The Internal Revenue Service's plan to tax virtual currencies could crimp their use as an alternative to cash or credit for retail transactions.
The IRS, in a ruling last week, said under existing law bitcoin and its brethren are property, not currency. That means anyone who spends bitcoin may have to pay taxes based on any "gain" over that bitcoin's original value.
The rules are similar to reporting a "capital gain" on selling a stock: The spenders would have to figure out a "cost basis" for a transaction and report a gain or loss, calculated by comparing how much they paid for the bitcoin originally and its value when they spend it.
The requirement is stoking fear among some bitcoin advocates, who worry it will diminish the digital payment system's attractiveness as an alternate currency.
"Treating all bitcoin transactions like transactions in property is just an untenable position because it requires onerous record keeping and reporting requirements for everyday bitcoin users," said Marco Santori, chairman of the regulatory affairs committee of the Bitcoin Foundation, which advocates for the technology.
The IRS, in a question-and-answer document published March 25, said it was aware that virtual money could act like a currency in practice. But the agency said it is property "under currently applicable law," pointing out that "it does not have legal tender status in any jurisdiction."
While the IRS is accepting comments on its ruling, its citation of current law suggests Congress may have to act to change the agency's approach. No lawmakers have yet urged altering the tax code to accommodate virtual currency, but some are studying the issue.
"We must see that tax regulatory changes do not preclude the use of this currency," Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D., N.Y.), the top Democrat on the House Small Business Committee, said at a hearing on bitcoin Wednesday.
Despite its drawbacks, the IRS ruling was a milestone for virtual money because the agency recognized the technology as a legitimate store of value. Bitcoin, which consists of a computer code created and controlled by its users, has boomed in popularity and value during the past year, thanks to an innovative system for limiting the availability of new "coins" and publicly verifying each transaction between two bitcoin owners.
Proponents say bitcoin could revolutionize banking by providing a payment system more efficient than checks, credit cards or wire transfers. Bitcoin advocates say technology will overcome tax burdens with time. Coinbase, an online "wallet" provider that helps people transact in bitcoin, is researching a way to make it easier for customers to track their "cost basis" and tax liability, said spokesman Alex Kirschner.
In order to track the value of bitcoin, the IRS said bitcoin users must use an exchange rate "in a reasonable manner that is consistently applied." Retailers would have to track profits if they hold on to the bitcoins they receive, but they could also avoid that requirement by converting any bitcoins received quickly into cash—a service offered by Coinbase and its competitors.
Mr. Santori said the Bitcoin Foundation is preparing a comment letter to press its case with the IRS, but tax experts said Congress would likely have to change the law to allow the IRS to take a different tack.
"They treated it in accordance with their current tax laws, and any other outcome was probably not likely," said Haskell Garfinkel, a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers.
for original article in the Wall Street Journal.