Investors who own ETFs and mutual funds in taxable accounts (i.e. this does not apply to tax-protected accounts such as RRSPs) may be surprised and puzzled this year to receive T3 tax slips that show capital gains to be reported on their income tax return. After all, in 2008 stock markets had one of the worst years in living memory with the TSX down 35%. How could there be any gains one might ask?
Taxable Capital Gains When the Fund Sells: Investor Sees no Cash
Capital gains (or losses) arise when the fund sells one of its holdings and makes a profit during the year; the investor has not sold anything, the fund has. The net of all the sales during the year is calculated by the fund and the capital gains are attributed to the investor for purposes of tax reporting. Such gains are not usually paid out in cash to the investor; instead they get reinvested within the fund through new purchases.
The TSX had reached a peak in mid-June 2008, so stocks sold within a Canadian equity fund up to that point could well have made a capital gain and if few stocks were sold at a loss during the subsequent downturn before the end of the year, the fund might be reporting a net capital gain for 2008. That does turn out to be the case for instance, with the popular iShares Canadian Large Cap 60 Index ETF (symbol XIU). A press release of Dec.24th says XIU has generated a reinvested distribution of $0.14652 per share, which investors will soon see in box 21 on a T3 slip from their broker to be included on their tax return.
Taxable Capital Gains When the Investor Buys(!)
An investor who buys a fund late in the year just before the year-end capital gains distribution can end up paying tax for gains made much earlier in the year. Funds use the list of owners as of a certain date (termed the record date) to parcel out the year's gains, most often December 30th. The T3 the investor receives tells the tale. It may be better to defer the purchase till the new year. Fund companies normally publish year-end distribution estimates in advance of the record date so that investors can avoid the nasty tax surprise if a big capital gain is in the offing.
Taxable Capital Gains When the Investor Sells: Investor Sees Cash
A separate taxable capital gain (hopefully! or perhaps a loss) occurs when the investor sells all or part of a holding in a fund and the proceeds exceed the net purchase cost. The investor will NOT receive any T3 tax slips from the fund company to use on his/her tax return. It is up to the investor to calculate and report the gain.
ETFs - iShares Canada Distribution History links for each fund - e.g. for XIU
Claymore Canada Tax Information Guide for 2007 (2008 tba) covering all its funds
Mutual Funds - follow links to fund companies at FundLibrary.com and look for Tax or Distribution info at each company's site; a typical handy guide is Mackenzie's Mutual Fund Tax Guide
As always, this post is not to be taken as advice. If you are unsure how to handle distributions, contact an accountant or other financial professional.