Wednesday, 21 October 2009

TFSA Ban on Asset Swaps with RRSPs

Updated later in the day - see red text.
The proposed new rules to eliminate potential abuses of TFSA accounts announced the other day by Finance Minister Flaherty includes one strange rule (see the Department of Finance's Backgrounder section on Asset Transfer Transactions) that bans swaps between TFSAs and registered accounts like RRSPs, LIRAs, RRIFs.

I must admit I was puzzled since I had not previously seen anyone proposing a way to avoid taxes by doing a swap.

There seem to be several explanations of what the rule prevents:

  1. A visit to the Financial Webring where all the usual suspects gather and gleefully point out such tax "work-arounds" uncovered in a TFSA thread a post by Marty123 on Oct.20th detailing a highly sophisticated strategy using massive over-contributions and options.
  2. Blogger Michael James on Money's post TFSA Abuse shows another scheme that seems to fit the bill.
  3. The Canadian Tax Resource blog gives a similar example to Michael's.
Perhaps it is the space limitations of traditional media but the clear online examples put to shame the ambiguous description in the Globe and Mail article on the subject.

My direct question to the Department of Finance for an example has yet to be answered (stay tuned for what they eventually tell me). Here is what they said: "The idea would appear to be that overall, advantage is rarely gained but the scheme is such that a large number of small swaps, particularly involving volatile stock, could enable capital gain to exceed tax liability, using financial software and hedging strategies."

In this first year of the TFSA when the contribution limit is only $5k, it is likely Michael's strategy would hardly be worth it considering each swap is charged a fee by the broker ($45 flat fee per security swapped at my discount broker) and it would eat up much of the tax savings. However, down the road when accumulated TFSA room gathers bulk, the benefit becomes more attractive.

Yet to be confirmed also is the import of the tax penalty. The Department of Finance phrase is: "TFSA amounts reasonably attributable to asset transfer transactions will be taxable at 100%." I would think that what it means is that you would be taxed on whatever "excess" you had managed to transfer - the $1000 in Michael's example - at your normal marginal tax rate i.e. just as if you had withdrawn the $1000 directly from the RRSP, and not at a 100% tax rate, which would amount to confiscation by the government of the excess shifted, an action that even for the government is a tad harsh. " Update: I was wrong, ouch! quote from an official spokesman of the Department of Finance - "No it’s not the marginal rate, it’s a levy of the full amount of the *gains*. It won't matter much anyways since the brokers will all block any sort of swaps with TFSAs and registered accounts.

I wonder if the government will now ban swaps between locked-in registered accounts and non-locked-in registered accounts since the same technique Michael describes could be used to move value and unlock locked retirement money.

1 comment:

Michael James said...

Thanks for the mention. I think you might be underestimating the value of shifting money from an RRSP to a TFSA. If my marginal tax rate is 40%, then shifting $1000 from my RRSP to my TFSA saves me $400 (more if you count future returns on this money). It is worth paying $45 twice for this saving. There is also the possibility of finding some broker with lower swapping fees.

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