Barron’s Best Online Broker Rankings 2014

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barron2014Weekly business newspaper Barron’s just released their 2014 annual broker survey rankings. Here’s a snippet about their criteria (emphasis mine):

Our evaluation criteria focus on the needs of wealthy, active traders. We looked at eight categories of service, examining what can be traded online, how the tools work together across platforms, the design and capabilities of mobile platforms, educational offerings and customer service, as well as the nuts and bolts of placing and executing a trade. We closely scrutinized the various tools available for finding appropriate trades, including scanners and charts. When examining costs, we considered stock and options commissions as well as platform or maintenance fees, margin debt, and charges for transferring an account out.

Their overall winner was again Interactive Brokers, a broker designed for highly-active traders with an extensive feature set, low commissions, and low margin rates. However, IB also has a minimum opening balance of $10,000, a minimum monthly fee of $10 even if you don’t trade at all, and customer service that does not cater to casual investors. They recently starting waiving the $10 minimum monthly fee if your account value is at least $100,000.

I am not an active trader, but I still like having real-time quotes, a clean user interface, and helpful customer service when I need it. Thankfully, Barron’s again ranked the brokers for the rest of us:

Top 5 Brokers for Novice Investors

  1. TD Ameritrade. Performed well in customer service & education, research tools, and mobile offerings. Improved desktop site and mobile apps integration. Free real-time quotes from NYSE, AMEX, and NASDAQ Level 1 and 2.
  2. Fidelity
  3. E-Trade
  4. Charles Schwab
  5. Capital One Sharebuilder

Top 5 Brokers for Long-Term Investing

  1. TD Ameritrade. The only broker to provide a wide range of commission-free ETFs from various providers (not just their own in-house ETFs).
  2. Fidelity
  3. Charles Schwab
  4. Merrill Edge
  5. E-Trade

Top 5 Brokers for In-Person Service

  1. Scottrade. Scottrade has over 500 physical branches across US, so that when you call you reach a human in that local branch. Free in-person educational seminars are offered as well.
  2. Merrill Edge
  3. Charles Schwab
  4. Fidelity
  5. TD Ameritrade

Reading through the entire article, most of the brokers made a few incremental changes (better mobile app, new options tools) but nothing game-changing. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that for the three niche rankings above, the Top 5 ended up exactly the same as the 2013 rankings. Again, Vanguard’s brokerage declined to participate and thus was not eligible for the rankings.

Bogle on Predicting Future Long-Term Bond Returns

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Jack Bogle is best known as the founder of Vanguard index funds, but he also dispenses great common sense advice about investing. I’ve written previously about his long-term stock return methodology including this prediction for stock returns for 2010-2020.

He also has a simple method to predicting future long-term bond returns, which is by simply taking the current bond yield. For example, the current yield of 10-year Treasuries is 2.7%, so roughly 3% is likely the future 10-year return.

This is explained further in this recent WSJ article (via Abnormal Returns). This chart shows it best:

wsjbond

Since 1926, he notes, the entry yield on the 10-year Treasury explains 92% of the annualized return an investor would have earned over the subsequent decade had he or she held the bond to maturity and reinvested the coupon payments at prevailing rates.

Similarly, the entry yield on the Barclays U.S. Aggregate Bond index (of investment-grade U.S. bonds) explains 90% of its 10-year returns for the years 1976 to 2012, says Tony Crescenzi, a portfolio manager and strategist at Pacific Investment Management Co.

The Vanguard Total Bond Market ETF (BND) which tracks the Barclays U.S. Aggregate Bond index currently has an SEC yield of 2.2%, which doesn’t seem like a very exciting number to look forward to. While this shows that our expectations should be very modest, it’s still important to remember that we hold bonds as a counterbalance to stock price volatility. As long as we hold them together, the overall picture is much more tolerable.

WiseBanyan: Free Automated Portfolio Management?

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wblogoReady for another start-up? WiseBanyan wants to offer free online investment advisory services. That’s right, they will take your money, help you buy a portfolio of ETFs, manage dividends, rebalance, all that for free with no minimum balance (you’ll still pay the underlying ETF expense ratios). Sounds like Betterment minus their fees. WiseBanyan CEO Herbert Moore outlined his vision for the future in the Medium article You Will Be Investing For Free In 5 Years. Here’s my take:

Fund management fees are going to zero. The Vanguard Stock Market ETF (VTI) already holds over a basket of over 3,600 stocks and charges just 0.05%, or $5 a year for each $10,000 invested. Supposedly with short-term securities lending, ETF expense ratios could be zero or even negative (investors get paid).

Securities lending is complex, but for ETF sponsors it means being able to lend out the underlying securities of the ETF for a fee — iShares has a good description of it here. In fact, iShares is already able to offset much of its management fee with securities lending revenues?—?for example, iShares Small Cap US Equity ETF IWM has an expense ratio of 0.20% but earned 0.20% in securities lending in 2013, meaning that the effective fee was zero.

Vanguard’s head of retail Investments, Nick Blake, has also weighed in on this, saying that “In theory, we could pay investors to invest in us [as] stock lending can [create] a negative TER [total expense ratio] …There will always be a fixed cost in there, but if volume is big, the total expense ratio can come right down.”

Stock and ETF trading commissions are going to zero. Zecco offered a bunch of free trades several years ago before the financial crisis, but ended up back at $4.95 a trade. But sometime this year Robinhood.io is supposed to start up a lean online brokerage offering free trades. I agree that the marginal cost of a trade may be zero, but you have to first overcome sizeable fixed costs. This is why even super-lean brokers for active traders like Interactive Brokers still charge a base minimum of $20 month.

Management fees for a portfolio of stocks and ETFs… are going to zero. Surprise! This is where Wisebanyan comes in. They want to extend the online investment advisory business and use automation to make it free as well. It appears they will be using the “freemium” model where you can pay extra for added features:

WiseBanyan plans to introduce paid investing and client services to complement our free managed portfolios. Two examples include tax-loss harvesting and a product we’re tentatively calling “financial concierge.”

I’m always skeptical when something that requires a certain level of customer service tries to be completely free. Of course, I still signed up on their early access waitlist (use my link and supposedly I’ll move up in line just like with Robinhood). Is it really just a race to the bottom? Gotta remember to check back in 5 years.

Vanguard Index Fund Expense Ratio Changes 2014

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When you invest in a mutual fund or ETF, the fund company charges you a fee for managing that basket of stocks or bonds. These expenses are taken out via small reductions in the funds’ net asset value (NAV), and while the numbers can seem small they will compound quietly and relentlessly over time. Here are two illustrations from the Vanguard website:

Each percentage point in an expense ratio represents an annual charge of $100 against every $10,000 you invest in that fund. In other words, if you have $10,000 in a hypothetical fund with a 0.50% expense ratio, you’re charged $50 each year. So, a 0.15% expense reduction would save you $15, while a 0.15% increase would cost you an extra $15.

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Vanguard consistently drops what they charge to investors as their own costs drop. I’m using this post to keep track of their 2014 expense ratio change announcements, highlighting the more popular index funds that I watch for use in my own portfolio.

Fund Name Expense Ratio (Jan 2014) New Expense Ratio (Feb 2014)
Total International Stock ETF (VXUS) 0.16% 0.14%
FTSE Emerging Markets ETF (VWO) 0.18% 0.15%
Total World Stock ETF (VT) 0.19% 0.18%
Global ex-U.S. Real Estate ETF (VNQI) 0.32% 0.27%
FTSE All-World ex-US Small-Cap ETF (VSS) 0.25% 0.20%
Total US Stock ETF (VTI) 0.05% 0.05% (nc)
REIT ETF (VNQ) 0.10% 0.10% (nc)

 
Also note that ETF expense ratios usually match the Admiral shares of the respective mutual fund.

Announcements
February 2014
January 2014
December 2013

Buffett’s Simple Investment Advice to Wife After His Death

The popular Berkshire Hathaway (BRK) Annual Letter to Shareholders by Warren Buffett is now available to the public. Download it here [pdf].

I’ve been haltingly working on making preparations for my family in case of my premature demise. I’ve done a number of things, but I’m still not sure if my wife can manage our investments when I’m gone. Should I try to teach her, even if she has little interest? Should I find an advisor? Should I hire him/her now, even though I am a control freak? Interestingly, Buffett addresses this issue partially in his letter.

First, Buffett repeats his advice that while he doesn’t believe in efficient markets, he does believe that non-professionals should invest their money in low-cost index funds.

My money, I should add, is where my mouth is: What I advise here is essentially identical to certain instructions I’ve laid out in my will. One bequest provides that cash will be delivered to a trustee for my wife’s benefit. (I have to use cash for individual bequests, because all of my Berkshire shares will be fully distributed to certain philanthropic organizations over the ten years following the closing of my estate.) My advice to the trustee could not be more simple: Put 10% of the cash in short-term government bonds and 90% in a very low-cost S&P 500 index fund. (I suggest Vanguard’s.) I believe the trust’s long-term results from this policy will be superior to those attained by most investors – whether pension funds, institutions or individuals – who employ high-fee managers.

Of course, I’m sure the sum set aside would be enough even if kept 100% in cash. But index funds were still a surprise to me given how many smart money managers Buffett knows. At the minimum, I figured he’d leave a big ole’ pile of BRK shares (managed by some of those smart people that he already hired). But I forgot that Buffett has already committed his BRK shares to charity.

Buffett’s simple advice made me think about my plans again. I would also leave my wife a relatively simple index fund portfolio and a paid-off house. My casual advice given to her so far is that she can spend 2-3% of the total balance each year without worrying about the money running out. With the life insurance proceeds, that 2%-withdrawal value is a bit more than what we spend now, so it shouldn’t be too hard.

If she needs help, she can contact the Certified Financial Planner that Vanguard offers clients ($50k in assets gets you access to a discounted plan from a CFP). I figure that even the cookie-cutter portfolios that they may recommend won’t be too bad in the big picture. I know this is not a complete plan, but well, I also don’t want my wife going to a high-fee manager.

Late Brokerage 1099 Forms & IRS Mailing Deadlines

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I never file my tax returns too early. The last time I did so, I had to file an extra amended return as my stock brokerage sent me a late corrected 1099 form shortly afterward. What a hassle. It seems that every year one of these forms shows up in my mailbox in March. Indeed, TD Ameritrade just send me an e-mail today (2/25) that a corrected 1099 is on its way. Why?

IRS mailing deadlines
The official IRS mailing deadline for 1099-B forms (reporting sales from brokerage firms and mutual fund companies) is normally February 15th. This is 15 days later than the mailing deadline for most other tax forms like W-2s. However, this year February 15th falls on a Saturday and Presidents Day is Monday, February 17th. This results in the adjusted mailing deadline being Monday, February 18th, 2014.

So how can they arrive even later?
Many brokerage firms will only send a “preliminary” 1099 by this date to satisfy the IRS requirement. Because some securities (commonly certain REITs or foreign stocks) may not report their numbers to the broker in time, brokers often delay sending out their corrected or “final” 1099 until a month or more later. So while I start preparing my return ahead of time, I usually wait to file until I’m confident that all my 1099 forms are finalized.

In my case, it was the Vanguard REIT ETF (VNQ) that caused my corrected 1099 form.

Betterment.com $1,000 Outgoing Account Transfer Fee

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Update: “Sunlight is the best disinfectant” – Louis Brandeis. :) A few hours after my post…

Online portfolio managers are a hot area right now, and Betterment.com is one that promises “we do everything for you” simplicity combined with relatively low costs when compared with a human advisor. Recently, a reader named RSG left a comment on my Betterment Review post:

In the updated user agreement, Betterment will charge a fee of up to $1000 for an in-kind transfer! That’s absurd and way higher than industry standard for other broker-dealers.

An in-kind transfer, also referred to as a full Automated Customer Account Transfer (ACAT) transfer, is where all of your holdings are transferred to another broker-dealer. Since you don’t sell any positions, any potential tax complications are avoided. I agree that this fee is around $75 at most brokers, so naturally I wanted to verify this claim.

I could not locate any notice of this fee anywhere on the Betterment.com website, even on their “pricing details” pages. The only place I could find it mentioned it is buried on page 59 of their 139-page customer agreement [pdf] last revised on 1/15/2014.

23. Transfer of Assets. Client may request transfer of Assets to an account Client has established with another broker-dealer. [...] The fee provisions of the Brokerage Agreement and Advisory Agreement notwithstanding, Betterment Securities may charge a fee of up to $1000 for transferring assets to another broker-dealer.

I opened a $1,000 test account with Betterment myself and I admit that I totally missed this fee. (I better not move it as I’d be left with nothing!) I also verified this by contacting Betterment support staff, and here was their response:

Unfortunately this is not something that Betterment supports right now so we would bring in a third party to do an ACAT transfer. This process costs a fee of $1,000. Again, simply liquidating the funds is completely free.

I appreciate the explanation for why the fee is so high (although they have been around for a few years now), but potential customers should be aware of this potential exit fee. While it is indeed “free” to sell all your positions, be aware that you may trigger a sizable tax bill on any investment gains. Some brokers offer ACAT fee rebates if you transfer over enough assets, but many of them cap it at $100-$150.

Tax Guide 2013 for LendingClub and Prosper 1099 Forms

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Updated 2014. I’ve gotten a few tax-filing questions regarding P2P lenders Prosper Lending and Lending Club. For tax year 2013, LendingClub provided individual investors extra guidance with their Tax Guide for Retail Investors [pdf]. Using this information, I have updated this post.

Don’t file too early. My first recommendation is to not print out or download any of your 1099s until mid-March. Both Prosper and LendingClub seem to regularly issue corrected and/or amended 1099 forms with new numbers late in February. If you already printed them out earlier, go back and make sure they haven’t been changed. After having to file an amended return a few years ago, I always wait until after mid-March to gather all my tax documents.

Where to find your tax documents. I don’t think either Prosper or Lendingclub sends you 1099 forms in the mail. The easiest way for me to direct you to these documents is for you to cut-and-paste the following URLs into your web browser and then log into your accounts. Here are screenshots of what the pages should look like for Prosper and LendingClub.

https://www.prosper.com/secure/account/common/statements.aspx

https://www.lendingclub.com/account/taxDocuments.action

Tax disclaimer. I am not a tax professional. The following is based on my best attempt at understanding the fuzzy world of P2P lending taxes. I am simply sharing how I’m going to do my personal tax return, but you should consult a tax professional for an expert opinion. You may not get all or most of these forms.

LendingClub

LendingClub 1099-OID. OID stands for original issue discount. The total of Box 1 is basically what LendingClub is reporting as the interest earned on your loans, net of fees. This interest should be reported on Schedule B and taxed as ordinary interest income (similar to interest from bank accounts).

LendingClub 1099-B (Recoveries for Charge-offs). If you had any loans charged-off*, but they still recovered some money later on, that will be reported here. It should be broken down into either short-term or long-term capital gains. Because it already tells me short-term or long-term, I will simply report the totals with acquisition and sell date(s) as “various”.

LendingClub 1099-B (Folio secondary market). If you sold any loans on the secondary Folio market, then the sales should be reported here. It should also be broken down into either short-term or long-term gains or losses. I will simply report the totals on Schedule D, using my acquisition and sell date(s) as “various”.

LendingClub 1099-MISC. I would just type this form into TurboTax box-by-box or submit directly to your accountant, usually under “Other Income”. Box 7 amounts will be subject to self-employment taxes, Box 3 amounts will not.

Prosper Lending

Prosper 1099-OID. Similar story to the LendingClub 1099-OID above, except they just give you the total from all your loans. Again, I have all zeros except for Box 1, which I will report as ordinary interest income on Schedule B.

Prosper 1099-B (Recoveries for Charge-offs). Again, anything listed here should be broken down into either short-term or long-term capital gains/losses and recorded on Schedule D. Prosper includes loan charge-offs on this form.

Prosper 1099-B (Folio secondary market). Again, anything listed here should also be broken down into either short-term or long-term gains or losses.

Prosper 1099-MISC. I would just type this form into TurboTax box-by-box or submit directly to your accountant, and it should be pretty straightforward. Box 7 amounts will be subject to self-employment taxes, Box 3 amounts will not.

*Reporting Charge-offs

If you have loans that were charged-off in 2013 (loan is very late and attempts to collect have failed, so they give up), you can write them off as a non-business bad debt. You can find these in either your year-end statements (LendingClub) or your 1099-B form (Prosper). These are all treated as short-term capital losses, which you can use to offset short-term capital gains from other investments or you can deduct against up to $3,000 in ordinary income per year (with the balance carrying forward to the next year).

More resources: Let me also recommend Peter Renton’s post at LendAcademy, the follow-up comments on that post, and this forum post by AmCap as good references for an intelligent discussion on the topic. Also see the LendingClub and Prosper tax pages, even though they aren’t especially helpful.

Prosper vs. LendingClub Investor Experiment: 15.5 Month Update

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After posting the 1-year update (Part 1, Part 2) of my Beat-The-Market experiment back on November, I got bored. I had started with $10,000 split evenly between Prosper Lending and Lending Club, but although this alternative asset class had potential, I just didn’t find it reliable enough for me to invest significant funds in it.

I didn’t sell off my existing loans, but I stopped reinvesting in new ones. I hadn’t logged into either account for months, but this week I wanted to download my tax documents. So, I figured another update was in order, 3.5 months later.

$5,000 LendingClub Portfolio. As of February 19th, 2014, the LendingClub portfolio had 199 current and active loans, 36 loans that were paid off early, and none in funding. 6 loans are between 1-30 days late. 8 loans are between 31-120 days late, which I will assume to be unrecoverable. 7 loans have been charged off ($152 in principal). $1,814 in uninvested cash. Total adjusted balance is $5,305. This is only $1 higher than 3.5 months ago.

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$5,000 Prosper Portfolio. My Prosper portfolio now has 185 current and active loans, 56 loans that were paid off early or payoff in progress, and none in funding. 4 loans are between 1-30 days late. 10 are over 30 days late, which to be conservative I am also going to write off completely (~$183 in remaining principal). 14 have been charged-off ($302 in principal). $1,619 in uninvested cash. Total adjusted balance is $5,255. This is $45 less than 3.5 months ago.

1402_prosper700

What has happened since my last check-in on November 1st?

  1. My total adjusted balance is $10,560, which is a $44 drop over the last 3.5 months. Even with the increase in idle cash, my total balances should still be inching up, not down. It appears that an increasing number of late and defaulting loans are starting to catch up to me.
  2. My idle cash balance across both accounts has increased by $1,527 in just 3.5 months, indicating an increasing number of early loan payoffs and thus fewer people paying me 10% interest rates.
  3. Prosper is currently doing worse relatively than LendingClub. This could change again in the future. Here’s an updated chart tracking the LendingClub and Prosper adjusted balances over these past 15.5 months:
    1402_pr_lc

I suppose that I’ll hang onto these loans and see how the rest unfolds. I know that other people report 10%+ annual returns on Prosper and Lending Club and may be better loan pickers than me, but I still be wary setting such high expectations for the average P2P investor. I’m still in the black and doing okay, but I wouldn’t count your chickens until the loans get a bit more mature.

Can I Really Withdraw My Roth IRA Contributions At Any Time Without Tax Or Penalty?

Revised for 2014. This post about how to withdraw past Roth IRA contributions has been popular over the years amongst search visitors, and I have completely updated it using the most recent IRS documentation. Besides emergencies, this information may also be useful for early retirees under age 59.5 that wish to access some of their tax-deferred funds without incurring taxes or penalties.

This is a follow-up to my post Roth IRA Contribution vs. Emergency Fund Savings, where I suggested that people should just fund their Roth IRAs first over an Emergency Fund. The simple reasoning was that anyone can withdraw their Roth IRA contributions at any time, without penalty. (Not earnings, just contributions.) Put in $5,000, and you can take out $5,000 later – be it one day later, one week later, or one decade later. But some concerns were raised about the validity of that assumption, so I wanted to iron that out here using IRS Publication 590.

First, we head to the Roth IRA section, specifically the subsection called Are Distributions Taxable?. Here, the first sentence states:

You do not include in your gross income qualified distributions or distributions that are a return of your regular contributions from your Roth IRA(s)

Sounds pretty clear, but let’s keep looking. The next section talks about qualified distributions, like those made after you turn 59½, which are definitely not taxable. We are given this decision flowchart (Figure 2-1), and… whoops, we may not even pass the first box. Taking out your contribution within the first 5 years is not a qualified withdrawal. 

But wait. Not all unqualified withdrawals are taxable. Going to How Do You Figure the Taxable Part?, we are directed as follows:

To figure the taxable part of a distribution that is not a qualified distribution, complete Form 8606, Part III.

Here is a link to Form 8606 [pdf] and the Form 8606 instructions [pdf].

Here’s how you would fill out the form for the simple situation of taking out former Roth IRA contributions. On Part III, Line 19, you would include the money you took out as a distribution – “Enter your total nonqualified distributions from Roth IRAs in 2013″. This would carry over to line 21. But then on Line 22 you would “Enter your basis in Roth IRA contributions”. Line 23 tells you to subtract the difference (21 minus 22). If you are taking out less than you formerly contributed over the years, your net taxable amount would be zero.

What about a possible 10% penalty? In the section on the penalties Additional Tax on Early Distributions, we see this:

Unless one of the exceptions listed below applies, you must pay the 10% additional tax on the taxable part of any distributions that are not qualified distributions.

Since this unqualified distribution of a former contribution is not taxable, there is no “taxable part” and thus no penalty to worry about.

In conclusion, although taking out a former Roth IRA contribution as a distribution may be (1) an unqualified distribution, it is also (2) not taxable and (3) not subject to any additional penalties. When subsequently filing your taxes, remember to fill out IRS Form 8606 as indicated above so show the IRS that you are only taking out your original basis.

How Do I Make A Withdrawal?
If you are under 59½, you usually need to make a specific request to your broker. Here is the info from my Vanguard account:

You can request a withdrawal from your IRA online, over the phone, or by mail. You can have a check sent to you, have the proceeds deposited directly to your bank account, or transferred to a nonretirement Vanguard account.

World Stock Market Cap Breakdown by Country: 1900 vs. 2013

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When learning about investing, it is good to remember that nearly all the “commonly accepted advice” out there is based on at most 100 years of historical returns. Meanwhile, many of us still have 50 or more years ahead of us. Is that enough data? I’m pretty comfortable with broad patterns such as stocks outperforming bonds over long periods across nearly every developed country. However, as the conclusions get finer I get more and more skeptical.

For example, I wouldn’t bet all my chips on any one country. The world will look very different in 50 years, and I doubt we’ll be able to predict much of it. (Though I’m sure it will seem “obvious” in retrospect.) Take a look at these two charts comparing the relative market capitalizations of world equity markets as of the end of 1899 and 2013.

worldcap1900

I’ll check back in around 2050…

Source: Credit Suisse Global Investment Returns Yearbook (via Abnormal Returns)

The Importance of Calculating After-Tax Returns

Gus Sauter, former CIO at Vanguard, talks about the need to focus on after-tax investment returns in an interview with the WSJ (found via Abnormal Returns). He answers the question What’s your most important tax advice for mutual-fund investors?:

For equity investors with a long time horizon, it is important to search for funds that have low annual distributions of capital gains. Grinding through the math, it turns out that a fund that realizes and distributes most of its capital gains annually would have to outperform a fund that distributes minimal capital gains by as much as 2% per year in order to provide the same long-term, after-tax return. Funds that have lower turnover are a pretty good place to start looking for low capital-gain distributions. Index funds are an obvious candidate.

For fixed-income investors in higher tax brackets, municipal-bond funds can be an attractive alternative to taxable bond funds.

In 2013, many successful active funds that trade frequently (high turnover) distributed sizable capital gains. Resources like Morningstar.com can provide information about turnover ratio and after-tax returns for specific funds.

Here are the 2013 capital gains distributions for all Vanguard funds. Both Vanguard’s Total US Stock and Total International Stock funds distributed zero capital gains for 2013. For your own holdings, you can check your tax statements to compare the relative size of the capital gains with the share price (NAV).