A blog about stock portfolio management

Tax loss harvesting beats buy and hold

October 19, 2012

Buy and hold

You have decided to buy and hold a portfolio of 10 stocks in a $100,000 portfolio. After four months, the total value of the portfolio has risen to $103,000. One stock, Bank of America (BAC), has dropped 30% to just $7,000, but most of the other holdings have gains.

Given your belief that BAC will bounce back from its loss, you hold onto it. Six months later, the portfolio value is $110,000. The BAC has recovered all of its loss and has a value of $11,000.

Replace a losing stock with a similar stock

Rather than holding onto the BAC after it had dropped, assume that you sold it to realize a $3,000 short-term loss. With the proceeds from the sale, you purchased $7,000 of Wells Fargo (WFC). Replacing the BAC with a similar financial stock helped to maintain the portfolio diversification.

As before, the portfolio value rose to $110,000 six months later. At that point, the WFC position had also risen to a value of $11,000.

Tax loss harvesting

Capital gains tax works in reverse for a capital loss: for the benefit of the taxpayer. You can exclude from your taxable income up to $3,000 in capital losses. If you are subject to the top 35% marginal tax rate, this exclusion lowers your tax by $1,050.

By proactively selling a stock and harvesting a loss, you gained a tax savings. The simple buy and hold approach left $1,050 on the table. If you chose to invest the savings, tax harvesting would have raised your portfolio value to $112,050.

Cost basis after a stock split

August 08, 2012

WFMI (Whole Foods Market, Inc) had a 2 for 1 stock split on December 28, 2005.

Before the split you bought 300 shares of WFMI at $60 per share. You later sold 100 shares at $75 each, leaving 200 shares of WFMI in your portfolio.

As a result of the stock split, you received 200 additional shares for a total of 400 WFMI shares.

Stock split

Realize a capital gain

During 2008 you sold 200 WFMI shares for $20 each and realized a sale amount of $4,000. To figure the capital gain (or loss), you need to determine the cost basis of the sale.

After searching your trade history, you find the 300 share purchase with a trade amount of $18,000 (300 shares times $60). The WFMI position had a cost basis of $60 per share before the split.

The sale of 100 shares prior to the split did not change the cost basis per share. After that sale the 200 shares of WFMI had total cost basis of $12,000 (200 shares times $60).

A stock split leaves total cost basis unchanged

The stock split had no effect on the $12,000 total cost basis. The 200 shares received due to the stock split did halve the cost basis per share to $30 ($12,000 divided by 400 shares).

The sale during 2008 of 200 shares would have a cost basis of $6,000 (200 shares times $30 per share). Thus, you realized a long-term capital loss of $2,000.

A tax lot clarifies the effect of a stock split

A 300 share purchase would create a new tax lot with a cost basis of $18,000. This tax lot would have its shares reduced to 200 by a sale. The sale would lower the total cost basis to $12,000. At $60, the cost basis per share would remain unchanged.

After a 2 for 1 stock split, the share quantity of the tax lot would double to 400. The total cost basis would stay the same. With twice as many shares, the cost basis per share would halve to $30.

Divide split shares among tax lots for multiple purchases

Your portfolio might include several WFMI purchases with share quantities of 250, 350 and 400. The broker would report that you have received 1,000 shares due to the stock split.

The cost basis and holding period for the added shares correspond to each of the three purchases. Without using tax lots, sorting out the cost basis of various shares can become a burden.

Tags: basis, stock-split, and tax-lot

Imagine an optimal Schedule D

June 04, 2012

What should an investor do when a stock has a loss since its purchase? In the hope that the stock may recover, some investors continue to hold the loss.

Now that the tax season is winding down, taking a look at your 2009 tax return could provide some fresh context for this situation.

IRS Form 1040 booklet

Buy and hold could give away a tax break

Each year, taxpayers may subtract up to $3,000 in capital losses from their ordinary income. For those in the 35% tax bracket, this amounts to a tax reduction of $1,050.

Under a buy and hold strategy, an investor may not have sold any stock during 2009. By doing so, he would have avoided paying any capital gains tax.

If this investor's portfolio had nothing but unrealized gains, he could do no better. Most investors are not that fortunate.

Sell to realize a capital loss and get a tax break

No investor is perfect with their stock picking. Anytime a new stock is purchased, a risk exists that its price may fall.

By selling a stock for a loss, an investor can lower his overall capital gains. If he realizes losses equaling $3,000, he enjoys the maximum tax break.

Offset further losses with capital gains

If the total capital loss exceeds $3,000, the excess is carried forward to the next year. Delaying by a year the benefit of the tax break dilutes its value, due to the time value of money.

One way to avoid a capital loss carry forward is to sell a different stock for a gain. This also provides a convenient chance to improve the degree of portfolio diversification. Overweighted stocks tend to be those with unrealized gains.

Let long-term capital gains wait a little longer

With its tax rate of only 15%, some investors might choose to realize a long-term capital gain. As discussed in an earlier post, unless the investor is retired and no longer adding money to the portfolio, taking such a gain is unnecessary and costly.

Get the maximum tax reduction on Schedule D

An individual's Schedule D could have a net short-term loss of $3,000, with zero long-term capital gains. In this case, he will benefit from the maximum tax break for capital losses.

If his portfolio has unrealized losses and he reports a smaller loss, or even a gain, he may be just another irrational investor.