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Tax implications of bonds and bond funds

  • Taxes
  • Bond Funds
  • Bonds
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Bonds and bond funds are taxed in two ways-based on the income that’s distributed and on any gains if the investment is sold at a profit. Because individual bonds and bond funds distribute income differently and treat your principal differently, there are also some differences in how that income and any capital gains are taxed.

Taxes on individual bonds

Tax on income

The tax implications of individual bonds are fairly straightforward: If an investor owns bonds that generate taxable income (which covers almost all bonds except for municipal bonds, in general), he or she is taxed on that income in the year it’s received.

Interest income generated by municipal bonds is generally not subject to federal taxes, and may be tax-exempt at the state and local level as well, if the bonds were issued by the state in which you live. To learn more about municipal bond and tax-free investing, please visit our Fixed Income Research Center. As always, you should consult a tax professional for more help.

Tax on capital gains

A capital gain is tax terminology for a profit. If you bought the bond when it was issued at its original issue price and hold it until maturity, you generally will not recognize a capital gain (or loss). As a result, you likely won’t incur any capital gains tax.

But potential tax implications get trickier with bonds purchased in the secondary market at a premium or discount—in other words, investors that paid more or less than the face value of the bond. In that case, whether you hold the bond to maturity or sell it earlier, you may see a capital gain or loss depending on the tax elections you’ve made.

Taxes on bond funds

Mutual funds that invest in bonds typically provide regular income from a portfolio of many securities. As a result, the tax on the income is dependent on the types of securities held by the fund. What’s more, since fund managers regularly buy and sell bonds, there may also be capital gains and losses incurred. Bond funds pass along the interest income and capital gains on their investments to shareholders, who are then taxed on the taxable portion of those distributions. While you will want to consider a fund’s total return when evaluating it as an investment, keep in mind that the stated historical return of a fund is usually expressed as a pretax number.

Tax on income

The interest generated by bond funds is typically calculated daily, but paid out to investors monthly. How that income is taxed depends on the underlying investments that are generating that income. The income from taxable bond funds is generally taxed at the federal and state level at ordinary income tax rates in the year it was earned. Funds that exclusively hold U.S. Treasury bonds may be exempt from state taxes. Interest income generated by municipal bond funds is generally not subject to federal taxes, and may also be exempt from state and local taxes if the bonds held by the fund were issued by the state in which you live. Before buying a fund, read its prospectus to determine whether interest from the fund is expected to be subject to federal, state, or local taxes.

Tax on capital gains

There are two ways investors could owe capital gains tax on a bond fund investment. First, there are the capital gains (and losses) generated by the fund manager, as he or she buys and sells securities. Whether the profit from the sale of a bond in the fund is taxed at ordinary income tax rates or is eligible for a reduced capital gains rate is dependent on the same factors as explained above. These gains or losses are generally distributed to investors once or twice a year. The fund company will account for how your total gain or loss is generated and will tell you which portion is attributable to long-term capital gains, short-term capital gains, and interest income—all of which will affect the amount of tax you owe.

Secondly, when you sell shares of the fund itself, you’ll incur a gain or a loss depending on your cost basis, the amount of your initial investment, and any reinvested dividends. Any capital gains are taxable, and any capital losses may generate a tax benefit.

You may want to consult with your tax advisor to find out how the specifics of your individual tax situation may affect the tax treatment of income generated by your investments.

Deferring taxes

Like other investments, the tax owed on bonds and bond funds can be deferred by holding them in a tax-advantaged retirement account, such as a 401(k) or IRA. With that strategy, you won’t owe any tax until you withdraw money at retirement, at which point you’ll owe ordinary income tax on any distribution.

If taxable bond funds or individual bonds are held in a tax-free account such as a Roth IRA, then the income from them would be free from federal taxes, provided certain requirements are met.

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Before investing, consider the funds' investment objectives, risks, charges, and expenses. Contact Fidelity for a prospectus or, if available, a summary prospectus containing this information.  Read it carefully.

In general the bond market is volatile, and fixed income securities carry interest rate risk. (As interest rates rise, bond prices usually fall, and vice versa. This effect is usually more pronounced for longer-term securities.)  Fixed income securities also carry inflation risk, liquidity risk, call risk and credit and default risks for both issuers and counterparties. Unlike individual bonds, most bond funds do not have a maturity date, so avoiding losses caused by price volatility by holding them until maturity is not possible.

Investing in municipal bonds for the purpose of generating tax-exempt income may not be appropriate for investors in all tax brackets.
The tax information contained herein is general in nature, is provided for informational purposes only, and should not be construed as 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 particular state or laws which may be applicable to a particular situation may have an impact on the applicability, accuracy, or completeness of such 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. Fidelity makes no warranties with regard to such information or results obtained by its use. Fidelity disclaims any liability arising out of your use of, or any tax position taken in reliance on, such information. Always consult an attorney or tax professional regarding your specific legal or tax situation.
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