An interview with Anne Liebgott, CEO of Where Americans are Welcome.
I found Anne to be highly in tune with the Swiss-American financial and tax services culture. She is one of the few people I have met who can express the similarities and differences between the business cultures of Switzerland and the United States with eloquence and a clear vision for a unified and long-lasting relationship.
Tell me about Where Americans Are Welcome. Why did you start this website and who is your target audience?
In the wake of the tax evasion issues between the US and Swiss banks, Swiss banks demanded that their American clients close their accounts. But there are 40 Swiss SEC-registered wealth managers that welcome American clients and have compliant working relationships with Swiss banks. Where Americans are Welcome is a research platform where Americans can meet the Swiss SEC-registered wealth managers and other wealth management-related providers like lawyers, tax advisers, trusted advisers and so on.
Anne goes on to express that the website will provide an interested party with all of the information they need to find a provider based on their particular facts and circumstances. However, it is still up to the party to do their due diligence and analysis before engaging a provider for services.
Based on your website, you have interacted with a lot of attorneys, tax advisers, wealth managers, etc. What is your overall opinion of this community in Switzerland? Are they helping people? Are there are enough advisers out there or would you say there is a need for more?
The wealth managers, attorneys and tax advisers and others on the new Swiss platform Where Americans are Welcome are open-minded, forward-thinking and pro-American companies. Fatca is generally viewed as a painstaking exercise in compliance with Switzerland a leader in implementing it.
Swiss SEC-registered investment advisers come in all shapes and sizes from the big bank UBS to the one-man show. Some investors prefer the big names, others the more personal touch. Considering the potential of the American market and the increasing need for true, jurisdictional diversification, there is certainly room for new SEC-registered wealth managers.
Anne firmly believes such companies can be of help to individuals needing assistance with a particular skill set. In regards to the expat community specifically, there are a lot of good options to help with investment advice and multi-jurisdictional tax compliance.
The OECD Better Life Index gives Switzerland an overall grade of 7.5 out of 10, which is better than the average of 6.6. In particular though, Switzerland has a 9.9 out of 10 for life satisfaction. Do you agree with this analysis? If so, why?
Living in Switzerland, we enjoy the, let’s say trouble-free way of life. Unemployment is low with slightly over 3%. The vast majority of people live their lives in a disciplined, successful and rewarding manner without constant upheavals.
Anne is in agreement with the OECD Better Life Index, but indicates that this enjoyment of life standard comes with a price tag. In Switzerland, people often start work before 8am and leave after 6pm. There is both tradition and pride for being reliable. For newcomers from different parts of the world who are not used to this, it can be a little tough. Swiss nationals do not live on credit, or credit cards, like they do in the United States. Also, it is important to note that the Swiss have a predilection to saving and take pride in leaving material inheritance to their children. In summary, the expectations can be a little daunting for an expat not familiar with this way of life.
There are 23 Swiss Banks that have now come to terms with the Department of Justice Program for Swiss Banks via non-prosecution agreements (NPA). Over the next 6-8 months the DOJ will continue to move forward with this program and new banks will be added. How is the investigation being perceived by Swiss nationals and US expats in Switzerland?
By now, there are a few more added to the list. In Switzerland, while tax fraud is a crime, tax evasion is a simple misdemeanor, but times have changed. The rather heavy-handed US approach to find American tax evaders, and the attack on Swiss banks and their employees, has changed the scene forever. Fatca demands transparency, yet there are many excellent reasons for having a bank account in Switzerland other than for tax evasion.
Anne tells me that now that the banks finally agree to the NPAs through the PFSB (Program for Swiss Banks), everyone just wants to get back to business as usual. She also notes that this sector is but a part of the Swiss industry. Deloitte recently reconfirmed Switzerland as the # 1 financial center for 2015. Additionally, the United States and Switzerland have just agreed to begin an information-sharing program on the Swiss apprentice system.
Studies have shown that there are an increasing number of individuals renouncing citizenship with the United States. Do you think that taking the step of full expatriation from America is an overreaction or well warranted given the circumstances?
An American who renounces citizenship does so for a strong reason, mostly to do with feeling unfairly treated, especially tax-wise. The US is the only country in the world that taxes its citizens no matter where they live or work. Americans with a second passport and not living in the US would prefer to exit this kind of tax regime.
From my own personal experience, individuals who renounce citizenship have a very typical scenario we refer to as “accidental-American.” In essence, the person was born to American parents or in America but never lived in the United States or knew about their citizenship until recently. Do you think that there should be a special exception for the individuals who fall into this category?
A special exception is not really the solution. The solution is a more normal or generally accepted tax regime, which does not tax an individual simply according to their nationality, even when living and working abroad from birth or any time along the way.
In your opinion, what proactive steps can a company take to become a trusted advisor in the Swiss community?
From the wealth manager point of view, an SEC registration comes first, then there are no cross-border communication and promotion issues, i.e., no restrictions. Other service providers such as tax advisers, lawyers or trust advisers should readily promote their services in writing, with podcasts and webcasts. They should work together in order to provide more sophisticated clients with more complex needs and tailor-made solutions that work and are compliant in all areas, i.e., no future surprises.
Anne is very clear on this point. The SEC registered firms and tax advisers need to have a Swiss presence with interested parties having access to them in person to start a dialogue. The Swiss want the personal touch and not the online or over-the-phone presence. Swiss financial services are always linked with a perception of very high quality. Firms must have this high quality, present it and maintain it. If the firm does not, then one can be assured one of the competitors ultimately will.
What do you see as the biggest need that can be addressed by trusted advisors for the expat or Swiss community?
Expats and Swiss-Americans do not want to make any mistakes; they do not want any unpleasant surprises in the future. They want highly professional and experienced advisors who know what they are doing. Many Americans in Switzerland realize the need for professional advice and are happy to pay the price for getting things right from the beginning.
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