Over the past year, it has been nearly impossible to read the financial press without stumbling upon a story about the new liberalized Roth IRA conversion rules that went into effect in January.
But is it possible that the media has actually over-hyped the interest level in conversions?
A new survey from Advisors Trusted Advisor seems to suggest this is the case—at least so far.
The survey, completed by 242 investment advisors in April and May, reveals two key findings: Clients have shown little interest in Roth IRA conversions, but advisors have also shown little initiative in raising the potential benefits of the new rules to their clients. The adjusted rules allow people of all income levels and tax filing status to convert traditional IRAs or other eligible retirement plans to a Roth IRA.
The average respondent’s firm has roughly $317 million in assets under management and 296 clients. The average non-Roth retirement account for these clients is $382,842—a portion of which could be partially or fully converted. Before this year those earning more than $100,000 in modified adjusted gross income could not convert to Roths. So the lack of interest among these clients, whom would appear to benefit most from the new rules, is perhaps surprising.
Several reasons are given for explaining why the survey found indifference to the conversions: Some advisors believe the analysis is too complicated or the arguments for conversion aren’t compelling enough; advisors also do not want to tell their high net-worth clients that they have to pay conversion taxes upfront; many higher-earning clients aren’t interested in paying conversion taxes once they are told about them and advisors and clients are both concerned about the government changing the rules in the future and hurting people who convert now.
But Mike Slemmer, principal at Advisors Trusted Advisor, says that advisors have a responsibility to explain the potential benefits of Roth conversion even if their clients have not expressed interest. “The job of the advisor is to educate the client and to act as a fiduciary,” he says. “It’s beside the point if a client is uninterested, it’s the job of the advisor to step up and explain it.”
Slemmer says that he was surprised by the “inverted” results of the survey which show that advisors who have clients mostly under the $100,000 income level are more aggressive about promoting the Roth conversions. Slemmer notes that some of these advisors have expressed interest in growing their firms and marketing themselves as experts on Roth IRAs.
Slemmer says he does expect that as various tax issues come into play for wealthier people—the expiration of the Bush tax cuts, healthcare-related taxes and so forth—these people will likely become more interested in conversions. “It will be more beneficial when they consider the various tax increases,” he says.