When we invest in mutual funds, the profits we make are subject to taxes. The good news though is that, in many cases, mutual fund taxes are somewhat better (lower) than the regular income tax that we pay. The basic reason for this is that the government considers these profits as a different form of inflows/income compared to regular salary or interest incomes.
Understanding the impact of taxation is important – obviously, since our real returns from a mutual fund investment is what we get after tax. But, more importantly, understanding taxation will help us design our portfolio in a manner that could potentially reduce our tax burden and increase our ‘post-tax’ returns.
In this article, we will take a look at how such profits are considered, how taxation differs across mutual fund categories, what the actual tax rates are, and such other topics. This article, as in other articles in this series, has been written assuming very little prerequisite knowledge from the reader. Please use the table of contents below to skip sections that you are already familiar with.
How are mutual fund returns treated
Taxation structure – how much to tax, when to tax, what to tax etc – differ by various factors. These factors include the type of mutual fund invested in, the period of investment (how long the units were held before redemption), and the type of returns (capital gains or dividend). We will talk about these actual tax rates for these different structures in a bit. Before that, let’s understand the different factors that determine the structures.
In India, 5 types of income are taxable:
- Income from salary
- Income from house property (rent)
- Income from business/profession (Doctors, Lawyers, chartered accountants etc)
- Income from capital gains
- Other income (interest income, dividends, lottery winnings etc)
Every one of these sections have different tax treatment. Even within each of these categories, there are specific rules that govern how taxation works. For example, when it comes to salary, we are quite familiar with the ‘slab’ concept wherein different levels of income are taxed differently. In other categories, there are other equivalent rules that govern how taxation works for each of them.
When it comes to mutual fund returns, they will come under one of two sections above – income from capital gains and ‘other income’.
All the gains that we make in the form of selling something in the market at a profit will be considered as capital gains. In terms of mutual funds, when we make a profit by buying mutual fund units at one NAV and selling at another (hopefully higher) NAV, the difference between the sell amount and the buy amount will be considered as capital gains.
For example, if we invest Rs 1 lakh in a fund by buying 10,000 units at an NAV of Rs 10, and then redeem all 10,000 units several months/years later at an NAV of Rs 25, our redemption amount would be Rs 2.5 lakhs. The profit we made, of Rs 1.5 lakhs would be considered as ‘capital gains’ when we file taxes for the fiscal year (FY) when we make our redemption.
The important thing to note is that when we file our income tax returns, these will be tabulated in a section that is different from other incomes. For example, they will be specified separately (in ‘Schedule CG’ as opposed to ‘Schedule S’ for salary for example) in the form. And, of course, they will be taxed with rates different from other incomes.
When we invest in mutual funds, we could invest either in ‘Growth’ plans or ‘Dividend’ plans. With growth plans, investors do not make any money during the time they hold the units – all the profits (or losses) come to them at the time of redemption. With dividend plans, investors could be getting ‘dividends’, profits distributed by the AMC at the discretion of the fund manager, during the time they hold the units.
For example, if we invest Rs 1 lakh in a fund by buying 10,000 units at an NAV of Rs 10, and the fund manager declares a dividend of Rs 1 per unit a few months later, then we would get a dividend of Rs 10,000. We have not redeemed our investment yet, but still, we have money coming into our bank account from the fund. This ‘dividend’ income is taxable.
If there is dividend income during a year, they are subject to a different tax treatment. They go under the ‘other income’ category in the IT returns.
Taxation by type of mutual fund
Different types of mutual funds are treated differently from a taxation perspective. The government wants to encourage two types of behaviour from investors in the country, and hence provide different – more beneficial – tax treatment for the outcomes (profits) from such behaviours:
- Invest in the Indian economy by investing in the Indian equity market
- Stay invested for ‘long term’
We will look at what long-term means in the next section.
To encourage people to invest in the Indian economy by investing in the Indian equity market, the government has a definition for a category of mutual funds and treats investments in them distinctly. They are ‘domestic equity-oriented’ funds. Any fund that invests at least 65% of its portfolio directly in Indian stocks and/or stock-related instruments such as stock derivatives would be considered as a domestic equity oriented fund. Investments in such funds get a slightly better tax treatment than investments in other funds.
Apart from this, there is also a super-special category of funds called equity-linked savings scheme (ELSS). Almost every mutual fund company has a scheme that belongs to this category. These schemes are, by definition, equity-oriented schemes. However, investments in these schemes are locked for 3 years, and investors are allowed to take a ‘deduction’ of the money invested in these schemes when they file their returns for the year in which they make this investment. This means that they do not need to pay any taxes on this investment amount. There is a limit to how much one can invest in these schemes, and currently, the limit is Rs 1.5 lakhs. However, please note that the returns from these ELSS schemes are subject to tax just like a normal equity-oriented scheme.
Outside of ELSS and domestic equity-oriented schemes, ALL other mutual fund schemes are treated similarly for taxation purposes. Essentially, there are domestic equity-oriented schemes and everything else. All debt funds, all gold funds, all international funds, all fund-of-funds where the underlying funds are not all ETFs – all these come under the ‘everything else’ category from a taxation perspective.
Long-term vs short-term capital gains
The government would like to encourage you to invest your money, and they would like you to stay invested for the long-term. To encourage this behaviour, mutual fund capital gains (or simply, ‘gains’) is considered either long-term or short-term gain. Long-term gains are subject to less taxes than short-term gains.
Also, what is long-term and what is short-term differs by the type of investment – whether it is made in equity-oriented schemes or something else.
As of now, following are the definitions of long-term and short-term investment tenures:
- For domestic equity-oriented investments, gains made by redemption within one year are considered as short-term gains, and those beyond one year are considered as long-term gains.
- For everything else, including debt, gold, foreign funds etc, gains made by redemption within 3 years are considered as short-term gains, and those beyond three years are considered as long-term gains.
So, essentially, we have long-term and short-term gains for equity-oriented funds, and long-term and short-term gains for other funds. Plus we have a taxation structure for dividend income. A total of five different taxation structures to learn about. Let’s do that.
Mutual fund taxation structures
Let’s first look at the taxation structures for capital gains. Please note that apart from the term of investments and the type of mutual funds, tax rates also differ based on whether the taxpayer is an individual or a company. In this write-up, we are dealing only with individual taxpayers.
|Tax rate for long-term gains||Tax rate for short-term gains|
|Domestic equity-oriented schemes||10% after Rs 1 lakh||15%|
|Other schemes||20% after indexation||IT slab rate|
(Additional stipulations apply for NRI investors – please see the note towards the end of this article)
Here’s a brief explanation of each of those rates:
Domestic equity-oriented schemes:
- Tax for long-term gains – This is probably the most beneficial tax rate among all. The first Rs 1 lakh in gains is exempt from tax – you don’t need to pay any tax on them at all. Beyond that, the tax rate is 10%. There is a small, beneficial, exception to this. We will cover this below.
- Tax for short-term gains – Simplest to understand. It’s 15%
- Tax for long-term gains – The tax rate here is 20%, but that is after something called ‘indexation’ is applied. We will cover this in the next section. Briefly, indexation is a method by which you can increase your cost (for tax purposes) which in turn reduces your gains.
- Tax for short-term gains – All such gains are added to your regular income and taxed at your usual IT slab rate. That is, these gains are not treated as capital gains at all.
One exception to the above structure is with regards to the long-term gains on domestic equity schemes. Prior to January 2018, this rate was 0% – that is these gains were tax exempt. A 10% rate (beyond Rs 1 lakh) was introduced in the budget then. So, the government decided to make all the gains accrued prior to January 31, 2018 exempt from taxes – you would only need to pay taxes on gains accrued in your investment since that date.
For example, suppose you invested Rs 1 lakh in 2015, and its value is Rs 1.5 lakh as of January 31, 2018. If you redeem the amount later in 2020 at Rs 2.2 lakh value, your total gains would be Rs 1.2 lakh, but you would need to pay taxes only on Rs 70,000 which is the gain accrued after January 31, 2018.
And, a note about the Rs 1 lakh exemption in this category – this amount applies to the TOTAL gains made from such investments in a year, and it is not on a per-scheme basis. So, if you had gains of Rs 50,000 from 5 different equity oriented schemes in a year, your total gains would Rs 2.5 lakhs, and you would need to pay taxes (of 10%) on Rs 1.5 lakhs (after taking an exemption for Rs 1 lakh)
Until recently, mutual fund companies would deduct something called dividend distribution tax (DDT) before distributing dividends to investors. And since it was already taxed before it got to the investors, the dividend received by investors was not subject to further taxes.
However, in 2020, the government announced a change to this way of taxation and made it simple. Mutual funds would no longer deduct DDT and dividends would be taxable at the hands of the investor. The only thing the mutual fund company would do is deduct a TDS (tax deducted at source) of 10% if the distributed dividend is higher than Rs 5000.
What happens to the dividend that the investor receives from a taxation perspective? It simply gets added to their income and taxed at their IT slab rate (exactly like short term capital gains for non equity-oriented schemes). And if there was a TDS deducted, it can be claimed back at the time of filing after considering this tax liability.
In general, for most people, this taxation structure could result in a lot of tax outflow, and diminish their post-tax returns. For this reason, dividend schemes of mutual funds are generally avoidable.
Long-term and Short-term – the FIFO principle
Returning, briefly, to the definition of long-term and short-term, we need to take into account a practical issue in this regard. We rarely make one single investment in a mutual fund scheme. We invest first, and after a few months, invest again, and again, and so on. So, there are different dates when we have made our investments. Now, when we redeem from this investment, how do we determine whether our gains or short-term or long-term gains?
The answer to this question is that we need to follow the first-in-first-out principle (FIFO). That is, the units that are redeemed come out in the order that they went in. We always redeem, for accounting and taxation purposes, the earliest units in our investment that are available.
Let’s take an example. Let’s consider the following set of investments into a scheme. Let’s assume that this is a non-equity oriented scheme. Which would mean that for gains to be considered as long-term gains, they would need to be realized after at least 3 years.
|Date||Amount of investment||NAV||Number of units purchased|
|January 10, 2015||1,00,000||10||10000|
|February 14, 2016||50,000||12||4166.666|
|October 10, 2017||60,000||15||4000|
|November 15, 2017||80,000||16||5000|
Now the total number of units we have is 23,166.666.
Suppose, in June 2018, the NAV of this fund is Rs 18. The total value of our investment would be NAV x number of units = Rs 4,35,000. And we need to withdraw Rs 2,00,000 from this scheme.
Would these be considered short-term gains or long-term gains? Let’s apply the FIFO principle and find out.
First, to redeem Rs 2,00,000 at an NAV of Rs 18, we would need to sell or redeem 11,111 units.
Looking at the table above, we can see that we purchased 10,000 units in January of 2015. That comes out first. Then, we purchased 4166 in February of 2016. We need 1,111 units from that to fully take care of our need for 11,111 units.
So, according to the FIFO principle, we redeemed 10,000 units from our January 2015 investment and 1,111 units from our February 2016 investment.
Now, remember, the date of our redemption is June 2018. Which would mean the 10,000 units redeemed would have completed 3 years and 5 months, and the 1,111 units would have completed 2 years and 4 months.
So, for this redemption, 10,000 units would be considered as long-term units, and 1,111 units would be considered as short-term units. And if we calculate further, we can see that that means Rs 80,000 would be considered as long-term gains, and Rs 6,666 would be considered as short-term gains from your redemption. You would need to pay taxes on these amounts per the respective tax structure.
This math and these calculations may seem daunting. But do not worry. All these are taken care of these days by systems that compute these automatically and present you with the results. It is, however, important that we understand how this works so that we may plan better and understand the implications of our redemption decisions.
In the example above, we saw a set of random investments made on different dates. However, the most typical case in which multiple investments are made in a single fund happens in the case of systematic investments (SIP). The exact same tax treatment as above applies for SIP investments as well. EACH SIP investment (installment, if you may) are treated as a separate investment with a distinct investment date. When we redeem from a SIP portfolio, the same FIFO principle applies and the gains are categorized as either long-term or short-term based on the time elapsed between each of those dates and the date of redemption.
What is indexation and how it works
Earlier we saw that for non-equity schemes, the applicable tax rate for long-term gains is 20% after indexation. Now, let’s see what this indexation is and how it works.
Earlier, we saw that for equity-oriented investments, there is a beneficial tax treatment provided. Similarly, there is a beneficial tax treatment for non-equity-oriented mutual fund investments as well. While they apply only for long-term gains from such investments, these can really help investors lower their tax outgo and increase their post-tax returns.
This beneficial treatment is provided in the form of “indexation” of gains. What this essentially means is that a certain amount of gains are exempt from taxes and the taxpayer needs to pay taxes only on the remaining. The amount that is exempt is a percentage that is closely correlated with the inflation rate during the period of that particular investment.
The government publishes, annually, a number called the Cost Inflation Index (CII). The base year for this number was 2001-2002 where it was set at 100. Presently, for the year 2020-21, the value of this index is 301. Following table provides the annual values since the base year:
How indexation lowers tax on long-term gains
We pay capital gains taxes on the capital gains we make on an investment. If we can use a legal mechanism to reduce the capital gains, then we pay lower taxes. Indexation is a legal mechanism that lowers your capital gains.
Indexation lowers your capital gains by “inflating” your cost of purchase – that is, the investment amount. As we know, capital gains are nothing but the difference between the redemption amount and the investment amount. So, if the investment amount becomes higher, then our capital gains become lower.
How can we use indexation to increase our investment cost? By applying the figures from the Cost inflation index table above. Every investment is made in one fiscal year and redeemed in another fiscal year. Since indexation applies only to long term gains, we can assume that at least 3 years have passed since the date of investment at the time of redemption. The new ‘indexed’ cost of investment can then be calculated using this formula:
Indexed cost of investment = (CII in the year of redemption / CII in the year of investment) * original cost of investment
Let’s take an example.
Let’s go back to the example from the earlier section where we read about the FIFO principle. An investment was made in January 2015 and a redemption was made in June, 2018 resulting in long-term capital gains of Rs 80,000 (from a non-equity-oriented scheme). That is, investment was made in FY 2014-15 and redemption in FY 2018-19. The original amount of investment for this redemption was Rs 1 lakh.
As we can see from the table above, the CII number for 2014-15 was 240 and that for 2018-19 was 280. So, applying the formula above, we can ‘index’ the cost of investment as follows:
Indexed cost of investment = (280/240) * 1,00,000 = 116,666
Given this new cost of investment, the capital gains goes down from Rs 80,000 to Rs 63,334 (Rs 1.8 lakh – Rs 1.16 lakh), thus lowering the tax burden. To illustrate, instead of having to pay Rs 16,000 as tax (20% tax rate on Rs 80,000), you will need to pay Rs 12,667 (20% tax rate on Rs 63,334).
In future, if you need to know the indexation rate for any year, you can simply google ‘indexation rates’ and get the right number to use in the formula above.
Typically, these calculations are also done by software that compute tax liabilities. So, rarely would one need to do this by hand. However, as always, it’s good to know how this works so we will be able to make right tax-related decisions.
There are some differences in mutual fund taxation when it comes to the residential status of the investor. If the investments are made by a non-resident Indian (using a non-resident bank account), these changes apply:
- The mutual fund is required to deduct tax at source (TDS) before disbursing a redemption request.
- When it comes to dividends, the rate of TDS for amounts beyond Rs 5000 is 20% (not 10%)
One further wrinkle in this is the type of bank account used to make such investments by an NRI. There are two types of NRI bank accounts – repatriable (NRE) and non-repatriable (NRO). Recently, the government has announced that these NRI tax stipulations will NOT apply if the investments were made from a non-repatriable (NRO) account. As of this writing, this is subject to some debate in the tax circles, but it would be a welcome development for NRIs if this came to be true.
How to keep up-to-date on mutual fund taxes
As can be seen throughout this article, we can only talk about taxation as it exists at any given time. These laws, regulations and rates keep changing every budget or even outside of budgets. We need to keep track of such changes to know what is happening with mutual fund taxation rules.
The good news is that mutual fund companies themselves publish nice PDF documents that summarize the various mutual fund taxation rules and rates in a handy format. However, you need to know how to find them 🙂 If you search for mutual fund taxation or mutual fund tax rates, you will only land on articles such as this, and not on these useful at-a-glance documents.
However, if you search using the term ‘mutual fund tax reckoner’ you will find several such documents that you can use for ready reference. Here is one by Tata mutual fund that is very good.
A note on offsetting taxes
Mutual fund investments do not guarantee returns. They also do not guarantee to return the principal amount invested. And that means, you could make losses from your investments. When that happens, the government lets you pay taxes only on the NET gain that you make on your MF investments. This is called ‘offsetting’. However, not all losses on your returns can be offset against all gains. There are rules that govern what can offset what:
- You can offset capital losses only against capital gains – not against any other type of income (salary income, for example, or rental income)
- Long-term capital losses can be offset against long-term capital gains only
- Short-term capital losses can be offset against short-term capital gains or long-term capital gains
- If you are not able to offset your losses sufficiently in a year, you can ‘carry-forward’ the losses for up to 8 financial years to find adequate offsetting gains.
As it usually is when it comes to taxation, it is good to know these principles, but better to leave the finer details to the auditor to get it right when filing the tax returns.
Paying taxes is important – entire governments depend on us paying our taxes. However, there is nothing wrong with taking advantage of legitimate deductions, exemptions, and concessions provided by the government to reduce our tax outflow and increase our post-tax returns. Understanding how mutual fund taxation works is an important step towards doing so.
Also, understanding taxation helps us make wise decisions with our investments. For example, we can invest in tax-saving schemes to reduce our current year taxes. We can plan our redemption to qualify for beneficial long-term tax rates. We can design our portfolio to have schemes that, overall, will result in a lower tax bill. And many more. For these reasons, it is important to understand and keep up-to-date with the rules and regulations governing the taxation structure for mutual funds.
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