IRS warns Section 475 traders
By Robert A. Green, CPA
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The IRS Chief Counsel (ICC) recently gave auditors advice on challenging Section 475 mark-to-market (MTM) traders trying to game the system with segregated investment positions. Section 475 MTM means ordinary gain or business loss treatment, whereas investment positions are capital gain or loss treatment. It’s important not to mix up the two on tax return filings. If you are unclear on your situation, check with one of our CPAs.
In new IRS Chief Counsel Advice 201432016, the IRS focuses on options created on “basket transactions,” which I feel are rarely used tax avoidance schemes. During the past decade, some very large hedge funds parked their trading activity inside of banks and arranged option transactions with the banks to reclaim their trading profits after year-end. These hedge funds avoided application of Section 475 MTM income on their trading gains during the tax year, and replaced it with an option allowing them tax deferral and long-term capital gains tax rates in the following year(s). They converted 40% ordinary tax rates to 20% capital gains rates and received a tax deferral to boot. Their tax savings from these transactions was in the billions of dollars and it attracted the attention of Congress and the IRS. The hedge funds’ arguments about “economic substance” sound pretty hollow to me in relation to tax savings from this tax avoidance scheme. The IRS wants to treat these segregated option transactions as part of the trader's Section 475 MTM ordinary income trading activities, since they see a connection to those activities (see rules below). To learn more about these schemes, read Hedge Fund Chief Testifies at Senate Tax-Avoidance Hearing (New York Times, July 22, 2014).
There’s a lesson for retail traders using Section 475
We haven’t seen retail traders attempt these complex schemes with bank counterparties. Yet it’s a good time to revisit the segregation rules in Section 475 MTM. It’s a nuanced area of the law and it can have significant consequences on tax returns for business traders who have investments.
All business traders using or considering Section 475 MTM should learn its segregation of investment rules. (One way to prevent this problem is to conduct your business trading activity in an entity separate from individual and IRA investment accounts. The entity has a different taxpayer identification number, so there is no connection in the activity.)
We’ve recommended Section 475 MTM since 1997 when Congress expanded it for traders. The biggest tax benefit is unrestricted business ordinary loss treatment, with taxpayers escaping the onerous rules for wash-sale loss deferrals and the capital loss limitation ($3,000 against ordinary income per year on individual tax returns). Section 475 MTM can be the ticket to receiving huge tax refunds, often on NOL carryback returns.
An example of investments vs. business trades
Many traders want to make long-term investments as well in order to benefit from deferral on taxable income (until sale) and to hold investment securities 12 months for lower long-term capital gains tax rates (currently up to 20% vs. 39.6% the ordinary tax rate on short-term capital gains).
Each year we run into a handful of confusing situations on what’s considered a trading position vs. an investment position. Here’s a common example: A trader may want to house his investment portfolio inside a business trading account for portfolio margining purposes and hyperactively trade stock options around his core investment stock positions.
Suppose a trader holds Apple stock as an investment and trades Apple options for business around it to manage risk. Apple stock and Apple stock options are substantially identical positions for purposes of wash sales and Section 475 MTM. By doing this type of commingling activity, the trader may inadvertently subject his Apple stock investment to Section 475 MTM treatment at year-end, thereby losing deferral on the stock and subjecting his gains to ordinary rates rather than lower long-term capital gains rates.
There are all sorts of scenarios that can come up and in some cases it appears to benefit the taxpayer. It’s important to keep in mind that the IRS is entitled to apply the rules in a way that does not prejudice the government’s position. In the previous example, if the trader had a material loss in the Apple stock held for investment, the IRS is entitled to bar the application of Section 475 on that losing investment position. The IRS can have its cake and can eat it too.
Recap of the segregation of investment position rules
Per Thomson Reuters/Tax & Accounting, “Any securities held by the trader are subject to marking unless they fall within the exception to marking under Code Sec. 475(f)(1)(B). In the case of traders, there is only one exception to marking. Under that exception, two requirements must be met. First, it must be established to IRS's satisfaction that the security has no connection to the activities of such person as a trader. (Code Sec. 475(f)(1)(B)(i)) Second, any such security must be clearly identified in such person's records as being described in Code Sec. 475(f)(1)(B)(i) before the close of the day on which it was acquired, originated or entered into (or such other time as IRS may by regs prescribe). (Code Sec. 475(f)(1)(B)(ii)) An identification that a security is held for investment for financial reporting purposes is not sufficient for Code Sec. 475 purposes. (Rev Rul 97-39, 1997-2 CB 62).
Generally, gains and losses recognized under Code Sec. 475 are ordinary income or loss to a trader that has made an election under Code Sec. 475(f). (Code Sec. 475(d)(3)(A)(i) and Code Sec. 475(f)(1)(D)) However, Code Sec. 475(d)(3)(B) provides exceptions to the automatically ordinary rule under Code Sec. 475(d)(3)(A). If a taxpayer can establish that it held securities as hedges, or that the securities were not held in connection with its trading business, or that a security is improperly identified (see Code Sec. 475(d)(2) ), then gains and losses are not automatically ordinary. (Code Sec. 475(d)(3)(B)(i), Code Sec. 475(d)(3)(B)(ii) and Code Sec. 475(d)(3)(B)(iii)) Character must then be determined by other relevant Code sections.”
Many hedge funds and some traders skip a Section 475 election because they don’t want to be burdened with identifying investments on the time and date of purchase. They establish a trade and may let their profits run and morph the position into an investment position for long-term capital gain and deferral.
How Section 475 MTM and the segregation rules work in practice
A business trader using Section 475 MTM has ordinary gain or loss treatment, plus open business positions are marked-to-market as imputed sales at year-end. On the first day of the subsequent year, the trader imputes a purchase of that same position at the same year-end price.
Duly segregated investment positions are not subject to Section 475 MTM. For example, a business trader organized as a sole proprietor may have a business trading account at Interactive Brokers and a segregated investment account held jointly with his spouse at Fidelity for making long-term investments. Like all professionals, it’s expected that a business trader would have investments, too.
It’s important for the business trader to contemporaneously segregate investment positions from business positions in “form and substance.” Form means a separate account and substance means don’t trade substantially identical positions with business trading positions. While proposed IRS regulations required a separate account, that rule never became final law, so a trader can have investment positions within a business trading account. Just make sure to email yourself contemporaneously when purchasing an investment position. Don’t trade around investment positions with your business positions, as that runs afoul of the substance rule. The lines of distinction can be blurred in some cases and you should consult a trader tax expert about it.
Read Green’s 2014 Trader Tax Guide Chapter 2 on Section 475 MTM to learn more.
Recent trader tax court cases highlight problems with segregation
In recent trader tax court cases covered on our blog, Assaderaghi, Nelson and Endicott, the IRS won denial of trader tax status partially because these option traders did not segregate active option trading from investing in stocks (similar to the example above). However, even if these traders did follow segregation rules and our above guidance, I still don’t think they traded options enough to qualify for trader tax status. They also sought Section 475 MTM ordinary loss treatment on stock investments, which is not possible.
Section 475 MTM is fantastic for most business traders — we call it “tax loss insurance.” But the fine print requires discipline on dealing with investments. It’s best to trade in a separate entity to skip these handcuffs. July 25, 2014
IRS Issues Final Regs on Straddle-by-Straddle Identification
Per TaxAnalysts on July 17, 3014, "The IRS has issued final regulations relating to section 1092 identified mixed straddles established after August 18, 2014, explaining how to account for unrealized gain or loss on a position held by a taxpayer before the time the taxpayer establishes a mixed straddle using straddle-by-straddle identification. (T.D. 9678)."
Straddle rules are very complex. We suggest a consultation with our tax attorney. June 20, 2014
Tax treatment for Nadex binary options
The Section 1256 club is hard to get into: Nadex binary options don’t seem to qualify. Nadex issues 1099Bs with 1256 tax breaks and we don't think they have a basis in doing so.
By Robert A. Green, CPA, and Mark Feldman, tax attorney
There’s a bevy of financial instruments to trade on securities and futures exchanges around the world, and derivatives and swaps exchanges offering binary options and swap contracts are increasingly becoming part of the mix. How are these unique instruments treated come tax-time? Can they be considered Section 1256? Let’s delve into binary options and swaps in more detail. (For more background on Section 1256 and its qualified board or exchange requirement, see the previous post, “Tax treatment for foreign futures.”)
Dodd-Frank changed the law
A principal focus of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act law enacted in July 2010 is better regulation and control of the several-hundred-trillion-dollar derivatives and swaps marketplace. Dodd-Frank requires many privately negotiated derivatives and swaps contracts to clear on derivatives and swaps exchanges to insure collection of margin and to prevent another financial crisis. Remember, AGI wrote too many derivatives and swaps contracts, which it did not have sufficient capital or margin to pay out when markets melted down and counterparties demanded payment in 2008.
Dodd-Frank synchronized regulation and tax law, requiring the IRS to exclude swap contracts from Section 1256. Although Congress required private derivative contracts to clear on Section 1256 exchanges, it didn’t want to reward derivatives contracts with Section 1256 tax advantages.
Before Dodd-Frank, the CFTC had more leeway in designating instruments as “options.” According to a CFTC lawsuit, the CFTC used a limited definition of what constituted an option; e.g. it trades like an option (more on this lawsuit later). According to a CFTC official, “After Dodd-Frank, unless the option expires into a futures contract, the CFTC categorizes it as a swap contract. If the contract expires into cash, it’s a swap contract.”
Regulators don’t drive tax treatment
The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) regulates securities and the IRS treats sales of securities with short-term and long-term capital gain/loss tax treatment based on realized gains subject to wash sale loss deferral rules. The Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) regulates commodities, futures, forex and derivatives and the IRS has varying tax treatment for these different types of financial instruments.
Regulated futures contracts and nonequity options are Section 1256 contracts afforded lower 60/40 capital gains tax rates with MTM accounting reporting realized and unrealized gains and losses at year-end (reported on Form 6781).
If an investor sells physical commodities, capital gain/loss treatment applies and there is no MTM. Conversely, if a farmer sells physical commodities, ordinary treatment applies, but again, there is no MTM.
Forex (interbank spot and forward contracts) falls under Section 988 ordinary gain and loss on realized transactions. Traders may file a contemporaneous “capital gains election” to opt out of Section 988, whereas manufacturers may not. (Read our Jan. 29, 2011 blog “Spot Forex Tax Update,” where we discuss Section 1256g foreign currency contracts).
Notional principal contracts defined as two or more periodic payments — commonly called swaps — receive ordinary gain or loss treatment and MTM accounting applies. (Read our September 2012 blog “Tax treatment for swaps”.)
IRS proposed regulations on swaps
In connection with Dodd-Frank, the IRS issued proposed regulations “Notice of Proposed Rulemaking and Notice of Public Hearing Swap Exclusion for Section 1256 Contracts” (REG-111283-11) on Oct. 17, 2011. Excerpts are provided below, with our notes in italics:
• Summary: .. describe swaps and similar agreements that fall within the meaning of section 1256(b)(2)(B). This document also contains proposed regulations that revise the definition of a notional principal contract under §1.446-3 (Note that swaps generally fall within the definition of “Notional Principal Contracts”.)
• Dodd-Frank Act added section 1256(b)(2)(B), which excludes swaps and similar agreements from the definition of a section 1256 contract. Section 1256(b)(2)(B) provides that the term “section 1256 contract” shall not include— any interest rate swap, currency swap, basis swap, interest rate cap, interest rate floor, commodity swap, equity swap, equity index swap, credit default swap, or similar agreement. (All swaps are effectively excluded.)
• Congress enacted section 1256(b)(2)(B) to resolve uncertainty under section 1256 for swap contracts that are traded on regulated exchanges. .. increased exchange-trading of derivatives contracts by clarifying that section 1256 of the Internal Revenue Code does not apply to certain derivatives contracts transacted on exchanges. (Nadex binary options trade on a regulated exchange.)
• Option on a notional principal contract
Section 1256(b)(2)(B) raises questions as to whether an option on a notional principal contract that is traded on a qualified board or exchange would constitute a “similar agreement” or would instead be treated as a nonequity option under section 1256(g)(3). Since an option on a notional principal contract is closely connected with the underlying contract, the Treasury Department and the IRS believe that such an option should be treated as a similar agreement within the meaning of section 1256(b)(2)(B). (If a Nadex binary option were deemed an option on a NPC, it would be excluded as a NPC per this rule.)
• Ordering rule
The proposed regulations provide an ordering rule for a contract that trades as a futures contract regulated by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), but that also meets the definition of a notional principal contract. The Treasury Department and the IRS believe that such a contract is not a commodity futures contract of the kind envisioned by Congress when it enacted section 1256. (We don’t think the IRS will view Nadex binary options as a futures contract; therefore, will view it as a NPC.)
• Definition of Regulated Futures Contract (RFC)
Section 1256(g)(1) defines a regulated futures contract as “a contract (A) with respect to which the amount required to be deposited and the amount which may be withdrawn depends on a system of marking to market, and (B) which is traded on or subject to the rules of a qualified board or exchange.” The apparent breadth of section 1256(g)(1) has raised questions in the past as to whether a contract other than a futures contract can be a regulated futures contract. (The IRS is trying to clean up some loose definitions in the past.)
Trading binary options on Nadex
The derivatives exchange based in the U.S. is the North American Derivatives Exchange (Nadex) which offers retail traders an online trading platform for limited-risk “binary options and spread contracts” based on stock indices, commodities, forex and financial events. Make a speculation and hold it through expiration for an “all or nothing” pay off, which some pundits say is akin to making a bet. Or trade the contract before expiration to cash it in at the current market price fluctuating on Nadex. Most Nadex contracts settle in one hour or one day, and the rest settle in a week or longer.
There is active trading on the Nadex platform/exchange similar to trading platforms on securities and futures exchanges. A trader may not notice much difference, but there are important differences in regulation and tax treatment.
Nadex issued 1099Bs using Section 1256 treatment
For tax years 2004 through 2013, Nadex issued direct members a Form 1099-B reporting Section 1256 tax treatment.
As pointed out in our first blog in this series, Nadex is a domestic board of trade — a category 2 qualified board or exchange (QBE) since it’s a CFTC-regulated "Designated Contract Market". But that alone is not enough; Nadex binary options still must meet the definition of Section 1256 contracts. In February 2014, Nadex emailed us the following statement: “Nadex has recently been advised by staff of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission that its instruments are considered ‘commodity options’ categorized as ‘swaps.’”
We feel that Nadex binary options probably do not qualify for Section 1256
Nadex binary options don’t seem to meet the definition of inclusion in Section 1256 as either a regulated futures contract or a nonequity option, and they seem to meet the definition of exclusion from Section 1256 as a swap contract.
Nadex binary options don’t meet the definition of Section 1256 for “regulated futures contract” (RFC). A Nadex binary option requires full payment in advance — it’s not collateral — and there is no withdrawals based on MTM. Nadex binary options are prepaid bets. There seems to be consensus on this point.
Nadex binary options probably do not meet the definition of Section 1256 for “nonequity options” as they don’t seem to meet the definition of “options” in the tax code (Section 1234a) (see further discussion below). We haven’t seen a private letter ruling, tax opinion letter or tax research supporting a nonequity option argument for Nadex binary options.
Nadex binary options probably are excluded from Section 1256 as swap contracts. The CFTC said they are “commodity options” categorized as swaps. Dodd Frank law enacted Section 1256(b)(2)(B) into law effective July 2011. Section 1256(b)(2)(B) excludes swap contracts from Section 1256 tax breaks. Proposed regs for Section 1256(b)(2)(B) are not yet effective and they define swaps based on the IRS definition of “notional principal contracts” (NPC). NPC normally require two payments whereas Nadex binary options have one payment. The difference between one versus two payments does not seem material to us.
The IRS proposed regulation excludes all notional principal contracts (swaps) from Section 1256. But, the IRS received many comments arguing that exchange-traded swap contracts, as opposed to off-exchange OTC swaps, should not be excluded since the commenters believed they had Section 1256 tax treatment before Dodd-Frank. Until the final regulation 1256(b)(2)(B) is issued, we won’t know the final outcome. Nadex binary options are exchange-traded swaps, not OTC. Even if in final IRS regulations Nadex binary options are not excluded as exchange-traded swaps, they still must qualify as a non-equity option and we don’t think they do.
We suggested to Nadex that they file for a private letter ruling to support using Section 1256 on 1099Bs for Nadex binary option transactions.
CFTC definition of “option”
The Nadex email says the CFTC referred to their binary options as “commodity options.” They are bets that rise or fall based on an underlying market or financial event, they are based on option pricing models and they trade like options. Before Dodd-Frank, the CFTC could use this narrow definition. The issue of whether binary options are “options” in accordance with CFTC regulation came up in court in 2013. As reported on Goodwingaming, “The binary option trading platform Banc de Binary currently faces a civil lawsuit in the District of Nevada brought by the CFTC for allegedly violating ‘the Commission’s ban on trading options off-exchange.’ The regulatory authority of the CFTC covers ‘options’ which are adroitly defined as ‘transaction(s) .. . held out to be of the character of, or . . commonly known to the trade as option(s).’” The defendant argued their binary options are not options per the CFTC’s full regulatory definition. The CFTC argued that only the first part of the definition counts: “What makes an option an option is the first of these three components — price speculation.” This sounds similar to Nadex’s options pricing.
“In a parallel lawsuit brought by the Securities and Exchange Commission, Judge Robert Jones (District of Nevada) agreed, explaining: With a binary option, . . . the purchaser receives neither the stock itself nor the right to purchase the stock in the future. Binary options are in substance pure gambling bets. . . . Binary option givers and buyers do not purport to trade interests in securities any more than tellers and gamblers at a racetrack purport to trade interests in horses. . . . The Court simply cannot agree that a contract under which the purchaser has no putative right to obtain the security is an ‘option.’”
IRS definitions of “option” is different
The tax code definition of an option sounds like the SEC argument rather than the CFTC argument in the above court cases. The main problem with saying that a Nadex binary option is a nonequity option for Section 1256 is that there is no right to receive property, or alternatively to receive cash equal to the right to receive property (in the case of a cash settled option).
Tax court cases and very limited IRS guidance
Industry professionals equate binary options with “digital options” and “paired options.” These terms came up in just a few tax court cases, which are about tax avoidance, not options. We don’t see any statements in these cases that indicate the court viewed binary options as true options. Section 1256 tax treatment is not used on binary options in any of these tax court cases. These cases do not connect the dots for supporting a Section 1256 position.
In The Markell Company, Inc. v. Commissioner, TC Memo 2014-86, “taxpayer/partner wasn't entitled to multimillion dollar loss on complicated basis-inflating paired options/Son of BOSS (tax shelter) transaction using newly formed LLC/partnership.”..”Paired Options. The paired options in this case consisted of short and long European digital call options. These cash-or-nothing options can be valued by multiplying the present value of the cash payoff amount by the probability calculated from the Black-Scholes-Merton (BSM) model that the digital option will be in the money at the expiration date.” While Markell used paired options, the case is about tax avoidance transactions based on purposely mispricing paired options. (This case does provide tax guidance for treating binary options based on currencies as Section 988 ordinary gain or loss. There is a connection between the binary option and the underlying instrument it’s meant to mimic in price.)
In Douglas R. Griffin, (TC Memo 2011-61), “HydroTemp timely filed a return for the tax year ending June 30, 2003, reporting a $7,524,153 long-term capital gain from the asset sale to Pentair and a $7 million short-term capital loss from the sale of binary options (i.e., options in which the payoff is structured to be either a fixed amount of compensation if the option expires in the money or nothing at all if the option expires out of the money). .. IRS's position. IRS disallowed HydroTemp's losses from its claimed binary options sale.” In this case, the court accepted the binary option transactions as legitimate and the taxpayer won the case. (This case may provide tax guidance for treating the sale of binary options before they expire as being capital gain or loss on realized transactions; however, the IRS attorneys did not seem to have focused on the tax treatment of the options, but simply questioned the legitimacy of the transaction . When terminating a binary option short of expiration, perhaps capital gains and loss treatment is applicable, as discussed below.)
In an IRS Coordinated Issue Paper explaining IRS Notice 2003-81 (Tax Shelters), ,the IRS discusses “option premium” on binary options. “Gain and loss on options is accounted for on an open transaction basis. As explained in Notice 2003-81, the justification for open transaction treatment is that the gain or loss on an option cannot be finally accounted for until such time as the option is terminated. Thus, premium income is not recognized until an option is sold or terminated. Rev. Rul. 58-234.… explains that this is the treatment for the option writer because the option writer assumes a burdensome and continuing obligation, and the transaction therefore stays open without any ascertainable income or gain until the writer's obligation is finally terminated. When the option writer's obligation terminates, the transaction closes, and the option writer must recognize any income or gain attributable to the prior receipt of the option premium.” This should be the rule for the receipt of option premium whether the instrument is truly an option or not. This IRS guidance seems weak for building a case that a binary option is treated as a true option and therefore a nonequity option in Section 1256. (In Notice 2003-81, the binary options discussed were based on foreign currency transactions and Section 988 ordinary gain or loss on realized transactions applied by default on the binary options, not Section 1256.)
Tax compliance and planning
In general, we think binary options start off with ordinary gain or loss treatment. In Highwood Partners v. Commissioner (133 TC 1, 2009), digital options based on currency transactions were Section 988 ordinary gain or loss treatment. If you have a Nadex 1099B reporting Section 1256 treatment from binary options based on currencies, you should use Section 988 ordinary gain or loss treatment and not Section 1256, thereby overriding the 1099B.
Swap tax treatment calls for ordinary gain or loss tax treatment, too. Ordinary losses can generate large tax refunds since traders are not subject to the $3,000 capital loss limitation. Caution, large ordinary losses without qualification for trader tax status (business treatment) can lead to some wasted losses and wasted itemized deductions; as those ordinary losses are not a capital loss carryover or a net operating loss carryback or forward.
When a trader sells a Nadex binary option (not based on currency) before expiration, the IRS may view the proceeds as a “termination payment” on the sale of a capital asset, rather than a “period payment” on a swap contract. Normally, termination payments on capital assets are capital gains.
Roger Lorence tax attorney and Darren Neuschwander CPA contributed to this blog. June 19, 2014
IRS softens its stance for some taxpayers with undeclared offshore accounts
File FBAR by June 30 or face huge penalties. The IRS just relaxed penalties on inadvertent omissions but stiffened penalties for evaders.
By Robert A. Green, CPA
IRS pressure and new Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) rules taking effect July 1, 2014 are intimidating Swiss banks into breaking their sworn legal promise of bank secrecy. Foreign banks are forcing American clients to turn themselves in to the IRS before the bank does so. Turning yourself in on time can lead to lower (but still very significant) penalties and no jail time.
After too many horror stories (see “Expatriate Americans Break Up With Uncle Sam to Escape Tax Rules”) about normal middle-class Americans getting caught up in this tax dragnet, the IRS changed its rules to catch and release the smaller fish. See the IRS news release “IRS Changing Offshore Programs to Ease Burdens, Increase Compliance”(IR-2014-73). Here's the new IRS program:
The WSJ 6/18 article “IRS Eases Up on Accidental Tax Cheats” says “The Internal Revenue Service is sharply increasing the penalties on U.S. taxpayers who hide assets abroad, while lowering or eliminating fines on taxpayers if their failure to disclose offshore accounts was unintentional, the agency said Wednesday.”
If you want to learn more about these IRS programs, consider a consultation with our tax attorney who is an expert in this area and has handled many cases successfully. Attorney-client privilege will apply.
Update about OVDI: Under transition rules, a taxpayer who entered OVDP before July 1 is entitled to use Streamlined even without opting out of OVDP. On or after July 1, a taxpayer must choose between Streamlined and OVDP and cannot opt out of one into the other. Therefore, a taxpayer who is unsure whether he would be considered negligent or willful should weigh entering OVDP before July 1. Non-willful conduct is conduct that is due to negligence, inadvertence, or mistake or conduct that is the result of a good faith misunderstanding of the requirements of the law.
File your 2013 FBAR reports by June 30, 2014
Taxpayers with foreign accounts whose aggregate value exceeded $10,000 at any time during 2013 must file a Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) Form 114, Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts. This form replaces TD F 90-22.1.It’s due to the Treasury Department by June 30, 2014, must be filed electronically and is only available online through the BSA E-Filing System website: http://bsaefiling.fincen.treas.gov/NoRegFBARFiler.html
See our earlier blogs on FBAR:
FBAR Deadline & Foreign Financial Asset Reporting Form 8938 Update (June 12, 2012)
Bitcoin is not reported on 2013 FBARs (June 6, 2014)