Is a Roth Conversion a Good Idea when the Market Is Down?

A stock market downturn may be a prime time for a Roth IRA conversion, reports CNBC’s recent article titled “Here’s why a Roth individual retirement account conversion may pay off in a down market.” This is especially true if you were considering a Roth conversion and never got around to it.

A Roth conversion allows higher earners to sidestep earnings limits for Roth IRA contributions, which are capped at $144,000 MAGI (Modified Adjusted Gross Income) for singles and $214,000 for married couples filing jointly in 2022.

Investors make non-deductible contributions to a pre-tax IRA, before converting funds to a Roth IRA. The tradeoff is the upfront tax bill created by contributions and earnings. The bigger the pre-tax balance, the more taxes you’ll pay on the conversion. However, the current market may make this a perfect time for a Roth conversion.

Let’s say you own a traditional IRA worth $100,000, and its value drops to $65,000. Ouch! However, you can save money by converting $65,000 to a Roth instead of $100,000. You’ll pay taxes on the $65,000, not $100,000.

According to Fidelity Investments, the first quarter of 2022 saw Roth conversions increase by 18%, compared to the first quarter of 2021. That was before the second quarter’s market volatility, which has been more dramatic.

The decision to do a Roth conversion can’t take place in a vacuum. Consider how many years of tax savings it will take to break even on the upfront tax bill. Weigh combined balances across any other IRA accounts, because of the “pro-rata rule,” which factors in your total pre-tax and after-tax funds to determine your tax costs.

Attractive features of the Roth IRA are the freedom to take—or not take—distributions when you want, and there are no taxes on the withdrawals. However, there is an exception, and it pertains to conversions—the five year rule.

If you do a conversion from a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA, you have to wait five years before making any withdrawals of the converted balance, regardless of your age. It’s an expensive mistake, with a 10% penalty. The clock begins running on January 1 of the year of the conversion. If you are close to retirement and will need funds within that timeframe, you’ll need other assets to live on.

However, there’s more. If the conversion increases your Adjusted Gross Income (AGI), it may create other issues. Medicare Part B calculates monthly premiums using Modified Adjusted Gross Income (MAGI) from two years prior, which means a higher income in 2022 will lead to higher Medicare bills in 2024.

Before doing a Roth conversion, evaluate your entire financial and retirement situation.

Reference: CNBC (May 10, 2022) “Here’s why a Roth individual retirement account conversion may pay off in a down market”

Should I Have a Roth IRA?

Roth IRAs are powerful retirement savings tools. Account owners are allowed to take tax-free distributions in retirement and can avoid paying taxes on investment growth. There’s little downside to a Roth IRA, according to a recent article “10 Reasons to Save for Retirement in a Roth IRA” from U.S. News & World Report.

Taxes are paid in advance on a Roth IRA. Therefore, if you are in a low tax bracket now and may be in a higher bracket later, or if tax rates increase, you’ve already paid those taxes. Another plus: all your Roth IRA funds are available to you in retirement, unlike a traditional IRA when you have to pay income tax on every withdrawal.

Roth IRA distributions taken after age 59 ½ from accounts at least five years old are tax free. Every withdrawal taken from a traditional IRA is treated like income and, like income, is subject to taxes.

When comparing the two, compare your current tax rate to what you expect your tax rate to be once you’ve retired. You can also save in both types of accounts in the same year, if you’re not sure about future tax rates.

Roth IRA accounts also let you keep investment gains, because you don’t pay income tax on investment gains or earned interest.

Roth IRAs have greater flexibility. Traditional IRA account owners are required to take Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) from an IRA every year after age 72. If you forget to take a distribution, there’s a 50% tax penalty. You also have to pay taxes on the withdrawal. Roth IRAs have no withdrawal requirements during the lifetime of the original owner. Take what you need, when you need, if you need.

Roth IRAs are also more flexible before retirement. If you’re under age 59 ½ and take an early withdrawal, it’ll cost you a 10% early withdrawal penalty plus income tax. Roth early withdrawals also trigger a 10% penalty and income tax, but only on the portion of the withdrawal from investment earnings.

If your goal is to leave IRA money for heirs, Roth IRAs also have advantages. A traditional IRA account requires beneficiaries to pay taxes on any money left to them in a traditional 401(k) or IRA. However, those who inherit a Roth IRA can take tax-free withdrawals. Heirs have to take withdrawals. However, the distributions are less likely to create expensive tax situations.

Retirement savers can contribute up to $6,000 in a Roth IRA in 2022. Age 50 and up? You can make an additional $1,000 catch up contribution for a total Roth IRA contribution of $7,000.

If this sounds attractive but you’ve been using a traditional IRA, a Roth conversion is your next step. However, you will have to pay the income taxes on the amount converted. Try to make the conversion in a year when you’re in a lower tax bracket. You could also convert a small amount every year to maintain control over taxes.

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (April 11, 2022) “10 Reasons to Save for Retirement in a Roth IRA”