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Expatriate Payroll Tips #3 – Foreign Exchange for Expatriate Payroll Transactions

In the 3rd series of tips for Expatriate Payroll Professionals, Dave Leboff discusses Foreign Exchange for Expatriate Payroll Transactions.

Dave Leboff, Immedis US
Dave Leboff, Immedis US

A US outbound expatriate will in many cases be reportable on two concurrently running payrolls. Why would anyone do something this complicated you might (and rightly) ask? Why not just employ the expatriate directly from the host country entity so that we, here in the US, never have to worry about them again unless they return?  Some of the reasons include:

  • Unlike many other nations, the US citizen or resident must continue to report income, remit taxes and file US and possibly state tax returns when they are living in another country. Payroll reporting and withholding makes this easier to deal with.
  • A US outbound expatriate usually expects to remain in the home country social security system and have an opportunity to continue to contribute to their deferred compensation program (such a 401 (k) or 403 (b) plan*). Unlike many other countries where you can contribute to a social insurance program if you are working abroad, you need to be on a US payroll or working in a self-employed capacity to contribute to US social security and Medicare. Same with 401(k’s) or 403 (b’s).

So as you come to grips with the fact that there really is a rationale to keep international transferees on your payroll after all, you will need to become familiar with foreign exchange calculations. You will also need to apply rules that your organization agrees upon, in order to account for transactions that are reflected on the host country payroll and that your US payroll will be required to report as well.

Foreign exchange calculations are simple and straightforward. You need to know the currency in which a reportable item was paid, the exchange rate on the date the item was paid, and then simply apply the math.

For example, if monthly rent for March of MXN 54,000 was paid by the employer on behalf of an expatriate via the accounts payable department in Mexico, and the exchange rate is 18 pesos to the dollar, then the rent is reflected on your US payroll as follows:

Rent:                                                     MXN 54,000

Exchange Rate:                                   ÷ 18

Reportable on US Payroll:                 USD 3,000

The rent that you are reporting on the US payroll will be reported to you in most cases by either an AP report or, more likely, as an item reflected on the pay register or similar report produced with transactions reported on the Mexican payroll.

But how do you determine the exchange rate? Where do you get it from? What date do you use? What month is the transaction reported?

Logically, the most accurate exchange rate would be the spot rate on the date of the transaction. If the transaction was, let’s say, completed on February 29, 2016 and the Mexican employer had pesos in the bank and used those to fund the rent, then an exchange rate reflecting the rent paid on the date of the transaction would be best.

If you go to OANDA.com, one of many exchange rate tracking sites, you will find that the average interbank exchange rate on 2/29/2016 was actually 18.28 MXN/USD. The amount reportable on the US payroll in February (the month that the rent was paid) is $2,953.95. If the transaction was complete on March 1st, by the way, it should be reportable in March…

Trying to follow many reportable transactions that are occurring on host payrolls for many expatriates can be complex. As a payroll professional facing this challenge, I would suggest that you discuss the problem with your accounting or finance department and establish a set of rules that will be consistently applied to the payroll transactions emanating from the host country payroll. These rules can be applicable across the board (e.g., “exchange rate on the 15th of the month”, “average exchange rate for the month”, “accounting department-defined monthly exchange rates”), or defined separately by income or expense type (e.g., “for a special local bonus use the exchange rate on the date of the bonus”, “last day of the month”, “for any rent payments”). Either way, again, it is the accounting or finance department that is responsible to set this rule, so please reach out to them and not the payroll department.

Once you have the rules defined, you can set up a process for capturing the transactions completed in the host location that also require reporting on the US payroll. The host country, incidentally, needs to complete a similar process for what is reported in the US. That process could simply be to exchange the equivalent of your payroll register data. You may need some translation assistance if the descriptions are in the local language.

A couple of closing points…

Be careful about applying the exchange rates. There seems to be a tendency to presume that there are many more units of foreign currencies than for the same amount of USD (e.g., 18 Mexican pesos per one US dollar). This is not always true. In fact, some of the most common currencies exchanged go the other way and some flip flop over time as to which way the exchange goes. For example, on 2/29/2016 the rate of exchange was 0.72 British Pounds per USD and 0.92 Euro to the USD. There were also 1.35 Canadian Dollars (CAD) per USD on that date. But on 7/31/2011, the rate was 1.05 USD per CAD.

So be sure to focus carefully on the rules to apply and the results before pressing the payroll processing button for your expatriates.

And finally, make sure that you do not double pay items that the US payroll needs to report but that have been processed and funded on the host payroll. For example, if $3,000 of rent was paid in the host country, you may want to report income of $3,000 and set up a non-taxable deduction for “Foreign Paid Items” to offset the locally paid item and prevent the double pay.

Dave Leboff is the President, US Operations for Immedis and based in New York.

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More tips from Dave Leboff:

Expatriate Payroll Tips #1 – Skills and Competencies Required
Expatriate Payroll Tips #2 – A Review of the Balance Sheet Model
Expatriate Payroll Tips #4 – Tax Equalization – An Overview