Archive | Taxes

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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Adjusted Cost Base With US-listed ETFs

Many readers have used our white paper, As Easy as ACB, to learn how to calculate the adjusted cost base of their Canadian ETF holdings. I’ve received several comments and questions from readers who wonder whether the process is the same for US-listed ETFs—and the answer is no.

You already know that dividends and interest from US securities are taxed at your full marginal rate. What you may not realize is that return of capital (ROC) and capital gains are also fully taxable. And although ROC and reinvested capital gains affect your ACB with Canadian securities, they are unlikely to be a factor with US-listed ETFs.

Schmidt happens

First some background: in a 2012 court case, a Calgary investor named Hellmut Schmidt argued that ROC and capital gains distributions from a US-listed security should get the same tax treatment as they do when they come from Canadian funds. He argued the ROC should not be taxable, and that he should be on the hook for only half the capital gain. But the judge disagreed and ruled that all the US fund’s distributions were fully taxable as foreign income.

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Tax Tips for BMO ETF Investors

Last week I offered some tips for investors who are tracking their adjusted cost base with Vanguard ETFs. In this post I’ll offer similar advice for those who use BMO exchange-traded funds. These tips expand on As Easy as ACB, a paper co-authored with Justin Bender, which thoroughly explains how to calculate the adjusted cost base of your ETF holdings.

The BMO Equal Weight REITs (ZRE), which is the real estate component the Complete Couch Potato portfolio, provides our first example. You can start by downloading the BMO ETF 2013 Tax Parameters, which gives a summary of all distributions for the year. Scan the list until you find ZRE.

Notice ZRE reported both return of capital (ROC) and capital gains in 2013. ROC is normally paid in cash, and although it appears in Box 42 of your T3 slip, it’s not taxable in the year it’s received. However, it lowers your adjusted cost base and therefore increases your future tax liability.

Capital gains are taxable in the current year (they’ll appear in Box 21).

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A Tax Tip for Vanguard ETF Investors

As the tax filing deadline approaches, many investors are busy calculating the adjusted cost base for their ETF holdings. Last year at this time, Justin Bender and I collaborated on a paper called As Easy as ACB, which explains the rather complicated procedure.

An often overlooked part of ACB calculation involves adjusting for reinvested distributions (also called non-cash distributions). As the name implies, these are typically capital gains that were reinvested in the fund rather than paid to investors in cash. At the end of the year these will appear on your T3 slips and you’ll pay tax on them, even though you didn’t actually receive any income. But here’s the step that can get missed: if an ETF has a reinvested distribution, you should increase your cost base by an equal amount, which will reduce your future capital gains liability. If you don’t, you’ll pay the tax again when you eventually sell shares in the ETF.

The curious case of the missing distributions

If you held shares of the Vanguard FTSE Canada Index ETF (VCE) this year, your job is a little trickier. You probably looked on the fund’s web page to see whether VCE had any reinvested distributions in 2013.

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iShares Advantaged ETFs: Where Are They Now?

Before being bought by BlackRock early in 2012, Claymore Investments pioneered many new services and unconventional products. One of these was its so-called Advantaged ETFs, which used a complicated structure to convert fully taxable bond interest and foreign income into tax-favoured return of capital and capital gains.

Barely a year after these funds joined the iShares family, the 2013 federal budget took aim at this sleight of hand. While the government is grandfathering contracts already in force, it won’t allow new ones, which means the eventual end of the tax break promised by the Advantaged ETFs. A couple of weeks after the budget, iShares stopped accepting new subscriptions for these funds until they decided how to handle the situation.

The ETFs are open for business again, but several have new names and all have new strategies. Here’s a summary:

The iShares Global Monthly Advantaged Dividend has become the Global Monthly Dividend Index ETF (CYH). The tax-favoured structure is gone, but the investment strategy is largely the same: the fund is about half US and half international dividend stocks. However, the older version used two US-listed Guggenheim ETFs as its underlying holdings.

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The True Cost of Foreign Withholding Taxes

Back in the fall of 2012, I wrote a pair of blog posts about the impact of foreign withholding taxes in US and international equity funds. The first explained the general idea of this tax on foreign dividends, while the second showed which funds are best held in which types of account (RRSP, TFSA, non-registered). This is a complicated and confusing topic, so I was surprised at the enormous interest these articles generated from readers, the media, advisors and even the ETF providers themselves.

What was missing from those articles, however, was hard numbers: it’s one thing to say this fund is more tax-efficient than that one, but by how much? To my knowledge no one has ever quantified the costs of foreign withholding tax in a comprehensive way—until now. Justin Bender and I have done this in our new white paper, Foreign Withholding Taxes: How to estimate the hidden tax drag on US and international equity index funds and ETFs.

The factors that matter

The amount of foreign withholding tax payable depends on two important factors. The first is the structure of the ETF or mutual fund.

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New Tax-Efficient ETFs from BMO

Bonds are one of the least tax-friendly asset classes: most of their return comes from interest payments, which are taxed at the highest rate. They’re even less tax-efficient when their market price is higher than their par value: these premium bonds are taxed so unfavorably they can actually deliver a negative after-tax return. Unfortunately, because interest rates have trended down for three decades, virtually every bond index fund and ETF is filled with premium bonds. Enter the BMO Discount Bond ETF (ZDB), which begins trading tomorrow. This unique new ETF promises to eliminate the problem that has long plagued bond funds in non-registered accounts.

Let’s take a step back and review the important idea underpinning this new ETF. Consider a premium bond with a coupon of 5% and a yield to maturity of 3%. The bond will pay you 5% interest annually and then suffer a capital loss of 2% at maturity, for a total pre-tax return of 3%. Now consider a discount bond that pays a coupon of 2% and has the same yield to maturity of 3%: now, in addition to the interest payments,

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