Tax: the newest recruit to the alpha team

Raewyn Williams
— 1 minute read

The investment portfolios of large super funds reflect managers' best ideas checked by the noise and frictions of the real world, write Parametric's Raewyn Williams and Hemambara Vadlamudi.

Raewyn Williams

Those responsible for constructing investment portfolios have a choice. They can doggedly focus on these ideas and live with the implementation leakages; or they can better understand how implementation frictions impact their decisions and deliver a portfolio that optimally blends best ideas with implementation efficiency.

One high-profile area of implementation efficiency centres on how tax influences investment outcomes.

Superannuation funds are subject to tax on most investment earnings, and what builds wealth for members’ retirements are after-tax outcomes.

Earnings supporting transition-to-retirement pensions will be drawn into this after-tax world based on the recent federal budget 2016 superannuation changes.

It is a relatively simple mathematical exercise to take familiar investment concepts such as pre-tax portfolio returns, benchmark returns and ‘alpha’ (outperformance over benchmark) and extract the following key after-tax concepts:

  • After-tax return: a measure of whether a portfolio has gone forwards or backwards after tax;
  • Tax alpha: the extent to which a portfolio pays less tax, or receives a higher tax offset/refund, than the benchmark portfolio; and
  • After-tax alpha: a measure of whether the portfolio has, overall, beaten its benchmark in after-tax terms.

The third of these concepts is especially important in answering the seminal question: ‘Is your alpha big enough to cover its taxes?’

Clearly ‘tax alpha’ is an influential component of performance outcomes, and should be recognised as a genuine lever in a fund's investment armoury.

The academic case for tax alpha may be clear, but it needs ‘street cred’ – to be understood in terms of how it can be harvested in practice and whether it can ‘move the dial’ for investment outcomes.

Opportunities to address tax leakage and pursue tax alpha abound because frictions occur daily in superannuation investment portfolios.

Tax alpha management techniques focus on funds' general preferences to pay a lower rather than higher rate of tax, receive higher rather than lower tax offsets and pay tax later rather than earlier.

The last of these can be likened to receiving a zero per cent interest loan from the ATO. Techniques to generate tax alpha (detailed in a research paper we recently released) include:

  • Tax lot selection;
  • Capital gains tax discount targeting;
  • Tax deferral;
  • Loss realisation (taking care to never trade for tax-dominant reasons);
  • Stock substitution;
  • Franking credit targeting (much more than simply ‘45-day rule compliance’);
  • Buybacks and other corporate actions; and
  • Withholding tax management (of increasing importance as funds' percentage of pension-phase members increases).

Like other forms of investment alpha, funds need to establish an investment risk budget to pursue tax alpha as a source of return.

The aim is to provide the tax-skilled manager with enough latitude to apply these skills for meaningful reward, but not so much that the pursuit of tax alpha risks giving up too much of the pre-tax alpha earned.

Lastly, we can show with a simulated portfolio (with a tax-efficient Centralised Portfolio Management structure and tax-skilled manager) the quantum and drivers of tax alpha to a taxable superannuation fund equity portfolio. Our key insights are:

  • Over a long-term investment horizon, a base case scenario with 4 per cent market returns, 30 per cent cross-sectional volatility, zero per cent net cash flows and 50 per cent turnover produced annual tax alpha of 57 basis points.
  • Varying market returns changes annual tax alpha expectations to around 54 basis points in down markets and up to 71 basis points in very strong markets.
  • Cash flows are a strong long-term driver of tax alpha, but it is cross-sectional volatility that is the strongest driver of tax alpha.
  • Beyond a modest (5-10 per cent) turnover level, funds should not expect tax alpha to increase linearly with turnover levels. Turnover is not required to generate tax alpha.
  • Neither is portfolio redundancy (stock holdings overlap within a multi-manager portfolio) required to generate tax alpha. Like false notions about turnover, believing redundancy is necessary is a damaging tax alpha myth.

Our research demonstrates that tax alpha is a persistent, predictable and harvestable source of investment returns.

It differs from other forms of investment alpha only in one important (and attractive) respect: it can generally be pursued on top of, rather than as a substitute for, other alpha sources.

This quality should excite superannuation funds because it does not require the fund to make a difficult binary decision between this source of alpha versus that source.

The fund can add the pursuit of tax alpha while retaining its existing sources of alpha, making tax alpha the “new recruit” to the alpha team.

Raewyn Williams is Parametric’s director of research, after-tax solutions. Hemambara Vadlamudi is Parametric’s director of research, algorithm development.


Tax: the newest recruit to the alpha team
Raewyn Williams
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