Top 9 Things to Know About Mutual Fund Taxation

Strategies and Examples to Reduce Taxes and Maximize Returns

An investor researches a mutual fund at his laptop
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Understanding mutual fund taxation can help you improve your total portfolio return by reducing or eliminating taxes on your funds.

Learning which types of funds are best for taxable accounts (and which ones to avoid) can help you to maximize returns while minimizing unwanted taxes.

Key Takeaways

  • Mutual funds that generate a lot of taxable income (such as dividends) can be bought within a tax-advantaged account to defer taxation.
  • Some funds generate little to no taxable income, making them a good fit for your taxable brokerage account.
  • You can offset your capital gains with your capital losses in a technique known as tax-loss harvesting.
  • Choosing mutual funds with low expenses and tax costs should ultimately improve your returns over time.

Asset Location

One of the biggest mistakes investors make is placing mutual funds that generate high relative taxes in their taxable accounts. For example, most bond funds and dividend-paying stock funds generate income that's taxable to the investor. These funds are therefore best purchased in a tax-deferred account, such as an IRA, 401(k), or annuity. You'll avoid needless income tax that way.

Tax-Efficient Funds

Invest in mutual funds that generate little to no taxable income if you have a taxable account, such as a regular individual or joint brokerage account. These funds are considered tax-efficient. For example, you might consider using municipal bond funds, which generate income generally tax-free at the federal level, if you seek exposure to bonds.

Be sure to avoid funds that pay generous dividends in a taxable account. They'll generate more taxes than those that pay low or no dividends.

How Mutual Fund Dividends Are Taxed

Some corporations pass along their profits to stock shareholders in the form of dividends. A mutual fund investing in stocks might therefore receive dividends from the companies in which it invests, then pass along dividends to the mutual fund shareholder.

A mutual fund investor often chooses to have dividends reinvested into the fund, but they might still owe taxes. The amount of taxes owed will depend upon the holding period and your income tax bracket, among other factors.

Mutual Fund Capital Gains Distributions

Mutual funds might invest in dozens or hundreds of stocks. Often, the mutual fund manager will buy and sell shares of several of stocks in the fund during any given year. These trades can generate capital gains, which are then passed along to the investor (you) when the manager sells stocks that have gained in value since the time they purchased them.

Plan Ahead for Distributions

Mutual fund companies generally post capital gains distribution estimates beginning in October to help shareholders prepare for them. These estimates can help mutual fund investors who own funds held in taxable accounts to plan ahead for tax day.

Tax Loss Harvesting

Many investors make the mistake of paying capital gains taxes when they could have reduced or eliminated them by offsetting the gains with capital losses.

For example, imagine you want to rebalance your portfolio, so you decide to sell shares of two funds. Generally, equal gains and losses would offset each other, and no tax would be owed if you have $1,000 of capital gains as a result of selling the first fund, and $1,000 of capital loses as a result of selling shares of the other fund.

Tax Cost Ratio

The tax cost ratio is a measurement of how taxes impact the net returns of an investment. For example, the tax cost ratio would be 1% if your mutual fund earns a 10% return before taxes, but the tax costs incurred by the fund reduce the overall return to 9%. Investors can find pre-tax returns, tax-adjusted returns, and tax cost ratio for their mutual funds through Morningstar.

Index Funds vs. Actively Managed Funds

Funds that try to "beat the market" are referred to as "actively managed funds." Those that simply try to match the returns of the market or a given benchmark are called "passively managed funds."

Actively managed funds typically have higher turnover. They buy and sell more stocks or bonds, and they therefore have higher tax costs than index funds and exchange-traded funds (ETFs). You might want to consider using one of the best S&P 500 Index Funds for tax efficiency.

How to Choose the Best Mutual Funds

The best-performing mutual funds over long periods of time, such as 10 years or more, are often those with the lowest tax costs. An investor looking for looking for the best-performing funds will likely find the most tax-efficient funds, even if they're not trying, simply because there's a high correlation between low tax costs, low turnover ratio, and low expense ratios to high relative returns, especially for longer investment periods.

The Bottom Line

Taxes can be minimized or even avoided by choosing tax-efficient funds for your taxable accounts. These funds include growth stock funds, index funds, and municipal bond funds. You may able to increase your overall investment portfolio returns with knowledge of the basics on mutual fund taxation.

The Balance does not provide tax, investment, or financial services and advice. The information is being presented without consideration of the investment objectives, risk tolerance or financial circumstances of any specific investor and might not be suitable for all investors. Past performance is not indicative of future results. Investing involves risk including the possible loss of principal.