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Realized vs. Unrealized Gains and Losses: What’s the Difference?

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It’s normal to see the investments in your portfolio going up and down in value over time. But just because you see some gains or losses on paper on a certain day doesn’t mean they’re permanent. 

A portfolio’s balance can fluctuate day to day depending on what’s going on in the markets. A “loss” this week could become a “gain” next week (or vice versa). That’s because gains and losses are considered “unrealized” until you actually sell the investment (be it a stock, bond or other type of security). In other words, you only “realize” your gains and losses when the investment is sold. 

This might sound like we’re just splitting hairs. But the distinction between unrealized and realized gains/losses is an important one because there are tax implications that could impact your tax bill at the end of the year. (If you’ve been an avid reader of our investing articles, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Investing and taxes go together like cheese and crackers – albeit, a less delicious combo.)

Grab your snack of choice and let’s go over the difference between unrealized and realized gains/losses.

What is an unrealized gain/loss?

You’re probably already familiar with the concept of gains and losses. But here’s a quick review: A gain is when your investment – let’s say a stock – increases in value after you purchase it. A loss is when the stock decreases in value after your purchase. 

Until you actually sell the investment, your gains or losses are simply numbers on a piece of paper. 

As we’ve mentioned, the gains and losses you see in your portfolio are considered “unrealized” until you sell the investment. That’s why unrealized gains/losses are sometimes called “paper” profits or losses. Because until you actually sell the investment, your gains or losses are simply numbers on a piece of paper. 

Unrealized gains/losses aren’t “locked in.” This means that if you’re holding onto assets with unrealized losses, it’s possible for them to become unrealized gains when the market is having a good week. Or vice versa. 

Let’s look at a basic example. Say you purchased a share of Stock XYZ for $50 last month. This month, you noticed that the stock price has dropped to $40 a share. You hold onto the stock because you know market fluctuations are normal. You now have an unrealized loss of $10 on Stock XYZ because the value of the stock is $10 less than the original purchase price of $50. 

Fast forward to six months down the road – Stock XYZ is now valued at $70 per share. You’re still holding onto the stock, which means you have an unrealized gain of $20 per share (or $20 more than your original purchase price of $50).

What is a realized gain/loss?

If you sell an investment and make a profit, that’s a realized gain. On the other hand, if you sell it at a loss (that is, for less than the original purchase price), you have a realized loss.

Realized gains/losses matter because they could impact your tax bill at the end of the year.

Tax basics on realized capital gains and losses

Before we start talking about taxes, keep in mind that investment taxes can get complicated. While we’ll go over the basics with you, it’s still a good idea to consult your tax advisor if you have any questions about your personal tax situation. 

With that out of the way, let’s look at the basics of the federal capital gains tax.

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Realized gains are usually subject to the capital gains tax. Capital gain is simply another term for the profits that you make when you sell an asset such as a stockbond or Exchange-Traded Fund (ETF)

Generally speaking, the tax you pay on your realized capital gains depends on how long you’ve held onto your investments (short-term vs. long-term). 

  • Long-term capital gains are gains on investments held for more than a year. They are subject to a 0%, 15% or 20% federal tax rate based on your level of taxable income. (Note: There are a few exceptions where capital gains may be taxed at rates greater than 20% – see IRS Topic 409.)
  • Short-term capital gains are gains on investments held for one year or less. They are taxed at your ordinary income rate. 

These calculations are no walk in the park, so it’s a good idea to consult with a professional tax advisor who can help you accurately crunch the numbers.

Because you could sell multiple assets in a given year, it can get a little tricky trying to figure out your potential capital gains tax. You typically need to figure out details like: how long you held onto the assets; cost basis (translation: generally, how much you originally paid for the assets); and net capital gain/loss. 

These calculations are no walk in the park, so it’s a good idea to consult with a professional tax advisor who can help you accurately crunch the numbers.

Now, what about capital losses? 

In a tough investment year, you might experience a “capital loss,” where you lose money from your investment sales. Generally, you can deduct up to $3,000 net capital losses a year on your tax return ($1,500 if married filing separately).

If you’re planning on deducting tax losses, consult a tax professional for more information on any IRS rules that may apply to you (see IRS Publication 550).

The bottom line

You might be wondering how you could keep track of all your realized gains and losses in a given year (especially if you have a lot going on in your portfolio).

Thankfully, your financial institution may be able to lend a hand. If you have an investment account, your financial firm will typically send you information about your holdings each year, which you can use to help file your tax return. 

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You may either get these tax documents in the mail or online. These tax documents are essentially a summary report on the various types of income generated by your investments such as stocks, bonds, mutual funds and ETFs – as well as a form listing capital gains or losses from any securities sales.

But remember: Everyone’s financial situation is different. Check in with your financial and tax advisors if you have any questions about your investment gains and losses and how they might impact your year-end taxes. 

This article is for informational purposes only and shall not constitute an offer, solicitation, or recommendation to buy or sell securities, or of an account type, securities transaction, or investment strategy. This article was prepared by and approved by Marcus by Goldman Sachs®, but is not a description of any of the products or services offered by and does not reflect the institutional opinions of The Goldman Sachs Group, Inc., Goldman Sachs Bank USA, Goldman Sachs & Co. LLC or any of their affiliates, subsidiaries or divisions. Goldman Sachs Bank USA and Goldman Sachs & Co. LLC are not providing any financial, economic, legal, accounting, tax or other recommendation in this article and it is not a substitute for individualized professional advice. Information and opinions expressed in this article are as of the date of this material only and subject to change without notice.  Information contained in this article does not constitute the provision of investment advice by Goldman Sachs Bank USA, Goldman Sachs & Co. LLC are or any of their affiliates, none of which are a fiduciary with respect to any person or plan by reason of providing the material or content herein. Neither Goldman Sachs Bank USA, Goldman Sachs & Co. LLC nor any of their affiliates makes any representations or warranties, express or implied, as to the accuracy or completeness of the statements or any information contained in this document and any liability therefore is expressly disclaimed.

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