Securities traders should use software to account for wash sale losses
When it comes to a trading activity, it’s wise to do separate accounting for trading gains and losses vs. expenses. A consumer off-the-shelf accounting program is fine for keeping track of expenses, non-trading income, home office deductions and itemized deductions. But when it comes to trade accounting for securities, these programs are inadequate — you may need a specialized securities trade accounting program and/or accounting firm, or in limited cases brokerage firm reporting may be sufficient.
Futures accounting isn’t required, as you can rely on the tightly controlled one-page 1099-B with summary reporting, using MTM reporting. Although spot forex accounting could be a nightmare if you try to do it yourself, you can rely on the broker’s annual tax reports and should use summary reporting. Spot forex is not a “covered security,” so there are no Form 1099-Bs. Many traders keep track of expenses using worksheets in lieu of accounting programs.
Securities accounting is challenging
Securities brokers are making advances in tax-compliance reporting. It’s due to Congressional legislation and implementation of IRS cost-basis reporting regulations for which phase-in commenced in 2011. Phase-in is almost complete: Equity option transactions and simple debt instruments acquired on January 1, 2014 or later were reported for the first time on 1099-Bs for tax year 2014. The only cost-basis reporting item remaining to be phased-in is reporting complex debt instruments starting on January 1, 2016 or later. Tax-year 2015 1099-Bs should be the same as in 2014.
Taxpayers report proceeds, cost basis, wash sale loss adjustments, holding period and capital gain or loss – short term vs. long-term (held over 12 months) on Form 8949. According to the form’s instructions, taxpayers without wash sale and other adjustments to cost-basis may simply enter totals from broker 1099-Bs directly on Schedule D and skip filing a Form 8949. After all, the IRS gets a copy of the 1099-B with all the details.
But this Form 8949 instruction leads many taxpayers and tax preparers astray with taxpayers thinking they don’t have wash sales when in fact they do have many to report in compliance with IRS wash sale rules for taxpayers, which differ from IRS rules for brokers.
Form 8949 problems: apples vs. oranges with 1099-BS
In accordance with IRS rules for brokers, a 1099-B reports wash sales per that one brokerage account based on identical positions. The wash sale rules are different for taxpayers, who must calculate wash sales based on substantially identical positions across all their accounts including joint, spouse and IRAs. With different rules for brokers vs. taxpayers (apples vs. oranges), it’s expected that in many cases broker-issued 1099-Bs might report different wash sale losses than a taxpayer must report on Form 8949. A broker may report no wash sales when in fact a taxpayer may have many wash sale losses. A taxpayer may permanently lose a wash sale loss between a taxable and IRA account, but a broker will never report that on a 1099-B. In some cases, a broker can report a wash sale loss deferral at year-end, but the taxpayer may have absorbed the wash sale loss in another account, thereby eliminating this tax problem at year-end.
This problem of different rules on wash sales for brokers vs. taxpayers is still widely unknown by many taxpayers and tax preparers. Far too many continue to omit Form 8949 or file an incorrect Form 8949 relying solely on broker 1099-B reporting when they should be using securities trade accounting software to properly calculate and report wash sale loss adjustments.
A predicament for some tax preparers who do understand the problem is that calculating wash sales correctly leads to un-reconciled differences between Form 8949 and 1099-Bs. Some tax preparers don’t want to draw attention to those differences, fearing IRS notices generated from IRS 1099-B automated matching programs. It’s ironic that the mission of Congress in cost basis legislation was to “close the tax gap” providing more opportunities for matching 1099-Bs, but it may lead to a mess of un-reconciled differences. To better close the tax gap, Congress should realign broker and taxpayer wash sale rules to be the same.
There is one scenario where a taxpayer can solely rely on a 1099-B and skip filing Form 8949 by entering 1099-B amounts on Schedule D: when the taxpayer has only one brokerage account and trades equities only with no trading in equity options, which are substantially identical positions. Plus, the taxpayer must not have any wash sale loss or other adjustments. In that narrow case, there are apples vs. apples — only one account and substantially identical is the same as identical.
This problem of apples vs. oranges is biggest for individuals who tend to have multiple accounts. There is a solution for traders who qualify for TTS. Trade in an entity and elect Section 475 MTM, which is exempt from wash sale rules. Keep investment accounts with far less wash sale loss activity on the individual level.
Section 1091 wash sale rules for taxpayers
Per IRS Publication 550: A wash sale occurs when you (a taxpayer) sell or trade stock or securities at a loss and within 30 days before or after the sale you:
- Buy substantially identical stock or securities,
- Acquire substantially identical stock or securities in a fully taxable trade,
- Acquire a contract or option to buy substantially identical stock or securities, or
- Acquire substantially identical stock for your individual retirement account (IRA) or Roth IRA.
Wash-sale rules differ between brokers and taxpayers
IRS regulations require brokers to calculate and report wash sales per account based on identical positions (it’s reiterated in Form 1099-B instructions). Here is an example of broker rules: an account holder sells 1,000 shares of Apple stock for a loss and buys back 1,000 shares of Apple stock 30 days before or 30 days after. That’s a wash-sale loss deferred (added) to the replacement position cost-basis. But, if the account holder buys back Apple options instead of Apple stock, according to broker rules it’s not a wash sale because an option is not “identical” to the same company’s stock. Broker computer systems are programmed to calculate wash sales based on an identical symbol, and stock and options and options at different exercise dates have different symbols.
IRS regulations for Section 1091 require taxpayers to calculate wash sales based on “substantially identical” positions. That’s very different from the rule for brokers that require “identical” positions. This can be a big problem or challenge for active traders who trade stocks and options, or just options but with constant changes in exercise dates. Starting in 2014, 1099-Bs included equity options for the first time.
Many brokers report “disallowed wash sales for the year” on 1099-Bs rather than “actual wash sales” at year-end. This causes confusion and anxiety for many taxpayers, who draw the wrong conclusion and may think they have a huge problem at year-end, when they may not. The “disallowed wash sales for the year” number may count the same wash sale over and over throughout the year. What counts more is what wash sales are deferred at year-end, and what ones were permanently lost to IRA accounts.
Many traders and local tax preparers who are not that savvy to the wash sale rules may leap to import 1099-Bs into TurboTax or choose to enter totals directly on Schedule D, omitting Form 8949, but they will probably not comply with Section 1091. In effect, they are using broker rules and unknowingly or willfully disregarding Section 1091. While tax preparers may be covered for malpractice, they will have Circular 230 penalties and ignorance is not an acceptable excuse.
Consider a Section 475 election. Business traders qualifying for TTS are entitled to elect Section 475 mark-to-market (MTM) accounting elected on a timely basis. Section 475 business trades are not reported on Form 8949; they use Form 4797 Part II (ordinary gain or loss). Although Section 475 extricates traders from the compliance headaches of Form 8949, it does not change their requirement for line-by-line reporting on Form 4797. We recommend trade accounting software to generate Form 4797. If you elect Section 475, you’ll need that software to calculate your Section 481(a) adjustment, too.
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This content is an excerpt from Green’s 2016 Trader Tax Guide. Click here Green’s 2016 Trader Tax Guide to learn more and get your copy! Use coupon code TradingPub for 15% off through January 31st, 2016!
About the author
Robert A. Green is a CPA and founder and CEO of Green & Company Inc. (GreenTraderTax.com), a publishing company, and Managing Member and Founder of Green NFH, LLC, a tax and accounting firm catering to investors, traders and investment management businesses. He is a leading authority on trader tax. Mr. Green writes the “Business of Trading” section for Active Trader magazine and is a Forbes blogger for their column Great Speculations. He is also the author of The Tax Guide for Traders (McGraw-Hill, 2004), Green’s Trader Tax Guide and the annual GreenTrader tax return e
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