Millionaires across Latin America are looking to leave their home countries as governments strive to fix public finances battered by the Covid-19 pandemic with higher taxes on the wealthy.
Some are ready to move, with families in tow, as far as Portugal. Others prefer jurisdictions closer to home, such as Panama and Uruguay, which are positioning themselves as convenient locations for the emigrant rich.
“When wealth taxes are on the rise and legal certainty is being undermined it leads the families to think that they are no longer welcome,” said Martin Litwak, a Miami-based lawyer who heads Untitled Strategic Legal Consulting, which specializes in international tax planning.
Litwak said the number of his clients prepared to switch countries “has risen more than five-fold.” Argentina, Mexico, Brazil, and Chile are among the countries wealthy individuals are looking to leave, he said.
Attorneys are advising their wealthy clients to make a clean break and give up their tax residencies in their home countries. If they don’t, they open themselves up to more scrutiny by tax authorities and more taxes.
This interest in relocating comes as the Covid-19 outbreak magnifies the huge disparities between rich and poor in much of the region, considered by the United Nations as the world’s most pronounced. As governments grapple with the soaring costs of the coronavirus, politicians in Chile, Brazil, Argentina, and Peru are all debating measures to target the wealthy, among other tax measures, to boost revenue.
According to Credit Suisse, there are about 670,000 individuals worth more than $1 million in Latin America, representing 0.2% of the region’s population. That compares to 2.3% in Europe and 7.3% in North America.
“People want to escape the legal uncertainty where they’re changing the tax code every year. Even the last reform came with the condition that they will change the rules in another six months,” said Jorge Echevarria, director of tax law at Alessandri Asesoría Personal y Negocios in Chile.
But while interest has spiked, it is currently challenging for the wealthy to just pick up and leave as governments restrict international travel to contain the spread of Covid-19.
“We are seeing a lot of inquiries and preparations but no actual moves because the borders are closed,” said Juan Federico Fischer, managing director and partner at Andersen Tax & Legal in Montevideo, Uruguay.
Making a Clean Break
As authorities become more adept at tracking down overseas wealth, through registries of beneficial ownership and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s automatic exchange of information, many see a clean break as the only option.
“Opening an offshore account is a bit outdated. The priority is to protect one’s tax residency and everything else follows from that,” said Marcos Kraemer, founder and managing partner at Kraemer & Kraemer in Panama. Most don’t stay in their adopted jurisdiction but can use their new status to cut ties with tax authorities back home, he said.
“People aren’t just thinking about a paper move. They want to leave the country,” said Gianni Gutierrez, a tax lawyer at Ferrere in Montevideo. “In order to escape residency in Argentina, the move has to convince Argentinean authorities and that means coming to live in Uruguay,” explained Gutierrez.
Some governments are imposing new taxes on wealthy citizens who move to other countries but still retain ties with their home countries.
Last December, the new government in Argentina changed the law so that taxpayers domiciled abroad but still living in the country would have to pay a tax on global assets.
Argentina’s tax authority Administración Federal de Ingresos Públicos has warned that it will keep a close watch on millionaires leaving the country.
“AFIP is permanently monitoring that the legal requirements to realize changes of tax residency are fulfilled,” a spokesman told Bloomberg Tax. So far, however with borders largely closed, numbers have been thin.
In February, Chile enacted legislation requiring nonresidents to remain subject to income tax if their main business center remained in the country. Those wanting to leave will now have to liquidate their principal assets, said Echevarria.
The reports of millionaires fleeing to protect their wealth when millions are suffering from disease, mass unemployment, and rising poverty are bolstering calls to clamp down on tax avoidance.
In a June 15 report, the Independent Commission for the Reform of International Corporate Taxation called for the creation of asset registers “to enable states to levy effective wealth taxes on their residents’ offshore as well as onshore wealth.”
“The rich can escape but they should be concerned about the future of their own countries. This war against an unexpected foe needs the support of everyone,” said Ricardo Martner, a Chilean economist who sits on the commission.
Next Stop: Airport?
Millionaires in Chile were already on edge after anti-inequality protests last October erupted into widespread social unrest. Since then, Echevarria has worked with at least 10 clients interested in moving to more favorable jurisdictions.
“One has gone to live in Panama, another to the U.K. and a third has bought a house in the U.S. and is waiting for best moment to move,” he said.
Now opposition party lawmakers in Chile have proposed a one-time 2.5% charge on individuals worth more than $22 million, including the country’s billionaire president Sebastian Pinera.
Such a measure could raise around $6.5 billion, enough to finance a basic monthly household income of over CLP 369,000 ($499) for the next three months, Karol Cariola, a Communist Party deputy, said. Chile’s Finance Minister Ignacio Briones has warned that such a tax would be difficult to enforce.
Business owners in Brazil are watching a series of proposals to tax the rich to close a budget shortfall caused by spending on the pandemic response. One proposal to impose a new levy on dividends, currently exempt from taxation, looks the most likely to succeed, according to tax lawyer Gilberto Frigo.
With government finances squeezed, the fear is that a corresponding cut in corporate taxes will be delayed and a dividends tax could be introduced.
“If that happens, I have clients who have said their next stop is the airport,” said Amit Ramnani, managing partner at Ipanema Wealth, referring to Brazilian and international clients living in Brazil.
Argentine deputy Carlos Heller is expected to submit a bill to Congress to impose a one-time charge on fortunes of more than $2.9 million. Facing rocketing healthcare costs and an imminent default on external debt, President Alberto Fernandez gave his backing to the bill in a May 20 meeting with Heller, the lawmaker told local media.
In Mexico, there are currently no proposals to hike taxes. But a tougher stance adopted by tax authority Servicio de Administración Tributaria against aggressive tax planning has worried some high net worth individuals. Last year, President Andres Lopez Obrador enacted legislation classifying tax evasion as a form of organized crime.
“Many people are moving their investments and capital abroad under the new government,” said Juan de la Cruz Higuera, a tax attorney in Mexico City.
Countries Lure the Rich
Millionaires’ itchy feet are creating opportunities for jurisdictions who offer fast-track residency schemes as well as favorable tax rules.
Investment under Portugal’s eight-year old Golden Visa scheme reached a two-year high of 146 million euros in May, the country’s migrations service reported earlier this month. Brazilians were the second largest contingent behind Chinese investors.
On June 11, Uruguayan President Luis Lacalle Pou cut the minimum investment in real estate required to obtain tax residency to UYU 16.1 million ($376,000), down from UYU 69 million previously, as long as applicants spend at least 60 days in the country.
Lawyers in Montevideo have been overwhelmed by inquiries from wealthy Argentinians following reports of Heller’s wealth tax proposal.
“The telephone has not stopped ringing since five o’clock in the morning. The reaction and level of interest has been enormous,” said Fischer, a day after the decree was issued.
Uruguay has unveiled legislation to further sweeten the deal for new arrivals by doubling the length of a tax holiday on foreign income to 10 years or alternatively offering a lower rate of income tax, said Paula Garat, attorney at Montevideo-based Brum Costa.
With international borders largely closed and the Buenos Aires property market paralyzed by the pandemic, pick-up is expected to be slow at first. But as Argentinians return to Uruguay’s beaches next January, property brokers are expecting a surge in demand, said Juan Carlos Sorhobigarat, director of Terramar Christie’s International Real Estate.