Archive | Taxes

After-Tax Returns on Canadian ETFs

When you invest in a non-registered account, you need to be concerned about more than just your funds’ performance: you also need to know how much of your return will be eaten up by taxes. Unfortunately, while regulators are strict about the way ETFs and mutual funds report performance, fund companies in Canada have no obligation to estimate after-tax returns—something that’s been required in the US since 2001.

To help address this problem, Justin Bender spent the last several months creating a calculator for estimating the after-tax returns on Canadian ETFs. He was inspired by Morningstar’s US methodology, but he made many significant changes to adapt it for Canada. The new methodology is fully explained in our latest white paper, After-Tax Returns: How to estimate the impact of taxes on ETF performance. We have also made our spreadsheet available for free download so DIY investors can experiment on their own. (The spreadsheet is protected so the formulas cannot be altered. However, we have included detailed descriptions of these formulas in the appendix to the white paper.)

The methodology is quite complex, but here’s an overview in plain English:

We begin by recording the ex-dividend dates for all the cash distributions an ETF made during the period being considered.

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Foreign Withholding Taxes in International Equity ETFs

It seems Canadian ETF providers are paying more attention to foreign withholding taxes these days. Not so long ago, you rarely heard anyone discussing this hidden drag on returns. But last month BlackRock announced a significant change to its iShares Core MSCI EAFE IMI Index ETF, ticker symbol XEF, which makes up the international equity component of my Global Couch Potato portfolio. The change was made specifically to reduce the impact of foreign withholding taxes.

When the fund was launched in April 2013 it simply held a US-listed ETF, the iShares Core MSCI EAFE (IEFA). That was a convenient way of getting exposure to the 2,500 or so stocks in this large index. Over the last three weeks, however, XEF has gradually bought up the individual stocks in the index and now holds them directly. According to BlackRock:

“XEF will generally no longer be subject to U.S. withholding taxes. While foreign withholding taxes will continue to apply to dividends paid on certain international equity securities included in the XEF Index, it is expected that the change in investment strategy implementation will reduce the overall amount of withholding taxes borne directly or indirectly by XEF.”

A refresher course on foreign withholding taxes

A few words of explanation will help here.

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Managing Multiple Family Accounts

Model portfolios like those I recommend are ideal for investors who have a single RRSP account. But life isn’t so simple once you’ve accumulated a significant portfolio: chances are you’ll be managing two or three accounts, and if you have a spouse there may well be a few more.

In most cases, it’s most efficient to consider both partners’ retirement accounts as a single large portfolio. In other words, there’s no my money and my spouse’s money: there’s only our money. This strategy has a couple of advantages: first, it allows the family to make the most tax-efficient asset location decisions. Second, it keeps the overall number of holdings to a minimum, which reduces transaction costs and complexity.

Meet Henry and Anne, who have a combined portfolio of $480,000. Let’s assume they are the same age and plan to retire at about the same time. Their financial plan revealed that a mix of 50% bonds and 50% stocks is suitable for their risk tolerance and goals. Anne has a generous defined benefit pension plan and therefore has little RRSP room: most of her personal savings go to a non-registered account.

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Calculating Adjusted Cost Base: A Case Study

If you’ve read our ironically titled white paper, As Easy as ACB, you understand how complex it can be to track the adjusted cost base of ETFs. You need to account for all purchases and sales of shares during your holding period and then adjust for any reinvested distributions, return of capital and share splits along the way. Since that paper came out, several readers have emailed to ask whether it’s really necessary to do all that work.

That’s up to each investor to determine, but I wouldn’t want the Canadian Revenue Agency to discover you were paying a lot less tax than you owed. And as we discovered recently with a client of our DIY Investor Service, taking the time to accurately calculate your adjusted cost base can also save you from paying unnecessary taxes.

Our client purchased 300 shares of the iShares S&P/TSX Composite Index ETF (XIC) in September 2005 and added another 200 shares the following year. She eventually sold the entire holding (which by then had more than doubled in value) in April of this year. On the surface that seems like a straightforward set of transactions,

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Rebalancing With Cash Flows

With stocks continuing to enjoy a roaring bull market, rebalancing is on the minds of many investors—or at least it should be. Disciplined investing starts with choosing long-term targets for the asset classes in your portfolio and making regular adjustments to stay on course. Rebalancing discourages you from chasing performance, timing the markets and taking inappropriate risk.

There are three main rebalancing strategies. The first is based on the calendar: you might rebalance annually, or even several times per year. (Many balanced funds, for example, rebalance every quarter.) The second is based on thresholds: a rebalance might be triggered any time an asset class is five percentage points off its target. Finally, you can rebalance with cash flows, buying underweight asset classes with new contributions or cash from distributions (or, if you’re drawing down your portfolio, selling overweight positions when you make withdrawals).

In the real world, most investors probably do some combination of all three, and that’s fine. But there’s a good argument to be made for emphasizing the cash-flow method.

Go with the flow

Rebalancing with cash flows is particularly useful for those making regular contributions. The idea is that you deposit cash in your account every month or so,

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A Trove of Tax Tips for Canadian Investors

If your long-term savings are all in RRSPs and TFSAs, consider yourself lucky. Using tax-sheltered accounts is easy compared with the plight of investors who are saving in non-registered accounts. From deciding on the right asset location, to harvesting losses, to calculating the adjusted cost base of your holdings, taxable investments are always a challenge. But André Fok Kam’s new book, Tax-efficient Investing for Canadians, will make the job easier.

There are countless books on taxes, but this is the first one I’ve seen that focuses specifically on investments, and it’s loaded with excellent advice. Here are three tips to give you a taste:

Be careful when reinvesting distributions. In the chapter covering the tax implications of mutual funds and ETFs, Fok Kam explains why distributions add no value: “Instead, they merely transfer value from the fund to its unitholders. Investors are enriched when the fund earns a return, not when it transfers value.”

Cash distributions can help pay living expenses if you’re drawing down your portfolio. But investors in the accumulation phase often reinvest all distributions, which is a potential problem at tax time,

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A Tax-Friendly Bond ETF on the Horizon

Bonds should be part of just about every portfolio, but if you have to hold them in a non-registered account the tax consequences can be onerous. Fortunately, Canada’s ETF providers are taking steps to ease that burden with some innovative new products, including an ETF of strip bonds and another that holds only low-coupon discount bonds. The latest entry is the Horizons Canadian Select Universe Bond (HBB), which is set to begin trading this week. HBB is unique: it’s the only bond ETF in North America—and maybe anywhere—that uses a total return swap, which should dramatically improve its tax-efficiency.

The swap structure is the same one used by the Horizons S&P/TSX 60 (HXT) and the Horizons S&P 500 (HXS), which are now more than three years old. Here’s the basic idea: the ETF provider has an agreement with National Bank (called the counterparty) to “swap” the returns of two different portfolios. When you buy units in HBB, Horizons places your money in a cash account and pays the interest to the counterparty. In return, National Bank agrees to pay Horizons an amount equal to the total return of the fund’s index—that means any price change,

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The High Cost of High Dividends

In our recent white paper, Asset Location for Taxable Investors, Justin Bender and I argue that most investors are better off keeping their bonds in an RRSP, while equities should be held in a taxable account (assuming, of course, that all registered accounts have been maxed out). At the end of the paper, however, we noted one exception: investors who use high-dividend strategies may well be better off sheltering their equities in an RRSP.

Stocks can be relatively tax-efficient because much of their growth comes from capital gains, which are taxed at just half the rate of regular income and can be deferred indefinitely. Canadian dividends also receive a generous dividend tax credit that benefits low-income investors in particular: a retiree in Ontario whose only other source of income is the Canada Pension Plan and Old Age Security might be able to collect more than $20,000 a year in eligible Canadian dividends and pay no tax.

Getting paid taxed to wait

But if you’re still working and earning a good income, a dividend strategy may come at a high cost, especially if your taxable portfolio includes foreign equity ETFs.

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Do Bonds Still Belong in an RRSP?

It has long been conventional wisdom that bonds should be held in RRSPs wherever possible, since interest income is fully taxable. Once you run out of contribution room, equities can go in a non-registered account, because Canadian dividends and capital gains are taxed more favorably. But is this idea still valid? That’s the question Justin Bender and I explore in our new white paper, Asset Location for Taxable Investors.

Here’s an example we used to illustrate the problem. Assume you’re an Ontario investor with a marginal tax rate of 46.41%. Your non-registered account holds $1,000 in Canadian equities that return 8%, of which 3% is from eligible dividends and 5% is a realized capital gain. You would pay $8.86 in tax on the dividend income ($30 x 29.52%) and $11.60 on the realized capital gain ($50 x 23.20%), for a total of $20.46. Meanwhile, a $1,000 bond yielding 5% (or $50 annually) would be taxed at your full marginal rate, resulting in a tax bill of $23.21.

In this example, even though the total return on the stocks was higher (8% versus 5%) the amount of tax payable on the bond holding was significantly greater.

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