By Mike Miles
December 3rd, 2013 | Uncategorized
Q. I am really confused over the Roth IRA and Roth TSP. I have an individual Roth IRA through Vanguard. I have a Thrift Savings Plan account that I max every year, and because I’m over 50, I also max my TSP catch-up contribution. I’m thinking of changing the catch-up contribution from the regular TSP to the Roth TSP. If I contribute the max to a Roth TSP, can I still contribute the max to my Vanguard Roth IRA ($6,500 to Vanguard and $6,500 to Roth TSP for a total of $13,000). Or do I need to choose just one Roth to contribute to — either Roth TSP or Vanguard Roth IRA?
A. You don’t have to choose. Your Roth TSP contributions don’t reduce your eligibility for contributing to a Roth IRA.
November 25th, 2013 | Uncategorized
Q. I understand that a federal civilian employee under FERS can make $52,000 a year to the Thrift Savings Plan. I know that the $17,500 regular contribution and the $5,500 catch-up contribution totaling $23,000 can be put into the Roth TSP. How much of the overall $52,000 limit can be put into the Roth TSP, and how would one contribute to the Roth TSP above the $17,500 and $5,500 limits?
A. You misunderstand the limits. The $17,500 and $5,500 limits are the total deferral limits to either the regular or Roth TSP.
November 17th, 2013 | Uncategorized
Here are the five basic Thrift Savings Plan funds in order from the highest to the lowest rate of return for the month of October: C Fund (4.60%), I Fund (3.38%), S Fund (2.94%), F Fund (0.89%), G Fund (0.19%). And here are the year-to-date results: S Fund (31.13%), C Fund (25.34%), I Fund (19.43%), G Fund (1.52%), F Fund (-0.78%).
Interesting? Maybe to some. Useful? I don’t know how.
As an investment manager — or TSP participant, as you are more commonly known — you are responsible for making, or delegating the making of, a massive series of decisions. Some of these decisions, like whether you contribute to the Roth or the Traditional TSP accounts, will most likely wind up being relatively insignificant. Others, like the distribution of your money among the available funds, will be instrumental to determining your financial future. As I’ve written before, making sure that the important decisions are the best they can possibly be is your primary objective as an investor. If you’re not sure which are the critical decisions, you’d be safe to make sure that every decision you make is the best it can be.
This brings me back to the question about the usefulness of historical performance data for the TSP, or any other, investment securities. Is it of any real value? I don’t believe it is. There is no strong evidence that this information, at least in the short run, is useful for predicting future results. You can’t go back and make decisions based on it. So, what good is it? Really, it’s no good at all. In my experience, it causes problems and leads to bad decision-making.
Two wrong-headed mistakes are often made. The first is the incorrect belief in the “due theory.” This is the fallacy that the probability of an independent event occurring goes up as the event does not occur: “I’ve just flipped 10 heads in a row, so the odds of flipping a tail on the next try are greater than 50 percent.” Not true!
The second, and I think more common, mistaken belief for investors is the momentum of inertia theory. This is belief that an independent series of events is likely to continue on its current path: “I just flipped 10 heads in a row, so the odds of flipping a head on the next try is greater than 50 percent.” Wrong again.
Sure, you can find historical records that support either of these theories, but that doesn’t mean they make any sense. You can find support for just about anything through back-testing large, randomly generated data sets, and a series of unpredictable events often shows surprising runs of luck, good or bad. Patterns appear to show up just about anywhere you look for them, even in random data.
Finding a pattern in history and predicting one in the future are two very different things.
As an investment manager, your job is to be concerned with two things: Where you are today and how best to get where you want to be in the future. While the past has put you where you are today, you don’t need to know anything about the past to assess your current position. And the kind of historical data published for specific investment securities, like funds, is not needed for use in making decisions about how to proceed in the future. In short, this information is useless to you in managing your TSP account or any other investment account.
Even the effect historical data tends to have on investors is unreliable, if not outright dangerous. Many of the investors I’ve talked with over the years tell me they feel great when their account values have risen quickly or steadily to a new high. Likewise, they feel bad when their account values have fallen. These effects tend to make them want to invest more, or more aggressively, on the heels of good market results and withdraw their money from risky assets after bad results. Data on investor behavior confirms this behavior. Unfortunately, it is irrational and harmful. It is rational to become more cautious as prices and values rise, and more confident in your investing as they fall. The key to successful investing lies not in tracking the price history of investment securities, but in understanding and accommodating the probabilities of their future prices. Done right, it is a prospective, rather than a retrospective, exercise. So, it’s OK to be entertained by what happened yesterday. Just don’t make the mistake of confusing this with what will most likely happen tomorrow.
September 30th, 2013 | Uncategorized
Q. I am a federal law enforcement officer. I recently read an article that discussed the downside of the Roth TSP for federal law enforcement officers and firefighters. Is this true?
Many of you are probably unaware of the serious pitfalls you will encounter if you opt to contribute to the Roth TSP. For a federal law enforcement officer or firefighter, the Roth TSP is a poor choice. It wasn’t until this week that a reader posed a question to me that caused me to realize what a bad idea the Roth TSP is for many of us.
The idea behind the Roth TSP is that you contribute after-tax monies and when you withdraw funds from the account in retirement, the earnings are tax-free. The trick here is that the withdrawal must be a “qualified withdrawal” for the earnings to be tax-free. In order for the withdrawal to be considered a “qualified withdrawal” by the IRS, “five years must have passed since January 1 of the calendar year when you made your first Roth TSP contribution AND you are at least 59½, permanently disabled (or deceased).”
Here’s the problem: As a law enforcement officer or firefighter, you can retire as early as 50 years of age and are mandatorily retired at age 57. If you decide to take post-retirement withdrawals from the TSP (under the life expectancy option or the age 55 exemption), you will not meet the age test for the Roth TSP withdrawal to be considered “qualified.” (You may also not meet the five-year rule as the Roth TSP has only been an option since May 2012.) Since your withdrawal is not “qualified,” you will be taxed on the portion of your withdrawal that represents the attributable earnings. This eliminates the tax-advantaged nature of the Roth TSP. You’d be just as well off having a regular post-tax investment account outside of the TSP. You’re contributing after-tax dollars and paying taxes on the earnings generated by the post-tax investment.
The TSP will not allow you to specify that your post-retirement withdrawals come only from your traditional TSP balance, nor will the TSP allow you to roll over/transfer out only the Roth TSP portion of your account. When you make any withdrawal from the TSP, the withdrawn amount will be taken ratably from both your traditional and Roth balances under TSP rules.
If you roll over/transfer both your traditional TSP and Roth TSP to another custodian, then you lose your eligibility under the age 55 exemption, as that requires the funds to be left in your employer-sponsored account. If you retire between age 50 and 59½, at retirement, you could roll over/transfer your traditional TSP and Roth TSP to another custodian and withdraw only the funds that came from the Traditional TSP account using an IRS Section 72(t) withdrawal plan and wait until age 59½ to start to withdraw the portion that came from the Roth TSP funds.
Please consider these facts when deciding if the Roth TSP is right for you. If you already jumped into the Roth TSP, you can always stop and change your contributions to be 100 percent traditional TSP and limit the tax damage.
Even folks who aren’t covered under the special provisions get affected by these rules if they retire at their MRA.
A. The issue you raise is valid. You can get around it by transferring the Roth portion of a distribution to a Roth IRA. I realize this isn’t ideal, but it is an option to avoid the penalty.
August 29th, 2013 | Uncategorized
Q. I’ve been making substantial contributions in the Roth TSP and plan to do so until I retire. I have a large sum in my non-Roth TSP account. I’ve read that when I begin to take TSP withdrawals in retirement, I cannot specify whether they come from the Roth or non-Roth TSP. I read that the withdrawals will be taken pro-rata from both forms of the TSP. Is that correct?
If I want my Roth TSP to grow for as long as possible, is there anything I can do to preserve it other than keep delaying all TSP withdrawals until age 70½? For example, may I transfer only my Roth TSP to a Roth IRA with a company like Vanguard?
A. Your understanding is correct. Your withdrawal(s) will be taken, pro-rata from both balances, but you may elect to transfer all or part of each payment to a corresponding (traditional or Roth) IRA wherever you like.
August 27th, 2013 | Uncategorized
Q. I realize that the withdrawal of Roth earnings have different implications. But if I understand this correctly, the withdrawal of Roth IRA contributions can be done at any time without triggering a taxable event or penalty. Is the same true for the withdrawal of contributions from the Roth TSP?
A. You may withdraw Roth funds without tax or penalty if you’ve had a Roth IRA for at least five years (starting from Jan. 1 of the year you first contributed to a Roth IRA) and you are at least age 59½. The same rule applies to your Roth TSP funds. See the notice at https://www.tsp.gov/PDF/formspubs/tsp-536.pdf for more information.
August 6th, 2013 | Uncategorized
Q. I am 26 years old and I contribute 15 percent into my Thrift Savings Plan account. I have been reading suggestions on personal finance websites that I should consider placing a portion of my contribution into the Roth TSP to anticipate the possibility that I will be in a higher tax bracket around retirement. I was wondering what your opinion on this issue is and if it would be a good idea to place a portion of my TSP contributions in the Roth TSP.
A. I’m indifferent without any evidence that it will further your interests. It’s impossible to determine, in advance, that diverting some of your contributions to Roth will be beneficial. If a benefit is derived, it’s also impossible to determine, in advance, that it will be significant. Directing your contributions to Roth, rather than the traditional TSP, is agreeing to pay tax today in exchange for a possible benefit tomorrow. Without any clear evidence that it will be to your advantage, I guess I’d choose the simpler approach and contribute everything to the traditional TSP.
August 1st, 2013 | Uncategorized
Q. How much of my Thrift Savings Plan maximum contribution of $23,000 can be put into the Roth TSP?
A. All of it.
June 17th, 2013 | Uncategorized
Q. I’m a 28-year-old FERS employee contributing 10 percent of my salary plus my agency’s 5 percent match to a traditional Thrift Savings Plan. I’m planning to increase my contribution by 1 percent each time I approach a step increase or other pay increase until I eventually max out my contributions. My decision now is to determine whether to put these additional contributions into a traditional or a Roth TSP. My understanding of the trade-off analysis is that it essentially comes down to an assessment of my current effective tax rate compared with what I project my effective tax rate will be in retirement. I realize that projection is not an easy thing, since there are numerous uncertain factors. However, is that the crux of the decision, or is there more to it (i.e., if I project my current effective tax rate to be higher than my effective tax rate in retirement, is there any other compelling reason to contribute to a Roth TSP instead of a traditional TSP)?
A. That’s the crux of the decision.
June 3rd, 2013 | Uncategorized
Q. As a retiree, can I convert my Thrift Savings Plan account to a Roth TSP, or is this only available to active employees?
A. You may not convert traditional TSP balance to the Roth TSP, regardless of your employment status.