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Trading Stocks and Taxes

Chris Farrell Jan 11, 2008

Question: I’m a weekly listener via podcasts and thank you for all the good advice. So the question: My co-worker mentioned that I could trade my stocks in an IRA and not have to pay capital gains taxes with this type of account. Currently, I trade within a taxable account so my gains are taxed. Is there any drawbacks with trading stocks within an IRA and what is the best way to learn about the process. Thanks a bunch! David

Question: Your co-worker is right. You don’t pay any capital gains taxes on trades within an IRA. If it is a traditional Individual Retirement Account, you will pay ordinary income taxes on the money when you withdraw it during your Golden Years.

Here’s the main drawback to trading stocks in an IRA. When it comes to saving for the long haul there’s no evidence that all that trading activity will line your pockets. There is abundant evidence that a disciplined, long-term approach with minimal trading and low fees will increase the odds that you’ll reach your long-run financial goals. So, my response is restrain your trading impulses in an IRA–it’s a hazardous habit for long-term wealth accumulation.

That said, I don’t want to be a spoilsport. Picking stocks is fun. You get to match wits in the most competitive market in the world. But I think the tax code encourages you to do trades in a taxable account. Here’s why: Let’s say you make some unprofitable trades. The market goes against you. Uncle Sam limits your losses through the tax code. Now, let’s say you have made some smart moves and share prices have moved up. You still get to decide when to trigger the capital gains tax rate. You could sell tomorrow–or 30 years from now. That’s a powerful tax shelter. (There are a few complicated exceptions where you can take a tax loss on an investment in an IRA, but they’re the exception, not the rule.)

One more point: Bill Gross, the investment guru and founder of the mutual fund giant Pimco, once suggested that investors play with no more than 10% of their portfolio. He reasoned that it’s just enough to make a difference if you win on the upside, and not enough to make a difference if you are wrong on the downside. I’ve always found that sound advice. This way you’re not putting your standard of living in retirement at risk.

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