My name is Mark Goodfield. Welcome to The Blunt Bean Counter ™, a blog that shares my thoughts on income taxes, finance and the psychology of money. I am a Chartered Professional Accountant and a partner with BDO. This blog is meant for everyone, but in particular for high net worth individuals and owners of private corporations. My posts are blunt, opinionated and even have a twist of humour/sarcasm. You've been warned. Please note the blog posts are time sensitive and subject to changes in legislation or law.

Monday, November 30, 2020

Tax-loss planning for the COVID stock market

Last year I cut with tradition and did not post my annual tax-loss planning/selling blog. However, because of COVID, my client’s portfolio returns and realized capital gains/loss positions are “all over the place.” I have never seen such disparity in my career, so I am again posting a tax-loss planning/selling blog. Consider it part of your required tax considerations during these uncertain times.

The reasons for the disparity I note above are as follows:

1. With the 35% or so drop in the stock markets at the beginning of COVID, some people “bailed” or sold off certain holdings to go to cash. Those that held their positions (and noses) or added to them likely do not have any realized capital losses this year, unless they sold selected stocks that were hit during COVID.

2. Certain conservative portfolios fared worse this year than in a typical market dip, due to precipitous declines in transportation, entertainment, preferred shares, or real estate REITs.

3. Those who held technology, medical or pharmaceutical stocks, and certain food-related stocks were rewarded with astronomical gains in 2020.

If you fall into category #1 or #2 or have realized capital losses this year, I suggest you review your capital gain/loss situation early this year. In the good old days, I suggested you undertake this task before you get busy with holiday shopping, but many people won’t go much further than their computer to shop this year. So, you can probably do both simultaneously.

While most investment advisors and managers are pretty good at contacting their clients to discuss possible tax-loss planning/selling, I am still amazed each year at how many advisors do not discuss the issue with their clients. If you have an advisor, ensure you are in contact to discuss your realized capital gain/loss situation and other planning options by next week.

If you are a DIY investor or maybe even if you have an investment advisor, you may wish to set aside some time this weekend to review your 2020 capital gain/loss situation in a calm, methodical manner. You can then execute your trades on a timely basis knowing you have considered all the variables associated with your tax gain/loss selling.

I would like to provide one caution about tax-loss selling. You should be very careful if you plan to repurchase the stocks you sell (see superficial loss discussion below). The reason for this is that you are subject to market vagaries for 30 days. I have seen people sell stocks for tax-loss purposes with the intention of re-purchasing those stocks, and one or two of the stocks take off during the 30-day wait period—raising the cost to repurchase far in excess of their tax savings.

Thus, you should first and foremost consider selling your "dog stocks" that you or your advisor no longer wish to own. If you then need to crystallize additional losses on stocks you still wish to own, be wary if you are planning to sell and buy back the same stock. Your advisor may be able to "mimic" the stocks you sold with similar securities for the 30-day period or longer or utilize other strategies, but that should be part of your tax loss-selling conversation with your advisor.

One additional note: While I don’t comment on rumours and conjecture, there are many tax commentators who feel there is a good chance the capital gains inclusion rate will increase from 50% to a higher rate in a future budget. If you are in that camp, you may not wish to crystalize your capital losses in 2020 but rather save them for the future, so that you deduct the losses at a higher inclusion rate.

Reporting capital gains and capital losses – The basics

All capital gain and capital loss transactions for 2020 will have to be reported on Schedule 3 of your 2020 personal income tax return. You then subtract the total capital gains from the total capital losses and multiply the net capital gain or loss by ½. That amount becomes your taxable capital gain or net capital loss for the year. If you have a taxable capital gain, the amount is carried forward to the tax return jacket on Line 127. For example, if you have a capital gain of $120 and a capital loss of $30 in the year, ½ of the net amount of $90 would be taxable and $45 would be carried forward to Line 127. The taxable capital gains are then subject to income tax at your marginal income tax rate.

Capital losses

If you have a net capital loss in the current year, the loss cannot be deducted against other sources of income (unless you are filing for a deceased person. In that case, get professional advice as the rules are different). However, the net capital loss may be carried back to offset any taxable capital gains incurred in any of the three preceding years, or, if you did not have any gains in the three prior years, the net capital loss becomes an amount that can be carried forward indefinitely to utilize against any future taxable capital gains.

Planning preparation

I suggest you should start your preliminary planning immediately. These are the steps I recommend you undertake:
  1. Retrieve your 2019 Notice of Assessment. In the verbiage discussing changes and other information, if you have a capital loss carryforward, the balance will be reported. This information is also easily accessed online if you have registered with the CRA My Account Program.
  2. If you do not have capital losses to carry forward, retrieve your 2017, 2018 and 2019 income tax returns to determine if you have taxable capital gains upon which you can carry back a current-year capital loss. On an Excel spreadsheet or multi-column paper, note any taxable capital gains you reported in 2017, 2018 and 2019.
  3. For each of 2017, 2018 and 2019, review your returns to determine if you applied a net capital loss from a prior year on line 253 of your tax return. If yes, reduce the taxable capital gain on your Excel spreadsheet by the loss applied.
  4. Finally, if you had net capital losses in 2018 or 2019, review whether you carried back those losses to 2017 or 2018 on Form T1A of your tax return. If you carried back a loss to either 2017 or 2018, reduce the gain on your spreadsheet by the loss carried back.
  5. If after adjusting your taxable gains by the net capital losses under steps #3 and #4 you still have a positive balance remaining for any of the years from 2017 to 2019, you can potentially generate an income tax refund by carrying back a net capital loss from 2020 to any or all of 2017, 2018 and 2019.
  6. If you have an investment advisor, call your advisor and request a realized capital gain or loss summary from January 1 to date to determine if you are in a net gain or loss position. If you trade yourself, ensure you update your capital gain or loss schedule (or Excel spreadsheet, or whatever you use) for the year.
Now that you have all the information you need; it is time to be strategic about how to use your losses.

Basic use of losses

For discussion purposes, let’s assume the following:

  • 2020: total realized capital loss of $30,000
  • 2019: taxable capital gain of $15,000
  • 2018: taxable capital gain of $5,000
  • 2017: taxable capital gain of $7,000

Based on the above, you will be able to carry back your $15,000 net capital loss ($30,000 x ½) from 2020 against the $7,000 and $5,000 taxable capital gains in 2017 and 2018, respectively, and apply the remaining $3,000 against your 2019 taxable capital gain.

As you will not have absorbed $12,000 of your 2019 taxable capital gains ($15,000 of original gain less the $3,000 net capital loss carryback), you may want to consider whether to sell any other stocks with unrealized losses in your portfolio so that you can carry back the additional 2020 net capital loss to offset the remaining $12,000 taxable capital gain realized in 2019. Alternatively, if you have capital gains in 2020, you may want to sell stocks with unrealized losses to fully or partially offset those capital gains.

Identical shares

Many people buy the same company's shares (say Bell Canada) in different accounts or have employer stock purchase plans. I often see people claim a gain or loss on the sale of their Bell Canada shares from one of their accounts, but ignore the shares they own of Bell Canada in another account. However, be aware, you have to calculate your adjusted cost base on all the identical shares you own in, say, Bell Canada and average the total cost of all your Bell Canada shares over the shares in all your accounts. If the cost of your shares in Bell is higher in one of your accounts, you cannot pick and choose to realize a loss on that account; you must report the gain or loss based on the average adjusted cost base of all your Bell shares, not the higher cost base shares.

Creating gains when you have unutilized losses

Where you have a large capital loss carryforward from prior years and it is unlikely that the losses will be utilized—either due to the quantum of the loss or because you are out of the stock market and don’t anticipate any future capital gains of any kind (such as the sale of real estate)—it may make sense for you to purchase a flow-through limited partnership. (Be aware: although there are income tax benefits to purchasing a flow-through limited partnership, there are also investment risks and you must discuss any purchase with your investment advisor.)

Purchasing a flow-through limited partnership will provide you with a write-off against regular income pretty much equal to the cost of the unit; and any future capital gain can be reduced or eliminated by your capital loss carryforward.

For example, if you have a net capital loss carryforward of $75,000 and you purchase a flow-through investment in 2020 for $20,000, you would get approximately $20,000 in cumulative tax deductions in 2020 and 2021, the majority typically coming in the year of purchase. Depending upon your marginal income tax rate, the deductions could save you upwards of $10,700 in taxes in Ontario—as an example.

When you sell the unit, a capital gain will arise. This is because the $20,000 income tax deduction reduces your adjusted cost base from $20,000 to nil (there may be other adjustments to the cost base). Assuming you sell the unit in 2022 for $18,000, you will have a capital gain of $18,000 (subject to any other adjustments), and the entire $18,000 gain will be eliminated by your capital loss carryforward. Thus, in this example, you would have total after-tax proceeds of $28,700 ($18,000 + $10,700 in tax savings) on a $20,000 investment.

Donation of marketable securities

If you wish to make a charitable donation, a great way to be altruistic and save tax is to donate a marketable security that has gone up in value. As discussed in this blog post, when you donate qualifying securities, the capital gain is not taxable and you get the charitable tax credit. Read the blog post for more details.

Superficial losses

One must always be cognizant of the superficial loss rules. Essentially, if you or your spouse (either directly or through an RRSP) purchases an identical share 30 calendar days before or 30 days after a sale of shares, the capital loss is denied and is added to the cost base of the new shares acquired.

Disappearing dividend income

Every year I ask at least one or two clients why their dividend income is lower on their personal tax return. Typically, the answer is, Oops, it’s because I sold a stock early in the year that I forgot to tell you about it. Thus, if you manage you own investments; you may wish to review your dividend income being paid each month or quarter with that of last year’s to see if it is lower (of course this year it may be lower due to COVID related dividend cuts). If the dividend income is lower because you have sold a stock, confirm you have picked up that capital gain in your calculations.

Creating capital losses - Transferring losses to a spouse who has gains

In certain cases, you can use certain provisions of the Income Tax Act to transfer losses to your spouse. As these provisions are complicated and subject to missteps, you need to engage professional tax advice.

Settlement date

It is my understanding that the settlement date for Canadian stock markets in 2020 will be December 29, as the settlement date is now the trade date plus two days (U.S. exchanges may be different). Please confirm this date with your investment advisor, but assuming this date is correct, you must sell any stock for which you want to crystallize the gain or loss in 2020 by December 29, 2020.

Corporations - Passive income rules

If you intend to tax-loss sell in your corporation, keep in mind the passive income rules. This will likely require you to speak to your accountant to determine whether a realized loss would be more effective in a future year (to reduce the potential small business deduction clawback) than in the current year.


As discussed above, there are a multitude of factors to consider when tax-loss selling. It would therefore be prudent to start planning now, so that you can consider all your options rather than frantically selling at the last minute.

The content on this blog has been carefully prepared, but it has been written in general terms and should be seen as broad guidance only. The blog cannot be relied upon to cover specific situations and you should not act, or refrain from acting, upon the information contained therein without obtaining specific professional advice. Please contact BDO Canada LLP to discuss these matters in the context of your particular circumstances. BDO Canada LLP, its partners, employees and agents do not accept or assume any liability or duty of care for any loss arising from any action taken or not taken by anyone in reliance on the information on this blog or for any decision based on it.

Please note the blog posts are time sensitive and subject to changes in legislation.

BDO Canada LLP, a Canadian limited liability partnership, is a member of BDO International Limited, a UK company limited by guarantee, and forms part of the international BDO network of independent member firms. BDO is the brand name for the BDO network and for each of the BDO Member Firms.


  1. Hi There - what is the criteria for considering an ETF an identical share for the purposes of avoiding a superficial loss? I read somewhere that as long as the etf's track a different index, this is not considered an identical share but if two different etf's do track the same index, these would be considered identical - is this correct?

    1. I would also add identical shares only include those in your non-registered investment accounts.

  2. Check out this blog post by the Cdn Couch Potato, I think it is on topic for you

  3. Thanks for this timely reminder Mark