Taxes for day-traders

See the embedded video for a quick summary of the major tax issues for traders and what business trader status means. Obviously I am not a CPA and I have no formal accounting training. Please see JK Lasser’s Your Income Tax 2012 and Robert Green’s Tax Guide for Traders. If you want to really get hard-core, see the relevant IRS publications:

IRS Publication 550
(the portion of this that relates to business traders as opposed to investors is excerpted below the video)

Please note that futures contracts are treated differently and I do not address that in the video.

Here is the relevant portion of IRS Publication 550 on business traders:

Special Rules for Traders in Securities

Special rules apply if you are a trader in securities in the business of buying and selling securities for your own account. To be engaged in business as a trader in securities, you must meet all the following conditions.

  • You must seek to profit from daily market movements in the prices of securities and not from dividends, interest, or capital appreciation.
  • Your activity must be substantial.
  • You must carry on the activity with continuity and regularity.

The following facts and circumstances should be considered in determining if your activity is a securities trading business.

  • Typical holding periods for securities bought and sold.
  • The frequency and dollar amount of your trades during the year.
  • The extent to which you pursue the activity to produce income for a livelihood.
  • The amount of time you devote to the activity.

If your trading activities do not meet the above definition of a business, you are considered an investor, and not a trader. It does not matter whether you call yourself a trader or a “day trader.”


You may be a trader in some securities and have other securities you hold for investment. The special rules discussed here do not apply to the securities held for investment. You must keep detailed records to distinguish the securities. The securities held for investment must be identified as such in your records on the day you got them (for example, by holding them in a separate brokerage account).

How To Report

Transactions from trading activities result in capital gains and losses and must be reported on Form 8949 and Schedule D (Form 1040), as appropriate. Losses from these transactions are subject to the limit on capital losses explained earlier in this chapter.

Mark-to-market election made.   If you made the mark-to-market election, you should report all gains and losses from trading as ordinary gains and losses in Part II of Form 4797, instead of as capital gains and losses on Form 8949 and Schedule D. In that case, securities held at the end of the year in your business as a trader are marked to market by treating them as if they were sold (and reacquired) for fair market value on the last business day of the year. But do not mark to market any securities you held for investment. Report sales from those securities on Form 8949 and Schedule D, as appropriate, not Form 4797. See the 2011 Instructions for Schedule D.

Expenses.   Interest expense and other investment expenses that an investor would deduct on Schedule A (Form 1040) are deducted by a trader on Schedule C (Form 1040), Profit or Loss From Business, if the expenses are from the trading business. Commissions and other costs of acquiring or disposing of securities are not deductible but must be used to figure gain or loss. The limit on investment interest expense, which applies to investors, does not apply to interest paid or incurred in a trading business.

Self-employment tax.   Gains and losses from selling securities as a trader are not subject to self-employment tax. This is true whether the election is made or not. For an exception that applies to section 1256 contracts, see Self-Employment Income earlier under Section 1256 Contracts Marked to Market.

How To Make the Mark-to-Market Election

To make the mark-to-market election for 2012, you must file a statement by April 17, 2012. This statement should be attached to either your 2011 individual income tax return or a request for an extension of time to file that return. The statement must include the following information.

  • That you are making an election under section 475(f) of the Internal Revenue Code.
  • The first tax year for which the election is effective.
  • The trade or business for which you are making the election.

If you are not required to file a 2011 income tax return, you make the election by placing the above statement in your books and records no later than March 15, 2012. Attach a copy of the statement to your 2012 return.

If your method of accounting for 2011 is inconsistent with the mark-to-market election, you must change your method of accounting for securities under Revenue Procedure 2011-14 (or its successor) available at Revenue Procedure 2011-14 requires you to file Form 3115, Application for Change in Accounting Method. Follow its instructions. Enter “64” on line 1a of the Form 3115.

Once you make the election, it will apply to 2012 and all later tax years, unless you get permission from the IRS to revoke it. The effect of making the election is described under Mark-to-market election made, earlier.

For more information on this election, see Revenue Procedure 99-17, on page 52 of Internal Revenue Bulletin 1999-7 at


Disclaimer: I AM NOT A CPA OR TAX EXPERT! What I say above may be wrong. Please consult your CPA or tax lawyer for tax advice. I use Green’s accounting firm to prepare my taxes. The links for the above books are using my affiliate link. This blog has a terms of use that is incorporated by reference into this post; you can find all my disclaimers and disclosures there as well..

Day-Trader performance measurement

Unlike a hedge fund manager or a person with a ‘real’ job, a full-time day-trader needs to consider both his own pay and the returns he earns on his capital. A trader who spends a lot of time trading but has little capital will find that his ‘hourly wage’ is so low that he would have been better off not trading.

So unlike hedge fund managers or investors, I measure my performance in terms of imputed wages and return on capital. I have a minimum hurdle rate on each that I must meet to justify my continued trading. First, there is my imputed wage. As an intelligent and well-educated person with a good work ethic I could be expected to make a good wage at a real job. That being said, I have essentially no job/career experience and my education (an M.A. in cognitive psychology) is essentially worthless. After finishing my Master’s degree in mid-2007 (before the financial crisis came to a head) I succeeded in landing only one job interview, for a $33,000 per year dead-end job crunching data for the St. Louis Fed. I was not even offered that job. I ended up working for an acquaintance’s start-up company for low pay plus equity but left that after half a year to trade full-time.

Realistically, I would not expect to be able to make more than $30,000 per year if I were to get a ‘real job’. However, I am confident that I could grow that amount to over $50,000 within 5 to 10 years. Consequently, I set my ‘imputed wage’ at $50,000 a year.  Obviously a real job would have fringe benefits that would add value, but I assume that the benefits of trading, such as working for myself and not commuting and saving money on work clothes, roughly equal the fringe benefits I would otherwise receive. I subtract this imputed wage from my annual trading earnings before considering my investment performance.

Return on capital (annual percent return) is an important measure of return. However, you cannot buy groceries (or lunch at Per Se) with percent returns, only with dollars. So the smaller the capital, the less meaningful percent returns are in the real world. However, because I calculate an imputed wage that I subtract from my trading profits, when computing return on capital I only need to concern myself with percent returns and earning a decent return on my capital. Now, any good analyst knows that cost of equity is determined by the riskiness of the business (or trading strategy). So what is an appropriate cost of equity?

I think that it is a bit silly to calculate an exact cost of equity (the minimum investment return that is acceptable) as analysts do with public and private companies (see this slideshow on how to calculate them). A few important things to consider that will increase the cost of equity for a trader are: high maximum drawdowns, increased frequency of drawdowns, fewer trades, longer trades (swing trading), larger position sizes, use of leverage, and return volatility. My particular method of trading penny stocks, because I never hold very long and keep my position size small both in absolute terms and relative to my capital, means that my cost of equity is low relative to other trading strategies. I therefore set my annual cost of equity at 10% compounded. What I mean by this is that if I do not make my 10% in one year I feel the need to make up the difference the next year. Compared to an expected return of maybe 7% to 8% for a buy and hold portfolio of stocks (with large drawdowns) this seems reasonable. My trading strategy is much lower risk than the market portfolio. I can say this because so far this year I have not had a negative month. In fact, in 2010 I only had one negative month, when I lost $1579 in March 2010. Below are my monthly returns since 2010:

Monthly returns, January 2010 to August 2011

For those of you with a basic understanding of computing compounded returns, you can calculate that my time-weighted IRR for 2011 is 21.98% so far. To calculate my return minus my imputed salary I simply subtract my monthly imputed salary $4167 ($50,000 / 12 months) from each month’s dollar return and then calculate and chain the new percent returns to get my time-weighted post-salary IRR. This is at 13.87% for the current year, so I have made an acceptable return so far. Obviously I aim to generate higher than just acceptable returns, but my goal as a full-time trader is not to generate the highest return possible but to generate good returns while minimizing my risk. Over the last two years I have done that quite well.

The problem of too much capital

I have a large amount of cash in my trading accounts. This obviously reduces my returns because I keep my position size tiny and I have not even come close to using all my capital in the last year or two. Most professional full-time day-traders that I know prefer to keep their trading accounts relatively small so as to minimize the urge to take overly large positions. Due to my personality I have no such urge so it does not harm me to keep extra money in my trading accounts. Because of this I can also avoid having a separate emergency fund–I know I always have plenty of cash in my trading accounts. Also, with bond yields so low over the last couple years there is little opportunity cost to keeping so much cash. That being said, my percent returns have been juiced the last few months by a large withdrawal I made from my trading accounts to buy a house with cash. While it may seem silly to pay cash when mortgages are at 4%, by paying cash I reduce my overall leverage and earn a guaranteed 4% return on money I wasn’t really using anyway.

For those with too little capital

The problem of too much capital is very far from most trader’s problem of having too little capital. I see so many people trading and spending lots of time trading, with $5,000 or smaller accounts. If that is all the money they have it seems foolish to spend a ton of time learning to trade if that requires them to neglect a day-job. While I have known some people who have built up such a small account, it is very hard to do. Now if someone starts trading with such a small sum of money but can increase his account size after he has learned to trade and become profitable, then that is a very smart thing to do. And if a trader can trade without impairing his job performance or by utilizing free time, then that is also fine. But I am sure that many people who try to trade with small amounts of capital would be better off putting the effort into improving their career prospects. It would be a poor tradeoff indeed to sacrifice the potential for large salary increases just to obtain a few thousand dollars in trading gains.

That being said, one benefit of having a small amount of capital is that a trader can take much more risk. For someone with a $50,000/year job and a $10,000 trading account, a 50% drawdown is not nearly as big a problem as it would be for me. That person can easily save enough money in a year to bring the account size back to where it was.

Technical details

I encourage reading of Investment Performance Measurement which is a great book on all the nitty-gritty details of exactly measuring performance and calculating different types of IRR.

For calculating my time-weighted IRR I simply do it by month using my monthly starting capital in all my accounts and then dividing my monthly return into that figure, chaining the resulting monthly percent returns. I withdraw money from my accounts over time so by not breaking my performance down into smaller time periods separated by each withdrawal my calculated performance ends up being slightly lower than my real performance. To reduce the data entry work this is an acceptable short cut. Somebody gradually adding money to his trading accounts would inflate his calculated performance by not properly accounting for the deposits to his trading accounts.

Those who add or subtract money from a trading portfolio that is not in substantially all cash should also compute their money-weighted IRR to determine if they are adding or subtracting value by changing how much money is in their account/portfolio.

One last note

My monthly performance numbers do not include non-commission broker costs or other costs. These should add up to a few thousand dollars this year.

Disclaimer: This blog has a terms of use that is incorporated by reference into this post; you can find all my disclaimers and disclosures there as well.

Trade recap: A swing and a miss

Just as I previewed in my watchlist last night, I shorted 5,000 shares of OPTT on red (I alerted this trade via Twitter too). I got whipsawed out and then chickened out after re-shorting. Tough loss.


Daily profit: ($1678.00)

Disclosure: No positions. I have a disclosure policy.

How I made $1,600 (20%) by short selling pump & dump XSUNX, Inc (Public, OTC:XSNX)

XSUNX (OTC BB: XSNX) was pumped this morning by StockPreacher (whose pump of ALAN was an awesome short for me months ago) and Beacon Equity (both are owned by the same people). They were paid 900,000 shares by the company to promote it. Timothy Sykes had a good blog post about this pump. You can see the pumper’s disclaimer below. One nice little touch is that Beacon Equity’s disclaimers are images so it is harder to search to see how much they were paid for each pump.

(click here for a larger 1-day chart of XSNX).


As a result of the pump the stock jumped from $0.12 to $0.22 in under 15 minutes. I sold short 35,000 shares at $0.202 at Interactive Brokers just as it started to fade off of its day’s high. The one problem with short selling such a cheap stock is it is not only not marginable, but short selling stocks under $2.50 per share requires $2.50 per share in cash. So short selling this stock required that I use $87,500 in cash. Still, It was a super-easy short with little risk. Except for the first minute, this trade was never in the red. The stock fell quickly with only anemic bounces. Just over one hour later I covered my short position at $0.156 when I got bored and netted $1,612.37 with a profit margin of 22.8%

By the way, it is still not too late to sign up for Tim Sykes’ Las Vegas Seminar on October 18th and 19th. If two more people sign up using my affiliate link in the next couple days then I will go to the seminar too! See my previous post on the seminar for all the great reasons you should go (and a special benefit–a phone consultation with me–for those who sign up using my affiliate link).

I should also point out that I informed my Twitter followers about my intention to short XSNX even before I got filled on my short sale order so any of them with Interactive Brokers could have easily made 20% shorting this pump & dump with me!

Disclosure: No positions. I have a disclosure policy.

How to track your stock trades

I am a firm believer in tracking all your stock trades. In fact, you can see how all my trading strategies are performing by visiting my trading profits page. By tracking your trades according to which strategy you are using you can identify how profitable a strategy is and whether you should be using more or less money to trade it. Furthermore, tracking your trades will help you to avoid trades that are based on hunches and not on specific strategies, because it will quickly become clear how quickly you lose money on such trades.

Download below a version of the trade log spreadsheet I use. Use a separate sheet in the spreadsheet for each different trading strategy. Watch the video below if you need guidance in how to use the spreadsheet.

Excel 2000 trade log spreadsheet
Open Office trade log spreadsheet

[Edit 2013-12-3]: I created a new version that has separate columns for commissions because some people find this to be simpler (I just use formulas to include them in the trade price) and I saved this in the current Excel format. Download here.

[Edit 2015-3-24]: I finally uploaded a version to Google Docs and improved the formulas. Go to “File” > “Make a copy” to save a copy to your Google Docs so you can edit it.

Disclosure: No positions in any stocks shown in the spreadsheets or in the video.

Use the Kelly Criterion to determine position size

This is a classic trading post from my non-trading blog,

The Kelly Criterion is a formula for choosing how large a bet to make on each trade/investment/gamble. It works for the stock market, though it was originally developed for gambling. The formula is simple: bet the proportion of your investment as defined by the ratio of expected return divided by maximum return. Expected return is what you expect in the long run.

So, the formula is: P_invest = E(r) / M(r)
Proportion of portfolio to invest = P_invest
Expected return= E(r)
Maximum return = M(r)

Now, a couple of examples:

1. If you flip fair coin and win $1 if heads and lose $1 if tails, the expected return is $0 (.5 x $1 + .5 x -1). The maximum return is $1 (if heads). Therefore, the Kelly criterion suggests you bet no money ($0/$1). This makes sense, because you should not invest money where you expect to only break even.

2. You want to short Apple (AAPL) because you think there is an 80% chance the stock will go down in the next month. You think if that happens, the stock will go down 10%. You figure that there is a 20% chance that the stock will go up 5%. The expected return is 7% (.8 x 10% + .2 x -5%). The maximum gain is 10%. The Kelly formula suggests that you invest at most 70% (7/10) of your portfolio.

3. Same thing, shorting AAPL. You like the odds, so you increase your leverage by buying put options. You buy just out of the money options. Now, there is a 70% chance that your options expire worthless (-100% return) and a 30% chance that you make 300%. The expected return is +20% (.7 x -100 + .3 x 300). The maximum gain is 300%. The Kelly formula says that you should bet less than 1/15 (about 6.5%) of your portfolio (20/300).

One thing to consider is that the Kelly formula seeks only to maximize gains. If you wish to minimize portfolio variability as well, you should invest significantly less than the maximum allowed by the Kelly formula. Also, keep in mind that the formula is only as good as your guesses of probability. In order to minimize portfolio volatility and because it is very difficult to accurately estimate the expected return on a trade a priori, many traders stick to using a very small fixed percentage of their portfolio on each trade.

I recommend a Legg Mason article on the Kelly Criterion, or this paper by Edward Thorp (who used it to great effect).

Visit Cisiova’s website for their advanced online Kelly Criterion calculator, which allows you to enter a large number of possible outcomes.

If you liked this post you may want to check out William Poundstone’s book Fortune’s Formula.

Disclosure: I own no Apple stock, long or short. Unfortunately, I did once lose money shorting AAPL. My disclosure policy never loses me money.