Archive | Taxes

How Foreign Withholding Taxes Affect Returns

In our newly revised white paper, Justin Bender and I explain the hidden cost of foreign withholding taxes on US and international equity ETFs. I gave an overview of the most important points in my previous blog post. Now let’s look at one of the more subtle ideas: how those taxes affect your personal rate of return.

Meet Julie, an investor who is looking to hold US equities in both her RRSP and non-registered account. After reading our paper, Julie knows the US imposes a 15% withholding tax on dividends paid to Canadians, and with US stocks yielding 2% these days, that would result in a drag of about 0.30%. So she decides on the following:

In her RRSP, Julie uses the Vanguard Total Stock Market ETF (VTI), because this US-listed fund is exempt from withholding taxes.
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In her taxable account, Julie uses the Vanguard U.S. Total Market Index ETF (VUN), the Canadian-listed equivalent of VTI. This ETF is denominated in Canadian dollars, which makes it cheaper and easier to trade. Although the fund is not exempt from the foreign withholding taxes in a non-registered account,

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Foreign Withholding Taxes Revisited

It might be the most eagerly anticipated sequel since The Force Awakens. Justin Bender and I have just completed the second edition of our popular white paper, Foreign Withholding Taxes: How to estimate the hidden tax drag on US and international equity ETFs.

Originally published in 2014, the paper explains how many countries impose a tax on dividends paid to foreign investors—most notably a 15% levy on US stocks held by Canadians. When the first edition appeared, foreign withholding taxes were not well understood by many investors and advisors, and even the ETF providers rarely discussed them. In the two years since, the issue seems to be getting more recognition. Both Vanguard and iShares, for example, have made changes to their international equity ETFs to make them more tax-efficient. That’s great news, though it also made the first version of our paper somewhat dated.

In this new edition, we’ve made some significant changes. First, we’ve removed corporate accounts from the discussion and focused on personal accounts only. We’ve also used some different ETFs in our examples, including the Vanguard U.S. Total Market (VUN),

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Cost Versus Convenience in “ex Canada” ETFs

I used to own one of those one-piece cutlery tools designed for hiking and camping—the kind with a knife, fork and spoon that all fold into a single unit. It was hardly ideal for eating, especially if you needed the fork and knife at the same time. But it was more convenient than trekking around with three individual pieces of flatware that might tear your pack or get left behind on the trail.

As investors we often make similar trade-offs. Consider the Vanguard FTSE Global All Cap ex Canada (VXC) or the iShares Core MSCI All Country World ex Canada (XAW), which both offer one-stop global diversification by holding thousands of US, international and emerging market stocks. But as with folding cutlery, you give up something to get that convenience. These two “ex Canada” funds get at least some of their exposure by holding underlying US-listed ETFs rather than holding their stocks directly. This structure can result in additional foreign withholding taxes on dividends.

In a recent blog post, Justin Bender estimated the impact of foreign withholding taxes on RRSP investors who hold VXC.

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The Curious Case of the BMO Discount Bond ETF

When the BMO Discount Bond Index ETF (ZDB) was launched back in February 2014, it was unique: the first broad-market ETF in Canada made up primarily of bonds trading below their par value. By avoiding premium bonds, ZDB promised to deliver similar returns to traditional bond funds, but with greater tax efficiency, making it ideal for non-registered accounts. With a little more than two years of real-word performance, it’s time for a checkup. Has ZDB delivered on its promises?

Top of the heap

The first question we’ll examine is whether ZDB achieved pre-tax returns similar to other broad-market bond ETFs. The fund was designed to match the popular FTSE TMX Canada Universe Bond Index in credit quality, average term, duration and yield to maturity. But ZDB set out to achieve this profile using bonds with lower coupons to reduce the amount of taxable income.

As it turns out, ZDB outperformed all of its competitors in 2015. Here are the NAV returns for the calendar year:

BMO Discount Bond
ZDB
3.60%

Vanguard Canadian Aggregate Bond
VAB
3.48%

iShares Core High Quality Canadian Bond
XQB
3.38%

BMO Aggregate Bond
ZAG
3.24%

iShares Canadian Universe Bond
XBB
3.15%

Sources:  BMO ETFs,

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How Budget 2015 Will Affect Investors

Yesterday’s federal budget included several changes that will affect investors—in the future if not immediately. Let’s look at the three most important announcements, with a focus on how they may apply to those who use an index strategy with ETFs:

The biggest headline was the increase in annual TFSA contribution room from $5,500 to $10,000, beginning immediately.

Minimum withdrawals from RRIFs were reduced significantly.

Investors who hold foreign property (including US-listed ETFs in non-registered accounts) will be able to report this to the Canada Revenue Agency in a more efficient way.

Asset location just got more interesting

If you’re juggling TFSAs, RRSPs and non-registered accounts, asset location is a challenge. To manage your portfolio in the most tax-efficient way, you should consider which asset classes (equities, bonds, REITs and so on) are best held in which type of account. This isn’t straightforward. You can make a strong argument for holding bond ETFs in a registered account because they are so tax-inefficient. But if a TFSA can shelter you from taxes over an entire lifetime, shouldn’t it be reserved for assets with the highest growth potential—in other words, stocks?

There is no single right answer: an awful lot depends on individual circumstances such as your current tax rate,

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When Discount Bonds Are Hard to Find

Everyone loves a discount, but if you’re buying bonds these days you may be out of luck.

Just over a year ago, the BMO Discount Bond (ZDB) was launched as a tax-efficient alternative to traditional bond ETFs. ZDB tracks the broad Canadian market, but it selects bonds trading at a discount, or at a very small premium. Discount bonds have a lower coupon than comparable new bonds, and they will mature with a small capital gain. That combination is more tax-efficient than premium bonds, which have higher coupons and mature at a loss.

A discount bond ETF is a great idea for non-registered accounts, but it faced challenges from the beginning. After many years of interest rates trending downward, there simply aren’t many discount bonds in the marketplace. Traditional broad-market bond ETFs hold between 500 and 900 issues, but ZDB holds just 55.

This constraint has become more urgent after the Bank of Canada unexpectedly cut short-term rates in January. Yields on intermediate and longer-term bonds also fell, driving bond prices up sharply. Suddenly bonds that were trading at a discount were priced at or above par.

In my blog post introducing ZDB,

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Which Bond ETF Is Most Tax-Efficient?

Back in September, my colleague Justin Bender and I published a white paper entitled After-Tax Returns: How to estimate the impact of taxes on ETF performance. Justin has now updated his Excel calculator and made it available for free download on his blog.

Recently Justin put his own methodology to work by measuring the 2014 after-tax returns of 10 short-term bond ETFs. As it happens, 2014 was a relatively good year for short-term bonds: as interest rates fell again, ETFs in this asset class delivered returns between 2.3% and 3.5%. But as we have written about before, traditional fixed income ETFs tend to be full of premium bonds, which are notoriously tax-inefficient because of their high coupons. If you held one of these ETFs in a non-registered account, your after-tax return would have been lower.

Launched in 2013, the First Asset 1-5 Year Laddered Government Strip Bond (BXF) was designed to be a tax-friendly alternative. Strip bonds do not make interest payments like traditional bonds do: rather, they are sold at a discount and mature at par value.

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Taxable Consequences of Norbert’s Gambit

Norbert’s gambit with the Horizons US Dollar Currency ETF (DLR/DLR.U) is often the most cost-efficient way to convert Canadian dollars to US dollars, or vice-versa. Our series of white papers focused on performing the gambit in an RRSP, but if you’re swapping currencies in a non-registered account, you should be aware that it can have tax consequences.

At brokerages such as RBC Direct and BMO InvestorLine, you can place the buy and sell trades within minutes of each other. But several other brokerages do not allow you to journal the ETF from the Canadian side of your account to the US side (or the other way around) until the buy trade settles. In both cases, however, there will be at least three business days for the transaction to be complete, and the US-Canadian exchange rate can move significantly during that time. A big swing could stick you with a capital gain or loss when you make the sale.

What’s more, calculating this gain or loss can be tricky, because both the purchase and sale need to be reported in Canadian dollars. That means any transaction in DLR.U needs to be converted from US dollars.

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The Wrong Way to Think About Withholding Taxes

If you live in a big city, you can save a few cents per litre on gas by travelling to the boonies. But you also understand that it doesn’t make sense to burn $10 of fuel driving out of town so you can save $8 on a fill-up. Yet many investors seem to be making a similar error by trying to avoid foreign withholding taxes in their registered portfolios.

About a year ago, Justin Bender and I co-wrote a white paper that estimated the cost of foreign withholding taxes. There are far too many details to review here, but among the most important is that withholding taxes on dividends are lost if you hold a Canadian mutual fund or ETF of foreign stocks inside an RRSP or TFSA. If you hold the same fund in a non-registered account, however, you can recover the withholding taxes by claiming a credit on your tax return.

Sometimes I feel like we created a monster with this paper, because I have received many e-mails from readers who have misunderstood this information and made poor decisions as a result.

Here’s an example: Cyril wants to build a balanced portfolio that includes US and international equities,

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