What Is an American Depositary Share (ADS)?

An American depositary share (ADS) is an equity share of a non-U.S. company that is held by a U.S. depositary bank and is available for purchase by U.S. investors.

The entire issuance of shares by a foreign company is called an American Depositary Receipt (ADR), while the individual shares are referred to as ADSs. But the terms American Depositary Shares and American Depositary Receipts are often used interchangeably.

Key Takeaways

  • American Depositary Shares (ADS) refer to shares in foreign companies that are held by U.S. depositary banks and can be traded in the U.S., including on major exchanges.
  • The terms American Depositary Shares and American Depositary Receipts are often used interchangeably.
  • ADSs allow foreign companies access to a wider investor base and the world's most sophisticated financial marketplace.
  • The main drawback of ADSs for investors is that there is still some currency risk, even though they are denominated in U.S. dollars.

Understanding American Depositary Shares

An ADR is a negotiable certificate issued by a U.S. bank, under agreement with the foreign company, and is evidence of ownership of ADSs, much the same way a stock certificate denotes ownership of equity shares.

ADSs are meant to facilitate trading of the shares. They can trade over-the-counter (OTC) or on a major exchange such as the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) or the Nasdaq (Nasdaq), depending on how much the foreign company is willing to comply with U.S. regulations. Listing on a major exchange generally requires the same level of reporting as that done by domestic companies, as well as adherence to Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP).

The Benefits of ADSs

Foreign companies that choose to offer shares on U.S. exchanges gain the advantage of a wider investor base, which can also lower costs of future capital. For U.S. investors, ADSs offer the opportunity to invest in foreign companies without dealing with currency conversions and other cross-border administrative hoops.

The Downside of ADSs

There is some currency risk involved in holding ADSs. Fluctuations in the exchange rate between the U.S. dollar and the foreign currency will have some effect on the price of shares as well as on any income payments, which must be converted into U.S. dollars.

Tax treatment of dividends from ADSs is also different. Most countries apply a withholding amount on dividends issued for ADRs. This withholding amount can vary. For example, Chile and Switzerland withhold 35% while France can withhold as much as 75% of the tax on dividends, in the case of non-cooperative countries within the EU. The withholding tax is in addition to the dividend tax already levied by U.S. authorities. The dividend tax can be avoided by ADR investors by filling out Form 1116 for foreign tax credit.

Real World Examples of ADSs

A single ADS often represents more than one share of common stock. Further, ADSs can "gap" up or down outside of U.S. trading hours, when trading is happening in the company's home country and U.S. markets are closed.

For example, South Korea's Woori Bank, a subsidiary of Woori Financial Group, has ADSs that are traded in the U.S. The bank's ADS gapped up by $0.03 on July 20, 2016. A technical analysis of the price action on this ADS shows that for the past decade, its price continued higher two-thirds of the time after a gap up.