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As remarkable as Singapore is as a first world financial hub, our local stock market is rather… humdrum. And the main reason for that is — with 5.6 million people — the Singapore market is just too small. So unless a home-grown Singaporean company is able to expand beyond its shores, its potential growth remains limited.
However, expanding overseas into new markets brings a new host of challenges. In a region as culturally diverse as Asia, a company needs to understand different languages and local customs in each new market, and navigate the unique business regulations, tax codes, compliance laws of each country. So unless a company is able to successfully crack the humongous Chinese market, it remains challenging for many firms to grow bigger beyond Singapore.
Case in point: Old Chang Kee generates 99.5% of its revenues in Singapore (with the rest trickling in from Malaysia and Australia). Old Chang Kee’s curry puff stalls already dot the island nearly everywhere; how much larger can it grow staying in Singapore?
Now compare this to the United States where its home-grown companies have access to a wealthy, homogenous market of over 330 million consumers who speak the same language, share the same customs, and spend the same dollar. It’s no surprise that American corporations are some of the largest and most successful in the world. Even if they delay venturing overseas, they can rely on their domestic market alone to grow to a tremendous size.
For example, Walmart was founded in 1962 but only opened its first international store in Mexico City in 1991. Today, Walmart has since expanded to 5,993 locations worldwide, but U.S. operations still contributed 76.3% of the company’s FY2019 revenue of US$515.4 billion.
Not only that, the U.S. is also home to some of the most innovative companies in the world. This mixture of invention and a large domestic market to test new ideas means we’ll continue to see fast-growing American companies with the potential to disrupt new industries in years to come.
Have a look at the returns of some of the best U.S. companies over the last five years:
Even a company already as large as Amazon was able to grow 474.0% in just five years. You’d be hard-pressed to find any companies of similar scale and quality if you only stick to investing within Singapore.
As a foreigner investing in the U.S. market, it’s important to note that even though you don’t face any capital gains tax on your stocks investments, you do pay a 30% withholding tax on dividends. Knowing this, it makes sense to invest in U.S. stocks for growth and capital appreciation. (On the other hand, Singapore doesn’t have a dividend tax — which makes many Singapore stocks/REITs a great vehicle for dividend income.)
If you’ve never bought a U.S. stock before and you’ve always wondered how you can do so, it’s pretty straightforward. In this article, I’ll list the brokerage options available for Singapore residents, and the pros and cons of each.
The first option is to simply buy U.S. shares through one of our ‘traditional’ local brokerage firms. Here’s a list of Singapore brokerages and their U.S. market trading fees:
|Brokerage||Min. Fees (US$)||Trading Commissions||Custodian Fees|
|CGS-CIMB Securities||20||0.30%||S$2 per counter per month|
|Citibank Brokerage||25||0.30%||0.01% of your monthly average stockholding balance, up to a maximum of USD 100 every six months|
|DBS Vickers||25||0.18%||S$2 per counter per month|
|FSMOne||8.80||0.08%||No custodian fees|
|KGI Securities||20||0.30%||None stated|
|Lim & Tan Securities||20||0.30%||S$2 per counter per month|
|Maybank Kim Eng Securities||20||0.30%||S$2 per counter per month|
|OCBC Securities||20||0.30%||S$2 per counter per month|
|Phillip Securities||20 flat fee||-||S$2 per counter per month|
|RHB Securities||20||0.30%||S$2 per counter per month|
|SAXO Markets||4||0.06%||0.12% p.a. of stockholding balance, custodian fee calculated daily using the end of day values and charged on a monthly basis|
|Standard Chartered||10||0.25%||No custodian fees|
|UOB Kay Hian||20||0.30%||S$2 per counter per month|
Updated as of 21 October 2019.
From the table above, you’d notice that most local brokerages charge trading commissions of 0.30% with a minimum fee of US$20-25 to trade U.S.-listed shares. You’ll see that most of them also charge a monthly custodian fee of S$2 per foreign stock. So if you own 10 foreign stocks, you’re paying an extra S$20 a month in custodian fees for your brokerage firm to hold the shares for you.
Three options stand out, however: FSMOne, Saxo Markets, and Standard Chartered. They charge the lowest minimum fees and have no custodian fees in the case of FSMOne and Standard Chartered. Saxo Markets charges a custodian fee, but it is relatively cheaper than most Singapore brokerages until your portfolio reaches a sizable amount.
All three are solid options if you’re looking for a cheaper way to access the U.S. market compared to the rest of the Singapore brokerages. Saxo Markets, in my opinion, probably stands out the most due to its lowest fees (US$4) and the fact that it also gives you access to 36 exchanges around the world including Europe, China, Hong Kong, Japan, and Australia.
If you want to know the steps on how to open an account with a Singapore brokerage, you can check out our handy resource guide here.
The second option is to go direct and open an account with a U.S. brokerage. There used to be three options for Singapore residents – Interactive Brokers, TD Ameritrade, and Charles Schwab. However, the latter recently announced it would be closing its Singapore office and will no longer be licensed to hold accounts here. (Which is a huge pity as a current Schwab account holder myself; Schwab has a really easy-to-use interface and mobile app, and recently slashed its trading commissions for U.S. stocks and ETFs to zero.)
So that leaves us with Interactive Brokers and TD Ameritrade:
|Brokerage||Min. Fees (US$)||Trading Commissions||Maintenance Fees|
|Interactive Brokers||1.00||US$0.005 per share, up to a maximum of 1.0% of trade value||Up to US$10 per month (less commission paid that month), waived if account has greater than US$100,000 in average equity for a calendar month|
|TD Ameritrade||10.65 flat fee||-||None|
Updated as of 21 October 2019.
The standout here is Interactive Brokers which offers far, far lower minimum fees of just US$1. However, they charge a maintenance fee of US$10 a month, which is waived if you have US$100,000 in your account. So unless you’re willing to fund your account to that amount or make at least 10 trades a month with Interactive Brokers, this may be unsuitable for some investors.
I’d like to point out that due to Charles Schwab’s decision to eliminate trading commissions for U.S. stocks and ETFs, it practically forced competitors to make a similar move. Which is why Interactive Brokers and TD Ameritrade now offer zero-commission trading accounts in the U.S. Unfortunately, these are still unavailable for Singapore residents at the moment.
The strength and ingenuity of the American economy over the last hundred years means that the U.S. stock market is home to many of the best companies in the world. Until Asia catches up over the next few decades, the U.S. will arguably remain the most attractive equities market for investors everywhere.
My choice of brokerages to invest in the U.S. markets would be Saxo Markets and Interactive Brokers; I personally moved to Saxo Markets after the closure of Charles Schwab in Singapore. The much lower fees and added flexibility of being able to access other Asian and European exchanges tipped the scales in Saxo’s favour, especially when compared to the excessive fees charged by many Singapore brokerages.
Saxo’s 0.12% annual custodian fee will become more expensive as your portfolio grows larger (>US$100,000). When that happens, you can choose to move to Interactive Brokers if you wish to save even more on fees in the future. But if you’re just starting out, then Saxo Markets would probably be the more practical choice for most investors.