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Rush to open IRA accounts may shift economic outlook

In an effort to circumvent the tax man, Americans are opening up Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs) at record rates. This surge in IRA accounts only two weeks before the final April 15 date for making contributions is bringing smiles to the bankers, brokers, and mutual-fund managers who stand to profit from them. It is a surge, they say, that is beyond their expectations.

In Boston, for example, the Fidelity Group, a mutual-fund complex, says it is opening up 10,000 new IRAs a week, compared with 3,000 a week a year ago. Kate Lorinczi, a Fidelity public-relations official, says: ''No one is getting out to lunch. We're manning the telephones.''

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At Scudder Fund Distributors in New York, Dudley H. Ladd, a senior vice-president, says a huge run of new orders ''was more than we expected.'' Scudder, in fact, has brought some retired personnel back to its offices to help process the work load.

Jamie Shaw at Great Western Financial Corporation, a major thrift institution in California, says the bank has opened up 93 percent more 1982 accounts than 1981 accounts.

Nationwide, this surge in new IRAs is expected to have an impact on the economy. Mitchell Held, an economist with Smith Barney, Harris Upham & Co. says M2, one measure of the nation's money supply, should rise at a slower rate in April because of the surge. And Arnold Moskowitz, an economist at Dean Witter Reynolds Inc., says the crush of new IRA accounts could put some downward pressure on interest rates as some of the funds get invested in money-market mutual funds. Also, points out Robert Curtis, vice-president of Dollar Dry Dock Savings Bank, some of the new funds may go toward new mortgages. ''It's long-term in nature, so if it's invested in at least a three-year account, there is a likelihood it can be matched to a mortgage.''

Another Dean Witter economist, William Sullivan, points out that the boom in IRAs could result in lower tax payments to the government. At the end of March, he says, the US Treasury's cash balances were about $5 billion higher than the Treasury forecast. ''This,'' he says, ''either means the government is not spending as much money, or individuals are late filing their tax returns.'' If they are late - and continue to invest in IRAs - ''it could adversely impact the government's tax take in April and May.''

Wall Street observers also believe the big surge in investing could help to raise stock prices. ''To the extent that they are investing in stocks and bonds, it should help the stock market or help to lower interest rates,'' Mr. Moskowitz says.

Interviews in most of the major retail brokerage houses and in some large mutual-fund groups indicate investors are putting their money in the stock market. ''Last year most of the new money went into our money market fund,'' says Clark Gates, a Dreyfus Corporation official. ''This year a lot of the money is going into funds that invest in equities.'' Dreyfus is opening up 2,700 new accounts a week.

In part, the surge in new IRAs has occurred because a significantly greater number of individuals are eligible to invest. In 1981, only individuals who were not covered by an employer-sponsored pension plan were eligible to set up an IRA. However, after Congress changed the law, every income earner is now eligible to set one up.

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In addition, points out Rick Lawson, assistant vice-president for product management at Security Pacific Bank in Los Angeles, last year the consumer was ''bombarded by advertising.'' This advertising, he says, ''created a lot of confusion,'' since individuals were uneducated about IRAs. Jamie Shaw of Great Western says: ''There was such a media blitz last year; it got people confused and they backed off from setting up IRAs.'' This year, Mr. Lawson says, the consumer is better informed about IRAs.

Across the country, bankers and brokers report a flood of new IRA accounts. At Merrill Lynch, for example, Donald Underwood, manager of retirement plans, says the company is opening up 5,000 new IRA accounts a day, and ''The numbers are rising every day.'' Many people, he notes, are opening up IRA accounts for both 1982 and 1983. And, in some cases, couples are making this investment, which amounts to $4,000 apiece.

The same is true at E.F. Hutton, where Gary Strum, first vice-president, states: ''We are doing as well as Merrill or better.'' As the April 15 deadline approaches, he says, ''IRA business is just walking in the door.'' One young E.F. Hutton account executive has opened up 250 new accounts in the last 31/2 weeks - and he has only reached the letter F in his list of customers.

At Shearson-American Express, Richard Weisshappel, director of the personal client-services group, says the IRA business is 30 to 35 percent ahead of last year.

Moreover, in the next two weeks everyone expects the business to get better. Comments Mr. Strum, ''People tend to wait until the last moment if it involves writing a check.''

In addition, advertising is beginning to pick up. Robert Hutchinson, a vice-president at Manufacturers Hanover Trust in New York, says he plans to start running newspaper and magazine adds to spark more interest. So far this year, the bank's IRA accounts are running 50 percent ahead of last year's pace. The same is true at Security Pacific, where, Mr. Lawson says, new accounts are up 50 percent. And in the next two weeks he expects more new accounts, since the bank just completed a mailing to 250,000 credit-card customers that included the suggestion that they fund the investment by borrowing against their line of credit.

For those who truly wait until the last minute, there is still hope. At Charles Schwab & Co., a discount brokerage house, the company plans to stay open until midnight, April 15. ''I don't know the number of people who wait until the last day to file a tax return,'' Mr. Schwab remarked. But he added, ''I've done it myself, and I do know the opportunity to list a last-minute deduction would have often been a big help to me.''

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