Taxes

Tax alpha: 3 steps to take today to improve your portfolio’s tax health

May 17, 2022

Are you doing all you can to save on U.S. taxes?

While optimizing your investments to save on U.S. taxes has long been a fundamental of sound portfolio construction—now is a particularly good time to explore what you might do to generate more “tax alpha.”

After 10 years of above-average returns, we expect markets to produce more modest results and experience greater volatility in the next decade. While it is unclear whether any tax provision of the Build Back Better bill may ultimately get passed, changes adopted years ago are scheduled to go into effect in 2026. For example:

  • Income taxes—Today’s highest marginal income tax rate of 37% is set to increase to 39.6% after 2025
  • Transfer taxes—While in 2022 the lifetime exemption (amount that any individual can transfer to a non-spouse free of transfer tax) is $12.06 million per person, starting in 2026 it is slated to be reduced to $5 million per person (indexed for inflation)

What can you do to protect your finances?

One quick answer: Call your tax, investment and wealth advisors and ask them to work together to make sure your portfolio has a solid tax management plan. Given the complexities of both U.S. tax law and today’s investment options, this is not a do-it-yourself project. It’s not even a job for a single type of highly trained specialist.

Still, you will want a big-picture understanding of how portfolios can generate tax alpha. So here is your guide to three key steps they might advise to help you keep more of the money you earn. 

1. Put assets in their tax-compatible accounts

It’s not just what you own, but where you own it. The type of account in which a specific asset is held can dramatically impact your tax exposure.

A quick asset location suitability test is this: Your portfolio may not be tax-optimized if (a) all your assets are in one kind of account (i.e. taxable or tax-deferred), or (b) you have all of the same holdings in different types of accounts.  

The general rule is that, all else being equal, you want to hold tax-inefficient assets (especially those with higher growth potential) inside tax-advantaged accounts such as a 401(k), deferred compensation, IRA, Roth or annuity.   

The reason behind the rule is simple: Tax-deferred accounts, such as 401(k)s, deferred compensation, traditional IRAs and annuities, all delay income tax liabilities until assets are withdrawn. This delay allows them to grow and compound tax-free. With a Roth IRA, you pay the income tax on the assets upfront, but then the money in the account gets to grow tax-free, and there is no tax bill upon withdrawal.

Good candidates for tax-deferred accounts are high yield bonds, high-turnover equity strategies, hedge funds and other investment products that tend to generate taxation at ordinary income rates via interest or net short-term capital gains, as compared to assets that generate qualified dividend income or long-term capital gains, the latter of which are taxed at a preferential rate. 

Proper asset location can generate meaningful “tax alpha” over time1

Source: J.P. Morgan
This chart shows the potential annual “tax alpha” that could be generated by placing different asset classes in a tax-deferred account instead of a taxable account. The analysis is for 30 years with an initial $1,000,000 investment. The analysis uses assumptions for each asset class’ return, yield, turnover, and tax treatment (long versus short term capital gain and ordinary versus qualified dividend income) to compare the after-tax value of a tax-deferred account to the taxable account after thirty years. These values are compared to calculate the annualized “tax alpha” generated from investing in a tax-deferred account. Tax inefficient asset classes, which have more of their total return comprised of ordinary income or short-term capital gains, are the most suitable for a tax-deferred account. The continuum shows that, based on the assumptions used and documented in the footnotes, assets to be prioritized in tax-deferred accounts are 1) High Yield Bonds 2)High Turnover Equity SMAs 3) REITS 4) Hedge Funds and 5) Investment Grade Bonds. Assets that are more tax efficient, which have more of their total return comprised of qualified dividend income or long-term capital gains can lose “tax alpha” by investing in a tax-deferred account. Assets to be prioritized in taxable accounts are 1) Private Equity 2) Low Turnover Equity SMAs and 3) Emerging Markets. These results are meant to be general guideposts and the actual underlying holding should be reviewed with your tax advisor to determine optimal placement as there can be nuances and variances within each asset class.

In contrast, private equity is generally a less efficient asset to hold in a tax-deferred account because most (if not all) of the returns it generates will be taxed at preferential long-term capital gain rates. It would be better to put your private equity holdings in a taxable account, such as an individual, joint or (even better) a grantor trust where future growth is shielded from transfer tax.

Of course, to put your dollars and investments in the right accounts, you have to know the types of accounts you may need and for which you are eligible. In general, maximizing your contributions to qualified plans (401(k), 403(b)) and deferred compensation arrangements can be a great first step in creating account diversification. 

2.  Trade with tax awareness   

Markets’ increased and likely prolonged volatility creates opportunities for more active tax-loss harvesting. 

Indeed, it now can be costly to wait to do your tax-loss harvesting at the end of the year or even the quarter. A better practice is to have your portfolio reviewed regularly for embedded losses.

You also might benefit from a so-called “separate, tax-managed account”—one that is specifically designed to constantly look for losses and harvest when opportunities arise.   

Of course, to harvest tax losses, you sell a stock in which you have experienced a loss so that you can claim that loss against gains (already realized or future). Then, if you like the stock sold and/or want to preserve your portfolio’s asset allocation, you can purchase an equity with similar, but not exact, characteristics (e.g., sell Coca Cola, buy Pepsi). However, care must be taken to avoid the so-called “Wash Sale Rule.”2

Similarly, if you are transitioning your portfolio to a new strategy, you’ll want to make sure to do so tax-efficiently. This means weighing the tax costs of changing vehicles versus the new position’s potential return; it also means seeing if any positions of your current strategy can be transferred “in kind” to the new strategy in order to defer realizing a gain. 

3.  Look for tax-smart tactics

In addition, you might want to look for opportunities to boost your tax alpha when:  

Donating to charity 

If you want to give to charity, for example, consider these two tax-efficient moves:

  1. Public charities/donor-advised funds (DAFs)—Donate long-term, appreciated securities (individual stocks, exchange-traded funds, mutual funds, etc.) to a DAF and you will not need to pay the capital gains tax you would incur if you sold the asset and then donated the proceeds. Yet you still might be able to claim a fair market value charitable deduction for the tax year in which the gift is made.3
  2. Qualified charitable distributions (QCDs)—Instead of taking a required minimum distribution (RMD) from a traditional IRA, you might make a QCD. The money (up to as much as $100,000 each year) would go directly from the IRA custodian to the public charity of your choice.4 It would count toward your RMD for the year, and you would not have to pay taxes on it, but you also would not receive a charitable tax deduction.  

Giving to family

If you think one of your holdings could deliver outsized growth, and you have both the desire and capacity to give to your family, you may want to consider creating a grantor retained annuity trust (GRAT).

GRATs are created for a limited time. GRATs are generally structured so that you, as the grantor, receive back the original amount you put in plus growth, assumed at a minimum hurdle, or the 7520 rate.5 At the end of the trust’s term, while you get back what you put in, any appreciation of the asset over the hurdle rate goes—free of gift taxes—to the trust’s beneficiaries.

Bridging lumpy cash flows

It is common to experience a mismatch between a need for ready cash and what’s on hand (liquid). For example, a desired work of art or home may come on the market, but there’s not enough cash sitting in your portfolio. 

Using a line of credit can separate your purchase decisions from your decisions about investments. It can give you time to raise the cash tax-efficiently in your investment portfolio, or the credit line can serve as a bridge until you receive an anticipated influx of cash.

We can help

Which of these strategies makes sense for you? How might they play out in your portfolio to help you keep more of your investment returns? 

Your J.P. Morgan team is ready to work with you and your tax advisors to help you make sure your finances are not just tax-efficient, but also support your long-term goals. 

 

1 Assumes an analysis for 30 years with an initial investment of $1,000,000.­
For taxes calculated at the federal level, 43.4% income tax rate, 23.8% qualified dividend income (QDI) rate, 43.4% short-term capital gains rate and 23.8% long-term capital gains rate.­
Private Equity assumes the LTCMA return of 8.1%, 0% yield, 100% of income taxed as ordinary income, 10% turnover, 100% gains taxed as long-term.­
Low Turnover Equity SMA assumes the LTCMA return of 5%, 2.1% yield, 100% of income taxed as QDI, 30% turnover, 100% gains taxed as long-term.­
Emerging Markets assume the LTCMA return of 6.9%, 2.4% yield, 100% of income taxed as QDI, 50% turnover, 100% gains taxed as long-term.­
Investment Grade Bonds assume the LTCMA return of 2.3%, 2.25% yield, 100% of income taxed as ordinary income, 80% turnover, 100% gains taxed as long-term.­
Hedge Funds assume the LTCMA return of 3.6% plus 2% of alpha, 0% yield, 100% of income taxed as ordinary income, 100% turnover, 60% gains taxed as short-term, 40% gains taxed as long-term.­
REITs assume the LTCMA return of 5.8%, 1.9% yield, 100% of income taxed as ordinary income, 15% turnover, 100% gains taxed as long-term. This analysis does not factor in the potential Qualified Business Income deduction potentially available if held in a taxable account.­
High Turnover Equity SMA assumes the LTCMA return of 5% plus 2% of alpha, 2.1% yield, 100% of income taxed as QDI, 100% turnover, 60% gains taxed as short-term, 40% gains taxed as long-term.­
High Yield Bonds assume the LTCMA return of 3.9%, 6.2% yield, 100% of income taxed as ordinary income, 60% turnover, 100% gains taxed as long-term.

2 These rules prevent you from taking a loss if you buy a security considered “substantially identical” within 30 days before or after the loss trade date IRC section 1091. Before acting, please be sure to discuss your potential buybacks with your tax advisor.

3 Subject to limitations based on a percentage of your adjusted gross income (AGI). 

4 For this purpose, a public charity does not include a DAF.

5 The 7520 rate for May 2022 is 3.0%. https://www.irs.gov/businesses/small-businesses-self-employed/section-7520-interest-rates

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