Don’t let Taxman’s crackdown stop you from maxing out your TFSA

My latest post at MoneySense.ca is headlined “CRA TFSA crackdown no cause for alarm.” Click through for the full piece. While you’re at it check out this post at our sister site which features a one-hour live web chat featuring myself and Financial Post columnist Garry Marr, who has been breaking the stories about the CRA’s crackdown on excessively traded humungous TFSAs. The crackdown drew plenty of comments and suggestions.

For one-stop shopping purposes and convenience, I reproduce below the original text for my MoneySense blog on how investors should react to this crackdown.

 

Only minority targeted in CRA crackdown; keep maxing out your TFSA early in January

By Jonathan Chevreau

office binder taxes house family dollar symbolTax Free Savings Accounts (TFSAs) have come in for a drubbing lately, based on various media reports of a CRA “crackdown” on frequent traders who have racked up excessive gains.

On social media there seem to be a lot of ordinary investors taken aback by this, even though as I have said on Twitter, 99.99% of the almost 10 million Canadians who have a TFSA hardly need to worry about this obscure attack on a few sophisticated frequent traders of speculative stocks in their accounts.

Anyone who holds index funds, ETFs, blue-chip stocks or fixed income and is holding for the proverbial long term should stick with their plans for using their TFSA, including making a full maximum contribution early in January. Frequent online traders making dozens of trades a day are the target, especially if their trading patterns causes the CRA to view them as running businesses inside their TFSAs: if you or I traded that often we’d be losing a lot in trading commissions, even at the $5 or $10 a pop that most online brokerages charge.

As I have also pointed out, TFSAs are the mirror image of the RRSP, which has been around more than half a century. Even if there is a way to define what an “excessive” gain is, does this mean Ottawa would go back through half a century’s worth of deferred RRSP gains? It seems hardly likely.

TFSA remains best game in a highly taxed town

This is really a tempest in a teapot and I’d hate to think anyone scared off by this would fail to top up their TFSA early in January. As I’ve also said more than once, the TFSA is just about the best game in an otherwise highly taxed town. And as I said in this blog a few weeks ago, the uncovering of an end run that lets the wealthy contort their finances so as to collect for three years the Guaranteed Income Supplement (intended for the elderly poor) suggests that either GIS or TFSA rules or both may get tinkered with sometime in the next few years. So it’s best to fill up TFSAs while you can, just in case Ottawa starts to curtail their use for whatever reason. And that includes maximizing your children’s TFSAs if you’re able.

To be safe, check the CRA’s 8-point audit list

The Canada Revenue Agency has rolled out an 8-point list for a TFSA “audit” but a quick scan of the items should reassure ordinary investors that there’s little cause for alarm. I can see how some knowledgeable do-it-yourself investors who love to research stocks and spend time at their trading terminals might feel a bit uncomfortable but it’s pretty clear the CRA is more worried about those who make many (10 or 15 a day) trades and who quickly liquidate their positions. Also on the list are uses of speculative non-dividend paying stocks, those who use margin or debt to leverage their positions, and those who advertise their willingness to purchase certain securities: again, well outside the realm of the ordinary investor trying to create a little tax-free dividend or interest income.

For most TFSA holders, danger is lack of capital gains not excessive ones

The irony about all this attention to a handful of professional speculators gaming the system for spectacular capital gains is that far too many TFSA users are doing the precise opposite. If all you do is go with a default GIC or low interest-bearing investment in your TFSA, then you’re not doing this vehicle justice. Chris Cottier, a Vancouver-based investment adviser with Richardson GMP, says any young investor with large debts – especially high-interest credit-card debt – should forget about TFSAs until they’ve eliminated that debt. Very few investments can create gains greater than those accruing to those who pay off credit-card debt that approaches 20% per year.

But when are debt-free (except the mortgage), you’ll be better off holding equities in your TFSA than fixed-income investments sporting today’s minuscule interest rates.

MoneySense has long espoused a passive “Couch Potato” approach to investing in broadly diversified portfolios spread over geographies and multiple asset classes. That approach is particularly apt for TFSAs and is clearly the polar opposite of the type of investor the CRA is looking for.

So when January rolls around, do not hesitate to max out your TFSA contribution for the year 2015 and if it’s a quality ETF from a well-established manufacturer, I wouldn’t waste a minute’s thought on the CRA.

 

Jonathan Chevreau is Chief Findependence Officer for FinancialIndependenceHub.com.

 

 

The GIS-TFSA gambit revisited

fredvettese

Fred Vettese/Morneau Shepell

My latest MoneySense blog is a followup to an interesting piece by actuary Fred Vettese about the curious phenomenon of wealthy couples being able to contort their finances between ages 67 and 70, by which they can receive the Guaranteed Income Supplement or GIS.

Considering that the GIS is aimed at seniors with no savings and minimal pensions, the idea of putting such a gambit in place offends some, although as the blog points out, most of the readers who contacted Vettese just wanted more details on how they could benefit from the strategy themselves.

Hypothetical but max out your TFSA while you can

I’ll be doing more on this but it seems that the strategy is not so much likely to become widespread as it is an example of the inherent contradictions and unintended consequences that accompany such a proliferation of government programs. This one is based on suspending most sources of income from 67 to 70, except Old Age Security (OAS) and the GIS, plus taking tax-free income from the Tax Free Savings Account or TFSA. TFSA withdrawals are neither taxed nor trigger clawbacks of OAS and GIS. In fact, it’s arguable TFSAs were created expressly to motivate low-income workers to save without being penalized by the taxes and clawbacks that accompany RRSPs and employer-sponsored pensions plans.

Will Ottawa move to crack down on this theoretical loophole? Who knows but the TFSA was the Conservative administration’s creation and if they lose the next election, it’s quite possible the Liberals or NDP would move to tweak either the TFSA rules or the GIS qualifying rules. Best advice? Max out the TFSA while you still can!

The case for boosting RRSP limits

My take on a C.D. Howe brief issued Thursday on the case for raising RRSP contribution limits can be found in my Financial Post column today here. Also note the many comments that follow the piece, some reflective of the emails I will highlight in Friday’s blog. You can find the full e-brief here.

And in case it’s not clear in the column, I absolutely think this is a good idea: always have. It’s true those with lower incomes may not need RRSPs. TFSAs may be a better solution for them, especially if they want to avoid clawbacks of OAS or GIS in old age. But the vast majority in the middle class who lack employer pension plans (especially the lucrative DB plans) could benefit from higher limits. If, as is likely, they will retire in a lower tax bracket than they were in their high-earning years, then an RRSP is almost a necessity. And as I point out in the piece, since only a minority of Canadians are in a position to max out their RRSPs, it shouldn’t cost Ottawa all that much because of more upfront tax deductions. And unlike the TFSA, which will reap no bonanza for federal coffers on withdrawals, RRIF income will eventually bring in lots of tax revenue for the government once we retire.

Seems like a win-win to me. Stay tuned for more reader feedback tomorrow.

 

New year, new TFSA room & giant step to Findependence

A belated Happy New Year to all readers and a reminder that every adult Canadian can take a big step this week towards their ultimate financial independence. I refer of course to the fact we can all contribute another $5,500 to our Tax Free Savings Accounts (TFSAs), bringing the total cumulative room to $25,500 (going back to the program’s launch in 2009). For the benefit of any American readers, Canada’s TFSA is the equivalent of the U.S. Roth plans, albeit with different rules.

In other words, if you acted at this time each year, you’d have contributed $5,000 in each of 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012. Now that it’s 2013, the annual limit has been raised to $5,500, the first time the limit has been adjusted to accommodate inflation.

Of course, assuming you invested wisely in each of those years, your balance should by now be well north of $25,500, and in some cases may have grown past $30,000.

TFSAs a particular boon for young people

I truly believe that maximizing the TFSA is the single biggest step Canadians can take in their quest for financial freedom. As we noted in Julie Cazzin’s “Make Your Child a Millionaire” feature in the current issue of MoneySense, the TFSA is especially a boon to young people because they have such a long investment time horizon ahead of them.

Unlike RRSPs, which require earned income the prior year, an 18 year old can qualify for the full TFSA $5,500 limit this year (they may need parental assistance to come up with the money, but that’s permitted by the rules. Think of it as a tax-effective early inheritance!). Not only that, but they can contribute to TFSAs well into old age, unlike RRSPs, which end after age 71. You better believe that half a century of maximizing TFSAs and investing wisely will mean multi-millions down the road.

Do this right from the get-go and you may not even have to worry about RRSP contributions, although those in higher tax brackets should probably do both.

But how to invest wisely? For the young in particular, but also older people seeking income, I think equities are the only way to go in TFSAs, especially with interest rates being so low as they are now.

I’m all for international investing but if you already have lots of RRSP contribution room, I’d use the RRSP for US dividend-paying stocks, since the tax treaty shelters Canadians from the 15% foreign withholding tax.

Despite the “tax-free” moniker, TFSAs won’t stop you from being dinged by that tax on foreign securities. For this reason, I like TFSAs for Canadian dividend-paying stocks. Yes, I realize the dividend tax credit makes Canadian dividends a good choice for non-registered (taxable) accounts, since the tax is roughly half what it is on interest income. However, Canadian dividends also result in the annoying “gross-up” calculation come tax-time, and such phantom dividend income can ultimately hurt you on the OAS clawback. And to me, zero tax is preferable to even a “low” rate of tax, especially if you plan to reinvest those dividends.

Canadian Dividend ETFs are my choice

For all these reasons, my personal choice for TFSAs this year are Canadian dividend-paying ETFs. A year ago, when it was part of the Claymore family, I publicly stated that the iShares S&P/TSX Canadian Dividend Aristocrats Index Fund (CDZ/TSX) was a tempting choice, at least for those who already have plenty of exposure to the big Canadian banks.  To be included in that index a stock has to be a common stock or income trust listed on the TSE and have increased dividends for at least five consecutive years.

This year, there is a valid new alternative from Vanguard Canada: the Vanguard FTSE Canadian High Dividend Yield Index ETF (VDY/TSX). The management fee on VDY is just 0.30%, half the 0.60% of CDZ. (MER is 0.67%, we don’t yet know what VDY’s MER will be). But keep in mind that VDY amounts to a big bet on the major banks: a whopping 59% of the ETF is in Canadian financials and in fact the top four holdings are all the big banks.  CDZ has much less exposure to financials (just 21%) and minimal exposure to the big six banks in particular.

Half and half is one compromise

One way to go might be to split your contribution between both ETFs: say $2,750 in each. Remember, though, this assumes you have plenty of US and foreign stock exposure in your RRSP. Younger people for whom the TFSA comprises the lion’s share of their wealth should strive for plenty of US and foreign stock exposure through similar types of ETFs. We’ll be looking in depth at these in the next issue of MoneySense, currently in production.