large realized losses (I): the position of many ETFs and actively managed US mutual funds today

I’m going to do this topic in two posts, today and tomorrow.

The bottom line is that many equity mutual funds and ETFs have large accumulated recognized losses.  These are akin to operating loss carryforwards that operating companies may have.  This was bad news for shareholders during the time the losses were racked up.  But it can be valuable good news for current or new shareholders.

How so?

They don’t appear in the net asset value calculation, so you don’t pay for them.  Nevertheless, they can be the single biggest asset a fund has.  Their value is that they offset the taxable distributions you would otherwise get when the fund sells stocks at a gain.  In other words, you get to keep the entire amount of the gain (inside the fund) rather than having to pay tax on the gain at either short-term or long-term capital gains rates.  Skillfully used by the fund management company, this ability could be worth 10% or more of the NAV of the fund.

Neither brokers nor fund companies talk about this topic.  This is mostly because doing so would highlight again the fund’s loss-making past that its marketing people hope everyone has forgotten about.

As it turns out, I’ve been hired more than once in my career to turn around a poorly performing fund that contained very large tax losses.  So I’ve seen the value of this asset first hand.  Along the way, I’ve been cited by Forbes a number of times for running very tax efficient portfolios.  I know this is an odd topic, but it can be a profitable one.

Let’s get started.


funds as corporations

Mutual funds and ETFs are, as legal entities, are a special type of corporation.  They are exempt from taxation of income at the corporate level in return for restricting their activities to portfolio investing and distributing virtually all their income and realized capital gains to shareholders (who are liable for paying income tax on the distributions).

individuals tend to buy high and sell low

The old brokers’ joke is that Wall Street is the only marketplace in the world where customers run out of the store when a 30% off sign is placed in the window.  It is a characteristic of the behavior of many individual investors that they tend to act in a highly emotional fashion.  This leads them to buy when prices have already been rising for a considerable time and the market is very enthusiastic and to sell after sharp drops and everyone is scared.

in the Great Recession

In the most recent instance of such behavior, according to the Investment Company Institute, equity mutual funds in the US had net outflows of about $150 billion between October 2008 and March 2009.  During this time the S&P 500 ranged from the high 600s to the high 800s–or 30% or more below today’s level.

In contrast, net inflows to equity mutual funds during the first half of 2007, when the S&P was above 1400–25% higher than now, were about $85 billion.

US funds vs. international

We can disaggregate these flows to see the behavior of investors toward US-oriented funds and their international/global counterparts.

US funds had virtually no net inflows during the first half of 2007 and about $100 billion in redemptions at the bottom–outflows equivalent to most of the money invested in them (at levels above 1200) since 2004.  (there’s a clear shift by investors away from domestic funds to ETFs during this period but that’s another story.)

Global/international funds, in contrast, captured just about all the $85 billion in inflows at the top and had “only” $50 billion in outflows at the bottom.

concentrating on US funds

If we assume that the $100 billion in redemptions occurred when the S&P was at 800 and that the stocks were bought on average when the S&P was at 1300, we can get a rough idea of the magnitude of the losses that this “sell low” trade engendered.  The two index levels imply that the stocks sold for $100 billion had a cost basis of about $165 billion–therefore that the selling funds created an aggregate loss of about $65 billion, much of which is still on the books of mutual funds.

Why still on the books?  For many funds, their share of this number dwarfs the unrealized gains they have on positions they still hold.  Given the (rare) occurrence of two bad bear markets during the last decade–the aftermath of the Internet bubble + the financial meltdown–a fund would likely have to have either bought stocks recently or held them since some time in the Nineties to have unrealized gains.


Not every fund has accumulated losses.  Not every fund has a skilled manager or a management philosophy that will allow them to use this asset effectively.  Although most funds are in a loss position because the past few years have been the worst for stocks since WWII, some have added to their woes because they’re not good investors.  This latter type is one to identify and avoid.


Many equity ETFs are passive entities.  They may have very large losses, but unrealized ones, because they became popular and received large inflows in 2006 and 2007.  Today those purchases are probably deeply under water.  To the extent that these funds are run by computers, not humans, it’s unclear how they’ll be able to realize and use these losses.

That’s it for today.   Tomorrow I’ll write about how to find and evaluate the loss position for any given mutual fund.  You’ll find the numbers buried in the fund balance sheet and accompanying footnotes.

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