selling: average cost or specific shares?

I’ve had a Fidelity brokerage account for a long time.  I’ve been relatively happy, with only two complaints:

–The first is a “just me” concern.  The Hong Kong stocks I own are always mispriced, except during Hong Kong trading hours.  Other than when that market is live, prices are typically two days old.

I’ve discussed this numerous times with Fidelity representatives (who probably think:  “Oh, him again!”);  I’ve also mentioned this in many surveys I’ve filled out over the years.  Apparently, it isn’t important enough to fix.  Every once in a while a Fidelity trader will advise me to trade these shares on the OTC market in the US, where they will be priced in my account, if accurate quotes are so important.  I don’t see the advantage for me, since my experience is that in times of stress US volumes for stocks like these evaporates.   In such circumstances, my observation is that prices can easily be 5% -10% less favorable in the US than in Hong Kong.  They’re also cheaper to trade in Hong Kong, too, but that’s a lesser issue.

 

–The second is more serious.  For some years, brokers have been required to report gains an losses from trading in taxable accounts to the IRS.  Determining selling price is straightforward.  The default option Fidelity uses for the cost of the shares sold, however, is the average price paid for all the shares in the position.

This is apparently the easiest thing for Fidelity to deliver.  But it’s not always the best for the client.  And the layout of the Fidelity online trade ticket doesn’t really highlight this important issue.  Unless you click on the expanded ticket link at the bottom of the form, you won’t be able to specify the tax lots that will be sold.

What is this about?

Two considerations:

–gains from stocks held for a year or less are taxed as ordinary income;  gains on stocks held longer than that are taxed at the (lower) long-term gains rate (more information from Turbotax).  So all other things being equal, it’s better to recognize a long-term gain than a short-term one.

–I generally try to sell my highest-cost shares first.  This results in recognizing the largest loss or smallest gain.  A net loss can have a tax value (see the Turbotax link above); subject to the holding period rules, the smallest gain should also mean the smallest income tax payment.

An example:

Suppose I hold 100 shares of JPM that I’ve bought at $50 and another 100 at $80.  Both lots are short-term.

I decide to sell 100 shares and net $9000 for them.

If at the time of sale I specify the shares with the $80 cost, my taxable gain is $1000.

If I specify the $50 shares, my gain is $4000. (I would probably only do this if I expected to offset this gain with a loss from other stock sales or from losses carried forward from prior years.)

If I let the Fidelity computer do the work, my capital gain is $2500.

 

If I’m in the 25% tax bracket, my income tax on the sale will be $250, $625 or $1000–depending on how I handle my cost basis.

 

Yes, I’ll likely sell the remainder of the position eventually, so I’m only postponing tax by choosing the highest cost shares.  Even so, in the meantime I have more money to put back to work today if I minimize current taxes.

 

 

 

US corporate tax reform (ii)

There are likely to be losers from corporate income tax reform.  They’re likely to be of two types:

–companies that currently have sweetheart tax deals, which, as things stand now (meaning:  subject to the success of intensive lobbying), will go away as part of reform.  A related group is multinationals who’ve twisted their corporate structures into pretzels to locate taxable income outside the US

–companies making losses currently and/or that have unused tax-loss carryforwards.  The value of those unused losses will likely be reduced by a lot.  This is a somewhat more complicated issue than it seems.  In their reports to public shareholders, money-losing firms can use anticipated future tax benefits to reduce the size of current losses.  The ins-and-outs of this are only important in isolated cases, so I’ll just say that for such firms book value is likely overstated

Another potential consequence of tax reform is that investors may begin to take a harder look at tax-related items on the income and cash flow statements.  Could markets will begin to apply a discount to the stocks of firms that use gimmicks to depress their tax rate?  Thinking some what more broadly, it may mean the markets will take a dimmer view of other sorts of financial engineering (share buybacks are what I personally hope for).  It might also be that companies themselves will reemphasize operation experience rather than financial sleight of hand when choosing their CEOs.

publicly traded US companies have about $1 trillion in cash stashed abroad

That’s the best number I could come up with–admittedly through a fast internet search.

It’s not the exact figure that I find interesting, though, but the motives companies have for doing so.  Three of them are well-known, two less so.

the well-known

–Multinational companies have operations in many countries.  It may be that much of their growth–and all of their possible acquisitions–will be outside the US.  It makes no sense to move money back to the US, pay 35¢ on the dollar in Federal income tax and then resending the net amount abroad to make a foreign acquisition.  A CEO might, and probably should, lose his job for allowing this to happen.  Also the official reason companies cite for not returning cash to the US is that the funds are permanently invested internationally.

–Versus other countries, the IRS is unusually harsh in the way it taxes earnings repatriated from abroad.  There has already been one discount deal, the Homeland Investment Act of 2004, offered by the IRS to allow corporates to repatriate cash without the stiff tax bill.  The terms were:  tax at 5.25%, but all money brought back had to be invested in hiring new workers or building new plant.

As it turns out, aggregate hiring and plant construction didn’t rise during the amnesty period, even though about $300 billion was repatriated, making the case for another HIA a bit shaky.  Nevertheless, the possibility of a new HIA is a powerful deterrent to repatriation.  Who wants to be that idiot who paid $3.5 billion on a $10 billion repatriation a month before HIA II is enacted?

–Big corporates can borrow a ton of money very cheaply in the US.  APPL did it last year, for example, and the company seems to be warming up for another tranche in the near future.

the other two

–Companies have found a workaround.  It doesn’t count as repatriation if you keep the money in the US for less than 90 days and don’t get money again from the same source for a certain amount of time.  So multinationals have created daisychains of intracorporate loans, whose effect is to keep cash permanently in the US.  The first loan comes, say, from Hong Kong.  Three months later, it is repaid with cash from, say, Ireland.  That loan is repaid with money from, say, Switzerland.  And the Swiss loan is repaid with fresh funds from Hong Kong…  Ingenious, yes, but most owners would wish, I think, that corporate minds be put to more productive uses.

–In recent years, companies have boosted eps growth by tax planning, that is, by opting to recognize profits in low-tax jurisdictions.  A generation ago, investors wouldn’t have allowed this.  The market back then would only pay a discount PE for earnings that weren’t fully taxed at the rate prevailing in the firm’s home country.

No longer.  As far as I can see, investors are now indifferent to the tax rate firms pay.  The market no longer discounts earnings taxed at a low rate.  So managements have every incentive to recognize profits in low-tax countries.  After all, it takes $1.50 in pre-tax earnings in the US to produce a dollar of net.  That’s 50% more than a US firm needs to produce the same net from Hong Kong.

More than that, suppose a firm suddenly got it into its head to recognize all its earnings in the US.  What would happen to profits?  There’s an easy way to find out.  Just look at the actual corporate tax rate and adjust it to 35%.  If the actual rate is 25%, then each dollar of pre-tax becomes 75¢ of net.  At 35%, each dollar of pre-tax would be 65¢ of net–a 14% drop.  What CEO wants to report that earnings growth is slowing–or worse, disappearing–because he’s monkeying around with the tax rate?