Options trading is proliferating with the advent and innovation of retail option trading platforms, brokerage firms and trading schools. A trader can open an options trading account with just a few thousand dollars vs. $25,000 required for “pattern day trading” equities (Reg T margin rules).
Options trading provides the opportunity to make big profits on little capital using “risk it all” strategies. Options are a “tradable” financial instrument and a way to reduce risk with hedging strategies. When it comes to option taxation, complex trades with offsetting positions raise complex tax treatment issues like wash sale and straddle loss deferral rules.
Investors also trade options to manage risk in their investment portfolios. For example, if an investor owns significant equity in Apple and Exxon, he or she may want to trade options to manage risk or enhance income on long equity positions. He or she can collect premium by selling or “writing” an options contract or buy a “married put” for portfolio insurance. Traders also use ETFs and indexes for portfolio-wide insurance. (Investopedia has explanations for different option trading strategies.)
Simple vs. complex option trades
There are simple option trading strategies like buying and selling call and put options known as “outrights.” And there are complex option trades known as “option spreads”which include multi-legged offsetting positions like iron condors; butterfly spreads; vertical, horizontal and diagonal spreads; and debit and credit spreads.
Tax treatment for outright option trades is fairly straightforward and covered below. Tax treatment for complex trades triggers a bevy of complex IRS rules geared toward preventing taxpayers from tax avoidance schemes: deducting losses and expenses from the losing side of a complex trade in the current tax year while deferring income on the offsetting winning position until a subsequent tax year.
Look to the underlying financial instrument tax treatment
Options are “derivatives” of underlying financial instruments including equities, ETFs, futures, indexes, forex, and more. The first key to determining an option’s tax treatment is to look at the tax treatment for its underlying financial instrument. The option is to buy or sell that financial instrument and it’s tied at the hip.
For example, an equity option looks to the tax treatment of equities, which are considered “securities.” Conversely, options on Section 1256 contracts are deemed “non-equity options.”
ETFs are taxed as securities, so options on securities ETFs are taxed as securities. Options on commodity ETFs (structured as publicly traded partnerships) are non-equity options taxed as Section 1256 contracts. Options on futures are taxed as futures, which are Section 1256 contracts.
Capital gains and losses for securities are reported when realized (sold or closed). Conversely, Section 1256 contracts are marked-to-market (MTM) at year-end and they benefit from lower 60/40 capital gains tax rates: 60% long-term and 40% short-term. MTM imputes sales on open positions at market prices so there is no chance to defer an offsetting position at year-end. Generally, that means wash sale and straddle loss deferral rules don’t apply to Section 1256 options.
There are three things that can happen with outright option trades:
- Trade option (closing transaction)
Trading call and put equity options held as a capital asset are taxed the same as trading underlying equities. Report proceeds, cost basis, net capital gain or loss and holding period (short-term vs. long-term held over 12 months) from realized transactions only on Form 8949 (Capital Gains & Losses).
- Option expires (lapses)
There’s a minor twist on the above scenario. Rather than realizing a dollar amount on the closing out of the option trade, the closeout price is zero since the option expires worthless.Use zero for the realized proceeds or cost basis, depending on whether you’re the “writer”or “holder” of the option and if it’s a call or put. Use common sense — collecting premium on the option trade is proceeds and therefore the corresponding worthless exercise represents zero cost basis in this realized transaction. For guidance on entering option transactions as “expired”on Form 8949, read IRS Pub. 550 – Capital Gains And Losses: Options.
- Exercise the option
This is where tax treatment gets more complicated. Exercising an option is not a realized gain or loss transaction; it’s a stepping-stone to a subsequent realized gain or loss transaction on the underlying financial instrument acquired. The original option transaction amount is absorbed (adjusted) into the subsequent financial instrument cost basis or net proceed amount.Per IRS Pub. 550 Capital Gains & Losses: Options: “If you exercise a call, add its cost to the basis of the stock you bought. If you exercise a put, reduce your amount realized on the sale of the underlying stock by the cost of the put when figuring your gain or loss. Any gain or loss on the sale of the underlying stock is long term or short term depending on your holding period for the underlying stock…If a put you write is exercised and you buy the underlying stock, decrease your basis in the stock by the amount you received for the put…If a call you write is exercised and you sell the underlying stock, increase your amount realized on the sale of the stock by the amount you received for the call when figuring your gain or loss.” Some brokers interpret IRS rules differently, which can lead to confusion in attempting to reconcile broker-issued Form 1099Bs to trade accounting software. A few brokers may reduce proceeds when they should add the amount to cost basis. Equity options are reportable for the first time on 2014 Form 1099Bs.Exercising an option gets to the basics of what an option is all about: it’s the right, but not the obligation, to purchase or sell a financial instrument at a fixed “strike price” by an expiration date. Exercise may happen at any time until the option lapses. An investor can have an in the money option before expiration date and choose not to execute it, but rather hold or sell it before expiration.
- Holding period for long-term capital gains
When an equity option is exercised, the option holding period becomes irrelevant and the holding period for the equity begins anew. The holding period of the option doesn’t help achieve a long-term capital gain 12-month holding period on the subsequent sale of the equity. When an option is closed or lapsed, the option holding period does dictate short- or long-term capital gains treatment on the capital gain or loss.With exceptions recapped in IRS Pub. 550: “Put option as short sale. Buying a put option is generally treated as a short sale, and the exercise, sale, or expiration of the put is a closing of the short sale. If you have held the underlying stock for one year or less at the time you buy the put, any gain on the exercise, sale, or expiration of the put is a short-term capital gain. The same is true if you buy the underlying stock after you buy the put but before its exercise, sale, or expiration.”
Complex trades lead to complex tax treatment issues
In general, if an investor has an offsetting position he or she should look into more complex tax treatment issues.
IRS Pub. 550: Capital Gains & Losses: Straddles defines an “offsetting position” as “a position that substantially reduces any risk of loss you may have from holding another position.”
In the old days, shrewd professional options traders would enter offsetting positions and close out the losing side before year-end for a significant tax loss and let the winning side remain open until the subsequent year. They used this strategy to avoid paying taxes. The IRS goes through (and causes) great pains to prevent this type of tax avoidance. Offsetting position rules included “related persons” including a spouse and your flow-through entities.
“Loss Deferral Rules”in IRS Pub. 550 state “Generally, you can deduct a loss on the disposition of one or more positions only to the extent the loss is more than any unrecognized gain you have on offsetting positions. Unused losses are treated as sustained in the next tax year.”
IRS enforcement of offsetting position rules
Frankly, the offsetting position rules are complex, nuanced and inconsistently applied. There are insufficient tools and programs for complying with straddle loss deferral rules. Brokers don’t comply with taxpayer wash sale rules or straddle loss deferral rules on Form 1099Bs or profit and loss reports. Few local tax preparers and CPAs understand these rules, let alone know how to spot them on client trading records.
The IRS probably enforces wash sale and straddle loss deferral rules during audits of large taxpayers who are obviously avoiding taxes with offsetting positions. They make a lot of money, but it’s always deferred to the next tax year. The IRS doesn’t seem to be questioning wash sales and straddles during exams for the average Joe Trader.
I expect the IRS will launch a tax exam initiative for measuring taxpayer compliance with new cost-basis reporting law and regulations. I see a big problem brewing with unreconciled differences between taxpayer and broker rules on wash sales.
As we stress in our extensive content on wash sale loss deferral rules, Section 1091 rules for taxpayers require wash sale loss treatment on substantially identical positions across all accounts including IRAs. Substantially identical positions include Apple equity, Apply options and Apple options at different expiration dates on both puts and calls.
If a taxpayer re-enters a substantially identical position within 30 days before or after existing a position, the IRS defers the tax loss by adding it to the cost basis of the replacement position. When a taxable account has a wash sale caused by a replacement position purchased in an IRA, the wash sale loss is permanently lost.
Cost-basis regulations phased-in options as “covered securities” starting with 2014 Form 1099Bs. Brokers report wash sales based on identical positions, not substantially identical positions. Investors who trade equities and equity options cannot solely rely on Form 1099Bs and they should use their own trade accounting software to generate Form 8949. Learn more about wash sales in our Trader Tax Center.
Straddle loss deferral rules
Options traders use option spreads containing offsetting positions to limit risk and provide a reasonable opportunity to make a net profit on the trade. That’s very different from an unscrupulous trader entering a complex trade with offsetting positions set up for no overall risk (the rule is substantially reduced risk) or reward. Why would an options trader do that? For tax avoidance reasons only.
The IRS straddle loss deferral rules are set up to catch this trader and prevent this type of tax avoidance. The straddle loss deferral rule defers a loss to the subsequent tax year when the winning side of the position is closed, thereby reversing what the unscrupulous trader was trying to achieve. The IRS also suspends holding period so it’s impossible to qualify for long-term capital gains rates in the following year, too. Transaction-related expenses (carrying costs) and margin interest (certain interest) are also deferred by adding them to the cost-basis of the offsetting winning position.
Learn more about straddle loss deferral rules in connection with options in IRS Pub. 550: Capital Gains & Losses: Straddles. “A straddle is any set of offsetting positions on personal property. For example, a straddle may consist of a purchased option to buy and a purchased option to sell on the same number of shares of the security, with the same exercise price and period. Personal property. This is any actively traded property. It includes stock options and contracts to buy stock but generally does not include stock. Straddle rules for stock. Although stock is generally excluded from the definition of personal property when applying the straddle rules, it is included in the following two situations. 1) The stock is of a type which is actively traded, and at least one of the offsetting positions is a position on that stock or substantially similar or related property. 2) The stock is in a corporation formed or availed of to take positions in personal property that offset positions taken by any shareholder.”
Straddle loss rules are complex and beyond the scope of this blog post. Consult a tax adviser who understands the rules well.
Caution to unsuspecting option traders
Active traders in equities and equity options entering complex trades with multi-legged offsetting positions may unwittingly trigger straddle loss deferral rules if they calculate risk and reward wrong and there is substantially no risk.
Section 475 MTM
Traders who qualify for trader tax status may elect Section 475(f) MTM accounting, provided they do so by the deadline. MTM means the trader reports unrealized gains and losses on trading positions at year-end by imputing sales at year-end prices. Segregated investment positions are excluded from MTM. The character of the income changes from capital gain and loss to ordinary gain or loss. Section 475 trades are exempt from Section 1091 wash sale rules and straddle loss deferral rules since no open positions are deferred at year-end.
Employee stock options
Don’t confuse tradable options with employee stock options. When an employee acquires non-qualified options on his employer’s stock (equity), the later exercise of those options triggers ordinary income reported on the employee W-2 because the appreciated value is considered a form of wage compensation.
Ernst & Young prepared a useful guide with a good section on options taxation. It was requested by The Options Industry Council and is available on the CBOE website at https://www.cboe.com/LearnCenter/pdf/TaxesandInvesting.pdf.