It’s not unreasonable that some IRA owners may have bad feelings about the stock market.
However the safest fixed-income investments are currently paying microscopic interest rates even though the risk of future inflation remains worrisome. So the idea of investing some IRA money in gold or other precious metals might seem attractive. Here’s the story on what you can and cannot do with your IRA.
Physical IRA ownership of precious metal coins and bullion
Our beloved Internal Revenue Code allows IRAs to own certain gold, silver, and platinum coins and gold, silver, platinum, and palladium bullion that meets certain fineness standards. For example, an IRA can own American Gold Eagle coins, Canadian Gold Maple Leaf coins, American Silver Eagle coins, American Platinum Eagle coins, and gold and silver bars (bullion) that are 99.9% pure or better.
However, some well-known gold coins, including the South African Krugerrand, are off limits as are bullion bars that are not sufficiently pure. The coins or bullion must be held by the IRA trustee rather than the IRA owner. In other words, you can’t have your IRA buy coins or bullion and then stash the stuff in your safe deposit box or bury it in your backyard. Sorry about that. These tax rules apply equally to traditional IRAs, Roth IRAs, simplified employee pension (SEP) accounts, and SIMPLE-IRAs. No problems so far.
The big issue with IRA ownership of precious metal assets is finding a trustee that is willing to set up a self-directed IRA, handle the transfer of funds to the precious metals dealer, and facilitate the physical transfer and storage of the purchased coins or bullion. Only a relatively few outfits are in the game, and none of the major brokerage firms are willing to play. Conduct an Internet search to find a trustee. Most trustees will arrange for the physical storage of coins and bullion with the Delaware Depository Service Company in Wilmington, Del.
A precious metals IRA trustee will usually charge a one-time account set-up fee (maybe $50), an annual account administrative or maintenance fee for sending account statements and so forth (maybe $150 or an amount based on the account value), and an annual fee for storage and insurance (maybe $125-$250 or an amount based on the value of the stored assets). Additional fees may be charged for transactions including contributions, distributions, and precious metal purchases and sales.
Since precious metal prices are volatile, using an IRA to invest in precious metal assets becomes (arguably) more problematic as retirement age is approached and reached. Also, once you reach age 70½, annual required minimum distributions (RMDs) must be taken from traditional IRAs. Therefore, your traditional IRAs (including any SEP-IRAs and SIMPLE IRAs) must have sufficient liquidity to allow for RMDs. That said, RMDs need not be taken from each IRA. The only requirement is that the proper total annual amount (at least) be withdrawn from one or more accounts. For example, you could have one IRA that is invested in precious metal bullion and one IRA that is invested in liquid assets like publicly traded stocks and mutual funds. The entire annual RMD amount can be taken from the liquid account while leaving the precious metal account untouched.
Indirect precious metal investments via ETFs and mining stocks
Due to concerns about transfers and storage, physical ownership of precious metal assets by IRAs is not for everyone, although it has become more popular in recent years.
One option for folks who are uncomfortable with the idea of physical IRA ownership of coins or bullion is buying shares of an exchange traded fund (ETF) that tracks the value of particular precious metal. A few years ago, tax advisers worried that having your IRA buy such shares might be treated for tax purposes as buying collectibles (coins and metals are generally treated as collectibles under the tax law). Since IRAs are not allowed to own collectibles, that would have resulted in a deemed taxable distribution from the IRA with you then using the money to buy the prohibited EFT shares. Not good.
Thankfully, the IRS has ruled that IRAs can buy shares in precious metal ETFs that are organized as grantor trusts without any tax problems.
The two most-popular precious metal EFTs are the SPDR Gold Trust (trading symbol GLD) and the iShares Silver Trust (trading symbol SLV). The IRS has approved them both. If you have doubts about your IRA being allowed to own a particular precious metal ETF, read the tax section of the fund’s prospectus, which should be available online. (Be aware that there are still some folks out there who wrongly believe that IRAs are not allowed to own precious metal ETFs.)
Another indirect way of investing in precious metals is to have your IRA by stock in a mining company. For example, your IRA could buy shares in Barrick Gold Corp. , the world’s largest pure gold mining company. There are no tax concerns with this option, because IRAs are allowed to invest in stocks of all kinds.
Written by Bill Bischoff of MarketWatch