Time for tax-loss harvesting?

Published 11:36 am Sunday, December 3, 2023

It’s been a bumpy year for the financial markets — which means that some of your investments may have underperformed or lost value. Can you use these losses to your advantage?

It’s possible. If you have some investments that have lost value, you could sell them to offset taxable capital gains from other investments. If your losses exceed gains for the year, you could use the remaining losses to offset up to $3,000 of ordinary income. And any amount over $3,000 can be carried forward to offset gains in future years.

This “tax-loss harvesting” can be advantageous if you plan to sell investments that you’ve held in taxable accounts for years and that have grown significantly in value. And you might receive some gains even if you take no action yourself. For example, when you own mutual funds, the fund manager can decide to sell stocks or other investments within the fund’s portfolio and then pay you a portion of the proceeds. These payments, known as capital gains distributions, are taxable to you whether you take them as cash or reinvest them back into the fund.

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Still, despite the possible tax benefits of selling investments whose price has fallen, you need to consider carefully whether such a move is in your best interest. If an investment has a clear place in your holdings, and it offers good business fundamentals and favorable prospects, you might not want to sell it just because its value has dropped.

On the other hand, if the investments you’re thinking of selling are quite similar to others you own, it might make sense to sell, take the tax loss and then use the proceeds of the sale to purchase new investments that can help fill any gaps in your portfolio.

If you do sell an investment and reinvest the funds, you’ll want to be sure your new investment is different in nature from the one you sold. Otherwise, you could risk triggering the “wash sale” rule, which states that if you sell an investment at a loss and buy the same or a “substantially identical” investment within 30 days before or after the sale, the loss is generally disallowed for income tax purposes.

Here’s one more point to keep in mind about tax-loss harvesting: You’ll need to take into account just how long you’ve held the investments you’re considering selling. That’s because long-term losses are first applied against long-term gains, while short-term losses are first applied against short-term gains. (Long-term is defined as more than a year; short-term is one year or less.) If you have excess losses in one category, you can then apply them to gains of either type. Long-term capital gains are taxed at 0%, 15% or 20%, depending on your income, while short-term gains are taxed at your ordinary income tax rate. So, from a tax perspective, taking short-term losses could provide greater benefits if your tax rate is higher than the highest capital gains rate.

You’ll want to contact your tax advisor to determine whether tax-loss harvesting is appropriate for your situation — and you’ll need to do it soon because the deadline is Dec. 31. But whether you pursue this technique this year or not, you may want to keep it in mind for the future — because you’ll always have investment tax issues to consider.