The First Thing You Should Do in 2012

After strong gains in 2009 and 2010, the stock market finally took a rest in 2011, with the S&P 500 ending as close to flat as anyone could ever imagine. But it's time to stop looking back and start looking forward.

If you're like the millions of people who are resolving to make 2012 a better year financially, 2011 is a good reminder that you can't count on soaring stocks to do the hard lifting for you. If you want to get better results both in 2012 and in years to come, procrastination is the enemy -- and you need to get moving as quickly as possible.

What to do right now
Just as I've suggested in past years, saving for retirement should be your top priority. And the best way to do that is to open an IRA. With today being the first business day you're eligible to make an IRA contribution for 2012, it's hard to imagine a better first step in meeting your resolutions.

What if you never got around to making a 2011 IRA contribution? Don't panic. Believe it or not, the Internal Revenue Service is on your side with IRAs, letting you wait until your mid-April tax filing deadline to make a contribution for 2011. So if you're behind and need to catch up, you still can.

But this year, make retirement saving an important part of your financial plan by not putting it off until the last minute. If you get your money into your IRA now, you'll get an extra year for that money to grow on a tax-deferred basis. Moreover, you'll also have a chance to take advantage of some investment opportunities that won't be around forever.

Don't wait for these great special situations
This time around, I want to talk about IRAs in the context of a very specific type of investment: buying companies that are going through special situations. Often, by splitting up a business into smaller publicly traded stocks, a company can unlock value that's hidden inside the larger whole. For instance, Altria broke up its business into three parts, putting its food segment into what became Kraft Foods and its international tobacco operations into Philip Morris International.

Nowadays, several companies are proposing major spinoffs of this kind, and I think they could have as much potential as the Altria spinoffs did. Abbott Labs (NYS: ABT) plans to split itself into two parts: a medical device business and a pharmaceutical company. Expected to happen by the end of this year, shares have already jumped on the news, but both parts could make smart retirement investments.

Meanwhile, Pfizer (NYS: PFE) expects to spin off its nutritional and animal health division. That should accomplish two things: Pfizer will be better able to focus on its drug development, while the nutritional business should gain from being a top priority rather than a sideline business. That's obviously bad news for competitor Mead Johnson Nutrition (NYS: MJN) , which is battling an infant-formula controversy right now and can ill afford a more focused competitive environment.

Finally, ConocoPhillips (NYS: COP) expects to spin off its refinery and marketing operations, leaving the core company free to emphasize exploration and production. The move follows in the footsteps of the successful move by Marathon Oil to do the same thing, putting its refinery business into the spun-off Marathon Petroleum (NYS: MPC) . The move has helped Marathon Oil get rid of the volatility in refining, while the spinoff gives investors a chance at a pure play on refining.

Why special situations belong in IRAs
What makes such stocks great for IRAs is that you don't have to worry about the hassles that you do in a taxable account. When a stock does a spinoff, your tax basis gets split between the two companies. That means you have to track those separate costs as long as you hold either stock -- which can be a real pain at tax time.

So to take maximum advantage of these special opportunities, don't wait -- get your money into an IRA today. You can contribute up to $5,000 this year -- $6,000 if you're 50 or older. And since it's simple to open an IRA, you don't have any good excuses.

And once you have an IRA, make sure you're doing everything you can with it. Our latest special free report reveals the shocking can't-miss truth about your retirement -- and what you can do about it. Grab a copy today and find out everything you need to know.

At the time thisarticle was published Fool contributor Dan Caplinger makes his IRA a priority. You can follow him on Twitter here. He doesn't own shares of the companies mentioned in this article. The Motley Fool owns shares of Abbott Labs, Philip Morris International, and Altria. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Pfizer, Abbott Labs, and Philip Morris International. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Fool's disclosure policy already has its to-do list for 2012 filled out.

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