At first glance, July 24, 2015, seems to have been a brutal trading day for Steve Ballmer, the former Microsoft CEO. He dumped hundreds of stocks, losing at least $28 million.
But this was no panicked sell-off. Among the stocks Ballmer sold were those of the Australian mining company BHP and the global oil giant Shell. Had Ballmer lost confidence in BHP’s management? Was he betting that the price of oil would not soon recover? Not at all. That very day, Ballmer also bought thousands of shares in BHP and Shell.
Why would he sell and buy shares in the same companies on the same day? The answer is counterintuitive to the average person but obvious to a sophisticated investor: A loss, for tax purposes, is valuable; a big one can wipe out millions in potential taxes. Ballmer’s two-step process allowed him to use the loss to lower his taxes, while the near-simultaneous purchase meant he effectively hadn’t changed his investment.
Since 1921, claiming tax losses from so-called wash sales — selling shares of a company then buying them again within a short period — has been forbidden. But Ballmer collected his losses anyway because, technically, the types of shares he bought and sold weren’t the same.
Both Shell and BHP offered two different versions of their common stock. For each company, the two stocks were legally distinct, but they performed very similarly because, after all, they were shares in the same company.
Ballmer’s not-so-bad day, in fact, was carefully planned, part of a strategy by Goldman Sachs, which conducted the trades on Ballmer’s behalf, to wield the stock market’s natural volatility to the billionaire’s advantage. At Goldman, the hundreds of stocks in Ballmer’s “Tax Advantaged Loss Harvesting” accounts were selected to follow the movement of the broader markets. Over