Objective information about financial planning, investments, and retirement plans

5 Tips to Manage Taxable Mutual Fund Distributions


With the end of the year in sight it’s time for year-end mutual fund distributions. If you hold mutual funds in taxable accounts, these distributions will be taxable to you.

taxable mutual fund distributions


Even with the weakness in the stock market earlier in the year, many mutual funds have gains embedded from a six plus year bull market. There is nothing more frustrating than to have a mutual fund deliver mediocre performance in a given year and then get socked with large, taxable mutual fund distributions.

Short of selling the funds, which may or may not a good idea, here are 5 tips to manage taxable mutual fund distributions.

Don’t buy the distribution 

During November and December mutual fund companies will publish information about fund distributions on their websites. If you are looking to add to a position or start a new position in a mutual fund in a taxable account it is important that you know the dates of these distributions and take the anticipated distribution into account. You don’t want to buy a fund shortly before a significant distribution and then owe taxes on the distribution only having owned the fund for a short time.

Even if you reinvest distributions on mutual funds held in a taxable account the distributions are still taxable in the year received. These distributions can be added to your cost basis in fund which can take a bit of the sting out of this.

Consider tax-loss harvesting to offset capital gains distributions 

As you go through your taxable accounts near the end of the year consider selling holdings with a loss to offset some of the capital gains distributions from your funds.

Just as with gains and losses generated from the sale of investments, long-term capital gains are matched against long-term capital losses and likewise with short-term capital gains and losses.

Tax-loss harvesting or any tax strategy should only be used if it makes sense from an investment point of view.

Index funds are not a cure-all for taxable mutual fund distributions

Index funds tracking standard broad-market indexes are generally pretty tax-efficient. That doesn’t mean that this will be the case each and every year. Further index funds and ETFs tracking small and mid-cap indexes may need to make more transactions in order to track their respective indexes.

As smart beta products become more popular they will likely be less tax-efficient than more common market-cap weighted index products. Smart beta funds will likely need to buy and sell more frequently in order to rebalance to the their underlying benchmark than more standard index products, potentially resulting in larger capital gains distributions.

Don’t let the tax tail wag the investment dog 

While it is aggravating to receive large taxable mutual fund distributions, it is rarely a good idea to sell an investment holding solely for tax reasons.

Mutual fund distributions are one of three types:

  • Dividends
  • Short-term capital gains
  • Long-term capital gains

All three have different tax implications.

Ordinary dividends and short-term capital gains are taxed at your highest marginal ordinary income tax rate. Long-term capital gains are taxed at preferential rates ranging from 15% to 20% with higher income tax payers subject to the 3.8% Medicare tax. Qualified dividends are taxed at these same rates as well.

That said it is important to pay attention to the tax efficiency of the mutual funds that you are using in your taxable accounts. 

Consider distributions when looking to rebalance 

Year-end is a good time to look at rebalancing your entire portfolio, both taxable and tax-deferred accounts.  As you look to rebalance your portfolio consider reducing positions in taxable mutual fund holdings that continually throw off large distributions. If the fund is a good holding look for ways to own it in a tax-deferred account if possible.

The decision with regard to the taxable portion of your portfolio always involves taxes to one extent or another. If you were looking to reduce your position in the fund anyway it can make sense to sell it prior to the record date for this year’s capital gains distribution. If selling the fund would result in a capital gain, offsetting the gain against a realized loss on another holding could be a good strategy.

The Bottom Line

With the gains in the stock market over the past few years many investors may find themselves the recipient of large distributions this year in spite of weakness in the markets in recent months. When possible consider tax-efficiency when buying mutual funds in a taxable account.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner.

Photo credit: Pixobay

What I’m Reading – Super Bowl I Rematch Edition


This week’s Monday Night Football match-up features my Green Bay Packers hosting the Kansas City Chiefs at beautiful Lambeau Field.

This is a rematch of the first Super Bowl (actually called the NFL-AFL Championship) played in the LA Coliseum in January of 1967. I was nine and even at that point a Packer fan for life. There were 30,000 empty seats and neither network (the game was televised by both NBC and CBS) preserved a recording of the game. An old tape copy from an individual was recently restored. This is a far cry from the hype that surrounds the Super Bowl today.

The Packers had 10 future Hall of Famers plus Coach Lombardi. The Packers won 35-10. let’s hope for a similar result this time around as well.

Here are a few good financial articles to read while waiting for the kickoff:

Christine Benz discusses Dos and Don’ts for Mutual Funds Capital Gains Season at Morningstar.com.

Barbara Friedberg shares the 20 Dumbest Moves First-Time Investors Make at Go Banking Rates.

Sarah O’ Brien tells us that Financial planning is beyond investments, retirement plans at CNBC.com. 

Jim Blankenship warns us about Identity Theft Protection  at Getting Your Financial Ducks in a Row.

Elizabeth O’ Brien discusses When financial ‘advice’ is really a sales pitch at Market Watch.

I continue to write for Investopedia, here are a few of my recent contributions:

Betterment’s all-ETF Online 401(k) plan

Restricted Stock Units: What to Know

Closed-End Funds: A Primer

Enjoy the game. Go Pack Go!

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner.

How Much Apple Stock Do You Really Own?


Apple (AAPL) stock has been a great investment over the years. Based upon its stock price and the number of shares outstanding it is the largest U.S stock based upon market capitalization.  This means it is the largest holding in popular index mutual funds and ETFs like Vanguard 500 (VFINX) and the SPDR S&P 500 ETF (SPY).

Chuck Jaffe recently wrote an excellent piece for Market Watch discussing the impact that a recent drop in Apple stock had on a number of mutual funds that hold large amounts of Apple.  He cited a list of funds that had at least 10% of their assets in Apple.  On a recent day when Apple stock fell over 4% these funds had single day losses ranging from 0.22% to 2.66%.

The point is not to criticize mutual fund managers for holding large amounts of Apple, but rather as a reminder to investors to understand what they actually own when reviewing their mutual funds and ETFs.

Stock overlap 

In the late 1990s a client had me do a review of their portfolio as part of some work I was doing for the executives of the company. He held 19 different mutual funds and was certain that he was well-diversified.

The reality was that all 19 funds had similar investment styles and all 19 held some of the popular tech stocks of the day including Cisco (CSCO), Intel (INTC) and Microsoft (MSFT). As this was right before the DOT COM bubble burst in early 2000 his portfolio would have taken quite a hit during the market decline of 2000-2002.

Understand what you own 

If you invest in individual stocks you do this by choice. You know what you own. If you have a concentrated position in one or more stocks this is transparent to you.

Those who invest in mutual funds and other professionally managed investment vehicles need to look at the underlying holdings of their funds.  Excessive stock overlap among holdings can occur if your portfolio is concentrated in one or two asset classes. This is another reason why your portfolio should be diversified among several asset classes based upon your time horizon and risk tolerance.

As an extreme example someone who works for a major corporation might own shares of their own company stock in some of the mutual funds and ETFs they own both inside their 401(k) plan and outside. In addition they might directly own shares of company stock within their 401(k) and they might have stock options and own additional shares elsewhere. This can place the investor in a risky position should their company hit a downturn that causes the stock price to drop.  Even worse if they are let go by the company not only has their portfolio suffered but they are without a paycheck from their employer as well.

Concentrated stock positions 

Funds holding concentrated stock positions are not necessarily a bad thing. A case in point is Sequoia (SEQUX) which has beaten its benchmark the S&P 500 by an average of 373 basis points (3.73 percentage points) annually since its inception in 1970.  Sequoia currently has about 26% of its portfolio in its largest holding and another 8% in the two classes of Berkshire Hathaway stock.  Historically the fund has held 25-30 names and at one time held about 30% of the portfolio in Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A).  Year-to-date through August 14, 2015 the fund is up 16.5% compared to the benchmark’s gain of 2.88%.

The Bottom Line 

Mutual fund and ETF investors may hold more of large market capitalization stocks like Apple and Microsoft than they realize due to their prominence not only in large cap index funds but also in many actively managed funds. It is a good idea for investors to periodically review what their funds and ETFs actually own and in what proportions to ensure that they are not too concentrated in a few stocks, increasing their risk beyond what they might have expected.

Please feel free to contact me with any questions, comments or suggestions about this article or anything else on The Chicago Financial Planner. Thank you for visiting the site.

Do I Own Too Many Mutual Funds?


In one form or another I’ve been asked by several readers “… do I own too many mutual funds?”  In several cases the question was prompted by the number of mutual fund holdings in brokerage accounts with major brokerage firms including brokerage wrap accounts.  One reader cited an account with $1.5 million and 35 mutual funds.

So how many mutual funds are too many?  There is not a single right answer but let’s try to help you determine the best answer for your situation.

The 3 mutual fund portfolio 

I would contend that a portfolio consisting of three mutual funds or ETFs could be well-diversified.  For example a portfolio consisting of the Vanguard Total Stock Market Index (VTSMX), the Vanguard Total International Stock Index (VGTSX) and the Vanguard Total Bond Index (VBMFX) would provide an investor with exposure to the U.S. stock and bond markets as well as non-U.S. developed and emerging markets equities.

As index funds the expenses are low and each fund will stay true to its investment style.  This portfolio could be replicated with lower cost share classes at Vanguard or Fidelity if you meet the minimum investment levels.  A very similar portfolio could also be constructed with ETFs as well.

This isn’t to say that three index funds or ETFs is the right number.  There may be some additional asset classes that are appropriate for your situation and certainly well-chosen actively managed mutual funds can be a fit as well.

19 mutual funds and little diversification 

A number of years ago a client engaged my services to review their portfolio.  The client was certain that their portfolio was well-diversified as he held several individual stocks and 19 mutual funds.

After the review, I pointed out that there were several stocks that were among the top five holdings in all 19 funds and the level of stock overlap was quite heavy.  These 19 mutual funds all held similar stocks and had the same investment objective.  While this client held a number of different mutual funds he certainly was not diversified.  This one-time engagement ended just prior to the Dot Com market decline that began in 2000, assuming that his portfolio stayed as it was I suspect he suffered substantial losses during that market decline.

How many mutual funds can you monitor? 

Can you effectively monitor 20, 30 or more mutual fund holdings?  Frankly this is a chore for financial professionals with all of the right tools.  As an individual investor is this something that you want to tackle?  Is this a good use of your time?  Will all of these extra funds add any value to your portfolio?

What is the motivation for your broker? 

If you are investing via a brokerage firm or any financial advisor who suggests what seems like an excessive number of mutual funds for your account you should ask them what is behind these recommendations.  Do they earn compensation via the mutual funds they suggest for your portfolio? Their firm might have a revenue-generating agreement with certain fund companies.  Additionally the rep might be required to use many of the proprietary mutual funds offered by his or her employer.

Circumstances will vary 

If you have an IRA, a taxable brokerage account and a 401(k) it’s easy to accumulate a sizable collection of mutual funds.  Add in additional accounts for your spouse and the number of mutual funds can get even larger.

The point here is to keep the number of funds reasonable and manageable.  Your choices in your employer’s retirement plan are beyond your control and you may not be able to sync them up with your core portfolio held outside of the plan.

Additionally this is a good reason to stay on top of old 401(k) plans and consolidate them into an IRA or a new employer’s plan when possible.

The Bottom Line 

Mutual funds remain the investment of choice for many investors.  It is possible to construct a diversified portfolio using just a few mutual funds or ETFs.

Holding too many mutual funds can make it difficult to monitor and evaluate your funds as well as your overall portfolio.

Please feel free to contact me with your questions. 

Please check out our Resources page for more tools and services that you might find useful.

What is a Hedge Fund?


The term hedge fund is used often in the financial press.  I suspect, however, that many investors do not really know what a hedge fund is.

What is a Hedge Fund?





Investopedia defines a hedge fund as follows:

“An aggressively managed portfolio of investments that uses advanced investment strategies such as leveraged, long, short and derivative positions in both domestic and international markets with the goal of generating high returns (either in an absolute sense or over a specified market benchmark).” 

Here are a few basics about hedge funds to help you understand them.  Note this is certainly not meant to be an in-depth tutorial but rather is meant to provide an introduction to hedge funds.

Who can invest in hedge funds? 

In order to invest in a hedge fund you must be an accredited investor.  The current definition of an accredited investor is someone with a net worth of $1 million (excluding the equity in their home) and at least $200,000 in income ($300,000 with a spouse) over the past two years.  Many hedge fund investors are institutional investors such as foundations, endowments and pension plans.  About 65 percent of the capital invested in hedge funds comes from institutional investors.

What is the minimum investment? 

The minimum required to invest is often $1 million or more though some smaller hedge funds and funds of funds may have lower minimums.  New companies like Sliced Investing are seeking to change these high minimums by allowing investors to invest as little as $20,000.

Do I have access to my money? 

Unlike mutual funds, ETFs, closed-end funds and individual stocks hedge funds typically do not offer daily access to your money.

Some hedge funds allow investors to subscribe (invest) or redeem their money monthly, for others this might be quarterly or based upon some other time period.  Most hedge funds will require advanced notice for redemptions which might be as long as 180 days.  This allows the fund managers time to raise sufficient cash and allows for an orderly sale of fund investments especially if the redemption is a significant amount.

Some hedge funds also require a lock-up which means that there are no redemptions allowed during this initial period.  A typical lock-up period is one year, though some are as long as two years.  In some cases the lock-up period is “soft” meaning that redemption can be made but there will often be a penalty ranging from 2 percent to as high as 10 percent. 

Some hedge funds may also have the ability to enforce “gates” on redemptions which means they can decide to process only a portion of the redemptions requested.  This provision came into focus during the 2008-2009 market downturn as hedge fund redemptions requests swelled as many investors sought to raise cash.

What types of fees are charged? 

The fees charged by hedge funds vary widely.

Many hedge funds charge a management fee of 2 percent or more.

There might also be incentive fees of 10 to 20 percent of the fund’s profits or more.  This rewards the fund manager for superior performance.  The flip side of this is that the manager generally only collects an incentive fee if the fund’s performance exceeds its former highs, known as a high water mark.

If a fund loses 5 percent in a given year, no incentive fees will be paid to the manager the following year until the 5 percent loss is made up.

The term two and 20 is a common one in the hedge fund world meaning that the fund would charge a 2 percent management fee and a 20 percent incentive fee.  This may seem pricey but if the performance is stellar then investors won’t mind paying it. 

What types of investment strategies are available? 

There is a vast range of investment strategies across the hedge fund landscape.  These might include long-short, global macro, market neutral, convertible arbitrage, distressed securities and many others.  Additionally there are a number of fund of funds offered which means that the fund offers a collection of strategies and fund managers under one umbrella.   

What should I consider before investing in a hedge fund?

From reading the above you might ask yourself why would I invest in hedge funds?  Let’s remember that hedge funds are considered alternative investments.  Ideally they will have a relatively low correlation to the traditional long-only equity and fixed income investments in your portfolio.  At their best well-managed hedge funds can add balance and reduce the overall risk of your portfolio, in some cases the strategies are designed to provide absolute returns across all investing environments.

Before investing in a hedge fund or any alternative investment make sure you have considered and fully understand the following:

  • The fund’s investment strategy.
  • How this investment strategy fits with your overall portfolio and investing strategy.
  • What the fund “brings to the table” that you can’t get with more traditional long-only stock and bond investments.
  • Who is managing the fund and their history and investment track record.
  • The required minimum investment.
  • Any redemption restrictions and/or lock-up periods.  Make sure that you won’t need to tap this money during this time period. 

The Bottom Line 

Like any investment option you might consider it is important to understand the pros and cons of hedge funds in general and any specific fund or strategy that you might be considering for your portfolio.

Disclosure: This blog post was written for Sliced Investing pursuant to a paid content arrangement I have with the company’s representatives as part of an effort to raise awareness about alternative investment options. All views expressed are entirely my own, and were not influenced or directed by Sliced Investing.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Are Brokerage Wrap Accounts a Good Idea?


A reader recently emailed a question regarding a brokerage wrap account he had inherited from a relative.   He mentioned that he was being charged a one percent management or wrap fee and also suspected that he was incurring a front-end load on the A share mutual funds used in the account.

Upon further review we determined that the mutual funds were not charging him a front-end load.  Almost all of the funds being used, however, had expense ratios in excess of one percent plus most assessed 12b-1 fees paid to the brokerage firm as part of their expense ratios.

Are brokerage wrap accounts a good idea for you?  Let’s take a look at some questions you should be asking.

What are you getting for the wrap fee? 

This is the ultimate question that any investor should ask not only about wrap accounts but any financial advice you are paying for.

In the case of this reader’s account it sounds like the registered rep is little more than a sales person who put the reader’s uncle into this managed option.  From what the reader indicated to me there is little or no financial advice provided.  For this he is paying the brokerage firm the one percent wrap fee plus they are collecting the 12b-1 fees in the 0.25 percent to 0.35 percent on most of the funds used in the account.

Before engaging the services of a financial advisor you would be wise to understand what services you should expect to receive and how the adviser and their firm will be compensated.  Demand to know ALL aspects of how the financial advisor will be compensated.  This not only lets you know how much the relationship is costing you but will also shed light on any potential conflicts of interest the advisor may have in providing you with advice.

What’s special about the wrap account? 

While the reader did not provide me with any performance data on the account, from looking at the underlying mutual funds it would be hard to believe that the overall performance is any better than average and likely is worse than that.

Whether a brokerage wrap account or an advisory firm’s model portfolio you should ask the financial advisor why this portfolio is appropriate for you.  Has the performance of the portfolio matched or exceeded a blended benchmark of market indexes based on the portfolio’s target asset allocation?  Does the portfolio reduce risk?  Are the fees reasonable?

What are the underlying investments? 

In looking at the mutual funds used in the reader’s wrap account there were a few with excellent returns but most tended to be around the mid-point of their asset class.  Their expenses also tended to fall at or above the mid-point of their respective asset classes as well.

Looking at one example, the Prudential Global Real Estate Fund Class A (PURAX) was one of the mutual funds used.  A comparison of this actively managed fund to the Vanguard REIT Index Fund Investor shares (VGSIX) reveals the following:

Expense ratios:



Expense Ratio



12b-1 fee




 Trailing returns as of 12/31/14:

1 year

3 years

5 years

10 years












While the portfolio manager of the wrap account could argue the comparison is invalid because the Prudential fund is a Global Real Estate fund versus the domestic focus of the Vanguard fund I would argue what benefit has global aspect added over time in the real estate asset class?  Perhaps the attraction with this fund is the 30 basis points the brokerage firm receives in the form of a 12b-1 fee?

Looking at another example the portfolio includes a couple of Large Value funds Active Portfolios Multi-Manager A (CDEIX) and CornerCap Large/Mid Cap Value (CMCRX).  Comparing these two funds to an active Large Value Fund American Beacon Large Value Institutional (AADEX) and the Vanguard Value Index (VIVAX) reveals the following:

Expense ratios:





Expense Ratio





12b-1 fee






Trailing returns as of 12/31/14:

1 year

3 years

5 years

10 years






















Again one has to ask why the brokerage firm chose these two Large Value funds versus the less expensive institutionally managed active option from American Beacon or the Vanguard Index option.  I’m guessing compensation to the brokerage firm was a factor.

Certainly the returns of the overall wrap account portfolio are what matters here, but you have to wonder if a wrap account uses funds like this how well the account does overall for investors.

The lesson for investors is to look under the hood of any brokerage wrap account you are pitched to be sure you understand how your money will be managed.  I’m not so sure that my reader is being well served and after our email exchange on the topic I hope he has some tools to make an educated evaluation for himself.

The Bottom Line 

Brokerage wrap accounts are an attempt by these firms to offer a fee-based investing option to clients.  As with anything investors really need to take a hard look at these accounts.  Far too many charge substantial management fees and utilize expensive mutual fund options as their underlying investments.  It is incumbent upon you to understand what you are getting in exchange for the fees paid.  Is this investment management style unique and better?  Will you be getting any actual financial advice?

The same cautions hold for advisory firm model portfolios, the offerings of ETF strategists and managed portfolios offered in 401(k) plans.  You need to determine if any of these options are right for you.

Please feel free to contact me with your questions. 

Check out an online service like Personal Capital to manage all of your accounts all in one place.  Also check out our Resources page for more tools and services that you might find useful.

Dow 18,000 – A Big Deal?


In February of 2013 I wrote Dow 14,000 – Big Deal or Just a Number?  Today the Dow Jones Industrial Average closed at 17,778 after a 421 point gain.  This is on the heels of a better than 200 point rise yesterday marking the average’s largest two day gain in 12 years.  Dow 18,000 looks like it will not be far off.

Just as I thought Dow 14,000 was a pretty meaningless number, I also think Dow 18,000 is equally meaningless.  In fact there are many, including yours truly, who think the Dow Jones Industrial Average isn’t all that meaningful as a benchmark.

Rather than focusing on the level of the market you should focus on your portfolio and your investment strategy.  Some specific action steps you might consider:

Rebalance your portfolio

You should have a strategy to review your overall portfolio on a regular basis (annually, semi-annually etc.) to ensure that your asset allocation is within your target allocation.  Invariably certain asset classes will outperform or under perform.  Bringing your portfolio back into balance forces you to sell off some winners and fund those asset classes that have underperformed.

Market leaders and laggards shift periodically and this approach adds a level of discipline to your strategy.  Mostly rebalancing helps mitigate investment risk.

Keep expenses low 

You can’t control how the markets will perform.  You can control your investment expenses.  Specifically:

  • Mutual fund and ETF expenses.
  • Trading costs at your custodian.
  • The cost of financial advice

Revisit your investment strategy 

I view market highs as a great time to revisit your investment strategy and your financial plan.  If you’ve been fully and properly invested your portfolio has hopefully risen along with the markets.

Where does this leave you in terms of progress towards achieving your financial goals?  This is a good time to revisit your financial plan.

The Bottom Line

Is Dow 18,000 a big deal?  Not in my book and frankly I wonder if anyone besides the financial news media really cares.  I suggest focusing on the details of your portfolio and your strategy and ignoring the hype.

Check out an online service like Personal Capital to manage all of your accounts all in one place.   Check out our Resources page for more tools and services.

Tis the Season for Stock Market Predictions


As I listen to CNBC in the background and read the financial press it is the season for the pundits to make their 2015 stock market predictions.  Some of these predictions relate to the level of the market in general, others include “hot stocks for 2015.”

Many of these people are pretty smart and I’m not dismissing their research.  What I am saying is that that I’m not so sure any of this is useful.  But in the spirit of the season here are my 2015 stock market predictions.

The stock market might go up 

The consensus seems to be that 2015 will be a good year for the stock market.  They might well be right.  The U.S. economy is improving, oil prices are low, etc.

The stock market might go down 

The experts could be wrong or worse there could be some sort of adverse event that spooks the market and perhaps the economy.

My official stock market predication is that I have no clue 

While this is all fun and provides something for the cable news talking heads to discuss, at the end of the day nobody has a clue what 2015 or any year holds for the stock market or the economy.

Focus on what you can control 

We have no control over what the financial markets will do or over how your stocks, mutual funds, ETFs, or any other holdings will do.  But as investors you can control a number of things including:

  • The cost of investment advice
  • The expense ratios of mutual funds and ETFs owned
  • Your asset allocation
  • Your overall investment strategy
  • How much you save and invest in our 401(k) and elsewhere
  • How much you spend.

I’m not denigrating the value of stock market research and analysis.  But for most of you reading this post I’m guessing that you are long-term investors versus being traders.  If that is the case you are, in my opinion, far better off controlling what you can control and investing in line with your financial plan than in trying to chase predictions and hot segments in 2015 or in any year.

Start 2015 out right, check out an online service like Personal Capital to manage all of your accounts all in one place.  Check out our Resources page for more tools and services.