Tax Loss Harvesting Is Easier With ETFs, but Beware the Wash Sale Rule

According to Miller, it is a sad but sure fact that losses are plentiful in many investors’ portfolios at this moment, but that doesn’t mean the long-term portfolio strategy should change. Rather than abandoning well-crafted, long-term investment plans, Miller says, advisors are probably better off viewing market downturns as an opportunity to collect additional tax losses and reinvest the proceeds to maintain market exposure.

Miller says advisors should not wait to conduct loss harvesting actions merely because they suspect the markets could drop further. However, short of engaging in market timing, it could be beneficial to take a step back and consider the broad direction the markets are heading.

“After an initial loss-harvesting trade, the market may fall further, and investors may notice additional losses in their portfolio, or they may believe that if a loss isn’t harvested immediately, they’ll miss the opportunity,” Miller writes. “Portfolio losses could reduce or continue to deepen on any given day. A method to avoid trading too soon is using a trigger-based approach to harvest losses when they become meaningful.”

Miller says the reinvestment part of the tax loss harvesting equation must be tackled carefully.

“Under its wash-sale rules, the IRS disallows a tax loss if the investor purchases the same or equivalent security within 30 days before or after the sale date,” Miller reiterates. “As a result, it is typically most efficient to trade accounts when there are no outstanding wash-sale restrictions. This is one reason SMA investors may see unharvested losses in their portfolios. It usually means the SMA manager is trying to navigate the wash sale trade restrictions and avoid the risk of nullifying the loss-harvesting benefit.”

In the end, Miller says, success comes from a careful balancing act between risk, taxes and costs, and in the end, limited trading within a wash sale period may in fact be necessary during periods of heightened volatility, to bring the portfolio closer to risk targets and realize deep losses.

The Communication Factor

In a recent column for ThinkAdvisor, Noah Rubin, managing director and financial advisor at the Rubin Wealth Management Group of Wells Fargo Advisors, warns that client communication around tax loss harvesting is not a simple matter.

“As a formerly practicing certified public account, I confidently harvested losses on behalf of clients this year,” Rubin writes. “I then called clients to update them, excited to inform them of this positive proactive move. The reaction from the client was rarely what I expected. It was often confusing, with the most common question being: Why are we selling when you always tell me to hold for the long term?”

To answer this question, Rubin tries to explain in simple and logical scenario A or scenario B choices. Choice A is to have negative performance in line with the negative performance of the markets, while choice B is to have negative performance in line with the negative performance of the markets complemented by a “tax asset” that will save money on taxes in the future .

As Rubin writes, this logic may be clear to an experienced financial advisor, but it is not guaranteed to resonate with clients. In fact, in Rubin’s experience, advisors have often so successfully trained their clients to not sell in down markets that the topic of tax loss harvesting causes substantial confusion and concern.

In such situations, Rubin recommends more technical language that explains how a portfolio can be sold to take losses and still stay invested in a consistent long-term strategic allocation.

“You can teach that while no two funds are exactly alike, mutual funds and ETFs invested in a specific sector or industry can be very similar,” Rubin writes. “Often, we can identify two funds with marginal differences in the underlying holdings. … While they are not the exact same investment, you can comfortably educate your client that their overall allocation and strategy has effectively remained intact.”

The result, Rubin says, is harvested losses that can offset future taxes while keeping the client invested in the long-term strategic plan.

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