Tax havens seek eastern promise

Written by Agencies | St Helier/St Peter Port | Updated: Mar 31 2010, 21:04pm hrs
The eye-East policy has been forced by authorities in the West increasingly making it tough to evade tax.

The rocky islands that lie off France's northern shores are angling for the new rich of Asia, as clampdowns on offshore tax havens and tougher regulation threaten their traditional sources of income.

Jersey and its Channel Island neighbour Guernsey, which are British, have since the 1960s thrived off financial services sold to wealthy people attracted by low, or no, tax rates and high levels of banking secrecy.

Aside from its French street names, Jersey's capital St Helier resembles a well-to-do English suburb, with the island's inhabitants earning an average annual salary of 31,000 pounds ($46,250), compared with around 26,000 on the British mainland.

The jobs advertised in the windows of employment agencies -- Senior Private Banker, Japanese Speaking Trust Administrator -- speak volumes about the source of the islands' relative wealth.

But the finance industry, still reeling from the global banking crisis, is facing a challenge.

Bank deposits were down 25 percent in Guernsey and 20 percent in Jersey last year, while the value of investment funds in Guernsey was down 8 percent and more than 4 percent lower in Jersey.

At the same time, an international crackdown on tax avoidance through offshore banking, attacks on banking secrecy and proposed European laws on alternative investment funds are forcing the islands to look elsewhere for future prosperity.

Historically, we've just sat back and all the business has come to us, said Peter Niven, head of Guernsey Finance, a publicly funded body set up to promote the island's finance industry internationally.

It's a different dynamic now. We have to be out there pleading our case, he said.

EYEING THE EAST

One serious worry is the threat to a burgeoning alternative private equity and hedge fund sector from proposed European Union restrictions.

The EU directive on Alternative Investment Fund Managers could exclude funds in the Channel islands, which are outside the union, from selling into Europe.

This could be a blow to private equity groups such as Terra Firma, based in Guernsey and run by Guy Hands who recently joined a growing colony of British tax exiles living on the island.

Both Jersey and Guernsey are responding by seeking new business in the fast-growing economies of Asia.

But the push to market the financial services of two micro states to the east is proving tough. Channel Island specialities such as trusts -- assets held for protection by a separate legal entity -- are difficult to sell to nations like the Chinese.

Trusts are based on a fairly esoteric branch of British law. You have to question how comfortable a first generation Beijing entrepreneur will be with the idea of handing legal title of his assets to a foreigner on an island in the Channel, said Catherine Tillotson, head of research at Scorpio Partnership, a wealth management consultancy.

Alan Chick, a Guernsey trust professional, agrees.

It's very difficult to persuade the Chinese to actually part with their funds.... The Chinese don't understand (the trust) principle, said Chick, chairman of Guernsey-based Richmond Fiduciary Group in a phone interview from Hong Kong.

TAX FLIGHT

Another possible growth area is to persuade more fund managers to relocate to the islands where their funds are registered, to escape higher UK taxes.

While the top tax rate in the UK is about to rise to 50 percent, income tax on rich migrants to Jersey who qualify for residency through a tough vetting process is levied at 20 percent on the first 1 million pounds of earnings, 10 percent on the next 500,000 pounds and 1 percent on the rest. Guernsey taxes income at a flat rate of 20 percent. Neither island levies inheritance or capital gains tax.

The tax benefits need to be impressive, as in Guernsey, non-natives are limited to purchasing property from a pool of 1700 homes designated open market and set aside for outsiders, costing at least twice as much as local housing.

It's difficult to find your dream home on the open market, said Matthew Henry of Guernsey estate agents Swoffers. He expects open market prices to rise further and reports a growing number of enquiries from disgruntled UK taxpayers.

Guy Hands, who set up home on the island last year, bought Ocean House -- newly built, equipped with the latest in electronic gadgetry and with a sea view -- marketed at 8 million pounds, equal to the most expensive home ever sold here.

In Jersey, a small but growing left-wing political movement says the islands' natives see too little of the success of financial services and is calling for higher taxes on the industry. Finance has to pay its way, said Geoff Southern, a deputy in the Jersey parliament.

But opponents say islands such as Jersey, only 45 square miles in size, have few alternatives.

We used to be a good tourist centre but fun is cheaper elsewhere now. We don't grow bananas, we can't build a car plant,... so you have to look around for something high value and low footprint, said Martin de Forest Brown, director of international finance for the Jersey government.

($1=.6702 Pound)