How Some Traders Double-Up On Retirement Plan Contributions

Solo 401(k) Shutterstock Profitable traders are keen on maximizing retirement plan contributions in trading activities…

Profitable traders are keen on maximizing retirement plan contributions in trading activities and also in their full-time jobs. Traders are pros at investing, and they understand the power of tax-free compounding while saving for retirement. However, wages are required to make contributions to a retirement plan. Active traders eligible for trader tax status (TTS) can use an S-Corp structure to pay themselves the necessary wages.

Those who have a job in addition to trading can double their retirement savings by maximizing their employer 401(k) and contributing another $58,000 to an unaffiliated TTS S-Corp Solo 401(k) or profit-sharing plan.

The TTS S-Corp pays officer compensation, which engineers the earned income required for employee benefit tax deductions, including health insurance premiums and retirement plan contributions. Conversely, trading gains from capital gains or Section 475 ordinary income are considered unearned income, for which the IRS does not permit retirement plan contributions.

An individual TTS trader deducts business expenses on Schedule C. However, a sole proprietor TTS trader cannot arrange AGI deductions for health insurance premiums and retirement plan contributions because underlying trading gains are not self-employment income (SEI) or earned income. A sole proprietor of any kind cannot pay himself payroll (salaries). It’s also tricky for a TTS partnership to create SEI since partnership compensation and other expenses reduce it. Whereas S-Corp payments do not reduce SEI, making the S-Corp the structure of choice for TTS traders for arranging employee benefits.

In the examples below, full-time Trader A contributes the $64,500 cap to a Solo 401(k) retirement plan for 2021. Part-time Trader B doubles up on retirement benefits, maximizing an unaffiliated employer 401(k) plan for $19,500 and contributing up to the $58,000 cap in her TTS S-Corp profit-sharing plan. Unfortunately, part-time Trader C is out of luck; his consulting company is affiliated with his TTS S-Corp, so he must include consulting company employees in his retirement plan.

Full–time Trader A

This person owns a single-member LLC (SMLLC) taxed as an S-Corp, eligible for TTS business expense deductions.

In December 2021, based on sufficient annual profits, a TTS S-Corp can pay maximum-required officer compensation of $154,000 to make the Solo 401(k) retirement plan contribution cap of $58,000 ($64,500 for age 50 or older; 2021 limits). Trader A’s Solo 401(k) plan comprises a $19,500 elective deferral, $6,500 catch-up elective deferral for age 50 or older, and a $38,500 profit-sharing contribution for an overall plan limit of $64,500.

Trader A’s W-2 wage statement deducts the Solo 401(k) elective deferral amount of $26,000 from taxable income (box 1), and the S-Corp deducts the profit-sharing contribution of $38,500 on Form 1120-S. The profit-sharing contribution is 100% deductible, but it represents 25% of wages, translating to $38,500 of officer wages (25% of $154,000). The elective deferral of $26,000 is 100% deductible, and it looks to gross income. If the 401(k) plan only provided for an elective deferral (no profit-sharing contribution), then Trader A would only need wages (net of required deductions) of $26,000 before contribution on a pre-tax basis to the 401(k) (a higher amount may be necessary for a Roth IRA).

Alternatively, if Trader A did not make an elective deferral, the TTS S-Corp could contribute $58,000 to the Solo 401(k) plan on officer wages of $232,000 ($58,000 is 25% of $232,000).

Higher wages trigger an additional Medicare tax of 2.90% (plus a 0.9% Obamacare Medicare surtax over the ACA income threshold). The Medicare tax of 3.8% on earned income (wages) often replaces the 3.8% Obamacare net investment tax for upper-income traders.

If Trader A is married and the spouse provides employment services to the S-Corp, the spouse can also participate in the S-Corp retirement plan. The same goes for working-age children rendering services negotiated at arm’s length.

There’s also an option for a Roth 401(k) (after-tax) plan for the elective deferral portion only. Suppose you are willing to forgo the upfront tax deduction. In that case, you’ll enjoy permanent tax-free status on contributions and growth within the plan — subject to satisfying certain IRS conditions — and minimum distributions at age 72 are not required.

Of course, W-2 wages are subject to payroll taxes. For 2021, on the Social Security wage base amount of $142,800, 6.2% of Social Security taxes are paid and deducted by the employer, and 6.2% are withheld from the employee’s paycheck. Thus, in most cases, the taxpayer saves more in income taxes than they owe in payroll taxes while at the same time accumulating Social Security benefits for retirement.

Part-time Trader B working for Big Tech

This trader has a full-time job with a Big Tech company earning a W-2 salary of $300,000 per year. Trader B seeks to maximize participation in her employer’s 401(k) retirement plan, with an elective deferral of $19,500 (under age 50), plus an employer matching contribution of 6%, which does not count towards the elective deferral limit.

Trader B also operates a TTS S-Corp and makes $400,000 in capital gains for 2021. In addition to her employer’s 401(k), Trader B wants to utilize a Solo 401(k) retirement plan to maximize her savings.

The critical issue is whether Trader B’s TTS S-Corp is affiliated with her employer. Assuming it is unaffiliated, Trader B can maximize multiple employer retirement plans, with an essential restriction: An individual can only defer the limit ($19,500 plus $6,500 catch-up, if over 50) regardless of the number of plans. So, Trader B skips the elective deferral in her Solo 401(k) and makes a $58,000 (2021 limit) profit-sharing contribution to her Solo 401(k) plan or contributes to a SEP IRA. Trader B would need $232,000 in wages to maximize the profit-sharing contribution of $58,000 ($232,000 divided by a 25% rate for an S-Corp). Trader B’s TTS S-Corp shows a net profit after deducting officer compensation and the retirement plan contribution. (See Retirement Topics – 401(k) and Profit-Sharing Plan Contribution Limits.)

When a taxpayer receives wages from more than one employer, there might be duplicate Social Security taxes for the employer share if over the Social Security wage base amount. The individual tax return identifies excess employee Social Security taxes and reclassifies them as a federal tax credit, avoiding redundancy on the employee share.

Part-time Trader C with an Affiliated Company

This trader owns 100% of a consulting business S-Corp with 10 full-time employees. The consulting S-Corp does not offer a retirement plan to its employees. Trader C wonders if the TTS S-Corp can establish a Solo 401(k) plan and deny participation by consulting business employees. The answer is no because these two employers are affiliated.

The controlled group non-discrimination rules prevent an owner from discriminating against his employees by excluding them from retirement benefits. It is wise to consult an employee benefits attorney about vesting and other means to work within the constraints of the non-discrimination, controlled group, and affiliated service group rules. 

Q&A with Employee-benefits Attorneys    

I asked the following questions to employee-benefits attorneys Rick Matta, David Levine, and Joanne Jacobson of Groom Law Group.

  1. Do you agree with the retirement plan strategy for full-time Trader A? Yes, with the caveat that a TTS trader must have earned income (W-2 wages) for this retirement plan strategy. 
  2. Can Trader B maximize her Big Tech employer’s 401(k) plan while contributing the maximum allowed $58,000 to a TTS S-Corp profit-sharing plan for 2021? Yes, as long as the two employers are unaffiliated. Multiple employers can have various retirement plans, but a taxpayer is limited to one 401(k) elective deferral limit.
  3. If Trader B only contributes $10,000 to his Big Tech employer’s 401(k), can he contribute the remaining $9,500 to a TTS S-Corp Solo 401(k)? If yes, is there a formal integration required? Yes, the $19,500 / $26,000 limit is based on the individual across all plans in which he or she participates. Therefore, coordination of these limits across plans is required.
  4. Do you agree that Trader C’s consulting S-Corp is affiliated with his TTS S-Corp? How does affiliation restrict Trader C? From the facts presented, it appears that they are affiliated, and the IRS non-discrimination rules could limit the amounts Trade C could save for retirement. However, it is essential to keep in mind that there are many ways that “affiliation” can occur. For example, it can be due to common ownership (commonly called “controlled group”), sharing of services (commonly called “affiliated service group”), or even common governance or control (especially for non-profits). Therefore, a careful review of each structure is vital to avoid potentially costly failures.
  5. Do you recommend that Traders A, B, and C also consider a nondeductible IRA if they are not eligible for deductible IRA contributions? Nondeductible IRAs are always on our list to consider when speaking with TTS traders with earned income. 
  6. Do you support converting IRAs and 401(k) rollovers to Roth IRAs? These types of IRAs – called “back door Roth IRAs” by some in the industry – are popular planning tools. While each individual’s tax planning varies, they are often seen as advantageous. We also note that there are in-plan Roth conversion opportunities in 401(k) plans that can have other benefits that can be worth considering.
  7. Are defined benefit plans appropriate for upper-income TTS traders? Defined benefit plans – when carefully designed – can provide significant tax-advantaged savings vehicles and are almost always worth consideration.

Many of our TTS trader clients operate in an S-Corp, and they select a Solo 401(k) retirement plan and execute the strategy through year-end payroll. Adding a traditional IRA, Roth IRA, or nondeductible IRA contribution by April 15 tax time is generally a good idea, too.

Consider consulting with an employee benefits attorney to discuss multiple employer retirement plans, affiliate service group rules, defined benefit plans, and back door Roth strategies.

Contributions by Adam Manning, CPA, and Groom Law attorneys Rick Matta, David Levine, and Joanne Jacobson.