What Is an Unrealized Gain?

An unrealized gain is a potential profit that exists on paper, resulting from an investment. It is an increase in the value of an asset that has yet to be sold for cash, such as a stock position that has increased in value but still remains open. A gain becomes realized once the position is sold for a profit.

Key Takeaways

  • An unrealized gain is a theoretical profit that exists on paper, resulting from an investment that has not yet been sold for cash.
  • Unrealized gains are recorded on the financial statements differently depending on the type of security.
  • Gains do not affect taxes until the investment is sold and a realized gain is recognized.
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Unrealized Gain

How an Unrealized Gain Works

An unrealized gain occurs when the current price of a security is higher than the price the investor initially paid for the security, net of brokerage fees. Many investors calculate the current value of their investment portfolios based on unrealized values. In general, capital gains are taxed only when they are sold and become realized.

When unrealized gains present, it usually means an investor believes the investment has room for higher future gains. Otherwise, he would sell now and recognize the current gain. Additionally, unrealized gains sometimes come about because holding an investment for an extended time period lowers the tax burden of the gain.

For example, if an investor holds a stock for longer than one year, his tax rate is reduced to the long-term capital gains tax. Further, if an investor wants to move the capital gains tax burden to another tax year, he can sell the stock in January of a proceeding year, rather than selling in the current year.

Recording Unrealized Gains

Unrealized gains are recorded differently depending on the type of security. Securities that are held-to-maturity are not recorded in the financial statements, but the company may decide to include a disclosure about them in the footnotes to the financial statements. Securities that are held-for-trading are recorded on the balance sheet at their fair value, and the unrealized gains and losses are recorded on the income statement.

Therefore, the increase or decrease in fair value of held-for-trading securities impacts the company's net income and its earnings-per-share (EPS). Securities that are available-for-sale are also recorded on a company's balance sheet as an asset at fair value. However, the unrealized gains and losses are recorded in comprehensive income on the balance sheet.

Example of an Unrealized Gain

If an investor purchased 100 shares of stock in ABC Company at $10 per share, and the fair value of the shares subsequently rises to $12 per share, the unrealized gain on the shares still in his possession would be $200 ($2 per share * 100 shares). If the investor eventually sells the shares when the trading price is $14, he will have a realized gain of $400 ($4 per share * 100 shares).

Unrealized Gain vs. Unrealized Loss

The opposite of an unrealized gain is an unrealized loss. This type of loss occurs when an investor holds onto a losing investment, such as a stock that has dropped in value since the position was opened. Similar to an unrealized gain, a loss becomes realized once the position is closed for a loss.

Unrealized gains and unrealized losses are often called "paper" profits or losses since the actual gain or loss is not determined until the position is closed. A position with an unrealized gain may eventually turn into a position with an unrealized loss as the market fluctuates, and vice versa.