TaxProf Blog

Editor: Paul L. Caron, Dean
Pepperdine University School of Law

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Colon: ETFs And In-Kind Redemptions

Jeffrey M. Colon (Fordham), The Great ETF Tax Swindle: The Taxation of In-Kind Redemptions, 122 Penn St. L. Rev. ___ (2017):

Since the repeal of the General Utilities doctrine over 30 years ago, corporations must recognize gain when distributing appreciated property to their shareholders. Regulated investment companies (RICs), which generally must be organized as domestic corporations, are exempt from this rule when distributing property in kind to a redeeming shareholder.

In-kind redemptions, while rare for mutual funds, are a fundamental feature of exchange-traded funds (ETFs). Because fund managers decide which securities to distribute, they distribute assets with unrealized gains and thereby significantly reduce the future tax burdens of their current and future shareholders. Many ETFs have morphed into investment vehicles that offer better after-tax returns than IRAs funded with after-tax contributions.

Furthermore, this rule is now being turbocharged. Some mutual fund families have created ETF classes of shares for some of their mutual funds, which permits the ETF shareholders to remove the gains attributable to the shareholders of the regular share class. Another firm acts as a strategic investor to assist mutual funds in eliminating their unrealized gains through contributions and redemptions. These transactions permit current and future fund shareholders to inappropriately defer tax on their economic gains and give ETFs and other mutual funds with ETF share classes a significant tax advantage over other investment vehicles.

This article considers various options that tax policymakers should consider to eliminate the ETF tax subsidy including explicitly extending this favorable tax treatment to all RICs by exempting fund-level gains from tax, repealing the exemption rule, limiting the amount of unrealized gains a fund can distribute, requiring ETFs to reduce the basis of their remaining property by the unrecognized gain of distributed property, or requiring ETFs to be taxed as partnerships.

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