(A version of this article appeared in TheStreet.com).
Each year the ritual begins just days before New Years. Even in the best of years there are bound to be some losers. Fortunately, whatever faults there may be in the tax code, the ability to attenuate investment mistakes isn’t one of them.
Since I actively sell covered options and generate taxable premiums the thought of offsetting gains is appealing, but before jumping at the opportunity a grasp of history may be helpful.
In this case looking at the strategic tax losses taken in 2012 I’m struck by one thing. Four out of the five such sales saw shares appreciate more than the S&P 500’s gain for 2013. Not only did they gain more than 29% from their sales price, but they also gained more than 29 % from their purchase prices.
Proponents of the “Dogs of the Dow Theory” would readily understand the phenomenon, as perhaps should serial covered option writers who repeatedly write options on the same stocks as their prices regularly go up and down, sometimes even to extremes, yet so often recover.
Given the choice between taking a tax credit or a stock loss or paying more taxes because of greater gains, I would take the latter every time. However, there is a preponderance of thought that losses should be taken if they reach the 10% level. For those believing in rules, this is a useful rule, if consistently practiced.
Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that proceeds from the sale of losers will be recycled into the shares of winners. Sometimes losers simply give way to other losers, as even well devised ideas don’t alwaysbear fruit. While hindsight often has me wishing I had cut my losses, the real battle is deciding whether to follow your humble or arrogant side.
The arrogant side believes it can re-invest loser proceeds and recover losses. The humble side wonders how someone so ill-advised and having made the original investment, then sat frozenly while shares plunged, could now suddenly be deft enough to select a winner, instead of inviting ruination once again.
It’s difficult to not take the humble side’s argument. Logic trumps hope.
The decision process as to whether to take tax losses begins with understanding your tax liability, which is related to your marginal tax rate. If in the highest Federal tax bracket, the short term rate on capital gains is 39.6%, although the rate varies from 10 to 39.6%.
Next comes a look at the probabilities of various outcomes and their respective benefits.
There is a 100% probability that the loss will decrease your tax liability, if you didn’t violate the Wash Sales Rules. It’s hard to beat those odds, but if you do buy and sell the same stock repeatedly, as I often do, the 30 day window on either side of your proposed trade can scuttle your strategy.
The next step takes some calculation.
As an example, I’m going to look at Petrobras (PBR) shares that I bought on January 7, 2013 at $20.05 and currently trading at $13.48. An advanced degree is mathematics is unnecessary to recognize that represents more than a 10% decline and would violate investing rules sometimes attributed to famed financier Bernard Baruch.
The potential tax benefit is based upon your tax rate and whether the holding is a short term or long term. As a short term holding the Petrobras position is entitled up to a 39.6% credit against capital gains, meaning that credit can be worth up to $2.60 per share.
While that is an objective calculation, the next step is entirely subjective and focuses on your assessment of the probability that Petrobras shares will add $2.60 to its current share price. How likely is it that shares will gain 19.3%? While there may be be company specific challenges, as well as broader economic challenges to consider, one may be justified in wondering whether Petrobras will be this year’s Hewlett Packard (HPQ), which was a strategic tax loss that I mistakenly took last year and is up 99% YTD.
If you believe that such lightning may strike twice in a lifetime you may decide to roll the dice and surrender the certainty of a short term tax credit.
if your educated gamble is right, even at the new higher price yomay still qualify for a tax loss, however, you’ll find yourself looking at a much ower credit, if the short term loss becomes a long term loss. As a movie character once asked, “are you feeling lucky?” If you can generate some option premiums along the way you can make your own luck, but whatever the outcome, it is deferred to 2015, which may entail further opportunity costs.
Then again, just look at your losers from last year. Unlikely as it may have seemed, recovery wasn’t outside the realm of possibility.
Bottom line? Ask your tax advisor, but do so soon.