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Tax Breaks

Goodbye Capital Gains Tax Breaks

Momentum is building for a tax code overhaul, and lower taxes on stock transactions could be doomed.

Tax breaks for capital gains and dividends are likely to end by 2015, as lawmakers look for ways to broaden the tax base, allowing income tax rates on individuals to be cut. There is precedent for this — the tax break for long-term capital gains was axed in 1986, the last time that lawmakers significantly reformed the tax code.

Tax overhaul won't happen swiftly. Lawmakers won't have time to complete tax reform until 2014, and when they do finish it, the effective date probably will be prospective, so changes aren't likely to occur until 2015. There will be plenty of time to mull the impact on your investment portfolio and contemplate actions to minimize the tax wallop.

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But discussions will intensify in the coming months. One reason: Senator Max Baucus (D-MT), who heads the Senate committee responsible for writing tax laws, has announced that he'll leave the Senate when his term ends at the end of 2014. Look for him to push hard for tax reform before he leaves, making a revamped tax code his policymaking legacy.

In the end, we expect long-term capital gains and dividends to be taxed as ordinary income — a big change from the 20% maximum rate they now incur. If President Obama succeeds in winning a top income tax rate on individuals of more than 28%, however, it's possible that the maximum rate on long-term capital gains and dividends will be limited to 28%.

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Consider taking gains before 2015 to lock in the lower rate currently in place. But be careful not to let the tax tail wag the investment dog. Tax savings aren't the only consideration when culling your portfolio; your moves should also make financial sense. Note that we expect taxwriters to keep the stepped-up basis rule for inherited assets, so 100% of pre-death appreciation on those assets will escape income tax when the heirs sell, regardless of the capital gains rate.

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Take care in engaging in installment sales before then. The 1986 law provided that installments received after the capital gains rate rose weren't protected, even though the sale occurred before the rate change. We expect that a similar rule will be passed this time, too.

Weigh the impact on succession plans for family firms. Corporate redemptions of shareholders' stock will be hit. Family firms hoping to redeem stock of senior owners to shift control to the next generation will need to take that into account.

Keep in mind that the relative advantages and disadvantages of components in your portfolio may need reevaluating. Dividend paying stocks will lose their tax-favored status if dividends are taxed at ordinary income rates. And there will be no tax disadvantage for having growth stock in retirement plans. Without a capital gains preference, it won't matter that appreciation on the stock will be taxed as ordinary income when distributed to the owner of the retirement plan or IRA.

And it's worth noting one other tax reform proposal that affects investors: Stock sellers could lose the right to direct that the highest-basis stock be sold first. They may be forced to use the average basis of their shares to compute the gain or loss recognized on a sale, rather than use the specific identification method. The tax reform plan drafted in the House includes such a provision, and we think it has a good chance of making it into law.

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