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4 tax tips for mutual fund investors

Friday - 4/20/2012, 1:07pm  ET

By MARK JEWELL
AP Personal Finance Writer

BOSTON (AP) - Duncan Richardson routinely keeps a quarter in his pocket, but it's not spending money. The chief equity investment officer of investment manager Eaton Vance frequently digs the coin out and uses it as a prop to illustrate the drain that taxes can have on investments.

"Investors could be unnecessarily giving away nearly a quarter of every dollar in returns to Uncle Sam," Richardson says.

He notes that the more than 9 percent historic average for stock market returns fails to subtract taxes, not to mention investment fees and inflation.

Richardson's advice: "Keep the quarter. It's yours."

He's not suggesting doing anything suspect. In most circumstances, taxes are unavoidable. At best, the bill can be delayed by using a tax-sheltered account. But many investors _ especially those in higher tax brackets _ don't rely exclusively on an individual retirement account or 401(k), in which earnings can grow tax-free. In fact, about 45 percent of all mutual fund assets are held in taxable accounts.

Although investors can take some relatively simple steps to minimize their tax bills, many fail to do so.

Investors with stock mutual funds held in taxable accounts gave up nearly 1 percentage point of their investment returns to taxes each year from 2000 through 2009, according to a study by fund tracker Lipper Inc. That was in a decade when the Standard & Poor's 500 averaged a 1 percent loss annually, not counting the additional 1 percent hit from taxes. When stocks rallied in the late 1990s, taxes shaved nearly 3 percentage points from returns.

Now that tax-filing season is over, investors might wish to review whether they made any mistakes in 2011 that triggered unexpected capital gains or other tax troubles.

Richardson says tax strategies for fund investors aren't rocket science, yet he sees the same mistakes repeated, year after year. Below are some of the most common:

1. PUTTING THE RIGHT INVESTMENTS IN THE WRONG ACCOUNTS

Some investments are more likely to trigger a tax bill. So keep investments that are likely to generate tax obligations in tax-sheltered accounts like IRAs or 401(k)s, where only withdrawals are taxed.

"It's important to think not just about asset allocation," says Richardson, "but asset location."

Examples of good investments to keep in a tax-sheltered account include taxable corporate bonds and stock funds _ especially those specializing in dividend-paying stocks, or high-turnover mutual funds that trade with unusual frequency.

With a taxable account, you'll pay taxes on sales, dividends and capital-gains distributions each year. So that's where to keep nontaxable investments, such as municipal bonds or muni bond funds. It's also the place to keep stock or bond funds that pursue a specific tax-management mandate. Managers of these funds _ sometimes called tax-advantaged funds _ use a variety of techniques such as holding stocks for longer periods to defer taxable gains.

2. CHOOSING HIGH-TURNOVER FUNDS

When mutual fund managers sell investments that have appreciated in value, they pass on the capital gains to investors. It can happen even if a fund lost money overall, since it's the appreciation of the fund's individual, rather than collective, holdings that trigger capital gains. The less trading a fund manager does, the smaller the chance that investors will be stuck with capital gains triggering taxes.

Limit tax consequences by avoiding funds that typically trade most of the investments in their portfolio within a given year _ say, a fund with a turnover ratio higher than 50 percent, which means more than half of the holdings change hands. Read fund reports to find out their turnover ratios, or check websites like Morningstar that provide turnover data for individual funds.

3. FAILING TO CONSIDER TIMING

If you're investing using a taxable account, and a mutual fund expects to distribute capital gains, wait until after the distribution date to invest any new cash. If you don't, you could get hit with a tax bill covering gains that you didn't profit from, because they occurred before you invested.

What's more, many investors fail to take advantage of potential benefits from selling investments in their taxable accounts that have lost value. It's a way to offset capital gains elsewhere in their portfolios. Under current tax law, a capital loss deduction allows an investor to claim up to $3,000 more in losses than in capital gains. That means investors can reduce their taxable income dollar for dollar, up to that $3,000 limit.

4. FAILING TO WATCH FOR HIGHER RATES

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