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Tax Changes Bring Good News for Fund Investors

Equity income funds will benefit. Funds that trade actively and have a high turnover won't.

While some mutual fund investors have been smarting from a perceived slight from the new tax law, there's still plenty of good news in there for fund investors.

"There's a perception that the new law may not be as beneficial for fund investors as it is for stock investors, and there may be some truth to that," says Tom Roseen, an analyst with Lipper, a Reuters company. "But given the complexity of the new law, fund investors could be better off."

The lower rate on capital gains and dividend payments might lead some investors to think the advantages of tax-managed funds have lessened, for instance. Not so, though. "Now fund managers have the opportunity to use different tools in their portfolio," Roseen says.

Equity income funds -- a category that heretofore may have sounded like an oxymoron -- could benefit the most. Funds such as T. Rowe Price's

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Equity-Income fund can adjust their risk/reward profile to achieve their goals and take advantage of the new law.

Taxes generated within the daily buying and selling of a mutual fund portfolio typically reduce investors' returns by as much as 25% -- an average of 1.5 percentage points to 1.8 percentage points, according to a Lipper study. (For more on the advantages of tax-managed funds, see

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this story; for techniques these managers use, see

this story.) The lower dividend and capital gains tax rates in the new law will mitigate that figure, but probably not as much as you would think.

Funds with a high turnover that don't manage a tax-efficient portfolio (there are some that do) will enjoy little benefit from the new law. Short-term rates are unchanged and will be taxed at the individual's ordinary income tax rate. Also, there are restrictions on what dividends payments will be eligible for the low 15% rate. Typically, investors in dividend-paying stocks must hold the stock until a specified date in order to receive the upcoming dividend payment; the so-called ex-dividend date is the day after that, at which time if you don't own the stock you're not entitled to the dividend.

Now, under the new tax law, you must hold the stock for more than 60 days during the 120-day period that begins 60 days before the ex-dividend date. If you, or a fund manager, own the stock for 60 days or less during the two months before and after the ex-dividend date, all dividends will constitute ordinary income and be taxed at your regular rate.

Funds that employ sound tax strategy will still likely fare far better than those that don't.

Granted, fund investors will have to wait a while for any legislation aimed directly at them.

Two bills that faltered in Congress this year, though, have already been resubmitted for consideration. Both tackle the issue of how investors often (albeit less often, in this market) can owe tax on capital gains generated by the fund, even if the fund reports an overall loss. One bill presumes to eliminate all such tax; another bill would just defer the tax until the fund is sold.