Will The IRS Deny Tax Benefits To Traders Due To Covid?

September 14, 2020 | By: Robert A. Green, CPA | Read it on

So far, 2020 has been a highly volatile year in the financial markets due to significant uncertainty over Covid-19, a shock to the economy, and job losses. As the virus spread in the U.S, millions of displaced Americans turned to trading in financial markets as a means of making a new living. Some became active enough to qualify for trader tax status (TTS) benefits, which requires regular, frequent, and continuous trading. However, will the IRS deny TTS to Covid-19 traders if they only carry on a trading business during the pandemic for a short time?

I’m not as worried about existing traders from 2019 who incurred massive trading losses in Q1 2020 during the Covid correction and stopped trading at that time. Hopefully, they made a Section 475 ordinary loss election due by the July 15, 2020 deadline, which is conditional on eligibility for TTS. These pre-Covid traders were in business for more than 15 months, so their TTS/475 ordinary loss deduction should be safe.

I am more concerned with the millions of newcomer traders who opened online trading accounts offering free or low commissions in 2020. Many rookies have significant trading gains year-to-date, even after the recent sell-off. In the trading business, gains can turn into losses with a substantial correction. When that happens, TTS traders count on Section 475 for tax-loss or fire-loss insurance: The trading house burns down, and you can file for a refund with the IRS. The CARES Act permits five-year net operating loss (NOL) carryback refund claims for 2020, 2019, and 2018 tax returns.

Some rookie traders start off meeting the IRS requirements for TTS. Those rules are vague, so see GreenTraderTax’s golden rules for TTS. I wonder how IRS agents will consider the Covid pandemic when assessing TTS. Consider a furloughed worker who started trading at home full time in mid-2020. Was the trader’s intention to create a new business for the long-term, or to buy time and make some extra money before returning to his or her career after the pandemic subsides? TTS requires the intention to run a business from catching daily market movements, not from making investments for appreciation.

If a new trader started trading on June 1, 2020, but stops or significantly slows down trading when returning to work in November 2020, will the IRS deny TTS because he only traded actively for five months? The IRS agent might cite the landmark tax court case Chen vs. Commissioner, where TTS was denied. Chen only carried on TTS for three months.

I analyzed the Chen case in my trader tax guide; here’s an excerpt. 

Chen vs. Commissioner

Comments from a senior IRS official about the Chen tax court case point out the IRS doesn’t respect individual traders who are brand new to trading activity and who enter and exit it too quickly. Chen only traded for three months before losing his trading money, thereby leaving his trading activity. Chen kept his software engineering job during his three months of trading.

The Chen case indicates the IRS wants to see a more extended time to establish TTS. Some IRS agents like to intimidate taxpayers with a full year requirement, but the law does not require that. Hundreds of thousands of businesses start and fail within three months, and the IRS doesn’t challenge them on business status. The IRS is rightfully more skeptical of traders vs. investors, perhaps even more so during the pandemic. The longer a trader can continue his business trading activity, the better his chances are with the IRS. We often ask clients about their trading activities in the prior and subsequent years as we prepare their tax returns for the year that just ended. Vigorous subsequent-year trading activities and gains add credibility to the tax return being filed. We mention these points in tax return footnotes, too. Traders can start their trading business in Q4 and continue it into the subsequent year.

Chen messed up many things in this case. First and foremost, he lied to the IRS about electing Section 475 MTM ordinary loss treatment on time and then used 475 MTM when he wasn’t eligible. Chen should have been subject to a $3,000 capital loss limitation rather than deducting a massive 475 ordinary loss triggering a huge tax refund. Second, he brought a losing case to tax court and made the mistake of representing himself. Once Chen was busted on the phony MTM election, he caved in on all points, including TTS. Chen did not have many TTS business expenses, so he figured it wasn’t worth continuing to fight.

Even though he only traded for three months while keeping his full-time job, it doesn’t mean he didn’t start a new business — intending to change careers to business trading — and make a substantial investment of time, money, and activity. Tax code or case law doesn’t state that a business must be carried on for a full year or as the primary means of making a living. Countless companies startup and fail in a few short months, and many times the entrepreneur hasn’t left his or her job while experimenting as a businessperson. Chen may have won TTS had he been upfront with the IRS and engaged a tax attorney or trader tax expert to represent him in court.

TTS tax benefits

  1. TTS traders deduct business expenses, startup costs, and home office expenses. Without TTS, investors may only deduct margin interest expense to the extent they have investment income as an itemized deduction. Many use the standard deduction instead.
  2. TTS traders are entitled to elect the robust Section 475 mark-to-market accounting, which converts capital gains and losses into ordinary gains and losses. Short-term capital gains on securities are ordinary income; whereas, 475 ordinary business losses generate tax refunds much faster than a $3,000 capital loss limitation. Section 475 also exempts securities trades from onerous wash sale loss rules, a headache for active traders, which causes phantom income and potentially excess tax liability. The 20% qualified business income (QBI) deduction applies to 475 net income if the taxpayer is under a taxable income threshold. QBI excludes capital gains. Individuals had to elect 475 for 2020 by the postponed deadline of July 15, 2020. A new LLC partnership or S-Corp can select 475 within 75 days of inception.
  3. With a TTS S-Corp, traders can deduct health insurance and retirement plan contributions.

I consult new traders on TTS. It’s incredible how many of these traders, from all walks of life, ages and careers, have made small fortunes since April. Others incurred substantial losses. During my tax consultations, many clients tell me they don’t want to return to their jobs if and when called back, and that TTS trading is their new career, which they cherish.

In The Tax Moves Day Traders Need to Make Now, Laura Saunders and Mischa Frankl-Duval report on this very issue (Wall Street Journal, Sept. 11, 2020), warning taxpayers to be careful when thinking about claiming TTS.

Our own Darren Neuschwander, CPA, was interviewed for the piece, stating he has seen a rise in inquiries about trader tax status this year. “The requirements for this break haven’t been clarified by the IRS, but they are stiff. Among other things, traders often need to trade for at least four hours a day, for an average of four days a week, and make at least 720 trades a year,” Neuschwander said.

Also, see my interview in theWall Street Journal’s July 5, 2020 article, The Benefits of Calling Yourself a ‘Trader’ for Tax Purposes by Nick Ravo.

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