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Bitcoin Is Property, Not Currency, in Tax System: IRS 

Photographer: Philippe Lopez/AFP via Getty Images

A bitcoin retail shop in Hong Kong on Feb. 28, 2014. Close

A bitcoin retail shop in Hong Kong on Feb. 28, 2014.

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Photographer: Philippe Lopez/AFP via Getty Images

A bitcoin retail shop in Hong Kong on Feb. 28, 2014.

The U.S. government will treat Bitcoin as property for tax purposes, applying rules it uses to govern stocks and barter transactions, the Internal Revenue Service said in its first substantive ruling on the issue.

Today’s IRS guidance will provide certainty for Bitcoin investors, along with income-tax liability that wasn’t specified before. Purchasing a $2 cup of coffee with Bitcoins bought for $1 would trigger $1 in capital gains for the coffee drinker and $2 of gross income for the coffee shop.

The IRS, faced with a choice of treating Bitcoins like currency or property, chose property. That decision could reduce the volume of transactions conducted with the virtual currency, said Pamir Gelenbe, a venture partner at Hummingbird Ventures, which invests in technology businesses.

“It’s challenging if you have to think about capital gains before you buy a cup of coffee,” he said.

Is Bitcoin Real Money?

Charles Allen, chief executive officer of BitcoinShop Inc., an online marketplace, said he’d like to see the IRS reconsider its decision as virtual currencies develop.

“The implications this decision will have on the Bitcoin ecosystem are far reaching, and will be burdensome for both individual users of Bitcoins, Bitcoin-focused business and for the general adoption of virtual currencies,” he said, adding that Bitcoin users will adapt to the rules.

Technological Breakthrough

Bitcoin, the most popular digital currency, emerged from a 2008 paper written by a programmer or group of programmers under the name Satoshi Nakamoto. The Bitcoin network uses a public ledger to record transactions made under pseudonyms, a technological breakthrough that allows purchases and sales without using a trusted third party, such as Visa Inc. or Western Union Co.

Powerful computers that record the transactions and guard against double-spending the same currency generate new Bitcoins, a process referred to as mining. Mining has made some early Bitcoin adopters wealthy in dollar terms.

Others bought into the currency in early 2013, before its price rose more than 50-fold to peak at $1,200 in early December. A Bitcoin was worth $584.35 at 4:02 p.m., New York time, according to the CoinDesk Bitcoin Price Index. That’s less than 0.3 percent below today’s high.

Stock Investors

The IRS ruling means Bitcoin investors will be treated like stock investors. Bitcoins held for more than a year and then sold would face the lower tax rates applicable to capital gains -- a maximum of 23.8 percent compared with the 43.4 percent top rate on property sold within a year of purchase.

“The Internal Revenue Service’s guidance today provides clarity for taxpayers who want to ensure that they’re doing the right thing and playing by the rules when utilizing Bitcoin and other digital currencies,” Senator Thomas Carper, a Delaware Democrat, said in a statement.

For investors with losses, U.S. tax law allows taxpayers to subtract capital losses from any capital gains. They can also subtract as much as $3,000 of capital losses a year from ordinary income.

If Bitcoin were treated as a foreign currency, ordinary -- not capital gains -- tax rates would apply. Losses would be easier to deduct, however.

Capital Gains

As with stocks, Bitcoin dealers will be subject to different rules that wouldn’t allow for capital gains treatment.

Bitcoin miners will have to report their earnings as taxable income with a value equal to the worth on the day it was mined. If they mine as part of a business, they would have to pay payroll taxes as well.

The IRS will require information reporting similar to how the tax agency receives notification of stock transactions and payments to independent contractors.

“The danger is the creation of an electronic black market, similar to the cash economy,” Joshua Blank, a tax law professor at New York University, said in a December interview. “That’s what the IRS wants to avoid.”

The ruling takes effect immediately and covers past and future transactions and tax returns. The IRS said in the notice that it may offer relief from penalties to people who engaged in transactions before today and can show “reasonable cause” for underpayments or failure to file.

The ruling comes fewer than three months after National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson said the IRS should issue guidance to taxpayers on digital currency transactions.

“It is the government’s responsibility to inform the public about the rules they are required to follow,” Olson, who runs an independent office within IRS, wrote in her annual report to Congress in January. “The lack of clear answers to basic questions such as when and how taxpayers should report gains and losses on digital currency transactions probably encourages tax avoidance.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Richard Rubin in Washington at rrubin12@bloomberg.net; Carter Dougherty in Washington at cdougherty6@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Jodi Schneider at jschneider50@bloomberg.net Mark McQuillan

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