At Tax Free Today we’ve already talked in depth about the tax situation of cryptocurrencies, around which there is great uncertainty today. Are they subject to VAT or not? Do they stop being exempt from tax after a one-year holding period? What will their taxes be like then?

There is no way to answer these questions conclusively, but we can get close to an answer by looking at taxation in the case of investment and classical trading, a field that has been around for longer.

Since before cryptocurrencies existed, freelancers and business people have been looking for additional ways to increase their personal wealth. Whether through bonds or shares, indexed funds or options, forex or futures; in global markets there are many ways of profitably earning, or losing, money.

Today at Tax Free Today we want to clarify the tax situation for those who have made these issues their job: professional traders.

However, private investors can also benefit from this article, bearing in mind that their situation is usually much better than that of professional traders. This is because the capital increase in personal wealth is in many cases tax-free, although only if it is not considered a professional business or trading company.

The big difference: private vs. commercial equity trading

In theory, many countries could seem perfect for day traders. Like the non-dom countries Ireland, England and Malta, they do not tax foreign profits that are not brought into the country, or exempt from tax profits made on the stock exchange, as in Switzerland, Luxembourg or Belgium.

However, appearances can be deceiving. None of these European countries are a good choice for professional traders.

This is because tax-exemption on stock exchange profits only applies to those who are not professionally engaged in trading in global markets.

In these countries, professional traders must pay considerable income tax or social security contributions, which can usually be reduced by setting up local capital companies.

In the case of the Benelux countries, the minimum holding periods of 6 to 12 months can be a first obstacle for traders making short-term trades.

Generally, aside from the holding period, there are many other essential factors that determine whether trade in international markets is professional and commercial or simply private. These mainly include:

  • Number of exchanges per day/week/month/year.
  • As we’ve said, the holding period of financial products
  • Complexity of traded financial products.
  • Number of trading platforms used
  • Debt-to-equity ratio, credit financing.
  • Profit level and relationship to other income
  • Additional relevant trading activities (such as advice)
  • Traders’ main activity

The fact that one of the factors listed above applies to you does not automatically make you a professional trader. Ultimately, the deciding factor is always the individual’s overall situation.

By investing in high-risk financial products, the trader may be making significantly higher returns than with more conservative investments. However, if he only uses a broker, only buys shares once a month and works full-time in something unrelated, it’s unlikely he’ll be considered a professional trader for tax purposes.

On the other hand, he could be considered a professional trader for tax purposes even if he only does a few well-calculated trades a year, if they are his only source of income or if it is a similar activity complementary to the main one, which could, for example, consist of managing a finance or consultancy blog.

There is often considerable legal uncertainty that you should clear up from the outset with a specialised local tax advisor and the tax authorities.

The typical day trader can avoid being classified as a professional trader, which can entail many other rules and regulations, as well as a less convenient tax situation. In this article we’ll focus on the tax part.

Residence in ‘unsuitable’ countries: what should you do as a professional trader?

We understand ‘unsuitable’ countries for professional traders as countries which tax the professional trading of financial products. Even if you cannot or are not willing to move your residence, there are still ways for you to optimize your taxes as a professional trader (which are, of course, more complicated and expensive than moving).

An interesting option may be Switzerland, which, despite levying a small tax, doesn’t in principle penalise increases in wealth with large taxes, as it exempts contribution profits from tax.

This is true as long as you are not considered a professional trader, something that can happen relatively easily in Switzerland. So, not only will you have to pay income tax there at the level of the Confederation, canton, and municipality of residence, but you will also have to pay social security, something unusual for traders.

In this way, the Swiss tax haven can become a tax nightmare in the blink of an eye.

Luckily, Switzerland is still fairly decentralised, and moving to the next municipality is often not a major disadvantage. This is especially the case for companies that still benefit from tax competition between Swiss cantons and municipalities.

By registering your company in a neighbouring municipality, you can reduce the taxation for each transaction to an acceptable 12 to 15%, and you can even pay yourself a small salary on which you’ll pay similar taxes.

Something similar happens to professional traders in other generally fiscally attractive countries.

Thus, although Malta, as a non-dom country, exempts foreign capital gains brought into the country from tax, the classification of professional trader also applies there. In these cases, they argue that, since the activity is domiciled in Malta, capital gains are domestic income. The situation is similar in the other non-dom countries such as Ireland and England.

However, if you still like Malta and want to live there, you can reduce your effective tax to 5% on each transaction by trading through a Maltese holding company.

The same could be done through a Limited Company in Ireland or England, with their tax burdens of 12.5% and 18% respectively. To avoid income tax and social security contributions you can pay yourself a small salary and take most of the profits through dividends.

In general, this goes for every country with universal taxation, in which you pay tax on income from anywhere in the world. Moving investment capital to a company ultimately works out better because corporation tax is generally lower than income or capital gains tax, which can make a difference if you have a lot of big transactions.

In countries where the CFC rules do not apply (rules which especially apply to passive income, such as profit made on the stock exchange and trading in general), trading through an offshore company is the best option to legally avoid tax.

However, you have to bear in mind that there aren’t just the CFC rules to contend with, but also the rules of effective administration (residence test) that exist in many countries. So, if you live in the Netherlands or Switzerland, even if there aren’t any CFC rules yet, your foreign company could be considered as resident in the country you reside in, because they operate locally from there.

In any case, there are still some countries with taxation by residence systems in which there are hardly any regulations in this respect.

People living in or operating from Eastern European countries, such as Bulgaria, Romania, the Czech Republic or Croatia, can manage their profits safely through foreign companies. The same goes for most developing countries. The only thing you’ll have to do is pay yourself a salary or distribute a minimum profit and tax it according to the applicable rates.

Is Cyprus a good option for professional traders?

Cyprus enjoys a growing population of traders, and not just thanks to its pleasant Mediterranean climate.

In particular, exemption from tax on profits made on the stock exchange has been attracting wealthy landlords and investors to the island for many years, well before Cyprus became even more attractive thanks to the Simply Non-Dom programme.

Profits made on the stock exchange are usually tax-exempt in Cyprus, for normal residents, too. Cyprus’ Non-Dom Programme also exempts interest and dividend income, both domestic and foreign, from tax.

But you shouldn’t rejoice just yet. Although Cyprus generally doesn’t assume that all traders do so professionally, not all profits are automatically exempt from tax.

In Cyprus, the exemption from tax on profits made on the stock exchange refers only to what is usually defined as ‘securities’. These securities are currently included:

  1. Ordinary shares
  2. Founder’s shares
  3. Preference shares
  4. Options in securities
  5. Debt securities (debentures)
  6. Bonds
  7. Naked positions in securities
  8. Forward contracts in securities
  9. Swaps on securities
  10. Depositary receipts on securities, such as ADR and GDR
  11. Collateral recovery rights on bonds and debentures that do not include interest rights on these products
  12. Interest in security indexes for cases representing securities (index shares only if they represent securities)
  13. Repurchase agreements

In many cases, business options defined as ‘securities’ should be sufficient. However, there are some important exceptions.

In particular, the forex market and binary options are subject to normal corporate taxes of 12.5%.

There is still no definitive regulation of cryptocurrencies in Cyprus. Hopefully a tax similar to the one applied to forex traders will be applied here.

However, Cyprus is and will continue to be an excellent place for cryptocurrency traders because, thanks to the non-dom scheme, they can easily trade through a foreign company.

The same goes for currency traders and all those whose exotic trading options do not benefit from tax exemption on profits made on the stock exchange.

As a non-dom resident in Cyprus, you can manage a tax-free foreign company and distribute profits at any time as tax-free dividends (depending on the location of the foreign company no accounting is even necessary).

In Cyprus you can get this treatment in two ways.

In most cases, exemption from dividend tax is granted by registering a company that pays the minimum annual social contributions but does not have to carry out any activity.

On the other hand, if you want to save on social security (16.8% of the minimum wage of approx. €8,500) and have private insurance, you can alternatively apply to be a High Net Worth Individual. To do this, you need to prove a monthly salary of €6000 over a period of 3 months.

In any case, you’ll also need an annual rental contract and to spend 2 months a year in Cyprus.

On countries with territorial taxation systems

On the other hand, the trader has more flexibility in countries with territorial taxation or no taxation at all. Sometimes in these cases you don’t even need to fiscally reside or own a property in the country.

It’s important in this case to choose a country which levies territorial taxation fairly flexibly.

In Hong Kong and Singapore, for example, domestic income ends up being taxed in a similar way to Malta (taking into account where the work is done from).

However, most countries with territorial taxation systems only pay attention to the income source. Everything coming from a foreign source will generally be tax-exempt. Thus, the trader just has to avoid using a broker in his country of residence.

In this sense, some of the most interesting options are Panama, Costa Rica, Paraguay, Georgia, the Philippines, Malaysia and Thailand, amongst others.

Another interesting alternative is the United Arab Emirates. There, anyone who sets up a company in the free trade zone is given a residence visa.

You don’t need to use it actively, which makes it interesting for some traders, as it allows them to access the country while continuing to conduct their business privately. The costs are around €12,000 in the first year and €7,000 from the second year onwards.

You can also choose to register as a self/employed person in the Emirates. In this case the costs are €4,300 in the first year and €2,050 thereafter. This option also entitles you to a residence visa there.

The requirement in either case is to go through the Emirates every 183 days at the most, which is usually quite easy to meet as there a many flights to or from Asia that go through Dubai.

[Should you want to move your residency to any of the countries listed, write to us so we can put you in contact with our associates.]

Is it better to opt for a foreign company or foundation?

Whichever country you choose for your private residence, an additional company or foundation can always be useful. Assets are managed through an independent legal entity, which often offers anonymity and asset protection. Offshore companies are very popular for this, as they stand out for their bureaucratic freedom as well as exemption from taxes. The accounting of many traders can be very onerous, which is why these companies are very attractive.

Most offshore sites barely differ at all in terms of legislation and costs. Only jurisdictions where cryptocurrencies are fully regulated, and therefore legal, are worthwhile to crypto-traders. You can rest assured about this, especially in Belize and Gibraltar. These two countries are also ideal for additional trading options.

On the other hand, it can, in exceptional cases, make sense to trade through a company resident in a country in which you do pay tax. For only these companies can make use of the double taxation agreement, which can sometimes, for example, reduce the withholding of dividend taxes. Anyone who bets heavily on stock dividends should look at both their place of residence and the type of company (see below).

Instead of a company, it can also make sense to manage your assets through a foundation or trust. Compared to offshore companies, foundations are better when it comes to asset protection. They’re not allowed to be commercially active, but they can manage assets. This means that, in general, they actually allow you to take advantage of all the possibilities of the world of commerce.

Like a company, a foundation can also open business accounts with banks and brokers and, with the right location, can be run almost as flexibly as a company. You’ll have the greatest flexibility especially with economic places like Panama, the Bahamas and Nevis.

The founder and board of trustees of the foundation are purely formal and, for reasons of anonymity, will assume their position through a trustee. Only the beneficiaries and the ‘protector’ of the foundation, who regulates its affairs, are decisive. The latter is usually the same person commissioned by the foundation.

As long as a foundation is ‘open’, it can be dissolved at any time and the statutes can be modified. This is the normal modus operandi that allows for the greatest flexibility.

In high-tax countries, the assets of an open (transparent) foundation, are attributed to beneficiaries as if they were managing it privately. In such a case, the foundation is only legally used for asset protection and, to obtain tax benefits, the foundation must be ‘closed’.

In this case, a foundation statute must be drawn up in detail, since from that moment on it cannot be changed and will remain so for generations to come. Family foundations are also primarily used for administering the inheritance of wealthy heirs.

In the countries that I described at the beginning as flexible, the assets contributed to the foundation are fully protected for up to 3 years later, even in the case of lawsuits.

This period is up to 10 years in many European countries. Since in any case the foundation has a high degree of anonymity, this means much earlier protection. Assets or income from assets management can be paid to the beneficiaries in accordance with the rules defined in the foundation statutes.

This yield counts as income, which should be considered together with a Cyprus residence (only tax-exempt dividends).

In short, a family foundation is recommended for anyone who has more than 6-figure sums during his or her lifetime.

As you can see, you don’t have to be a millionaire to have a foundation. There are very good options, such as private Panamanian foundations with a €2,500 cost in the first year and only €600 from the second year onwards.

Why opt for complicated and bureaucratic family foundation in Lichtenstein for €20,000 a year when you can create one much more easily and cheaply elsewhere?

The right location for the broker

Once the personal residence and legal form of the company have been clarified, you still have to choose the right broker.

On top of numerous considerations regarding money security, rates and features, location is also very important. In most cases, brokers are located in tax havens where conditions are particularly attractive.

Where possible, it is important that withholding of tax at source is not applied at the broker’s location.

Withholding at source are applied, as their name indicates, where the money comes from. In other words, the broker automatically applies them on your profits where applicable.

So, if your broker is in the US, he’ll automatically withhold 30% from you. If you were tax-resident in Mexico and you certified it before the broker, you could take advantage of the agreement between the two countries so that they retain 10%. As a resident in the UK, Australia, Ireland or Canada it would be 15%.

Unlike in the US, some other countries don’t apply withholding at source to people who have their residence abroad.

You’ll be surprised to learn that, in this case, Germany is also a tax haven. People residing abroad who certify their residence if requested to do so can use German brokers without being subject to withholding of tax at source on their profits made on the stock exchange. This also applies to interest income.

If you have dividend income, it gets even more complicated.

Stock dividends are in some cases subject to a triple tax: in the country in which the company you participate in is located, in the broker’s location, and in the country of residence.

To avoid paying tax three times over, there are double taxation agreements that, firstly, regulate tax competition and, secondly, can reduce withholding at source as we demonstrated in the example above.

It may be important to bear international agreements in mind, especially if you are going to receive dividends from countries with high taxes at source, such as Switzerland or the US when the money flows to tax havens.

Generally, the broker’s location isn’t something to worry about, as most of them are located in countries without withholding tax.

In Europe they tend to opt for the UK, Switzerland, Holland, Luxembourg and Cyprus; in Asia Hong Kong and Singapore; in America for Bermuda, the Bahamas and Panama.

We’re not going to give a detailed comparison of the different brokers right now. Suffice to say that I personally use 3 different brokers for asset management.

On one hand there’s DEGIRO, a simple and affordable broker for trading stocks and index funds, located in the Netherlands.

Then for more advanced trading there’s Swissquote in the UK (Forex) and Interactive Brokers in Hong-Kong.

If you live in Europe, Interactive Brokers will open you an account in the UK (so all your tax information will be shared). However, you can opt for it to be in Hong-Kong if you register directly through their website there.

Withholding at source and Double Taxation Agreement

Finally, let’s address the issue of withholding tax on dividends. This is a very complex issue and with a history of tax evasion by big corporations, but which, in individual cases, can also apply to the capital investor with large corporate investments in the ‘wrong’ countries. Until now, this was mainly the case in the US (watch out for the new tax reform), with a 30% withholding tax.

Above certain amounts, it may be worth trying to optimize this withholding tax. In the classic case of having a residence an EU country, the withholding tax goes down to 15% for the US by the double taxation agreement, but the additional taxation in the country of residence is not a tax advantage. This only happens in a few exceptional cases, like with a residence in Cyprus with tax-exempt dividends.

If the trader has his residence in tax havens that, by definition, don’t have double taxation agreements, his only option is to transfer his profits by optimising taxation…setting up a company. Then, for shares in the American market, he’ll found a corporation in which he can claim many costs and, under the old rules, only pay 15% corporation tax on the first €50,000 of profits. Then there’s the same problem of withholding tax, which can be avoided by contributing to the right holding company.

Instead of micro-participations, you can make full use of double taxation agreements with 100% participation. The target country for your holding will be one without withholding tax and which reduces said tax as far as possible in the US based on a double taxation agreement. With a regular holding in Cyprus, withholding tax falls to around 15%, and in countries like Bulgaria and Romania to 10%. However, because of the 5% withholding tax in these countries, there’s no real advantage.

Generally, such developments are only worthwhile when millions of euros are at stake, as the additional costs are not insignificant and the amount of withholding tax saved is often minimal. However, it’s worth having a basic understanding of how to optimise withholding tax, as it can be very relevant for other types of income, such as copyright or other licensing income. We’ll talk more about this in another article.

At this point, I’d like to advise traders to thoroughly plan how they set up their business. While countries like the Netherlands or Switzerland can give you a nasty surprise, there are still more than 50 countries with territorial tax systems or zero tax, ideal for professional stock trading. As flexible as one can be as a rentier, in most cases a residence shouldn’t be problematic. However, with tax liability in non-EU countries in mind, you can often stay in your favourite countries for 6 months even if they’re not very attractive tax-wise.

And this is as far as we go with this article.

As you can see, we know from personal experience what the most important thing really is, and we can help you find a solution specifically tailored to you and your preferences, a solution that takes into account the best the different countries and jurisdictions in the world have to offer.

If you are a trader and you’re looking for a solution to pay less tax, you can book a consultation with us.

Of course, if you are already clear about what you want in terms of company formation and residence, you can also write to us so that we can put you in contact with our partners.