Five Mistakes to Avoid When Investing Offshore

Posted by Bernard Schoeman on 06 January 2021.



Bernard Schoeman

CA(SA), Post Graduate Diploma Accounting, BCom

The Tax Shop Head Office

More about Bernard Schoeman

Bernard studied BCom majoring in information systems and accounting at the University of Cape Town and qualified as a Chartered Accountant (SA) in 1997 after completing of his articles with Deloitte & Touche. Bernard has extensive international and local experience having worked for nearly three years with financial institutions in the UK (London) and having audited numerous companies listed on the JSE in South Africa. He is a member of the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants.
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“An investment in knowledge pays the best interest” (Benjamin Franklin)

It can be tempting to look at South Africa and the bad news that seems to hit us like freight trains one after another, and immediately consider moving all your money offshore. There is however far more to consider than simply your gut feel, and predictions of woe as investing offshore comes with a lot of difficulties and more than a few unique problems. 

Here we look at some of the most common errors people make, to steer you clear of losing your investments. A bank account is not an investment

Perhaps the largest mistake that new offshore investors make is panicking. In their emotional state they open an offshore bank account and start moving money overseas, but this is a mistake. 

Bank accounts, particularly in Europe, often pay less than 1% interest and any money that is sitting in one is certainly not even keeping up with South African inflation. As with local investments offshore investors should be looking to craft a diverse portfolio that includes quality global equities to ensure they aren’t just throwing money away.

1) Understand the market 

Before leaping into an offshore investment, it’s important to have a clear picture of the currencies, returns, fees and taxes associated with the different options, and the respective risks that might need to be managed from the outset. 

In many jurisdictions fees can end up being a significant player in the profitability of the investment, to the point where they may result in an ongoing shrinkage of offshore assets. This is particularly true if an investment is held in the name of a company, trust or pension, where director or trustee fees will usually be charged on top of the advisory fees. 

On top of this, investors in many European countries often pay significantly more in fees for absolutely no added benefits, compared to local investors. 

2) Rental properties aren’t simple 

Many people consider buying a rental property in a foreign country the ideal investment, especially if they are considering emigrating there at some stage. A number of countries also offer passports to investors provided they purchase property in those countries, which can also lead to this kind of investment. 

There are, however, a number of ways that a rental property can end up becoming a money sinkhole instead of offering the expected stable returns.   
International property investors should not simply buy into whichever development the internet or sales agents are suggesting. Do your homework and fully understand the laws, taxes and unique conditions around the country, city and suburb you hope to invest in. Even if the property you are about to buy seems like a good deal, if it is in an area where there is too much rental housing and you struggle to find a tenant, it will end up costing you a small fortune instead. 

Investors need to also make sure they do their research on the companies they are working with to ensure they are not uncertified or unscrupulous. Fortunately for investors there is the Association of International Property Professionals (AIPP), an international body that is committed to regulating the industry. If you partner with an AIPP member, you are assured that they have been vetted and approved.   

Arranging finance in a foreign country is possible, but again comes with a need for caution. What is the track record of the company offering the finance and just what are the terms they are offering in their contracts? Laws in other countries may not be the same when it comes to finance, and there may not be the same protections that are on offer in SA relating to allowable interest rates and what happens in the event of a default.   

Applicable laws need to be checked regarding tenancy too. Are there protections in place if your tenant does not pay the rent? What happens if someone refuses to move out or damages the property? The best solution is to team up with a reputable letting agent who knows the laws, and who has your best interests at heart to ensure you don’t fall foul of some trick of local law. Of course, using an agent results in additional costs, but in the scheme of things this is likely to be money well spent.   

In short, research and research again. This is not something to rush into because you saw a flashy Power-point presentation.

3) Double Taxation

With the laws around taxation of foreign income recently changing there is a lot of uncertainty, and numerous rumours have arisen as to just when tax is applicable, whether disclosure is necessary and just how much is due. The basic rule is that South African tax residents are subject to tax on their worldwide income regardless of where that income derives or whether it has already been subject to tax in the country where it was earned. 

It gets more complicated though, because the South African government has numerous Double Tax Agreements (DTA) with various countries, which seek to prevent double taxation. These are not always helpful however as they don’t always protect the investor from paying two sets of taxes. 

The DTA signed with the UK for example clearly outlines in Article 6(1) and 6(3) that where a South African receives rental income from letting immovable property in the UK, such income may be taxed by the UK. It does not however say that South Africa is then not allowed to also tax the income. Article 21 tries to provide protection from double taxation, but there are numerous limitations. 

This is then further complicated by the fact that there are some domestic laws which seek to help prevent double taxation in some circumstances, but these laws don’t always apply and come with onerous documentary requirements. Basically, consult an accountant to go through the particulars of your case to determine if any tax is owed and what to do about previously undisclosed income to avoid falling foul of the law.  

4) Waiting for the right time to invest

Perhaps the simplest error to correct is the one where, having already decided to invest offshore, the investor decides to hold onto their money, waiting for the right time to jump into the foreign market.   

It may seem wise to wait for the Rand to strengthen or the global equity markets to offer up some value, but this is advised against. Commonly, when people are waiting to move funds, they place large sums of money in money market funds, sometimes for years, looking for the right time to jump in, all the while accruing local income taxes at the marginal rate. This more than undoes all the good that a small strengthening of the Rand could present.   

If you are going to do it, there is no better time than the present.

Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.

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