Strategies

Substitute Dividend Payments in Margin Accounts

I have a margin account with  eOption for a couple of years now. When I first signed up, they have among the lowest margin interest rates in the industry, They have since adjusted the rates upwards, following the footsteps of Tradeking, Just2Trade, etc.

I spoke to customer service when the rates were first revised and they agreed to grandfather me to the more-friendly rate schedule. This more-friendly rate schedule is still available at their sister brokerage Investrade.com.  The current rate is as follows:

The current Broker’s Call Rate is 2.00% as of 12/19/2008

Daily Average $ Debit Balance

Interest Rate

Less than 49,999 1.50% above broker call rate
50,000 to 99,999 .75% above broker call rate
100,000 to 249,999 at broker call rate
250,000 to 499,999 .50% below broker call rate
500,000 and above 1.00% below broker call rate

Anyway, I started taking advantage of their low margin rates but in the first quarter, I was hit with a substitute dividend payment in an ETF I was holding in that account. This is the definition of a substitute payment from Fidelity:

Substitute Payments
Substitute payments are payments received in lieu of dividends, interest, or other payments. They may be generated, for example, where a security has been lent to a third party (such as a broker) over a dividend record date. When an investor has a debit balance in a margin account, securities in the account are often eligible to be lent. If the shares are lent over a record date, the investor should receive a substitute payment equal to the amount of the dividend. Although the Jobs and Growth Tax Relief Reconciliation Act (JGTRRA) introduced lower federal tax rates for qualified dividend income, substitute payments are not taxed as qualified dividends but are instead taxed as ordinary income. Substitute payments in lieu of dividends and tax exempt interest are reportable in Box 8 of Form 1099-MISC.

So basically, with a substitute dividend payment, you get taxed at the full income tax rate instead of the preferential (15% for most tax payers) qualified dividend tax rate (if the dividend was originally qualified).

The negative consequence of this could be huge. For an ETF like VEA, I could get a year-end dividend in the range of a few thousand dollars. If it gets disqualified, my additional taxes could run into several hundred dollars.

There are a few ways to avoid this

  1. Move the assets to a brokerage that “gross-up” the dividends to compensate for the additional taxes you have to pay. I only know of two brokerages that have this voluntary program — Fidelity and TD Ameritrade. As far as I know, VBS (Vanguard) and WellsTrade do not offer this. eOption also does not offer this. Edit: Schwab also offers this voluntary “gross-up” program.
  2. Move the assets to the cash position. Some brokerages let you specify the “account type ” of each asset, whether it is “cash” or “margin”. eOption offers this and I moved the assets that potentially produce qualified dividends to “cash”. I left the non-dividend producing assets in “margin”. I don’t believe VBS lets you do this though; all the assets in each account must be the same “type” in VBS.
  3. Do not keep a debit balance. If we read Fidelity’s definition carefully, it says that if “an investor has a debit balance in a margin account, securities in the account are often eligible to be lent”. So technically if there is no margin balance, no shares should be loaned out. Personally, I do not regard this method as a fail-safe method. When you sign on the dotted line for a margin account, you are already giving permission to the broker to lend out your shares. It could be possible that the broker will refrain, as far as possible, from lending out your shares in this scenario, but I think there is no guarantee that this would never happen.

Note: FWIW, my experience is that method 3 seems to be true. Until the eOption experience, I have never received a substitute payment with the many margin accounts I have had over the years. The reason could be simply because I have never kept a margin balance except at eOption.

Reference

[1] http://www.fool.com/personal-finance/taxes/2003/12/05/dividend-tax-breaks-at-risk.aspx

Less than 49,999 1.50% above broker call rate
50,000 to 99,999 .75% above broker call rate
100,000 to 249,999 at broker call rate
250,000 to 499,999 .50% below broker call rate
500,000 and above 1.00% below broker call rate

Muni ETFs with in-cash creations

Indexuniverse has an interesting article on in-cash ETF share creations for muni ETFs as opposed to in-kind creations. The article attempts to explain how in-kind creations can help to eliminate ETFs trading premiums in cases where the underlying securities are relatively illiquid.

The following figure shows the trading premiums of the two types of ETFs.

2009-08-06_Etf_cash_creations_heading

2009-08-06_Etf_cash_creations

Clearly allowing cash creations helped to reduce the trading premiums.

It sure looks like there is yet another factor to consider when purchasing ETFs, especially if the underlying assets are illiquid.

Does an asset class allocation of less than 5% make sense?

In allocating the asset classes in a portfolio, many “experts” recommend that to keep things simple, it does not make sense to sub-divide the portfolio into anything less than 5%. The usual cited reason is that it complicates the portfolio with very little increase in benefit.

For example, if an asset class has an allocation of 2.5%, even if it were to gain 20%, its overall impact on the portfolio is going to be only 0.5%.

Recently, this question came up on the Bogleheads’ forum Why allocate less than 5% to anything? Roy crunched some numbers for illustration:

Since 1972: 100% S&P 500:
CAGR 9.26%
Standard Dev 18.59%

Since 1972: 97.5% S&P 500 and 2.5% CCFs:
CAGR 9.35%
Standard Dev 18.17%

Since 1972: 95% S&P 500 and 2.5% CCFs and 2.5% REITs:
CAGR 9.43%
Standard Dev 17.97%

There appears to have supporters on each sides. Yet, the resident experts both seemed to be OK with the idea of less than 5% allocations:

Larry Swedroe has about 3% in CCFs in his personal portfolio and Rick Ferri suggests only 2% or so in microcap.

For me personally, my current minimum allocation is 4%. Larry sums up this issue with the following statement:

It is not an issue of doing much, if the cost is effectively zero if it adds anything it should be done.