Last updated January 29, 2017
Dateline: Seoul, South Korea
Wayne Gretzky once said, “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.”
For me, living outside of the United States isn’t just about escaping the growing police state, surveillance state, and crumbling economy.
That’s part of it, of course, but I also see tremendous things happening in places like Asia, and I want to be a part of it.
I’m a believer that a little vision and some action taking can lead to great results. As I frequently say, those who are successful in business – and life – do things that the unsuccessful don’t.
Fifty years ago, South Korea was quite the emerging economy. In the shadows of the Korean war and the division of a once united country, it wasn’t a country on the radar of many people.
And it certainly wasn’t the highly developed powerhouse it is today.
Today, Seoul is one of the most expensive cities in Asia, and even the world. Just the other night, I had a $22 hamburger at a restaurant in the city’s Itaewon district. Coffee at Starbucks costs six bucks. The country has some of the fastest internet speeds in the world, a tribute to its status as a high-tech economy.
Of course, Korean companies like Samsung and Hyundai-Kia have also crafted a positive trajectory, and after rocky starts in overseas markets are now well-respected brands.
The story is the same in Singapore. Fifty years ago, the tiny city-state had just gotten itself kicked out of what was then called Malaya. With all of 200-some square miles, Singapore was determined to become one of the wealthiest nations on earth.
Today, they’ve succeeded, and now are not only home to the world’s highest number of millionaires per capita, but the world’s highest income levels.
Now, imagine if you had been around and had the foresight to move to South Korea in the 1960s. Or Singapore in the 1970s. Back then, nobody knew that these countries would become as successful as they are.
But those who read the tea leaves, did their research, and – most importantly – took action, have created a very enviable position for themselves.
Moving to Singapore and even getting Singapore residency and citizenship was easier five years ago than it is today. Several decades ago, they were practically begging for talented people.
The question is: how do you find the next Singapore, or the next South Korea? Fortunately, there are still plenty of new boom markets to consider. It’s just a matter of doing your research.
Of course, you can still move to Singapore. Unemployment in Singapore is practically zero, and some foreign talent is still needed. With some capital, you could start a business. And if you’re a wealthy investor, you can get in just by moving some capital in to the country.
However, Singapore is no longer the growth stock of countries. It has established itself as a stable jurisdiction with a strong financial system. They don’t need to make things easy, and you’re not likely to get fabulously wealthy moving there.
Singapore is a place to protect your capital and enjoy the highest standard of living in southeast Asia. However, Singapore banks are becoming harder to crack for account openings and the cost of doing business there is increasing.
The next boom markets, of course, are those that are still in that “growth stock” mode. These are the ones where the right bet could increase your real estate and business values significantly, just because you made the right decision.
I’ve talked a lot lately about Malaysia as a country I see as being a great growth candidate. While Malaysia and especially Kuala Lumpur are already more developed than much of the region, there is still room to grow.
In some respects, Malaysia has freer markets than Singapore, such as when it comes to buying real estate. There have been rumblings about a lack of freedom of the press there lately (rumblings that would be just as much at home in Singapore), which poses a possible concern, except for the fact that Mainland China has similar issues and will undoubtedly be one country that pays great dividends to its citizens.
Also, Malaysia is a bit like the United States in that it has a liberal melting pot in Kuala Lumpur, and pockets of more theocratic Muslims in more rural areas.
Overall, I believe that economic issues will cause a country to rise in spite of these issues, and Malaysia has done a number of things right.
In South America, Uruguay is making moves to be more attractive to foreigners. While far from the cheapest country in South America, Uruguay is becoming a more attractive jurisdiction for offshore banking and foreign investment.
Uruguay also has farmland that, if optimized, could make a more significant player in agriculture. And right now, you can get Uruguayan citizenship in as little as three to five years, depending on your marital status, if you’re willing to live there at the vast majority of the time.
Lastly, while I’m no fan of the European Union, I do believe we’ll see one or two nice success stories out of eastern Europe. Latvia has been straddling the fence, creating a banking sector that caters to wealthy Russians seeking greater transparency and stability than existed in Cyprus, while seeking to attract western money as well.
With Estonia’s very reasonable corporate tax policy and Lithuania on track to be the last of the Baltic states to ascend to the Eurozone, northeastern Europe also poses the potential for opportunity. The Baltics’ proximity to Finland is also inspiring.
It is more difficult to determine the best play in Europe because of the EU. However, if you’re young and willing to wait longer for dividends to come due, I see potential in southeastern European countries like Georgia, as well.
The free market represents supply and demand. Countries that need talented, capable, and/or wealthy people make it easy for those people to come in.
Uruguay’s willingness to issue passports to people from just about anywhere on earth shows they are looking to build an inclusive country.
Meanwhile, Latvia has just clamped down on its real estate investor visa program, limiting the number of visas issued each year to several hundred and making it harder for Russians to get in.
While part of this is nationalistic politics, some of it is reflected in the fact that the country is on the right track and needs to up its entry fee.
The same has been speculated about Malaysia, where as little as US$45,000 in bank deposits can earn you a visa into the country. Officials there have said that, in order to attract a higher level of talent, they need to raise the cost of admission.
On the far end of the spectrum, places like Hong Kong – which investors once feared would be swallowed up and destroyed by China – now require well north of one million dollars to move there. It’s the ultimate example of a country finding a winning formula and being able to be extremely picky about who can move there.
The countries that make it easiest to get in are the potential “growth stocks”. However, once things start heating up and the value of real estate/the currency/citizenship/etc. increases, the country will almost always increase the cost to reflect the new value.
The point is, don’t wait until it’s too late if you want to take advantage of the next boom market. As in any other market, most investors are followers rather than trend spotters. Once the country you want to move to becomes a Singapore-style boom market, you may be locked out.
Then, your ability to both profit and to get a residence and passport at value levels will be gone forever.