Expat Finance: Offshore Banking
By Thomas Crown
Summary: Crown discusses the benefits of banking offshore in a tax haven such as Luxembourg, Switzerland and the Channel Islands.
Offshore banking has often been associated with the underground economy and organized crime, via tax evasion and money laundering; however, legally, offshore banking does not prevent assets from being subject to personal income tax on interest. Except for certain persons who meet fairly complex requirements, the personal income tax of most countries makes no distinction between interest earned in local banks and those earned abroad. Persons subject to US income tax, for example, are required to declare on penalty of perjury, any offshore bank accounts -- which may or may not be numbered bank accounts -- they may have. Although offshore banks may decide not to report income to other tax authorities, and have no legal obligation to do so as they are protected by bank secrecy, this does not make the non-declaration of the income by the tax-payer or the evasion of the tax on that income legal. Following September 11, 2001, there have been many calls for more regulation on international finance, in particular concerning offshore banks, tax havens and clearing houses such as Clearstream, based in Luxembourg, being accused of being a crossroads for major illegal money flows.
An offshore bank is a bank located outside the country of residence of the depositor, typically in a low tax jurisdiction (or tax haven) that provides financial and legal advantages. These advantages typically include some or all of:
* Strong privacy
* Less restrictive legal regulation
* Low or no taxation (i.e. tax havens)
* Easy access to deposits (at least in terms of regulation)
* Protection against local political or financial instability
While the term originates from the Channel Islands "offshore" from Britain, and most offshore banks are located in island nations to this day, the term is used figuratively to refer to such banks regardless of location (Switzerland, Luxembourg and Andorra in particular are landlocked).
What type of services are available from offshore banks? The same as the services from any high street bank, plus the extremely confidential Swiss style numbered accounts. Many of the offshore banks listed on this site are respected AA credit rated international banks, that everyone has heard of before. They have simply set up an offshore division or branch division within a tax haven to attract a share of the enormous international trade, and offer almost the same services as any domestic bank. Such as the following:
* Personal and corporate current/checking account
* Personal and corporate savings accounts
* Secure internet banking facilities
* Anonymous numbered accounts (extremely confidential)
* Debit and ATM cards, which are accepted globally
* Credit cards
Going offshore in simple terms means placing your savings, investments, assets or business concerns outside of your home country, within one of the many tax havens. A tax haven is a country that has very favourable tax advantages, which means that your savings, investments, assets or business profits can grow free of almost any taxation. Although taxation is only one reason why many decide to go offshore.
To protect the free flow of your personal information and dealings. An offshore entity has no obligation to release your personal or business information, affording you with a great deal of privacy & confidentiality. In general terms your personal information will not be divulged to any governing body or tax authority unless suitable evidence can be shown to prove that you have been involved in criminal activities, such as money laundering or drug trafficking.
Financial privacy is becoming a thing of the past. Almost every single transaction made at a bank or ATM, by law, must be recorded and filed. Consumer credit agencies maintain databases full of sensitive information that is used and shared by other organizations and agencies. Asset collectors routinely advertise their ability to locate bank accounts, brokerage accounts, and real estate and business holdings. Should asset collectors find substantial wealth, the individual or corporation becomes an easy target for a lawsuit.
Unless ethical and legal steps are taken to insure privacy, sensitive and confidential information could easily get into the wrong hands. Placing your assets, investments, savings bank and brokerage accounts offshore will keep them off the asset collector's radar screen. Consumer credit agencies and government departments do not have access to foreign account records or transactions. Domestic property may be held in the name of a foreign corporation (IBC) or trust. This insures that asset collectors and agencies cannot locate it. By taking advantage of these methods an individual or corporation becomes a smaller target and the likelihood of being sued is reduced. Utilizing offshore tools to protect privacy could mean the difference between keeping and losing what is rightfully yours.
As stated above, your savings, investments, assets or business profits can grow almost free of any form of taxation. This does not mean tax avoidance, it simply means whilst your assets are held offshore they will benefit from very favourable tax advantages. There will for many however, be a potential tax liability when you look to repatriate your assets to your home country. This will depend on your nationality and your country of residence at the time of repatriation.
There are many methods in which to protect your assets using an offshore structure, in the form of an investment product, an IBC (International Business Company) or a offshore trust, or even a simple offshore bank account. These will protect your assets from:
* Protection from invasive bureaucracy
* Protection against lawsuits
* Protect your assets from seizure
The simplest form of protection offshore is the nature of the offshore privacy rules. What isn't known can't be attacked. The basic form of offshore privacy combined with a IBC or Trust is a very secure method to legally protect your assets from prying eyes.
Lawsuits are filed every week. Ex-spouses, ex-business partners, disgruntled employees or predatory lawyers may file a suit if they believe a potential defendant is an attractive target. Losing such a lawsuit could cause a lifetime's worth of savings, investments and real estate holdings to be lost. In light of this, placing assets offshore is a wise and effective means of protection from frivolous lawsuits.
Once your assets are held offshore they are unreachable by domestic courts. In the event of a lawsuit, a defendant may be forced to forfeit domestic assets, but offshore assets will remain untouched. Offshore courts do not recognize or carry out domestic judgments. This insures that assets sent offshore will remain confidential, secure, and permanently in the hands of their rightful owners. Moving assets offshore will create peace of mind that what's yours will always be yours.
The regulations in force within most high tax countries, are there to protect investors, and rightly so. However, due to the very strict nature of these regulations, fund managers feel as if they are wearing a financial straight Jacket. It is difficult for them to compete with the returns of their offshore-based partners who enjoy less restrictive regulation. Many offshore jurisdictions have very mature regulatory systems in place, often based on those present within the US or the UK, yet they allow fund managers great freedom to add value for their investors. This is why offshore funds nearly always outperform their onshore equivalents. Within the high regulation onshore countries, excessive rules and bureaucracy often plague domestic businesses and operations. Valuable resources are diverted away from the productive process in order to monitor compliance as a result of the restrictions imposed. Curing this problem is as simple as moving to friendlier shores. Offshore jurisdictions are intentionally business-friendly and have regulations that are straightforward, simple to understand and inexpensive to comply with. Moving a business offshore and enjoying a more pleasant business climate may require nothing more than forming an offshore corporation and transferring assets from the domestic corporation to the foreign one.
Is all of this legal?
Do you trust your current bank or investment provider? Chances are that they too have an offshore operation; most of the world's major banks and investment companies have an offshore present. Do you honestly believe that a triple A credited rated investment company or bank would operate in an illegal activity? Companies such as Merrill Lynch, HSBC, ING Barings, UBS, Barclays, Deustche bank, ABN Amro all have offshore operations. It is not the offshore industry itself that is illegal, it is only the devious activities of certain individuals who may give the offshore industry a poor reputation. It is also true that the due diligence, and money laundering checks performed by offshore companies is increasing, especially after the 911 terrorist attacks. Which will ensure that it becomes difficult for criminals to abuse the offshore industry.
About the Author
Thomas Crown is an American financial advisor currently living and working in the Grand Cayman Islands. He currently runs the website www.offshorecash.net which is a Beginners Guide to Offshore Banking.
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First Published: Oct 21, 2006