Tax Loss Harvesting and Crystalizing Capital Gains

Christopher Bowlby - Dec 01, 2023
Tax loss harvesting and crystallizing capital gains are powerful tools in an investor's arsenal. When strategically employed, they can significantly mitigate tax burdens and enhance overall investment efficiency.

Going into the end of the year, there are two tax strategies that are used by investors depending on the capital gains position, tax loss harvesting and crystallizing capital gains. These strategies give investors the ability to optimize tax liabilities, balancing investment growth with tax efficiency. This post explores how these strategies can be integrated to maximize financial potential.


Tax Loss Harvesting

Tax loss harvesting is a practical strategy used by investors to optimize their tax situation. Contrary to popular belief, it's not reserved for the wealthy but is accessible to all investors managing non-registered accounts. By selling investments at a loss, you can offset capital gains, thereby reducing your taxable income.


Understanding Tax Loss Harvesting: Tax loss harvesting involves selling investments at a loss in non-registered accounts. When an asset is sold for less than its original cost, it incurs a capital loss. These losses can offset capital gains from the past (up to three years back), the present, or future years. This strategy is particularly useful for reorganizing your investment portfolio or saving on taxes​​.

Tax Loss Harvesting in Action: Imagine you own a stock purchased for $100,000, now valued at $90,000. By selling this investment, you realize a $10,000 capital loss. Subsequently, you can immediately invest in a similar, but not identical, fund to avoid the CRA's superficial loss rule. This approach allows you to stay invested in the market while harvesting a capital loss, which can be applied against any capital gains​​.


When to Use Tax Loss Harvesting: Though tax loss harvesting can be done anytime, it's often most beneficial towards the year's end, when investors assess their portfolios and tax positions. It's a suitable strategy during market downturns or when restructuring investments, like switching to a more cost-effective fund. The harvested losses can then offset capital gains, reducing the overall tax burden​​.


Deadlines and Asset Types for Tax Loss Harvesting: Be aware of year-end deadlines due to trade settlement times. Also, remember that tax loss harvesting is applicable to assets like stocks, bonds, mutual funds, and ETFs in non-registered accounts. It's not applicable to tax-sheltered accounts (RRSP, TFSA, etc.) or your primary residence. An effective strategy might involve selling depreciated non-registered investments to offset capital gains from other assets, like rental property​​.


Crystalizing Capital Gains

Crystallizing a capital gain involves deliberately selling an asset to realize the gain. This might seem counterintuitive, but there are valid reasons for this strategy. One primary reason is capitalizing on a year when you're in a lower tax bracket, perhaps due to unemployment, parental leave, or early retirement. By crystallizing gains during such periods, you can reduce the tax burden compared to doing so in higher-income years.


Additionally, investors might crystallize gains to offset them with capital losses. For example, if you have unrealized gains and equal losses, selling assets to realize both can minimize your net taxable gain, leading to a more favorable tax situation​​.


Deferring Capital Gains

On the flip side, deferring capital gains – not selling the asset – postpones the tax liability to a future date. This approach can be particularly advantageous for high-income earners. For instance, an investor nearing retirement with significant unrealized gains might choose to defer selling assets until post-retirement, when their income, and consequently their tax rate, drops. This deferral strategy can lead to substantial tax savings, especially for large portfolios.


Upon an investor’s death, non-registered assets are deemed sold, and any incurred capital gains are added to the final tax return. Hence, deciding between crystallizing gains now or deferring them to a later stage is a critical component of effective tax planning​​.



Tax loss harvesting and crystallizing capital gains are powerful tools in an investor's arsenal. When strategically employed, they can significantly mitigate tax burdens and enhance overall investment efficiency. Whether you’re aiming to capitalize on market downturns or optimize your tax situation in lower-income years, understanding these strategies can lead to more informed decisions and improved financial outcomes. As always, consulting with a financial advisor can provide tailored advice, ensuring these approaches align with your broader financial goals.