In light of the William F. Poppe vs. Commissioner court case, there’s good news for retail traders on the volume of trades needed to qualify for trader tax status.
There’s also troubling news. The IRS denied Poppe his Section 475 election because he could not prove compliance with the two-step election process. Traders should be more diligent in documenting their election. The consequence was that instead of deducting his $1 million trading loss as an ordinary loss, Poppe was stuck with a $3,000 capital loss limitation and a capital loss carryover.
The court construed Poppe’s 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.
Qualification for trader tax status
The Poppe court awarded trader tax status (TTS) with 720 trades (60 trades per month). That’s less than our 2015 golden rule calling for 1,000 trades per annum on an annualized basis. Poppe seems to have satisfied our other golden rules on frequency, holding period, intention to run a business, serious account size, serious equipment, business expenses, and more. Plus, Poppe had a good background as a stockbroker.
In some years, Poppe was a teacher and part-time trader, fitting trading into his schedule. It helped that Poppe made a lot of money trading in a few years in comparison to his teacher’s salary.
Botched Section 475 election
Poppe had large trading losses ($1 million in 2007) for which he claimed Section 475 ordinary business loss treatment rather than a puny $3,000 capital loss imitation against other income. But like other recent tax court cases (Assaderaghi, Nelson, Endicott, Holsinger and Chen), the court busted Poppe for either lying to the IRS about making a timely Section 475 election or making a valid election but not being able to prove it to the IRS. Poppe never filed a required Form 3115 to perfect the Section 475 election, which begs the question: Did he ever file an election statement on time?
The case opinion states that Poppe intended to elect Section 475 for 2003 and he filed his 2003 tax return late in 2005 omitting a required 2003 Form 3115. Poppe’s tax preparer reported 2003 Section 475 trading gains on Schedule C. That’s incorrect: Section 475 trading gains are reported on Form 4797 Part II ordinary gain or loss. This botched reporting indicates to me that Poppe’s tax preparer did not understand Section 475 tax law and it probably buttressed the IRS win.
Many traders are in the same predicament as Poppe and should do their best to document the election filing in case the IRS challenges it later on. We document the process for our clients and ask them to document their filings, too. Send yourself an email with the relevant facts as email has a timestamp. Safeguard a copy of the election and Form 3115 in your permanent files.
One learning moment in the Poppe case is how to properly make a timely Section 475 election and to avoid pitfalls in botching the election process.
Section 475 tax loss insurance
By default, investors and traders in securities and Section 1256 contracts have capital gain and loss treatment, as opposed to ordinary gain or loss treatment. Capital losses offset capital gains without limitation, but a net capital loss is limited to $3,000 per year against other income with the remainder of capital losses carried over to the subsequent tax year(s).
Traders qualifying for TTS may file a timely election for Section 475 ordinary gain or loss treatment (on securities only or Section 1256 contracts, too). Generally, traders prefer to retain Section 1256 treatment with lower 60/40 capital gains rates. Section 475 exempts traders from wash-sale loss treatment on securities and capital loss limitations. It’s known as “tax loss insurance” since it allows full business ordinary loss treatment comprising NOLs generating NOL tax refunds.
A sole proprietor (unincorporated) trader makes an individual-level Section 475 election. A proprietary trading firm or hedge fund makes an entity-level Section 475 election. A partner in a proprietary trading firm or hedge fund cannot override the firm’s Section 475 election or lack of an election made on the entity-level.
Warning: Don’t botch the election
Botching the election empowers the IRS to deny use of Section 475 serving up a simple win for the IRS in tax court. Even when a taxpayer properly makes a Section 475 election, an IRS agent may challenge his or her qualification for TTS, which pulls the rug out from under using Section 475. (Each tax year TTS must be assessed as a prerequisite to using Section 475.)
Section 475 election two-step process
The first step is for the trader to file a timely election statement early in the current tax year to prevent the trader from using hindsight about the election later.
An “existing taxpayer” (who filed a tax return before) must file an election statement with the IRS (that means “external”) by the due date of the prior year tax return not including extensions: April 15 for individuals and partnerships and March 15 for S-Corps. (Note that in 2017, the partnership due date changes to March 15.) Attach the Section 475 election statement to the tax return or extension filing. I suggest documenting this first step in your books and records including emailing a copy to yourself and your accountant. Don’t count on the IRS for keeping a copy of the election statement.
An existing taxpayer’s second step is to file a Form 3115 (Change Of Accounting Method) with appropriate Section 481(a) adjustment by the due date of the election-year tax return including extensions. The complex Form 3115 must be filed in duplicate: one copy with the timely filed tax return and a second copy to the IRS national office.
Example of existing taxpayer: A sole proprietor trader files a 2015 Section 475 election by April 15, 2015, attaching the election statement to his 2014 federal tax extension filed on time by mail. (You can’t attach an election to an e-filed extension.) Second step: The accountant prepares a 2015 Form 3115 to accompany the 2015 Form 1040 filed by Oct. 15, 2016 with a valid extension filed by April 15, 2016.
Why the two steps? So taxpayers can make a very simple election filing with little hindsight but to allow sufficient time to prepare a complex Form 3115 with the tax return filing after year-end.
Common errors with Section 475 elections
Many local accountants are confused about the two-step process. Some think only one step is required: either filing the Form 3115 in lieu of the election statement, or the election statement as part of a Form 3115 filing with the tax return. They don’t comply with both required steps and that botches the election.
Section 475 “new taxpayer” exception
There is an important exception to the election process for “new taxpayers” such as a new entity. A new taxpayer may file the Section 475 election statement within its own books and records (internally) within 75 days of inception of the new entity.
Existing taxpayers who miss the external 475 election by April 15 should consider forming a new entity to make an internal Section 475 election within 75 days of inception, which is later in the year. A new taxpayer “adopts” Section 475 from inception as opposed to changing its accounting method so they don’t have the second step of filing a Form 3115 with Section 481(a) adjustment (converting realization/cash method to MTM on Jan. 1).
The entity provides better flexibility in making, revoking, and ending Section 475 elections with closure of the entity. With fewer steps to follow, the internal election for new taxpayers is a better choice for prevailing with the IRS.
Poppe’s errors on Section 475
Poppe was not able to verify the external 475 election statement (step one) or a Form 3115 filing (step two). It wasn’t just a question of being late on a Form 3115 filing, Poppe never filed a Form 3115 and he was an existing taxpayer individual.
Traders should file the external Section 475 election statement with certified return receipt. But that may not be enough because it only verifies a mailing, which also contains the tax return or extension. The IRS recognized this problem and suggests that taxpayers include a perjury statement on Form 3115 stating they filed the 475 election statement on time.
Is there any relief from the IRS?
My partner Darren Neuschwander, CPA spoke with an IRS official in the Form 3115 area a few years ago who said the IRS had granted some relief to a few traders providing they were only a little late with their Form 3115 filing and they filed the election statement on time. The IRS official pointed out there is no relief for filing the initial election statement late.
But Poppe was not a little late — he never filed a Form 3115, even with the case being heard years later. It’s wise to file Form 3115 on time per the written rules and not rely on hearsay about possible relief from IRS officials, which may no longer be granted after the Poppe decision. Consult your trader tax advisor.
Poppe’s mental incapacity argument didn’t work
The Poppe case shows that it doesn’t work to claim reasonable cause on noncompliance due to mental incapacity if the taxpayer can’t demonstrate the same mental incapacity in a job, business, or trading. Poppe tried to raise this issue for special relief and the IRS said no because he wasn’t mentally impaired as a teacher and as an active trader.
Per Thomson Reuters, “Poppe argued that his actions met the requirements of the ‘substantial compliance’ doctrine, under which perfect compliance with a tax provision isn’t required. But the Court said that the substantial compliance doctrine does not apply to the Code Sec. 475(f) election and that, even if it did, Poppe failed to meet many of Rev Proc 99-17 ‘s requirements and thus hadn’t substantially complied.”
Proprietary trading account or disguised customer account?
In 2007 (the IRS exam year), Poppe lost $1 million trading with a proprietary trading firm that cleared through Goldman Sachs Execution & Clearing (GSEC). This is the tax loss at the center of this case.
On his original tax return filing, Poppe reported this loss (assumed) on Schedule E page 2, as an ordinary loss flowing through to him as a partner in a partnership. If the proprietary trading firm qualified for TTS and filed a timely Section 475 election on the firm level, then trading losses allocated to partners would have ordinary loss treatment.
Poppe attached a partner Schedule K-1 to his tax return even though it is not required. But during the exam, the IRS was unable to find Poppe’s K-1 in the partnership tax return filings where it is required to be attached. This begs the question: Did Poppe fabricate his own Schedule K-1? That would be illegal. Or did the firm present Poppe with a Schedule K-1 only to retract it in their partnership tax filing later on? (IRS computers match K-1s reported on partner’s individual tax returns with partnership tax filings looking for incorrect reporting.)
Prop trading firm arrangements, agreements, tax treatment and regulatory issues are murky. Perhaps Poppe never formally signed the prop trading firm’s LLC Operating Agreement. The case states Poppe couldn’t satisfy the IRS that he was a partner in the firm. If not an LLC member, perhaps he was an independent contractor, which is the second business model for proprietary trading firms.
Poppe claimed he was a Class B member of the firm. Generally, the main owners (Class A members) are allocated firm-wide trading losses on their K-1s since they own the firm’s capital in their capital accounts, which provide tax basis for deducting trading losses. Generally, Class B members don’t have capital accounts so they aren’t allocated losses since they wouldn’t have tax basis to deduct losses, which would then be suspended to subsequent years when they might have capital.
Instead of paying into firm capital, Class B members pay “deposits” to the firm. This is where the confusion mainly lies. The firm applies these deposits to cover the prop trader’s trading losses incurred in a firm sub-account. Prop traders are entitled to deduct lost deposits as business bad debts, which are ordinary business losses. Perhaps Poppe should have considered lost deposit bad debt tax treatment instead of using an incorrect K-1 and later relying on an alleged Section 475 election as a retail individual trader.
I’ve been covering the proprietary trading industry since the late 1990s. Around 2000, some people questioned whether proprietary trading firm arrangements were really “disguised” retail customer accounts. Reg T margin rules allow 4:1 margin on pattern day trader (PDT) customer accounts requiring a $25,000 minimum account size. Otherwise, retail investors are limited to 2:1 margin on securities. The big attraction of proprietary trading firms is they offer proprietary traders (LLC members or independent contractors) far greater leverage (greater than 10:1 in some cases) on their deposits made with the firm. Some proprietary trading firms have minimum deposit amounts as low as $2,000.
If the firm’s profit sharing arrangement is more than 80% sharing to the prop trader, FINRA’s Regulatory Notice 10-18 issued to clearing firms stated it’s one of several signs it may be a disguised retail customer account. Read my June 2010 blog post FINRA’s notice to prop traders. Poppe had 90% profit sharing and perhaps that led the IRS to conclude it was a disguised retail customer account. GSEC is a popular clearing firm for proprietary trading firms and I don’t believe it services individual retail customers. Goldman Sachs brokerage firm has high standards for opening individual retail customer accounts.
The Poppe opinion states: “The parties stipulated that all transactions and capital in the GSEC account belonged to petitioner (Poppe).” Perhaps the parties preferred this tact so they could ague the case over Poppe’s alleged Section 475 election as a retail trader. In my view, the word “stipulate” means the parties agreed on facts as a pre-condition to negotiating a settlement. But it’s not necessarily the true facts.
Should prop traders file Section 475 elections as a backup position in case the IRS later considers them a disguised retail customer account? I imagine plenty proprietary trading firms and prop traders are in tax controversy (exams, appeals or tax court) now and I suggest they consider contacting our CPA firm for help soon.
I’m happy to see a new trader tax court case moving the goal posts back to 720 trades from 1,000. That opens the door for more traders. I am not surprised that another trader (and his accountant) botched the complex Section 475 election process and later tried to bamboozle the IRS about it in order to get a huge tax benefit. Proprietary trading firm arrangements with prop traders are murky and the IRS may turn up the heat on them both soon.
For more information, check out T.C. Memo. 2015-205.
Darren Neuschwander CPA contributed to this blog post.