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The Short Answer

What You Should, and Shouldn't, Hold in a Taxable Account

These rules of thumb are helpful in determining what assets should go in what accounts.

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Taxable accounts have a few notable benefits. A big one is flexibility: Though you do have to pay taxes on investment gains, unlike tax-deferred accounts such as IRAs or 401(k)s, you can withdraw the money--contributions and earnings alike--whenever you need it, free of penalty.

Another plus is that there are no limits to how much you can invest in a taxable account (and you don't need to have earned income to contribute). Traditional IRAs have an annual contribution limit of $5,500 ($6,500 for those 50 and older); the limit is $18,000 (increasing to $18,500 in 2018) for employees who participate in 401(k), 403(b), and most 457 plans.

The downside, of course, is taxes. Not only do you pay taxes on the way in, as contributions are made with aftertax dollars, but you also pay taxes on any amount that is above your cost basis when you sell. But on top of that, even if you don't sell, you will pay taxes on any income distributed from your investments held inside taxable accounts. That means if you hold dividend-paying stocks inside of taxable accounts, or if a mutual fund or exchange-traded fund you own in the account makes a capital gains distribution, you are on the hook to pay taxes on that income come April.

And a proposed change on the horizon could make it even more difficult to offset some of these capital gains tax burdens using strategic selling: The Senate's proposed tax bill contains a provision that would require retail investors to sell securities on a first-in, first-out basis, rather than being allowed to select specific shares that could be sold at a loss and therefore offset capital gains taxes.

But regardless of how proposed tax laws play out, it's always a good idea to try to maximize your entire portfolio's tax efficiency by relegating more tax-efficient investments to your taxable account, while placing less tax-efficient investment types in a tax-deferred account. Here are some tips to help determine what goes where.

Index Funds and ETFs Tend to Be Tax-Efficient
There are certain types of funds that are by design more tax-efficient than others. This article contains a useful tax efficiency ranking chart for different investment types, which is a helpful starting point. As the article points out, many index funds, especially large-cap index funds or total-market index funds that are weighted by market cap, have fairly low turnover and tend not to pay out big distributions. 

But don't assume that just because it's an index fund it earns high marks for tax-efficiency: Sometimes stocks get booted out of indexes with market-cap constraints or factor exposures when the stocks no longer meet the indexes' criteria for inclusion. 

Likewise, exchange-traded funds tend to be tax-efficient because of their ability to exchange securities in-kind (which doesn't result in a tax liability as a sale of the asset would). However, more investigation is warranted here, too; certain types of ETFs are more likely to make distributions, such as fixed-income ETFs, currency-hedged ETFs, or ETFs that invest in markets that do not allow in-kind redemptions. 

Sometimes market conditions can play a role in tax efficiency, too. Last year, currency-hedged ETFs were at the top of the list of ETFs making sizable capital-gains distributions, but this year, exchange-rate trends have reversed course. For 2017, some higher-turnover equity ETFs that were launched in the past several years are slated to pay out the biggest distributions. For instance, iShares Edge MSCI Multifactor Technology ETF (TCHF) is estimated to distribute 4.79%-5.83% of its net asset value. Why such a big distribution? 

"One noteworthy trend this year is capital gains among a crop of newer funds born into a bull market with higher turnover that have experienced one-directional flows since inception," said Ben Johnson, director of global ETF research. "Higher turnover has forced them to sell lowish-basis securities, given that they haven’t had much opportunity to purge them from their portfolios via in-kind redemption."

Actively Managed Funds, Income-Producing Securities Tend Not to Be as Tax-Efficient
On the other end of the spectrum, actively managed funds that tend to have high-turnover strategies can be tax-inefficient, because selling securities at a gain triggers a distribution. 

Of course, though, this is a general rule of thumb that doesn't always hold true. If you are looking to hold an actively managed fund in a taxable account, looking at the fund's tax-cost ratio could be helpful. 

Found on a fund quote's tax tab, this metric measures how much a fund's annualized return is reduced by taxes investors pay on distributions. The lower it is, the less money the investor has surrendered to taxes. A tax-cost ratio of zero means that the fund didn't pay out any taxable distributions for the period. Note that the tax-cost ratio is not simply the difference between the pretax return and the aftertax return. This is the formula to calculate it:

Tax-Cost Ratio = [ 1 - ( (1+tax-adjusted return) / (1+pretax return) ) ] x 100

The example I linked to,  Fidelity Magellan (FMAGX), has a 10-year tax cost ratio of 1.19 and annual turnover of 51%; scroll down to the table at the bottom of the fund's quote page to see its historical dividend and capital gains distributions. I probably would think twice before holding this fund in a taxable account. 

But it also pays to remember that past isn't prologue. Actively managed funds that have been tax-efficient in the past may not necessarily be great choices for taxable investors going forward. The tax-cost ratio is a helpful tool, but it's not a guarantee.

Other investments that tend to be poor choices for a taxable account are income-producing assets such as real-estate investment trusts or funds focusing on REITs (whose dividend income is taxed at nonqualified or ordinary income rates), or most bond funds with the exception of municipal bond funds, whose income is tax-advantaged. In the vast majority of cases, the income munis provide is not taxed at the federal level and, in some instances, it's not taxed at the state or local level, either. (Some muni bonds could be subject to alternative minimum tax, however.)

These rules of thumb are helpful when determining asset location, but none of them are guarantees. It's also important to remember that you probably shouldn't overhaul your portfolio for the sake of tax considerations, which are a shifting landscape anyhow. As Morningstar director of personal finance Christine Benz points out, proper asset location won't make or break your retirement plan in the way that your savings/spending rate and your asset allocation will.

Karen Wallace does not own (actual or beneficial) shares in any of the securities mentioned above. Find out about Morningstar’s editorial policies.