Tax selling and income trusts

The concept of tax loss selling is not new – if you are sitting on unrealized losses in your portfolio, you liquidate those investments before year-end so that way you can crystallize the capital loss. The capital loss can be offset against capital gains of up to three years prior (e.g. a 2010 loss can be applied to 2007, 2008 or 2009 gains). If you think the investment still has merit, then it can be repurchased 31 days after the sale to avoid the “wash sale” rule (which would defer the loss and bake it into the cost basis of the new purchase).

As such, a common tactic is to look for securities that have not fared well during the year and purchase them close to year-end as there is likely to be more supply pressure.

It is also possible that this year there will be supply pressure on the income trusts that will be converting to corporations on January 1, 2011. As it is financially optimal for Canadians to be transferring these securities outside of registered accounts and into non-registered accounts, it will not be surprising to see some anomalous price action as the year comes to a close. Even though assets can be transferred between non-registered and registered accounts (by doing an equal-value asset swap in an RRSP, but not TFSA) there is likely to be extra volume seen on the exchanges.

How capital gains taxes impact investment decisions

There are four ways that investments are directly taxed in Canada:

1. Interest income – treated as fully taxed income;
2. Eligible Dividend income – treated as income multiplied by a gross-up factor (2010: 44%, 2011: 41%, 2012: 38%), and the net amount is reduced by a dividend tax credit (2010: 25.88% of actual dividend);
3. Non-Eligible Dividend income – treated as income multiplied by a gross-up factor (25%), and the net amount is reduced by a (lower) dividend tax credit (2010: 16.6667% of actual dividend);
4. Capital gains taxes – taxed at half the rate as ordinary income.

For this post, I will just concentrate on capital gains.

The cost basis of an investment should only be considered in the context of taxation. In all other circumstances, fair market value must be considered. The only value that the cost basis of your investment has is with respect to how much of a penalty (for gains) or reward (for losses) you will incur if you dispose of it. In a registered account (e.g. RRSP/TFSA), the cost basis of an investment is irrelevant.

Let’s take a hypothetical investment between two securities. Security ABC is a perpetual bond, paying $10 per unit. Security DEF is a perpetual bond of the same issuer, with substantively the same seniority/call provisions as ABC, paying $8 per unit. Your marginal rate (to make the math easy) is 50%.

Let’s pretend you bought ABC for $80, netting a pre-tax yield of 12.5% and after-tax yield of 6.25%. If ABC is now trading at $100/share, what price does DEF have to be in order for the decision to be a net positive? Assume frictionless trading costs, and capital gains taxes are payable immediately upon disposal.

I will answer this in a non-algebraic format to make this “readable”:

Step 1: Calculate how much capital you have at work. The answer is $100, not $80.
Step 2: Calculate how much capital you will have at work after disposal. Since your gain is $20, you will be taxed 50% of $10, which is $5. So the answer is $95 of capital.
Step 3: Factor in the yield differential. For this to be a break-even transaction, your $95 in after-tax dollars must equal the income of the prior portfolio, mainly $10. $10/$95 = 10.53%, so you must buy DEF below $76/unit in order for your transaction to make financial sense.

Note that if the market was efficient, when you bought ABC at $80/unit, you were receiving a 12.5% pre-tax yield. At this same time, DEF should have been trading at $64/unit. So when ABC appreciated 25% to $100/unit, DEF should have appreciated 25% to $80/unit. Instead, the frictional cost of the capital gains tax has required the optimal re-allocation of capital to $76/unit. If DEF, for example, was trading at $78/unit, it would be capital-efficient to swap out of ABC to DEF on a pre-tax basis (ABC = 10.0% pre-tax, DEF = 10.26% pre-tax), but not an after-tax basis.

This is why capital gains taxes result in capital mis-allocation. The larger the capital gain tax, the higher the mis-allocation. It gives investors an incentive to hold onto winning investments longer than they should.

Note this argument works in the other direction – if you had a capital loss situation on ABC, you would have received an incentive for purchasing a less efficient DEF to capture the proceeds of the capital loss despite taking a lesser percent yield.

Anatomy of a trade decision

As I indicated previously, I am interested in trimming my long-term bond positions since I believe the market for less-than-stellar debt is becoming expensive for the risk taken.

Although I am adverse to income taxes, you should never let income taxation be the overriding factor in the decision to sell – valuation should be the primary consideration, along with your portfolio considerations, and then income taxes should be a secondary consideration.

An example today was trimming a trust preferred (which held a corporate bond) position in Limited Brands (NYSE: LTD) that I have held onto since late 2008. The security is due to mature in 23 years from now (March 1, 2033) and pays a 7% coupon semi-annually. The underlying company’s equity is trading relatively high, has a moderate amount of debt ($2.6 billion debt vs. $1.2 billion cash on hand), good income ($560M in the last 12 months) and an excellent brand name. So the underlying company, in the short and medium run, is likely to be solvent and be able to raise money and retain their cash generation abilities. It would not surprise me if they were able to be solvent in 23 years to pay off the underlying debt. My cost basis on the units are 35 cents on the dollar, which represents one of the best trades I have done in some time, but this will also represent a large capital gain when liquidating.

Back then, 35 cents on the dollar meant you got to collect a 20% current yield, and another 4.5% implied capital gain by waiting patiently. Now, the market has taken all of those coupon payments and gains and transformed them into a higher unit price – so instead of waiting 20+ years to realize that money, you can do it now. What I am trying to say here is – your cost basis is irrelevant except for factoring in the cost of capital gains taxation. The current market value that you can liquidate the securities with is the relevant factor – if I have $X that I can liquidate from this security, can I deploy it elsewhere more efficiently than the implied 7.7% it is paying me?

So why trim the position? 7.7% sounds pretty good over 23 years, doesn’t it?

There are a few reasons.

– The valuation appears high. At the current trading price (94 cents on the dollar) it is significantly higher than the underlying bond’s price that is available through TRACE. At 94 cents, your current yield is 7.4%, and your implied capital gain (which is the 6 cents of appreciation you earn upon maturity) is another 0.3%, so your total yield is 7.7%. While a 7.7% yield is about 4% higher than you can get with underlying treasury bonds, it still is not a sufficient threshold.

– I want to increase my cash balances. While I believe the next big macroeconomic move in the economy will be an inflationary cycle, it will completely depend on the timing of US politics. Right now the US economy is dominated by political considerations and this is why most businesses are choosing to hoard cash – since in times of political uncertainty you do not know the return on investment. A more business-friendly administration would result in a large inflationary spike. Right now we have the exact opposite of a business-friendly administration.

– I want to shorten the duration and term of my bond portfolio, for pretty much the point I made above.

– I do not need the yield, but apparently others do. They are willing to pay for liquidity, so I am willing to give it to them for a cost – they have to meet my asking price on the exchange.

– I am afraid that interest rates, while very low by historical standards, may increase. I am also not concerned to waiting a longer period of time for those rates to rise, and get to hold onto my capital in the meantime to perhaps deploy to a better area.

– Maybe the underlying business will face a downturn. It is in the consumer fashion industry, and while the Victoria’s Secret brand is unlikely to degrade anytime soon, maybe consumers will be a little more fickle in the future. I have no clue when it comes to retail fashion which trends will stay and which will not and can only evaluate these companies from a financial perspective. A great example is Coach (NYSE: COH), which to my neanderthal male mind, mainly makes handbags and accessories. But somehow this company produces insane amounts of cash. Will this trend continue? Who knows. But what I see financially there is a cash machine. I generally ask fashion conscious women for insight on these various names once in awhile to see what the intangible aspects of the brands are.

I am giving up a further potential upside of about 6% capital appreciation (since the trust preferreds contain a call provision they will not trade much above par value) in exchange for the safety and security of cold, hard cash. Right now I do not have any targets for my cash, so I will continue to be patient. Eventually the equity markets will contract and some opportunities will present themselves. It is unlikely it will ever be like late 2008 for awhile, but we will see.

Income trust conversions and RRSPs

On January 1, 2011 there will be a slew of Canadian income trusts that will be converting to corporations. In addition to these, all other income trusts that are not related to real estate will have their distributions taxed. Either way, the dividends or distributions will be considered eligible dividend income for a Canadian investor.

This means that for those investors that have these instruments in an RRSP that what was previously given off as income will now be heavily favoured with respect to taxation, and will be relinquishing the tax benefit by keeping these securities. The obvious action would be to swap these securities with equivalent cash at the beginning of 2011. You can then populate the RRSP by purchasing the relevant income-bearing securities when the market timing is convenient.

A middle-income bracket investor in BC (between $41k and $72k) that is able to shift $1,000 of dividend income from the RRSP to a non-registered account, and swapping into the RRSP $1,000 of straight income will be saving approximately $284.10 at tax time.

It is worth thinking about this procedure throughout the second half of 2010 and see if one can purchase income-bearing instruments if/when the market conditions are appropriate. It is also a good time to think about portfolio balancing.

What is making life difficult for most income investors is that income investing (such as going for dividends or securities with larger-than-GIC yields such as preferred shares) is coming back in vogue with the retail investing arm. Such securities are being purchased without consideration of underlying value in the company’s ability to pay such income. An example would be the equity of Rio-Can, which is the largest Canadian REIT; although I believe their income payouts (6.88% on a $20.05 unit price at present) is stable, in terms of valuation, investors are purchasing something that appears to be more than fully valued and will likely not provide material upside on income payouts.

If/when the debt market seize up again, such securities will look significantly more attractive than they are today. Chasing yield when the going is good involves much more risk than chasing yields in the middle of a crisis.

CRA Prescribed rates for Q3-2010

Thanks to the comments from Jeff Usher, it appears my initial thoughts about the CRA prescribed rates were incorrect. I consider myself well-researched in these matters, but once in awhile, things slip and this was one of them. Thank you Jeff.

The CRA, on June 28, 2010, published the third quarter prescribed rates.

Apparently the reason for the delay is that Bill C-9 implemented a reduced rate of accrued interest for corporate overpayment of tax. Corporations were using the CRA as a savings account, where they were getting higher rates of interest than the banks. In the previous quarter, this amount was 3%, but going forward it will be 1%.

CRA Prescribed Rates – Update

Earlier I wrote about CRA Prescribed Rates and how they are used.

Given that it is nearing the end of June, the CRA has not published updated prescribed rates for the third quarter yet. They traditionally publish the next quarter’s rates at the beginning of the month before the next quarter (i.e. for a second quarter announcement, they would announce the prescribed rates at the beginning of March).

I would suspect they are doing this because they are planning on increasing the prescribed rate for interest on loans to 2% from 1% currently. They would want to give as little notice as possible of this, to avoid a scurry of people making quick 1% loans to avoid interest attribution.

So for those of you that take advantage of this process, I would highly advise you to get your paperwork prepared for a quick transaction at the end of June in the event that my suspicions are correct.

Pay attention to CRA prescribed rates

With the Bank of Canada raising interest rates, it is likely that the CRA, either starting for the July quarter, but at the latest the October quarter will be increasing the prescribed rate for taxable benefits for employees and shareholders from interest-free and low-interest loans.

A history of this rate is as follows:

Q1-2007: 5%
Q2-2007: 5%
Q3-2007: 5%
Q4-2007: 5%

Q1-2008: 4%
Q2-2008: 4%
Q3-2008: 3%
Q4-2008: 3%

Q1-2009: 2%
Q2-2009: 1%
Q3-2009: 1%
Q4-2009: 1%

Q1-2010: 1%
Q2-2010: 1%
Q3-2010: Should be announced within a week.

The reason why this rate is significant is because issuing a low-interest rate loan is the easiest way to avoid income attribution. Just as an example, if you get your company to loan you money (which you would presumably use for investment purposes), you have to pay the company a 1% interest charge. You would deduct that amount from your income, while the company would include it as interest income on its side of the income statement. Also, spousal loans can be used to avoid income attribution.

While no matter what the rate is there is symmetry (i.e. one party can deduct what the other includes as income, assuming the loaned amount is used for income-generation purposes), higher rates discourage typically discourage borrowing to invest as typically it is the asset-rich entity that loans money out to the asset-poor (and presumably income-poor) entity in order to transfer income to a lower-rate person. If the prescribed interest rate is too high, the loanee will have to take on a higher amount of income at their (presumably) higher marginal rate.

There are rules with respect to the payment of shareholder loans (i.e. you must pay back the principal amount by the end of the following fiscal year or have it be a deemed dividend) but for loans between individuals, there is no duration rule with respect to the amount of interest to be paid – you can make a loan that will expire in 30 years at the rate of 1% for the purposes of the prescribed interest rate rules. Just make sure to document the loan and if there is any question as to the dating of the document, get it notarized or otherwise documented in case if the CRA comes knocking.

Investment returns must be calculated after-tax

One critical consideration of computing returns is that pre-tax is an easy calculation, but after-tax involves a bit more effort.

In Canada, interest income (and distributions of income from trusts) is taxed at your marginal rate. Foreign dividends are also taxed at your marginal rate. Dividend income from publicly traded Canadian companies are taxed at a very favorable rate. Capital gains are taxed at half your marginal rate.

As a result, portfolios should be structured such that income is maximized in sheltered vehicles (RRSPs, TFSAs) while Canadian dividends and capital gains are preferentially outside the RRSP and TFSA.

Your marginal rate depends on what province you live in and also what income bracket you are in.

So if you live in British Columbia, and make a taxable income of $50,000, your marginal rate rate on an extra dollar of interest income would be 29.7%. So to realize a 10% after-tax return on investment, you need to earn 14.2% on a pre-tax basis. Alternatively, you could also earn a 11.7% return via capital gains, or a 10.1% return via eligible dividends. It all amounts to the same: a 10% after-tax return.

The following tables are a simple illustration of the required pre-tax returns required to achieve a 10% after-tax return:

BC 2010 Tax Rates 10% after-tax equivalent
Marginal Cap. Eligible SB
Low Range High Range Rate Gains Dividends Dividends
$ $ 35,859 12.5% 11.1% 8.9% 10.4%
$ 35,859 $ 40,970 12.9% 11.3% 9.2% 10.8%
$ 40,970 $ 71,719 14.2% 11.7% 10.1% 11.9%
$ 71,719 $ 81,941 14.8% 11.9% 10.6% 12.5%
$ 81,941 $ 82,342 15.7% 12.2% 11.2% 13.3%
$ 82,342 $ 99,987 16.2% 12.4% 11.6% 13.7%
$ 99,987 $ 127,021 16.9% 12.6% 12.1% 14.3%
$ 127,021 and above 17.8% 12.8% 12.7% 15.1%
BC 2010 Tax Rates 10% after-tax equivalent
Marginal Cap. Eligible SB
Low Range High Range Rate Gains Dividends Dividends
$ $ 35,859 12.5% 11.1% 8.9% 10.4%
$ 35,859 $ 40,970 12.9% 11.3% 9.2% 10.8%
$ 40,970 $ 71,719 14.2% 11.7% 10.1% 11.9%
$ 71,719 $ 81,941 14.8% 11.9% 10.6% 12.5%
$ 81,941 $ 82,342 15.7% 12.2% 11.2% 13.3%
$ 82,342 $ 99,987 16.2% 12.4% 11.6% 13.7%
$ 99,987 $ 127,021 16.9% 12.6% 12.1% 14.3%
$ 127,021 and above 17.8% 12.8% 12.7% 15.1%

The following is for an 8% after-tax return:

BC 2010 Tax Rates 8% after-tax equivalent
Marginal Cap. Eligible SB
Low Range High Range Rate Gains Dividends Dividends
$ $ 35,859 10.0% 8.9% 7.1% 8.3%
$ 35,859 $ 40,970 10.3% 9.0% 7.4% 8.6%
$ 40,970 $ 71,719 11.4% 9.4% 8.1% 9.5%
$ 71,719 $ 81,941 11.9% 9.6% 8.4% 10.0%
$ 81,941 $ 82,342 12.6% 9.8% 9.0% 10.6%
$ 82,342 $ 99,987 13.0% 9.9% 9.3% 11.0%
$ 99,987 $ 127,021 13.5% 10.0% 9.7% 11.4%
$ 127,021 and above 14.2% 10.2% 10.2% 12.1%

Analysis of RESPs

The Registered Education Savings Plan (RESP) is a tax sheltered vehicle that is designated for parents to save up for the education of somebody – usually this is the children of the people contributing to the RESP, but in theory you can define anybody as a beneficiary of the plan. Eventually when such people take higher education, you can designate proceeds to the beneficiary in question, and the beneficiary will take the income contributions as taxable income. Presumably because they are young and have less income, they will pay little to no tax on the proceeds.

For the rest of this post, I will define the beneficiary as just “children”.

Benefits and disadvantages

The benefits can be summed up in three points:
1. Transferring income while avoiding attribution;
2. Income tax deferral;
3. Canada Education Savings Grants.

The disadvantages can be summed up as follows:
1. Risk that your children will not seek higher education.
2. Requires financial skill to self-manage.
3. Fees.

The competing choice is funding money outside the confines of an RESP and giving it to the children when they go to school, or to give some portion of money to children and having them invest it in their own names.

Analysis

To put the conclusion first, my general analysis suggests that RESPs are only useful if you intend to fund part or all of your childrens’ educations and you are very convinced they will be going to an eligible higher education institution. In other words, I would not contribute to an RESP until they are, at the latest, 15 years of age when you can detect whether they have enough ‘scholarly’ potential to warrant it and you have sufficient after-tax funds that won’t put a hole into your own personal finances.

If you discover your child does not want to attend upper education, you can move the RESP proceeds into an RRSP, but there are non-trivial conditions attached with this transferability. Otherwise accumulated income taken out the RESP is taxed at your marginal rate plus 20%.

From a financial perspective, the RESP enables you to avoid attribution by indirectly “giving income” to your children, and also shelters growth of funds from taxes (which will eventually be taken as taxable income by the children). Contributions are not tax deductible and principal withdrawals are not taxed. The excess of principal payments is taxed.

The Government of Canada will chip in some money via the Canada Education Savings Grant, which will contribute 20% of the first $5,000/year contributed, to a lifetime maximum of $36,000 contributed. So in theory if you contributed $4,500/year ($36,000 total) for the first 8 years of your child’s life, the CESG would result in an extra $7,200 in the account. If your family income is less than $77,769/year, the CESG grant will be 30% of the contribution amount. If your family income is less than $38,832/year, the CESG grant will be 40% of the contribution amount.

The CESG is a material benefit when investing in an RESP, functionally acting as an instant 20% return on investment. Using the “contribute until the last moment” strategy, the CRA helpfully points out the criteria that must exist in order the RESP to receive the CESG:

However, since the CESG has been designed to encourage long term savings for post-secondary education, there are specific contributions requirements for beneficiaries who attain 16 or 17 years of age. RESPs for beneficiaries 16 and 17 years of age can only receive CESG if at least one of the following two conditions is met:

* a minimum of $2,000 of contributions has been made to, and not withdrawn from, RESPs in respect of the beneficiary before the year in which the beneficiary attains 16 years of age; or
* a minimum of $100 of annual contributions has been made to, and not withdrawn from, RESPs in respect of the beneficiary in at least any four years before the year in which the beneficiary attains 16 years of age.

This means that you must start to save in RESPs for your child before the end of the calendar year in which the beneficiary attains 15 years of age in order to be eligible for the CESG. The CESG and accumulated earnings will be part of the educational assistance payment paid out of the RESP to the beneficiary.

Assuming your child enters into upper education when they turn 17, the safest strategy appears to be determining how much money you intent on contributing and dividing them into $5,000 amounts. If you have $5,000 to contribute, then put that into the RESP the year your child turns 15, and put it in a 2-year GIC which matures when they are ready to enter higher education. If you have $10,000 to contribute, put $5,000 into the RESP when they turn 15 (into a 2-year GIC), and another $5,000 the following year into a 1-year GIC. This way, you will realize a 20% gain plus whatever the return on the GIC is.

This strategy requires no financial sophistication other than the effort to find a fee-free RESP provider that gives good fixed income rates and taking out the appropriate GIC with the specified maturity date.

The RESP gives the contributor full liquidity capability – they can withdraw principal at any time, but they would have to refund the CESG in the process. Still, the availability of liquidity is a crucial factor in an investment decision, and having the ability to get back your principal (e.g. let’s say you lost your job when your child was 6 years old and the RESP is hardly going to be a high priority at this time compared to an education that may or may not happen in 11+ years) is very important.

I cannot find good justification for employing other investment strategies concerning RESPs – for example, if immediately after the birth of a child the parents open up an RESP for the child. In this scenario, the primary risk is that the parents will need the money at a future date and a more pressing reason than the far-off goal of purchasing educational credits for children. The other risk, of course, is not knowing whether the newborn will be attending such an institution. Also, because of the long timeline, such investments are likely to be more risky in nature, requiring a level of financial sophistication to invest in the proper stocks and bonds. Finally, the benefit of avoiding income attribution could be entirely avoided by transferring the funds to the child’s name and investing the proceeds in securities that will yield capital gains (as capital gains will be attributed to the child, while income will be attributed to the parent).

Thus, the “get the CESG as late as possible” strategy is likely the only real viable strategy for the RESP.

A final note on scholarship trusts

It is my opinion that most education scholarship trusts are terrible, terrible, terrible investment vehicles compared to the strategy presented above. In addition to paying fees that are ridiculously expensive, you are surrendering liquidity, and also surrendering the flexibility to get your money whenever you want if your child goes to school. For example, if your child decides to enroll into a two-year trades program, you will receive significantly less money than if he/she enrolled in a four year program. In particular, I will single out the largest of the scholarship trust companies, Canadian Scholarship Trust, as being financially counter-productive to any parents’ wish to actually pay for their children’s educations via an RESP. It is my opinion that companies like those are what give other educational scholarship companies an incredibly bad name.

It is true if you jump the hoops just perfectly (i.e. making your monthly payments from an early date, never missing payments and having your child continue with a 4-year education) that enrolling in such a plan would be a net plus, but the risk taken is phenomenally higher than the simple strategy presented above. The performance of the Canadian Scholarship Trust has also not been that much higher than a GIC – the 5-year performance from October 2003 to 2008 has been 4.5%. You can read this and the rest of the gory details on their prospectus document – a document that I suspect most of their subscribers don’t read, mainly because if they did so they would quickly realize what a bad deal they are receiving.

Canadian Taxes – Waiting for the T3

Anybody invested in income trusts should know that the T3 slip, a statement of income from trusts, is required for applicable trust holders by March 31 of every year. This is usually the last tax form to come in, and it will explain how much income (and what type of income) you received over the year.

The reason why the T3 slip comes so late is to give trusts sufficient time to finalize (and audit) their financial statements for the fiscal year.

Impatient investors that want to get cracking at their personal income taxes, however, can go to CDS Innovations’ website and get a sneak preview of most publicly traded entities’ allocation of income. T3 statements for the 2009 tax year can be found here. Just note, in theory, a trust can change the reported allocation on March 30, 2010 and one should never submit their income tax return using the preliminary data.