional change relating to fellowship/stipend income. Specifically, compensation will also include “any amount which is included in the individual’s gross income and paid to the individual to aid the individual in the pursuit of graduate or postdoctoral study.”

Compensation Reduced by Pre-Tax 401(k) Contributions

One noteworthy point here is that, when it comes to wages, it’s the amount that shows up in Box 1 of your Form W-2 that matters. And this amount in question is reduced by any pre-tax (“traditional”) 401(k) contributions that you make at work. Point being, if your earnings are low enough, pre-tax 401(k) contributions at work could reduce the amount you’re allowed to contribute to an IRA for the year. Roth 401(k) contributions do not, however, reduce the amount in Box 1. So Roth 401(k) contributions would not reduce the amount you can contribute to an IRA.

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