What Are Unrealized Gains and Losses?

Unrealized Gains and Losses
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Investment beginners may be overwhelmed with all the information and terminology available. There is too much to learn and understand in a short period of time.

Two of the most important terms new investors should be familiar with are unrealized gains and unrealized losses. 

Unrealized gains and losses are the changes in the price of an investment after it has been purchased but before it is sold. Every time you make an investment, there will be a gain or a loss of value. Unrealized gains and losses refer to the changes of value that have not yet materialized. 

This article will explain what unrealized gains and losses are. It will also cover the difference between realized and unrealized gains and losses, so keep reading to learn all about this useful terminology!

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Gains & Losses

The ultimate goal of investing is to grow your capital. Unfortunately, growth—or gains—are not guaranteed or consistent. Losses are a part of investing, and a solid long-term strategy can help mitigate the impact of losses on your investment portfolio.

When the price of a position increases after an investor purchases it, it is called a gain. On the other hand, a loss is what happens when the price of a position decreases after its purchase.

Unrealized Gains & Losses vs. Realized Gains & Losses

There are two categories of gains and losses: realized and unrealized. Unrealized gains and losses are those that occur while the investor is still holding the position. 

An investment is realized as a gain or a loss after being sold.  In other words, if you purchase a stock for $100 and its price goes up to $180 after a year, you will have $80 in unrealized gains.

If you sell the stock then, you will have earned an $80 profit on your investment. At that point, the $80 becomes realized gains, as you have received the profit from your investment.

Unrealized Gains and Losses

There are substantial differences between the two. A position that is held can continue to fluctuate in price on a day to day basis. The IRS does not require unrealized gains and losses to be reported, although some investors take extra steps to track these fluctuations in price.

Unrealized gains and losses may seem inconsequential. However, this is not necessarily true. Investors may use this information when considering future decisions and opportunities. 

For instance, a position’s unrealized gain or loss may help an investor weigh the decision to hold or sell the position in the long run.

Realized Gains and Losses

Once a position is sold, however, there are typically tax implications to be aware of.  Both gains and losses must be reported on the following year’s tax return following the sale.

An investment sold as a loss may be deducted, while capital gains are subject to being taxed.  When a position is sold at a profit, the investor may owe taxes.

If the investor owned the stock for less than a year, they  are required to pay short-term capital gains tax. A short-term capital gain is taxed based on the tax bracket of the investors, in line with the investor’s entire income. 

Likewise, if a stock is owned for more than a year before it is sold, the investor will need to pay long-term capital gains tax. This type of tax is usually lower than that of short-term capital gains.

Typically, long-term capital gains are taxed at a rate of 0%, 15%, or 20%.  

Reinvesting Capital Gains 

Capital gains must be reported to the IRS and could be taxed. To circumvent paying taxes, some investors choose to reinvest their profits.

This is only possible when capital gains are realized in a retirement account and automatically reinvested. 

Handling Capital Losses

Capital losses can be nerve-wrecking and difficult to overcome at times. However, there are several ways to offset these losses. For example, capital losses can offset capital gains.

Sometimes, the capital loss is greater than the capital gain. In this case, the investor can deduct up to $3,000 of the loss per year. 

In other cases, the capital loss is used to determine whether to sell another position that is experiencing an unrealized gain.

Strategizing Unrealized Gains & Losses

Unrealized gains and losses are sometimes referred to as paper profits and paper losses. Holding on to positions long-term takes some strategy and a lot of planning.

Deciding when to sell a stock versus when to hold a stock is one of the most important decisions an investor can make. It may make sense to sell a stock once it has increased in value over the amount that the investor initially purchased for.

But, there are two reasons why an investor may hold on to a stock that has unrealized gains.  The first reason that an investor may hold a position with unrealized gains is because they believe that the position has the potential to continue to grow in value.

Conversely, an investor may hold onto a position longer to postpone paying taxes on capital gains.  On the other hand, there are several factors that may lead an investor to hold on to a position that is experiencing an unrealized loss.

Sometimes, there are indications that a stock may increase in value in the future. The investor may then choose to hold it longer in hopes that the price will climb again.

Other times, investors may sell a stock while it is experiencing an unrealized loss to offset capital gains taxation. 

When to Sell

Because stock prices fluctuate all the time , it can be difficult to decide the right moment to sell a position. Trying to time the market is next to impossible and attempting to do so can be considerably frustrating.

Selling too soon, whether the stock is experiencing unrealized gains or losses, can cause the investor to miss out on further gains if the stock price begins to rise. 

Typically, the best investment strategy for most is a long-term approach. This gives investors time to create realistic and sustainable financial goals.

Further, a long-term approach gives the investor the opportunity to build a diverse portfolio. 

Bottom Line

Unrealized gains and losses refer to the rise and fall of a position's price in relation to its original purchase price. Any gain or loss of a position is considered unrealized up until the position is sold for cash.

Profit is always the priority in investing, but in some instances, unrealized losses can be beneficial as they help offset the taxes an investor is required to pay on capital gains.

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