Offshore Accounts

Why Foreign Banks Are Shunning American Millionaires


Why Foreign Banks Are Shunning American Millionaires

Illustration by Sam Island

Affluent Americans need not apply. That’s what some of the world’s largest wealth management firms are saying in anticipation of Washington’s implementation of the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, which seeks to prevent tax evasion by Americans with offshore accounts. HSBC Holdings (HBC), Deutsche Bank (DB), Bank of Singapore, and DBS Group Holdings (DBS:SP) all say they have turned away business from U.S. clients. The attitude of American regulators is “Draconian,” says Su Shan Tan, head of private banking at Singapore-based DBS, Southeast Asia’s largest lender. “I don’t open U.S. accounts, period.”

The 2010 law, to be phased in starting on Jan. 1, 2013, will mean additional compliance costs for banks and fewer investment options for U.S. citizens living abroad. Known as Fatca, it requires financial institutions based outside the U.S. to obtain and report information about income and interest payments added to the accounts of American clients. The Internal Revenue Service held a hearing on the rules on May 15 and could change some aspects of the law.

No longer a U.S. citizen, Saverin may save on his Facebook tax billJim Spellman/WireImage/Getty ImagesNo longer a U.S. citizen, Saverin may save on his Facebook tax bill

Penalties for not complying will be stiff. Non-U.S. firms that don’t make ­required disclosures will be subject to 30 percent withholding of certain dividends, interest, or proceeds from the sale of assets they or their customers receive from U.S. sources, according to Richard Weisman, Hong Kong-based head of law firm Baker & McKenzie’s global tax practice. “Overwhelmingly, financial institutions outside the U.S. don’t like it, for obvious reasons,” says Weisman, calling the withholding tax a “stick” the U.S. is wielding. “The U.S. is outsourcing a tax-compliance function, which is enormously expensive.”

The U.S. government needs to be tougher on offshore tax crimes than it has been, says U.S. Representative Richard Neal, a Massachusetts Democrat and one of the sponsors of the legislation. Fatca, introduced after Zurich-based UBS (UBS) said in 2009 that it aided tax evasion by Americans and agreed to pay $780 million to avoid prosecution in the U.S., is already helping to improve banking transparency, he says. “The IRS should know what money is being held offshore and for what purpose,” Neal says. “I don’t think there’s anything unreasonable about that.” UBS hasn’t taken U.S. clients at its offshore wealth management units since 2008.

Bank of Singapore, the private-banking arm of Oversea-Chinese Banking Corp., has declined to accept millions of dollars from Americans because it doesn’t want to deal with the regulatory hassle, according to Chief Executive Officer Renato de Guzman. “It’s too complex, too challenging,” he says. “You probably should have a dedicated team to handle them or to understand what can be done or what cannot be done.”

Some U.S. citizens are sidestepping the new tax reporting concerns—and possibly saving money—by renouncing their citizenship. A record 1,780 gave up their U.S. passports last year, compared with 235 in 2008, according to the IRS. One of them was Eduardo Saverin, the billionaire co-founder of Facebook. The move may reduce his tax bill as Facebook completes an initial public offering that values the social network at more than $100 billion. Brazilian-born Saverin is a resident of Singapore.

If Americans choose to bank with a non-U.S. firm such as HSBC, their investment choices are limited. At the HSBC branch in the bank’s Asia regional headquarters in Hong Kong, Americans can only make savings deposits. HSBC decided last July that it would no longer offer wealth management services to Americans from locations outside their home country after tax authorities stepped up a probe of the London-based bank’s U.S. clients. Americans would be “better served” by private bankers in the U.S., Goh Kong Aik, a spokesman for the firm in Singapore, said in an e-mail.

Royal Bank of Canada (RY) says it sees a chance to pick up customers turned away by other banks. “We are one of the few wealth managers to hold a Securities and Exchange Commission license offering U.S.-compliant investment advice in Switzerland and London,” says Barend Janssens, the Singapore-based head of the bank’s wealth management unit for emerging markets. The bank sees “an opportunity in accepting tax-compliant U.S. persons as clients outside of the U.S.”

The growth in wealth in Asia makes it easier for banks to refuse Americans. Asia has the world’s ­fastest-growing number of people with more than $1 million in investable assets, according to a report last year by Bank of America and Capgemini, a management consultant. The number of millionaires in Asia climbed 9.7 percent in 2010, to 3.3 million, higher than the 8.6 percent growth in North America. The combined wealth of Asian millionaires increased to $10.8 trillion, topping Europe for the first time, the report said. At industry meetings he attends in Singapore, not accepting U.S. clients is “quite a prevailing sentiment,” says de Guzman of Bank of Singapore. “We have enough business in Asia, so we don’t want to make our lives too difficult.”

The bottom line: To avoid increased reporting costs and potential penalties, many foreign banks are restricting their dealings with U.S. clients.

Vallikappen is a reporter for Bloomberg News in Singapore.

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