The sweeping GOP tax bill includes a provision that would increase tax liabilities for investors looking to exchange bitcoin, ether, and other virtual currencies that have soared in value.

The legislation would eliminate the ability of investors to defer taxes when they exchange one virtual currency for another if the original currency has appreciated in price. The impact stems from a provision in the measure that limits tax deferments for so-called like-kind exchanges of property to only include exchanges of real estate property.

The tax shift comes as the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) ramps up investigations of individual tax returns for potential unreported gains from virtual currencies, also called cryptocurrencies or digital assets.

Previously, some tax specialists and virtual currency investors treated any exchange of one virtual currency for another as a like-kind exchange of property that is not taxable under current tax code, Lisa Zarlenga, a tax attorney and partner at Steptoe & Johnson LLP in Washington, told Bloomberg Law.

Zarlenga said the tax change from the bill would be more widely felt because of skyrocketing increases in the values of cryptocurrencies like bitcoin. The price of the digital asset has traded as high as $20,000 in December after rising from about $1,000 in value in January 2017, according to the data site coinmarketcap.com.

“For virtual currency, it’s huge,“ Zarlenga said. “Now any exchange of virtual currency for virtual currency will be a taxable event.”

The IRS considers virtual currencies to be property subject to capital gains tax rates, according to guidance released by the agency in 2014. It has not issued formal tax guidance on how like-kind property exchanges, detailed under Section 1031 of the Internal Revenue Codeof 1986, apply to cryptocurrencies.

Still, using the tax deferment has been common in the digital asset field, Robert J. Kovacev, a tax attorney and partner at Steptoe & Johnson in Washington, told Bloomberg Law.

“If I want to stay invested in cryptocurrencies, I would be able to change from bitcoin to ether and not have to pay tax until the end when I exit the crypto market,” Kovacev said. “Now, that’s not going to be possible.”

The bill would affect exchanges of digital assets after Dec. 31, 2017.

IRS Scrutiny

The change will have the most impact on individuals who are looking to maximize their investment by trading different cryptocurrencies for each other, Kovacev said.

“Now, I have to calculate what is the price now, what was the price when I bought it,” Kovacev said. “I have to pay capital gains on the difference, even if I’m just buying a different virtual currency.”

The bill would trigger a new emphasis on reporting at a time when the IRS is already increasing its scrutiny of potential tax evasion from cryptocurrency holders, Peter Van Valkenburgh, research director at Coin Center, a blockchain advocacy group, told Bloomberg Law. On Nov. 28, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California ordered a large San Francisco-based virtual currency exchange, Coinbase Inc., to disclose some account holders to the IRS as part of the agency’s investigation into potential tax fraud. United States v. Coinbase Inc., N.D. Cal., 3:17-cv-01431, 11/28/17

Van Valkenburgh pointed to the need for the IRS to issue tax guidance to virtual currency exchanges to streamline the tax reporting process for customers. Coin Center has supported a bill (H.R. 3708) introduced by Rep. David Schweikert (R-Ariz.) that aims to do this, although the legislation did not make it into the larger tax bill.

To contact the reporter on this story: Michaela Ross in Washington at mross@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Keith Perine at kperine@bloomberglaw.com