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Asset location and taxes: The full breakdown

At a glance:

  • What is asset location?

  • Tax-sheltered accounts: High returns with high tax costs

  • Taxable accounts: Higher returns with low tax costs

  • Taxable and tax-sheltered accounts: Lower returns with high tax costs

  • Summary of asset location and taxes

When it comes to matters of money and investing, there are a handful of topics that make anyone's head hurt.

One of them is asset location—essentially, the placement of investments in taxable or tax-sheltered accounts.

Let’s look at the challenges investors face with asset location (not to be confused with asset allocation), and provide some general guidelines for navigating this confusing landscape.

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What is asset location?

Asset location refers to the placement of investments in taxable or tax-sheltered accounts. So why does it get so problematic at times?

For one thing, the tax treatment of investments changes frequently, so what might be an optimal asset placement today might not be a few years from now.

Consider dividends

Dividends provide a great case in point. Prior to 2003, income from stock dividends was taxed at the ordinary income tax rate, so you'd generally want to hold income-rich stocks in your tax-sheltered accounts.

But when dividends began to be taxed at the lower capital gains tax rate, they were no longer verboten for taxable accounts.

When real life is at odds with tax advice

In addition to tax treatment confusion, practical considerations sometimes completely contradict advice that makes good tax sense.

When we're in accumulation mode, most of us naturally use our retirement accounts (401[k]s and other company-retirement plans and IRAs) as a storehouse for our longest-term savings, so it's only logical that we'd be inclined to invest in long-term assets (namely, stocks) there.

Meanwhile, from a practical standpoint it's logical to want to hold more safe, stable, and liquid assets (namely, bonds and cash) in accounts that we can readily tap without strictures or penalties—our taxable accounts.

Yet as much logical sense as those asset-placement arrangements might seem to make, they precisely contradict what a tax advisor would tell you to do.

Because income from bonds and cash is taxed at your ordinary income tax rate, that's a powerful argument for holding bonds in your tax-sheltered accounts while keeping at least some stocks in your taxable account.

Stay on top of the changing tax rules

There are no one-size-fits-all solutions, and it's worth revisiting your asset location framework every few years, to make sure your plan syncs up with the current tax rules. But there are some general guidelines.

Tax-sheltered accounts: High returns with high tax costs

Because you don't have to pay taxes from year to year on income or capital gains you earn in tax-sheltered accounts like IRAs and 401(k)s, these are good receptacles for higher-returning investments that also have heavy tax consequences.

The best example would be junk bonds, junk bond funds, and multi-sector bond funds, all of which kick off a high percentage of taxable income.

And while it's a stretch to call high-quality bonds and bond funds "high-returning," they're also a better fit for tax-sheltered accounts than for taxable because their payouts are taxed at an investor's ordinary income tax rate.

Asset location for bonds

So generally speaking, to the extent that you hold bonds, you're better off doing so within the confines of a tax-sheltered account.

If you need to hold bonds in your taxable accounts, determine whether a municipal bond or bond fund might offer you a better aftertax yield than a taxable bond investment. (Income from munis is free of federal and, in some cases, state income taxes.)

Asset location for stocks

By contrast, stocks and stock funds are generally a better bet for taxable accounts, for various reasons.

That said, not all stocks belong in the taxable bin. Although they enjoy relatively low tax treatment currently, dividend-paying stocks are arguably a better fit for tax-sheltered rather than taxable accounts. The key reason is control.

Dividend income, like bond income, isn't discretionary. Whereas stock investors can delay the receipt of capital gains simply by hanging on to the stock, investors in dividend-paying stocks don't have that kind of control; they get a payout whether they like it or not.

That makes dividend payers, regardless of tax treatment, less attractive than nondividend payers from a tax standpoint.

Asset location for REITs and preferred stock

Your tax-sheltered accounts are also the right spot for REITs, whose payouts are generally considered nonqualified and taxed at ordinary income tax rates.

Preferred stock, too, is on the bubble, depending on the type of preferred you're dealing with, and therefore is apt to be a better fit within the confines of a tax-sheltered account.

Traditional preferreds generally qualify for dividend-tax treatment, whereas income from trust preferreds is taxed at an investor's ordinary income tax rate.

Dividends from some foreign stocks and funds may also be classed as nonqualified, meaning they will be taxed as income.

Asset location for mutual funds

Finally, to the extent that you hold mutual funds that churn through their portfolios frequently, you're better off doing so within your company-retirement plan or IRA. Such funds tend to generate a lot of short-term capital gains, which are also taxed as ordinary income.

Taxable accounts: Higher returns with low tax costs

The exceptions notwithstanding, there are compelling reasons to hold stocks in your taxable rather than tax-sheltered accounts.

Long-term capital gains, which are what you have when you sell stock that you've held for at least a year, are taxed at a much lower rate than is bond income—consult the IRS' Website for current long-term capital gains tax rates by income tax bracket.

You can control when you receive capital gains

Another key reason to hold stock in your taxable accounts is that stock investors can also exert a higher level of control over the receipt of capital gains than bond investors—for example, by buying and holding individual stocks or by investing in exchange-traded funds, which have a built-in mechanism for limiting taxable capital gains payouts.

Tax-managed funds and traditional broad-market stock-index funds also tend to do a good job of keeping the lid on distributing capital gains.

Taxable and tax-sheltered accounts: Lower returns with high tax costs

The key rules of thumb for asset location are that stocks go in taxable accounts and bonds go in tax-sheltered wrappers.

But what about lowly old cash? From a pure tax standpoint, holding the assets in a tax-sheltered account makes the most sense, as income from cash investments is taxable as ordinary income, just like bond income.

Access is key

Here's a case, however, where practical considerations may override the tax argument.

One of the key benefits of cash is easy access to your money when you need it, so it simply may not make sense to store cash for near-term income needs in tax-sheltered accounts, where you may face taxes and other penalties to pull it out prematurely.

And because you're receiving a minuscule income stream from most cash investments these days (you might be holding them for stability as much as real income), the tax hit associated with holding cash in a taxable account is apt to be quite low for most investors.

The bottom line is that if you're holding cash for near-term income needs or as an emergency fund, it makes sense to hold it in a taxable account.

If you're holding a sleeve of cash as a component of your retirement portfolio's long-term strategic asset-allocation plan, it's fine to hold it within the context of your tax-sheltered account.

Summary of asset location and taxes

Taxable or non-taxable accounts? Most of us will probably find this too much of a headache to think about for our deposit accounts.

And if we've got investments perking away for decades to fund our retirement, this question may also be a non-issue to us.

Since the tax treatment of investments changes frequently, what might be an optimal asset placement today might not be in the near future. As well, it would help to factor in early withdrawal penalties.

At the very least, you should now know how to think about asset location for your future needs.

The day might come when you find it useful for some investments.

This content was created in partnership with the Financial Fitness Group, a leading e-learning provider of FINRA compliant financial wellness solutions that help improve financial literacy.

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