With enough assumptions, you don’t have to be correct

Does anyone pay any attention to the “retirement” investment advice that financial institutions provide? I do, once in a great while. Of necessity, these comparisons assume stable tax laws and regulations, and ignore state income taxes. That’s two unrealistic assumptions right there. So why should we worry if the rest of the example is wrong, too?

What brings this to mind is an article in the Fall, 2011 issue of a publication from a major  stockbroker. The story centers on Jane, the daughter of William Smith, who died in 2010. William left her a $900,000 IRA. What should she do? Three options are presented:

  1.  Transfer the IRA into her own name immediately. According to the article, this would yield $620,100, after taxes, all received in 2011.
  2.  Inherit the IRA thru the estate. Apparently IRS regulations provide that you can sit on it for five years, then must withdraw the entire thing. Assuming 6% annual returns (another assumption that we know cannot be correct), Jane would in 2015 then inherit $782,862, after taxes.
  3.  Be the IRA’s designated beneficiary. (This would require that William had made the designation, which seems to be the point of the article.) Under this scenario, Jane withdraws minimum annual distributions, with the result that, in 2036 when she is 65 years old, she will have withdrawn $1,221,117 plus she will have an IRA worth $1,652,117.

But, if Jane took options (1) or (2), what would she have done with the money? We have assumed she is in the 35% tax bracket, so plausibly she doesn’t need the money right away, but would prefer to pile up more. So she would invest it. And we can assume she’ll get the same 6% annual return that we assumed for everything else. Further, we will assume that she pays 35% tax on this income (whereas in reality she will probably pay a lower rate on at least some dividends and capital gains, and might be able to hide some). So, netting 3.9% what is her pile worth in 2036? For option (1), I calculate $1,613,803. And she had complete control of this money, she could invest it in things prohibited to IRA’s, she could use it to flee the country, anything she wanted not effectively criminalized. That’s over twice as much as our friendly discount brokerage firm asserted.

So did the broker make a mistake here? No, because at the bottom of the chart it says:

Source: Ed Slott & Co, LLC. [the broker] is not responsible for information, opinions or services provided by third parties.

Just remember this if you are tempted to spend time reading,  or worse yet taking, “investment” advice provided without charge by financial firms. It’s worth every penny, almost.

I really shouldn’t be spending time on this, I have serious responsibilities in the world, but one does what one is compelled to do.