Paradise Papers – Seeing the Wood for the Trees

logoThe now infamous “Paradise Papers” contain personal data obtained from Appleby’s Bermuda office via an illegal hack. This data in part details the utilisation of International Finance Centres (IFC), by high net worth persons and corporates, for tax mitigation purposes. This post makes no comment on the legality or otherwise of using such data. Nor, is it a commentary about tax havens vs IFCs, the ethical considerations of society, and the freedoms for legal persons to engage in trade or invest in or through an IFC. Our focus instead is the failings that Trustees, Foundation Officials, Directors and Employees in Financial Services Businesses (FSB) must learn from in the wake of this saga. We do not purport to be a tax experts and so have not commented on the validity or otherwise of any advice given whether regarding tax or structuring. Our intention is to look at the compliance and “good business practice” considerations at the heart of good corporate governance. With offices in Guernsey, Jersey and having experience of  working in Bermuda we believe analysis of legal and regulatory frameworks by jurisdiction offers a less valuable insight than a clear understanding of the general principles and terms of good corporate governance.

 
Tax Advice
In order for Trustees, Foundation Officials and Directors to fulfil their responsibility and work in the best interest of their clients they must understand and follow the professional tax advice received. They must evidence that they are compliant with this advice and periodically, depending on the type of arrangement they are administering or controlling, ensure that they have up-to-date tax advice on file. They must also evidence that these arrangements remain legal and all tax liabilities are settled when due. The following are instances where those responsible may find that they have failed to attain an appropriate standard:

• Legal arrangements over time becoming tax non-compliant;
• Legal arrangements set up with draft tax advice without the advice ever being formalised;
• Legal arrangements undertaking new activities outside the scope of the original tax advice;
• Failure to follow tax advice fully, e.g. the non-repayment of a commercial loan arrangement;
• Tax advice provided by those who are not appropriately qualified;
• Tax advice held by the client but never shown to the Trustees, Foundation Officials and Directors.

Control
To ensure tax and legal compliance the Trustees, Foundation Officials and Directors must exert control. Here again to fulfil their responsibilities they must clearly document evidence that they have overarching control of the activities of the legal arrangement. The following are instances where those responsible may find that they have failed to attain an appropriate standard:

• Beneficiaries committing the legal arrangement to a business arrangement without due consideration and approval of the Trustees, Foundation Officials and Directors in the first instance;
• Those responsible acting without due consideration;
• Those responsible committing the legal arrangement to business activities which do not accord with the arrangement’s rationale;
• Those responsible lack sufficient independence from the client;
• Those responsible are unable to evidence their control of the assets and/or activities of the arrangement.

Investments
The Paradise Papers have also raised questions regarding the suitability and legality of investments undertaken by legal entities. Trustees, Foundation Officials and Directors must ensure that the investments or business activities undertaken by the entity are in line with its intended purpose. Those responsible must also ensure the legality of any investment or business activity does not breach any international sanctions. Though investments or business activities do not require due diligence to the same standard of beneficial ownership due diligence, sufficient research and evidence must be attained to ensure such activity is in the best interest and in line with the objective of the legal arrangement. At the same time sufficient checks must be undertaken to ensure legal compliance and suitability with its objectives both at initiation and on an on-going basis thereafter. The following are instances where those responsible may find that they have failed to attain an appropriate standard:

• Investing or engaging in a business relationship with legal entities related to a sanction regime or jurisdiction;
• Not undertaking sufficient due diligence to ensure that the investment or business engagement does not involve sanctioned legal persons or sanctions breaches;
• Investing or business relationships that are out of line with the entity’s purpose.

Source of Wealth and Funds
Trustees, Foundation Officials and Directors must ensure that they have sufficient understanding and evidence of their clients’ Source of Wealth and Funds (commensurate with their risk classification) to prevent and detect criminality and terrorist financing. Understanding the origin of assets and their usage assists those responsible in forming a picture of the true beneficial ownership, intention and nature of the relationship. This also allows those responsible to have sufficient transparency and enable effective reporting required by international regulatory and legal bodies.

 
Ethics of Doing Business
Those responsible must ensure that they have given ethical consideration to the activities of any legal arrangement. Ethical considerations must accord with the documented risk appetite and it must be understood that legal arrangements engaged in aggressive tax mitigation or higher risk industries pose a higher reputational risk to the Trustees, Foundation Officials and Directors, their business and those of the jurisdictions in which they are active. As such, these relationships must be properly understood and documented as they may be open to future challenge.

 
The ethics of doing business must also consider whether sufficient knowledge, qualifications and experience are inherent in those responsible. Trustees, Foundation Officials and Directors must document and evidence their consideration of whether a business relation, either new or continuing is within their realm of knowledge, understanding and experience. Where this is not the case they should remove themselves from responsible positions or obtain suitably experienced individuals as their replacement.

 
The integrity and professional actions of those responsible will ultimately be assessed by the authorities to ensure that the best interests of stakeholders have been met at all times. This responsibility includes timely reporting of non-compliance with appropriate authorities.

 
Compliance
While the Trustees, Foundation Officials and Directors remain responsible and accountable for both and their own and the legal arrangements activities, a suitably resourced compliance function is required to assist and advise. Compliance must be a proactive force within a FSB rather than merely a tick box exercise. It must assist in ensuring that the business has attained appropriate tax and legal advice as well as ensuring it is understood and followed. Those responsible must demonstrate the required control and oversight of activities undertaken for and on behalf of the legal arrangement. Findings and recommendations must be reported back to those responsible and any remediation must be tracked to ensure that the business can demonstrate compliance, integrity and appropriate levels of knowledge and understanding of the entity’s activities.

 
Data Security
The Paradise Papers also clearly highlight the importance of implementing suitable and sufficient data security controls to protect stakeholders. These controls are not just IT system-focussed and must include effective staff training to reduce the risk of an unintentional data leak. Data security systems and processes must be monitored, tested and kept up-to-date. It goes without saying that failure to implement an efficient and effective control environment may lead to a catastrophic loss of data with disastrous reputational consequences for all stakeholders. FSB’s must also be aware and ensure that any 3rd parties who hold data do so effectively and have the necessary safeguards and review processes.

 
Conclusion
Compliance monkeyIFCs adhere to international standards and best practice. While recent data hacks have revealed that there are practitioners out there who have not abided by these requirements, the vast majority are conscientious and highly professional.

However, the current political backdrop is unfavourable to offshore jurisdictions and we should expect greater scrutiny in our professional activities for the foreseeable future. Applying the highest standards of corporate governance is our best path to a successful future.
If you have any concerns or would like to know more please either contact myself or Redwood Offshore

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Part of the Problem or Part of the Solution?

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One of the great things about compliance is that you get to assist licensees in creating and maintaining a suitable compliance framework. It is not just about meeting the regulatory requirements, part of the role is to also make a compliance framework that is suitable to also achieve the aims and objectives of the licensee’s business. I have worked as a compliance consultant, compliance officer and MLRO in the Regulated, Prescribed and Registered sectors of our financial services industry and each Licensee I worked for or provided advice to, was unique in its aims and objectives as were their products and services. For a Licensee to be successful in their business, aims and objectives as well as adherence to regulatory requirements, make up a bespoke compliance solution.

We are in an ever-changing business and regulatory climate, it’s not just the rules and the regulations that are changing but the approach the Commission takes in its supervision to Licensees. This leads to a real business problem for Directors in ensuring that their business meets the requirements and expectations of the Commission as well having to meet its own business aims and objectives. Compliance professionals can assist Licensees through their greater exposure to changes in industry practice and their exposure to the Commission and an understanding of the current supervision expectations. It’s really a no brainer having a compliance professional on tap and this will take away the worry of ensuring you are meeting the regulatory requirements and expectations while having a compliance framework that meets the aims and objectives of your business, or is it?

Having worked in many sectors of our financial services industry undertaking various roles to do with regulatory compliance and anti-money laundering and countering financing of terrorism does not mean that I am the font of all practical or theoretical knowledge in this area to be paid homage to and worshipped, I can assure you all I am not always right! Like everyone I am strong in some areas, adequate in others, and weak in a few (well maybe one or two). I always ensure that anything I undertake is something I can do well, and I believe it is refreshing to Directors when I turn round and tell them that what they are asking is out of my remit and refer them to compliance professional’s or experts who is more suitable. It is what compliance professionals and experts are there to provide isn’t it?

For compliance professionals contracts are their bread and butter.  This can lead them to grab everything that comes their way, with potentially their financial security coming at the expense of the quality of service and relations with a Licensee.  There is also the potential to obtain contracts for the financial security of the compliance professional rather than the financial best interest of the Licensee, leading to conflicts of interests.  I have previously advised Licensees to keep projects in-house due to the cost involved and more importantly that they were actually best placed to do the work themselves. It was great to be contacted later to be advised by the Licensee that they had decided that they were actually best placed to do the work and offered me a smaller contract which they did not have the expertise to undertake on their own.  Honesty means that Licensees will come back to you and also recommend your services, trust is a currency of the highest value.

Part of any compliance professional’s work is in writing and producing compliance documents and programmes to facilitate the Licensee’s compliance framework. It is all too easy for Licensees, who do not have the necessary compliance expertise in this area to unknowingly engage and pay for an all singing all dancing document that meets the regulatory requirements and some more, but won’t easily facilitate the achievement of the businesses aims and objectives. I once assisted a Licensee on review of the suitability of their compliance procedures that had been previously provided by a compliance professional. Their manual was at a very high level having a multitude of committees and quangos written into their procedures that would not be out-of-place in a global financial institution but totally unworkable for a firm that employed less than ten people locally and had a Board of six directors (inclusive of two employees). Though this document showed the theoretical prowess of the previous consultant, the manual was unworkable for the Licensee’s business and showed a lack of understanding of the regulatory framework. The Licensee had abandoned trying to follow the draconian requirements of this manual and had instead reverted to good industry practice, leading to the corporate governance headache of not following their own procedures. In this case the Licensee ended up paying twice to ensure that they had a suitable compliance procedures for their business.

Unfortunately there are compliance professionals out there who take on business they can’t service or do not have the expertise to manage effectively and/or facilitate adequately. There are compliance professionals who gold plate policies and procedures to impress their knowledge on the Licensee and obviously fail by not tailoring the policies and procedures to the business, leading to further costs being incurred by the Licensee. Unfortunately some compliance professionals negatively portray the Commission as a Vlad the Impaler archetype to scare Licensees into taking on unnecessary work due to potential misunderstanding of the rules or regulations or work the licensee would be best place to undertake themselves.

What can a Licensee do to minimise getting something that they do not require and ensure that they get the service they have paid for? It is all about doing your due diligence and I believe that the following points will be able to help a licensee.

  • Understand what knowledge and qualifications a compliance professional has.  They should be able to provide qualifications and a resume.
  • Get references or speak to previous customers of the compliance professional to get a feel of the suitability of the compliance consultant. The benefits of Guernsey is that it is quite easy to find out about people.
  • Talk to the compliance professional get a feel of their experience and knowledge, are they just about enhancing themselves, are they financially independent and are they interested in actually providing something that will enhance your business.
  • Is the compliance professional informing you as to potential or actual the regulatory issues or are they about scaring you into using their service.
  • Has the compliance professional got the capability and capacity? If it’s a firm is the actual person that will be undertaking work for you qualified, suitable and have the time?
  • Shop around with other compliance professional’s to see what they have to say about the work you need to be undertaken.

At the end of the day it is the Licensee and its Directors who are responsible for the suitability of their compliance framework and adherence to it, the Commission will hold them accountable for any failings regardless of who undertook the work. A compliance professional can be part of the problem if you do not do your due diligence on them or understand the needs of your business but, if you have done your research and you are aware of the requirements that you need to meet, they can definitely be part of the solution in achieving a suitable and sufficient compliance framework that meets the regulatory obligations, expectations and the business aims and objectives of the Licensee.

The Compliance Conundrum

A topic of conversation that often comes up is about “how compliance has become a monster”, sapping the dynamism of a business while slowly choking the new business streams by making the business over compliant. Has the compliance function gone too far and are they now holding Boards and Directors to a compliance and regulatory ransom leading to a loss in commerciality of the Guernsey Finance Sector?

Directors constantly berate me about having board packs that have compliance reports running to some 40 pages or more, how they spend more resources on compliance matters then on the direction of the business and that the compliance function does not assist them in achieving their business objectives. To my mind there is a balance that needs redressing in order that businesses can achieve high standards of compliance, while also achieving the businesses purpose and providing products and services to their clients that are competitive in cost with other jurisdictions.

The relationship between the Board and the compliance function must be one that is symbiotic, both assisting and nurturing one another. The compliance function must undertake suitable and sufficient monitoring of its business and report its findings effectively and efficiently to the Board. This is normally done by either an exception report or in a traditional report style over 40 pages and both have their own benefits and problems.

While using an exception reporting format this allows for immediate notifications of compliance and regulatory issues to the Board. The exception report though can fail to provide the assurance to the Board that the compliance function is suitable or sufficient due to its lack of content and oversight of the business.

The traditional compliance report of 40 pages or more will ensure that the Board can assess the suitability of its monitoring programme and compliance function. The problem with the traditional Compliance report is that its size may lead to regulatory or compliance issues being lost in the pages of the document. I am also aware that in some cases the traditional report format provided so much content but actually lacked the substance required to be provided to the Board in assessing the compliance status and function, a failing for the compliance function and a regulatory failing for the Board.

The compliance function must ensure that it has a suitable and sufficient Compliance Monitoring Programme and the Board must review this document annually to ensure that they are satisfied that it meets the Business and the regulatory requirements for the risks of the business being undertaken. The Compliance Monitoring Programme is the working paper of the compliance function, it shows the testing and findings of the compliance function and allows for suitable and informative compliance reports to be generated for the Board. The compliance report’s to the Board need to be a hybrid version of the traditional report and the exception report becoming more a précis of the Compliance Monitoring Programme, allowing the Board to see the matters of concern while also being assured of the compliance status of the Business.

The compliance function is the adviser to the Board in respect of the regulatory framework, providing advice and solutions to the Board in order that they can achieve the chosen business direction. This is where the business can become choked and the dynamism and competitiveness lost due to the gold plating of a business’s policies and procedures. The compliance function must always remember that it is the Board who decide the level of risk that they are satisfied to work with and that the compliance function is there to mitigate the risk by insuring that suitable and sufficient policies are in place. The compliance function must assess the regulatory requirements applicable to the business being undertaken and ensure that the Business is meeting these minimum requirements. The compliance function must never seek to direct the Board or the Business but to inform the Board what is required and expected of them in respect of the risks that the Board have deemed as acceptable.

I do believe that in some cases the compliance function has gone too far and seeks to control the business due to their own personal views or prejudices. It must always be remembered by all stakeholders in the finance industry in Guernsey that without the business there is no compliance function and without a compliance function there can be no business. It is vital that the compliance function is able to provide the required regulatory information to the Board in a succinct and effective manner in order that the Board can discharge their regulatory duties effectively and efficiently.

It is important that the compliance function provide the Board with first class regulatory advice that is free from their own personal prejudices. This is required in order that the Board can ascertain what the minimum regulatory requirements are and how best they can meet these requirements and make business decisions that will not endanger the Business or its clients. The Board must assess on an annual basis the suitability of its compliance function, if it is not providing the Board with the required information or are making the business lack commerciality by over compliance of the policies and procedures the Board must address these matters as they are ultimately responsible for the compliance function and its suitability and effectiveness.