How are citizenship by investment programs affected due to covid-19?

When the pandemic struck, at first, it impacted all citizenship by investment programs (CIPs). There was uncertainty about how COVID-19 would progress, and how governments might react. Would-be investor migrants had little interest in moving from their existing places of residences to other areas, even in the developed world, of which they weren’t certain of what the future held. But once the dust of uncertainty settled, and it became clearer what measures various governments were putting in place, interest started returning in CIP initiatives. Within 4-5 months, the demand for these visas started picking up. It’s already seeing resurgence in European countries, where the response to COVID is better managed and communicated.

 

The question for prospective economic migrants, however, is whether these programs truly make for a great investment in their futures?

 

UNDERSTANDING THE U.S. EB-5 VISA PROGRAM

 

Many countries offer their own version of CIP’s.  In terms of minimum investment requirements, programs from Dominica and St. Lucia are the least expensive – with a $100,000 investment floor. At a minimum level of $2,600,000, the U.K., on the other hand, has the highest amount of investment required. The high cost of acquiring citizenship through investment has not dampened appetite for such opportunities though.

 

 

For example, during the first quarter of 2020, a time period by which COVID had enveloped almost every part of the globe, Montenegro (minimum investment $294,000) and Cyprus ($2.53M) saw interest in their CIP programs jump by 142% and 75%, respectively. Even Australia ($1.3M) and New Zealand ($1.5M) saw new investor immigrants take keen interest in their CIP programs. The reason: Better crisis management during the pandemic!

 

However, economic opportunities primarily drive interest in CIPs. And, because it is the largest economy in the world, the U.S. version of the program, EB-5 visa, is extremely popular among intending economic migrants. So, how popular is EB-5 in these post-pandemic times? Q1 2020 saw interest in the U.S. program spike by 700% versus the same period last year!

 

The U.S. EB-5 Immigrant Investor program is a creation of the Immigration Act of 1990 (“the Act”). The primary goal, set out for the Act, is to stimulate the U.S. economy through job creation and capital investment by foreign investors. Under the provisions of the Act, such investment, when made to establish a new enterprise, must create a minimum of 10 new jobs. Alternately, if an existing enterprise receives such investment, it must result “…in at least a 40% increase in the net worth or number of employees”.

So, what’s the benefit to the investor? U.S. citizenship, of course – but at what cost?

 

COST BENEFIT ANALYSIS

 

Effective November 2019, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which administers and oversees the program, implemented changes to the underlying rules governing the program. When doing a cost-benefit analysis of using investment to immigrate, it’s important to understand that these new rules significantly change the financial rationale for opting for an EB-5 visa.

The Act now requires a capital injection of $1.8 million (pre-Nov 2019 $1m) for most areas (Standard), except for Rural area and High Unemployment areas. The Act designates such locations as “Targeted employment area” (TEA). The investment threshold in TEAs is now set at $900,000 (pre-Nov 2019 $500k). Overall, that’s an 80% increase in investment from just prior to the pandemic.

 

 

However, in addition to the capital investment, prospective new investor class immigrants to the U.S., under the EB-5 class visa, must also factor other costs and fees into their cost-benefit analysis. These include:

  • I-526 petition filing fee $3,675
  • I-485 application fee $1,140
  • I-829 fee $3,750 and
  • Lawyer’s charges (typically not publicly disclosed)

What’s also not very openly disclosed, though cursorily mentioned in immigration consultant websites, are two very important components of the cost benefit analysis:

  • The EB-5 visa application process may grind on for a significant length of time – sometimes exceeding 5-years
  • The investment amounts are now inflation-indexed, and future capital investments will increase every 5-years based on future rates of inflation

By putting all these variables into the mix, economic migrants can make informed decisions about whether programs such as EB-5 are a beneficial investment.

 

CRUNCHING THE NUMBERS

 

If annual inflation runs at around 2% over the foreseeable future, the future value[6] of a $1.8m investment (in today’s dollars), will grow to a net cost investment plus costs and fees) of 2.09M (Standard) by 2024 – that’s in 5-years. So, let’s look at the projected net cost of “buying” a new passport under EB-5 over the next 15-years:

 

 

By 2034, that amount rises to $2.55M. Most immigration consultants won’t discuss the longer-term implications of CIPs. For economic migrants looking to make the U.S. their new home in the next 10 to 15-years, those future outlays are the numbers that must drive their decision. Besides, if it’s COVID you are running away from, EB5 won’t offer any respite, because the process may take as long as 5-years to complete – with no guarantees offered by your immigration consultant!

Is there an alternate to EB-5?

 

THE ALTERNATE BUSINESS CASE

 

Unless you are an ultra-high-net-worth individual (or family), citizenship by investment programs, like the U.S. version offered by EB5 BRICS, are out of reach for the vast number of global residents. If you did have access to the amount of money (the price tag can be as high as $6.5M in New Zealand) required to “buy” another passport, perhaps a better strategy might be to invest some of those funds wisely in a portfolio of dividend-paying stocks.

 

 

At the end of June 2020, the yield for the FTSE 100 index, the FTSE All-Share index, Taiwan-based companies and Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index stood at 4.81%, 4.66%, 4% and 3.51% respectively. Assuming an average Rate of Return (ROR) of 3.5%, you could comfortably use your investment gains to fund an extended overseas vacation in a region – the Caribbean, for instance – where COVID-19 is better managed. 

 

Once COVID blows away, thanks to the expected arrival of a vaccine, you may consider returning to your home base. Alternately, buy yourself a Greek passport (for as little as $350,000), and gain visa-free access throughout the European Schengen economic area – a 26-fold ROI in terms of the number of countries accessible.