Most European retail investors that trade on their own already noticed in 2018. As a European, it’s not possible to buy US-based Exchange Traded Funds (ETF) anymore. Funds such as SPY, IVV, QQQ, VT, and many others are unavailable. The major culprit? PRIIPs, which stands for Packaged Retail and Insurance-based Investment Products. So what can we do? Well, let us have a closer look.
First of all, what does PRIIPs mean? According to Investopedia:
The term PRIIPs, created by the European Commission to regulate the underlying market, is defined as any product that is manufactured by the financial services industry, to provide investment opportunities to retail investors, where the amount repayable is subject to fluctuation because of exposure to reference values or the performance of underlying assets not directly purchased by the retail investor.”
That’s the definition of PRIIPs, but it doesn’t answer why it affects European investors.
JustETF has a solid article answering why the EU has this directive. The article has a clear message, and you notice this. It answers why US ETF’s aren’t an outstanding idea and why PRIIPs ETF regulation is thus suitable for the retail investor. I will not argue about whether PRIIPs ETF regulation is a good or bad thing for Europeans. It’s too late anyway, and as retail investors, we cannot make a change regardless.
Instead, I’ll help in another way by answering the questions:
- As a European investor, why can’t I invest in US-based trackers or ETFs?
- How to buy US ETF in Europe?
- What are some alternatives to the most bought US funds?
PRIIPs: why a European investor can't invest in US-based ETFs
PRIIPs require funds, so both active and passive to provide a Key Information Document (KID). This KID enables investors to assess the risk, reward, and costs in one quick read.
Because it’s a European regulation, European funds were ready when the new rules came into effect. Without it, they wouldn’t be allowed to be public after all.
US-based ETFs didn’t bother to comply as their focus is the US. Creating this EU-approved documentation wasn’t and still isn’t a priority for them, nor will it ever be.
It’s also very likely a money thing; why allow your European investors access to a cheap tracker when you can just let them enjoy a more expensive one?
Unfortunately, due to this decision, EU brokers don’t make the US funds available that don’t offer a KID.
How can a European investor buy US index funds?
Before we jump into buying trackers, make sure you have a brokerage account.
o, if you haven’t done so already, follow this step by step guide on setting up an account to hold funds:
- Figure out what type of investor you are by doing your due diligence. Before you invest in general, and not just in US ETFs from Europe, know your risk threshold for crazy market movement and investment horizon.
- Open an account at one of the many online brokers that offer low commission trading and gives an easy and user-friendly platform. The biggest one is DeGiro, available in 18 countries (Degiro, 2020). Others allow European to invest in US ETFs from Europe. For Belgium and 9 other countries, there is Lynx (Lynx, 2020).
- Got your account? Fund it with the amount you want to risk and miss for a longer time (remember 1?).
- Research in what you want to invest. You can read what I have in my portfolio and what I think of thematic funds or dividend aristocrats. But there is tons of info out there, so be careful and question everything! Look at regions, sectors, themes as mentioned above, and much more. There is an ETF for everyone’s taste.
JustETF.com is an excellent site with many information, including the symbol (AKA ticker) or code. Either way, think long-term and follow your risk appetite.
To help you out, some more tips on what to look for when you want to buy US ETF in Europe:
- Please pay attention to the expense ratio and keep an eye on their size. The lower the expenses, the better, though there is much more to it.
- The domicile and currency of the respective ETF you want to trade with. Domicile is the “home country” of ETF. ETF taxation varies according to domicile. It’s also country-specific, so you have to do your due diligence here. If you wish to invest in US index funds from Europe, you will probably end up with a fund domiciled in Ireland.
Finally, the currency is essential to avoid conversion fees, choose the ETF, and broker with the same currency as your account.
- Purchase the (US index) ETF based on your research and using either the ISIN code or the ticker of the ETFs. That way, you get exactly the one you wanted.
European alternatives for US-based ETFs
Once you have set up a brokerage account and decided not to go with a US broker you can still invest in US indices through different means.
Take SPY, a US tracker. It has an ISIN code starting with ‘US’ (US78462F1030). What this tracker does, is track the S&P500 index. However, since it tracks an index, nothing stops another fund listed in Europe from doing the same (if it follows PRIIPs) just like SPY.
An example of this is CSPX. Instead of having an ISIN code starting with ‘US,’ this tracker’s ISIN starts with ‘IE’ (IE00B5BMR087).
So, since brokers aren’t allowed to make US-based funds available, these giant fund firms provide European alternatives to these vast and highly liquid US exchange-traded funds.
For most US ETFs, there is a European alternative ETF that is equivalent to the US ETF. That way, it is possible to buy US ETFs for European investors.
Naming all is beyond this article, but below are some popular funds and their European counterpart. Of course, these EU-domiciled funds aren’t nearly as significant and might be a tad bit more expensive, but there is no alternative for the retail trader if they want to invest in US ETFs from Europe. We’ve got to make do with what we have.
As mentioned earlier in my steps on how to buy US index trackers, since European traders are forced into lesser-known funds and, thus, more often than not, smaller funds, you do have to consider their size.
The popular American trackers don’t have this concern, and it becomes apparent when you look at the size of the below-mentioned funds.
Let’s take IBB and SBIO. IBB has a hefty 8.15 billion dollars in Assets. SBIO? 345.48 million dollars. Bit of a difference, no? Of course, biotech is still pretty popular, so even the lesser-known Invesco NASDAQ Biotech fund still has a comfortable amount of Assets. Others, on the other hand, not so much. Take the SPDR MSCI Europe Telecommunications UCITS ETF. It currently sits at 5.93 million EUR in assets. This is very low. I’m not saying it’ll disappear tomorrow, but it certainly isn’t a fund you want to consider if you’re going to focus on telecommunications.
Their size isn’t a concern for the ones mentioned below, just like with most fonds, but you have been warned.
But what if I really want to buy US-based trackers in Europe?
So, regulations prevent Europeans from buying US-based funds, but what if you really want to get SPY, VTI, or QQQ?
There is a way to get access to US trackers that don’t comply with European regulations if you want to trade those:
Register with a US broker!
While it sounds simple, you have to realize that these brokers do not comply with EU regulations, and thus you will have to do all the work yourself. This means:
- Make sure you provide all the necessary documentation
- Deposit all the owed taxes on time
- Inform your tax service of your foreign account (for Belgians)
Having all the paperwork in order is very important. You won’t be exempt from a 30% dividend tax US brokerages take if you miss filling in the W-8BEN form (aka the Certificate of Status of Beneficial Owner for United States Tax Withholding and Reporting form).
If you are unsure if your country has a tax treaty with the US, you can find more info on the website of IRS.
Not scared away by this extra administration? Then here are trustworthy American brokers to start investing in US-based ETF or trackers:
- Firstrade: Limited to several countries. You can find the complete list on their site.
Realize that this changes frequently and that some brokers that accepted Europeans in the past, don’t anymore.
All the above-mentioned ETFs have a link to justETF that has a large (public) database of various trackers that are located in Europe. An additional benefit is that they allow you to filter on the fund’s domicile country.
I highly recommend you take a look on their site if you are interested in a certain fund.