Investment Returns Are Not All Equal

On 06/21/2010, in Investment Concepts, by Jordan Wilson

In Common Investment Returns we reviewed a few basic measures of returns.

In Assessing Investment Returns we looked at having to analyze returns within proper context.

Today we will see the need to look within the return itself when evaluating true performance.

This is because all investment returns are not created equal.

Gross versus Net Returns

Gross returns are those before expenses, transaction costs, management fees, and taxes are deducted to arrive at the net return.

Fund and managed portfolio performance may be reported on either a gross or net basis.

The trend is to require reporting on a net basis, but there are often variations between countries.

Make sure you know which is reported in your jurisdiction as well as any costs that might be omitted from the performance calculation.

Various expenses, transaction charges, and management fees are common in mutual and hedge funds, as well as in managed portfolios. When reviewing funds, you can usually ascertain any additional costs to the fund that negatively affects performance.

Key ratios to review are the Management Expense Ratio (MER) and Total Expense Ratio (TER).

We will discuss these costs when we look at mutual funds as an asset class. They vary significantly between funds and can have a great impact on your portfolio growth.

Taxes are extremely important when assessing returns.

Unfortunately, many investors ignore taxes in their analysis. BMO Nesbitt Burns conducted a study and found that 76% of 1,520 adults do not consider tax implications when making their investment decisions.

Taxes can affect your investment performance in two ways.

First, the investment you own may have taxes deduct at the source.

For example, foreign dividends or interest may have taxes withheld by the issuer. In many instances, you may get a foreign tax credit for taxes withheld in another jurisdiction, but not in all cases.

Perhaps you own preferred shares paying out 10% annually. If the dividend withholding tax is 25% and there is no treaty allowing you a foreign tax credit, you only receive an actual return of 7.5%.

Had you factored in the foreign tax effect when selecting the asset initially, it may have made the investment unattractive.

Second, in most countries, taxes are payable on passive investment income or capital gains earned on investments. You need to factor in the tax payments as part of your overall portfolio performance.

If you earn 10% in interest income, your gross return is 10%. But if you must pay 40% of that amount in taxes, your net return falls to 6%.

Be aware that earnings from interest, dividends, and capital gains are often differentiated by governments and taxed at varying rates.

For example, in Canada, interest income is taxed at the highest rate for all investment income. Capital gains are included in income at only 50% of the gain. This causes the effective tax rate on capital gains to be less than for interest income. Dividends from eligible corporations receive dividend tax credits that reduce their effective tax rate even lower than capital gains.

Perhaps you have two Canadian investment options. One offers an annual interest payment of 15%. The other offers a guaranteed capital gain of 12%.

If you only consider the gross returns you should take the interest stream. But if you factor in that capital gains in Canada are only included in income at 50% of the gain, the numbers change. If you are in a 40% tax bracket, you would have a net return of 9%. Whereas the capital gain would have a net return of 9.6%. An improvement over the interest only investment.

Also, in many jurisdictions, tax is payable when the income is considered earned, not necessarily when it is physically received. See below for an example.

Realized versus Unrealized Returns

Realized returns are those where you have received the cash.

Unrealized returns are those that are only on paper.

This can be a tricky area. In my mind, investment gains are not real until the cash is in my jeans.

I believe that unrealized gains contributed to the recent housing difficulties in many parts of North America.

Initially, when someone buys a house they usually take out a mortgage. Banks typically lend between 75-95% of the appraised value.

When house prices were rising many individuals had their homes re-appraised at higher levels than when they bought the house. With this extra equity, people took out home equity loans for a variety of purposes.

As the housing market substantially slumped and values fell, these individuals often found themselves with more home debt than the house was actually worth. Faced with greater debt than value, some individuals just walked away from their homes.

When assessing investment performance, it is fine to consider unrealized returns as well as realized ones. However, make sure that you do not count the proverbial chickens before they hatch.

Until your investment is actually sold and the proceeds are in your bank account, much can happen to the asset value. Often, negatively.

Do not spend your gains before you really have them.

A second concern with unrealized returns relates to taxes.

At times, interest or dividend income may be accrued but not paid out by the investment.

For example, a dividend is declared in November and payable as at December 20. You physically receive the dividend distribution on January 15. At December 31, you have yet to receive the dividend, but the income is considered accrued.

In many jurisdictions, the tax authorities treat accrued income the same as if you had actually received it.

So if you do not want to pay tax on returns not yet fully realized, be careful with the timing of the payment stream of your asset. In some cases, especially with accrued interest income, the impact from taxes is harsh.

Base versus Local Currency Returns

We looked at the difference between base and local currencies here.

Always be careful when dealing in multiple currencies.

It is crucial that you compare foreign currency returns to the currency you use in everyday life.

That gives you three common variations between investment return calculations.

We will look at three different examples of mean investment returns in our next entry.

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