IRS Plays Havoc With Traders Misidentifying Investments

November 23, 2015 | By: Robert A. Green, CPA

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The IRS and some states have been playing havoc with traders in exams, claiming traders did not properly comply with Section 475 rules for segregation of investment positions from trading positions. Noncompliance gives the agent license to drag misidentified investment positions into Section 475 mark-to-market (MTM), or to boot misidentified trading losses out of Section 475 into capital loss treatment subject to the $3,000 capital loss limitation. Both of these types of exam changes cause huge tax bills, penalties and interest.

Traders don’t want to lose capital gains deferral and lower long-term capital gains rates on investment positions in securities. With misidentified investments the IRS has the power to drag those positions into Section 475 subjecting them to MTM and ordinary income tax rates.

Section 475 improper identification
Section 475 contains a clause to limit unrealized losses on investment positions dragged into Section 475. Under Section 475(d)(2) (which is applicable to traders pursuant to Section 475(f)(1)(D)), if a security was misidentified as an investment, then there is Section 475 MTM unrealized loss recognition only against other Section 475 gains, and any excess unrealized losses are deferred until the security is actually sold. Limiting MTM treatment on unrealized losses on investment positions is not much different from unrealized capital losses on those same positions.

Carefully identify investments
If you claim trader tax status and use Section 475 MTM, you can prevent this problem by carefully identifying each investment position on a contemporaneous basis. When you receive confirmation of the purchase of an investment position, email yourself to identify it as investment position as that constitutes a timestamp in your books and records. Don’t hold onto winning Section 475 trading positions and morph them into investment positions, as that does not comply with the rules. If identifying each separate investment is inconvenient, then ring-fence investments into identified investment accounts vs. active trading accounts. Use “Do Not Trade” lists for investing vs. trading accounts so you don’t trade the same symbol in both accounts.

But this compliance is not enough. If you hyperactively trade around your investments, the IRS can say you failed to segregate the investment in substance.

Section 475 clean up project
In 2015, the IRS acknowledged lingering problems with Section 475 and announced a Clean Up Project welcoming comments from tax professionals. I started a successful petition on Rally Congress to fix Section 475 and TTS rules and also sent a cover letter and comments to the IRS. The American Bar Association ABA Comments on Mark-to-Market Rules Under Section 475 are good. See my blog post in Aug. 2014 IRS warns Section 475 traders, which focuses on the segregation of investment issue.

Individuals have a problem
Section 475 misidentification of investments is a huge problem for individual sole proprietor traders who have both trading and investment positions. Section 475 is very valuable since it exempts trades from wash sale loss rules and the $3,000 capital loss limitation allowing full net operating loss (NOL) treatment for losses which generates huge tax refunds. A capital loss limitation is the biggest pitfall for traders.

Individuals often have a few trading accounts and also several investment accounts. Married couples may each have individual accounts, some joint accounts and IRA accounts. They may buy and hold popular equities in investment accounts and then hyperactively trade those same symbols in their designated trading accounts.

Entities navigate around the problem
The simple fix is to form an entity like a single-member or spousal-member LLC with an S-Corp election. Conduct all business trading with Section 475 on securities in those entity accounts. (The entity may elect Section 475 MTM internally within 75 days of inception of the entity.) Trader tax status, business expenses and Section 475 trading gains and losses are reported on the S-Corp tax return.

It’s wise to avoid investment positions in the entity accounts. But some traders want to use portfolio margining, and brokers don’t allow that between individual and entity accounts, so they want to transfer some large investment positions into the entity accounts. That can become a problem for Section 475 segregation of investment rules, especially if you trade the same symbols. Consult a trader tax expert.

Keep investments in your individual investment accounts. The individual and entity accounts are not connected for purposes of Section 475 rules since they’re separate taxpayer identification numbers.

The entity also looks much better in the eyes of the IRS claiming trader tax status and using Section 475 ordinary loss treatment. Plus, an S-Corp trading company can have employee-benefit plan deductions — health insurance and high-deductible Solo 401(k) retirement plan) — whereas a sole proprietor trader may not.

Tax court cases are for individual traders
A senior IRS official stated at an industry conference that the IRS is going after (auditing) “Chen cases,” referring to the landmark Chen tax court case. Chen was a part-time individual trader for just three months and he deducted TTS expenses and a huge Section 475 ordinary loss requesting a huge tax refund. The court denied TTS and use of Section 475.

Other recent trader tax court cases are individual traders claiming large TTS expenses and Section 475 losses. I covered these cases on my blog: see posts for Poppe, Assaderaghi, Nelson, Endicott, Holsinger and Chen (covered in my guides). Some of these traders may have been okay if they used an entity, however many did not qualify for trader tax status, and several botched or lied about electing Section 475.

In my blog post on the Poppe case, I point out that individuals face pitfalls in electing Section 475. The IRS granted Poppe TTS but denied Section 475 ordinary loss treatment because he botched or lied about the Section 475 election and he never filed a Form 3115. A new entity wouldn’t have that problem.

Wash sale losses are similar
Section 1091 wash sale rules are similar, yet different in one important aspect from Section 475 rules. While the entity is a different taxpayer from the individual for wash sale loss purposes, the IRS can apply Section 267 related party transaction rules to connect the entity and individual accounts if the trader purposely tries to avoid wash sale losses between the entity and individual accounts. I have not seen Section 267 mentioned in connection with Section 475 segregation rules.

Bottom line
Section 475 tax loss insurance is a huge tax break for traders who qualify for trader tax status but be careful with properly identifying investments. Be safe on using TTS and Section 475 by trading in an entity. Now is a good time to form one for 2016.

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