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What is the wash sale rule?

The wash sale rule relates to capital gains taxes with respect to capital investments in equities. Although directly applicable only in the US, the wash sale rule can also be used indirectly in India.

The wash sale rule is a critical tax regulation that every investor needs to be aware of, especially when considering selling securities at a loss for tax purposes. Overlooking this rule could lead to unexpected tax consequences and missed opportunities for deductions.

In this article, we’re going to explore the intricacies of the wash sale rule, including its applicability and real-world implications both in the Indian and the American tax context.

Understanding the wash sale rule

The wash sale rule states that if an investor sells a security at a loss and buys the same or a substantially identical security within 30 days before or after the sale, the loss cannot be claimed as a tax deduction.

Instead, this loss is added to the cost of the repurchased security,  effectively deferring the loss until the position is closed at a later date.

Why does this rule exist?

The wash sale rule exists to prevent investors from engaging in a practice known as “tax harvesting.” 

Tax harvesting involves selling losing positions to claim the losses on their tax returns and then immediately repurchasing the same securities to maintain their investment positions.

This would allow investors to claim artificial losses for tax purposes while essentially retaining their investments.

Understanding the wash sale rule with an example

In India, the concept akin to the wash sale rule is known as the “Bonus Stripping” rule. Consider this example:

Investor X holds 1,000 shares of RIL bought at ₹2,500 per share (₹25 lakhs total). If X sells the entire holding at ₹2,000 per share, incurring a ₹5 lakh loss, they could ordinarily claim this loss for tax purposes.

However, if X repurchases the same RIL shares within 3 months (the typical period for stocks in India), the Bonus Stripping rule applies. This rule prevents investors from claiming artificial losses by quickly repurchasing sold shares.

Under this rule, if X rebuys 1,000 RIL shares within 3 months, the ₹5 lakh loss from the sale will be disallowed for tax purposes. Instead, this loss will be added to the cost basis of the repurchased shares.

For instance, if X rebuys at ₹2,100 per share (₹21 lakhs total), the new cost basis becomes ₹26 lakhs (₹21 lakhs + ₹5 lakh disallowed loss). The loss is deferred until the repurchased shares are ultimately sold.

Where does the wash sale rule apply?

In the US, the rule applies to stocks, bonds, options, and other securities traded on recognized exchanges or over-the-counter markets. It applies to both taxable and tax-advantaged accounts, such as individual retirement accounts (IRAs) and 401(k) plans.

Strategies to bypass the wash sale rule

Here are some ways you can bypass the wash sale rule:

  • Wait for the prescribed period: The Bonus Stripping rule applies if an investor repurchases the same or substantially similar shares within a specific period, typically 3 months for stocks in India. By waiting for this period to elapse before repurchasing the shares, you can claim the loss for tax purposes.
  • Invest in different securities: Instead of repurchasing the same shares within the prescribed period, investors can consider investing in different securities or different assets entirely too.
  • Use separate accounts: Investors can consider using separate accounts for selling and repurchasing shares.
  • Opt for derivatives: Instead of directly repurchasing shares, investors can consider using derivatives like futures or options contracts on the same underlying shares. As these are separate investment instruments, the Bonus Stripping rule may not apply.

Frequently Asked Questions

How does the wash sale rule apply to equity mutual funds in India?

The rule applies to equity mutual funds in a similar manner as stocks. If you sell units of a mutual fund scheme at a loss and repurchase units of the same scheme within a prescribed period (typically 3 months), the loss will be disallowed for tax purposes.

Can the wash sale rule impact my long-term capital gains tax liability?

Yes, the rule can affect your long-term capital gains tax liability. If you repurchase shares or mutual fund units within the prescribed period, any long-term capital loss incurred on the original sale will be disallowed.

What if I sell shares and my spouse repurchases the same shares within the prescribed period?

The rule applies not just to the individual investor but also to their spouse. If your spouse repurchases the same shares that you sold at a loss within the prescribed period, the loss will be disallowed for tax purposes, as the rule considers transactions by spouses as a single unit.

Does the rule apply to transactions in my demat account and physical share certificates separately?

Yes, the rule applies to your entire holdings, regardless of whether they are held in a demat account or as physical share certificates. Transactions in both forms are considered when determining if the rule should be applied.

Can I claim the disallowed loss in subsequent years?

No, that is also not allowed.

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