It would have been a dull headline just a few years ago. But times have changed. A growing number of investment firms won’t accept U.S. expats.
Interactive Brokers is now an island in a sea of capsizing boats. Fortunately, they allow American expats to build portfolios of low-cost index funds. Other viable choices, once plentiful, now languish in the water.
Here’s why. The U.S. Foreign Account Compliance Act (FATCA) came into effect on January 1, 2013. It was designed to combat tax evasion. But it also created additional reporting and withholding requirements for U.S. based investment firms. The Interactive Brokers’ website states, “Rather than comply with these new regulations, many U.S. based brokers have been closing or freezing the brokerage accounts belonging to U.S. expats.”
Interactive Brokers (IB) is picking up the pieces–and plenty of the business. Schwab, for example, won’t allow Singapore-based Americans to open new accounts. Singapore joins a growing list of countries on the firm’s “can’t serve” list. E*Trade recently closed their doors to Americans in Thailand. They, too, keep adding restrictions. Vanguard stopped American expats from opening new accounts. In 2014, Fidelity slammed the door on U.S. expats who wanted to buy their mutual funds.
When Americans try to open a foreign-based investment account they usually get turned down. That means they can’t walk into a Swiss bank and invest their money. But some foreign investment firms do accept U.S. expats. Many of them are based on the Isle of Man. These are Trojan Horses. Fees are high. The portfolios aren’t often diversified. Investors can’t withdraw money before a pre-selected date. Such accounts also attract monstrous tax penalties. Foreign financial advisors who claim otherwise should be hung from their lips.
David Kuenzi is a CFP with Thun Financial Advisors in Madison, Wisconsin. He says that the IRS taxes all Passive Foreign Investment Company accounts (PFICs) at 39.6 percent. That includes capital gains and dividends. It’s the highest ordinary income tax rate. “In some cases,” he says, “the total tax on a PFIC investment may rise to well above 50 percent.” Americans who don’t declare such accounts commit tax evasion.
If you are new to investing Interactive Brokers (IB) won’t hold your hand. They simply execute investment trades. But they make it cheap to build and rebalance a portfolio of low cost exchange traded funds (ETFs). Expats with at least $10,000 USD can open an account. Barron’s rated IB the lowest cost U.S. broker for the 15th straight year. On the firm’s website, they’re vying for expat business.
Interactive Brokers charges as little as $1 per trade. But IB wants to make at least $10 per month for accounts that are valued at less than $100,000. For such accounts, IB charges a minimum $10 per month, whether the investor trades or not. For accounts valued above $100,000, only trading fees apply.
Vanguard’s Total World Stock ETF (VT) charges fees of just 0.14 percent per year. It also provides exposure to U.S. and foreign stocks. The weightings are
based on global market capitalization. For example, the U.S. is the world’s biggest stock market. That’s why it makes up about 54 percent of the fund’s holdings. European stocks make up about 22 percent; Asian and Australian stocks make up almost 19 percent.
Vanguard’s Total Bond Market ETF (BND) adds stability. It represents a broad selection of U.S. bonds with expenses that total just 0.06 percent per year. With just two ETFs, investors would have a fully diversified portfolio.
A cautious investor might have 55 percent in the global stock market index (VT) with 45 percent invested in the U.S. bond index (BND). Working expats should be investing every month. At the beginning of each month or quarter, they could see which of their ETFs lagged the other over the previous 30 days. That’s the one to buy. This helps to maintain the chosen asset allocation.
At the end of the calendar year, if the allocation is slightly out of whack, the investor could rebalance, bringing the portfolio back to its original allocation.
Younger investors can afford to take higher risk, for the hopes of higher long-term returns. That’s why they should commit more money to the stock market index (VT). Many older investors seek more stability. Below, I’ve listed some sample allocations based on risk tolerance.
Sample Portfolio Allocations
|Fund Name||Fund Code||Conservative||Cautious||Balanced||Assertive||Aggressive|
|Vanguard’s Total World Stock ETF||VT||30%||55%||60%||75%||100%|
|Vanguard’s Total Bond Market ETF||BND||70%||45%||40%||25%||0%|
Many investors, however, fear investing on their own. Fortunately, they can find some low-cost guides. One is PlanVision’s Mark Zoril. He helps U.S. expats use Interactive Brokers. “Our firm charges just $96 a year,” he says. I set up video conference sessions to discuss the process and I help clients complete the transactions. During our video sessions, we also do screen sharing so I can provide instruction.”
Robert Wasilewski, of RW Investment Strategies, offers something similar. Most of his clients already have accounts with Schwab or Vanguard. But he says his clients shouldn’t be surprised if their accounts get closed. That’s why he’s ready to work with Interactive Brokers.
“I do sessions on Skype that typically last about 75 minutes. I charge $160 per session and most people are doing their own investing after 1 or 2 sessions.” Wasilewski also manages portfolios. He charges 0.4 percent per year for accounts valued up to $1 million and 0.3 percent on the amounts above $1 million.
I’ve received gushing praise about both advisors. They both use combinations of low-cost index funds or ETFs.
U.S. based brokerages keep shutting doors on American expats. That bodes well for Interactive Brokers and the advisors who can lend a hand.
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.