If you’re investing outside of tax-sheltered accounts like RRSPs and TFSAs, you need to choose your investments carefully—otherwise you risk giving a big slice of your returns to the good people at the Canada Revenue Agency. Today we’ll look at ways to create a tax-efficient index portfolio using some innovative ETFs.

Swapping dividends for capital gains

In Monday’s post, I explained that Canadian dividends are not always as tax-advantaged as people believe. Capital gains are not only taxed at a lower rate in the highest tax brackets, but investors can also control when to take them—dividends, on the other hand, are taxable in the year they’re paid, even if you reinvest them.

Horizons’ swap-based ETFs—which I wrote about here—were designed to address this issue. They use a type of derivative that allows investors to earn the same return as the index, without collecting any distributions. Dividends paid by the companies in the index are reflected in the fund’s return, but all of the growth is characterized as capital gains and deferred until the fund is sold. There are currently just two funds in the family: the Horizons S&P/TSX 60 (HXT) for Canadian large-cap stocks, and the Horizons S&P 500 (HXS) for US large-caps.

The tax advantage is especially large for HXS, because dividends from US companies are fully taxable, while capital gains are taxed at half that rate. Consider this: if you held the iShares S&P 500 Index Fund (XSP) in 2011, you received $0.24 per share in cash dividends, a yield of about 1.6%. At the highest tax bracket, you would have lost almost half of that to taxes, reducing your return by about 80 basis points. If you held HXS instead, you would have received a similar 1.6% price appreciation instead, and you would have paid no tax. If you eventually sell the fund at a profit, you’ll pay tax on only half the gain.

Forward thinking

Claymore’s Advantaged ETFs—read a detailed description here—use forward contracts that “recharacterize” bond interest or foreign dividends as capital gains or return of capital (ROC). Unlike swap-based ETFs, which pay no distributions, the Advantaged ETFs are designed for investors who want current income.

Return of capital is the most tax-efficient of all distributions, though it’s not a free lunch. ROC is not taxed in the year it’s received: instead, it lowers your adjusted cost base, and if you sell your shares at a profit in the future, you’ll incur a capital gain. So you’re not getting truly tax-free income—you’re really just getting your own money back—but you are generating tax-deferred cash flow. This document from Claymore explains the idea.

You can see why ROC is preferable to bond interest, which is fully taxable. In 2011, the Claymore Advantaged Canadian Bond (CAB) returned 6.8%. Roughly half of that came from price appreciation, while the other half came from distributions. However, unlike every other bond ETF, those distributions were return of capital, not interest. So you would have collected that entire 6.8% return without a tax bill.

Before you get too excited, there are downsides. All of the 2011 distributions from Claymore’s Advantaged ETFs were return of capital, but that won’t always be the case. In 2010, for example, CAB’s distributions were all capital gains. These would have been taxable—albeit at only half the rate of bond interest.

More important, the Advantaged ETFs have considerably higher costs than plain-vanilla index funds, which will lower their pre-tax returns. Those added costs offset some of the tax savings, and may even wipe out the advantage altogether. For example, both the iShares DEX Universe Bond (XBB) and BMO Aggregate Bond (ZAG) returned well over 9% last year—dramatically outperforming CAB. Even if you lost half your interest income to taxes, you might still have been better off with XBB or ZAG.

If you’re out of RRSP and TFSA room, you could use these ETFs to build a reasonably well diversified and tax-efficient portfolio of Canadian stocks (HXT), US stocks (HXS) and bonds (CAB). In some years—including 2011—you’ll have no tax payable at all. Just spend some time researching these complex products first, and don’t invest in anything you don’t understand simply because you think you’ll save some tax.

H&R Block software giveaway

Speaking of tax, the folks at H&R Block have offered to give away copies of their DIY tax software to five lucky Canadian Couch Potato readers. To enter the draw, leave a comment below or tweet this post to your followers before midnight EST on Sunday, January 29. I’ll announce the winner next Monday.