Basic rules for gains on ETFs

Investors hope to make a profit from investing in exchange-traded funds (ETFs). There usually is no gain or loss until you sell your shares in the ETF, but there are important exceptions discussed later.

Determining gain

Gain is the tax word for profit. It means the difference between your tax basis (usually what you paid for the shares, plus transaction costs) and what you receive on the sale, exchange, or other taxable disposition of the shares.

Taxation of capital gains

The tax rate applied to capital gains depends on two factors:

  • How long you hold the shares (“holding period”)
  • Whether the shares are subject to special rules that apply a tax other than the basic capital gains rate

Holding period:

The holding period is the time in which you hold your shares. The holding period starts on the day after your purchase order is executed (“trade date”) and ends on the day of your sell order (also the “trade date”). The date you pay for the stock, which may be several days after the trade date for the purchase, and the settlement date, which may be several days after trade date for the sale, do not impact your holding period.

  • If you hold ETF shares for one year or less, then gain is short-term capital gain.
  • If you hold ETF shares for more than one year, then gain is long-term capital gain.

Capital gain rates:

Generally, long-term capital gains are taxed at no more than 15% (or zero for those in the 10% or 15% tax bracket; 20% for those in the 39.6% tax bracket starting in 2014). Short-term capital gain is taxed at the same rates applied to your ordinary income. However, only net capital gains are taxed; capital gains can be offset by capital losses before applying the tax rates. Capital gains on certain ETFs may not enjoy the 15%/zero/20% tax rate , and instead may be taxed at ordinary income rates or at some other rate.


  • Gains on futures-contracts ETFs have already been reported (investors pick up their share of gains annually under a 60%/40% rule).
  • Grantor trust structures are used for “physically held” precious metals ETFs. Under current IRS rules, investments in these precious metals ETFs are considered collectibles. Collectibles never qualify for the 20% long-term tax rate applied to traditional equity investments; instead, long-term gains are taxed at a maximum rate of 28%. If shares are held for one year or less, gains are taxed as ordinary income, again at a maximum rate of 39.6%.
  • Gains on currency ETNs (exchange-traded notes) are taxed at ordinary income rates.

When the ETF is structured as a master limited partnership (MLP), investors receive a Schedule K-1 each year telling them what to report as gains, even though they have not sold their interests. The gains are reported on a marked-to-market basis, which means that the 60%/40% rule applies; investors pay tax on these gains according to their personal tax rates.

NII tax :

High-income investors may be subject to an additional Medicare tax of 3.8% on net investment income (called the NII tax). Investment income includes gains on the sale of ETF shares.

ETFs in tax deferred accounts: When you own ETFs in a tax-deferred account, such as an IRA, there is no immediate taxation on the sale. When funds are distributed from the account, all distributions are taxed as ordinary income, regardless of what holdings and transactions generated the funds. However, the distributions are exempt from the NII tax.

Final word

Gains from the sale of ETF shares are reported to you on Form 1099-B. The form may include the date when you acquired your shares; it may also include your basis in the shares. You may wish to talk with your financial advisor to determine the impact of taxation on the sale of your ETF shares.

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Article copyright 2011 by J.K. Lasser Tax Institute. Reprinted and adapted from J.K. Lasser's Your Income Tax 2012 with permission from John Wiley & Sons, Inc. The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. Fidelity Investments® cannot guarantee the accuracy or completeness of any statements or data. This reprint and the materials delivered with it should not be construed as an offer to sell or a solicitation of an offer to buy shares of any funds mentioned in this reprint. The data and analysis contained herein are provided "as is" and without warranty of any kind, either expressed or implied. Fidelity is not adopting, making a recommendation for or endorsing any trading or investment strategy or particular security. All opinions expressed herein are subject to change without notice, and you should always obtain current information and perform due diligence before trading. Consider that the provider may modify the methods it uses to evaluate investment opportunities from time to time, that model results may not impute or show the compounded adverse effect of transaction costs or management fees or reflect actual investment results, and that investment models are necessarily constructed with the benefit of hindsight. For this and for many other reasons, model results are not a guarantee of future results. The securities mentioned in this document may not be eligible for sale in some states or countries, nor be suitable for all types of investors; their value and the income they produce may fluctuate and/or be adversely affected by exchange rates, interest rates or other factors.

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