ETF Experts Look at Tax Efficiency
By John Spence, Associate Editor

One of the most compelling reasons for investing in exchange-traded funds is their potential heightened tax efficiency relative to traditional index mutual funds. Although most ETFs have a relatively short amount of history behind them, some researchers are already investigating to see if they have made good on the benefits touted by their proponents.

Brad Zigler, who has headed marketing, research, and education at the Pacific Exchange and Barclays Global Investors, compared capital gains distributions and after-tax returns for ETFs and Vanguard index funds that track several equity asset classes. For the ETFs, he used Barclays Global Investors' iShares. It's a small set of data, but it does represent two indexing giants using two different products to track the same indexes.

Capital Gains Distributions, August 2000-August 2001
Index tracked
ETF
Mutual fund
S&P 500
0.05%
0.00%
S&P MidCap 400
0.30%
8.54%
Russell 2000
0.17%
13.64%
S&P 500/Barra Value
0.24%
6.53%
S&P SmallCap 600/Barra Value
0.44%
7.13%
S&P 500/Barra Growth
0.16%
0.00%
S&P SmallCap 600/Barra Growth
0.81%
5.24%
Average
0.31%
5.87%
Source: Bloomberg, table appeared in the May, 2002 issue of Financial Planning Magazine
Capital Gains: total of both short-term and long-term capital gains distributions, expressed as a percentage of NAV


After-Tax Returns, August 2000-August 2001
Index tracked
ETF
Mutual fund
S&P 500
-24.65%
-24.67%
S&P MidCap 400
-8.63%
-11.10%
Russell 2000
-12.66%
-14.66%
S&P 500/Barra Value
-8.79%
-10.04%
S&P SmallCap 600/Barra Value
15.74%
13.16%
S&P 500/Barra Growth
-37.98%
-38.11%
S&P SmallCap 600/Barra Growth
-17.15%
-17.23%
Source: Bloomberg, table appeared in the May, 2002 issue of Financial Planning Magazine

It should be noted that the results above cover a short time period, August 2000 to August 2001.

Zigler points out that mutual funds are almost always fully invested, and therefore keep little cash on hand to meet shareholder redemptions. The fund must sell securities to pay out the redemptions, which triggers capital gains distributions for those who remain in the fund (unless the fund is held in a tax-deferred account). Zigler notes that many fund investors were hit with a double whammy during the market downturn: their mutual funds dropped in value yet they were hit with capital gains triggered by fellow fund investor redemptions. However, several Vanguard funds experienced positive inflows during the bear market and haven't had to sell stock to meet shareholder redemptions.

In simple terms, ETF investors are insulated from the selling of shares by other investors in the fund. Exchange-traded funds redeem shares "in kind" in a sort of barter system that doesn't involve actual selling shares and resultant capital gains.

ETFs are also able to eliminate low-cost-basis stock, or shares purchased cheaply that have since risen in price, during redemptions. This feature also bolsters ETF tax efficiency. As another example, at the end of 2001 Barclays Global Investors announced zero year-end capital gains distributions for all domestic and 11 international iShares.

However, ETFs do make capital gains distributions when shares are sold to reflect index rebalancings, just like index funds. Some ETFs and index funds are optimized samples of an index and can therefore adjust holdings in the absence of a real index rebalance.

The index fund vs. ETF tax efficiency debate is likely to continue until researchers have enough data to make meaningful comparisons, perhaps even three or five years worth. The two vehicles are different enough that they will likely appeal to different types of investors. Certainly, ETFs do have disadvantages, such as broker commissions, bid/ask spreads, and premiums and discounts. However, the structure of ETFs and the limited data so far suggests they can deliver on their tax efficiency claims.

05/08/2002

For Part 2 of this article, click here.

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