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Thursday, December 8, 2016

July 16 (Bloomberg) — The most mysterious of the unexplained mysteries about Mitt Romney’s considerable wealth is how he was able to amass between $21 million and $102 million in his individual retirement account during the 15 years he was at Bain Capital LLC.

How did he do it, given the relatively small amounts that the law permits to be contributed to such a plan on an annual basis? Romney has not explained this conundrum, and seeing as he wants to become president, he would be wise to start talking — if for no other reason than there might be many Americans who would like to emulate what he did.

During Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital — from 1984 to 1999, although a recent Boston Globe article uncovered Romney having a role at Bain until 2002 — the firm used a so-called SEP-IRA, which is like a 401(k) retirement plan but is funded entirely by the employer and has a much higher maximum contribution: about $30,000 annually during the period Romney was at Bain. Assuming Romney maxed out these tax-deferred contributions, he would have invested roughly $450,000 in his SEP-IRA during his years at Bain.

While there are limits to the amount that can be contributed tax-deferred to an IRA, there are no restrictions on the amount of money that the contributed capital can earn and can continue to earn, on a tax-deferred basis, even after the contributions have stopped. (The Internal Revenue Service will get its pound of flesh from Romney when he takes the money out of the IRA.) The only limit is the skill, or luck, of the IRA’s owner. If you are the Warren Buffett of IRA investors, it is conceivable that you could turn $450,000 into as much as $102 million — an increase of 227 times — but not very likely, especially as in the last decade or so, the stock market has been a roller coaster. Mere investing mortals would be lucky to still have $450,000 in the account. (The median American family has $42,500 in traditional IRAs, according to the Investment Company Institute.)

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