There are very serious economic and financial implications for the British Virgin Islands as a consequence of the United Kingdom’s decision to impose public registers of beneficial ownership on the Overseas Territories.
Company incorporations and other areas of financial services business were already declining and this latest development will likely further contribute to this trend.
We should assume, therefore, that there will be a negative impact on the economy over time, if not much sooner.
To compensate, tourism will have to take on a much more prominent role as a driver of economic growth in the medium and longer term.
U.K. Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act
The U.K. Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act that received Royal Assent on May 24, 2018, requires the Overseas Territories to implement public registers by Dec. 31, 2020, or have them imposed by an Order in Council in the U.K. Parliament.
Compliance with the legislation would require the BVI government to make public the names of the ultimate beneficial owners of BVI companies.
It is true that one of the attractions of the jurisdiction is the confidentiality it provides to clients, but not for secrecy purposes – rather for privacy and security reasons.
People are entitled to privacy. It is one of the hallmarks of a civilized society.
Taking away privacy as one of the important features of the jurisdiction would compromise its business model and drive away clients for whom privacy and security, among other things, are paramount.
The government’s position on the matter is that the BVI will not implement a public register until it becomes a global standard. This would prevent the financial services industry from being at a competitive disadvantage relative to the Crown Dependencies (i.e., Jersey, Guernsey and Isle of Man) and the overwhelming majority of jurisdictions around the world that do not have public registers.
Economic and financial implications
The importance of financial services to the BVI economy cannot be understated. It is a critical source of revenue for the government, especially right now as the territory recovers from Hurricanes Irma and Maria.
Prior to the storms, financial services accounted for 60 percent of government revenue. In 2018, the sector is expected to contribute roughly $180 million to the government’s budget of $300 million.
In its wider economic context, financial services supports the economy, in terms of employment, rental properties and the purchase of goods and services locally. In 2016, it accounted for 21 percent of GDP, which was roughly $200 million. The gross added value generated by the sector is just about $333 million.
The government itself is one of the biggest buyers of goods and services in the territory and also the largest employer.
U.K. consulting firm Capital Economics estimates that implementing a public register would cause company incorporations over time to decline by nearly half. This would result in a loss of 45 percent of government revenue, which is just about $135 million today. The impact on the wider economy would be much greater.
State of play and potential outcomes
As the implementation deadline of Dec. 31, 2020, approaches, there will either be a compromise between the British Virgins Islands and the United Kingdom on a public register; or the British Parliament will pass an Order in Council to enforce implementation.
If a compromise is found, the situation should stabilize.
If an Order in Council is passed, the BVI government has confirmed it will mount a legal challenge.
If the government wins, then the industry will carry on.
If the government loses, we will certainly see an exodus of companies from the jurisdiction.
Rebalancing the economy
The BVI urgently needs to begin rebalancing the economy to reduce the territory’s vulnerability to the external pressures on the financial services industry.
Rebalancing the economy calls for channelling greater resources toward the expansion of other sectors of the economy that have the potential to drive economic growth.
The BVI’s economic recovery after the global financial crisis provides some guidance on this.
In 2009, the economy contracted by 11.7 percent because of the global recession. Company incorporations fell by 23 percent and tourist arrivals fell by 77,405 visitors. By the end of that year, gross domestic product stood at $876 million, after losses of $116 million.
However, by 2017, GDP stood at just over $1 billion. In a span of eight years, the economy grew by more than $123 million, which was achieved largely through a sharp increase in public spending on capital projects and a significant increase in tourist arrivals that hit one million by the end of 2016.
Company incorporations also grew modestly.
So, in fact, it is already well understood that tourism and construction are the key economic drivers that can accelerate expansion of the economy on a scale that would return GDP to $1 billion within 10 years.
The current recovery efforts from Hurricanes Irma and Maria provide the level of demand for this scale of economic growth, at least in the construction sector.
Tourism as a driver of economic growth
Tourism’s multi-sectorial potential makes it ideally placed to rebalance and reshape the economy over the long term.
If leveraged strategically, the industry can become a powerful driver of economic diversification through stronger commercial linkages to agriculture, fisheries, sports, health, culture and other local sectors. The multiplier effect in the economy would be powerful and generate jobs and business opportunities.
But rebalancing the economy toward tourism and construction will not happen magically on its own. These sectors will have to be supported by the government and private sector. This includes investment in infrastructure that supports the growth and development of the tourism industry.
The government can begin its infrastructure program with rebuilding and upgrading the essential economic infrastructure of the islands, such as the highways and main roads, air and sea ports and ICT networks. This will provide an economic lift to the territory.
Their completion at international standard and efficient operation would fully re-establish the smooth flow of commerce across the islands and make BVI attractive for private investment where needed.
World class ICT has the potential to unlock the productivity and efficiency of the private and public sectors.
A genuine effort is also needed to make BVI more business friendly with respect to administrative processes and approvals.
E-government, for example, can help to make completing applications much easier and quicker for the private sector. This would be more cost effective and cut processing times. Citizens of the islands would also benefit tremendously.
The government’s financial constraints mean private investment will have to play an important role in achieving the results desired, but a proper investment framework is needed for this.
The financial services sector is facing serious external pressure and the economy must be quickly rebalanced toward tourism and construction to compensate for any negative impacts.
Rebalancing the economy, however, does not mean that the British Virgin Islands should give up on the financial services industry.
The reality is that if current trends hold, the territory will have to reinvent itself as a jurisdiction if it wishes to remain a relevant international finance center.
Financial services can actually be globally repositioned on the back of better connectivity to the outside world and financial technology. However, this shift cannot happen overnight and will require a transition period.
Tourism is the primary industry that can ensure the BVI has a soft landing and returns to strong economic growth in the years ahead.