Mutual fund investors who hold their funds in a retirement account are not affected by this aspect, since income is tax-deferred in most cases. However, if you hold mutual funds in a taxable account, which includes a substantial portion of retirees, you will be doubly surprised this year. First, you will be hit with a tax bill whether or not you sold your fund during the year. To add insult to injury, you may be responsible for a large capital gains bill despite your fund being an overall loser for the year. Second -- and few people know about this one yet -- the expiration of three year tax loss carryforwards, means that your bill be larger this year than it's been in the last five. Why? The losses sustained during the bear market of 2000-2002 enabled funds to offset gains in subsequent years. That expires this year. Lipper estimates that the average capital gains distribution is going to increase 50 percent this year (see Boston Globe).
How Did We Get Here?
Whether you are an individual or an organization, the IRS wants its cut of any income from capital gains and dividends. Mutual funds are not excluded. So, when your mutual fund manager sells positions for what you hope is a gain, that gain is taxable, regardless of whether there are offsetting losses. The same is true when a stockholding pays a dividend. For organizations that pass through these gains to the shareholders, the gains are taxable at the individual's tax rate instead of the corporate tax rate. It is prudent to pass through these gains, since a large percentage of shareholdings are in non-taxable accounts, and few individuals that are in taxable accounts are in a higher bracket than the corporate rate.
You can't fault the funds for choosing to pass through the gains. However, you can fault them for high turnover in their portfolios. In 25 years, funds have gone from an average turnover of 8 years (meaning that fifteen percent of their holdings are bought and sold in a year) to today's average turnover of 100 percent. This means that in every year, all stocks are bought and sold. Some of the most egregious offenders turn over their portfolio five times in a year. The mutual fund industry has transitioned from buy-and-hold stewards of corporate America to being short-term, rent-a-stock traders in that time. Although evidence is unclear about why this has happened, the pessimist in me believes that it is because of soft dollar arrangements resulting in an incentive to trade frequently.
Why Should I Care?
High management and expense fees have already made it difficult to outperform their benchmarks consistently. Now, if you take into account that you will have to pay a larger bill to the tax man, that just means your performance suffers even more. If you lose one percent per year to taxes, that amounts to serious money over time. Over a 30 year saving period, this difference amounts to more than 25 percent of your ending net worth. Considering that this could make the difference between you running out of money before you die, it is not to be ignored.
What You Can Do About It
Index funds do not have high turnover. The only turnover they have is periodic rebalancing when their benchmark indexes change. This makes them more tax efficient.
An even better option is to engage First Sustainable to create a so-called Folio. This combines the technology available to a mutual fund to enable you to create your own diversified, asset-allocated mutual fund. You can buy fractional shares of individual stocks. This way, your only tax bill comes when you also do periodic rebalancing to suit your financial situation. To me, this is way more acceptable than swallowing a bill that was based on some conflicted manager's financial situation.