A couple of months ago, an American woman living in Singapore sent me an email. “I have investments with Morgan Stanley in the U.S.,” she wrote. “I have done business with them for years. But my broker says he can no longer do business with US citizens who live in Singapore.”
One of my American friends lives in Thailand. For the past 15 years, he has invested with TDAmeritrade. They recently sent him an email. It was emphasized in bold. “On February 5, 2015, TD Ameritrade, Inc. will no longer offer brokerage services in your area…you will need to take action by February 5 to close your TD Ameritrade account…If you have not taken action by February 5, 2015, we will liquidate the account and mail a check for your account balance to your address of record.”
These aren’t the only U.S. based investment firms that have closed doors to American expats. In 2014, The Wall Street Journal’s Laura Saunders wrote, Fidelity Bans U.S. Investors Overseas From Buying Mutual Funds. Before 2007, American expats could open accounts with Vanguard. Today, they can’t.
American investors who live abroad now have fewer places to turn. There are low cost brokerages overseas. In Singapore, for example, expatriates and locals can use brokerages such as DBS Vickers, Standard Chartered, and Saxo Capital Markets. But they’re off limits to Americans. This frustrates many. But it makes sense. The United States is one of the few countries in the world that taxes its citizens on worldwide income. My wife, for example, was born in Pennsylvania. She hasn’t lived in the United States for 25 years. But like other U.S. expats, she still has to file U.S. taxes on the income that she makes abroad.
FATCA, the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, became law in 2010. That means every American abroad must also declare all foreign bank accounts to the IRS.
Many foreign countries charge low (or no) capital gains taxes. Inviting U.S. expats to foreign trading accounts could upset the IRS–especially if the money isn’t declared. That’s why many foreign brokerages won’t allow Americans.
Closing U.S.-based brokerage doors to expats, however, forces some people to climb into basement windows. Many build offshore portfolios through firms like Friends Provident International, Zurich International Life, Generali and Royal London 360. Such firms still welcome everyone. Many are located on the Isle of Man. It's a low-tax haven.
But for Americans, these companies are like three-pronged hooks. When adding up platform fees and fund costs, investors pay 4 percent or more in annual fees. That’s 17 times more than Vanguard charges for its balanced index fund. It’s also about twice the annual yield on typical U.S. asset-based portfolios. So you are literally paying significant principal for the privilege of having an investment account.
Investors who catch on to the high cost burden find themselves stuck. In many cases, they can’t sell (penalty free) before a predetermined date. That could be 25 years away.
The IRS also whacks these investors. Tony Noto is a Certified Financial Planner (CFP) who started his business in Shanghai, China. Now based in Hawaii, he’s a specialist with American expatriates. He says, “Americans are usually best served avoiding offshore investments such as offshore pensions and foreign domiciled investment funds, due to disadvantages like PFIC [Passive Foreign Investment Companies] tax treatment and increased reporting requirements.”
David Kuenzi, is a CFP with Thun Financial Advisors in Madison, Wisconsin. He says that the IRS taxes all PFIC gains (capital gains and dividends) at 39.6 percent. That’s the highest ordinary income tax rate. “In some cases, the total tax on a PFIC investment may rise to well above 50 percent.”
So what’s the solution? I called U.S. brokerages such as Scottrade, eTrade, Capital One and Schwab. The first three said that they don’t want expats. Schwab was fickle. A couple of years ago, Americans in Singapore could open accounts with Schwab. That’s not true today. Schwab’s list of banned countries keeps getting larger. Last week, a Schwab employee read out their “Focus Country List” to me. It’s like a blinking set of traffic lights. Each year, it flashes a lot more red than green. Americans residing in Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Japan, Korea, Austria, Portugal, France, Italy, Luxembourg, Greece, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Kuwait (to name just 16) can’t open a U.S. based account with Schwab.
One firm, however, seems to keep flashing green. Interactive Brokers. They accept U.S. expats clients from just about anywhere. Interactive Brokers is an American discount brokerage. They won’t hold your hand or give financial planning advice. They will, however, let you build a low cost portfolio of exchange-traded funds. Trading commissions are also low.
Not to be left in the dust by Interactive Brokers, TDAmeritrade Asia now has an office in Singapore. They offer American expats, who live in Singapore, access to stocks and ETFs that trade on U.S. markets. At this point, they don’t offer brokerage opportunities for Americans who live elsewhere. But their Director of Education and Trading Products, Victor Jones, says that one day they might. “We aren’t ruling any locations out in the future and are evaluating opportunities to offer our services throughout Southeast Asia for both citizens and expats.”
As some doors shut, others appear to be opening.
Andrew Hallam is a Digital Nomad. He’s the author of the bestseller, Millionaire Teacher and The Global Expatriate's Guide to Investing: From Millionaire Teacher to Millionaire Expat.