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Figuring your basis for ETFs

  • J.K. Lasser logo J.K. Lasser
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Exchange-traded funds (ETFs) are an investment vehicle which has some features of both individual stocks and mutual funds. In order to determine your gain or loss when you sell shares in ETFs, you need to know your basis. This is a tax term that has special meaning.

General rule

Like stock, an investor’s basis in ETF shares usually is based on cost—what you paid for the shares, plus any sales commissions. However, if you did not buy the shares yourself, there are other ways to determine basis:

  • If you acquire shares by inheritance, your basis is the shares’ value for estate tax purposes (usually fixed on the date of the decedent’s death).
  • If you received shares as a gift, your basis usually is the same as the basis of the person who made the gift; ask that person for basis information.

Adjustments to basis

Basis in a fund set up as an open-end fund or unit investment trust (UIT) is increased by any taxable dividends that are reinvested in additional ETF shares. Basis in EFT set up as a master limited partnership (MLP) has different basis adjustments.

Tracking basis

It is important for you to keep track of basis so you can make smart decisions about selling for tax advantage. For example, if you acquire shares in the same ETF at different prices, your basis in all the shares is the sum of everything you paid. However, if you decide to sell less than your entire holdings in the ETF, you’ll need a basis breakdown if you want to sell and minimize your tax results.

If you do nothing—simply ask to sell a certain number of shares in the ETF—you are presumed to have sold the first shares acquired. This is referred to a FIFO, or first in, first out. However, if you identify which shares you want to sell, you can choose those that produce the lowest gain or the greatest loss, depending on the situation.

For example, say you bought 100 shares of the S&P 500 SPDR at $67 in March 2009. You also bought 100 shares in January 2011 at $110. In July 2013, you sell 50 shares at $155. If you do nothing, you are presumed to have sold 50 of the shares for which you paid $67, which would give you an $88 profit per share (ignoring transaction costs for the purpose of the example). However, if you identify the shares that you wish to sell and name those purchased in 2011, your gain is only $45 per share.

You may also be able to use the average cost basis method for your ETF holdings; check with the firm that sold you the ETF to see if your shares are eligible for averaging.

Reporting basis

While it is vital for you to track your own basis, financial institutions are now required to do so, as well for stock shares purchased after 2010. Basis must be reported to the IRS and to the investor on Form 1099-B when shares acquired after 2010 are sold. Basis may be reported even for ETF shares acquired before 2011.

Some ETF shares are treated by the IRS as stock for basis-reporting purposes. Reporting may currently apply to certain ETFs while not to others, depending on how the ETFs are organized from a legal standpoint. Some investment firms are including the basis of ETFs bought and sold in 2011 on the 1099s provided to investors in 2012. Other firms waited until 2013 to start such reporting, since for most ETFs the reporting requirement takes effect for shares acquired after 2011 (reporting basis for mutual fund shares also begins for shares acquired after 2011).

Looking ahead, firms will continue to track the basis for ETF purchases so that more basis information will be made available to the IRS and investors in years to come.

Final Word

It may be helpful to retain confirmation statements whenever you purchase ETF shares. Work with your tax advisor to make sure your actions with respect to ETF holdings optimize tax results.

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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.
The tax information contained herein is general in nature, is provided for informational purposes only, and should not be considered legal or tax advice. Fidelity does not provide legal or tax advice. Fidelity cannot guarantee that such information is accurate, complete, or timely. Laws of a specific state or laws that may be applicable to a particular situation may affect the applicability, accuracy, or completeness of this information. Federal and state laws and regulations are complex and are subject to change. Changes in such laws and regulations may have a material impact on pre- and/or after-tax investment results. Always consult an attorney or tax professional regarding your specific legal or tax situation.

ETFs are subject to market fluctuation and the risks of their underlying investments. ETFs are subject to management fees and other expenses. Unlike mutual funds, ETF shares are bought and sold at market price, which may be higher or lower than their NAV, and are not individually redeemed from the fund.