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Photo: Cryptocurrency is currently a fairly large blip on Canberra’s risk radar right now. Depending on who’s talking, cryptocurrencies are either the next big thing or the currency of the underworld. But an increasing number of chartered accountants say their clients are interested in the tax ramifications of investing in this latest barbecue stopper. Assistant Treasurer Michael Sukkar has said he’s been informally working with people in Treasury and the ATO to characterise and potentially tax and treat cryptocurrencies. While some jurisdictions have taken a relatively dim view of cryptocurrency, as Mr Sukkar noted, others are working hard to strike the right balance between fostering blockchain technology which underpins cryptocurrencies, and safeguarding consumers, businesses and regulators. Take, for instance, the UK’s Digital Currency Inquiry announced recently.
But I’ve yet to meet a tax official enamoured with the idea that deregulating and embracing new technology to streamline government should spawn new types of untaxed endeavour. Come tax time, will those who’ve made cryptocurrency profits come forward and pay their tax? Claim the gain or the loss? Tax regulators fear a hit to tax revenue from crypto-players claiming tax losses.
This bitcoin USD chart suggests there may be plenty in this category. And for income tax purposes, let’s not forget the all-important capital versus revenue distinction and relevance of trading stock tax accounting. Bitcoin is a formula almost guaranteed to end in tears, but still speculators pile in to the bubble, writes Ian Verrender. Chartered accountants know that savvy clients who profit from speculative activity sometimes demand concessionally taxed capital gain treatment on the way up, and plead for tax deductible revenue loss relief on the way down. When I taught tax I called them flip-floppers. The ATO has not been silent on these issues. While existing tax frameworks may cope, Mr Sukkar’s reported statements suggest cryptocurrency is currently a fairly large blip on Canberra’s risk radar right now.
Although he described the Australian officials’ work as “embryonic”, there are a few things that might benefit from further exploration. At the very least, a “lock it in, Eddie” decision should be required by taxpayers upfront to determine whether revenue or capital treatment applies. The various scenarios of when a cryptocurrency tax realisation event occurs could be further clarified. Another idea is that crypto-exchanges with clients in Australia have to register here, with all the attendant reporting obligations.
The relevant taxpayers should register as cryptocurrency players and make specific tax disclosures on their tax returns. The boss of JPMorgan Chase said if his staff were caught trading bitcoin he would “fire them in a second” and it’s a “fraud”. Any cryptocurrency losses should be quarantined so they only offset gains of the same type, and crypto-related deductions claimed in other jurisdictions could be denied. AUSTRAC could improve cross-border currency transfer monitoring. It’s likely Treasurer Scott Morrison will be briefed by his cryptocurrency think-tank before he heads off to Argentina for the next G20 gathering now that France and Germany have put cryptocurrency regulation on the agenda. For Tax Time 2018, the ATO will likely be in outreach mode, telling taxpayers that cryptocurrency activity has tax consequences, and warning of big penalties for non-disclosure. At least initially, those engaged in crypto activities will attract a high ATO risk rating and direct follow-up contact is likely.