The Roth 401(k) for retirement

The Roth 401(k) has been slowly growing in popularity since its creation in 2006. According to this WSJ article, over 80% of employer retirement plans now offer these. In this article, we will discuss this relatively new way to accumulate retirement savings and the trade-offs made when using one.

Roth 401(k) plans continue to grow.

Pay taxes now or later

Employers that offer both traditional 401(k) and Roth 401(k) plans give employees greater control over when taxes are due on their retirement savings. An employee can defer taxes on retirement contributions with a traditional 401(k) plan. These contributions will likely reduce their current taxable income and consequently the amount of taxes owed during each working year. Additionally, gains in a traditional 401(k) plan grow tax-deferred. However, ordinary income taxes are generally due on future withdrawals or on Roth conversions of these tax-deferred plan assets rolled into an IRA.

Conversely, when an employee contributes to a Roth 401(k), there is no tax-deferred benefit. Instead, the contributions are part of their current year’s income. However, once the funds are in the Roth 401(k), like in a Roth IRA, the funds grow tax-free. Additionally, qualified withdrawals during retirement are generally tax-free.

Pros and Cons of a Roth 401(k)

Retirees gain the most obvious benefit from a Roth 401(k) when future taxes are higher. For example, if the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) from 2017 expires at the end of 2025 without the U.S. Congress intervening, tax rates will revert to pre-2017 levels, which are higher than current rates. Additionally, younger workers who expect significant wage growth may also benefit from the Roth 401(k). And, if there are unexpected large expenses in retirement, having some after-tax funds can help retirees avoid spikes in taxable income.

If you are not sure how much to contribute to a Roth 401(k), you can follow research by David Brown, an associate professor of finance at the University of Arizona. His research suggests a rule of thumb where you add 20 to your age and put that percentage into a traditional 401(k), with the rest in a Roth 401(k). For example, a worker who is 45 should put 65% of their 401(k) savings in pre-tax contributions, and the remaining 35% as after-tax Roth 401(k) contributions.

Our software may help

We offer two online software tools to help in this planning decision. The first can predict future retirement savings balances across tax-deferred, tax-exempt, and taxable accounts based on future contribution amounts. The second can predict the longevity of your portfolio, or what your non-spouse heirs may expect for an inheritance, based on the U.S. progressive tax system. We encourage you to use tools like these to better understand savings decisions made today to meet your future retirement goals.

ETFMathGuy is a subscription-based education service for investors interested in using commission-free ETFs in efficient portfolios.
ETFMathGuy is a subscription-based education service for investors interested in tax-efficient investing with ETFs

Bond ETFs amid rising interest rates

Interest rates continue to rise, with the Federal Reserve recently raising its benchmark rate to a range of 5.25% to 5.5%. While borrowers may face higher costs, new investors in short-term Treasurys now realize these higher annual rates. However, investors in certain bond ETFs could also realize this rate with added liquidity, and convenience, while potentially avoiding state and local taxes.

US Treasury Bills are backed by the full faith and credit of the U.S. Government

Short-term investment options

There are several common approaches for investing in the short term, which we characterize as less than one year. Thankfully, these investments have zero default risk because the full faith and credit of the US Government backs them.

These investments include bank CDs, direct purchases of US short-term Treasury bills, money market funds, and certain Bond ETFs. Firstly, bank CDs and money market funds may be the most convenient for individual investors. Short-term bank CDs are currently yielding over 5%, and money market funds provide similar returns within most brokerage accounts. Unfortunately, both of these short-term investments are often subject to both state and federal income taxes. For residents of California, Hawaii, and New Jersey, the top state income tax rate exceeds 10%.

Bond ETFs for Tax-efficient investing in the short term

Alternatively, similar returns are possible if an investor chooses to purchase short-term Treasury bills from the U.S. Department of the Treasury. Or, an investor may purchase US Government Bonds ETFs. Both of these options are exempt from state taxes. However, treasury bills have maturity dates of 4, 8, 13, 26, or 52 weeks. So, at maturity, the investor receives back their investment plus interest. That means that an investor would need to regularly re-invest in treasuries at TreasuryDirect.gov.

To avoid the need to continually re-invest, and likely avoid state taxes, there are several short-term Bond ETFs to choose from. Here are just a few, that with reinvested dividends have returned 2.5-2.8% so far this year (e.g. from December 30, 2022, to July 28, 2023).

  • SPDR Bloomberg 1-3 Month T-Bill ETF (ticker: BIL)
  • iShares Short Treasury Bond ETF (ticker: SHV)
  • Goldman Sachs Access Treasury 0-1 Year ETF (ticker: GBIL)
  • iShares 0-3 Month Treasury Bond ETF (ticker: SGOV)
ETFMathGuy is a subscription-based education service for investors interested in using commission-free ETFs in efficient portfolios.
ETFMathGuy is a subscription-based education service for investors interested in tax-efficient investing with ETFs

2023 Mid-Year Review of Stock-Based ETFs

With the first half of 2023 now past, we devote this post to a mid-year review of ETFs in a variety of stock sectors within the S&P 500. As we will see, while this broad market index of large-cap stocks did well, there was significant variation in returns across the sectors of the S&P 500.

Sectors of the S&P 500

There are 11 sectors in the S&P 500 as shown below. While some of these sectors have several ETFs tracking them, we choose the ETFs in parentheses due to their long history in the markets.

  • Information Technology (XLK)
  • Health Care (XLV)
  • Financials (XLF)
  • Consumer Discretionary (XLY)
  • Communication Services (XTL)
  • Industrials (XLI)
  • Consumer Staples (XLP)
  • Energy (XLE)
  • Utilities (XLU)
  • Real Estate (IYR)
  • Materials (XLB)

Using this list and reinvesting dividends, we see that some sectors had total returns that did very well in the first half of 2023, and several did not.

2023 mid-year review of S&P 500 sector ETFs
2023 Mid-year review of S&P 500 sector ETFs. Total Returns. Source: https://www.etfreplay.com/charts.aspx

2023 mid-year sector winners

As the figure shows, the technology and consumer discretionary sectors had the highest total return so far in 2023. In retrospect, the technology sector gains were possibly fueled by sector layoffs that didn’t appear to hurt the investor’s view of the future profitability of this sector. Similarly, future expected consumer discretionary spending gave investors significant confidence in this sector. And, overall, the S&P 500 gained nearly 17% in the first half of 2023. At this rate, the effect of the 3rd year in a presidential cycle on stocks may remain true in 2023.

Losses in the first half of 2023

The energy and utility sectors were the worst-performing sectors of the S&P 500 in the first half of 2023. With increasing interest rates, long-term investments by these sector participants are becoming increasingly expensive. So, it appears that investors don’t see strong prospects for profitability in these sectors.

ETFMathGuy is a subscription-based education service for investors interested in using commission-free ETFs in efficient portfolios.
ETFMathGuy is a subscription-based education service for investors interested in tax-efficient investing with ETFs

The Arithmetic of Roth Conversions

In our recent posts from March, April, and May 2023, we highlighted some important considerations when making a Roth conversion. In this post, we continue this conversation with a recent article published in the May 2023 edition of the Journal of Financial Planning, entitled “The Arithmetic of Roth Conversions”. I was very fortunate to co-author this article with my colleague Dr. Edward McQuarrie, Emeritus Professor at Santa Clara University.


McQuarrie, Edward F., and James A. DiLellio. 2023. “The Arithmetic of Roth Conversions.” Journal of Financial Planning 36 (05): 72–89.

Executive Summary

• Roth conversions continue to vex planners. To clarify matters, this paper submits conventional rules of thumb to a strictly arithmetic analysis.

• The treatment shows that it must be optimal to pay tax outside the conversion with cash, confirming one common rule. But if tax must be paid to raise the cash used to pay the conversion tax, there will be an initial loss on the conversion and a subsequent breakeven point. This paper shows how to determine time to break even.

• By the same arithmetic, the paper refutes the common rule that future tax rates must be higher for a conversion to pay off. Given enough time, conversions can overcome moderately lower future tax rates and still produce a substantial payoff due to the power of compounding.

• Most Roth conversions will show a substantial payoff if the client’s planning horizon stretches over decades; however, shorter time frames may produce only a minimal payoff or even a loss.

• The paper gives practical advice regarding the optimum time to convert, points in the tax structure that favor or disfavor conversion, and the clients most and least likely to receive a substantial payoff from conversion.

Key points to consider when reviewing “The Arithmetic of Roth Conversions”

This article highlights the importance of the following key items:

  1. Current and future tax rates
  2. How time can help a conversion generate a positive payoff
  3. The type of retirees well suited and not suited for Roth conversions

We also encourage you to try our retirement income calculator. It was recently updated to include both optimal account drawdowns and Roth conversion analysis.

We hope you find this latest research article helpful in your own retirement planning or your financial planning practice!

ETFMathGuy is a subscription-based education service for investors interested in using commission-free ETFs in efficient portfolios.
ETFMathGuy is a subscription-based education service for investors interested in tax-efficient investing with ETFs

Roth Conversions with Optimal Withdrawals

In our posts from March and April, we discussed several aspects of Roth conversions. We showed that, if tax rates are higher in the future, Roth conversions can have a positive payoff. For tax-deferred assets, like pre-tax assets in a 401(k) or IRA, a retiree may pass some of these assets to an heir. The heir’s income tax rate determines the after-tax value of inheriting tax-deferred assets. This week’s post highlights the most recent software update made to our Optimal Retirement Income Calculator, which now includes Roth conversions and optimal withdrawals simultaneously!

How to model Roth conversions with Optimal Withdrawals

Roth conversions reduce tax-deferred assets by “converting” those assets in any year to a Roth account. Individuals performing a Roth conversion owe income taxes on the amount converted. But, the converted amount increases the individual’s Roth account assets, which a retiree can often access tax-free in retirement. One goal of generating tax-efficient retirement income is for optimal withdrawals to avoid large “spikes” in ordinary income. Our Optimal Retirement Income Calculator does this automatically and considers the tax rate of the heir under three distinct scenarios.

  1. A retiree has insufficient funds to satisfy retirement income
  2. A retiree has sufficient, but not excessive funds
  3. A retiree has excess retirement funds
Roth conversions and optimal withdrawals from Seeking Tax Alpha in Retirement Income
Source: “Seeking Tax Alpha in Retirement Income“, to appear in Financial Service Review (2023)

Excess retirement funds and the importance of your heir(s) tax rate

In scenarios 1 and 2, the top and middle portion of the image above, our calculator already finds the lowest marginal tax rate to efficiently distribute tax-deferred assets.  Consequently, our Optimal Retirement Income Calculator already provides a withdrawal strategy to utilize your tax-deferred assets efficiently. So, no additional tax-alpha is possible with a Roth conversion.  However, this is not the case in scenario 3 or the lower right portion of the image above.

When a retiree’s assets are far beyond what is needed to support their retirement income needs, many of their assets will eventually be passed to an heir. In this case, our Optimal Retirement Income Calculator previously left a significant amount of tax-deferred assets to an heir. With our latest software update, a new Roth Conversion Analysis includes converting tax-deferred assets to a Roth account “using up” the retiree’s tax brackets that are less or equal to those of the heir. For example, if your heir has an expected income tax rate of 25%, scenario 3 would perform a Roth conversion up to the 24% tax bracket. Doing so typically adds about 0.10% tax alpha. We encourage you to use our Optimal Retirement Income Calculator to evaluate possible situations for you or your clients. You can easily see if a Roth conversion with optimal withdrawals provides an additional benefit.

ETFMathGuy is a subscription-based education service for investors interested in using commission-free ETFs in efficient portfolios.
ETFMathGuy is a subscription-based education service for investors interested in tax-efficient investing with ETFs

Funding Roth Conversions

In our post from last week, we highlighted the potential benefit of converting tax-deferred assets to a Roth IRA. We showed that the amount of tax alpha, or the amount of additional return realized from converting, depended on current versus future tax rates. However, we simplified how a retiree may fund the tax liability by using retirement assets. In this post, we show the additional tax alpha when funding Roth conversions without using tax-deferred assets.

Funding Roth Conversions Using Assets in a Taxable Account

The additional tax-alpha from using taxable account assets arises due to these assets no longer generating taxable interest and dividends owed each year. Instead, a retiree could use these assets to pay for funding Roth conversions. Consequently, the benefit of funding Roth conversions with taxable account assets grows over time. But, two additional complexities arise. The return on the underlying asset is the first. The ultimate intended use of the taxable account assets is the second complexity. Markets dictate the first complexity, but not the second.

So, we may not know how the stock and bond market will perform in the future. But, a retiree may know whether they will use taxable assets to supplement their retirement income needs. If taxable assets are used to supplement retirement income and/or for funding Roth conversions, then there will likely be a long-term capital gain that would reduce the tax alpha. Otherwise, taxable assets may pass to an heir with a step-up in cost basis, thereby eliminating the capital gain tax owed by the retiree.

Case Study Results from Over 20 Years

To help quantify the additional tax alpha, we revisited the analysis in the Roth (2020) article for a 20-year period. We added the two complexities mentioned above, that the tax alpha will depend on market returns and if the taxable account assets received the step-up in cost basis. The left panel below shows the tax alpha without the step-up included. The right panel shows tax alpha when the step-up occurs.

Key Insights from funding Roth conversions

The results above indicate the importance of the step-up in cost basis on the tax efficiency of funding Roth conversions. The horizontal axis represents the fraction of the cost basis of the taxable account assets used. So, using current interest, dividends or available cash from a taxable account implies a cost basis equal to 1, and highly appreciated assets would have a value approaching 0.

  • From the left pane, the tax alpha ranges from 0.10% to 0.30% per year over twenty years. Lower (higher) tax alpha occurs when markets underperform (overperform) their historical average returns.
  • When the heir realizes the tax-efficient step-up in cost basis, the tax alpha is up to 0.10% per year over twenty years. Also, the breakeven for this additional tax alpha occurs at approximately 0.70, implying that a highly appreciated asset intended for an heir should not be used for funding Roth conversions.
ETFMathGuy is a subscription-based education service for investors interested in using commission-free ETFs in efficient portfolios.
ETFMathGuy is a subscription-based education service for investors interested in tax-efficient investing with ETFs

Roth Conversions that Payoff

Roth conversions for retirees and individuals nearing retirement often confuse financial planners and individual investors. In this post, we discuss the pros and cons of converting a portion of tax-deferred assets to a Roth IRA. The insights I share here reflect early results from a recently conducted research initiative.

Why Convert to a Roth IRA?

Converting funds from a tax-deferred account, like a 401(k), 403(b), traditional IRA, or rollover IRA, may seem counterintuitive to many. Indeed, in my recent award-winning article on Seeking Tax Alpha in Retirement Income, which will soon appear in the Financial Services Review, I highlighted how many tax professionals, like CPAs, generally advocate deferring taxes for as long as possible. Converting funds to a Roth IRA imposes a current tax liability, contradicting this conventional wisdom. However, the communicative law of multiplication suggests otherwise for funds converted at the end of the year. A positive payoff occurs when the current marginal tax rate is less than the future marginal tax rate. Stated more simply:

Always seek the lowest marginal tax rate, either now, or in the future, when converting, or distributing tax-deferred assets.

Adapted from DiLellio and Ostrov (2017) “Optimal Strategies for Traditional versus Roth IRA/Roth 401(k) Consumption During Retirement”, Decision Sciences Journal. 48(2).

Tax Alpha from Converting to a Roth IRA

In my recent unpublished research results with Ed McQuerrie, we propose to show the benefit of Roth conversions in terms of tax alpha or the additional annual return realized by converting. If a distribution from the Roth IRA then pays the taxes, the figure below shows the tax alpha over a number of holding periods, from five to 40 years. We see that when future tax rates are higher, there is a significant benefit, but that tax alpha diminishes over time. Similarly, if an investor converts their tax-deferred assets and the future tax rates are lower, the negative payoff can be significant initially, but the loss will also diminish over time.

Tax Alpha from Roth Conversions if future marginal tax rates are 50%, 95%, or 150% of the current marginal tax rates
Tax alpha if future marginal tax rates are 50%, 95%, or 150% of the current marginal tax rates

The Challenge to Roth Conversions

The U.S. Congress sets tax rates. So, we can’t know future tax rates with certainty. But, a retiree is able to control the amount of ordinary income generated by distributions from tax-deferred accounts. Also, the results above assume the investor is at least 59 1/2 so they can avoid the tax penalty on early withdrawals to fund the tax liability. In our next post, we will highlight some beneficial results if an investor pays conversion taxes with a non-retirement account.

ETFMathGuy is a subscription-based education service for investors interested in using commission-free ETFs in efficient portfolios.
ETFMathGuy is a subscription-based education service for investors interested in tax-efficient investing with ETFs

A Presidential Cycle and the Markets

The stock and bond markets are off to a great start for 2023. This news is especially notable after a difficult 2022 for stock-based ETF investors. Including dividends and interest, the iShares Core S&P 500 ETF is up 6.3%, and the iShares Core Total US Bond ETF is up 3.3%. While a strong start can be helpful against losses later in the year, what may be more relevant is that we are now in the third year of a presidential cycle. In this article, we discuss this unusually strong relationship.

Data since 1933

According to a researcher at Charles Schwab using data from 1933 to 2015, the S&P 500 had average returns in the first, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th years of a presidential cycle of 6.7%, 5.8%, 16.3%, and 6.7%, respectively. So, in the third year of the presidential cycle, there was nearly a 10% increase in average returns. We revisited this data to include the end of the Obama administration, as well as the four years of the Trump administration and the first two years of the Biden administration. The results appear in the table below, which indicates that, even with the impact of the global coronavirus pandemic, the relationship still holds.

Presidential YearAverage Return (%)Sample Size
16.724
23.324
313.523
47.523
Average Returns of the S&P 500 from 1928 to 2022. Data Source: www.macrotrends.net

Clearly, we find that correlation is at play here, although the sample size is not very large. But, what could be the cause of this outperformance?

Possible Causes

A 2013 study at the University of Chicago attributed the effect of the 3rd year of a presidential cycle to increased future uncertainty of what a change of administration may cause. Others have argued that in the third year, the current administration has some momentum to start seeing the impact of their policies being implemented. But, it is always important to note that correlation is not causation, and there are likely many other factors at play that are producing this unusual market behavior. By the end of this year, we will see if the 3rd year of the Biden administration continues this outperformance.

ETFMathGuy is a subscription-based education service for investors interested in using commission-free ETFs in efficient portfolios.
ETFMathGuy is a subscription-based education service for investors interested in tax-efficient investing with ETFs

Inflation and Income Taxes in 2023

Happy 2023! Now is an excellent time to review changes to individual income tax brackets due to inflation. Here, we highlight the relationship between inflation and income taxes. To see details of all the 60 tax provisions changed for 2023, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) published this document.

How inflation and income taxes are related

As we discussed in our post from last month, the Consumer Price Index (CPI) continues its downward trend. Unfortunately, the CPI of 7.1% for November is still above the long-term norm of 2-3%. However, there is some good news for U.S. income taxpayers in 2023. The IRS adjusts income tax brackets for inflation, so income and capital gains tax brackets in 2023 have increased by about 7%. The images below show these new brackets for income, capital gains, and the standard deduction.

2023 tax rates on retirement income

So, income tax brackets recently changed in a significant way. Our optimal retirement income calculator now provides an updated forecast for after-tax retirement income using the 2023 tax brackets. Forecasts based on the Common Rule withdrawal strategy remain free for 2023. In addition, you can expedite your calculations by registering a free profile. For individuals or financial planners wishing to use our award-winning tool to see the details that led to their individualized tax alpha, please consider subscribing before the price goes up.

Live Software Demonstration

On Saturday, January 14th from 10-11 am Pacific Time (1-2 pm Eastern Time), we will be conducting a live demonstration of our retirement income and retirement savings calculators, fielding your questions, and discussing new features planned for 2023. Please use the link below to join us at this time. If you wish, please contact us prior to this demonstration with any questions you may have or use cases you wish to see.

If you are unable to make this live software demonstration, please contact us to arrange for an individual demonstration.

ETFMathGuy is a subscription-based education service for investors interested in using commission-free ETFs in efficient portfolios.
ETFMathGuy is a subscription-based education service for investors interested in tax-efficient investing with ETFs

Inflation and ETFs

Inflation continues to persist higher than its long-term norm. Very few sectors of the U.S. economy have performed well. In this article, we discuss how ETFs designed with inflation in mind have fared in this current economic environment.

Historical rates of inflation

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) is an excellent free source of historical rates of inflation. The image below shows this data for the last 20 years. Clearly, the current inflation rate is above the norm of 2-3%. However, it does appear to be down somewhat from its high in June. Fortunately, we don’t see any recent “grey” area in this chart, which represents the U.S. in a recession, as determined by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Inflation rates are still elevated above their long-term norm, but off of recent highs from June 2022

ETFs to protect against inflation

We chose three ETFs to show that not all ETFs are created equal in addressing inflation. Here, the acronym “TIPS” stands for “Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities”.

  • iShares Barclays TIPS ETF (ticker: TIP), $25B in assets
  • SPDR Bloomberg Barclays 1-10 Year TIPS ETF (ticker: TIPX), $1.4B in assets
  • Vanguard Short-term 0-5 year Inflation Protected ETF (ticker: VTIP), $17B in assets

    The most significant difference in these three ETFs is the term to maturity of the bonds contained within them. This difference has led to very different total returns for these three ETFs in 2022, as shown below.

    2022 Year-to-Date Total Return of Three ETFs offering inflation protection

    So, what’s going on?

    As one of my favorite writers at the Wall Street Journal recently wrote about, rising short-term interest rates are having greater impacts on the price of longer-dated bonds. This impact includes treasuries with inflation protection which each of these ETFs contains. The weighted average maturities for these three ETFs are 7.4 years, 4.7 years, and 2.5 years. By comparison, the broad-based iShares Core U.S. Aggregate Bond ETF has a weighted average maturity of 8.7 years and is down about 11% in 2022. So here, we see the limitation of a fund, like an ETF, that maintains a steady average maturity. Rising interest rates are offsetting the inflation benefit. Unfortunately, investors can avoid this with a bond ladder, but doing so requires investors to leave the relative ease of investing in ETFs.

    ETFMathGuy is a subscription-based education service for investors interested in using commission-free ETFs in efficient portfolios.
    ETFMathGuy is a subscription-based education service for investors interested in tax-efficient investing with ETFs