November 25, 2018
by Steve Stofka
Many individual investors understand the importance of saving something for retirement. In decades past, workers with mid to large companies were covered by defined benefit pension plans. The term “defined benefit” meant that a worker could expect certain income payments in retirement that would supplement Social Security. The “wizard” that made those pension payouts was hidden behind a curtain. Two employees working for the same company at the same job for the same amount of time were entitled to the same pension payout.
In the past thirty years, companies have transitioned to a “defined contribution” plan. The company puts some defined amount in a tax-advantaged retirement account for the worker. Each worker can choose from a menu of investment choices. Two employees working at the same job for the same amount of time will have different amounts in their retirement account.
Workers now have choices, but with choice comes clarity or confusion. There are so many terms to understand. The distinction between an account, a mutual fund, an ETF and a security is unclear. An account at a mutual fund company like Vanguard or Fidelity might contain several types of securities. On the other hand, the same security might be held under two different accounts at Vanguard or Fidelity. No wonder some investors throw up their hands and wish that the wizard would have stayed behind the curtain!
I’ll try to clear up the confusion and create a top down hierarchy. People belong to the group of legal entities. Those entities can be account owners. An account owner has an account with an account holder, a financial trustee or custodian. Vanguard, Fidelity, or Charles Schwab are included in this group. Accounts come in two flavors, tax-advantaged and taxable. Accounts have securities. There are two types of securities, equity and debt, but for simplicity’s sake, let’s deal with that another time.
Let’s go down the hierarchy like a person might do with their family tree, only it’s going to be much simpler. Mary Smith is a legal entity. She is on the top line. Mary Smith is an account owner with Vanguard, Fidelity, and U.S. Bank. That’s the second line.
On the third line or level, Mary Smith has two accounts with Vanguard. One account is tax advantaged – a traditional IRA, Roth IRA, SEP-IRA, 401K, and 403B, for example. The other account is taxable. She has a tax-advantaged 403B account with Fidelity, and a tax-advantaged traditional IRA with U.S. Bank.
Each of those accounts holds one or more securities. That’s the fourth line. Here’s a chart of the hierarchy.
The Vanguard IRA has two securities – a SP500 index fund and a bond index fund. The Fidelity 403B employee retirement account has one security – a balanced fund. The IRA account at U.S. Bank has just one security – the CD.
Each of those securities except the CD holds a basket of securities. That’s the fifth line, but let’s put that off to avoid complications.
There are two type of accounts: tax-advantaged and taxable. Tax-advantaged accounts include traditional IRA, Roth IRA, SEP-IRA, 401K, and 403B. All accounts incur a tax liability for income payments or capital gains – changes in the value, or principal, of the securities in the account. For tax-advantaged accounts, the taxes are deferred or forgiven (Roth IRAs) on the dividend income and capital gains.
Almost anyone can open an IRA, traditional or Roth. If you have not opened one up, think about it. Account custodians often waive a minimum deposit to open an IRA as long as you make an initial commitment to a regular contribution schedule.