Many traders have substantial trading gains for 2021, and they might owe 2021 estimated taxes paid to the IRS quarterly. Unlike wages, taxes aren’t withheld from trading gains. Others can wait to make tax payments until April 18, 2022, when they file their 2021 tax return or extension.
The first three quarterly estimated tax payments were due April 15, June 15, and September 15, 2021, and the quarter four payment is due on January 18, 2022. Many new traders didn’t submit estimated payments for the first three quarters, waiting to see what Q4 brings. Also, some traders view skipping estimated tax payments like a margin loan with interest rates of 3% for Q1 and Q2 2021. With full transparency at year-end, traders can better assess the payment they should make for Q4 payments to minimize their underpayment penalties and interest.
The safe-harbor rule for paying estimated taxes says there’s no penalty for underpayment if the payment equals 90% of the current-year tax bill or 100% of the previous year’s amount (whichever is lower). If your prior-year adjusted gross income (AGI) exceeds $150,000 or $75,000 if married filing separately, then the safe-harbor rate rises to 110%.
Activity in Jan. 2022 can trigger wash sale losses for 2021, thereby creating more income in 2021.
Suppose your 2020 tax liability was $40,000, and AGI was over $150,000. Assume 2021 taxes will be approximately $100,000, and you haven’t paid estimates going into Q4. Using the safe-harbor rule, you can spread out the payment, submitting $44,000 (110% of $40,000) with a Q4 voucher on January 18, 2022, and paying the balance of $56,000 by April 18, 2022. This is an excellent option to consider instead of sending $90,000 in Q4 (90% of $100,000). Consider setting aside that tax money due April 18, 2022, rather than risking it in the financial markets in Q1 2022. I’ve seen some traders lose their tax money owed and get into trouble with the IRS. (See the example below).
If your 2020 income tax liability is significantly higher than your 2021 tax liability, consider covering 90% of the current year’s taxes with estimated taxes. Check your state’s estimated tax rules, too.
In the above example, the trader should calculate the underpayment of estimated tax penalties for Q1, Q2, and Q3 on the 2021 Form 2210. Consider using Form 2210’s Annualized Income Installment Method if the trader generated most of his trading income later in the year. The default method on 2210 allocates the annual income to each quarter, respectively.
A forewarning: The recent market-sell off in January 2022 reminds me of similar circumstances in a few prior years. Here’s an example of what to avoid in 2022. Joe Trader has massive capital gains taxes to pay for 2021. However, due to a market correction in early 2022 and being on the wrong side of many trades, Joe might incur significant capital losses in early 2022 in trading securities (equity options and equities). Unfortunately, Joe might lose much of the tax money he owes the IRS and state for 2021 taxes. Investors will get stuck with a $3,000 capital loss limitation in 2022 and must carry over capital losses to subsequent years. However, Joe is eligible for trader tax status (TTS), so he submits a 2022 Section 475 election to the IRS by April 18, 2022, for ordinary gain or loss treatment with mark-to-market accounting.
With Section 475, Joe’s 2022 trading losses are “ordinary” and offset his other 2022 income, like retirement plan distributions. However, the 2017 TCJA legislation has an “excess business loss” (EBL) limitation in 2022 of $540,00 (married)/$270,00 (other taxpayers). EBL over the limit becomes a net operating loss (NOL) carryforward, which offsets income of any kind in subsequent years. Unfortunately, TCJA doesn’t permit net operating loss (NOL) carrybacks for 2022. Before 2018, traders could carry back massive NOLs to replenish their trading capital and stay in business.
Traders and investors in futures contracts can consider a Section 1256 loss carryback election. Rather than use the 1256 loss in the current year, taxpayers may deduct 1256 losses on amended tax return filings, applied against Section 1256 gains only. It’s a three-year carryback; unused amounts carry forward. TCJA repealed most NOL carrybacks, so the 1256 loss carryback is a trader’s only remaining carryback opportunity.
Star Johnson, CPA, contributed to this blog post.