This time each year, I review every client’s taxable accounts in search of losses to harvest for tax purposes. While no one likes to have a loss, the reality is that investments fluctuate and have down periods, even if the long-term trend is up. I’ll be contacting each client in the next two weeks and will let you know if I suggest any trades.
Even though we may make some sales, we still want to maintain our overall target asset allocation. Under US tax rules, we cannot buy a “substantially identical security” within 30 days in order to claim a tax loss. This precludes us from taking a loss and immediately buying back the same ETF or mutual fund. It does not however, prevent us from selling one large cap ETF and buying a different ETF that tracks another large cap index or strategy. This means that we can harvest the loss without being out of the market for 30 days and missing any potential gains during that time.
When we harvest losses, we can use those losses to offset any gains we have received and reduce our taxes in the current year. The criticism against tax loss harvesting is that it just serves to postpone taxes rather than actually saving taxes.
For example, let’s say that we purchased 10,000 shares of an ETF for $10 per share and today those shares are only worth $9.00. Our cost basis is $100,000 and if we sold today for $90,000 we could harvest a loss of $10,000. We replace that position with a different ETF and invest our $90,000. Fast forward a couple of years and the position is now worth $120,000. If we sell for $120,000, we would have a $30,000 gain, whereas if we had not done the earlier trades, our gain would be only $20,000. Apply a long-term capital gains rate of 15% and the savings of $1,500 in taxes this year is offset by $1,500 in additional taxes down the road.
So, why bother? There is an additional benefit to tax loss harvesting besides deferring taxes for later: you may be able to use those losses to offset short-term capital gains or ordinary income, which can be at a much higher tax rate than the 15% long-term capital gains rate.
The rules for capital gains are that you first net short-term gains and short-term losses against each other. Separately, you will net long-term gains and long-term losses. If you have net losses in either category, those losses may be subtracted from gains in the other category. So if you had $10,000 in net long-term losses, you could apply those losses against $10,000 of short-term capital gains. For someone in the 35% tax bracket, that $10,000 long-term loss could be worth $3,500, if you can apply that loss towards short-term gains, instead of the $1,500 we would normally associate with a long-term loss.
If you have more capital losses than gains in a year, you can apply $3,000 of those losses against ordinary income, and carry forward the remaining losses into future years indefinitely, until they are used up. If we can use our $3,000 loss against ordinary income, a taxpayer in the 35% bracket will save $1,050 in taxes, which is a lot better than the $450 we would save in long-term capital gains if we did not harvest the $3,000 loss.
After deferring gains for many years, taxpayers may be able to avoid realizing gains altogether two ways. First, if you have charitable goals, you can give appreciated securities to a charity instead of cash. If you give $1,000 worth of funds to a charity, the charity receives the full $1,000; you get a full tax deduction AND you avoid paying capital gains on those shares.
The second way to avoid capital gains is if you allow your heirs to inherit your shares. They will receive a step-up in cost basis and no one will owe capital gains tax. That’s a rather extreme way to avoid paying 15% in capital gains taxes, and most people are going to need their investments for retirement. However, the fact is that delaying taxes can be beneficial and that the tax is not always inevitable.
The reason I share this is that the argument that tax loss harvesting only serves to delay taxes ignores quite a few benefits that you can realize. You may be able to use those capital losses not just to offset capital gains at 15%, but potentially to offset short-term gains at a much higher rate, or to offset $3,000 a year of ordinary income.
Since we primarily use ETFs, we already have a great deal more tax efficiency than mutual funds, and we should have little capital gains distributions for 2015. If you’re not with GLWM and have mutual funds in a taxable account, be aware that many mutual funds have announced capital gains distributions for the end of this year.
There are quite a few ways we aim to add value for our clients and we take special interest in portfolio tax optimization. If there’s a way to help you save money in taxes, that’s going to help you meet your financial goals faster.