Investment Tax Management Boosts Returns in Surprising Ways

Tax Deferral Illustrated
Figure 1. Tax Deferral benefits both parties.

A Common Tax Misconception

When asked to consider tax deferral investment strategies, many people instinctively conclude that tax deferral benefits the investor at the expense of the government. Such a belief is half-right. Tax deferral ultimately benefits both the investor and the government’s tax revenues. While there are exceptions involving inheritance, in most other cases both parties benefit. Figure 1 summarizes the relationship between higher after-tax returns and higher nominal net cash flows to the government.

The reason I lead with the government’s side of the tax equation is for tax policy wonks in Washington D.C. I suspect many of them already know this information, and this is simply another data point to add to their arsenal of tax facts. For the others, I hope this a wake-up call. The message:

When investors, investment advisors, and fund managers successfully defer long-term capital gains, investors and governments win in the long run.

The phrase “in the long run” is important. When taxes are deferred, the government’s share grows along with the investor’s. In the short term, taxes are reduced; in the long run taxes are increased. For the investor this long-run tax increase is more than offset by increased compounding of return.

Please note that all of these win/win outcomes occur under a assumption of fixed tax rates — which is 20% in this example. It is also worth noting that these outcomes occur for funds that are spent at any point in the investor’s lifetime. This analysis does not necessarily apply to taxable assets that are passed on via inheritance.

Critical observers may acknowledge the government tax “win” holds for nominal tax dollars, but wonder whether it still holds in inflation-adjusted terms. The answer is “yes” so long as the the investor’s (long-run) pre-tax returns exceed the (long run) rate of inflation. In other words so long as g > i (g is pre-tax return, i is inflation), the yellow line will be upward sloping; More effective tax-deferral strategies, with higher post-tax returns, will benefit both parties. As inflation increases the slope of the yellow line gets flatter, but it retains an upward slope so long as pre-tax return is greater than inflation.

Tax Advantages for Investors

Responsible investors face many challenges when trying to preserve and grow wealth. Among these challenges are taxes and inflation. I will start by addressing two important maxims in managing investment taxes:

  1. Avoid net realized short-term (ST) gains
  2. Defer net long-term gains as long as possible

It is okay to realize some ST gains, however it is important to offset those gains with capital losses. The simplest way of achieving this offset is to realize an equal or greater amount of ST capital losses within the same tax year. ST capital losses directly offset ST capital gains.

A workable, but more complex way of offsetting ST gains is with net LT capital losses.The term net is crucial here, as LT capital losses can only be used to offset ST capital gain once they have been first used to offset LT capital gains.  It is only LT capital losses in excess of LT capital gains that offset ST gains.

If the above explanation makes your head spin, you are not alone. Managing capital gains is really an exercise in linear programming. In order to make this tax exercise less (mentally) taxing, here are some simple concepts to help:

  • ST capital losses are better than LT capital losses
  • ST capital gains are worse than LT capital gains
  • When possible offset ST losses with ST gains

Because ST capital losses are better than LT, it often makes sense to see how long you have held assets that have larger paper (unrealized) losses. All things equal it is better to “harvest” the losses from the ST losers than from the LT losers.

Managing net ST capital gains can potentially save you a large amount of taxes, resulting in higher post-tax returns.

Tax Advantages for the Patient Investor

Deferring LT capital gains requires patience and discipline. Motivation can help reinforce patience. For motivation we go back to the example used to create Figure 1. The example starts today with $10,000 investment in a taxable account and a 30-year time horizon. The example assumes a starting cost basis of zero and an annual return of 8%.

This example was set up to help answer the question: “What is the impact of ‘tax events’ on after-tax returns?” To keep things as simple as possible a “tax event” is an event that triggers a long-term capital gains tax realization in a tax year. Also, in all cases, the investor liquidates the account at the start of year 31. (This year-31 sale is not counted in the tax event count.)

It turns out that it not just the number of tax events that matters — it is also the timing. To capture some of this timing-dependent behavior, I set up my spreadsheets to model two different timing modes. The first is called “stacked” and it simply stacks all tax events in back-to-back years. These second mode is called “spaced” because the tax events are spaced uniformly.  Thus 2 stacked tax events occur in years 1, 2, while 2 spaced tax events occur in years 10 and 20. The results are interesting:

Why tax deferral matters
Tax “event” impact on after-tax returns.

The most important thing to notice is that if an investor can completely avoid all “tax events” for 30 years the (compound) after-tax return is 7.2% per year, but if the investor triggers just one taxable event the after tax return is significantly reduced. A single “stacked” tax event in year 1 reduces after tax returns to 6.49% while a single “spaced” tax event in year 15 reduces returns to 6.67%. Thus for a single event the spaced tax event curve is higher, while for all other numbers of tax events (except 30 where they are identical) it is lower than the stacked-event curve.

The main take-away from this graph is that tax deferral discipline matters. The difference between 7.2% and 6.67% after-tax return, over thirty years is huge when framed in dollar terms. With zero (excess) tax events the after-tax result in year 31 is $80,501. With one excess tax event (with the least harmful timing!) that sum drops to $69,476.

In the worst case the future value drops to $51,444 with an annual compound after-tax return of only 5.61%.

Tax Complexity, Tax Modeling Complexity, and Other Factors

One of the challenges faced when bringing fresh perspectives to the tax-plus-investing dialog is in providing examples that paint the broad portfolio tax management themes in a concise way. The first challenge is that the tax code is constantly changing, so predicting future tax rates and tax rules is an imprecise game at best. The second challenge is that the tax code is so complex that any generalization will mostly likely have a counterexample buried somewhere in the tax code. The third complication is that baring significant future tax code changes and obscure tax code counterexamples, creating a one-size-fits-all model for investors results in large oversimplifications.

I believe that tax indifference is the wrong answer to the question of portfolio tax optimization. The right answer is more closely aligned with the maxim:

All models are wrong. Some are useful.

This common saying in statistics gets to the heart of the problem and the opportunity of investment tax management. It is better to build a model that gives deeper insight into opportunities that exist in reconciling prudent tax planning with prudent investment management, than to build no model at all.

The simple tax model used in this blog post makes some broad assumptions. Among these is that the long-term capital gains rate will be the same for 30 years and that the investor will occupy the same tax bracket for 30 years. The pre-tax return model is also very simple: 8% pre-tax return each and every year.

I argue that models as simple as this are still useful. They illustrate investment tax-management tax principles in a manner that is clear and draws the same conclusions as analysis using more complex tax modelling. (Complex models also have their place.)

I would like to highlight the oversimplification I think is most problematic from a tax perspective.  The model assumes all the returns (8% per year) are in the form of capital appreciation. A better “8%” model would be to assume a 2% dividend and 6% capital appreciation.  Dividends, even though receiving qualified-dividend tax treatment, would bring down the after-tax returns, especially on the left side of the curve.  I will likely remedy that oversimplification in a future blog post.

Investment Tax Management Summary

  1. Tax deferral does not hurt government revenues; it helps in the long run.
  2. Realized net short-term capital gains can crater post-tax investment returns and should be avoided.
  3. Deferral of (net) long-term capital gains can dramatically improve after-tax returns.
  4. Tax deferral strategies require serious investment discipline to achieve maximum benefit.
  5. Even simple tax modelling is far better than no tax modelling at all.  Simple tax models can be useful and powerful. Nonetheless, investment tax models can and should be improved over time.