How Americans in Britain became "toxic citizens"

After FACTA.

"We have become toxic citizens," says Andy Sundberg, the founder of American Citizens Abroad. To what is he referring? Congress passed FATCA (Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act) in 2010, designed to address the issue of US citizens evading tax by using Swiss bank accounts. Those financial institutions wishing to retain their US clients must in future report US account holders to the relevant authorities. This has resulted in several leading private banks deciding to withdraw from the fray, thus rendering their US clients orphans.

This has caused great consternation in the UK, where there are 177,000 Americans (according to the 2011 Census), many of whom have been here a long time. Indeed, some have chosen to settle here permanently or perhaps indefinitely, marrying non-American spouses and educating their children at British schools and universities. Many of them have earned substantial salaries and bonuses in financial services or in law, and until recently, their wealth management needs have been serviced by the full gamut of British and European private banks. Now all this has changed.

Essentially, FATCA is forcing foreign financial institutions to identify and report the accounts and investments of their American clients. The reporting obligation is what is driving many institutions into pushing their US clients away. All the banks, custody houses, trust companies, and insurance companies in Britain that have US citizens as clients now have an obligation to identify who meets the definition of a ‘"US person" and then they have to furnish such information to the authorities who in turn will provide the information to the IRS.

It is certainly having the desired effect as far as the IRS is concerned, since over 600,000 US citizens living overseas filed a Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts (FBAR) in 2011 following greater awareness of FATCA, compared to fewer than 300,000 in 2009. FATCA is flushing everyone out into the open and forcing them to sort out their affairs. Nonetheless, those 600,000 are one-tenth of the 6.3 million US persons living in 160 countries around the world.

Companies like mine, Vestra Wealth, have decided to respond differently to FATCA, preferring to see it less as a catastrophe and more as an opportunity. When FATCA was introduced, the partners agreed that there was a significant opportunity to let us create the infrastructure for a dedicated US team. This was driven primarily by client need, as we found that there are a number of British nationals resident in the US as well as US citizens living in the UK, all of who were seeking investment services. So as of May this year we have been registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in the US as well as being fully regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) in the UK.

The US is one of the few countries in the world who taxes its citizens on their worldwide income and gains, regardless of residency status. US residents and non-resident citizens (including Green Card holders) have therefore always had an obligation to report their annual income and gains to the US authorities. All that a US citizen with wealth management requirements in the UK needs to know is that their chance of being caught up in the FATCA net has vastly increased, so they should ensure their affairs are structured and reported correctly.

When a new client comes to us at Vestra US we conduct a rigorous assessment of their affairs to ensure everything is in line. If the client has been unintentionally delinquent in the past, or possibly even misadvised, then we put them in touch with the appropriate legal advisers and accountants, so that we are able to start with a level playing field before giving them investment advice.

Most of our clients are US professionals working in the City of London or Mayfair, who are often too busy to manage their own affairs let alone understand both the UK and US consequences of different investments. For example, some investments set up in the UK to be tax-efficient in the UK are inefficient in the US, and some investments set up to be tax-efficient in the US are inefficient in the UK once you have been resident here for over seven years.

The standard UK-based wealth management solution often involves funds, unit trusts and OEICs. Yet from a US perspective these are considered to be Passive Foreign Investment Companies (PFICs), with all the gains accrued therein liable to US income tax at 39.6 per cent. There is also a reporting requirement with a PFIC, so the problem compounds itself if you fail to declare such investments for several years.

If you hold a PFIC for long enough without reporting it, you could find yourself paying up to 100 per cent tax on any realised gain because of all the penalties and compounded interest charges that would be applied. Therefore we look to structure investment portfolios which would not attract negative tax in either jurisdiction.

As pension lifetime limits keep coming down, along with annual pension contribution limits, so investments in EIS (Enterprise Investment Scheme) companies are becoming more popular. However, it has to be the right type of EIS. It is necessary to ensure the client has sufficient foreign tax credits to offset the relief in the UK, otherwise you are simply reducing UK tax and increasing US tax.

You also have to ensure you do not breach any of the other rules around percentage ownership or the number of Americans that own assets within the EIS. Managed correctly, it is a great way for a US client to utilise their foreign tax credits (under the Double Taxation Agreement) while at the same time increasing their overall tax efficiency.

With mixed marriages between one US citizen and one non-US citizen, the wealth manager needs to make sure that ownership of assets and their respective wills are structured correctly. Certainly in my experience there are a large number of UK-resident Americans who have been shoe-horned into inappropriate products, whether PFICs within ISAs, non-qualifying pensions or insurance policies.

We know the red flags and we know the people who can help resolve the situation. There are scenarios where a client and their estate could end up paying dual inheritance tax for example. US clients need a triumvirate of advisers – a wealth manager, an accountant, and attorney – who are fully aligned and work in a cohesive, not competitive, manner.

Vestra US also advises professionals going to work on Wall Street or elsewhere in the US, who often have investments and pensions that can be structured correctly for US tax purposes or which permit deferral of US capital gains tax and income tax while they are US-resident for tax purposes. We would look to establish a fully US-compliant life insurance wrapper for the client that defers the annual taxation and allows investments to be made into PFICs without penalty or annual reporting.

I have enjoyed playing British American Football, for the London Warriors, in a small British summer league, and I often think the US tax regulations are similar to the rules governing American football. The first time you watch the game it is very difficult to understand what is happening. But once you know that there is an offence and a defence, and that you have four attempts to move the ball ten yards otherwise the other team gains possession, it is suddenly not too difficult to comprehend.

It is the same with running money for US citizens in the UK. There are numerous rules and regulations to consider, but once you know what they are, there is no need to feel intimidated.

Paul Nixon is a director of Vestra US

This piece first appeared on Spear's.

American tourists in Madame Tussards. Photograph: Getty Images

This is a story from the team at Spears magazine.

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The UK must reflect on its own role in stoking tension over North Korea

World powers should follow the conciliatory approach of South Korea, not its tempestuous neighbour. 

South Korea’s president Moon Jae-in has done something which took enormous bravery. As US and North Korean leaders rattle their respective nuclear sabres at one another, Jae-in called for negotiations and a peaceful resolution, rejecting the kind of nationalist and populist response preferred by Trump and Kim Jong-un.

In making this call, Jae-in has chosen the path of most resistance. It is always much easier to call for one party in a conflict to do X or Y than to sit round a table and thrash through the issues at hand. So far the British response has sided largely with the former approach: Theresa May has called on China to clean up the mess while the foreign secretary Boris Johnson has slammed North Korea as “reckless”.

China undoubtedly has a crucial role to play in any solution to the North and South Korean conflict, and addressing the mounting tensions between Pyongyang and Washington but China cannot do it alone. And whilst North Korea’s actions throughout this crisis have indeed been reckless and hugely provocative, the fact that the US has flown nuclear capable bombers close to the North Korean border must also be condemned. We should also acknowledge and reflect on the UK’s own role in stoking the fires of tension: last year the British government sent four Typhoon fighter jets to take part in joint military exercises in the East and South China seas with Japan. On the scale of provocation, that has to rate pretty highly too.

Without being prepared to roll up our sleeves and get involved in complex multilateral negotiations there will never be an end to these international crises. No longer can the US, Britain, France, and Russia attempt to play world police, carving up nations and creating deals behind closed doors as they please. That might have worked in the Cold War era but it’s anachronistic and ineffective now. Any 21st century foreign policy has to take account of all the actors and interests involved.

Our first priority must be to defuse tension. I urge PM May to pledge that she will not send British armed forces to the region, a move that will only inflame relations. We also need to see her use her influence to press both Trump and Jong-un to stop throwing insults at one another across the Pacific Ocean, heightening tensions on both sides.

For this to happen they will both need to see that serious action - as opposed to just words - is being taken by the international community to reach a peaceful solution. Britain can play a major role in achieving this. As a member of the UN Security Council, it can use its position to push for the recommencing of the six party nuclear disarmament talks involving North and South Korea, the US, China, Russia, and Japan. We must also show moral and practical leadership by signing up to and working to enforce the new UN ban on nuclear weapons, ratified on 7 July this year and voted for by 122 nations, and that has to involve putting our own house in order by committing to the decommissioning of Trident whilst making plans now for a post-Trident defence policy. It’s impossible to argue for world peace sat on top of a pile of nuclear weapons. And we need to talk to activists in North and South Korea and the US who are trying to find a peaceful solution to the current conflict and work with them to achieve that goal.

Just as those who lived through the second half of the 20th century grew accustomed to the threat of a nuclear war between the US and Russia, so those of us living in the 21st know that a nuclear strike from the US, North Korea, Iran, or Russia can never be ruled out. If we want to move away from these cyclical crises we have to think and act differently. President Jae-in’s leadership needs to be now be followed by others in the international community. Failure to do so will leave us trapped, subject to repeating crises that leave us vulnerable to all-out nuclear war: a future that is possible and frightening in equal measure.

Caroline Lucas is the MP for Brighton Pavilion.