Portfolio Perspective

4 winning investment moves for the Trump tax era

Elizabeth MacBride, special to CNBC.com

If you want to build your portfolio for the new tax environment promised by Republicans, keep one word in mind: income.

If the plans come to pass, people who live off their investments, like retirees, will have to worry less about taxes and they'll have more options, especially in the bond market. The tax proposals of president-elect Donald Trump and of House Republicans would lower taxes overall, and lower them significantly on almost all kinds of investment income.

"Taxes on investment income will be lowered significantly," said Steven Rosenthal, senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center. "As an investor, I'd be trying to figure out how to take advantage of that."

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Under the plans, marginal tax rates would be consolidated and lowered to 12 percent, 25 percent and 33 percent. On the investment side, income from capital gains, interest and dividends would be taxed at 50 percent of those rates, according to tax experts and analysis of the plans. Right now interest and ordinary dividends are taxed at your normal rate and the federal capital gains tax starts at 20 percent.

That means, for instance, that for people in the top income-tax bracket, a capital gain on a sale of stock that currently is taxed at a rate of 23.8 percent would, under the new reforms, be taxed at 16.5 percent. (Net investment income of all kinds is subject to a 3.8 percent tax to fund the Affordable Care Act, which would be repealed under the House plan.)

Given the likelihood of reform — Rosenthal said he expects there will be something on the books by May, given Republican control of the presidency, House and Senate — you may want to defer capital gains until next year.

That means holding off on selling large amounts of stock, bonds or real estate, if waiting a few months won't hurt. Doing so will reduce your tax bill on that gain by as much as 7 percentage points.

It's worth noting, however, that itemized deductions, including for state and local taxes, are on the chopping block, so you might wish to take as many of those as you can. Even the long-cherished deductions on mortgage interest and charitable donations have also been floated as possible targets for cuts, because they cost the U.S. Treasury so much money. Eliminating them could help pay for other tax cuts.

Experts offer four ideas for your portfolio to take advantage of what may be historically low tax rates for a few years.

Tax investment income will be lowered significantly. As an investor, I'd be trying to figure out how to take advantage of that.
Steven Rosenthal
senior fellow at Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center

1. Seek investment vehicles with steady high income. Among those investments that grow more appealing are REITs; high-dividend stocks, like those of energy companies and utilities; and master-limited partnerships.

If you've avoided those investments because you were trying to minimize taxes, you might want to take another look. Their value might also rise in the market as they are more in demand.

"The aversion to income under current law, given the high rates at which it is taxed, can be abandoned under the House plan," said Bob Willens, a New York City-based tax analyst for hedge funds, in an email to CNBC.

Master-limited partnerships, which are publicly traded companies often in the pipeline business, are another high-income option, said Ramon Camacho, tax principal at Chicago-based accounting firm RSM. Two large master-limited partnerships are Enterprise Products Partners (EPD ) and Enterprise GP Holdings (EPE), according to Morningstar, which noted that "most MLPs offer very attractive yields, generally falling in the 5 percent to 7 percent range for limited partnerships and 3 percent to 4 percent for general partnerships."

You can also find ETFs that track master-level partnerships, including Alerian MLP ETF (AMLP) and the First Trust North American Energy Infrastructure Fund (EMLP).

More from Portfolio Perspective:
Weighing the pros and cons of using hedge funds
How Trump will impact your year-end money moves
Use tax mapping to keep more of your income in retirement

As a side effect, the tax reforms might do away with one of the strange incentives in the tax code — that long-term capital gains were taxed at a lower rate than interest and dividend income. That has resulted in people steering investment capital into investments like real estate.

"Investors can look for investments which produce high levels of income, secure in the knowledge that such income will be taxed at the same preferential rates as capital gains would be," Willens wrote.

2. Rethink bonds. All kinds of bonds, including Treasuries, could grow more appealing, because the interest they produce is taxed at only 50 percent of your marginal rate.

In fact, you might decide the potentially higher returns of a corporate bond and the relatively low tax rate outweigh the appeal of a tax-free municipal bond.

"I don't know what that does to policy," said Rosenthal, pointing out that the incentives might make it harder for states and municipalities to raise money. For individual investors, though, it widens the options.

3. Opt to pay taxes on retirement savings. Money can only be taxed once, so if you pay taxes on it under the new, lower rates, you won't pay taxes later, when rates could be higher. One of the winning investment vehicles in a low-tax environment is the Roth IRA, in which you pay taxes now and don't owe them when you withdraw money.

Investing beyond the election

4. Look for opportunities in lower business taxes. Investment taxes are set to get an overhaul; so are business taxes. As more people are self-employed, a tax cut on income that flows through pass-through entities, like partnerships and sole proprietorships, can be a boon. A rate of 50 percent of the marginal tax rate is on the table, said Camacho. That means whatever your regular income-tax rate is, you'd pay half that tax rate on the income flowing through. About 3 in 10 jobs are held by self-employed people.

The other opportunity lies in the corporate tax holiday many expect Congress to declare. Trump's proposal called for a window of time in which companies would pay 10 percent on their overseas profits.

The last time there was one, in 2004, there was a boom in stock buybacks, said Rosenthal, who expects another.

If you want to set yourself up, you can look at the list of companies with large amounts of overseas profits. Among those: Microsoft, General Electric, Apple and Pfizer, along with dozens more.

The market has already priced lower taxes into the stock prices of big multinationals, but buying the stock could still set you up for the income that companies may distribute as they bring all that cash back to the United States.

But keep in mind: In the politically volatile environment, things can change as different experts weigh in on what the economic effect of the proposed tax cuts might be. The Tax Foundation found, when accounting for the increased GDP as a result of the economic boost provided by the tax cuts, that after-tax incomes of all taxpayers would increase by at least 8.4 percent under the House plan.

Plans on the table would add enormously to the government debt. Trump's revised plan, including interest costs, would increase the federal debt by $7.2 trillion over the first decade and by $20.9 trillion by 2036, according to the Tax Policy Center. The House plan would increase the federal debt by at least $3.0 trillion over the first decade and by least $6.6 trillion over the second 10 years.

Conservative Republicans could roll back the proposed cuts, although the business tax breaks are a more likely target. Deferring gains until the spring to see what happens next seems a no-brainer, as it can save you significantly on taxes.

Other than that, make changes in your portfolio only after you see what changes are enacted, said Burton Malkiel, the Princeton economist and chief investment officer of Redwood City, California-based online financial advisor Wealthfront. "My feeling is to do nothing now. Wait till something concrete happens," he said.

— By Elizabeth MacBride, special to CNBC.com