Executive summary and what’s new in this guide
Use Green’s 2016 Trader Tax Guide to receive every trader tax break you’re entitled to this tax season. Whether you self-prepare your tax returns using consumer tax preparation software or app, engage a CPA firm or local tax storefront, this guide can help everyone through the process. Many of our tax compliance clients use it to take advantage of our offerings, as an educated consumer is the best customer.
Unfortunately, it may be too late for some tax breaks on your 2015 tax return if you wait until you’re actually filing your taxes. If this is the case, then use this guide to execute these tax strategies — including forming an entity with employee-benefit plan deductions — and elections on time for tax-year 2016.
Business traders are far better off than investors in the tax code
By default, the IRS lumps all traders into “investor tax status,” and investors get penalized in the tax code with restricted investment interest and investment expenses, capital-loss limitations ($3,000 per year), wash-sale loss deferrals, no Section 475 mark-to-market (MTM) election and no employee-benefit plans (retirement and health insurance deductions). Business traders who qualify for trader tax status (TTS), though, are entitled to these tax breaks.
Don’t confuse TTS with the related tax-treatment election of Section 475 MTM accounting, which converts new capital gains and losses into business ordinary gains and losses. Only qualified business traders may use Section 475 MTM; investors may not.
A business trader can assess and claim TTS after year-end and even going back three open tax years. But business traders may only use Section 475 MTM if they filed an election on time, either by April 15 of the current year (i.e., April 15, 2015 for 2015), or within 75 days of inception of a new taxpayer (i.e., a new entity). For more on TTS, see Chapter 1.
Investment expenses are limited to 2% of adjusted gross income (AGI) and they are not deductible for the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT). Plus, investment expenses exclude home office, education and startup expenses, all important business deductions for qualifying business traders.
Can you deduct 2015 trading losses?
Many traders bought this guide hoping to find a way to deduct their 2015 trading losses. Maybe they qualify for TTS, but that only gives them the right to deduct their trading business expenses.
Securities trading and Section 1256 contract trading receive capital gain/loss treatment by default, and there’s a $3,000 capital loss limitation against ordinary income. Yes, Section 475 MTM would have made those losses business ordinary losses, but you had to file the Section 475 MTM election by April 15, 2015 as an “existing taxpayer.” (New taxpayers may elect Section 475 internally within 75 days of inception.) If you did not do this, you’re stuck with capital loss treatment and your next problem is how to use up a capital loss carryover in the next year(s). If you elect Section 475 by April 15, 2016, your 2016 business trading gains will be ordinary rather than capital. Remember, you need capital gains to use up capital loss carryovers. That creates a predicament that we address in Chapter 2 on Section 475 MTM. Once a trader has a capital loss carryover hole, he needs a capital gains ladder to climb out of that hole and a Section 475 election to prevent digging a bigger hole. An entity is better for electing and revoking Section 475 as needed. In 2015, the IRS changed the law to allow revocation of Section 475 elections.
If you have losses from trading Section 1256 contracts (like futures), you may be in luck if you have Section 1256 gains in the prior three tax years. On the top of Form 6781, you can file a Section 1256 loss carryback election. Business traders may elect Section 475 MTM on Section 1256 contracts, but most elect it on securities only so they can retain the lower 60/40 tax rates on Section 1256 gains. Sixty percent is a long-term capital gain even on day trades.
If you have losses trading spot or forward forex contracts in the Interbank market, you may be in luck. By default, Section 988 for forex transactions receives ordinary gain or loss treatment, which means the capital loss limitation doesn’t apply. But without TTS, the loss isn’t a business loss and if you have negative taxable income, the negative part is often wasted — it’s not a business net operating loss (NOL) or capital loss carryover. Forex traders can file a contemporaneous “capital gains and losses” election in their own books and records to opt out of Section 988, which is wise if you have capital loss carryovers. Contemporaneous means in advance, not after the fact using hindsight. In some cases, this election qualifies for Section 1256(g) lower 60/40 tax rates. See Chapter 3 for more details.
IRS cost-basis saga continues
Accounting for trading gains and losses is the responsibility of securities traders; they must report each securities trade and related wash-sale loss adjustments on IRS Form 8949 in compliance with Section 1091, which then feeds into Schedule D (capital gains and losses). Form 8949 came about after the IRS beefed up compliance for securities brokers starting in 2011, causing headaches, confusion and additional tax compliance cost. Congress found tax reporting for securities to be inadequate and thought many taxpayers were under reporting capital gains. The cost-basis rules are almost fully phased-in. Options and less complex fixed income securities acquired on Jan. 1, 2014 or later were reported for the first time on Form 1099-Bs for 2014. Inclusion of complex debt instruments on 1099-Bs is delayed until Jan. 1, 2016. There are no changes with 1099-Bs between 2015 and 2014 tax years.
Broker-issued securities Form 1099-Bs provide cost-basis reporting information, but they don’t provide taxpayers everything they need for tax reporting if the taxpayer has multiple trading accounts or trades equities and equity options. Brokers calculate wash sales based on identical positions (an exact symbol only) per separate brokerage account. But Section 1091 requires taxpayers to calculate wash sales based on substantially identical positions (between equities and equity options and equity options at different exercise dates) across all their accounts including IRAs — even Roth IRAs. The best accounting solution for generating a correct and compliant Form 8949 is software that’s compliant with Section 1091. Don’t just rely on a Form 1099-B (exception: if there is only one brokerage account, the trading is only in equities, not equity options and there are no cost-basis adjustments including wash sale losses). See Chapter 4 for more about these changes and common taxpayer and tax preparer mistakes. Many tax preparers and taxpayers continue to disregard Section 1091 rules, even after acknowledging differences with broker 1099-B rules. They do so at their peril if caught by the IRS.
Option traders generally don’t day trade; rather they execute both simple and complex trades over weekly and monthly time horizons. While many option traders may execute trades only a few days per week, they have a position on almost every day of the week. But three recent trader tax court cases for option traders (Assaderaghi, Nelson and Endicott) indicate the IRS requires more frequency than just trading two days per week. See Chapter 11 for details on these three cases. While trading monthly options may be a challenge for claiming TTS, in the past year we’ve noticed more clients trading weekly options, which is better for TTS. Some options traders set aside capital for active trading in equities, which helps them qualify for TTS.
Futures and forex traders
Futures traders, other Section 1256 contract traders and forex traders have it much easier. Futures brokers report Section 1256 contracts in summary fashion, with mark-to-market accounting for realized and unrealized gains and losses, on a simple one-page 1099-B. Taxpayers can rely on a futures 1099-B to report net “aggregate profit and loss” on Form 6781, Part I. See Chapter 4.
Spot forex is not a “covered security” and it’s not by default a Section 1256 contract. Therefore, spot forex brokers should not issue a 1099-B. Spot forex brokers do offer online tax reports and taxpayers should report the summary amount, with or without attachment of those reports on their tax returns. Section 1091 does not apply to Section 1256 contracts and forex, saving futures and forex traders headaches on wash sales.
Differences for various instruments
There are complexities in sorting through different tax-treatment rules and tax rates. It’s often hard to tell what falls into each category, but in Chapter 3 we cover the many trading instruments and their tax treatment.
Securities have realized gain and loss treatment and they are subject to wash-sale rules and the $3,000 per year capital loss limitation on individual tax returns. Section 1256 contracts — including futures — are marked to market at year-end, so there are no wash-sale adjustments and they have lower 60/40 tax rates. Options have a wide range of tax treatment. An option is a derivative of an underlying financial instrument and the tax treatment is generally the same. Equity options are taxed the same as equities, which are securities. Index options are derivatives of indexes, and broad-based indexes are Section 1256 contracts. Simple and complex equity option trades have special tax rules on holding period, adjustments and more. Forex receives ordinary gain or loss treatment on realized trades (including rollovers) unless you file a contemporaneous capital gains election and in some cases navigate into lower 60/40 tax rates. Physical precious metals are collectibles and if these capital assets are held over one year, sales are subject to the taxpayer’s ordinary rate capped at 28% (the collectibles rate). Bitcoin is an intangible asset taxed like securities. Nadex binary options tax treatment is unclear and we make a case to tax them like swaps with ordinary income or loss. Foreign futures are taxed like securities unless the IRS issues a revenue ruling allowing Section 1256 tax benefits (but that is rare). See Chapter 3 for various tax treatments.
Updates on Section 475 MTM elections
Since Congress changed the 1997 tax law to allow business traders to elect Section 475 MTM, GreenTraderTax has helped thousands of business traders save a fortune in taxes by simply making this free election on time and filing a Form 3115 for automatic change of accounting method (free of IRS fees). We refer to Section 475 as free “tax loss” insurance. If you suffer a trading loss of $100,000, you can receive a full business loss deduction against any kind of income in the current year, or with a NOL two-year carryback and/or 20-year carry forward. Section 475 also exempts traders from wash sale reporting for securities trades reported and marked-to-market on Form 4797. Wash sales still apply to investments in securities. If you have a large capital loss carryover, you need to follow our special strategies for considering and electing Section 475 MTM, since Section 475 ordinary income can’t be offset with capital loss carryovers.
The Poppe tax court ruling in October 2015 exposed weaknesses in the Section 475 MTM election process for existing taxpayers. We include a full analysis of the Poppe case in Chapter 11 and tell traders how to better support their Section 475 election in Chapter 2.
The Poppe tax court also lowered the volume of trades needed to qualify for TTS to 720 trades. Our 2015 guide suggested a volume of 1,000 total trades. It’s still not clear how the IRS wants to count lot size breakdowns and legs of complex option trades. See Chapter 1.
IRS warns Section 475 traders
Increasingly, the IRS is focusing in on a delicate issue for traders: whether or not they properly segregate investment positions from trading positions in form and substance. The Assaderaghi, Nelson and Endicott tax court cases highlight this problem, where the traders owned significant investment portfolios and traded around those positions with options. Sole proprietor traders often have investment positions in trading accounts or in separate accounts designated as investment accounts. Not properly segregating investment positions can poison the well for claiming TTS, and gives the IRS a case to claim the trader is really an investor. It can also confuse application of Section 475 MTM treatment separate from capital gains treatment for investments. Some traders attempt to take Section 475 ordinary loss treatment on investment positions, which is not allowed. Or they avoid mark-to-market at year-end on trading positions. There are many nuances and this code section is widely misunderstood by other tax professionals. For more information, see our blog posts IRS Plays Havoc with Traders Misidentifying Investments and IRS Warns Section 475 Traders. See Chapter 2 for the full details on Section 475 MTM.
Business traders should use entity
Many traders start off with individual accounts, joint accounts and IRAs. Why should they consider an entity trading account? Business traders solidify TTS, unlock employee-benefit deductions, gain flexibility with a Section 475 election or revocation and prevent wash-sale losses with individual and IRA accounts. The IRS can apply Section 267 related party transaction rules if a trader purposely tries to avoid a wash sale loss between an entity and individual account. An entity return consolidates your trading activity on a pass-through tax return (partnership Form 1065 or S-Corp 1120-S), making life easier for you, your accountant and the IRS. Individually held investments are separate from business trading in the entity, which is a different taxpayer. The entity is simple and inexpensive to set up and operate. For more details on entities, see Chapter 7.
Retirement plans for traders can be used several ways. You can trade in the retirement plan, build it up with annual tax-deductible contributions, borrow money from a qualified plan (not an IRA) to start a trading business and convert it to a Roth IRA for permanent tax-free build-up. There are plenty of pitfalls to avoid like early withdrawals subject to ordinary income tax rates and 10% excise tax penalties, and penalties on prohibited transactions. Avoid IRA-owned LLCs and self-dealing as that blows up the IRA. Tax-free compounded returns in retirement plans are valuable and trading losses are deductible in the sense that future retirement plan distributions are lower.
Annual tax-deductible contributions to retirement plans generally save traders more in income taxes than they cost in self-employment (SE) or payroll taxes. Trading gains are not earned income, so traders use entities to create earned income by paying compensation to themselves through an S-Corp. trading company or S-Corp or C-Corp management company. Compensation payments can also reduce the Obamacare 3.8% Medicare tax on unearned income (Net Investment Tax). A married couple working in the business can save well over $10,000 by establishing defined-contribution Solo 401(k) plans for each of them. Defined-benefit plans can save much more; we cover defined benefit plans in depth in Chapter 8. (One exception: Members of a futures exchange are subject to SE taxes on their trades made on those exchanges.) We also cover tax problems caused when a retirement plan invests in publicly traded partnerships like MLPs. That can generate Unrelated Business Income Tax (UBIT) requiring a Form 990 tax filing with a large tax bill that comes as a nasty surprise to many IRA investors. Chapter 8 delves into various retirement plan options and provides the math so you can see exactly how this tax savings strategy works.
The Obamacare 3.8% Medicare tax on unearned income started in 2013 for taxpayers with AGI over $250,000 (married) and $200,000 (single). In this guide, we focus on what affects traders and investment managers in particular. One key point is that the net investment income tax (NIT) applies on net investment income (NII). Traders can reduce it by deducting their trading and investment expenses, including salaries paid to them and their spouses. There are complex IRS regulations for the three buckets in NII: portfolio, rents and royalties (1), passive entities and investment companies (2), and capital gains and losses (3). Generally, taxpayers can’t use a loss from one bucket against income in another bucket.
Business traders fare well with the final regulations for NII (after we fought for changes to the proposed regulations). With the final regulations, business traders are not disenfranchised from using their business trading losses and expenses for calculating NII. Just be sure to prepare Form 8960 (NIT) correctly.
The Obamacare individual health insurance mandate and related tax penalties for non-compliance, exchange subsidies and premium tax credits applied for the first time on 2014 individual income tax returns. Learn about the Obamacare tax forms and strategies for traders in applying for insurance on Obamacare exchanges to maximize their chance of receiving subsidies and premium tax credits. Trading businesses are generally single or spousal-owned with no or few outside employees so they are exempt from the Obamacare employer mandate/employer penalty effective in 2015/2016. The employer mandate applies on employers with 50 or more employees.
For more information, see Chapter 9 and Chapter 15.
Tax planning is important for traders and we include many smart tax-planning ideas in this year’s guide. See Chapter 9.
Words of caution on TTS
Many IRS and state agents don’t understand or respect individuals pursuing qualification as a trading business. While there is no bright line test for TTS, recent trader tax court cases better defined the volume of total trades required (720 per year per Poppe court), frequency of trades (3-4 days per week) and average holding period (under 31 days per Endicott court). Once an exam starts, it can snowball into other issues. IRS and some state agents often want to challenge TTS if the trader is not a full-time, extremely active trader. And the IRS or state agent can ask about TTS and other issues for the years before and after the tax year examined. Learn tips for dealing with the IRS and states in Chapter 10.
In the past, too many traders brought weak cases to tax court and have failed to defend themselves properly. That was certainly the case again recently with Poppe, Assaderaghi, Nelson and Endicott. Serving up easy wins in exams, appeals, private letter rulings and tax court encourages the IRS and states to further question business traders based on bad legal precedent. When TTS is too difficult to achieve, consider the alternative strategies discussed in Chapter 9. It’s also very important to have good CPAs and tax attorneys who are experts in trader tax law in your corner.
Watch out for bad tax advice: Over the years, other service providers suggested traders could easily deduct pre-business education expenses using C-Corps. This advice is very wrong. We cover what’s allowed and what’s not in Chapter 5.
Proprietary trading vs. retail trading is covered in Chapter 12. The challenge for proprietary traders is deducting their business expenses, including home-office expenses. They’re allowed to deduct these expenses even if they trade from the firm’s office whether they are independent contractors or LLC members. We also address how to handle education/prop trading firm hybrids and writing off education or lost deposits. One problem for prop traders who are members of an LLC is the Schedule K-1 does not pass through self-employment income so they can’t make retirement plan contributions or deduct health insurance premiums.
The Poppe tax court construed his proprietary trading firm arrangement to be a disguised retail customer account. This ruling should be a huge concern for the proprietary trading firm industry, especially since regulators warned clearing firms about disguised customer accounts in the past. By agreement, prop traders do not trade their own capital in a retail customer account. They trade a firm sub-account with firm capital and far higher inter-firm leverage than is available with a retail customer account.
More traders are rising to the ranks of investment managers. Investment managers seek better tax treatment by using carried-interest (profit allocation) tax breaks passed through in their investment funds. There are tax advantages to receiving a share of capital gains (profit allocation) from fund investors rather than incentive fees from the fund, which otherwise are subject to ordinary tax rates and payroll taxes. Investment managers reduce payroll tax on management fees by using S-Corps. In recent years, both of these breaks have survived repeal talk, but that may not last with tax reform discussions in 2016. TTS, Section 475 MTM and other tax treatment elections are important considerations for hedge fund managers. Learn more about investment management taxation in Chapter 13.
International tax matters
U.S. traders move abroad, others make international investments and non-resident aliens invest in the U.S. How are their taxes handled? When it comes to international tax matters, we focus on the following types of traders: U.S. residents living abroad; U.S. residents with international investments; U.S. residents moving to tax possessions like Puerto Rico (with huge tax breaks); U.S. residents surrendering citizenship or green cards; and non-resident aliens investing in the U.S. with individual accounts or through an entity.
Many traders living in the U.S. have offshore trading and bank accounts to trade on foreign markets. Some offshore brokers encourage traders to form foreign entities as a requirement to get access or to set up a foreign brokerage account, in some cases to avoid CFTC rules limiting forex leverage or Reg T margin rules on securities. Look before you leap: Tax compliance for a foreign entity is significant and there are few to no tax advantages for traders.
Traders with foreign accounts need to learn about Foreign Bank Account Reporting (FBAR), Form 8938 (Statement of Specified Foreign Financial Assets), controlled foreign corporations (CFC), foreign disregarded entities, Passive Foreign Investment Companies (PFIC), tax treaties and more.
Chapter 14 touches upon these topics, along with the IRS’s “come clean” OVDP program, the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act and CFTC regulations.