FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Roth IRAs Painting the Treasury Red

by

Imagine the government pushing a retirement plan that’s guaranteed to raise the federal deficit. Imagine that the same plan inherently favors the already-favored. Far from imagining, you’re describing Congress’s growing embrace of Roth individual retirement accounts (IRAs).  

The lure of Roths is the upfront revenue they bring in. Contributions to Roths are after-tax, unlike the pre-tax contributions to regular IRAs, 401(k)s, and other traditional plans. In fact Roth accounts are costing the Treasury billions upon billions. Let’s see what drives the losses, and why they’ll be climbing far into the future.     

All the money in retirement accounts gets preferential tax treatment going forward. Capital gains grow untaxed, lifting balances year after year. Traditional accounts pay the country back through taxable withdrawals—voluntary starting at age 59 1/2, mandatory at age 70 1/2. The inflows to the Treasury square the books on a win-win bargain: decades of tax-free growth for retirement savings, coupled with decades of growth in downstream tax revenues.

There are no downstream revenues from Roths. Capital gains are permanently tax-free, creating Treasury shortfalls that erase and ultimately far outstrip the initial boost. There are no required distributions (which might at least spin off some revenue). Losses from Roths grow endlessly; the only question is how large the final numbers will be. Such are the accounts that Congress has chosen to promote—most directly to the affluent, whose incomes once barred them from owning Roths.

The red ink has effectively been flowing ever since the accounts were created in 1997. It turned a deeper red when Congress did away with the $100,000 adjusted gross income limit for Roth conversions. These are paperwork transactions that turn regular IRAs into Roth IRAs. To do this, account holders first have to pay the taxes on the converted amount. The tax bill discourages conversions—but for the well-off, not so much. Investment giants Fidelity and Vanguard reported conversion bonanzas when the income limit came off in 2010.

Roth conversions were back again as part of the 2012 “fiscal cliff” budget deal. The agreement opened the door to immediate conversions by 401(k)s and the like; until then, holders couldn’t convert to Roths before age 59 1/2.

Earlier this year, the Republican majority on the House Ways and Means Committee unveiled the most sweeping tax reform plan in a generation. It makes the first direct attack on traditional accounts, and would sharply increase Roth ownership. It would prohibit any further contributions to regular IRAs. It would limit annual contributions to other traditional accounts to $8,750, half the current maximum; contributions over $8,750 would be channeled into Roth accounts. The income limit for start-up Roths would disappear, just as it has for conversions. According to the GOP plan, these changes would raise about $160 billion over the period 2014-2023. The number is just the latest Roth hocus-pocus: the losses would eventually swamp the apparent gain.

It’s good to help workers save for retirement, as traditional accounts have been doing since the mid-1970s. In contrast, Roths are no help for those who need it but a windfall for those who don’t. They cost the Treasury untold billions. They’re also plainly unfair: why should Roths pay taxes only on contributions, while all the other accounts pay on gains as well? Why should the others require distributions, but not Roths?

Howard Gleckman edits TaxVox, the blog of the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center. In 2010, with Roth conversions booming and talk of more Roths already in the Capitol air, he flashed a warning signal: “This infatuation with all things Roth bears close watching.”

The infatuation keeps growing, and the red ink just keeps rising.

Gerald E. Scorse helped pass the bill requiring basis reporting for capital gains. He writes articles on tax policy.   

Notes.

“For stocks, mutual funds and bonds…Congress now requires brokerages to report the basis of these investments, a reform wrought partly after my reporting on this issue and the work of others, including Gerald Scorse, who pressed this issue with lawmakers.” – pp. 271-2 of the David Cay Johnston book, The Fine Print.

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

February 21, 2017
Sharmini Peries - Michael Hudson
Finance as Warfare: the IMF Lent to Greece Knowing It Could Never Pay Back Debt
CJ Hopkins
Goose-stepping Our Way Toward Pink Revolution
John Wight
Firestarter: the Unwelcome Return of Tony Blair
Roger Harris
Lenin Wins: Pink Tide Surges in Ecuador…For Now
Shepherd Bliss
Japanese American Internment Remembered, as Trump Rounds Up Immigrants
Boris Kagarlitsky
Trump and the Contradictions of Capitalism
Robert Fisk
The Perils of Trump Addiction
Deepak Tripathi
Theresa May: Walking the Kingdom Down a Dark Alley
Sarah Anderson
To Save Main Street, Tax Wall Street
Howard Lisnoff
Those Who Plan and Enjoy Murder
Franklin Lamb
The Life and Death Struggle of the Children of Syria
Binoy Kampmark
A Tale of Two Realities: Trump and Israel
Kim C. Domenico
Body and Soul: Becoming Men & Women in a Post-Gender Age
Mel Gurtov
Trump, Europe, and Chaos
Stephen Cooper
Steinbeck’s Road Map For Resisting Donald Trump
February 20, 2017
Bruce E. Levine
Humiliation Porn: Trump’s Gift to His Faithful…and Now the Blowback
Melvin Goodman
“Wag the Dog,” Revisited
Robert Hunziker
Fukushima: a Lurking Global Catastrophe?
David Smith-Ferri
Resistance and Resolve in Russia: Memorial HRC
Kenneth Surin
Global India?
Norman Pollack
Fascistization Crashing Down: Driving the Cleaver into Social Welfare
Patrick Cockburn
Trump v. the Media: a Fight to the Death
Susan Babbitt
Shooting Arrows at Heaven: Why is There Debate About Battle Imagery in Health?
Matt Peppe
New York Times Openly Promotes Formal Apartheid Regime By Israel
David Swanson
Understanding Robert E. Lee Supporters
Michael Brenner
The Narcissism of Donald Trump
Martin Billheimer
Capital of Pain
Thomas Knapp
Florida’s Shenanigans Make a Great Case for (Re-)Separation of Ballot and State
Jordan Flaherty
Best Films of 2016: Black Excellence Versus White Mediocrity
Weekend Edition
February 17, 2017
Friday - Sunday
David Price
Rogue Elephant Rising: The CIA as Kingslayer
Matthew Stevenson
Is Trump the Worst President Ever?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Flynn?
John Wight
Brexit and Trump: Why Right is Not the New Left
Diana Johnstone
France: Another Ghastly Presidential Election Campaign; the Deep State Rises to the Surface
Neve Gordon
Trump’s One-State Option
Roger Harris
Emperor Trump Has No Clothes: Time to Organize!
Joan Roelofs
What Else is Wrong with Globalization
Andrew Levine
Why Trump’s Muslim Travel Ban?
Mike Whitney
Blood in the Water: the Trump Revolution Ends in a Whimper
Vijay Prashad
Trump, Turmoil and Resistance
Ron Jacobs
U.S. Imperial War Personified
David Swanson
Can the Climate Survive Adherence to War and Partisanship?
Andre Vltchek
Governor of Jakarta: Get Re-elected or Die!
Patrick Cockburn
The Coming Destruction of Mosul
Norman Pollack
Self-Devouring Reaction: Governmental Impasse
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail