Guernsey: "Offshore" Has Lost Much of its Meaning

Last Updated: 12 January 2004
Article by Gerry Williams

I firmly believe that Guernsey has lost its "offshore" name. The simple fact is that the tags "offshore" and "onshore" were lost many years ago.

The recent implementation of laws enforcing the licensing of trust companies in Guernsey has helped raise standards across the board, creating common standards, such as the four-eyes process, to which all trust providers have to comply. Even though this has meant we have had to restructure some of our operations, this raising of the bar is definitely good for us, the business and the clients.

The Guernsey Financial Services Commission has clearly listened to the outside world and I am more than comfortable with the levels of regulation that have been introduced. The island and other financial centres in a similar position should use this to their advantage in terms of business development, as it offers significant comfort to both existing and potential clients within our industry.

Admittedly, there are inevitable additional costs to this sector as a direct result of increased regulatory demands. However, the plus side of the re-enforced positive message which the island can give the world is of far greater importance.

I accept that the regulations have and will continue to have direct effects on the profile within the local industry. We have had to carefully restructure our operational delivery platform, as I am sure many others have, to enhance our risk management and audit function. Also there has been a degree of rationalisation and consolidation within the industry – again I am sure that we have not yet seen the end of this trend. It is inevitable that some of the smaller companies will find it more difficult to put in place the appropriate level of resource to ensure they are fully compliant with the new regulations, so some mergers and take-overs will happen as a matter of course.

In this very competitive environment, it will be the smaller trust companies that may struggle to justify and support the costs required by the new levels of due diligence. As a result, the period of consolidation is expected to continue in the trust industry.

The finance world has been subject to a series of investigations over the last few years, and I feel that well-regulated jurisdictions like Guernsey have come through this process virtually unscathed. Nonetheless these winds of change impelled us to open offices in Switzerland and the UK. Though the world is now a much smaller place, by having a wider presence, one can better meet the needs of the client.

Nonetheless, it is in Guernsey that I believe one can find the optimum environment to conduct trust business. I have worked in many other jurisdictions, such as The Bahamas, Jersey, the Isle of Man and Cayman, however my preference is Guernsey. It is a relatively small place and you can talk to the practitioners and have your views heard by the Guernsey Financial Services Commission with ease – not always possible in other places I have worked. There is a comprehensive financial and legal infrastructure, and basically both clients and practitioners alike consider the jurisdiction to be a pleasant, simple and efficient place from which to conduct business.

With a similar amount of time spent in the trust business, I am well placed to assert that the key to successful trust management is understanding what they are – a structure that takes advantage of the distinction between legal ownership and beneficial ownership - and what that allows clients to achieve. This can include estate planning, avoiding disruption on death, tax minimisation, structures that protect the mentally or physically weak, the protection and continuation of family businesses, pension schemes and much more.

This reality has not changed for the hundreds of years that trusts have been employed. What has changed, I would point out, is the way in which the trust is structured, as it can be a very flexible entity, depending on the needs and requirements of the client.

However, making sure that whatever is created is still fully compliant with regulations is the modern challenge for international trust companies. Guernsey’s removal from the various blacklists that were created undeniably helps in this. The trust arena remains a fascinating business, and one that will continue to flourish. The goal of trust businesses should be to make oneself adaptable enough to be able to react to whatever the market changes may be, which at present are quite difficult to foresee. Nonetheless, it is necessary to remain flexible and fleet of foot, and to take advantage of those changes, as and when they emerge.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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