Section 475 “tax loss insurance” is a fantastic tax benefit for active securities traders qualifying for trader tax status (TTS). Many individual taxpayers have been using it successfully for years. I’ve exhorted the benefits since 1997, when Congress enacted Section 475 tax law for traders.
Some Section 475 provisions are vague
Increasingly, my firm’s tax compliance CPAs have noticed problems with the nuances of Section 475, including some of the rule sections, which are too vague. The IRS acknowledged this with its “Section 475 Clean Up Project” and read our comment letter to the IRS. The IRS said the project is being completed and to expect updated Section 475 regulations in the summer of 2016. (I cover the changes being discussed at tax attorney conferences in my next blog post IRS Considering “Freeze and Mark” for Section 475 Election.)
One of the problems with Section 475 regulations has to do with segregation of investments. Segregation should be done in form and substance and that can be confusing. A prior IRS proposed regulation called for designation of investment accounts, but that was not sufficient as traders could use substance to trump form.
This problem arises when a trader uses Section 475 and also holds investment positions in substantially identical positions. Traders can’t elect Section 475 by account. The law makes the election by taxpayer identification number, which means the election applies to all active trading accounts and investment accounts containing active trading.
Traders can solve this problem by housing the trading business using Section 475 in a separate legal entity and holding investments in individual accounts. This is the only way to fully segregate investments from trading. (Read my recent blog post Active Traders Should Consider An Entity For Tax Savings for other reasons to form an entity.)
Misidentified investment positions
Many individuals trade substantially identical positions between Section 475 active trading accounts and taxable investment accounts, including joint and spousal accounts. For example, they trade Apple options in a Section 475 account and also hold Apple equity in segregated investment accounts.
The IRS can view this trading as gaming the system, with the trader deducting ordinary losses on Apple options but deferring taxes on unrealized long-term capital gains in Apple equity held as an investment. Because Apple options and Apple equity are substantially identical positions, the IRS has the power in Section 475 regulations to treat either the Apple options or the Apple equity as “misidentified investment positions,” which means it can apply Section 475(d)(2). (Learn more about that Section 475 penalty in my blog post IRS Plays Havoc with Traders Misidentifying Investments.)
Experienced trader tax preparers and IRS agents may seek other ways to address this problem, including reclassifying Section 475 ordinary losses on Apple options as investment capital losses, which then triggers capital loss limitations and wash sale loss adjustments on substantially identical positions across all accounts. Or if it’s better for the IRS position, reclassifying Apple equity investments as Section 475 trades, triggering Section 475 MTM ordinary income treatment, thereby losing tax deferral and missing out on lower long-term capital gains rates on realization.
An entity solves the problem
Traders can avoid this problem by ring-fencing Section 475 trades in separate entity accounts and holding investments in individual accounts. A separate legal entity has a different taxpayer identification number vs. an individual taxpayer social security number.
Don’t transfer investment positions into the entity, as that brings the same problem to the entity-level: having trading and investment accounts and or positions on the same taxpayer identification number.
I suggest that traders using portfolio margining on investment positions make the following decision. Either bring investments into the trading entity for portfolio margining and don’t elect Section 475 in the entity or leave the investments out of the entity and elect Section 475.
A newly formed entity may elect Section 475 by placing a resolution in its own books and records within 75 days of inception. Existing taxpayers must elect Section 475 by making an election statement with the IRS by the due date of the prior year tax return, and later file a timely Form 3115 for the year of the election. (Read my blog post Traders: Consider Ordinary Loss Election By Tax Deadline for more details on making the election.)
IRS scrutinizes individuals with large Section 475-related NOL tax refunds
It’s been over a decade since Chen vs. Commission (2004), but an IRS official recently reiterated the importance of that landmark tax court case, deeming similar cases “Chen cases.”
The IRS official was referring to sole proprietor (individual) traders reporting large Schedule C and Form 4797 (Section 475) ordinary losses on individual tax returns and filing for large NOL carryback refunds claims with the IRS. All the cases in my Green’s 2016 Trader Tax Guide, including Assaderaghi, Nelson, Endicott and Holsinger are similar: individuals with Schedule C and Form 4797 losses.
It’s much better to file as an entity trader with Section 475 ordinary loss treatment. The tax refund is the same, but you substantially reduce your chances of IRS exam and denial of TTS, which is required for use of Section 475.
Section 475 tax benefits
Securities traders qualifying for TTS benefit from a Section 475 election. Section 475 securities trades are exempt from wash sale loss adjustments and a capital loss limitation. Section 475 has business ordinary loss treatment, which offsets income of any kind and contributes to net operating losses (NOLs), which may be carried back two years and/or forward 20 years. Short-term capital gains and Section 475 MTM gains are taxed at the ordinary tax rate, so Section 475 is recommended for securities traders.
Conversely, Section 1256 contract traders (futures and more) generally don’t want Section 475 since they would lose lower 60/40 capital gains tax rates in Section 1256 (60% is a long-term capital gain taxed at lower rates and 40% is a short-term capital gain).
Traders can elect Section 475 on securities only, retaining Section 1256 treatment on futures. Section 475 does not apply to segregated investments. Traders value ordinary loss treatment: It’s free tax loss insurance for securities traders.
I’ve been advising traders on tax matters for over 30 years and I’ve seen many ups and downs in the financial markets. I’ve seen professional traders with wide fluctuations of income and loss, too. It’s important to avoid the dreaded $3,000 capital loss limitation against other income and benefit from Section 475 ordinary business loss treatment to generate immediate tax refund relief.