photo by Flickr user Alistair
Bitcoin used to be something like Schrodinger’s currency. Without regulatory observers, it could claim to be money and property at the same time.
Now the Internal Revenue Service has opened the box, and the virtual currency’s condition is established - at least for federal tax purposes.
The IRS recently issued guidance on how it will treat bitcoin, and any other stateless electronic competitor. The short answer: as property, not currency. Bitcoin, along with other virtual currencies that can be exchanged for legal tender, will now be treated in most cases as a capital asset, and in a few situations as inventory. Bitcoin holders who are not dealers will be subject to capital gains tax on increases in value. Bitcoin “miners,” who unlock the currency’s algorithms, will need to report their finds as income, just as other miners do when extracting more traditional resources.
Though this decision is unlikely to cause much turbulence, it is worth noting. Now that the IRS has made a call, investors and bitcoin enthusiasts can move forward with a more accurate understanding of what they are (virtually) holding. A bitcoin holder who wants to comply with the tax law, rather than evade it, now knows how to do so.
I think the IRS is correct in determining that bitcoin is not money. Bitcoin, and other virtual currencies like it, is too unstable in value for it to realistically be called a form of currency. In this era of floating exchange rates, it’s true that the value of nearly all currencies changes from week to week or year to year relative to any particular benchmark, whether it’s the dollar or a barrel of oil. But a key feature of money is to serve as a store of value. The worth of the money itself should not change drastically from day to day or hour to hour.
Bitcoin utterly fails this test. Buying a bitcoin is a speculative investment. It is not a place to park your idle, spendable cash. Further, to my knowledge, no mainstream financial institution will pay interest on bitcoin deposits in the form of more bitcoins. Any return on a bitcoin holding comes solely from a change in the bitcoin’s value.
Whether the IRS’ decision will help or hurt current bitcoin holders depends on why they wanted bitcoins in the first place. For those hoping to profit directly from bitcoin’s fluctuations in value, this is good news, as the rules for capital gains and losses are relatively favorable to taxpayers. This characterization also upholds the way some high-profile bitcoin enthusiasts, including the Winklevoss twins, have reported their earnings in the absence of clear guidance. (While the new treatment of bitcoin is applicable to past years, penalty relief may be available to taxpayers who can demonstrate reasonable cause for their positions.)
For those hoping to use bitcoin to pay their rent or buy coffee, the decision adds complexity, since spending bitcoin is treated as a taxable form of barter. Those who spend bitcoins, and those who accept them as payment, will both need to note the fair market value of the bitcoin on the date the transaction occurs. This will be used to calculate the spender’s capital gains or losses and the receiver’s basis for future gains or losses.
While the triggering event - the transaction - is easy to identify, determining a particular bitcoin’s basis, or its holding period in order to determine whether short-term or long-term capital gains tax rates apply, may prove challenging. For an investor, that might be an acceptable hassle. But when you are deciding whether to buy your latte with a bitcoin or just pull five dollars out of your wallet, the simplicity of the latter is likely to win the day. The IRS guidance simply makes clear what was already true: Bitcoin isn’t a new form of cash. Its benefits and drawbacks are different.
The IRS has also clarified several other points. If an employer pays a worker in virtual currency, that payment counts as wages for employment tax purposes. And if businesses make payments worth $600 or more to independent contractors using bitcoin, the businesses will be required to file Forms 1099, just as they would if they paid the contractors in cash.
Clearer rules may cause new administrative headaches for some bitcoin users, but they could ensure bitcoin’s future at a time when investors have good reason to be wary. “[Bitcoin is] getting legitimacy, which it didn’t have previously,” Ajay Vinze, the associate dean at Arizona State University‘s business school, told The New York Times. He said the IRS decision “puts Bitcoin on a track to becoming a true financial asset.”
Once all bitcoin users can recognize and agree on the type of asset it is, that outcome is likelier.
A minority of bitcoin users saw its former unregulated status as a feature, not a drawback. Some of them oppose government oversight for ideological reasons, while others found bitcoin a useful way to conduct illicit business. But as the recent collapse of prominent bitcoin exchange Mt. Gox demonstrated, unregulated bitcoin exchange can lead to catastrophic losses with no safety net. Some users may have thought they were protecting themselves by fleeing to bitcoin to escape the heavily regulated banking industry, but no regulation at all isn’t the answer either.
The IRS is correct when it says that bitcoin should be treated as property. This certainty may secure the future of an asset that, while it makes poor currency, might be useful to those who want to hold it as property for speculative or commercial reasons.