RRSP Loans never made sense

I have now received three unsolicited solicitations (two through postal mail, one through email) for pre-approving me for an RRSP loan. The rates both institutions were offering were 3%, up to a low 5-digit dollar amount. The terms of such loans are such that you have to pay it off in a year.

The advertising always tries to grab your attention by stating that by loaning money you can get a good fraction of it back from the government when you file your income taxes and some people probably use this to rationalize making a loan. Unfortunately, the true financial value of the tax credit is worthless. I won’t get into why in this post, but some fellow wrote about it here and it is a much better way of thinking about one’s RSP than what is otherwise intuitive – his reasoning is not intuitive, but it is correct.

I have always wondered why anybody would ever bother doing an RSP loan from a rational perspective and the scenario that comes into mind deals with a high-income individual that has their cash flows so lumpy that they will only receive it after the March 1, 2010 contribution deadline and where this person’s balance sheet is in such crummy (or illiquid) shape that they cannot pull out non-taxable reserves into the RRSP umbrella. It would also imply their cash management in prior years is equally crummy since they failed to save enough money to pay for the RRSP.

Such people are likely to have high levels of debt, which highly suggests they should be putting their cash into their debt. However, in the event that their debt has a low interest rate, then the RRSP loan would make sense.

In other words, the number of people that truly need RRSP loans are next to none. I can’t fabricate a real life scenario where somebody working a full-time job would want to loan money for an RRSP.

Ever since the advent of the TFSA, the retirement savings game has changed considerably – although there are exceptions to every rule, if I had to make a “one rule fits all” criteria for RRSP vs. TFSA contributions, the math highly suggests the only people that should ever be considering to make a contribution in an RRSP are those making more than (note: 2010 year) $81,941 a year, which is where the 26% federal tax bracket kicks in. Otherwise you should contribute money to your TFSA first, and then your RRSP with any leftover amounts you have left to save.

If you make less than $81,941 a year, your first dollars should go to your TFSA and then if you have money left to save, into your RRSP. In no way should your net taxable income go below $40,970 – you can still contribute to your RRSP, but you should wait until a future year where you make more than the lowest bracket to actually deduct the income.

Taking out an RRSP loan to defer the income tax is financially foolish, especially since the interest on the loan is not tax-deductible. The only exception I would make is if you are supremely confident you will be able to make more than the loan interest on an after-tax basis (so let’s say you are in the 40% tax bracket and your RRSP loan is at 3% interest; you would need to make 3%/(1-0.4) = 5%) but I do not think this is appropriate for most and that taking an RRSP loan is functionally equivalent to borrowing money in a brokerage account to invest. The only difference between an RRSP loan and borrowing to invest on margin is that at least when you borrow to invest on margin, you can deduct interest expenses from your income tax.

Next TFSA investment – First Uranium

Following the success of getting out of Harvest Energy debentures, I had a lot of cash in my TFSA, especially after the January 2010 contribution of $5,000. There was only one debenture candidate left on my radar that appeared to have a good risk/reward characteristic. Although it wasn’t great, it was good enough and I executed a trade on it.

Continuing with my less than diversified strategy, I have placed the sum of the TFSA into the debentures of First Uranium (FIU.DB). The debentures give a 4.25% coupon, maturing in June 2012. They are convertible into equity at $16.42/share, but this is unlikely to be a factor in the valuation. The total issue was for CAD$150M. They went as low as 41 cents in the debenture crash of early 2009.

The price I received was 74.5 cents on January 11, which is a 5.7% current yield and an implied annualized capital gain of 13.0%. Assuming a 1.2% (short term interest rate) reinvestment of coupon, this is a realized return of about 16.8%, which is (barely) above my investment threshold. The previous Harvest Energy investment was above 30% at the time and price I made it, but the spring of 2009 was a very special investment climate where buying anything would give you massive returns. Today, things are much different and you really have to pull out a high powered microscope since anything with a high return has a lot of baggage you have to sift through. First Uranium is no exception.

First Uranium is a Toronto corporation, but with operations primarily in a South African mine with uranium and gold reserves. The name is misleading in that the bulk (~85%) of the company’s revenues are expected to be from gold sales. The foreign nature of their operations introduces a risk, but South African mining operations have been able to operate sustainably in other circumstances. Although I have my geopolitical concerns about South Africa in the medium term (10 years out), I have discounted such concerns in the 2.4 year timeframe of this present investment. It is also likely that coming closer to maturity that the investment may be liquidated sooner than later, or when the yield shrinks to my sell target (around 95 cents presently).

Most of the operations have been financed by equity – the last financing was done in June 1, 2009 at CAD$7/share. Today the common shares are at $2.66/share with 167M shares outstanding – a market capitalization of about $444M. Some portion of the gold reserves have been hedged off at below-market rates for up-front financing. In addition, the mining operations are still at the end of the initial capital injection phase before they can start producing sustainable positive cash flow, which is expected in the March 2010 to March 2011 fiscal year.

In terms of management and ownership risk, this is an interesting story. Simmer and Jack, another (larger than junior) South African mining company, owns 37% of the company as of September 2009. There has been a recent management and board struggle dealing with the Simmer and Jack management, who have moved over to First Uranium after they were kicked out of the Simmer and Jack board. The kicked-out CEO and Chairman, Gordon Miller, owns 1.66% of Simmer and Jack and roughly 0.1% of First Uranium. Although this struggle has an indirect impact on the value of the debentures (mainly that I am concerned about being paid off rather than owning the company), it is worthy to note that some deal must have been cut with the existing Simmer and Jack board such that he be allowed to run First Uranium since the 37% minority ownership of Simmer and Jack would likely be able to prevent him from doing so if they did so voluntarily.

There is a complex relationship here with respect to the debentures – Simmer and Jack is highly incentivized to make sure the debenture holders don’t take over the company so they can realize value of their equity stake. Gordon Miller likely wants to make a ton of money out of the deal and try to get some sort of revenge against Simmer and Jack and try to wrestle control away from the company. Either way, the debentures will have to be paid and it seems likely at this point it will be done by a simple equity swap – the current market capitalization is sufficient to pay off the debentures with about 25% dilution to existing shareholders.

On the balance sheet, First Uranium has US$60M in cash at the end of September and they have poured in about US$563M into their mining operations. Their only significant liabilities are a $22M loan from Simmer and Jack, and the CAD$150 of debentures. The income side is ugly when one looks back, but the corporation should start to generate cash through mining operations in the upcoming year and slow down capital expenditures – and perhaps even pay some common share dividends sometime in the second half of 2011 if things really go well and the refinancing of the debentures are in the bag.

The risks otherwise are typical of a mining firm – commodity pricing (gold and uranium) and realization of “proven” reserves into actual output. There is also some currency risk – they report in US dollars and their equity and debentures are denominated in Canadian dollars. Reading the technical report on the main mine and getting a feel for the operation is also essential (and rather dry) reading.

Although this investment is not the most ideal, I do believe that the company will be able to pay off the debentures, whether by refinancing, equitizing the debt or generating cash flow before the June 2012 maturity. There is enough of a margin of error to feel comfortable, but not “home free”, which is why the market value is trading significantly below at present. Assuming their story turns out, the equity side is also a compelling story, but it contains a high degree of risk that I am not willing to take – especially concerning the future of gold prices. That said, I expect these debentures will be made whole and will be a positive decision in terms of my risk-reward profile and being able to avoid income tax and capital gains tax by virtue of it being in the TFSA.

I also prefer short duration plays simply because when interest rates rise again, cash might be a more attractive option.

(Subsequent note: Operational risks include adverse news releases after hitting the “publish” button, although I do not think this one is too severe to my underlying investment thesis.)

Fact checking on charities

In Canada, charities that are registered with the federal government enjoy certain benefits that other non-profit organizations do not. In exchange for being compliant with multiple government regulations, they have the ability of issuing tax receipts which equates to a refund of income taxes of 20.06% for the first $200 donated, and 43.7% for anything above that, using BC rates.

One of the items that a registered charity has to comply with is reporting to the Canada Revenue Agency so there is a degree of transparency where people can see where money is raised and spent within a charity. You can access this on the CRA Charities Listings site.

It is very important to know when an executive of a registered charity says that “We do not receive any government funding” that you check lines 4540 to 4560 on the return; if you see revenues there, the management is lying to the public. In addition, they are implicitly receiving government funding due to the value of the tax refund from charitable contributions. For example, if you were to donate $1,000 to a charity, your after-tax cost is actually $610.28. The federal and provincial government are essentially donating the other $389.72 in the form of an income tax refund.

Also there is the well-known issue of having a high percentage of money wasted on administration expenses. If line 5010 (Management and Administration component of total expenditures) and 5020 (Money spent to raise more money) are high compared to total expenditures in a charity, I would look at it as probable that they are not being efficiently run.

My advice would be to donate only to registered charities that you know at least one of the directors of, and your opinion of the director is positive. At least if they incompetently squander your money, you’ll be able to grill them in person and keep them accountable.

Canadian tax rules about year-end selling – Trade date vs. Settlement Date

(Update on the text below: IT-133 has been removed from the CRA’s website. Please read the December 31, 2012 article for further information.)

When you purchase or sell shares on a stock exchange, the current date is called the trade date. However, the actual transaction (the exchange of shares and cash) is processed in three business days, which is known as the settlement date. So for example, if you bought shares of something on Tuesday, December 8, the transaction is settled on Friday, December 11.

Computer networks and electronic processing of share transfers have made the three day requirement antiquated, but nobody has bothered to amend the rules.

One practical consequence of the three day settlement rule is determining which year a transaction was processed with respect to capital gains taxes. Take the practical example of selling shares for a $100 capital loss on December 30, 2009, with a settlement date of January 5, 2010. Do you report your $100 capital loss in your 2009 or 2010 tax filing?

The answer is 2010. Most financial publications out there correctly advise people that they have to dispose of their shares by December 24, 2009 in order to be able to book a capital loss (or gain) in the 2009 year. The trade will settle on December 31, 2009. A trade made on December 28, 2009 will settle on January 4, 2010. The reason is because both Christmas Day and Boxing Day are considered to be non-business days in Canada.

Most financial publications do not quote the source of the rules which governs this issue, mainly CRA Interpretation Bulletin IT-133. The rules using the settlement date was codified in this bulletin in 1973, which has survived to this very day.

As a final note, the USA uses a different system. For people filing with the IRS, they consider the trade date to be the year of disposition. The USA exchanges do not use Boxing Day as a non-business day, so trades performed on December 28, 2009 will settle on December 31, 2009.

TFSA account transfers

If you are considering changing where your TFSA account is, it is probably easier to liquidate around this time of year (mid December) and withdrawal all the funds from your account and deposit the cash to a new account early in January of the next year. Assuming you have $5,100 in a TFSA account on December 15, 2009, if you withdraw it before the end of the year, your TFSA contribution room on January 1, 2010 will be $10,100 ($5,100 plus $5,000) and you can open up an account wherever you want and deposit it. In fact, you can open up an account and just fund it exactly at the beginning of the year.

If you withdraw the $5,100 on January 1, 2010, you will have to wait until January 1, 2011 in order to be able to bring the $5,100 of capital into the TFSA tax shield.

The true value of the TFSA won’t be felt until years later when everybody will have contribution rooms sufficiently high that you will be able to shield considerable amounts of savings – assuming interest rates ever rise to respectable levels again (e.g. 5%), in 10 years, you will be able to shield $50,000 at 5% interest, or about $2,500 of tax-free income a year. This essentially will create a risk-free situation for most ordinary people to shield interest income from the government.

The TFSA is truly a financial instrument of lower-income Canadians, while the RRSP is the preferred vehicle for higher-class Canadians. Unlike the USA Roth IRA, the Canadian TFSA is a heck of a lot more flexible – you do not have to wait until you are 59.5 years old to withdraw funds without tax penalty.

Income Trust Taxation in 2011

In Canada, income trust distributions will be taxable to the level where the trust would be roughly equivalent for them to convert into a corporation and distribute dividends from after-tax income. Because a simple corporate structure is easier to understand for most investors, in addition to being cheaper to maintain, it is likely that most conventional income trusts (except for the REITs, which will still have the same tax-free exemptions as existing trusts do) will convert into corporations before the conversion deadline.

There are a whole litany of tax issues involved with conversion (which can be read in the explanatory notes in the July 2008 legislative proposal), but the salient detail is that income trusts by the end of December 2012 will have to convert to corporations in order to prevent a deemed disposition (i.e. tax consequences for unitholders).

In the meantime, trusts will have a distribution tax, both a federal and provincial component. The Federal component will be based on the large corporation tax rate (16.5% in 2011; 15% in 2012 and beyond), while the provincial component will be based on a weighted average where the trust earns its distributable income and the respective province’s large corporate tax rate. In BC, this will be 10%. So in 2011, a trust that operates in BC will have a 26.5% distribution tax put on its distributions; the way to calculate “equivalent distributable income” is by dividing the pre-2011 distribution by one plus the distribution tax.

So for example, if an income trust distributed 100 cents a year of income in 2010, the equivalent will be $1.00*(1/(1+0.265)) or $0.7905/share in 2011; in 2012 this would be $1.00*(1/(1+0.25)) or $0.80/share.

It should be noted that the income coming from trusts will be considered eligible dividends in 2011 and beyond; as a result, the tax treatment to Canadians will more than offset the loss in trust income. At the low tax bracket, the marginal rate for a BC resident for trust income will be 20.06%, while eligible dividend income will be -9.42%. So a $100 trust distribution will end up as $79.94 after taxes for a low income earner, while a $79.05 eligible distribution will yield $89.50 after taxes. At the top tax bracket, $100 of income will end up as $56.30 after taxes, while a $79.05 eligible distribution will end up as $60.15 after taxes.

The take-home message is that once 2011 rolls around, there is going to be no excuse whatsoever to keep income trusts inside the RRSP; they should be immediately removed and placed into a regular taxable account. Alternatively they can be placed inside the TFSA, but one would surrender the tax benefit of the dividend tax credit.