Bitcoin in Your IRA? What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Even the most adventurous investor would acknowledge that cryptocurrencies are risky. And that saving for retirement should be a search for a measure of safety.

Yet salespeople have been blanketing potential investors with email pitches urging them to put Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies into individual retirement accounts. They tout eye-popping gains, warn of scary inflation and highlight endorsements to help legitimize the asset. The leading company in the field, Bitcoin IRA, recently unveiled a mobile app that makes it easy to make a crypto trade with retirement savings with the swipe of a finger.

The effort seems to be working. The company, which specializes in helping people convert ordinary IRAs to those that can hold Bitcoin, said that since 2016, it's processed more than $1.5 billion worth of transactions for more than 100,000 users. And that's just one player. Others have popped up to entice investors to put money into the asset long-term, despite its more recent dips.

For those relatively new to the world of crypto, including experienced market investors, buying into the hype using money earmarked for retirement could prove disastrous. While companies like Bitcoin IRA may provide some protective guardrails, there's still so much that could go wrong.

First, there's volatility. Last year, Bitcoin returned more than 300%, but so far this year, it's down 50% from its April high. Other coins have had similar ups and downs, but mostly downs of late. Who knows how regulation could affect digital currencies a year from now, or 10?

Even for those who are bullish on crypto's long-term prospects and willing to take risks to diversify, there are the fees to consider. Customers generally have to pay to set up a self-directed IRA, which is the only way to invest tax-advantaged retirement money in alternative holdings such as digital currencies. Those tend to be more expensive than the set-up costs for garden-variety IRAs, where custodians are more plentiful and there's competitive fee pressure. On top of that may be annual or monthly account maintenance costs, and transaction fees for buying, selling or trading coins.

Given all those fees, it would take substantial gains to justify the investment. That makes a risky bet riskier.

Investors also have to be wary of getting tripped up by Internal Revenue Service rules. The IRS says taxpayers will face a substantial penalty if they use assets in self-directed accounts for their own benefit. When investors open self-directed IRAs, they generally also have to create separate accounts with crypto exchanges to buy and sell coins.

One way to stumble is if an exchange account is in someone's name rather than the IRA's name — the IRS considers that to be doing something for a personal benefit. The same logic applies if the account-maintenance fees are paid by the individual directly, rather than from the IRA account.

Bitcoin IRA says it makes sure clients don't run into those problems by taking care of all the paperwork and by ensuring that self-directed IRAs and exchange accounts comply with IRS rules.

Still, accountants say they get daily calls from clients who have made those mistakes. The price is steep: A single prohibited transaction turns the entire retirement-account balance into a taxable distribution starting Jan. 1 of the year when the penalty occurred. 

And if savers choose to roll money over from a traditional or Roth IRA to a self-directed one and don't do a direct transfer from one custodian to another, they could also be penalized.

There's also the uncertainty of how the IRS could weigh in on crypto taxes in the future. The agency hasn't set official rules on some crypto innovations, so retirement investors could get burned when it finally takes a stand. For example, collectibles are listed as one of the prohibited investments for self-directed accounts. Those wanting to put the blockchain-based digital art items known as non-fungible tokens into their self-directed IRAs should be aware that while the IRS hasn't said anything official yet, the agency's definition of collectibles would seem to include these NFTs.

Finally, going through centralized cryptocurrency exchanges such as Coinbase reduces the risk of fraud, but for those wanting to use decentralized exchanges such as Uniswap to trade cryptocurrency, there's more exposure to swindlers. And unlike traditional IRA investments, digital currency isn't regulated like a stock or bond, so there's less vetting required or recourse for recouping losses from scams.

There are some savvy crypto investors for whom trading and selling via a retirement account makes sense because they can save on capital gains taxes they would have to pay if using a taxable account. But for most people, thinking that investing in crypto with retirement money could save on taxes may just wind up jeopardizing a retirement.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Alexis Leondis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering personal finance. Previously, she oversaw tax coverage for Bloomberg News.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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