Aussie expats in firing line over 2012 budget proposals

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There wasn’t a great deal of joy for expatriate Australians in the 2012/2013 Australian Federal Budget handed down on May 8th.

This budget has variously been called the “Battler’s Budget” and the “Robin Hood Budget” with the obvious implications of pinching a bit from the rich and giving a bit to the poor.  It’s a little more complex than that as, drilling down into the details we find that the government has also taken a pot-shot at a very soft target – expatriates. Some of the measures leveled at non-resident Australians include the scrapping of the 50% capital gains tax discount, increasing the non-resident marginal tax rate and introducing measures that will potentially reduce the amount of Aged Pension received by expat retirees.  These and other measures proposed are all part of the “surplus we had to have” – Treasurer Wayne Swan’s promise to deliver a budget surplus seemingly at any cost.

Even as governments in other parts of the globe are beginning to doubt the benefits of austerity programs, Australia has decided to go down this route even when not economically necessary. Rather, once promised, it became politically inevitable. This was one promise that had to be kept by the Labour government in order to avoid political crucifixion in parliament.

The government has shrewdly targeted non-residents for some special treatment as we represent a politically soft target. The average Aussie on the street back in Sydney or Melbourne or Perth is unlikely to be too concerned that “non-residents” have had their tax burden increased or their pension entitlements reduced.

Some of the proposed measures include:

The tax rate for non-residents for income ranging from 0 – $80,000 will be increased to 32.5% from July 1st 2012 and to 33% from July 1st 2015.  This will affect those expats that derive part or all of their income from taxable sources in Australia. This includes such items as rent from investment properties, wages and salaries paid in Australia and the taxable portion of superannuation pensions. There are measures that may be taken in order to potentially offset Australian income tax for expats, including concessional (tax deductible) contributions to superannuation.

In what is likely to be a highly unpopular move amongst expats, the 50% capital gains tax (CGT) discount has been scrapped for non-residents from 8th May 2012. Gains made on certain assets, such as investment properties, from that date onwards will not be eligible for the discount. According to the proposal, non-residents will still be eligible for the discount on gains made prior to May 8 provided they have a valuation on their asset as at that date. This may dampen the enthusiasm for non-residents to invest in direct Australian property, although this mightn’t be such a bad thing considering we still feel Australian property to be overpriced and relatively unaffordable by most measures.

There was some bad news for Aussie expat retirees in receipt of the Aged Pension with a proposal to increase the Australian Working Life Residence (AWLR) test from 25 years to 35 years. Essentially, the AWLR is a measure of how many years a pension recipient resided in Australia between the age of 16 and Aged Pension age (65 for a male). Currently, if you had lived in Australia for 25 years between age 16 and 65 you would be eligible for the full pension (subject to means testing). The proposed increase to 35 years means that for those expats who left Australia permanently prior to age 51 (16 + 35), they will not be eligible for the full Aged Pension.

Some of the other items of interest in the Budget include the reduction in the concessional (tax deductible) superannuation contribution cap for those aged over 50. Previously it was $50,000 but will be reduced to $25,000 as from 1 July 2012. This may impact upon those contributing to superannuation to offset other Australian income tax or those that are currently using a “transition to retirement” superannuation pension strategy.

In one of the only bright spots in the budget, the tax-free threshold on resident personal income tax has been tripled to $18,200 – although obviously there is little cheer in this for expats who are not expecting to return to Australia any time soon.

In a nutshell, the Australian government has made things just that little bit more difficult for expats that hold certain investments in Australia or derive their income from back home. This is compounded somewhat by what we see as increasing downward pressure on the Aussie dollar. Always something of a “canary in the coalmine” for global economic conditions, we feel the Aussie is substantially overvalued and expect a reasonably sharp decline in value against the USD as global economic conditions worsen. Thailand-based expatriates here for the long haul would do well to consider holding at least part of their investment portfolios in baht in order to hedge against currency risk.

Lastly, for the cigarette smokers out there – the government hasn’t forgotten to pick on you either with a reduction in the inbound duty free allowance from 250 cigarettes to 50 cigarettes from 1 September 2012. That’s only two packets of Winfield Blue that you’re allowed to take into the country without penalty.  It would be nice to believe that this measure is being introduced to promote the benefits of a healthy lifestyle, but no, the government estimates that this measure will provide savings of $600 million over 4 years in additional duties!

Nick Morton is Senior Private Client Advisor at MBMG Group and a Certified Financial Planner member of the Financial Planning Association of Australia. Nick can be contacted at [email protected]

The above data and research was compiled from sources believed to be reliable. However, neither MBMG International Ltd nor its officers can accept any liability for any errors or omissions in the above article nor bear any responsibility for any losses achieved as a result of any actions taken or not taken as a consequence of reading the above article. For more information please contact Graham Macdonald on [email protected]