10 Ways to reduce taxes in your investment portfolio

10 Ways to reduce taxes in your investment portfolio

Successful practices to help you lower taxes in your investment portfolio

A taxable investment account is any brokerage or trust account that does not come with tax benefits. Unlike Roth IRA and Tax-Deferred 401k plans, these accounts do not have many tax advantages. Your contributions to the account are with after-tax dollars. This is money you earned from salary, royalties, the sale of a property, and so on. All gains, losses, dividends, interest, and other income from any investments are subject to taxes at the current tax rates.  In this post, we will discuss several successful practices that can help you lower taxes in your investment portfolio

Why investors put money into taxable accounts? They provide flexibility and liquidity, which are not available by other retirement accounts. Money is readily accessible for emergencies and unforeseen expenses. Many credit institutions take these accounts as a liquid asset for loan applications.

Since investment accounts are taxable, their owners often look for ways to minimize the tax impact at the end of the year. Several practices can help you reduce your overall tax burden.

1. Buy and Hold

Taxable investment accounts are ideal for buy and hold investors who don’t plan to trade frequently. By doing that investors will minimize trading costs and harvest long-term capital gains when they decide to sell their investments. Long-term capital gains are taxable at a favorable rate of 0%, 15% or 20% plus 3.8% Medicare surcharge. In contrast, short-term gains for securities held less than a year are taxed at the higher ordinary income level.

Individuals and families often use investments accounts for supplemental income and source of liquidity. Those investors are usually susceptible to market volatility. Diversification is the best way to lower market risk. I strongly encourage investors to diversify their portfolios by investing in uncorrelated assets including mid-cap, small-cap, international stocks, bonds, and real assets.

2. Invest in Municipal Bonds

Most municipal bonds are exempt from taxes on their coupon payments. They are considered a safer investment with a slightly higher risk than Treasury bonds but lower than comparable corporate bonds.

This tax exemption makes the municipal bond suitable investment for taxable accounts, especially for individuals in the high brackets category.

3. Invest in growth non-dividend paying stocks

Growth stocks that pay little or no dividends are also a great alternative for long-term buy and hold investors. Since the majority of the return from stocks will come from price appreciation, investors don’t need to worry about paying taxes on dividends. They will only have to pay taxes when selling the investments. 

4. Invest in MLPs

Managed Limited Partnerships have a complex legal and tax structure, which requires them to distribute 90% of their income to their partners. The majority of the distributions come in the form return on capital which is tax-deferred and deducted from the cost basis of the investments. Investors don’t owe taxes on the return on capital distributions until their cost basis becomes zero or decide to sell the MLP investment.

One caveat, MLPs require K-1 filing in each state where the company operates, which increases the tax filing cost for their owners.

 5. Invest in Index Funds and ETFs

Index funds and ETFs are passive investment vehicles. Typically they track a particular index or a benchmark. ETFs and index funds have a more tax-efficient structure that makes them suitable for taxable accounts. Unlike them, most actively managed mutual funds frequently trade in and out of individual holdings causing them to release long-term and short-term capital gains to shareholders.

6. Avoid investments with a higher tax burden

While REITs, taxable bonds, commodities, and actively managed mutual funds have their spot in the investment portfolio, they come with a higher tax burden.

The income from REITs, treasuries, corporate and international bonds is subject to the higher ordinary income tax, which can be up to 39.6% plus 3.8% Medicare surcharge

Commodities, particularly Gold are considered collectibles and taxed at a minimum of 28% for long-term gains.

Actively managed funds, as mentioned earlier, periodically release long-term and short-term capital gains to their shareholders, which automatically triggers additional taxes.

7. Make gifts

You can use up to $14,000 a year or $28,000 for a couple to give to any number of people you wish without tax consequences. You can make gifts of cash or appreciated investments from your investment account to family members at a lower tax bracket than yours.

8. Donate 

You can make contributions in cash for up to 50% of your taxable income to your favorite charity. You can also donate appreciated stocks for up to 30% of AGI. Consequently, the value of your donation will reduce your income for the year. If you had a good year when you received a big bonus, sold a property or made substantial gains in the market, making donations will help you reduce your overall tax bill for the year.

9. Stepped up cost basis

At the current law, the assets in your investment account will be received by your heirs at the higher stepped-up basis, not at the original purchase price. If stocks are transferred as an inheritance directly (versus being sold and proceeds received in cash), they are not subject to taxes on any long-term or short-term capital gains. Your heirs will inherit the stocks at the new higher cost basis.  However, if your investments had lost value over time, you may wish to consider other ways to transfer your wealth. In this case, the stepped-up basis will be lower than you originally paid for and may trigger higher taxes in the future for your heirs.

10. Tax-loss harvesting

Tax-loss harvesting is selling investments at a loss. The loss will offset gains from other the sale of other securities. Additionally, investors can use $3,000 of investment losses a year to offset ordinary income. They can also carry over any remaining amounts for future tax filings.

 

 

Introduction to portfolio diversification

Introduction

Portfolio diversification is one of the main pillars of retirement planning. The old proverb “Never put all your eggs in one basket” applies in full strength to investing.

Even the Bible talks about diversification. Ecclesiastes 11:2 says “Divide your portion to seven, or even to eight, for you do not know what misfortune may occur on the earth.”

Wealth and asset managers use diversification as a tool to reduce overall portfolio risk. Diversification of investments with little correlation to one another allows the portfolio to grow at various stages of the economic cycle as the performance of the assets moves in different directions.

What is portfolio diversification?

According to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC): “The Magic of Diversification. The practice of spreading money among different investments to reduce risk is known as diversification. By picking the right group of investments, you may be able to limit your losses and reduce the fluctuations of investment returns without sacrificing too much potential gain.” – https://www.sec.gov/investor/pubs/assetallocation.htm

By combining low correlated and uncorrelated assets in a portfolio and being disciplined over an extended period, you aim to achieve the highest return per certain level of risk.

Diversification reduces your exposure to a single company or an asset class. As assets move up and down each year, a diversified portfolio will allow you to build a cushion for losses and avoid being dependent on one security in case it loses its value or has a rocky year.

The financial history remembers many examples of fallen stocks, such as Enron and Lehman Brothers. The employees of these companies who invested heavily in their employer’s stock without diversifying lost a significant amount of their retirement savings.

Correlated Investments

Correlated investments move in similar fashion driven by related factors. Owning two or more securities from the same industry or with similar risk profile does not contribute to your portfolio diversification. Hence, these securities will concentrate your exposure to the same market factors. 

These three pairs are an example for correlated stocks – Coca-Cola and Pepsi, Target and Costco, Verizon and AT&T. While there are some differences in their business model and historical performance, the pairs are exposed to the same economic factors, industry drivers, and consumer sentiments.

Uncorrelated Investments

The combination of uncorrelated investments decreases the overall portfolio risk

The classic example of uncorrelated investments is stocks, bonds, and gold. Historically these large asset categories have moved independently from each other.  Their returns were influenced by different events and economic drivers.

Even within the equity space alone, investors can significantly improve their portfolio diversification by looking at companies in various industries and exposure to regional and international markets.

The pair – Amazon and PG&E is a model for uncorrelated companies. Amazon is a global online marketplace that sells discretionary consumer items. Amazon business is dependent on the economic cycle and consumer spending sentiments. PG&E is a California-based utility company that provides electricity and gas to its customers. PG&E customers (being one of them) have a limited choice for service providers. Amazon competes with many large and small-size, local and foreign companies. PG&E has virtually no competition apart from renewable sources. Amazon has expansive market potential. PG&E growth is constrained to its local market. Therefore the difference between their core business models reflects on their historical price performance and risk profile. Their shares’ price depends on different factors and hence fluctuates independently.

Sharpe Ratio

Before we continue, I want to introduce a key performance metric in asset management called Sharpe Ratio. The ratio got its name from its creator the Nobel laureate William F. Sharpe.

The Sharpe ratio measures the excess return per unit of risk of an investment asset or a portfolio.  It is also known as the risk-adjusted return.

This is the formula:

Sharpe Ratio

 

 

 

Where:

Rp is the Return of your security or portfolio.

Rf is the risk-free return of a US Treasury bond

σp is the standard deviation of your portfolio. Standard deviation measures the volatility of your portfolio returns.

 

The Sharpe ratio allows performance comparison between separate portfolios and asset classes with different return and risk. As a rule of thumb, the Sharp metric penalizes portfolios with higher volatility.

Take a very simplified example; portfolio ‘A’ has 5% return and standard deviation of 10%. Portfolio ‘B’ has 6% return and standard deviation of 15%. The risk-free rate is 1%

‘A’ portfolio: Sharpe Ratio is equal to (5% – 1%)/10% = 0.4

‘B’ portfolio: Sharpe Ratio is equal to (6% – 1%)/15% = 0.33

Portfolio ‘A’ has the higher Sharpe ratio and therefore the higher risk-adjusted return. Despite its lower return, it benefited from its lower volatility.

Even though ‘B’ had a higher return, it was penalized for having a higher risk.

 

Test 1

We will continue the explanation of the benefits of diversification with an example with real securities.

We will use two ETFs – SPY which tracks the US Large Cap S&P 500 Index and IEF, which follows the performance of the 10-year US Government bond. Let’s create three portfolios – one invested 100% in SPY,  second invested 100% in IEF and third with 50%/50% split between both funds. Each portfolio starts with hypothetical $1 million. We track the performance for ten years (January 1, 2006, to December 31. 2015).

 

One key assumption is that at the end of each year we will rebalance the 50/50 portfolio back to the original target. We will sell off the excess amount over 50% for the overweight ETF, and we will buy enough shares from the underweight ETF so we can bring it back to 50%.

Results

Ticker Initial Balance Final Balance Average Return Standard Deviation Best Year Worst Year Max. Drawdown Sharpe Ratio US Market Correlation
IEF $1,000,000 $1,698,866 5.44% 6.46% 17.91% -6.59% -7.60% 0.68 -0.30
50/50 $1,000,000 $2,002,079 7.19% 7.11% 13.11% -9.45% -20.14% 0.86 0.87
SPY $1,000,000 $2,010,149 7.23% 15.23% 32.31% -36.81% -50.80% 0.47 1.00

Diversification2_1

 

The 100% SPY portfolio has the highest return of 7.23% and best overall final balance ($2.01m). The SPY portfolio has the largest gain in a single year, 32.3% but also the biggest yearly loss of -36.8%. It also has the highest measure of risk. Its standard deviation is 15.2%.  Its risk-adjusted return (Sharpe ratio) has the lowest value of 0.47.

IEF has the lowest return of the three portfolios, 5.44% but also has the “best” worst year, -6.6% and the lowest risk, 6.5%. Sharpe ratio is 0.68, higher than that of SPY.

The  50/50 portfolio has an average return of 7.19%, only 0.03% less than SPY alone. It has a standard deviation of 7.1%, only 0.65% higher than that of the 100% EIF. its market correlation is 0.87. Most importantly, the 50/50 portfolio has the highest risk-adjusted return, equal to 0.86.

The 50/50 portfolio illustrates the benefits of diversification. It provides almost the same return as the 100% large-cap portfolio with much lower risk and better returns consistency.

Test 2

In the second example, we will introduce two more portfolios.

Portfolio #4 holds 100% GLD. GLD is the largest and most liquid  ETF in the gold market.

In portfolio #5, we will split SPY and IEF into 45% each and will add 10% in Gold ETF. Same rules apply. Once a year we rebalance the portfolio to the original target allocation 45/45/10.

Results

Ticker Initial Balance Final Balance Average Return Standard Deviation Best Year Worst Year Max. Drawdown Sharpe Ratio US Market Correlation
IEF $1,000,000 $1,698,866 5.44% 6.46% 17.91% -6.59% -7.60% 0.68 -0.30
50/50 $1,000,000 $2,002,079 7.19% 7.11% 13.11% -9.45% -20.14% 0.86 0.87
SPY $1,000,000 $2,010,149 7.23% 15.23% 32.31% -36.81% -50.80% 0.47 1.00
GLD $1,000,000 $1,967,041 7.00% 19.20% 30.45% -28.33% -42.91% 0.39 0.07
45/45/10 $1,000,000 $2,028,238 7.33% 7.05% 13.92% -8.01% -16.75% 0.88 0.81

 Diversification4

 

The GLD portfolio has the highest volatility. Its standard deviation is 19.20%. It has the lowest risk-adjusted return of 0.39 and a second-lowest return of 7%.

Let’s look at our fifth portfolio – 45% SPY, 45% IEF and 10% GLD. The new portfolio has the highest return of 7.33%, the highest final balance of $2.28m, second lowest standard deviation of 7.05% and the highest risk-adjusted return of 0.88. It also has a lower correlation to the US market, 0.81.

Recap

Portfolio #5 is the clear winner of this contest. Why? We build a portfolio of uncorrelated assets, in this case, gold, 10-year Treasury, and large-cap stocks. Subsequently, we not only received an above average annual return, but we also achieved it by decreasing the risk and minimizing the volatility of our portfolio.

These hypothetical examples illustrate the benefits of diversification. Among them are portfolio risk mitigation, reduced volatility, higher risk-adjusted return, and more efficient capital preservation.

 

Asset correlation

So how do you determine the relationship between assets? Any financial software can provide you with this data.

If you are good at math and statistics, you can do parallel performance series for your securities and find the correlation between them.

There are a couple of free online tools, which you can use as well.

Beta

One easy way to get a sense of the correlation of your securities to the general stock market is Beta. Most financial websites like Google Finance and Yahoo Finance will give you this metric. Beta shows you the stock volatility compared to S&P 500. That said, the beta of S&P 500 is always 1. So for instance, if the beta of your stock is 2, you should expect twice as much volatility of your stock as compared to S&P 500. If the beta is 0.5, you would expect half of the volatility. If the beta is -0.5, then your stock and S&P will be negatively correlated. When one goes up, the other one will go down.

A quick search in Good Finance brought me these results for the securities we discussed earlier.

Beta for IEF is -0.20, SPY is 1, GLD is 0.07, Coca Cola, 0.51, Pepsi, 0.44, Target, 0.63, Costco, 0.55, Verizon, 0.22, AT&T, 0.29, Amazon, 1.1 and PG&E, 0.17,

Few other companies and ETFs of interest are: TLT, 20-year T-bond Index, -0.59, VNQ, REIT Index, 0.81, VYM, Vanguard High Dividend ETF, 0.81, USMV, iShares Low Volatility ETF, 0.68,  Google, 1.03, Facebook, 0.76, Wal-Mart, 0.19, Starbucks, 0.80, McDonalds, 0.51. Walt Disney, 1.32, Bank of America, 1.74.

The beta of the stocks can vary depending on market conditions, economic and business cycles. I recommend using in combination with other metrics like standard deviation, R-square, and Sharpe Ratio. This approach will help you gauge the expected volatility of your stock.

How many assets should you ideally keep in your portfolio?

Some theories call for 7-10 broad asset classes. This method is ideal for smaller-size portfolios. It will help control trading and rebalancing costs.

Other theories call for 20-25 asset classes. This approach is best suitable for large-size portfolios with more complex structure.

A regular portfolio should include these three groups with their subclasses.

Equity includes Large Cap, Mid Cap, Small Cap, Micro Cap, International Developed and Emerging Markets. In addition to that, you can add growth, value, dividend, low volatility, and momentum strategies.

Fixed Income includes US Treasuries, Municipal Bonds,  Investment Grade Corporate Bonds, High Yield, Preferred Stock, International, and Emerging Market Bonds

Alternative Investments include Real Estate, Precious Metals, Commodities, Infrastructure, Private Equity, Hedge Funds.

 

About the author: Stoyan Panayotov, CFA is a fee-only financial advisor based in Walnut Creek, CA. His firm Babylon Wealth Management offers fiduciary investment management and financial planning services to individuals and families.

 

Disclaimer: Past performance does not guarantee future performance. Nothing in this article should be construed as a solicitation or offer, or recommendation, to buy or sell any security. The content of this article is a sole opinion of the author and Babylon Wealth Management. The opinion and information provided are only valid at the time of publishing this article. Investing in these asset classes may not be appropriate for your investment portfolio. If you decide to invest in any of the instruments discussed in the posting, you have to consider your risk tolerance, investment objectives, asset allocation, and overall financial situation. Different investors have different financial circumstances, and not all recommendations apply to everybody. Seek advice from your investment advisor before proceeding with any investment decisions.  Various sources may provide different figures due to variations in methodology and timing. Image copyright: 123RF.com