IRS Notice 2014-21
The IRS addressed the taxation of virtual currency transactions in Notice 2014-21. According to the Notice, virtual currency is treated as property for federal tax purposes. This means that, depending on the taxpayer’s circumstances, cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin, can be classified as business property, investment property, or personal property. General tax principles applicable to property transactions must be applied to exchanges of cryptocurrencies. Hence, Notice 2014-21 holds that taxpayers recognize gain or loss on the exchange of cryptocurrency for other property. Accordingly, gain or loss is recognized every time that Bitcoin is used to purchase goods or services.
Determining Basis & Gain
When it comes to determining the taxation of cryptocurrency transactions, it is important for cryptocurrency owners to properly track basis. Basis is generally defined as the price the taxpayer paid for the cryptocurrency asset.
For example, on June 1, 2017, Jane purchased five Bitcoins for $6,000 ($1,200 each Bitcoin). On November 1, 2017, she used one Bitcoin to purchase $2,000 worth of merchandise via an online retailer. Jane recognized an $800 gain on the transaction ($2,000 amount realized – $1,200 basis in one Bitcoin).
Treating cryptocurrency, such as Bitcoin, as property creates a potential accounting challenge for taxpayers who use it for everyday purchases because a taxable transaction occurs every time that a cryptocurrency is exchanged for goods or services. For example, if Jane purchased a slice of pizza with one Bitcoin that she purchased on June 1, 2017, she would have to determine the basis of the Bitcoin and then subtract that by the cost of the slice of pizza to determine if any gain was recognized. There is currently no “de minimis” exception to this gain or loss recognition. Taxpayers must track their cryptocurrency basis continuously to report the gain or loss recognized on each crypto transaction properly. It is easy to see how this treatment can cause accounting issues with respect to everyday cryptocurrency transactions.
On the other hand, the loss recognition on cryptocurrency transactions is equally complex. A deduction is allowed only for losses incurred in a trade or business or on a transaction entered into for profit. If Jane had recognized a $100 loss on her purchase of merchandise from the online retailer, the loss may not be deductible. If Jane uses Bitcoin for everyday transactions and does not hold it for investment, her loss is a nondeductible personal loss. However, if she holds Bitcoin for investment and cashes out of her investment by using Bitcoin to purchase merchandise, her loss is a deductible investment loss. Whether Bitcoin is held for investment or personal purposes may be difficult to determine, and further guidance by the IRS on this topic is needed.
Cryptocurrency values have been extremely volatile since its inception. As illustrated below, this volatility makes a significant difference in gain or loss recognition.
Jane purchased four Bitcoins on February 2, 2017 for $1,120 per Bitcoin, ten Ethereum coins on March 10, 2017 for $320 per coin, and 65 Litecoins on July 5, 2017 for $65 per coin. Jane would need to keep track of the basis and sales price for each cryptocurrency transaction in order to properly calculate the gain or loss for each transaction. In addition, if Jane purchased Bitcoins at different dates and at different prices, at sale, Jane would have to determine whether she would be selling a specific Bitcoin or use the first-in, first-out (FIFO) method to determine any potential gain or loss. The default rule for tracking basis in securities is FIFO. Taxpayers can also determine basis in securities by using the last-in, first out (LIFO), average cost, or specific identification methods. The prevalent thought is that these methods should be available for property that does not qualify as a security, and that taxpayers investing in cryptocurrency should use the method that is most beneficial to them. However, no direct IRS authority supports this position.
In sum, taxpayers must track their cryptocurrency purchases carefully. Each cryptocurrency purchase should be kept in a separate online wallet and appropriate records should be maintained to document when the wallet was established. If a taxpayer uses an account with several different wallet addresses and that account is later combined into a single wallet, it may become difficult to determine the original basis of each cryptocurrency that is used in a subsequent transaction.
The details of all cryptocurrency transactions in a network are stored in a public ledger called a “Blockchain,” which permanently records all transactions to and from online wallet addresses, including date and time. Taxpayers can use this information to determine their basis and holding period. Technology to assist taxpayers in this process is being developed currently and some helpful online tools are now available.
Characterization of Gain or Loss for Cryptocurrency Transactions
The character of gain or loss on a cryptocurrency transaction depends on whether the cryptocurrency is a capital asset in the taxpayer’s hands. Gain on the sale of a cryptocurrency that qualifies as a capital asset is netted with other capital gains and losses. A net long-term capital gain that includes gain on crypto transactions is eligible for the preferential tax rates on long-term capital gains, which is 15% or 20% for high net-worth taxpayers. Cryptocurrency gain constitutes unearned income for purposes of the unearned income Medicare contributions tax introduced as part of the Affordable Care Act. As a result, taxpayers with modified adjusted gross incomes over $200,000 ($250,000 for married taxpayers filing jointly) are subject to an additional 3.8% tax on cryptocurrency gain.
For example, on August 1, 2017, Jen, a sole proprietor, digitally accepts two Bitcoins from Steve as payment for services. On that date, Bitcoins are worth $10,000 each, as listed by Coinbase. Therefore, Jen recognizes $20,000 ($10,000 x 2) of business income. A month later, when Bitcoins are trading for $11,500 on the Coinbase exchange, Jen uses two Bitcoins to purchase supplies for her business. At that time, Jen will recognize $23,000 ($11,500 x 2) in business expense and $3,000 [($11,500 – $10,000) x 2] of gain due to the Bitcoin exchange. Since Jen isn’t in the trade or business of selling Bitcoins, the $3,000 gain is capital in nature.
Now let’s assume the same facts as above, except that Jen uses the two Bitcoins to purchase a new car for her personal use. According to the Coinbase exchange, Bitcoins are now trading at $8000. Jen will realize a loss of $4000 [($8000 – $10,000) x 2]. However, this loss is considered a nondeductible capital loss because Jen didn’t use the Bitcoins for investment or business purposes. It is important to note that a payment using cryptocurrencies are subject to information reporting to the same extent as any other payment made in property. Thus, a person who, in the course of a trade or business, makes a payment using cryptocurrency with a fair market value of $600 or more is required to report the payment to the IRS and the payee’s cryptocurrency payments are subject to backup withholding. This means that persons making reportable payments with cryptocurrency must solicit a Taxpayer Identification Number (TIN) from the payee. If a TIN isn’t obtained prior to payment, or if a notification is received from the IRS that backup withholding is required, the payer must backup withhold from the virtual currency payment.
Adam Bergman , Contributor
Jan 3, 2018