Imagine that you're worried about the economy and as a result, you want to move your individual retirement account (IRA) funds from stocks and into bonds to cash. Will you be taxed for doing that?

The short answer is, if you move money out of stocks and into safer assets such as a money market fund, in your IRA, you won't be taxed immediately on any gains, since it will count as a re-allocation or re-balancing to your portfolio. You may, however, be subject to taxation upon withdrawal when you are retired as taxable income.

Key Takeaways

  • You can change your individual retirement account (IRA) holdings from stocks and bonds to cash, and vice versa, without being taxed or penalized.
  • The act of switching assets is called portfolio rebalancing. 
  • There can be fees and costs related to portfolio rebalancing, including transaction fees. 
  • IRA funds can be taxed if you take early withdrawals, however.

Initial Considerations

You'll incur taxes only if you take the money from your IRA via withdrawals or distributions. There might be transaction fees or other related costs when making allocation changes. These costs will differ from one IRA custodian to another.

If you intend to sell and buy stocks frequently, doing it inside an IRA offers tax advantages. A large profit on a stock you've owned just a little while gets taxed at the short-term capital gains rate, but if it's inside an IRA, you're off the hook. Instead, you’ll get to avoid paying taxes on profits until you’re older. The downside is that you can't take a tax write-off for bad picks, no matter how big your losses.

IRA Portfolio Rebalancing

Rebalancing your IRA is the act of switching assets or securities you own (i.e., moving from stocks to cash and vice versa). Rebalancing is not taxable when investments are held in an IRA—but are taxable when held in a taxable brokerage account.

IRAs are a great way to save on taxes. Traditional IRAs allow for up-front tax deductions, allowing you to defer taxes until making withdrawals during retirement. Roth IRAs allow investors to contribute after-tax dollars in exchange for tax-free distributions during retirement.

IRA Taxes  

Although you shouldn’t incur any taxes until you take distributions or withdrawals, there are various fees you might incur. For starters, you can get a penalty fee if you contribute more than the limits. As well, if your IRA earns more than $1,000 in unrelated business taxable income (UBTI), then you must pay taxes on that income. 

Meanwhile, you can also be taxed on investments made via self-directed IRAs. These IRAs prohibit investments in collectibles. Investing in these assets will be considered a distribution and subject to a penalty.  

If you buy or sell securities in a Roth IRA, you will never be subject to taxation since a Roth has already been funded with after-tax dollars and grows tax-exempt.

IRA Withdrawals

Early withdrawals from your IRA, before age 59½, are not only taxable at ordinary income rates, but will also face a 10% penalty. You can make early withdrawals and still pay ordinary tax rates but avoid the penalty if the money is used for certain purposes. Examples include using the money for first-time home purchases and paying unreimbursed medical expenses. 

Meanwhile, there are required minimum distributions (RMDs). Distributions from a traditional IRA, and other certain IRAs, must start by 72 years old. If an investor fails to take RMDs, they will be charged a 50% excise tax on the amount required to be taken.