In real estate, it's location, location, location that often counts most. And in investing, the same bit of wisdom also has a place. Where you put your investments—meaning the type of account you choose—can make a major difference in how much you can earn, after tax, over time.
Should you use your brokerage account for the REIT fund you are investing in, or would it be better in your tax-deferred annuity? What about the growth stocks you have been eyeing or the municipal bonds you are laddering toward retirement income—should those go into a Roth or into your taxable account?
"You can't control market returns, and you can’t control tax law, but you can control how you use accounts that offer tax advantages—and good decisions about their use can add significantly to your bottom line," says Matthew Kenigsberg, vice president in Fidelity Strategic Advisers. This type of strategy is often referred to as active asset location.
How an active asset location strategy works
Let’s look at a hypothetical example (illustrated below). Say Adrian is thinking about investing $250,000 in a taxable bond fund for 20 years. For this example, we will assume Adrian pays a 36.8%* marginal income tax rate1 and earns a 6% rate of return each year—before taxes. (Actual rates of return may be lower.) But which account will he hold the investment in? The answer matters. If he chooses a tax-deferred IRA, his liquidation value—the amount remaining after selling all assets and paying all taxes—could be nearly $75,000 greater than in a taxable account. If he chooses a tax-deferred variable annuity, his liquidation value might be nearly $50,000 more than in a taxable account.
As you can see, tax deferral has the potential to make a big difference for investors—especially when matched with investments that may be subject to significant taxation. As illustrated in the hypothetical example above, qualified accounts such as IRAs, 401(k)s, 403(b)s or other workplace savings plans, may provide the greatest benefits in an asset location strategy. However, investors who have already maximized these options or who may not be eligible for them may want to consider deferred annuities, which charge additional fees and may be subject to different withdrawal rules, but can provide an additional option for tax-deferred saving.
Can you benefit from an active asset location strategy?
Many investors have several different types of accounts. Some are subject to taxes every year and others have tax advantages. Typically, restrictions on contributions or withdrawals prevent investors from simply saving everything in tax-advantaged accounts. So how do you decide what to put where?
There are four main criteria that tend to indicate whether an active asset location strategy would be a smart move for you. The more these criteria apply to your situation, the greater the potential advantage in after-tax returns.
- You pay a high marginal income tax rate: The higher the marginal income tax rate you pay, the bigger the potential benefits of active asset location. If you are in one of the highest three federal tax brackets, or if you live in a city or state with high income taxes, or both, a strategy to help make the location of your investments more tax efficient could be an easy way to boost your after-tax returns without assuming additional risk.
- You expect lower income taxes in retirement: If you plan to move to a state with much lower income taxes, or expect to be in a lower tax bracket due to reduced taxable income after you stop working, or both, an investment strategy designed to take advantage of additional tax deferral now can have a big impact later. This is because in addition to delaying taxation—which has significant benefits of its own—you will pay taxes at a lower rate in the future.
- You have a lot of tax-inefficient investments in taxable accounts: The more tax-inefficient assets you’re currently holding in taxable accounts (see below), the greater the potential to take advantage of active asset location.
- You expect to be invested for more than 10 years: Active asset location strategies generally take time to work (as a general rule, they require at least 10 years to be effective). The longer you can keep your assets invested, the greater the potential benefits from tax deferral. So if you are saving for retirement and expect to work at least another 10 years, or won’t need to use the money in your tax-advantaged accounts any sooner than that, an active tax location strategy could have a big impact. Note, however, that under some circumstances—such as a sharp drop in income or a move from a domicile with high state or local taxes to one with none—active asset location can have a significant impact in less than 10 years.
First, rate your investments on a tax-efficiency scale
If you are in position to take advantage of an active asset location strategy, you have to choose which assets to keep in your tax-advantaged accounts and which to leave in your taxable accounts.
All else being equal, the more tax inefficient an investment is, the more tax you pay on it. Below, we present ratings on a variety of investment types across a spectrum from very inefficient to very efficient. Of course, there is no way to know exactly what tax rates will apply to your investments in the future, but in general:
- Bonds with the exception of tax-free municipal bonds and U.S. Saving Bonds, are generally highly tax inefficient. Potentially higher returning, more volatile types of fixed income investments are the most tax inefficient.
- REITs are also rated low on the tax-efficiency scale. That’s because they are required by law to pay out at least 90% of their taxable income, and, unlike other equities, this income is generally taxed at higher ordinary income rates.
- Individual stocks are, as a general rule, relatively tax efficient. This is because qualified dividends and capital gains on the sale of stocks held a year or more are currently taxed at a top rate of 23.8% (this includes the top long-term capital gain rate of 20% plus the 3.8% Medicare surtax on net investment income). Less-affluent investors would pay rates of 18.8%, 15%, or even, in some cases, 0%. Equity-based exchange-traded funds (ETFs) are essentially taxed like stocks in most cases. However, note that of phaseouts on itemized deductions could, in an indirect way, drive the marginal tax rate you pay on stocks somewhat higher if you’re a high-income earner.
The story with stock mutual funds is more complex. While stock index funds are generally quite tax efficient, many actively managed stock funds are tax inefficient because of high turnover rates. They can distribute short-term capital gains, which are taxed at the higher ordinary income tax rates. Although it is difficult to make generalizations about which actively managed funds are more or less tax efficient, as you can see in the graph below, large-cap funds have historically tended to be more tax efficient on average than otherwise similar small-cap ones (recently, foreign value funds have been an exception to this rule).
|Tax efficiency of stock mutual funds
|Morningstar Category||Tax cost ratio† (10-year)|
|Foreign Large Growth
|Foreign Small/Mid Value||1.06|
|Foreign Large Value
|Foreign Small/Mid Growth||1.25|
†See the Tax Cost Ratio section in the endnotes. Data as of 2/25/15. Source: Morningstar. The Morningstar tax cost ratio measures how much a fund’s annualized return is reduced by the taxes investors pay on distributions. Mutual funds regularly distribute stock dividends, bond dividends, and capital gains to their shareholders. Investors must then pay taxes on those distributions during the year they were received. See the disclosure for more information.
Then locate your investments where they may help enhance after-tax returns
So, which investments do you put where to help maximize after-tax returns? Each person will have to find the right approach for his or her particular situation. But generally you may want to consider putting the most tax-efficient investments in taxable accounts and the least in tax-deferred accounts.
To get going, consider first checking to see whether you’ve already taken full advantage of a 401(k) plan, Keogh, IRA, or other qualified account that may be available to you. Generally, these accounts are the best place to start a program of active asset location, because they may cost less than other options, but each comes with contribution and withdrawal restrictions.
Once you have maxed out those options, you might think about assigning any clearly tax-inefficient assets remaining in your taxable accounts to a low-cost tax-deferred variable annuity, so they too may benefit from tax-deferred growth potential. When choosing to invest in an annuity, you need to consider the costs, contribution restrictions, and the rules concerning how and when you can access your money.
“Deferring taxes may improve your bottom line as an investor,” says Kenigsberg. “Investors should start out with a solid plan for their asset allocation, but within that framework we think having a good strategy for where you keep your investments can be important.”
Before investing, consider the investment objectives, risks, charges and expenses of the fund or variable annuity and its investment options. Contact Fidelity for a prospectus or, if available, a summary prospectus containing this information. Read it carefully.
The Morningstar tax cost ratio measures how much a fund’s annualized return is reduced by the taxes investors pay on distributions. Mutual funds regularly distribute stock dividends, bond dividends, and capital gains to their shareholders. Investors must then pay taxes on those distributions during the year they were received.
Like an expense ratio, the tax cost ratio is a measure of how one factor can negatively impact performance. Also like an expense ratio, it is usually concentrated in the range of 0%–5%, where 0% indicates that the fund had no taxable distributions and 5% indicates that the fund was less tax efficient.
For example, if a fund had a 2% tax cost ratio for the three-year time period, it means that on average each year, investors in that fund lost 2% of their assets to taxes. If the fund had a three-year annualized pretax return of 10%, an investor in the fund took home about 8% on an after-tax basis. (Because the returns are compounded, the after-tax return is actually 7.8%.)
The tax cost ratio provides additional information that is not available from after-tax returns alone.
• Per the SEC’s guidance, after-tax returns reflect both tax effects and sales loads. The tax cost ratio isolates the effects of taxes alone.
• Different categories of funds and different time periods will have varying levels of pre- and after-tax returns. The tax cost ratio is independent of the level of the return and it is always expressed on an annualized basis. Therefore, it can be used to compare different funds, categories, managers, and time periods. For example, you can compare the three-year and 10-year tax cost ratios for the same fund to see if the manager has become better at managing tax issues in more recent years.
Morningstar calculates the tax cost ratio in-house on a monthly basis, using load-adjusted and tax-adjusted returns for different time periods. Morningstar uses the tax-adjusted return that is called “pre-liquidation after-tax return,” which is also known as “return after taxes on distributions.” Morningstar calculates this statistic for open-end mutual funds, exchange-traded funds, and variable annuity underlying funds based in the United States.
Because the tax cost ratio is based on after-tax returns, it is based on the same assumptions as those returns and it is an estimate of what the hypothetical investor would experience. For example, after-tax returns assume that investors pay the maximum federal tax rate on capital gains and ordinary income.
The tax cost ratio for time i, Ti, is
Ti = 1 – (1 + ATRi)/(1 + Li)
ATRi = annualized pre-liquidation after-tax return for the time period i. (This is also load-adjusted.)
Li = annualized load-adjusted pretax return for the time period i
The tax cost ratio is a positive expression of a negative rate of return that is due to taxes. By rewriting the equation, it is apparent that the after-tax return is the same as compounding the load-adjusted return and the tax cost ratio negative return.
(1 + ATRi) = (1 + Li)(1 – Ti)
(1 + after-tax return) = (1 + load-adjusted return) (1 + negative rate of return for taxes, i.e. tax cost ratio)