What are the best investment options for South African expats in 2021 and what is the new expat tax? That will be the topic of today’s article.
In other articles, I have written about expatriates investing in both their local and home economies.
Bear in mind that I am not a tax advisor, and this therefore shouldn’t be considered formal tax advice, although I do have plenty of knowledge about how taxes and investments go together.
In the first part of this article, I’ll lead you through what you need to know about the South African tax regime if you are a citizen of the republic living and working overseas.
The next part of the article will focus on the sort of investment opportunities you can take advantage of as a South African expat.
After all, plenty of South Africans make their living in other countries.
According to recent census data, the largest number of South Africans living overseas reside in the UK, followed by a similar number in Australia. After that, it is the United States, New Zealand and Canada that has the greatest populations of expats.
That said, you can find a South African community in most EU states as well as across Africa, with Namibia, Swaziland and Malawi being significant examples of countries where numerous expats live.
Regardless of where you live, as a South African citizen, you need to know how the tax laws will affect you if you retain assets at home or want to return to your homeland in the future.
If you want more personalised advice on tax and investments as a South African expat, then don’t hesitate to email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or WhatsApp me.
South African Tax Changes in 2020
Firstly, it is important to note that significant changes were made to the tax regulations in South Africa earlier this year. Although the Income Tax Act has been fully enacted for a while, an amendment to the 2017 law came in as recently as March.
Some South African expats I have talked to have been working under the misunderstanding that the law has stayed the same but it has not.
The 2020 amendment means that the South African Revenue Service (SARS) will now operate differently in its dealings with many expats.
So, what is going on? Firstly, the amendment is designed to harmonise the tax regime for South Africans working at home with those working overseas.
It will impact on any expatriate earning over a million rand a year, that’s about £45,000 or $60,000.
Before the rule changes, any South African who spent a minimum of 183 days outside of the country a year – so long as this included at least on continuous 60-day period – was not liable to pay income tax in the country.
In essence, this tax exemption has been removed in law. Expats are now considered to be South Africans in terms of the tax issue even if they have lived overseas for years.
Anyone who has familial links at home or who owns property they want to return to one day will, consequently, be liable for tax at home, too.
Double Taxation Agreements
Many South African expats will rightly feel that they are being caught out twice by the tax regime at home as well as the one in their adopted country.
British citizens working overseas but who remain ‘domiciled’ in the UK for the purposes of tax can face the same issue.
Nevertheless, South Africans, like their British counterparts, may be able to avoid paying tax on their overseas earnings and then stumping up once more to SARS.
This is because a number of countries have so-called double taxation agreements with South Africa that aims to prevent this.
Navigating your way through the double taxation system is not easy and you may need professional help, something I can assist with. Bear in mind, too, that not all countries operate the same system and some don’t take part at all.
For example, there is a multi-lateral agreement that includes the likes of Australia, the UK, the UAE and Switzerland. However, individual arrangements are in place for countries like India, Namibia, New Zealand or Oman.
Countries where there is no double taxation arrangement – or where one has yet to be finalised – include Vietnam, Senegal and Germany. Anyone working in such locations could face twice their usual tax liability if they earn over the threshold.
This could feasibly mean needing to come home because an overseas lifestyle becomes economically unsustainable.
Legal Expatriate Tax Exemptions
It is possible to avoid the new tax regime in South Africa. Firstly, earning beneath the threshold will mean it does not apply.
However, it is not just based on earnings – things like flights, school fees and housing provision are calculated as part of your taxable income if they are provided as perks by your employer.
The other main option open to expatriates is to declare themselves as financially independent of South Africa. This means no longer being considered an ordinary resident of the homeland and, therefore, outside of SARS’ jurisdiction.
You retain citizenship and your passport if you go down this route but it means not being able to take advantage of all the rights you would otherwise retain.
Furthermore, if you have assets in South Africa still, then this sort of financial divorce with the state means that you will be liable to pay capital gains tax on them.
To put it simply, becoming a financial emigré will benefit some expatriates but not others so it is not a decision to take lightly without weighing up all of the possibilities.
Limiting Tax Liability – Leveraging Investments
Another approach I’d advise at least considering is to look at limiting the amount of tax you might need to pay by making the right sort of structural investments.
This can be of benefit to you from the point of view of tax in your adopted country as well as at home.
For example, it is possible to set up an offshore company in a state with a low tax regime or to invest in a fund held in one.
There are plenty of laws to negotiate if you go down this route to ensure it is legal but it is something worth looking into, especially if the alternative is paying tax in two countries, not just one.
Something that is often considered more practical by expatriates from numerous different countries is to set up an investment portfolio that is part of an international retirement plan.
South African expatriates can do this to minimise their income tax declaration while also making their capital gains tax as low as possible on the lump sum that has initially been invested.
However, it is only when you have the right investment structure that you will become exempt from paying tax on the interest you earn.
Again, this is a field where my expertise can be invaluable to South Africans working overseas, especially when they want to retain a tax-efficient lifestyle at the point in their lives when they choose to return home.
Let’s take a look at the sort of investments that will be of particular interest to South African expatriates who are looking for practical and legal ways to lower their tax liabilities.
Investing In Your Adopted Country
Many people living and working overseas will have already made a personal investment in their adopted country, such as building a career or raising a family.
If that applies to you, then a financial investment in the country will also make sense even if you plan to realise that investment before returning home.
In the UK, for example, there are many tax-incentives to invest locally as a resident.
There again, access to stocks and shares via the globally leading exchanges in London or New York will make a great deal of sense to anyone living in either of those two countries.
For South Africans living in Australia, there are numerous investment opportunities, too, such as putting money into an equity fund, either through an offshore mechanism or through a local broker.
Of course, these sorts of investments require careful consideration before you throw yourself into them.
Firstly, you need to consider your attitude to risk and what you can afford to lose as well as the gains you are seeking. Then, there are specific issues that expats have to factor in. This includes how rapidly such an investment could be liquefied if you needed to return home sooner than expected, for example.
You might also want to consult an expert about whether a longer-term investment in your adopted country will continue to work for you after you have repatriated. Some will and some won’t, so good advice in this area is crucial.
In terms of tax, some types of investments held overseas are regarded as passive.
This means that they won’t necessarily form part of your tax bill. Dividends from shares are likely to be considered taxable by SARS but rental income from properties you own overseas usually won’t be, especially if you have already declared such income locally to the tax authorities there.
If you are an expat moving from country to country, a portable “third country solution” is often better than focusing on investing in your current country of residence.
Offshore Bank Accounts
In the main, I advise expatriate communities anywhere in the world to avoid using third-country bank accounts merely as investment vehicles. However, holding your liquid assets in them can be advisable, especially if your work means that you don’t settle in the same country for long.
The reason for this is that your banking provider will soon recognise that you are constantly on the move, living in country after country, and this means that it can be much less of a headache depositing your earnings and drawing on them when you need them.
Opening and closing bank accounts in each country you live and work in is a hassle you can avoid by using a reputable banking establishment in another country.
Retirement In South Africa
Many South African expatriates who work at least part of their career overseas will want to return to their homeland at some point, usually to retire. However, expats must decide how to manage their South African pension pot, specifically their retirement annuity funds.
The basic rule is that pension funds are subject to Regulation 28 in South Africa. This means that there is a limit placed on the proportion of the fund that can be exposed to offshore investment. At the moment this stands at 30 per cent.
Although this is not much of an issue for South Africans working at home who are planning for their retirement, it can be a problem for expats working overseas, especially those paying into company pension schemes over which they have little control.
One approach is to go down the financial emigration route to bypass the regulations but, as mentioned before, this will not suit everyone. Therefore, another way forward would be beneficial, such as swapping retirement fund annuities.
Since annuities are not subject to Regulation 28, it is possible to use a financial swap mechanism to convert them. Annuities are covered under the Insurance Act which means that they can be invested without the aforementioned offshore proportion limitation.
By creating an annuity offshore portfolio that is tailored to your needs. As such, you can invest for retirement in a currency that suits you and that matches your attitude to risk. If such an investment appeals to you, whether or not you are thinking about retiring in the near future, then do not hesitate to contact me.
For further information on investments that will suit the new tax regime affecting expatriate South Africans, email me at email@example.com.
I am the most read writer on financial matters on quora.com globally, with over 222.2 million views in recent years.
In the article below I discuss:
- What habits and mindsets are needed to become a successful business owner or investor?
- What are some of the things that the average person gets wrong about investing? I look at the 1990s to explain an important concept.
- Why do many people hate successful people? What does it show about them?
- Everybody makes mistakes – poor and rich people. Yet what mistakes are poorer people more likely to make, and make specific mistakes are richer people more inclined to make? Also, is it possible that some people that have relatively poor salaries are actually quite wealthy?
To give you a sneak peak I have copied one of the answer responses below:
In the 1990s, there were plenty of people who made a lot of money from picking individual stocks.
I remember I met an American guy when I was on holiday in Cambodia.
He was siting next to me on the bus back from the capital, Phnom Penh.
He admitted to me that he made a lot of money trading stocks in the 1990s, but it was probably luck, as shown by the 5 years after that (2000–2005).
So, he now admits it was luck, but back then, he saw things differently – it was all his knowledge and foresight you see.
We see similar trends in 2020:
Markets have had a pretty good 2020, despite the craziness in the middle.
The Dax in Germany is at records, as is MSCI World and all three major US Markets indexes.
The S&P500 is up over 10%, with the Nasdaq rising about 40%, from just over 9,000 on January 1, to close to 13,000 today.
What’s more, it has almost doubled since the worst of the crisis in March, and some individual stocks have risen by incredible amounts.
Tesla is up by 7-fold, with some tech stocks up more than 10-fold.
All of this has resulted in some market timers and stock pickers having an even better year than the average buy and hold investor.
I put some in bold because many market timers simply panic sold when markets crashed earlier this year, yet again.
The point is though, short-term performance is no indication of a longer-term trend.
Stock pickers have a 20% chance of beating the S&P500 over 5 years, and well over 30% in any given year.
If you stock pick for decades, you will beat the S&P500 very easily some years, and probably even manage to do it for 5–10 years.
Yet if you continue for an investing career, your chances fall to about 2%-5%.
Beating the S&P500 or even MSCI World over a 40-50 year career if you start investing from your 20s, is very difficult indeed.
Yet few have the foresight to see this. The thinking is that the recent past will replicate itself (recency bias).
You see the same pattern when it comes to things like gold and unfashionable markets like Japan.
People become interested in gold once a decade or so, when it is in a bull market.
They have only recently become interested in Japan and emerging markets, after both have started to perform well in the last year.
Every dog has its day in investing, which is why putting 100% in a “hot” sector seldom makes sense.
Many people have also recently put 100% in US Markets, even non-Americans, because of the recent performance.
Whilst this isn’t a big issue as the US markets are global in nature, international markets also regularly outperform US ones, as they did from 2000 until 2008.
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