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Tax-Loss Harvesting: What It Is and How It Works

What exactly is tax-loss harvesting, and how do some investors use it to opportunistically reduce their tax bills?

Call me an optimist, but I like to see the positive side in things. Most people are unhappy when their investments decrease in value, and I’m no exception. But I keep a silver lining in mind: My investment losses can potentially become tax benefits through a process called tax-loss harvesting. 

Tax-loss harvesting: How does it work?

Under current U.S. tax law, it’s usually possible to offset your capital gains with capital losses you’ve incurred during that tax year, or carried over from a prior tax return. Capital gains are generally the profits you realize when you sell an investment for more than you paid for it, and capital losses are generally the losses you realize when you sell an investment for less than you paid for it. 

Since U.S. investors are taxed on capital gains, offsetting them can lower your tax bill (provided you’re a U.S. investor). Let’s say that I earn a profit of $30,000 by selling Fund A. Meanwhile, I notice that Fund B is down by $15,000. By selling Fund B, I can use those losses to partially offset my gains from Fund A—meaning I’d only owe taxes on $15,000 of profit instead of $30,000. 

Your losses don’t just offset your gains; they can also offset up to $3,000 of ordinary income each year. Let’s say I still realized a profit of $30,000 from Fund A. But in this scenario, Fund B lost $33,000. Assuming that I had no other capital gains for the year, I could use my loss to offset my entire gain from Security A, plus I could deduct $3,000 from my ordinary income, further reducing my income tax bill. 

One thing to watch out for: wash sales

You’ll want to make sure you don’t inadvertently participate in a “wash sale,” which occurs when you sell or trade stock or securities at a loss and buy substantially identical stock or securities within 30 days before or 30 days after the sale. This IRS rule is in place to prevent people from gaming the system. Basically, it says that I can’t sell Security B and then immediately buy it back again just to get the tax benefit, and if I do so, the loss will be disallowed. I am, however, allowed to claim the loss if I sell one stock and buy another one in the same industry—just not stock in the same exact company as before.

Another thing to watch out for: short-term capital gains

The government incentivizes people to invest for the long-term rather than constantly buying and selling on ephemeral news. It does so by taxing short-term capital gains (profits made from selling investments held less than a year) at a higher rate than long-term capital gains (profits from investments held longer than a year). So, to the extent possible, it can have a particularly high impact on your tax bill to offset short-term investment gains with losses. In other words, tax-loss harvesting can make a bigger difference if  you have invested in strategies that see higher turnover and thus more short-term gains. Note that certain rules that dictate whether particular capital losses offset short- versus long-term capital gains.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that tax-loss harvesting will achieve any particular tax result or that it’s necessarily the best thing for you. Before implementing any tax strategy, check with your accountant or other U.S. tax advisor. 

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MORGAN STANLEY ACCESS INVESTING