Why Congressionally-mandated FIFO accounting will adversely impact your clients – and what you can do about it.

This past Saturday morning, the Senate passed their version of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act bill. One of the lesser known provisions in the Senate bill, was the elimination of an investor’s choice to identify which shares of securities they may wish to sell or donate. The provision states that the only way securities may be disposed of is through use of an accounting method commonly referred to as First-in First-Out (FIFO) where the oldest shares purchased are the first ones an investor may sell. Because of the protracted appreciation of the securities market, the first shares purchased are likely to be the lowest cost and therefore carry the most gain (and resulting tax penalty).

The House version did not include this particular provision. And because there exists so many differences between both versions of the bills, this past Monday, Congressional Republicans went to a Conference Committee to begin reconciliation efforts on the various differences between the two tax bills. Led by House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady, and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, there are a number of hot topics that will need to be negotiated – including individual tax rates, the handling of AMT, child tax credits, corporate tax rates and repeals to the Affordable Care Act.

Because of the number of big-ticket and high visibility items included in the bill coupled with the pace the legislation is advancing, some experts fear that the FIFO provision may be overlooked and ultimately absorbed into the reconciled bill as collateral damage to bigger-picture negotiations.

However, we at Adhesion believe that this would be shortsighted as the provision is damaging to the very investors and savers that it is purports to protect. The provision has virtually no impact on the $1.7 trillion funding gap the bill creates as it is currently scored at generating just $2.4 billion over 10 years. As inconsequential as those revenues may sound they don’t even consider the expense side of the equation – no official estimates exist thus far on the offsetting expense associated with infrastructure retrofit needed to operate, report, comply and monitor the changes thrust upon the industry. And it certainly does not consider expenses associated with policing and adjudication of these matters.

Interestingly, the Investment Company Institute, the powerful lobby representing the mutual funds and ETF industry, were granted an 11th hour carve-out reprieve in the Senate bill to allow mutual funds and ETFs to continue to sell specific tax lots within their pooled investment vehicles. It is important to note this carve-out exemption for institutional investors does not extend to those retail investors purchasing and selling these instruments, only how the fund itself accounts for the gains and losses within their portfolios.

We feel there are some other anti-competitive and unwarranted elements in this provision that members of Congress, investment advisors and end-investors should be gravely concerned about. Specifically –

  • When the Senate proposed a carve-out provision that protected the institutional fund companies and ETF providers while ignoring the retail investor class, they created an uneven playing field that is heavily tilted against retail investors. Through this provision, the institutional investor will be afforded a significant advantage as they may exit any tax lot they wish. With the freedom to select tax lots, the institutional investors can sell at will, whereas the retail consumer will be locked-up due to tax costs associated with their low-basis FIFO shares. This sort of unfair playing field is analogous to suggesting institutional investors can trade commission-free yet retail investors must always pay commission. The provision creates an enormously unfair and artificial trading barrier that will heavily disadvantage retail investors.
  • With this barrier in place, end-investors will likely open up different brokerage accounts or have paper certificates issued to them. In both cases, there is no reasonable method to enforce or monitor for this type of behavior. This will drive up operational costs for advisors and custodians which will ultimately be passed through to the end investors. And by exploiting this loophole, the revenue projections for this provision are likely to fall even shorter than expected.
  • By adding friction to the retail investor’s ability to liquidate securities through a FIFO provision, one should assume that there will be less selling – which leads to less liquidity and efficiency in our capital markets. This also means that retail investors will be less inclined to eliminate assets in an attempt to seek diversification. This will ultimately lead to concentrated and highly appreciated holdings in client portfolios which runs in stark contrast to tried and true investment principles of diversification, rebalancing and buy-low/sell high for retail investors. This introduces the potential of an enormous loss during a market correction as well as introducing excessive levels of portfolio risk – all while stifling the efficiency of the capital markets.
  • This provision disproportionally burdens older investors who likely have a more extensive tax history and on average maintain a lower cost basis than younger investors. This FIFO tax also represents an unplanned expense that retirees had not budgeted for – which will erode retirement savings at a time when retirees have very little time to recoup this new, unanticipated retirement gap.
  • This provision also disproportionally disadvantages middle- and upper-income investors who are more likely to hold FIFO-eligible securities. Contrast that with ultra-high net worth and institutional investors who frequently hold real estate, hedge funds and other sheltered ‘accredited investor’ assets, which can be exempted from FIFO provisions as a result of the Senate’s proposed carve-out clauses.
  • Lastly, if legislation is advanced, one unintended consequence facing mutual funds and ETF providers is that retail investors will likely seek to avoid concentrated positions so as to have more choice on which shares to dispose of. Mutual funds and ETFs are pooled investment vehicles, and as such, they are generally far more concentrated in a client portfolio than individual equities. We believe advisors and investors will wisely consider diversifying out of concentrated mutual fund and ETF holdings into a larger basket of diversified equities so as to have multiple tax lots to sell. So rather than purchase Coke multiple times, an investor may consider purchasing Coke, Pepsi, Dr. Pepsi and Constellation Brands. Security prices and equity valuations may no longer be dictated based on rational, sound fundamentals, but rather from a desire to exploit loopholes in heavy-handed government legislation.

For a bill that is intended to promote simplification and fairness, we think it does just the opposite. It unfairly penalizes the retail investor with a FIFO tax while introducing liquidity friction and complicated recordkeeping. At the same time, it rewards the large institutional and ultra-high net worth investors with flexibility to use their own preferred inventory accounting methods. Most would argue that if framed properly and viewed in its totality it would be difficult to defend.

So what can you do? We think this particular provision just needs a bit of sunlight so that it can be evaluated and debated in the open. With enough voices we think we can make this happen and we encourage you to get involved.

First off, encourage your clients to take action.  Consider directing them to TD Ameritrade’s Legislative Action Committee site, which has done a fantastic job of highlighting the issue.  From this site, they may contact their local representatives .

Next, as investment fiduciaries we would urge you to read the Money Management Institute’s position on the Senate version of the tax reform legislation.  On their site, the MMI chairman, Craig Pfeiffer shares talking points and a number of template letters you can use to contact your elected officials.  Similarly, the Investment Advisor Institute – an advocacy group for SEC-registered investment advisory firms has developed a site to contact elected officials and communicate your concerns of FIFO legislation.  Adhesion has also drafted an open letter to Congress which can be found here.  Feel free to use it or modify it and share it with your elected officials.

Also, as we head into year end, consider generating losses through active tax harvesting.  These losses can be used to unwind concentrated mutual fund or ETF holdings or buffer against future taxable gains resulting from potential inflexibility associated with this bill.  For more information on the value of tax harvesting and how it can add value to a client portfolio, feel free to watch this webinar

Lastly, we think now is a good time to dump concentrated mutual fund and ETF holdings to spread those proceeds into a diversified pool of equity holdings.  If you are interested in active equity managers, please consider Adhesion’s Asset Manager eXchange which can be found here.

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