One question that always seems to incite a sort of war amongst investors is how to allocate funds across accounts. Do bonds go in tax-advantaged accounts versus taxable accounts? Do stocks go in Pre-tax traditional or Roth? With so many different perspectives it can be very confusing, so what should you do for asset allocation across accounts?
Tax Advantaged Accounts Come First
Well, let’s start with the obvious. After adjusting for liquidity if you are not maxing out your tax-advantaged accounts that’s usually where you are best served to place funds. Don’t let some hypothetical fear of not being able to get to the money in early retirement stop you from doing so. There are plenty of exceptions that allow for tax-advantaged account withdrawal before 65. I personally would not contribute to a taxable account over a tax-advantaged account for any funds not needed in 2-5 years or part of an emergency fund.
Optimal Fund Allocation Across Accounts
That out of the way we move on to the real question, what to do if you have funds beyond your tax-advantaged space, all upper 5 figures of it? Well as the name implies the optimal way to allocate funds across accounts would relate to their taxation. Particularly it relates to their tax efficiency.
Defining Tax Efficiency
What is tax efficiency? Basically, certain investments are more optimally set-up for taxation than others. Examples of tax efficiency include deferring, deducting, or reducing taxes. Those investments that are more tax efficient should go in taxable accounts. Meanwhile, those investments that are less efficient would find higher benefit from investing in a tax-advantaged account. The tax advantage account might mitigate some of those inefficiencies.
Examples of Tax Inefficient Investments
So, for example, a bond fund may be considered inefficient for tax purposes. If it’s not a tax-free municipal bond it’s encountering tax on interest every year. That tax is not deferred since it’s a yearly coupon, not reduced as it would be taxed as ordinary income, and not deductible, so it’s not tax efficient. Meanwhile, a non-dividend paying stock might be considered fairly efficient. Until you sell it there is no taxable event allowing deferment of taxes for potentially long periods of time. Long term capital gains rates are also reduced to 15% from ordinary tax rates.
Tax Efficiency Is Relative To Your Situation
That being said this last example starts to show cracks in hoping to make this piece one size fits all. Deferring taxes is great, but only if your tax rate when you must pay taxes is lower than today. While a general tax-advantaged account is helpful as it can allow you to control timing while also typically skipping certain types of taxes altogether (say on growth), the comparison between different asset classes may be negated by your personal situation or the individual investment.
Personal Impact on Asset Allocation Across Accounts
From an individual perspective, I mentioned it’s all about your tax rates and deferrals. The impact of these benefits could be negated by a higher tax bracket at retirement versus now. It could also be less beneficial for someone needing to duck under an Adjust Gross Income (AGI) cutoff number. (Many tax benefits have an AGI cutoff or phase out. A non-exhaustive list of examples includes QBI Deduction, Roth IRA contributions, Traditional IRA contributions, and Health Care Subsidies. Not to mention something like Alternative minimum tax where a whole host of tax advantages disappear at a given income level.).
The reality is a tax-advantaged account gives you more control over when you encounter the tax. You want to tune that timing to optimally save on overall taxes. Depending on if you are talking about a bracket or cut off your optimal timing may change. IE there may be a tradeoff between losing an overall advantage based on a cutoff or being taxed on your particular asset at a slightly lower rate. This whole area can be extremely complex.
Time In Investment and Asset Allocation Across Accounts
Your timing of needing the money or length of investment also might come into play. If you were investing for less than a year in stock then you’d see more tax efficiency from a tax-advantaged account then if you invested for long term. Why? Short term stock holdings pay ordinary income tax rates while long term holdings usually pay the 15% capital gains rate. That difference can skew the accounts viability for this asset class.
Asset Allocation Across Accounts and Investment Options
Finally, the availability of an investment in your accounts may have an influence. For example, an employer 401K might have funds of only certain classes with a low expense ratio (ER). In my particular example, my employer has some excellent large-cap index fund choices with ERs in the .04 percent range. But the small-cap or international funds in this account carry expense ratios in the .5-1% range.
Investment Impact on Asset Allocation Across Accounts
Also, in terms of what investments are tax-efficient things can get really complex. Take a bond for example. Some bonds are state or federal
Taxable Bonds and Asset Allocation Across Accounts
But even taxable bonds might give you pause. If a bond only returns 2% in interest a year how much is your tax-efficient play really saving? Does the low return mean that other aspects of the account such as tax-free growth might now be more valuable? What about stocks? At what point does a stocks dividend rate tax inefficiency outweighs it’s capital gains efficiency? These are all very situational dependent questions I can’t answer for you, making the answer here not one size fits all.
REITS, And Example of Changing Efficiency Choices
Another wrench in the equation is these situations might change over time for an asset class. Take REITs for example. REITs can be extremely tax inefficient as they actually have laws mandating 90% of returns are paid out to investors. So historically it was a no brainer to place these in a tax efficient account. Then along can the government and passed the 199 QBI business deduction. Low and behold certain types of REITs, those that are direct REITs and not funds, can now qualify for a 20% reduction in tax bill. That potentially makes them a better hold in a taxable account.
An Invesetment Class That Really Is A Bad Fit for Tax Free Accounts, or Is it?
On the extreme end of a class we probably don’t want in a tax-advantaged account we have international stocks. When you own international stocks you can often take
Anyway, that’s enough examples. By now you should get my point that your asset allocation by accounts is highly tuned personal question to you. So how am I tuned?
Our Asset Allocation Across Accounts
Well, we have 3 types of tax-advantaged accounts today and a taxable account. The tax-advantaged accounts are an HSA, Roth IRA, and 401K. So one account that will never pay taxes so long as funds are used for health care in the HSA. One Post-tax account where we already paid the tax and never will pay again in the Roth. And finally one pretax account in the 401k.
Our Taxable Accounts
Currently, I have my play money all in taxable accounts because of the short term nature of these funds. I also have the bulk go my international stock holdings in taxable accounts to take advantage of deductions. Finally, we have several individual stocks in our taxable account. In all cases, these are the optimal tax placement for these assets for me.
Our Roth Accounts
Our bonds are a bit of a mixed bag with about 50% being tax-free bonds in a taxable account and the bond funds sitting in our Roth. All of my REITs meanwhile sit in our Roth. We don’t have a viable 401K alternative for REITs at the moment. Also, I tend to hold REIT funds instead of direct REIT’s so the QBI deduction does not apply. As such it makes the most sense to part the REIT in our ROTH.
Finally, our ROTH accounts also holds small-cap stocks and some international stock funds. Our international stock funds would be more efficient in our taxable account, but the holdings are sizable enough to need to spread across multiple accounts. Meanwhile, the small-cap index funds hold the most opportunity for long term upside. Note, I may have a more sizable Roth then most my age thanks to rolling a pension there in 2008.
Our 401K Accounts
Finally, the bulk of our bonds
In general, I’m happy with my asset allocation across accounts for tax purposes. I have some opportunities but I generally follow the guidelines I mentioned above. But I also realize even my own mapping changes over time. How do you have your assets spread across accounts?