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) -- Some Americans are using their Individual Retirement Accounts to invest in cattle, sports teams and restaurants, betting they can make more money than in the stock and bond markets.

Self-Directed Individual Retirement Accounts, accounting for less than 4% of the 47 million IRAs in the U.S., put the responsibility for investments in the hands of account holders. Contribution limits are the same as on a traditional IRA or a Roth IRA. Plan holders retain a trustee or custodian to file Internal Revenue Service paperwork, issue statements, and navigate rules and restrictions.

"There isn't any limit to what can be done," says Tom Anderson, founder of

Pensco Trust Co.

, an administrator and custodian of self-directed IRAs. "Not to say we are getting 400 people buying alpacas or something with their IRA. But a lot of people invest in what they know."

Popular options include real estate investments and small-business loans. A bankruptcy expert buys nothing but bankruptcy claims, cherry picking the best deals that return a good yield, Anderson says. Another client bought fishing rights from the state of Alaska.

"Because she is a fisherwoman, out on a boat 10 hours a day, she understands fishing," Anderson says. "So she has exclusive rights to a part of the ocean to fish for black cod, and she subleases to other day fishermen. We have a guy who has 40 heads of cattle in his IRA. He has been in the cattle business all his life and he knows how to make a profit with cattle."

Retirement investors are increasingly moving to tangible or so-called hard assets such as gold and other commodities after last year's stock-market crash eviscerated 401(k)'s and traditional IRAs.

Lori Eidman, general manager of Washington-based

Sage Harbor IRA Investments

, says her firm has recorded a recent spike in clients, many of whom were prompted by the financial chaos of the past year. Real estate, she said, offer an average annual return range of 8% to 12% for IRA plans. Because investments are for the long haul, investors can ride out booms and busts.

Anderson blames large companies that manage retirement accounts for giving short-shrift to self-directed options. Traditional money-management firms such as


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have had little to gain for promoting self-directed plans.

That may be starting to change.

"More pressure is being put on all those entities by clients who demand that there be more diversification," Anderson says. "People are getting more educated, looking at options and challenging their broker and their CPA," he adds.

Self-directed plans carry unique restrictions. Business owners are prohibited from making investments that, even indirectly, benefit themselves or their family. There are also warnings to be heeded. Investing in your buddy's scheme to open a new restaurant may not be a wise choice.

Anderson and Eidman say self-directed plans ought to comprise only be a small share of a broader savings strategy.

"Self-directing really means that you take control, and no one is really there watching over your shoulders," Eidman says.

-- Reported by Joe Mont in Boston.