Few expatriates used to think twice about opening an offshore account. They provide a means of keeping Sterling outside the UK (useful to help prove your UK-non residency status); you can usually open and use them from anywhere in the world; interest rates were often higher than their onshore counterparts and they have also been popular for ‘tax planning’ purposes.
While the first two benefits listed above still apply, offshore banks do not necessarily provide the same interest rate advantages that they used to, and from a tax planning point of view the situation is very different today, with more developments on the horizon.
Following the collapse of Icelandic banks in the Isle of Man and Channel Islands, savers also began to question how safe their savings were, even though the jurisdictions did then implement or improve depositor protection schemes.
As a result of these changes, more savers today are considering alternative homes for their wealth.
Offshore banks were often used by people to hide capital and interest earnings away from the taxman. While they were legally obliged to declare worldwide income, the taxman had no means of tracing their account so there was little pressure to report it. Interest was usually paid gross and as offshore banks were not bound by the laws of your country of residence it was a case of ‘what the taxman doesn’t know about he can’t tax’.
The introduction of the EU Savings Tax Directive in 2005 served to change this. All Member States are required to operate automatic exchange of information on interest payments on accounts held by residents of other States. However, Belgium, Luxembourg and Austria were allowed to operate a withholding tax system with a view to change to automatic exchange of information after a transitional period.
The Isle of Man and the Channel Islands also operate withholding tax with the option for exchange of information. The withholding tax option effectively maintains banking secrecy. Although the interest earnings now have tax deducted at source, it still falls to the owner to declare it in his country of residence.
By this time next year this will have changed. In June the Isle of Man parliament agreed that from 1 July 2011 it will withdraw the withholding tax option and only operate automatic exchange of information – there will be no more banking confidentiality for EU residents. This was an endorsement of the commitment it made at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Forum in June 2009.
It was the first offshore jurisdiction to do this and the decision will impact on all expatriates who have not declared their Isle of Man accounts in their country of residence. Anyone affected by this will need to ensure that they have reported all their interests to their local tax authority… or bear the consequences.
Following quickly on the Isle of Man’s heels, on 28 July, Guernsey’s Chief Minister announced that the jurisdiction will introduce automatic exchange of information, thereby abolishing the current option to pay a withholding tax and avoid disclosure. A government announcement said that Fiscal and Economic Policy Group has recommended to the Policy Committee that institutions in Guernsey should move to automatic exchange of information from 1 January 2011, and no later than 1 July 2011.
Following the announcement, other European jurisdictions which operate the withholding tax option, eg Switzerland, could come under increased pressure to follow suit. In any case, the withholding tax rates jumps from 20% to 35% next July.
High interest rates a distant memory
With the money markets expecting the Bank of England base rate to stay low for some time, many offshore banks have cut the rates they offer on fixed rate bonds. In June, Michelle Slade of Moneyfacts warned that now that demand for savers’ money has eased, rates are being cut as banks readjust back to more normal margins. “Banks do not want to pay more than they have to on savings, so once a few cut rates, others will invariably follow,” she said.
While a couple of banks did increase rates on fixed term bonds in July, there are still very few attractive rates available to those who do not want to tie up their money for too long.
Who owns your bank?
Do you really know who owns the offshore bank you may be using and in which jurisdiction it is based? Since the credit crunch more countries have set up depositor protection schemes but you would need to check with the bank exactly what protection they offer. Banks are no longer considered to be 100% safe and in the event of another failure it could take a long time to receive compensation.
Offshore banks closing
At any time and without much warning offshore banks are being closed down, leaving savers with less options. In June Northern Rock announced that it is closing down its operation in Guernsey on 2 September and Irish Permanent said it was shutting its Isle of Man branch by the end of the year. Other banks may follow as they retrench and reduce peripheral arms of their business. For example the Yorkshire Building Society is deciding whether to keep Yorkshire Guernsey open or not.
More and more foreign banks are closing their doors to US citizens as the US authorities take ever more draconian measures to trace and prevent tax evasion. France started to close branches of French banks in tax havens from March 2010.
Many of advantages that offshore banks used to offer investors are gradually being eroded. There are investment structures available that can reduce tax liability, and offer the potential for capital growth and higher rates of return. Speak to an experienced tax and wealth manager like Blevins Franks for the most suitable tax planning and investment strategy to meet your specific circumstances.