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Financial Crisis

Uphill Struggle for Caribbean Financial Services Sector

ST. JOHN'S, Antigua, Nov 2 2012 (IPS) - In the 1980’s, Caribbean countries wanted to shore up their prospects of social and economic development in the coming decades, so they looked to the financial services sector to spur employment and development. They managed to develop a robust industry, particularly in the Bahamas and the Cayman Islands.

Today, however, the region has been struggling to keep up with evolving international regulations. These challenges come at a high cost, even as proponents of the regulations argue that they are critical in dealing with the global financial and economic crisis.

For at least two years, the international community has pressured the Caribbean, where several countries are well known as tax havens, to shut down its financial centres and implement a number of measures in order to qualify for bilateral aid. Since then, little has changed, delegates at the second meeting of the Caribbean Forum (CARIFORUM) Conference on the International Financial Services Sector in the Caribbean Region, held Oct. 30-31 in Antigua, learned.

Baldwin Spencer, the Antiguan prime minister, said the international community continues to issue “repeated demands that the region should be treated on a level playing field with financial centres in the industrialised economies using the principles of natural justice”.

He said that while the Caribbean has been committed to developing financial services in a “responsible manner and investing in their good supervision and regulation”, developed countries are the ones that have dropped the “regulatory ball”, to devastating effect on the rest of the world.

The Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has pushed for restricting, and in some cases, outlawing financial services in the Caribbean, threatening on occasions to blacklist countries that have failed to comply with some of its policies.

Regulations with a purpose

Those who support such regulations say that they are necessary given the current financial climate. The newly appointed head of the delegation of the European Union to Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean, Mikael Barfod, has defended the OECD position, insisting that it is aimed at tackling tax fraud and harmful tax practises.

“In today’s environment with the international financial crisis, the international taxation cooperation between governments and between tax administrations has gained in importance,” he said, noting that since 2009, there has been “major progress” in these areas.

He acknowledged that while Caribbean countries have made an effort to sign a “sufficient amount” of Tax Information Exchange Agreements in order to be fully accepted by the OECD, “there is more to be done in many states and the governance standards defined internationally by G20 and OECD are changing”.

Avinash Persaud, an international expert on the financial services sector and chairman of the London Business School, told IPS that the financial sector “is really quite significant” in Caribbean economies, accounting for as much as 50 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) for islands like Barbados and Antigua and Barbuda.

“They represent a major part of tax revenues. Over the past 10 years they have come under tremendous pressure by the larger economies” such as those of London, Zurich, and New York, which are under fiscal pressure themselves with little or no tax revenues and which now want to compete with Caribbean financial centres.

“They are trying to establish a set of global rules which they decide themselves and then impose on us,” said Persaud. “Then they judge whether we are fitting with those rules or not. Judge and jury. It is really ad hoc and it is really designed to close down the international financial centres coming from the Caribbean. It is certainly not a level playing field.”

New standards to follow

Ivan Ogando Lora, the director general of CARIFORUM, which is comprised of the 15-member Caribbean Community (CARICOM) bloc and the Dominican Republic, said recent recommendations by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) regarding international standards for combating money laundering and financing of terrorism, will also now pose new problems for the region.

“Compliance to international standards now seems to be the order of the day and Caribbean jurisdictions have been making strides in this regard,” he said, noting however, despite the efforts, that Caribbean countries “continue to attract negative attention”.

CARICOM countries have already developed a final draft of a Financial Services Agreement that if approved by mid-2013 would create a single financial space with common legislation, regulations, administrative procedures and practices and will also provide for cross border supervision and harmonisation of standards.

The United States, which has complained in the past of its wealthy citizens using the Caribbean to escape paying taxes, has itself introduced a range of changes to its financial regulatory environment that regional stakeholders fear could also undermine the financial services sector within CARIFORUM.

The Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA), for example, would require U.S. tax authorities to levy a 30 percent withholding tax on both foreign and non-financial foreign institutions where new reporting requirements have not been met.

The requirements would affect traditional financial institutions such as retail and commercial banks as well as investment banks, securities and brokerage firms, private banks and wealth management firms that do business in the United States. Any institution doing business with U.S. individuals and entities would have to immediately adopt procedures, processes and systems necessary for FATCA compliance.

Persaud said that this latest strategy underscores the struggle facing the Caribbean in recent years.

“They have essentially moved land and water to try and comply with the new rules and when they do so, the rules then change again and the costs are extremely burdensome. The cost for the Caribbean financial centre complying with international rules is ten times as the per cent of GDP as the cost of the larger rich countries complying with the rules they have set.

“The problem is we can’t abandon the sector because it is an important sector,” he said, urging the Caribbean “to fight a better fight”.

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