By Gabe Jacobson
Tax-loss harvesting is the selling of stocks, ETFs, mutual funds, and other securities at a loss with the goal of reducing taxes on other short- and long-term capital gains.
Does It Apply to Me?
Minimizing taxes is an important goal for investors, and tax-loss harvesting is a useful strategy for reducing your total tax bill. If you sell stocks, exchange-traded funds (ETFs), or mutual funds for a gain this year in a taxable, non-retirement, investment account, you may want to utilize tax loss harvesting to reduce potential taxes on any capital gains generated by those sales.
Tax-loss harvesting applies to investments of all sizes, so whether you have $5,000 or $5 million in your portfolio, you can still benefit from tax-loss harvesting.
Full-service financial advisors usually perform tax-loss harvesting as a part of their service and will coordinate with your tax advisor, but robo-advisors are beginning to offer this service for additional fees. These fees may not make sense given your situation, so consult your tax advisor if you are uncertain. Even in a rising stock market, some individual stocks or sectors may decline in price, giving an opportunity for tax-loss harvesting, which can be done at the end of the year but may be more effective during periods of volatility throughout the year.
You may want to consult your tax advisor about tax-loss harvesting if you have a self-service brokerage account. Pay special attention to tax-loss harvesting if you bought and sold securities within the same year because your capital-gains tax will be much higher than if you held the investments for over one year.
How Does It Work?
Tax-loss harvesting is also known as tax-loss selling because it involves selling securities at a loss, generating capital losses. This seems counter-intuitive. After all, most people buy securities hoping that the price per share will increase over time, allowing them to earn capital gains when they sell. These capital gains, like all other sources of income, come with a tax bill attached.
“Tax-loss harvesting works because capital losses are subtracted from capital gains when you file your tax return, so you pay taxes only on the gains in excess of losses.”
Tax-loss harvesting works because capital losses are subtracted from capital gains when you file your tax return, so you pay taxes only on the gains in excess of losses. However, capital gains and losses are grouped into two buckets based on how long the investments were held for.
Capital gains on securities sold more than one year after the purchase date are considered long-term and are taxed at lower rates. In 2020, the long-term capital gains rates range from 0% to 20%, depending on income levels; most people will fall in the 15% range.
However, if securities are sold within a year of the purchase date, the gains are considered short-term and are taxed at the same rate as wages or business income, which in 2020 range from 10% to 37%. These two buckets cannot be mixed, so you cannot reduce your short-term capital gains by long-term capital losses or vice versa.
Sure, it’s nice to mitigate your tax liability, but wouldn’t you lose more money selling your investments for a loss than you save in taxes? Why not just wait for those prices to bounce back and sell for a gain, assuming you expect the investment’s price to eventually recover? The price may recover down the line, but the tax bill associated with any capital gains generated this year cannot be avoided unless a loss is generated in the same year.
The solution is purchasing a similar asset shortly after selling for a loss. This way, you ‘harvest’ the capital loss for tax purposes while making little actual change to your investment portfolio. The IRS instructs that you must wait at least 30 days before purchasing another asset that is “substantially identical” to the asset sold for a loss, but there are enough similar assets available to allow immediate reinvestment in most situations.
An Example to Clarify
Here is a hypothetical example using common investments: the S&P 500 large-company index and Russell 2000 small-company index tracking ETFs (the prices are fictionalized for ease of understanding, but the ETFs are real and can be purchased through most brokerages).
In this example, in your brokerage account, you purchased 10 shares of iShares Core S&P 500 ETF (IVV) on Jan. 1, 2021 for $100 per share, for a $1,000 total investment. On the same date, you also purchased 10 shares of the iShares Russell 2000 ETF (IWM) for $200 per share, or a $2,000 investment. By Nov. 1, 2021 the price of IVV (the large-company index) has doubled to $200 per share, and you decide to sell five of your 10 shares, generating $1,000 in short-term capital gains.
However, you do not want to pay income taxes on an additional $1,000 on top of your regular wages. You notice that the small company index IWM’s price has dropped to $100 per share, so you lost $1,000 on that investment. You do not want to sell at a loss, but then you realize that, if you sell all 10 shares of IWM, you can generate a short-term capital loss of $1,000 which will completely mitigate the short-term gains from your sale of five shares of IVV when you file your income tax return.
You sell all 10 shares of IMW, but you still want to invest in small-company stocks. You immediately purchase $1,000 worth of shares in iShares MSCI small-cap index fund SMLF with the cash received from the sale of IWM. This fund gives you similar exposure to the Russell 2000 small-company index fund (IWM) you just sold without tracking the same index, meaning the IRS will not consider the two funds “substantially identical,” so you can purchase it before the 30 days are up. At this point, you have effectively received $1,000 in capital gains without generating any taxable gains, and you have maintained your portfolio allocations.
Note that, if you had purchased IVV more than a year before you sold it on Nov. 1, 2021, the gain would be classified as long-term, so the short-term loss generated on the sale of IMW would not offset this gain. Speak to your tax advisor regarding capital-loss carry-forwards, as capital losses not used to offset gains in one year can be applied to future tax years.
Gabe Jacobson is an associate at the Holyoke-based accounting firm Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C.; (413) 536-8510.