ETF vs. Mutual Fund Tax Efficiency: An Overview

Tax considerations for mutual funds and exchange-traded funds (ETFs) can seem overwhelming but, in general, starting with the basics for taxable investments can help to break things down.

First, it's important to know that there are some exemptions to taxation altogether, namely, Treasury and municipal securities, so an ETF or mutual fund in these areas would have its own tax-exempt characteristics.

Second, the U.S. government requires a piece of nearly every type of income that an American receives, so while there are tax efficiencies to be considered, investors must plan on paying some tax on all dividends, interest, and capital gains from any type of investment unless clearly designated tax-exemptions apply.

Key Takeaways

  • ETF and mutual fund capital gains resulting from market transactions are taxed based on the amount of time held with rates varying for short-term and long-term.
  • Capital gain distributions from ETFs and mutual funds are taxed at the long-term capital gains rate.
  • Comprehensively, ETFs usually generate fewer capital gain distributions overall which can make them somewhat more tax efficient than mutual funds.

Capital Gains vs. Ordinary Income

Capital gains on most investments are taxed at either the long-term capital gains rate or the short-term capital gains rate. ETF and mutual fund share transactions follow the long-term and short-term standardization of capital gains treatment. However, the one-year delineation does not apply for ETF and mutual fund capital gain distributions which are all taxed at the long-term capital gains rate.

Dividends can be another type of income from ETFs and mutual funds. Dividends will usually be separated by qualified and non-qualified which will have different tax rates. Overall, any income an investor receives from an ETF or mutual fund will be delineated clearly on an annual tax report used for reference in the taxpayer’s tax filing. Keep in mind there can be some tax exceptions for both ETFs and mutual funds in retirement accounts.

Oftentimes, investment advisors may suggest ETFs over mutual funds for investors looking for more tax efficiency. This advice is not a mere matter of the difference in taxes for ETFs vs. mutual funds since both may be taxed the same - but rather a difference in the taxable income that the two vehicles generate due to their own unique attributes.

Long-term capital gains refer to gains occurring from investments sold after one year and are taxed at either 15% or 20% depending on the tax bracket. Short-term capital gains refer to gains occurring from investments sold within one year and are all taxed at the taxpayer’s ordinary income tax rate.

ETF Taxes

ETFs can be considered slightly more tax efficient than mutual funds for two main reasons. One, ETFs have their own unique mechanism for buying and selling. ETFs use creation units which allow for the purchase and sale of assets in the fund collectively. Secondly, the majority of ETFs are passively managed which in itself creates fewer transactions because the portfolio only changes when there are changes to the underlying index it replicates.

Mutual Fund Taxes

Mutual fund investors may see a slightly higher tax bill on their mutual funds annually. This is because mutual funds typically generate higher capital gains due to management’s activities. Mutual fund managers buy and sell securities for actively managed funds based on active valuation methods which allow them to add or sell securities for the portfolio at their discretion. Managers must also buy and sell individual securities in a mutual fund when accommodating new shares and share redemptions.

Managed Fund Tax Considerations

While ETFs are generally considered to be more tax efficient, the type of securities in a fund can heavily affect taxation. Regardless of ETF or mutual fund structure, funds that include high dividend or interest paying securities will receive more pass-through dividends and distributions which can result in a higher tax bill. Managed funds that actively buy and sell securities, and thus have larger portfolio turnover in a given year, will also have a greater opportunity of generating taxable events in terms of capital gains or losses.

Other ETF vs. Mutual Fund Differences

ETFs can also have some additional advantages over mutual funds as an investment vehicle beyond just tax. One additional advantage is transparency. ETF holdings can be freely seen day-to-day, while mutual funds only disclose their holdings on a quarterly basis.

Another important advantage of ETFs is greater liquidity. ETFs can be traded throughout the day, but mutual fund shares can only be bought or sold at the end of a trading day. This can have a significant impact on an investor when there is a substantial fall or rise in market prices by the end of the trading day.

A final advantage is generally lower expense ratios. The average expense ratio for an ETF is less than the average mutual fund expense ratio.