Roth IRAs Mean Big Business for Finance Firms

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BOSTON (TheStreet) — Plug "Roth IRA conversion" into a search engine, and it will spit out online calculators and stories seeking to explain whether the move is worthwhile.

Major retirement-investment players — Fidelity, Charles Schwab (Stock Quote: SCHW), Vanguard and T. Rowe Price (Stock Quote: TROW) — are setting aside space on their Web sites for the individual retirement account created in 1997 and named after its chief legislative sponsor, the late Sen. William Roth.

The companies are positioning themselves to be front and center for good reason. In addition to the value that a Roth conversion may provide for investors, financial advisers may be able to attract customers in what has become the hottest topic in retirement investing.

Roth IRAs differ from traditional IRAs in several ways. While you don't get a tax deduction for making a contribution to a Roth IRA, those contributions grow without taxes and you don't have to pay any tax upon withdrawal in retirement. And Roth IRAs aren't subject to the same minimum distribution requirements that traditional IRAs are, so you can take out money when you want to.

Starting on New Year's Day, investors will be able to move retirement assets, such as those from traditional IRA or 401(k) plans, to a Roth IRA regardless of their income level. The $100,000 salary cap will be waived. Whether the advantage of tax-free investment growth, as offered by a Roth plan, is more beneficial than paying taxes upon distribution is a question many people are having a hard time determining. For example, converting to a Roth IRA may not make sense if you can't afford to pay the upfront taxes. Conversely, a Roth plan might be a worthy hedge against a rising tax bracket.

A recent survey by Fidelity found that 82% of investors planned to seek professional assistance with the conversion process, either from a financial adviser or a tax- or estate-planning specialist.

In response, the firm has made an effort to load up its Web site with information about Roth conversions. Last week, joining its collection of fact sheets and how-to articles, the mutual-fund firm launched what it's calling a "Roth IRA conversion tool."

The service is comprehensive yet easy to use. Needed information is prompted via a series of basic questions, and users receive an instant assessment if they're likely to benefit from a Roth IRA conversion. They can also experiment with varying scenarios of how much is converted. The tool illustrates how changes in factors, like tax rates or withdrawal rates, might affect the outcome of a conversion.

For existing Fidelity clients, much of the form is automatically populated using personal data, state-by-state tax statistics and actuarial tables.

"We try to educate individuals, and hopefully the education and value we provide will encourage a broader relationship with Fidelity or an initial relationship," says Chris McDermott, the firm's senior vice president of investor education, retirement and financial planning. "We want to help people get their arms around how that impacts their personal situation because there are a lot of nuances to this."

Getting to the crux of those personalized details is spurring the growth of these online tools.

"How do we get someone to engage in this dialogue and educate themselves?" McDermott asks. "Easy-to-digest content and articles, as well as guidance tools like the one we've just launched, support this dialogue both from an advisory standpoint as well as a self-directed perspective."

In a recent survey, Schwab researchers found that more than a quarter of those polled described the conversion opportunity as "more confusing than health-care reform." Of the 400-person sample, only 14% said they were "extremely confident in explaining the Roth IRA conversion rule changes," and 71% said they would likely consult with a financial adviser. Forty-nine percent say they would consult a tax planner.

To fill the need for knowledge, Schwab has a dedicated area of its Web site set aside for comprehensive guidance regarding Roth conversions.

"The rules are fairly complex and can be confusing to an individual," says Bryan Olson, head of portfolio consulting for Schwab. "Without question, something that is both new and confusing creates opportunity to educate and potentially get new business. We are proactively reaching out to clients on the topic, because we know that the majority of people are unaware of the pending rule changes."

As investors learn more about the conversion opportunity, Olson expects to see participation move beyond initial expectations come Jan. 1.

"If you look at our survey, 72% said they are not planning to convert, but then, when you look at the responses, 61% percent said they aren't aware of the changes," he says. "It makes me think there is a big gap in knowledge and that a lot of people say they are not going to convert because they don't know about the conversion just yet."

Online resources, Olson says, are "helpful in terms of getting the thought process started."

"I think we are hoping that it gets enough people engaged in the process and as they start to see the variables that are included, and the assumptions that need to be made, it will lead them to start asking questions and thinking, 'Maybe I do need some expert advice here.' "

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