9 Ways to Manage Capital Gains

Investors want to rebalance or reduce their exposure to stocks without creating a large tax bill. We specialize in tax-efficient portfolio management and can help you minimize the taxes you will pay. Here are 9 ways to manage your investment taxes more effectively:

1. Use ETFs instead of Mutual Funds. ETFs typically have very little, and often zero, capital gains distributions. Actively managed mutual funds are presently sitting on very large embedded gains, which will be distributed on to shareholders as the managers trade those positions. Using ETFs gives you better control of when you choose to realize gains.

2. Donate appreciated securities to charity instead of cash. If you are already planning to give money to a charity, instead donate shares of a stock or fund which has appreciated. The charity will get the same amount of money and they will pay no capital gains on the sale. You will still get the same tax deduction (if you exceed the now higher standard deduction) plus you will avoid paying capital gains. Use the cash you were planning to donate to replenish your investment account. Same donation, lower taxes.

Consider funding a Donor Advised Fund and contributing enough for several years of charitable giving. If you give to a large number of charities, it may be easier to make one transfer of securities each year to the Donor Advised Fund, and then give to the charities from the Fund.

3. Give appreciated securities to kids in the zero percent capital gains bracket. Some taxpayers in the lower brackets actually pay a 0% capital gains rate. If your grown children are no longer dependents, and would qualify, they may be able to receive the shares and sell them tax-free. Just be sure to stay under the $15,000 annual gift tax exclusion per person. For 2018, the zero percent capital gains rate will apply to single taxpayers under $38,600 in income and married couples under $77,200.

4. Harvest losses annually. Those losses give you the opportunity to offset gains and rebalance your portfolio. Any unused losses will carry forward to future years without expiration. And you can also use $3,000 a year of losses to offset your ordinary income, which means that instead of just saving 15-20% in taxes you could be saving 37% or more.

5. Develop a Capital Gains Budget. It’s not all or nothing – you don’t have to sell 100% of a position. We can trim a little each year and stay within an annual capital gains target. We also can sell specific lots, meaning we can reduce a position and choose to sell shares with the highest or lowest cost basis.

6. Wait a year for long-term treatment. We try to avoid creating gains under 12 months. The long-term rate is 15% or 20%, but short-term gains are taxed as ordinary income.

7. Use your IRA. If you have a well diversified IRA, we can often rebalance in that account and not create a taxable event. While many investors put taxable bonds in IRAs and leave the equities in a taxable account, for taxpayers in a high bracket, you may prefer to buy tax-free municipal bonds in the taxable account and keep equities in the IRA.

8. Stop Reinvesting Distributions. If your position in a stock or fund has grown, don’t make it larger through reinvestment of dividends and distributions! Reinvesting takes away your choice of how to rebalance your portfolio with the cash flow you receive. However, please make sure you are doing something with your distributions in a timely manner and not letting them accumulate in cash.

9. Just take the Gains already! Don’t let a gain disappear because you don’t want to pay 15% in taxes. If you have a big winner, especially with an individual stock or a speculative investment like bitcoin, take your gains and move on. If we become too obsessed with taxes we run the risk of letting our investment returns suffer.

While most people are thinking about their 2017 taxes right now, reacting to what has already passed, we suggest looking ahead to 2018 and being proactive about managing your futuretax liabilities. Taxes can be a significant drag on performance. If you’re investing in a taxable account, we can give you peace of mind that you have a plan not only for financial security, but also to manage your capital gains as efficiently as possible.

Beware: 2017 Fund Capital Gains Distributions

We are starting to receive estimates for year-end 2017 Capital Gains distributions from Mutual Funds, and no surprise, many funds are having large distributions to their shareholders this year. As a refresher, when a mutual fund sells a stock within its portfolio, the gain on that sale is passed through to the fund owners at the end of the year as a taxable event.

When you invest in a 401(k), IRA, or other qualified account, these capital gains distributions don’t create any additional taxes for you. If you reinvest your distributions, your dollar value of the fund remains the same, and you are unaffected by the capital gain. However, if you are investing in a taxable account, these distributions will cost you money in the form of increased taxes.

A quick look at estimates from American FundsColumbia, and Franklin-Templeton shows that many equity funds are having capital gains distributions of 3-10% this year. A few are even higher, such as the Columbia Acorn (17-21%) and Acorn USA (23-28%). Imagine if you made a $100,000 investment at the beginning of the year, your fund is up 16% and then you get a distribution for $28,000 in capital gains! Yes, capital gains distributions can exceed what a fund made in a year, when the fund sells positions which it owned for longer.

Capital Gains Distributions create a number of problems:

  • Even if you are a long-term shareholder, when the fund distributes short-term gains, you are taxed at the higher short-term tax rate.
  • If you didn’t sell any of your shares, you will need to find other money to pay the tax bill, which can run into the thousands each year if you have even just a $50,000 taxable portfolio.
  • If you are thinking of buying mutual fund shares in Q4 of this year, you could end up buying into a big December tax bill and paying for gains the fund had 6-12 months ago.
  • In addition to paying capital gains on fund distributions, you will still have to pay tax when you sell your shares.
  • Capital gains distributions are in addition to any dividends and interest a fund pays. In general, we want dividends and interest income as additions to our total return. Capital gains distributions, however, do not increase our return and are an unwelcome tax liability.

If you have a taxable account, or both taxable and retirement accounts, we may be able to save you a substantial amount of money on taxes. We can use tax-efficient investments like Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs), which typically have little or ZERO capital gains distributions at the end of the year. This puts us in control of when you want to sell and harvest your gains. When you have multiple types of accounts, we can place the investments into the best account to minimize your tax bill.

If you do presently have mutual funds in a taxable account, it may be a good idea to take a look at your potential exposure before the end of the year so you are not surprised. If you sell before the distribution is paid, you can avoid that distribution. Now that will mean paying capital gains based on the profit you have when you sell. But you definitely want to be planning ahead. When you’re ready to create a tax-managed portfolio that looks at all your accounts together, we can help you do that.

Do You Receive Mutual Fund Capital Gains Distributions?

I always ask prospective clients to bring a copy of their most recent tax return and often learn a wealth of information reviewing their taxes. In doing such a review last week, I noticed that in the previous year, a prospective client had to pay taxes on $13,875 in taxable capital gains distributions from their mutual funds.

If your mutual fund is inside of a 401(k) or IRA, capital gains distributions don’t matter. However, when a mutual fund is held in a taxable account, you end up paying taxes on capital gains distributions even though you didn’t sell the position. Instead, you are paying taxes for trading the fund manager does inside the portfolio, or worse, to provide liquidity to other shareholders, who sold before December and left you holding the bag to pay for their capital gains.

Luckily, there is a better way. In my previous position working with high net worth families, the majority of assets were held in taxable portfolios. We had a number of families with $10 million to over $100 million in investments with our firm. Needless to day, I spent considerable time in looking at ways to reduce taxes, and became very effective at the process of Portfolio Tax Optimization. I offer this same approach and benefits to my clients today.

Vanguard studied the value advisors bring through planning skills like tax optimixation. They estimate that “Advisor’s Alpha” can add as much as 3% a year to your net returns.
Link: Quantifying Vanguard Advisor’s Alpha

If you have significant assets in taxable accounts, I can help you. Here are five ways we can lower your taxes and allow you to keep more of your hard earned principal:

1) Use ETFs. The prospective client with $13,875 in capital gains distributions, had approximately $600,000 in mutual funds. I created a spreadsheet that calculated capital gains if they had been invested $600,000 in my 60/40 portfolio instead. Most of my holdings are Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs), which due to their unique structure, are much more tax efficient than mutual funds. In fact, my nine ETF holdings had total distributions of zero in the same year .

In the 60/40 model, we also had five mutual funds in categories where there are not equivalent ETFs. My calculation of capital gains distributions: $2,167. So, if we had been investing for this client, their capital gains distributions could have been reduced from approximately $14,000 to $2,000. The investment vehicles we choose matter!

I should note that this is just looking at capital gains distributions. Both ETFs and mutual funds also pay interest and dividends, which are taxable. There is more to managing taxes than just picking ETFs.

2) Asset Location. We could have further reduced taxes by choosing where to place each holding. Some funds generate interest, which is taxed as ordinary income, where as other funds generate qualified dividends, which is taxed at a lower rate of 15-20%. We place the funds with the greatest tax liability into your IRA or other qualified account, to reduce your overall tax burden. Funds that have little or no distributions are ideal for taxable accounts.

3) Avoid short-term capital gains. If you sell an investment within a year, those short-term gains are taxed as ordinary income, your highest tax rate. After 12 months, sales are treated as long-term capital gains, at a lower rate of 15-20%. We do not sell or rebalance funds before one year to avoid short-term gains. Unfortunately, many mutual fund managers don’t have any such tax mandate, so oftentimes, a significant portion of fund’s capital gains distributions are short-term.

4) Tax Loss Harvesting. At the end of each year, we review taxable portfolios for positions which have declined. We harvest those losses and immediately replace each position with a different fund in the same category (large cap, international, etc.). This fund swap allows us to use those losses to offset other gains or income, while maintaining our target asset allocation. If realized losses exceed gains, you can use $3,000 of losses to reduce ordinary income. Remaining losses are carried forward to future years.

5) Municipal Bonds. For investors in a higher tax bracket, your after-tax return may be better on tax-free municipal bonds than on taxable bond funds. However, an advisor will not know this without looking at your tax return and determining your tax bracket. That’s why we make planning our first priority, before making any investment recommendations. (Would you really trust anyone making investment recommendations without knowing your full situation? Are those recommendations designed to profit them or you?)

We take a disciplined approach to managing portfolios to minimize taxes, and it is a valuable benefit to be able to customize our approach for each individual client.

On this same client’s tax return, I realized that they did not deduct their Investment Management fees, a $6,000 miscellaneous deduction.
Link: Are Investment Advisory Fees Tax Deductible?

If you have taxable investments, we may be able to save you thousands, too. Let’s schedule a call today. You deserve a more sophisticated and efficient approach to managing your wealth.

Why You Should Harvest Losses Annually


This time each year, I review every client’s taxable accounts in search of losses to harvest for tax purposes. While no one likes to have a loss, the reality is that investments fluctuate and have down periods, even if the long-term trend is up. I’ll be contacting each client in the next two weeks and will let you know if I suggest any trades.

Even though we may make some sales, we still want to maintain our overall target asset allocation. Under US tax rules, we cannot buy a “substantially identical security” within 30 days in order to claim a tax loss. This precludes us from taking a loss and immediately buying back the same ETF or mutual fund. It does not however, prevent us from selling one large cap ETF and buying a different ETF that tracks another large cap index or strategy. This means that we can harvest the loss without being out of the market for 30 days and missing any potential gains during that time.

When we harvest losses, we can use those losses to offset any gains we have received and reduce our taxes in the current year. The criticism against tax loss harvesting is that it just serves to postpone taxes rather than actually saving taxes.

For example, let’s say that we purchased 10,000 shares of an ETF for $10 per share and today those shares are only worth $9.00. Our cost basis is $100,000 and if we sold today for $90,000 we could harvest a loss of $10,000. We replace that position with a different ETF and invest our $90,000. Fast forward a couple of years and the position is now worth $120,000. If we sell for $120,000, we would have a $30,000 gain, whereas if we had not done the earlier trades, our gain would be only $20,000. Apply a long-term capital gains rate of 15% and the savings of $1,500 in taxes this year is offset by $1,500 in additional taxes down the road.

So, why bother? There is an additional benefit to tax loss harvesting besides deferring taxes for later: you may be able to use those losses to offset short-term capital gains or ordinary income, which can be at a much higher tax rate than the 15% long-term capital gains rate.

The rules for capital gains are that you first net short-term gains and short-term losses against each other. Separately, you will net long-term gains and long-term losses. If you have net losses in either category, those losses may be subtracted from gains in the other category. So if you had $10,000 in net long-term losses, you could apply those losses against $10,000 of short-term capital gains. For someone in the 35% tax bracket, that $10,000 long-term loss could be worth $3,500, if you can apply that loss towards short-term gains, instead of the $1,500 we would normally associate with a long-term loss.

If you have more capital losses than gains in a year, you can apply $3,000 of those losses against ordinary income, and carry forward the remaining losses into future years indefinitely, until they are used up. If we can use our $3,000 loss against ordinary income, a taxpayer in the 35% bracket will save $1,050 in taxes, which is a lot better than the $450 we would save in long-term capital gains if we did not harvest the $3,000 loss.

After deferring gains for many years, taxpayers may be able to avoid realizing gains altogether two ways. First, if you have charitable goals, you can give appreciated securities to a charity instead of cash. If you give $1,000 worth of funds to a charity, the charity receives the full $1,000; you get a full tax deduction AND you avoid paying capital gains on those shares.

The second way to avoid capital gains is if you allow your heirs to inherit your shares. They will receive a step-up in cost basis and no one will owe capital gains tax. That’s a rather extreme way to avoid paying 15% in capital gains taxes, and most people are going to need their investments for retirement. However, the fact is that delaying taxes can be beneficial and that the tax is not always inevitable.

The reason I share this is that the argument that tax loss harvesting only serves to delay taxes ignores quite a few benefits that you can realize. You may be able to use those capital losses not just to offset capital gains at 15%, but potentially to offset short-term gains at a much higher rate, or to offset $3,000 a year of ordinary income.

Since we primarily use ETFs, we already have a great deal more tax efficiency than mutual funds, and we should have little capital gains distributions for 2015. If you’re not with GLWM and have mutual funds in a taxable account, be aware that many mutual funds have announced capital gains distributions for the end of this year.

There are quite a few ways we aim to add value for our clients and we take special interest in portfolio tax optimization. If there’s a way to help you save money in taxes, that’s going to help you meet your financial goals faster.

6 Steps to Save on Investment Taxes

For new investors, taxes are often an afterthought.  Chances are good that your initial investments were in an IRA or 401(k) account that is tax deferred.  If you had a “taxable” account, the gains and dividends were likely small and had a negligible impact on your income taxes.  Over time, as your portfolio grows and you have more assets outside of your retirement accounts, taxes become a bigger and bigger problem.  Eventually, you may find yourself paying $10,000 a year or more in taxes on your interest, dividends, and capital gains.

A high level of portfolio income may be a good problem to have, but taxes can become a real drag on the performance of your portfolio and eat up cash flow that you could use for better purposes.  Luckily, there are a number of ways to reduce the taxes generated from your investment portfolio and we make this a special focus of our process at Good Life Wealth Management.  We will discuss six of the ways that we work with each of our clients to create a portfolio that is tax optimized for their personal situation.

1) Maximize contributions to tax-favored accounts.  While the 401(k) is the obvious starting place, investors may miss other opportunities for investing in a tax advantaged account.  Since these have annual contribution limits, every year you don’t participate is a lost opportunity you cannot get back later.  In addition to your 401(k) account, you may be eligible to contribute to a:

  • Roth or Traditional IRA;
  • SEP-IRA if you have self-employment or 1099 income;
  • “Back-door” Roth IRA;
  • Health Savings Account (HSA).

Also, don’t forget that investors over age 50 are eligible for a catch-up contribution to their retirement accounts.  For 2014, the catch-up provision increases your maximum 401(k) contribution from $17,500 to $23,000.

2) Use tax-efficient vehicles.  Actively managed mutual funds create capital gains distributions as managers buy and sell securities.  These capital gains are taxable to fund shareholders, even if you just bought the fund one day before the distribution occurs.  These distributions are irrelevant in a retirement account, but can be sizable when the fund is held in a taxable account.

To reduce these capital gains distributions, we use Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) as a core component of our equity holdings.  ETFs typically use passive strategies which are low-turnover and they may be able to avoid capital gains distributions altogether.  It used to be difficult to estimate the after-tax returns of mutual funds, but thankfully, Morningstar now has a tool to evaluate both pre-tax and after-tax returns.  Go to Morningstar.com to get a quote on your mutual fund, then click on the “Tax” tab to compare any ETF or fund to your fund.  I find that even when a fund and ETF have similar pre-tax returns, the ETF often has a clear advantage when we compare after-tax returns.

One last factor to consider: many mutual funds had loss carry-forwards from 2008 and 2009.  So you may not have seen a lot of capital gains distributions in the 2010-2012 time period.  By 2013, however, most funds had used up their losses and resumed distributing gains, some of which were substantial.

3) Avoid Short-Term Capital Gains.  Short-term gains, from positions held less than one year, are taxed as ordinary income, whereas long-term gains receive a lower tax rate of 15% (or 20% if you are in the top bracket).  We try to avoid creating short-term capital gains whenever possible, and for this reason, we rebalance only once per year.  We do our rebalancing on a client-by-client basis to avoid realizing short-term gains.

4) Harvest Losses Annually.  From time to time, a category will have a down year.  We will selectively harvest those losses and replace the position with a different ETF or mutual fund in the same category.  The losses may be used to offset any gains harvested that year.  Additionally, with any unused losses, you may offset $3,000 of ordinary income, and the rest will carry forward to future years.

A benefit of using the loss against other income is the tax arbitrage of the difference between capital gains and ordinary income.  For example, if you pay 33% ordinary tax and 15% capital gains, using a $3,000 long-term capital loss to offset $3,000 of ordinary income is a $540 benefit ($3,000 X (.33-.15)).

5) Consider Municipal Bonds.  We calculate the tax-equivalent rates of return on tax-free municipal bonds versus taxable bonds (i.e. corporate bonds, treasuries, etc.) for your income tax bracket.  With the new 3.8% Medicare tax on families making over $250,000, tax-free munis are now even more attractive for investors with mid to high incomes.

6) Asset Location.  This is a key step.  Not to be confused with Asset Allocation, Asset Location refers to placing investments that generate interest or ordinary income into tax-deferred accounts and placing investments that do not have taxable distributions into taxable accounts.  For example, we would place high yield bonds or REITs into an IRA, and place equity ETFs and municipal bonds into taxable accounts.  This means that each account does not have identical holdings, so performance will vary from account to account.  However, we are concerned about the performance of the entire portfolio and reducing the taxes due on your annual return.

If these six steps seem like a lot of work to reduce taxes, that may be, but for us it is second-nature to look for opportunities to help clients keep more of their hard-earned dollars.  The actual benefits of our portfolio tax optimization process will vary based on your individual situation and can be difficult to predict.  However, a 2010 study by Parametric Portfolio Associates calculates that a tax-managed portfolio process can improve net performance by an average of 1.25% per year.

Tax management is a valuable part of our process.  And even if, today, your portfolio doesn’t generate significant taxes, I’d encourage you to think ahead.  Prepare for having a large portfolio, and take the steps now to create a tax-efficient investment process.