Financial Q&A: If a brokerage firm goes broke, will your investments remain safe?

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Q: If the investment bank with which I have a brokerage account filed for bankruptcy, would I still be able to get at my stocks, money markets, etc? Or would they be subject to a stay and hence my assets [made] illiquid or, even worse, [lost]? I have assets with a major foreign bank with a presence in the US. After seeing how close Bear Stearns came to bankruptcy, it's easy to conceive of a situation in which a foreign company doesn't get a federal or home government bailout.

J.N., via e-mail

A: If you have a brokerage account, your stocks, funds, and other such investments belong to you, not the broker, says Stephen Roberts, an attorney in Austin, Texas. A bankruptcy of a brokerage firm doesn't change this. So your assets are legally protected and your right to obtain your own assets should not be blocked by any bankruptcy.

As a practical matter, Mr. Roberts thinks it's a tougher question whether you can get immediate access to your assets if a brokerage firm fails. While you have the legal right to such access, the brokerage firm must be able to continue functioning. A major concern in the Bear Stearns meltdown was whether the firm could have continued to function and promptly respond to clients' needs in the midst of the possible chaos and confusion of a bankruptcy filing. Some were worried that this fear itself would cause customers to panic and demand that their assets be immediately transferred to other brokerage firm, exacerbating the problem and hastening the meltdown. In fact, Roberts says one reason the Fed intervened was to shore up customer confidence and avoid panic at other brokerage firms by people who share your concerns.

Q: I have the option of investing in a conventional 401(k) or a Roth 401(k). My wife also has a conventional 401(k). We both contribute the maximum to our 401(k)s and our Roth IRAs each year. Frequently we are limited by our income as to how much we can put into our IRAs. If I switch some or all of my contributions in my 401(k) to a Roth 401(k), it will likely reduce or eliminate our ability to invest in our Roth IRAs. What is the best strategy to maximize our after-tax retirement income?

P.M., via e-mail

A: Tax-free growth for the life of the Roth account is usually a bigger advantage than a tax deduction in this year only. But Ernest Hathaway, a certified financial planner in Midvale, Utah, sees your situation as unusual.

If, by changing your 401(k) contributions to the Roth option, you raise your income above the Roth IRA eligibility threshold (it starts to phase out at $159,000 married/joint for 2008), then you may be doing yourself more harm than good.

His recommendation: Estimate your 2008 income as closely as possible. Make as much of your 401(k) contributions to the Roth option as possible without pushing your income over the threshold. Then make the rest of your 401(k) contributions to the traditional tax-deductible side. And don't forget to fund your individual Roth IRA.

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