Why higher capital gains taxes in the US might be bad news for bitcoin

US president Joe Biden wants to significantly increase capital gains tax. That will have a knock-on effect on the markets, says John Stepek. And on bitcoin and crypto in particular. Here’s why.

Bitcoin and US dollars
A tax increase could put a cap on the crypto-frenzy
(Image credit: © Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

US investors got a nasty tax shock yesterday: US president Joe Biden wants to increase capital gains tax. A lot.

He’ll be laying out the exact details next week. But suffice to say, if you’re an investor in America, sitting on a lot of paper profits, you might now be wondering if it’s time to take some money off the table.

So what might that mean for markets more broadly?

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The capital gains tax rise is mostly about politics

Markets were pootling around minding their own business yesterday, generally trending higher, when about halfway through the US trading day (so near the end of ours), they swung sharply lower.

Why? Because Bloomberg reported that Joe Biden wants to almost double the capital gains tax rate (CGT) on the wealthy, to 39.6%, up from 20%.

When they say “wealthy”, by the way, we’re talking about people earning $1m a year or more. (A side issue, but something that struck me: just take a moment to think about how wealthy and successful America is as a country that tax brackets for people with annual incomes of more than $1m are not deemed ludicrously marginal.)

Anyway, the UK’s own CGT regime is intricate enough, so you don’t need to know the details of another country’s CGT rules. But the point is, this is a big jump. If you throw in taxes at the state level, then people in New York and California could be paying more than 50%.

Now, ultimately this is about politics: Biden wants to spend a lot of money. The MMT argument (to which politicians are increasingly sympathetic) is that you don’t need to raise the money elsewhere because the central bank can just print it anyway. (This is technically correct, by the way – it’s just that behaving in this way and setting such precedents can have other consequences).

But politically, it’s difficult to say “we’re just going to print the money”. So you can’t spend it without at least giving the impression that you’re raising it from somewhere else. In the end, the sums don’t matter that much as long as it can be made to look good in a forecast – or as long as they can be wielded in a negotiation with your rivals.

It’s a bit like the way in the UK, a vast amount of public spending over the past ten years has generally mostly been “paid for” by “closing tax loopholes”. Closing loopholes and a group generically referred to as “the rich” are the go-to sources of tax revenue because other voters don’t mind tax hikes on the rich, because no one thinks they’re rich.

Anyway – it might all be about politics, but clearly it has an effect of some sort. So what does this mean for markets?

Why this could be bad news for crypto

The main concern for markets about raising CGT is that it encourages people to crystallise their profits now, so that they don’t have to pay a higher rate. So the idea is that you get a wave of selling.

At first glance, history suggests this doesn’t matter much. Barack Obama pushed through a big CGT increase towards the end of 2012. The S&P 500 didn’t like it much at first, notes John Authers for Bloomberg, but after a few months of going sideways, 2013 ended up being a very good year for the stock market.

However, there is one group of stocks that tends to suffer – and this might be more relevant this time around. Data from Goldman Sachs, cited by Authers, notes that “the only lasting effect [of CGT hikes] appears to be on momentum stocks”.

That makes sense. Momentum stocks are the ones that have already gone up the most, so there are plenty of gains to crystallise - and they are also the ones where the gains come from capital appreciation rather than income.

So this is another reason to expect the “Great Rotation” to continue. That’s partly because it’s worse news for “hot” stocks than for lagging ones, and partly because it favours income stocks over growth stocks.

If you’re earning enough for CGT to be a big worry, then you are almost certainly someone who has the wherewithal to reshuffle your portfolio to reduce that potential liability. In short, you might well decide to take profits on some of your high-growth stocks and move your money into shares that generate more returns from dividends.

This is not necessarily enough on its own to crush a bull market. But given how expensive the US market is and given the general speculative tone – where people are buying stuff purely because it’s going up – it doesn’t take that much to rattle that confidence.

More specifically, this might be the thing to put a cap on the crypto-frenzy for now. Crypto is as close to pure momentum as you can get, and a lot of people will be sitting on big gains. Bitcoin was already struggling a little, and the CGT news walloped it again yesterday.

It’s now trading around areas where technical analysts are wary. Given the importance of charting in the crypto area, it could turn quite nasty if investors don’t regain their confidence sharpish.

Anyway – we’ll have more on what US tax changes might mean for global markets in upcoming issues of MoneyWeek magazine. You can get your first six issues free here.

John Stepek

John is the executive editor of MoneyWeek and writes our daily investment email, Money Morning. John graduated from Strathclyde University with a degree in psychology in 1996 and has always been fascinated by the gap between the way the market works in theory and the way it works in practice, and by how our deep-rooted instincts work against our best interests as investors.

He started out in journalism by writing articles about the specific business challenges facing family firms. In 2003, he took a job on the finance desk of Teletext, where he spent two years covering the markets and breaking financial news. John joined MoneyWeek in 2005.

His work has been published in Families in Business, Shares magazine, Spear's Magazine, The Sunday Times, and The Spectator among others. He has also appeared as an expert commentator on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, BBC Radio Scotland, Newsnight, Daily Politics and Bloomberg. His first book, on contrarian investing, The Sceptical Investor, was released in March 2019. You can follow John on Twitter at @john_stepek.