Monday, December 17, 2018

Will Listed Investment Companies Restructure if Labor Eliminates Refundability of Franking Credits?

As you probably know if you live in Australia, Labor plans to abolish the refundability of franking credits - the tax credits attached to dividends for company tax already paid. This will affect taxpayers with low marginal tax rates including self managed superfunds that are paying out a pension, which is tax free if they have less than AUD 1.6 million in assets for that member. This could significantly cut the retirement income of self-funded retirees who have a lot of Australian shares. OTOH, this was the policy prior to 2000 and most other offsets, like foreign tax credits, aren't refundable either.

I already plan to have relatively small amounts of Australian shares when I start an SMSF - this makes sense as I have lots of investments outside super and so it makes sense to put the least tax efficient investments like managed futures into super.

Listed investment companies (LICs) are closed-end funds that pay tax on their earnings and then distribute franked dividends to shareholders. I own shares in several of these like Platinum Capital, Cadence Capital, Hearts and Minds, and Tribeca Global Resources. Both Geoff Wilson and Cadence Capital's Karl Siegling have suggested that they will reorganize their funds if this happens. There are a couple of ways this could happen. One I had thought about, is to delist and turn the fund into a unlisted managed fund (mutual fund). For funds that trade at a premium to NAV, like several of Wilson's funds, this would cause investors to lose a lot of money as now their holdings would only be worth the NAV. For funds trading at a discount to NAV it could be attractive, as shareholders would gain wealth (but see below). To the extent that the funds receive franked dividends from companies, they would still have to distribute franking credits, but capital gains would no longer create franking credits.

Another option I didn't know about, is that they could instead convert to a listed investment trust like an ETF that doesn't pay taxes. This solves the problem of wealth destruction for funds trading at a premium to NAV.

But the article I linked says that this would result in realization of the portfolio for tax purposes. This could be a huge tax bill for companies like Argo that do little trading. The funds will need to pay out a massive special dividend to distribute the associated franking credit. According to Argo's website they will need to pay 72 cents in tax for liquidating the portfolio. That means they would have to pay a $1.68 cash dividend and so actually sell 23% of the portfolio to pay the dividend out. Some other funds have undistributed franking credits and so would also need to sell shares to generate the cash for such a dividend. They will need to do this soon, as there will probably be an election next May. So, I am a bit skeptical that many will.

No comments: