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Capital gains on stock

What’s the deal with capital gains on stock?

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Updated: August 16, 2023

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When you hold an investment asset, there are usually two ways to earn a return on your investment. The first is through income payments, such as interest and dividends. The second is through an increase in the value of that asset, which is recognized as a gain — a capital gain — when it's sold.

With the dramatic rise in the value of financial assets over the past decade, capital gains have come to replace dividends as the primary source of returns on securities. For that reason, let's dive into the more technical aspects of capital gains on stock.

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Realized and unrealized gains

One important distinction with capital gains relates to realized and unrealized gains. The example given above represents a realized capital gain. That's because the stock has been both bought and sold, and the gain has been received.

If the same situation were to occur but you didn't sell the stock, the gain would be unrealized. This is sometimes referred to as a paper gain because it exists only on paper and hasn't been received in the form of cash.

Only a realized capital gain is taxable because the proceeds have actually been received.

If your stock position grows from $5,000 to $50,000 over five years but you don't sell the stock, the gain is not taxable because the profit has not actually been received yet.

How the capital gains tax actually works

Let's say you bought your $1,000 worth of stock and then sold it eight months later for $3,000, making a profit of $2,000. If you're in the 24% tax bracket, you'll pay $480 tax, for a total net gain of $1,520.

What if you decide to wait just a little bit longer? You sell a few months later to claim a long-term profit rather than a short-term profit. Now your stock is worth $3,500, leaving you with a gain of $2,500. Your tax bill at the long-term rate of 15% is $375. That's right: You've made a more significant profit, but you're paying less tax because of the favorable rate. Now your total profit is $2,125.

With the favorable long-term capital gains rate, you get to potentially take advantage of further gains and compound those with a lower tax rate. Watch your wealth grow more efficiently by combining the favorable tax rate with the potential to boost your profits by letting your asset appreciate a bit longer.

Capital gains distributions on mutual funds and exchange-traded funds (ETFs)

Mutual funds and exchange-traded funds (ETFs) can also generate capital gains if you sell them for more than your initial investment. But they can also produce a steady stream of capital gains while you own them.

Each fund represents a portfolio of stocks. At different times during the year, the fund will sell some stocks within the portfolio. If the stocks are sold at higher prices than what they were bought for, they will produce capital gains.

Those gains will be passed on to investors in the fund through what is known as capital gains distributions.

At the end of each year, the investment company holding your fund will issue an IRS Form 1099 reporting your investment results. Form 1099-DIV will report both dividend income and capital gains distributions generated by the fund.

The amount of capital gains distributions being generated by a fund will depend on whether it's a passively managed fund or an actively managed fund.

Passively managed funds engage in very little stock trading. The most common example is an index fund. Since the fund is designed to match an underlying stock index, it trades stocks only when the index changes. Index funds (typically ETFs) generate very little in the way of capital gains distributions.

An actively managed fund attempts to outperform the market. It will buy and sell stocks at opportune times. The sales will generate more frequent capital gains distributions. In a particularly actively managed account, those gains can be substantial each year.

If you sell your fund outright, and there's a gain on the sale, you will receive Form 1099-B, reporting proceeds from broker and barter transactions. (You will also receive this form reporting the sale of individual assets held through that broker.)

How long to hold stock for capital gains

For income tax purposes, there are two types of capital gains: short-term and long-term. The tax treatment of each is radically different.

By definition, a short-term capital gain takes place when a security or asset has been held for one year or less. If you make a short-term capital gain, it's added to your income and taxed at your regular income tax rate.

For example, let's say you purchase $10,000 of a particular stock in February, then sell it for $15,000 in November of the same year. You'll have a capital gain of $5,000. Since the gain is considered short-term, it will be taxed at your regular income tax rate.

If you're in the 22% income tax bracket, that's the rate that will apply to the short-term capital gain. In this case, the tax liability will be $1,100 ($5,000 times 22%).

The situation is entirely different with long-term capital gains because they're subject to lower income tax rates. By definition, a long-term capital gain is one realized after holding an asset for longer than one year. If you sell an asset one year and one day (or later) after purchasing it, it qualifies as a long-term capital gain and is subject to reduced taxation.

This benefit exists to encourage long-term investing, which creates more stability in the financial markets as well as in the prices of individual stocks.

How much is the capital gains tax on stocks?

As noted above, short-term capital gains are taxed at ordinary income tax rates. But there is a big reduction in federal income tax rates for long-term capital gains. This provides a major incentive to hold any investment for longer than one year.

The capital gains tax rates for 2023 can be found here.

Capital gains help you build wealth over time

Between the growth in value of the stock or fund you're holding and the tax benefits of lower long-term capital gains tax rates, it's easy to see why capital gains are one of the most important wealth-building strategies for the average investor.

The benefit is multiplied when capital–gains–generating assets are held in tax-sheltered retirement plans. There, the investments can continue to grow without being reduced by taxes, generating even more growth.

And with the tax deferral of either tax-sheltered retirement plans or funds for the very long term, the tax liability can be put off almost indefinitely. And when the day comes that you begin taking profits, you can do it in very small increments and with a very small tax liability.

If you're able to delay those withdrawals until you're retired and are presumably in a lower tax bracket due to a reduced income, the ultimate tax rate on those gains will be either very low or even zero.

Is there any wonder why capital gains have become a primary wealth-building vehicle for the average investor?

About our author

Eric Rosenberg
Eric Rosenberg, Freelance Contributor

Eric Rosenberg is a finance, travel and technology writer in Ventura, California. He is a former bank manager and corporate finance and accounting professional who left his day job in 2016 to take his online side hustle full time. He has in-depth experience writing about banking, credit cards, investing and other financial topics and is an avid travel hacker. When away from the keyboard, Eric enjoys exploring the world, flying small airplanes, discovering new craft beers and spending time with his wife and little girls.

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