Although investment strategy should not be determined primarily by tax efficiency, once an asset allocation is determined, it should be set up in a tax-efficient manner. Canadian tax laws treat interest income, qualified dividend income, and capital gains differently. The goal of this article is to show you how to reduce (or minimize) the taxes you pay by strategic placement of investments among various investment accounts. Canadian tax laws are sufficiently different from American tax laws that advice written for Americans is inapplicable or even wrong when Canadian investing is considered.
Marginal tax rates
The actual tax rates applicable to each income source vary by province or territory and with income level (see Tax Rate Calculators), but are generally in accordance with the following progression:
Marginal Tax Rates Type Examples Highest Interest income, RRSP withdrawals, dividends or distributions from non-Canadian sources Intermediate Capital gains, qualified Canadian dividend income in high tax brackets Lowest Qualified Canadian dividend income in low tax brackets Deferred Return of capital that reduces the adjusted cost base (ACB) (eventually payable at capital gains rates)
Tax-efficient asset allocation places the highest taxable sources of income into non-taxable accounts whenever possible.
The dividend tax credit
Common shares and preferred share dividends from most Canadian corporations are eligible for a dividend tax credit, which significantly reduces the tax rate in non-registered accounts, particularly in the lowest tax bracket. For this reason, such shares are preferably held in non-registered accounts. After 2005, most dividends from public corporations are eligible, and thus known as eligible dividends, for the enhanced dividend tax credit, which dividends from Canadian controlled private corporations, known as non-eligible dividends, are subject to the regular dividend tax credit. You should also note that there are two parts to the dividend tax credit, the federal dividend tax credit (Line 425 on your federal tax return and a provincial or territorial tax credit.
Tax loss harvesting
If you sell a property or security on which you have a capital loss calculated using an adjusted cost base to determine your cost, you are allowed to deduct that loss from your capital gains, provided that you or a related entity does not buy and continue to hold the property or security for the 30 days preceding or 30 days following the sale. However, you can use those losses to reduce your taxes due by selling one security and immediately rebuying a similar but not identical security.
For example, suppose you hold the iShares CDN LargeCap 60 Index Fund, which tracks 60 of the largest stocks in the TSX (the S&P®/TSX® 60 Index) and trades on the Toronto Stock Exchange under the symbol XIU. Further suppose that you had suffered a large paper loss on that holding. You could sell your XIU position and immediately repurchase a similar dollar amount of XIC, which tracks a different stock index (the S&P®/TSX® Capped Composite Index) yet offers similar (but not identical) performance. You would have then captured the loss and could use it in the current tax year, while still maintaining a similar position so that you could benefit from future gains.
It should be specifically noted that, if a security is sold at a loss from a non-registered account and repurchased within 30 days in an Registered Retirement Savings Plan (RRSP), the tax credit from the loss will be disallowed and the loss deemed to be zero.
It is possible to actually zero the taxes due on a security on which one has a significant capital gain by donating a portion of the shares to charity. A calculator that estimates the portion to be donated can be found here.
Conventional bonds that trade at a premium above their face value ("Premium bonds") should not be held in a non-registered account because of unfavourable taxation. In addition, "strip bonds" and real-return bonds will require payment of taxes on returns accrued but not paid.
It is usually recommended that fully taxed securities (i.e., those that pay interest) be placed inside these accounts. In particular, securities in which interest is deemed but not received such as compounding Guaranteed Investment Certificates, strip bonds, and Real Return Bonds should be held in these accounts, rather than in a non-registered account.
RRSPs, RRIFs, LIRAs, RDSPs, and LIFs
These accounts all share the characteristic that any withdrawals are taxed as ordinary income.
Registered Education Savings Plans (RESP) withdrawals are partially taxed in the hands of the student, who may pay little or no tax by using the basic personal exemption and the tuition credits. The original capital contributed to the plan was from after-tax savings, so its withdrawal is tax free, provided the beneficiary has started post-secondary education.
As discussed in the following section, foreign tax deducted at source (such as from most non-Canadian investments) is not recoverable in a TFSA. Although the dividend tax credit on Canadian securities is also lost, this loss is generally moot (except for those with very low incomes who have a negative income tax rate on dividends) since no tax is payable on TFSA holdings in any case.
Foreign withholding taxes
Some foreign countries apply a withholding tax to payments, such as dividends or interest, paid to non-residents. The amount of tax withheld, if any, is specified by the foreign country’s tax laws. However, Canada has tax treaties in place with numerous countries that may supersede those foreign tax laws. For example, US tax legislation generally requires a 30% withholding on US-sourced dividends paid to “non-resident aliens”, but the Canada-US tax treaty reduces that withholding to 15% for Canadian residents.
Foreign tax paid may be recoverable through a foreign tax credit claimed against the normal Canadian tax payable. If the foreign income would not ordinarily be taxable in Canada, such as foreign dividends earned within a registered plan, the tax is not recoverable and is forever lost. Again, tax treaties may in some cases supersede this general rule. Under the Canada-US tax treaty, dividends and interest paid into an RRSP or RRIF from a US source are exempt from US withholding. In order to qualify for these US tax exemptions or reductions, Form W8BEN (pdf) must be filled out and filed with your brokerage. Note that the exemption does not extend to RESPs or TFSAs, thus high-yielding US stocks or US-based exchange traded funds (ETFs) are better held elsewhere than in RESPs or TFSAs. Also note that using a Canadian based mutual fund to invest in US stocks would result in US tax being withheld, even in an RRSP or RRIF - in such a case the foreign tax would not be recoverable.
When investing outside North America, the following considerations apply:
- a Canadian domiciled mutual fund will have paid withholding taxes to foreign governments, on the income it has received from foreign securities. The mutual fund will distribute the net amount; if the unitholders have the fund in a non-registered account, they will receive a tax slip including the foreign tax paid by the fund, which in most cases is fully recoverable from the CRA;
- a non-Canadian mutual fund (e.g., U.S. based ETF) investing in EAFE securities will have also paid withholding taxes to foreign governments, on the income it received from foreign securities. Such a mutual fund / ETF will not issue information to a Canadian resident about foreign tax credits. In addition, there will be another level of tax withheld by the fund / ETF's country of residence (e.g., USA); as mentioned in the above paragraph, this latter tax is not applicable if the US based fund is held in a retirement account (but does apply to a TFSA), and this second level of tax may be recoverable from the CRA for a non-registered account.
The consequence of these issues is that US-based ETFs that hold non-US stocks have an additional irrecoverable tax burden that raises the effective MER, and may negate any nominal MER advantage. Morevover, Canadian-based ETFs that are wraps of US based ETFs will also have this irrecoverable foreign tax burden.
Another consideration about foreign withholding taxes deals with holding foreign securities in an incorporated small business (CCPC). Although the withholding tax is theoretically recoverable from the regular tax payable by the corporation, the intricacies of CCPC taxation lead, in most cases, to about three-quarters of the foreign tax credit being lost, thus any high-paying foreign securities that attract foreign withholding taxes are better held outside the corporation.
Tax-Efficient asset allocation
(Taken from "Shakespeare's Primer" with permission of the author.)
Tax-efficient asset allocation of Canadian assets should be in accordance with the following table:
Tax-Efficient Asset Allocation Asset Class Non-Registered account Registered account Canadian Common shares or ETFs Usually best OK Canadian Preferred sharesa Yes No Tax-Deferred Canadian REITs/Trustsb OK If necessary (e.g. for RRIF) Income Trusts with Low Tax Deferralb If necessary Yes Canadian Stripped Bond No Yes Canadian nominal Bond If necessaryc Yes Canadian Real Return Bond No Yes US/Foreign Equity (high-dividend, low-growth) If necessary Yes US/Foreign Equity (low-dividend, high-growth) Usually best OK US/Foreign Normal Bond If necessary Yes US/Foreign Stripped Bond No Yes US TIPS Bond No Yes
a. Preferred shares produce dividend income and should be held outside an RRSP so as to benefit from the dividend tax credit.
b. Most REITs or trusts include a "return of capital" component  that is tax-deferred outside an RRSP. If the trust produces entirely income, it should be held inside an RRSP. The tax status can be determined from the trust's web site.
c. Premium bonds should not be included in non-registered accounts. See Conventional Bonds - Taxation in Non-Registered Accounts.
Building a Tax-Efficient Portfolio
Once a portfolio design is decided upon, perhaps with the help of an investment policy statement (IPS), the investor will be tasked with placing the components in a tax-efficient manner. Some examples will be used to show the process.
The general approach is that the registered accounts are filled first in reducing order of tax rate, with what's left going to the non-registered account.
Example 1. The Four-Component Portfolio
The first example will be based on a four-component portfolio. The investor decides on an asset allocation, based on broad indexes or ETFs, of 40% bonds, 20% Canadian equities, 20% US equities, and 20% international equities. His investment room is 50% non-registered and 50% registered (in an RRSP). (He also has an emergency fund in a TFSA which he does not consider as part of his investment portfolio.)
After reviewing various options, he chooses Canadian-based ETFs for the bonds, Canadian equities, and international equities. He decides to use a US-based ETF for US equities, since Canadian choices are either more expensive or currency-hedged (which adds cost). Although currency conversion charges can add to the costs of US-based ETFs, those charges can be minimized by Norbert's gambit.
Since bonds are taxed at the highest marginal rate, all of the bond component is assigned to the RRSP. This leaves 10% of the portfolio as RRSP room. Since Canadian equities have a dividend tax credit and international equities have foreign tax withheld that can be credited against Canadian tax, the most efficient way to assign the remaining RRSP room is to fill it with 10% US equities, which are not taxed in an RRSP. His final portfolio allocation is as follows:
- 40% broad bond index - all in RRSP
- 20% US equities - split between RRSP (10%) and non-registered account (10%)
- 20% international equities - all in non-registered account
- 20% Canadian equities - all in non-registered account
Example 2. Adding Real Estate Investment Trusts
In the second example, a four-component portfolio is modified by adding exposure to Canadian REITs, either for greater income or for portfolio diversification. The desired asset allocation is 40% Bonds, 20% US equities, 20% foreign equities, 15% Canadian equities (all of the previous based on broad indexes), and 5% REITs. The REITs offer a blend of tax-advantaged income (due primarily to Return of Capital, which reduces the ACB and defers tax) and fully-taxable income.
If the investor is still accumulating his portfolio and does not need the REIT income, he may wish to place them in his RRSP to avoid current tax, forgoing the tax advantage of the Return of Capital. In this case, again with 50% in an RRSP, his asset allocation would be as follows:
- 40% broad bond index - all in RRSP
- 5% REITs - all in RRSP
- 20% US equities - split between RRSP (5%) and non-registered account (15%)
- 20% international equities - all in non-registered account
- 15% Canadian equities - all in non-registered account
However, if the investor is now in withdrawal mode, and wishes to use the REIT income for living expenses, he may instead prefer to have the REITs in his non-registered account, replacing the RRSP content as before with US equities. On the other hand, once the RRSP has been converted to an RRIF and mandatory minimum withdrawals are required, placing REITs within the RRIF will produce cash flow to meet the minimum withdrawals.
Since investments cannot be switched from a non-registered account to a registered account without incurring a tax liability on embedded capital gains, it is important that the investor plan ahead in deciding his portfolio allocation, including the possibility of incurring future taxes.
In the third example, preferred shares and high-yield bonds[Note 1] are added to the four-component portfolio. This investor, who is retired, has limited RRSP room and has decided to use preferred shares in his non-registered account to boost income in a tax-advantaged way via the dividend tax credit. His final asset allocation is 40% in a broad bond index, 10% in a high yield bond fund, 10% in Canadian preferred shares, 10% in broad Canadian equities, 15% in broad US equities, and 15% in in international equities. His RRSP room is again 50%.
His most tax-efficient asset allocation would be as follows, placing the high-yield bonds (which have the highest tax rate) in the RRSP first:
- 10% high yield bonds - all in RRSP
- 40% broad bond Index - all in RRSP
- 10% preferred shares - all in non-registered account
- 15% US equities - all in non-registered account
- 15% international equities - all in non-registered account
- 10% Canadian equities - all in non-registered account
Example 4. Limited RRSP Room
In this example, we will assume the investor wishes to have a 50:50 bond:equity mix, based on the FPX balanced four-component portfolio, but has even more limited RRSP room (25% of the portfolio). In this case, he will use a GIC ladder for part of the non-registered bond allocation. This avoids the tax disadvantages of premium bonds. Preferred shares will again be used for the remaining part of the "fixed income" allocation. The RRSP room is first filled to its entirety with a bond fund or ETF. Everything else must go in the non-registered account:
- 25% broad bond index - all in RRSP
- 15% 5-year GIC ladder - all in non-registered account
- 10% preferred sharesNote 1 - all in non-registered account
- 10% US equities - all in non-registered account
- 15% international equities - all in non-registered account
- 25% Canadian equities - all in non-registered account
Tax-adjusted asset allocation
An argument can be made for applying an adjustment factor depending on the tax status of the account where each asset is located . Basically, this takes into consideration that part of the money in each account, or growth thereof, eventually must be paid to Canada Revenue Agency.
Here are some adjustment factor guidelines for various types of accounts:
- TFSA 1.00 (no adjustment)
- RESP 1.00 (no adjustment -- in most cases)
- RRSP / RRIF and similar
- 0.75 if small to medium
- 0.60 if large to gargantuan
- Non-registered personal
- 0.80 if buy and hold for decades
- 0.90 otherwise
- Non-registered corporate (CCPC)
- 0.70 if buy and hold for decades
- 0.85 otherwise
For a US perspective on this topic, see Tax-Adjusted Asset Allocation.
- Preferred shares are considered a blend of equity and income, and cannot be considered exactly equivalent to bonds. Similarly, high-yield bonds carry more risk than investment quality bonds.
- Taxtips.ca, Dividend Tax Credit, viewed December 9, 2012.
- Line 425 - Federal dividend tax credit, viewed December 9, 2012.
- Barclays Global Investors, iShares CDN LargeCap 60 Index, viewed Mar. 13, 2009.
- Morningstar.ca, iShares CDN LargeCap 60 Index, viewed Mar. 13, 2009.
- T. Cestnick, A great stock sale idea: Zero taxes and help a favourite charity, Globe and Mail, May 13, 2006.
- Financial Webring Forum, Doing Well by Doing Good, viewed Feb. 17, 2009.
- Department of Finance Canada, Convention Between Canada and the United States of America With Respect to Taxes on Income and on Capital, Article X, viewed November 26, 2012.
- Financial Webring Forum, Withholding Tax Questions - RESP, RRSP, TFSA, RRIF, viewed Feb. 17, 2009.
- Dimensional Fund Advisors, Foreign Withholding Taxes, April 2012.
- Financial Webring Forum, Tax Inefficiencies of ETFs for Canadian Investors, viewed June 9, 2012.
- Financial Webring Forum, Investment income in a CCPC, viewed Feb. 17, 2009.
- "Shakespeare", Tax Efficient Asset Allocation, viewed Feb. 18, 2009. Modified to Wiki format and updated.
- James Hymas, Corporate Bonds…or Preferred Shares?, Canadian Moneysaver, May, 2006.
- Gordon Pape. Q&A: Taxing income trusts 50Plus.com, viewed Oct 20, 2009.
- Wikipedia, Preferred stock, viewed June 6, 2012.
- William Reichenstein. Calculating Asset Allocation Baylor University, viewed Jan 16, 2012.