Tax Strategies for Forex Traders

Forex, the foreign currency exchange market, can be a lucrative one indeed for traders skilled in its dynamics. This worldwide network of government central banks, commercial and investment banks, hedge funds, international corporations and brokerage firms enables traders to capitalize on the rise and fall of a currency dollar volume that exceeds $1.4 trillion every day, making it the largest and most liquid of the world markets.

But when income tax time rolls around, currency traders receive special treatment from the Internal Revenue Service, the subtleties of which can sometimes trip up the unsuspecting.

Here’s a look at the tax landscape for forex traders, and why it may be a good idea to have a Traders Accounting tax professional help guide you through the twists and turns.

Futures and Cash Forex

Forex is traded in two ways: as currency futures on regulated commodities exchanges, which fall under the tax rules of IRC Section 1256 contracts, or as cash forex on the unregulated interbank market, which fall under the special rules of IRC Section 988. Many forex traders are active in both markets.

Because futures and cash forex are subject to different tax and accounting rules, it is important for forex traders to know which category each of their trades fall into so that each trade can be reported correctly to receive optimum tax advantage.

Section 1256: The Advantageous Split

Forex traders receive a significant tax advantage over securities traders under Section 1256: reporting capital gains on IRS Form 6781 (Gains and Losses from Section 1256 Contracts and Straddles) allows you to split your capital gains on Schedule D, with 60%
taxed at the lower long-term capital gains rate (currently 15%) and 40% at the ordinary or short-term capital gains rate of up to 35%. That combined rate of 23% amounts to a 12% advantage over the ordinary (or short-term) rate.

If you trade exclusively in forex futures, it’s smooth sailing come tax time; your trades fall under Section 1256 and automatically receive the 60/40 split.

But things get a little more complicated tax-wise if you dabble in cash forex, which is subject to Section 988 (Treatment of Certain Foreign Currency Transactions).

Section 988: To Opt Out or Not?

Section 988 was enacted as a way for the IRS to tax companies that earn income from fluctuations in foreign currency exchange rates as part of their normal course of business, such as buying foreign goods. Under this section, such gains or losses are reported and treated as interest income or expense for tax purposes, and do not receive the favorable 60/40 split.

Because forex futures do not trade in actual currencies, they do not fall under the special rules of Section 988. But as a currency trader, you are exposed daily to currency rate fluctuations, hence your trading activity would fall under the Section 988 provisions.

But because currency traders consider these fluctuations part of their capital assets in the normal course of business, the IRS enables you to opt out of Section 988, and thereby retain the favorable 60/40 split for these gains under Section 1256.

The IRS requires that you note “internally” your intention to opt out of Section 988 before making the trades; you are not required to notify the IRS. Obviously, some traders bend this rule based on their year-end outcome, and there seems little inclination on the part of the IRS to crack down, at least so far.

As a rule of thumb, if you have currency gains, you would benefit (reduce your tax on gains by 12 percent) by opting out of Section 988. If you have losses however, you may prefer to remain under Section 988’s ordinary loss treatment rather than the less favorable treatment under Section 1256.

Tax Time: Tougher for Currency Traders

Forex futures traders tend to breeze through tax time; their brokerage firm sends them an IRS Form 1099, on which their aggregate profit or loss is listed on Line 9.

But since currency traders don’t receive 1099s, you are left to find your own accounting and software solutions. Don’t be tempted to simply lump your currency trades in with your Section 1256 activity, a common temptation; these trades need to be separated
into Section 988 reporting, and in cases of loss, you could wind up paying more tax than necessary.

As a fast-growing market segment, forex trading is almost certain to come under greater IRS scrutiny in the future. An experienced Traders Accounting tax professional can help you file in full compliance with IRS rules and make the most of your tax advantages.

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