Ted Randall explains taxes on mutual funds, and how they can happen in both up and down markets.
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[00:27] Jon: Thank you for joining us for the 16th Bogleheads® Live. My name is Jon Luskin, and I'm your host. Our guest today is Ted Randall. Today we'll be answering your questions about capital gain distributions from mutual funds and how they can happen in both up and down markets. I'll rotate between asking Ted questions that I got beforehand from the Bogleheads® forum at bogleheads.org and Bogleheads® Reddit and taking live audience questions from the folks here today.
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Thank you for everyone who submitted questions today. We might not have time to answer all those questions.
Let's get started on today's show: Ted Randall. Ted is a senior portfolio manager at Avantis Investors. Prior to that, Ted served as vice president and portfolio manager for domestic and international equity strategies at Dimensional Fund Advisors. In this role, Ted served as portfolio manager and portfolio advocate for 11 U.S. and non-U.S., developed and emerging-markets and blended-asset-allocation mutual funds and separately managed accounts
Ted, thank you for joining us today on Bogleheads® Live. A piece by Morningstar entitled “When Bad Taxes Happen to Good Funds,” shows that the average tax cost of a mutual fund can be 1.7%, roughly twice the expense ratio of the average mutual fund. Yet that's the average. Some funds can be much more. For example, the Morgan Stanley Institutional Discovery Fund has a five-year tax cost ratio of 5.95%.
Can you please provide some background on mutual fund capital gains distributions? What drives it and why do-it-yourself investors should care about them?
[03:12] Ted: Thanks again for having me on today. Mutual funds are, and most people realize, they're required to distribute any realized gains within the fund on an annual basis.
Any money that comes in or out of a mutual fund happens in cash. When an investor pulls money out of a mutual fund, the portfolio manager has to sell securities to generate cash to pay the investor. Redemptions are the first source of potential capital gains because those people pull money out of the funds; the portfolio manager sells securities to give cash to investors.
Also in mutual funds, any turnover that's required to keep the fund true to its strategy can also generate gains. So if the manager wants to sell something they don't want to own anymore, and that security has had a gain, that may generate gains within the fund.
Lastly, capital gains distributions themselves can actually generate distributions for the following year, if the portfolio manager is forced to sell securities that are at a gain to pay for the current distribution. It can have an aftershock effect.
This means the mutual fund shareholders may have to pay capital gains, even if they themselves don't sell anything. Selling by other shareholders in the fund can actually force the fund to realize and distribute gains. Shareholders must then pay tax on those gains, which erodes the after-tax performance, and we're at a time when a lot of investors are becoming much more fee-sensitive: caring about even trying to save a few basis points on management fees and other expenses. And the taxes paid on these distributions can be very meaningful, and the numbers you just mentioned, if you think about a 20% tax on a 10% distribution, that's a pretty big number. You'll get to reinvest the remainder after you pay taxes. But you lose the compounding power of those taxes you're forced to pay annually along the way in mutual funds.
[05:10] Jon: You mentioned that these costs can be significant. In Bogleheads® Live, on episode six we had Dr. Sunil Wahal come on and talk about the unseen costs of mutual fund investing.
In average unseen costs—in addition to the fees that you can't see: expense ratios, loads, etc.—you can be paying as much as 1% per year. Given some of the trading frictions that you just touched on previously, if you add that 1%, in addition to that 1.7% figure shown in the Morningstar data, now you're looking at 2.7% per year in additional costs when investing in mutual funds. That is huge. Any Boglehead® knows that is going to drag on your investment returns.
This question comes from Sycamore from the Bogleheads® forums. Sycamore writes, “My questions are about mutual funds that are not specifically tax advantaged. I'd like to know where tax efficiency falls on the priority list for a mutual fund manager.
Would it mutual fund managers try to learn how many shareholders own their fund in a tax-advantaged versus taxable account? And if a fund's shareholders were primarily using taxable accounts, would mutual fund portfolio managers place more emphasis on tax management techniques?
[06:27] Ted: This is gonna be manager dependent and maybe even strategy dependent. Most managers have a decent idea of how much of the AUM they have in the fund is taxable versus not taxable. They have a good idea of who the clients are, and the more taxable clients there are in the mutual fund, probably the more sensitive the manager's gonna be to avoiding gains.
No manager wants to come out with a whopping capital gains distribution. You read about these sorts of headlines in publications. It's always on the back of your mind as a fund manager. And if there's things you can do to reduce it, I think most managers would try to do that, as long as it's not gonna have a negative effect on the overall strategy performance.
But your options as a fund manager are pretty limited. There's only a few things you can do. One of the things you can do in your mutual fund as a manager is you can tax loss harvest; to the extent that you have things that are at a loss, you can sell those and realize the losses and use those losses to offset other gains that you may have. So that's one option.
And outside of that, the only other real option that you have is to avoid selling things that are at a gain. You may be able to do that to some extent. But it's likely that if you do that, it acts as a friction to the strategy itself. In absence of taxes you may want to make a decision to sell something that doesn't fit nicely into the strategy anymore, but you may delay that decision because of taxes, and that can lead to style drift. If you think about small-cap strategy, and you bought a company when it was small cap, and now it's mid cap or large cap, and the strategy probably wants to sell that, and you delay that decision, your strategy is less pure to small caps than you probably want it to be.
Those are your only two options as a fund manager: are to harvest losses to offset some of the gains or to avoid selling. Your hands are pretty tied.
[08:35] Jon: So it seems like there's no free lunch here. Either you're gonna have some style drift or either you're gonna have no tax, but you can't necessarily do both.
That piece by Morningstar, “When Bad Taxes Happen to Good Funds,” mentions that even a tax-aware mutual fund is gonna spit out those capital gain distributions. In one example, they talk about the JPMorgan Tax Aware Equity Fund. It's got Tax Aware in the title of the fund, and that's going to be by the estimates of this article making a 9% distribution, 2020, making a 6% distribution the year before.
So that's quite the distribution for a tax-aware fund. So to answer Sycamore's question, it looks like mutual fund managers do have that information, which is fascinating, about what types of accounts their mutual funds are held in. But even then their options are still quite limited on what they can do to manage those taxes, and managing those taxes is not a free lunch. You're gonna take on some additional risk of style drift to cite your example.
This question is from user restingonmylaurels from the Bogleheads® forums. They write: I have long held a Vanguard active fund that was great in its day and still performs well enough, but it generates too many distributed capital gains, which causes me tax problems, as it is not being held in a tax-deferred account. Because selling this mutual fund would make me realize a very large capital gain, I'm forced to hold onto it and receive these annual capital gains distributions. I've thought about the large capital gain distributions and whether they're a normal operation of the fund. I recently learned about net outflows and that capital gains distributions may be as a result of liquidation of older, lower-basis securities in fund redemptions.
Sure enough, the fund has seen steady outflows since 2016. My question: Is there any method for a customer to determine which part of the capital gains distributions are due to redemption-forced liquidations, which hopefully should cease at some point, and which part are of normal buying and selling of securities that should continue for the life of the fund?
[10:46] Ted: The short answer on that question is no, not really. It's very difficult to disentangle the sort of natural turnover versus the redemption turnover without pretty intimate knowledge of the strategy. More strategies have some concept of expected turnover. You can run simulations that don't involve inflows and outflows and see how often you would want to sell companies based on whatever criteria you're using to run the strategy.
But it would be pretty difficult to determine this by looking at reported fund turnover because the manager, remember, is going to be, to the extent that they can, using the inflows that they get and the redemptions that they get to move the strategy closer to its target. So you could try to look at, at published literature to look at the amount of buying and selling each year in the fund; you can find that in the annual report, and then you could also compare that to fund flows. But it would be inexact to say the least.
It's also difficult to say in the question that you mentioned that the redemptions presumably should stop. But frankly, mutual funds as a whole have seen pretty steady outflows to ETFs specifically. It's undeniable. Mutual funds still have some place, I think, in the current environment. For example, there are some 401(k) platforms that are set up to pull money out of people's paychecks in an automated fashion, to automatically invest the money in mutual funds at NAV. They're simply just not set up to trade yet.
If you're a fund manager, you might consider converting your mutual fund to an ETF. We're starting to see that more and more in the industry. But if you have types of clients that you know can't trade in your mutual funds, you probably can't do that sort of conversion.
I firmly believe ETFs are just, frankly, better vehicles than mutual funds. I personally still also, like the person asking the question, I do own some mutual funds that are highly appreciated. I'm reluctant to sell it. I get it. Your decision whether to bite the bullet, so to speak, and take a tax hit or not to reinvest that money into an ETF that will have less distributions and give you more control over your taxes going forward is gonna be unique to everyone's specific tax situation. But if you can move the money from mutual funds to ETFs, I would suggest it.
And there's a number of things you can do that a lot of people may not realize. One thing is that a lot of people have automatic reinvestment set up. Anytime that the fund distributes income or capital gains, distributions get reinvested, which is a really nice feature. It's very convenient.
But if you wanted to start moving money into more tax-efficient vehicles, you could turn off those distributions and then reinvest that money into ETFs and slowly shift your money into more efficient vehicles. And the other thing you can do is you can look at your individual tax lots. You may have bought a mutual fund 10 years ago, and overall you have a substantial gain in there, but along the way that mutual fund has been paying income distributions as well as capital gains distributions.
You have a lot of these other tax slots that maybe at different points in time, and if you look at a lot-by-lot basis, you may have lots that you could sell that are at a loss. For instance, if your mutual fund distributed gains last year, odds are that lot would be at a loss now.
You could sell that tax lot that's at a loss and use those losses to offset the sale of shares that you have that are at a gain: chip away at the amount that you have in a less efficient vehicle over time.
[14:35] Jon: Fun fact: Vanguard now has, yes, in their 401(k)s. I was working to set up a workplace retirement plan at Vanguard, and they had ETFs on the menu. So that was a new one I'd never seen before.
With respect to, hey, I've got this mutual fund; I've got unrealized capital gains on it, so I don't want to sell it, but I'd hate to have that tax bill show up in selling it, one thing I encourage folks to think about is that eventually that's gonna be a bad decision. If you live long enough, you're gonna pay likely more in higher fees, especially since we're talking about an active fund: even though it's Vanguard, it's gonna be more expensive than ETF; higher fees are gonna drag on the performance of this fund; and then the tax inefficiency is gonna drag on this fund too. Eric Balchunas, on Episode 7, talked about this: Active funds are seeing outflows. He sees this watching fund flows in his role over at Bloomberg, and during market panics those folks exiting their investments are gonna be those higher-fee mutual funds.
Ted, last year we saw equity strategies pay out meaningful capital gain distributions in an up market. In a down market, would capital gain distributions still be relevant?
[15:44] Ted: Yes, they would is the answer to that. Although markets have started to drop for a little while now, there's a very real chance that capital gains were realized before the bigger downturn. As I mentioned before, the fund manager can try to use some losses from the recent downturn to offset it, but it doesn't mean that they have the losses there to do it.
As the AUM drops in a mutual fund as money's coming out and as the assets that it holds are going down, realized gains can end up representing a larger percentage of the NAV. Even if they don't realize any more gains, it's a larger percentage, and that's not good for end investors because you may end up down for the year, but on top of that, you're gonna get slapped with the tax bill from the mutual funds that, that you're holding.
Data on Morningstar shows this happened on a broad scale back in 2018, when markets fell sharply at the end of the year. Fund managers had already realized gains. The market ended down around 5% that year, and the average mutual fund distribution was around 11%.
We also saw a similar thing back in 2008, when the market ended down almost 40%, and the average mutual fund had an 8% distribution. Whether the market is down this year may not be enough to alleviate the realization of these gains, and some mutual funds have been in existence for a long time, and they have some very old, very low-basis lots. And as fund managers avoid selling these low basis lots, they sit there in the fund. They may need to be sold at some point for redemptions or to turn over the strategy, and when that happens, it's gonna be distributed regardless of what's happening in the market in general.
[17:30] Jon: This Vanguard fund seeing outflows: the mutual fund manager of this fund has to sell positions with likely unrealized gains to meet redemption requests: folks coming out of the fund wanting their cash back. And since it's an old fund. and since there is issues of outflows on this fund, does that mean that the longer this user restingonmylaurels holds, this fund, the more money that keeps coming out of this fund, the greater those capital gain distributions are gonna be, because the fund is selling progressively older and older positions, which means relatively larger and larger unrealized capital gains?
[18:10] Ted: Yes. That's what's gonna happen. An easy thing that fund managers will do to minimize distributions is, anytime you're selling things, if you have to pick a tax lot, you're probably gonna pick the one that has the higher basis, which is gonna minimize your distribution for that year.
As normal turnover happens, you keep accumulating these lower and lower basis-lot shares. They sit on your books. It's very likely that as redemptions continue, the probability certainly goes up that the manager is gonna have to hit some of these lower-basis lots over time.
[18:45] Jon: So, said differently, the longer this user, restingonmylaurels, holds this mutual fund, the worse those capital gain distributions are gonna get for it.
[18:55] Ted: Potentially. The market can help a little bit, but generally speaking, I'd say that's a true statement.
[19:00] Jon: This fund is old, old, so it's got lots of positions from previous years, and those previous years have been a unprecedented bull market running for years and years and years. There's lots of unrealized positions in this fund. Looks like we've got some painful tax consequences coming up for restingonmylaurels.
[19:18] Ted: Yep.
[19:19] audience: Thank you, Jon. Thank you for hosting this as always. And Ted, thank you for everything that you're sharing with us. One quick question from me: when I think about mutual funds distributing capital gains, it's negative when you get them, but it does increase your overall basis in the fund if I'm not mistaken. If you're in a mutual fund that distributes every year versus a much more tax-efficient vehicle of the same strategy, is it possible—like at the end of it all—your overall tax experience might be somewhat similar, but with the more tax-efficient vehicle, like the ETF, you get to control it, so you don't have to worry about the 10% distribution year over year, but then when it comes time to sell it in 25 years, your basis might be a lot lower than the mutual fund, which continuously slowly climbs up because of the turnover?
[20:10] Ted: Yes. That is absolutely true. Let me take one step back so people are aware. When the fund pays the distribution, it lowers the share price of the fund, and so the share price isn't as high when you go to sell your mutual fund shares, because you've already paid some of that.
In the ETF, because it's not making those distributions, it's retained in the share price. And yes, it is true. You will end up paying more at the end in the ETF vehicle, but that doesn't mean that it's the same, because what ends up happening is when you pay the taxes along the way on an annual basis in the mutual fund, you lose the compounding value of those taxes that you paid. And so the difference in return, and we actually have a white paper on this, that show it does have a meaningful difference in return.
You'll have a higher after-tax return, in spite of what you just mentioned—the fact that you are going to pay more at the end—you'll still have a higher after-tax return at the end of your investment experience in the ETF wrapper.
[21:14] audience: Awesome. Thank you. That makes a ton of sense
[21:17] Jon: To say what Ted said a little bit differently—and Ted, you can let me know if I've got this right or not—with these mutual fund distributions, you are effectively prepaying taxes: paying taxes before you need to, creating a tax drag. And you don't necessarily have that with a more tax-efficient vehicle, such as an ETF.
[21:36] Ted: That's correct. And one more thing to add to that: under current tax legislation, in the ETF wrapper, depending on what the money's for, if it was money that, say, was legacy money that you intended to pass on your heirs, you could pass that on, and the basis gets reset to the person that you pass it to, so by having been in the ETF wrapper and not paying the taxes along the way, you can avoid paying them. Where in the mutual fund you have already paid them.
[22:01] Jon: From a practical perspective, are there ways to reduce capital gain distributions?
[22:07] Ted: We talked a little bit already about what fund managers do, but from the investor's perspective, are there things that they can do?
It starts from the beginning. You have to be mindful of what's happening. If it's a taxable account, you're taking money that you've earned and you've already paid taxes on this money. And with this now tax-free money, you're buying someone else's tax liability in a mutual fund.
It has these unrealized gains in that. And you are buying a piece of that with your now tax-free money. Before you make a decision to buy a mutual fund, you can look through the fund literature, the annual report, and also there's data available for almost all mutual funds on Morningstar about the potential for capital gains.
You can find how much unrealized gains there are in the mutual fund in the annual report. This has already been mentioned in the previous question: be especially mindful of funds with net outflows, because that's gonna exacerbate the extent to which the fund may have to realize gains. The longer the fund has been in existence, the lower the fund turnover, the more it's been harvesting within the fund, the higher potential for capital gains there is with the fund since it'll have higher levels of unrealized gains embedded in the fund.
Clients have been using the downturn as a chance to shift from mutual funds to ETFs because of the better tax efficiency. And this shift is resulting in selling mutual funds, which is making the problem worse. The remaining mutual fund shareholders that are staying in there and not making the shift, they're gonna be left with the future tax bill.
If you think about somebody who pulls a lot of money out of the mutual fund, they get their money the next day, and they take their money and run, and it's everyone else that's remaining in the mutual fund that's going to have to sell securities to raise the cash that funds that redemption. It's all the people remaining in mutual funds that at some point end up paying that tax bill.
[24:12] Jon: That is some good guidance on planning around taxes in mutual funds, or alternatively stick with exchange traded fund, an ETF, which is gonna be more tax efficient. To be devil's advocate, bad news is that it takes just a little bit more work to trade ETFs than it does mutual fund. With an ETF you wanna be generally using limit orders to help manage risk from buying at a price that isn't ideal, that doesn’t accurately reflect the asset value of any one moment in time.
Let's talk a little bit more about ETFs and their tax efficiency. Ted, can you share why ETFs are able to reduce or even eliminate capital gains distributions?
[24:52] Ted: The easiest way to understand this is to look at day-to-day activities of a portfolio manager. As we've described before, in a mutual fund everything is cash base. When somebody buys shares of a mutual fund, the fund gets cash. The manager then goes out and generates orders to invest the proceeds. When money comes out, the fund has to pay the shareholders the next day. If they don't have enough cash, they'll need to take out a loan. And then the fund manager needs to sell securities to pay off the loan. That's how the mutual fund’s vehicle structure works.
In an ETF, what happens is somebody buys an ETF. They pay a spread. They pay some form of the spread.
[25:36] Jon: Jon Luskin, your Bogleheads® live host jumping in for a quick podcast edit.
Here our guest Ted mentions that investors pay a spread. Let's break that down for folks who aren't investing nerds.
This spread is the difference between the bid price and the ask price for a traded security. The spread is also known as the bid-ask spread.
Let's use a share of Vanguard’s Total Stock Market Index Fund ETF as an example. The fund is selling for $191.20. That is the ask price. And the bid is $191.19.
That is to say, if you want to buy a share of the ETF, you'll have to cross the spread, paying that higher price of $191.20. Or if you're looking to sell existing shares, you'll have to settle for that lower price of $191.19.
When you cross the spread, you incur a cost. That's why, ideally, we want to trade as little as possible to help manage the costs that come with investing from crossing the bid-ask spread.
If you're paying attention, you now realize that there's no such thing as free trading. Even though we're not paying a commission such as $7.95 to place a trade, we're still paying by crossing the bid-ask spread. Smart investors limit their trading, avoiding crossing that bid-ask spread as frequently as possible.
And now back to the show.
[26:58] Ted: And the market maker then is selling shares of the ETF. And at some point, when they've sold enough, they'll create new shares of the ETF. When they do that, they're going to be buying a basket of securities that the fund manager publishes every day for the market makers. And they're gonna be using the spread that the investor paid to buy this basket of securities, which then they deliver this basket in kind to the ETF.
On the redemption side, somebody pulls money or sells shares of the ETF. The market maker effectively destroys shares of the ETF. And when they do that, the fund manager takes a basket of securities that they don't want to own anymore in the value of the shares that were redeemed for the ETF, and they deliver them in kind to the market maker. And these in-kind transactions are not taxable events. so we can move money in and out of the ETF without ever generating a realized gain or loss.
The spread that the investor's paying, when they buy the ETF or when they sell the ETF, that's going to cover the market maker’s transaction cost to either buy or sell this basket of securities. That person is paying for their own cost: the cost of their own transaction. So the long-term shareholders in the fund, they either just get this basket of securities that they wanted to own more of in the fund, or they deliver a basket of securities that they don't want to own, and there's no transaction cost for them, and there's no capital gains realization.
And it's even more than that, because what happens is every time somebody redeems money from an ETF, the fund manager, they always send out the lots that have the lowest basis. We get to choose which tax lots we want to deliver to fund that transaction. And we always deliver the lots that have the lowest basis. Over time, as there are redeems that come through the ETF, you're increasing the basis of all the lots remaining in the ETF.
It will happen that some ETFs will have distributions. They're normally small. But from the investor standpoint, the expectation should be that your ETF is not going to distribute capital gains.
[29:17] Jon: Ted, what you shared just now was pretty fascinating. I always knew about that internal mechanism: the ability to create and redeem shares that helps manage the capital gain distributions from exchange-traded funds. But the bit about passing off those securities with lowest basis, that's something I hadn’t learned before. That's absolutely fascinating.
The ETF wrapper has multiple tools to help manage capital gain distributions. That is pretty neat. Ted, any final thoughts, anything else you'd like to share about taxes and tax efficiency of mutual funds?
[29:51] Ted: They have their place. I manage mutual funds as well as ETFs. I would remind people to be mindful of if you're investing dollars that you've already paid taxes on in a taxable account, be very mindful of mutual funds. If that's the only vehicle that you can find a similar strategy in is the mutual fund vehicle, dig into it a little bit. Look at the unrealized gains. Look at the potential for future realized gains. Look at the recent redemptions, the fund flow, and make your decision armed with as much information as you can.
[30:25] Jon: Wonderful, Ted, thank you for sharing that. Well, folks that is all the time that we have for today. Thank you for Ted for joining us today and thank you for everyone who joined us for today's Bogleheads® Live. Our next Bogleheads® Live will have Steven Fox, CFP®, EA fielding your questions about tax planning for millennials.
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