ETFs and Taxes


The article, “A Primer on Exchange-Traded Funds” (JofA, Jan.02, page 38) was a good introduction to these popular investments. However, it didn’t discuss some other tax implications that may arise, especially for those individuals buying and selling often.

For example, wash-sale rules might come into play. If one purchases an exchange-traded fund such as the S&P 500 Spider, sells it at a loss and buys the iShares S&P 500 within 30 days, would this come under the wash-sale rules? The answer is not clear. Many experts disagree, and the Internal Revenue Service has not ruled on this yet. Wash-sale rules could apply when buying HOLDRs, which comprise a basket of preselected stocks in one sector, and can be “cancelled,” allowing an investor the right to sell any of the individual stocks. In addition, capital gains tax may be due if one company in the HOLDR sector buys another in that group.

Although IRS guidance is clearly needed, CPAs must be very knowledgeable about ETFs and inform clients of the tax consequences that may arise from owning these investment vehicles.

Erica Rubin, CPA
J.H. Cohn LLP
New York City

Author’s reply: The letter makes a good point. A CPA needs to know about the wash-sale rules, and what qualifies as “substantially identical” can be confusing. You are allowed to purchase shares in a different company in the same industry or another mutual fund with a similar strategy. The IRS hasn’t specifically weighed in on how index funds or exchange-traded funds are treated under wash-sale rules, and many experts say the agency would disqualify a loss where an investor sold one S&P 500 index fund and bought another.

The bottom line is that an ETF can both open doors and raise new tax issues. In this evolving area, tax practitioners do need to make certain assumptions.

Phyllis Bernstein, CPA/PFS
Phyllis Bernstein Consulting Inc.
New York City

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