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Gambling on a workaround: what does the end of LIBOR mean for international banks?

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Gambling on a workaround: what does the end of LIBOR mean for international banks?

By Peter Carney, partner at UK law firm TLT

Over the last two years, UK regulators have been steadily increasing the volume and urgency with firms on the need to get prepared for the end of LIBOR, which will cease to be published on 31 December 2021.  With parallels to Brexit, it is virtually impossible to be in the financial services industry in the UK and ignore the regular updates and messaging coming from the Prudential Regulation Authority (PRA), Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), the Bank of England, the working group on risk free rates and the ever gathering snowball of articles and materials from the professionals in the market.

Ignorance is bliss?

Peter Carney

Peter Carney

Most if not all firms either headquartered or operating in the UK have an awareness of the implications of LIBOR’s imminent demise, ranging from reasonably aware and taking some initial steps to in-depth knowledge and well advanced in transition planning.  However, there are many international banks (some of which will have branch offices in the UK) who have not yet appreciated the challenges which the end of LIBOR poses, or started thinking about the steps required in advance of 31 December 2021. In some cases, the branch offices in the UK and elsewhere can see the risks ahead but head office may not have given it the attention it deserves.

For any banks adopting this kind of “head in the sand” approach, the message has to be: get up to speed quickly and understand how the end of LIBOR will impact on the business as a whole.

Is a wait and see approach defensible?

Perhaps the lack of engagement in some quarters is not attributable to a lack of awareness, but instead to an expectation that the market, regulators, government or a combination of all of these will step in and produce a workaround, which will avoid the need to tackle the issue when there are no doubt more pressing matters higher up the agenda. Of course, the UK regulators have been at pains to warn all firms that LIBOR will cease and that gambling on external forces solving the problem is not the right move.

Despite this and with the end of LIBOR still 2 years away, depending on the scale of the organisation, a “wait and see” strategy appears an understandable one to adopt; but it is not without risk.

The fact is that international banks have commonly used English law documents including LIBOR provisions (usually based on LMA or APLMA standards) for loans all over the world, even where there is no substantive connection with the UK. The effect of the end of LIBOR on those documents will be a matter of English law and it is vital that international banks understand the implications so that they can at the very least understand the risks associated with a “wait and see” policy.  Head offices of international banks may not face the direct level of scrutiny of the UK/EU or US regulators that their branch offices face, but they cannot escape the need to understand and engage with the underlying challenges.

What are the challenges?

The implications of the end of a rate which underpins so many loans, as well as other financial products and contracts, is multi–faceted and listing them all would be a major undertaking. In terms of loans though, it is worth highlighting a select few:

  • Any LMA based loans maturing after 31 December 2021 will need to be amended to transition to the appropriate chosen alternative rate (whether a risk free rate (RFR), fixed rate or base rate). Whether these legacy loans adopt the latest LMA wording or not, this will usually require the agreement of the borrower (and potentially other lenders and counterparties depending on the structure of the loan). The re-papering exercise in itself could amount to a significant project, particularly when the amendments required switch from a forward looking rate to a backwards one are not insignificant: this is not a case of swapping a LIBOR definition for a SOFR one.
  • The scale of the challenge will depend on the size of the legacy loan book and the likelihood of borrowers cooperating. There are reasons why they might not – particularly if they see that the margin is increased to take account of any price adjustment between LIBOR and RFRs/base rates.  In terms of cost, lenders should not assume that the costs of amendment can be passed on to the borrower – this may well not be covered under the indemnities in the loan agreement.
  • The risks of a do-nothing approach are potentially high – existing fall-back language in the LMA documents is intended for a short term outage of the LIBOR screen rate – it is not appropriate for permanent discontinuance.  Lenders who do nothing may be subject to claims from borrowers that, for instance, the end of LIBOR amounts to a frustration of the loan contract bringing it to an end, or litigation over the calculation of interest based on the lender’s calculation of cost of funds.
  • Switching from a forward-looking rate to base rate or to an RFR will entail significant adjustment in terms of the back office functions and processes required. This could take time and require training and testing in advance.
  • Any hedging will need to be taken into account in switching to an RFR or base rate.

There are many more challenges ahead. The dire warnings from regulators and commentators alike are undoubtedly well founded.  The end of LIBOR presents a massive challenge to lenders and the market as a whole.

What should banks be doing?

The message from the UK regulator couldn’t be clearer: lenders should be taking steps now. In this context, most firms in the UK have been asked to produce details of their respective LIBOR exposure by 31 December 2019. A clear marker has also been put down that new LIBOR issuances should not be made after Q3 2020. Most LIBOR related articles culminate with the now-familiar warnings if immediate steps are not taken.

But how should international banks approach this?  There is always the risk that a huge amount of time and costs is expended at a time when so much is unknown.

Lenders do appear to be in a difficult position. On the one hand they are being told that they should not anticipate that LIBOR will continue and that they should take immediate action to transition, but there is currently no “oven ready” infrastructure for RFRs to switch to. Term RFRs do still remain a possibility, but the leaders in the loan markets are a long way off blazing a trail to show how it should be done.

Faced with this, international banks, often with more modest resources, are quite understandably being cautious about expending time and effort now.  The dire warnings do not necessarily apply to all lenders in the same way – how a firm reacts will depend on its size, location, the nature of the loans etc.  Perhaps it is time therefore to differentiate between firms and how they should respond.

Taking steps does not necessarily mean launching into a massive re-papering exercise straight away. There are steps that can and should be taken sooner rather than later which do not necessarily involve incurring significant costs. Although the approach of each lender will be different, these should include the following:

  • Identify the extent of LIBOR exposure – obviously this will cover LIBOR loans but should extend to other contracts and products which are LIBOR based.
  • Document extraction – one common issue faced is finding the documents which reference LIBOR to establish what the terms are. While most will have been written on standard templates, there will be variances. Before any analysis can be undertaken, lenders need to identify and get hold of the relevant documents but that document extraction is likely to be challenging and time consuming.
  • Project Team – establish a project team including the appropriate parts of the business and with senior leadership to ensure that it is sufficiently empowered to take the steps required.
  • Transition Plan – draw up project plans for transition covering all the business areas effected, responsibilities, timings/milestones and steps required.
  • Communicate – if there is a lower level of understanding of the implications of LIBOR’s demise in some quarters in the international bank community that is likely to be the case amongst borrowers as well. Lenders should therefore be considering alerting borrowers to the issue now so that, when more proactive steps are required, it should at least be a simpler conversation to have. This will apply to existing borrowers with LIBOR loans but also new borrowers.
  • New terms – with new/refinancing borrowers, if new loans are on LIBOR, consider the terms with the borrower’s lawyers: hardwiring fall-backs, including indemnities etc.
  • Understand the implications – probably most importantly for the international banks who may be waiting for a cue from the bigger market players, understand their own challenges associated with LIBOR and keep a very close eye on developments.

Looking ahead

There are many questions that currently remain unanswered. The FCA will likely continue its engagement with firms as the end of LIBOR draws closer, but it remains unclear to what extent they will provide additional guidance and support. What is clear, is that the FCA expect firms to start making decisions and implementing their LIBOR transition strategies now, in readiness for the significant impact this change is likely to have on the industry.

So far, the financial services industry has been holding its breath waiting for the outcome of Brexit negotiations, regulatory changes and the recent general election in the UK. However, it’s now essential for banks to take proactive steps to ready themselves, identify their LIBOR exposure, and implement smart solutions to minimise business disruption during the impending transition.

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Lockdown 2.0 – Here’s how to be the best-looking person in the virtual room

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Lockdown 2.0 – Here's how to be the best-looking person in the virtual room 1

By Jeff Carlson, author of The Photographer’s Guide to Luminar 4 and Take Control of Your Digital Photos

suggests “the product you’re creating is not the camera, the lens or a webcam’s clever industrial design. It’s the subject, you, which is just on e part of the entire image they see. You want that image to convey quality, not convenience.”

Technology experts at Reincubate saw an opportunity in the rise of remote-working video calls and developed the app, Camo, to improve the video quality of our webcam calls. As part of this, they consulted the digital photography expert and author, Jeff Carlson, to reveal how we can look our best online. 

It’s clear by now that COVID-19 has normalised remote working, but as part of this the importance of video calls has risen exponentially. While we’re all used to seeing the more casual sides of our colleagues (t-shirt and shorts, anyone?), poor webcam quality is slightly less forgivable.

But how can we improve how we look on video? We consulted Jeff Carlson for some top tips– here is what he had to say.

  1. Improve the picture quality of your call

The better your camera, the higher quality your webcam calls will be. Most webcams (as well as currently being hard to get hold of and expensive), are subpar. A DSLR setup will give you the best picture, but will cost $1,500+. You can also use your iPhone’s amazing camera as a webcam, using the new app from Reincubate, Camo.

Jeff’s comments “The iPhone’s camera system features dedicated coprocessors for evaluating and adjusting the image in real time. Apple has put a tremendous amount of work into its imaging software as a way to compensate for the necessarily small camera sensors. Although it all works in service of creating stills and video, you get the same benefits when using the iPhone as a webcam.”

Aidan Fitzpatrick, CEO of Reincubate explains why the team created Camo, “Earlier this year our team moved to working remotely, and in video calls everyone looked pretty bad, irrespective of whether they were on built-in Mac webcams or third-party ones. Thus began my journey to build Camo: an iPhone has one of the world’s best cameras in it, so could we make it work as a webcam? Category-leading webcams are noticeably worse than an iPhone 7. This makes sense: six weeks of Apple’s R&D spend tops Logitech’s annual gross revenue.”

  1. Place your camera at eye level

A video call will never quite be the same as a face-to-face conversation, but bringing your camera up to eye level is a good place to start. That can involve putting your laptop on a stand or pile of books, mounting a webcam to the top of your display screen, or even using a tripod to get the perfect position.

Jeff points out, “If the camera is looking down on you, you’ll appear minimized in the frame; if it’s looking up, you’re inviting people to focus on your chin, neck, or nostrils. Most important, positioning the camera off your eye level is a distraction. Look them in the eye, even if they’re miles or continents away.

Lockdown 2.0 – Here's how to be the best-looking person in the virtual room 2

Low camera placement from a MacBook

  1. Make the most of natural lighting

Be aware of the lighting in the room and move yourself to face natural lighting if you can. Positioning the camera so any natural light is behind you takes the light away from your face, which can make it harder to see and read expressions on a call.

Jeff Carlson’s top tip: “If the light from outside is too harsh, diffuse it and create softer shadows by tacking up a white sheet or a stand-alone diffuser over the window.” 

Lockdown 2.0 – Here's how to be the best-looking person in the virtual room 3Lockdown 2.0 – Here's how to be the best-looking person in the virtual room 4

Backlit against a window Facing natural light

  1. Use supplementary lighting like ring lights

The downside to natural lighting is that you’re at the mercy of the elements: if it’s too bright you’ll have the sun in your eyes, if it’s too dark you won’t be well lit.

Jeff recommends adding supplementary lighting if you’re looking to really enhance your video calls. After all, it looks like remote working will be carrying on for quite some time.

“The light can be just as easy as a household or inexpensive work light. Angle the light so it’s bouncing off a wall or the ceiling, depending on your work area, which, again, diffuses the light and makes it more flattering.

Or, for a little money, use a softbox or a shoot-through umbrella with daylight bulbs (5500K temperature), or if space is tight, LED panels. Larger lights are better for distributing illumination– don’t be afraid to get them in close to you. Placement depends on the look you’re going after; start by positioning one at a 45-degree angle in front and to the side of you, which lights most of your face while retaining nice shadow detail.” 

In some cases, a ring light may work best. LEDs are arranged in a circle, with space in the middle to put the camera’s lens and get direct illumination from the direction of the camera.

  1. Centre yourself in the frame

Make sure you’re getting the right angle and that you’re using the frame effectively.

“You should aim for people to see your head and part of your torso, not all the space between your hair and the ceiling. Leave a little space above your head so it’s not cut off, but not enough that someone’s eyes are going to drift there.”

  1. Be mindful of your backdrop

It’s not always easy to get the quiet space needed for video calls when working from home, but try as best you can to remove anything too distracting from your background.

“Get rid of clutter or anything that’s distracting or unprofessional, because you can bet that will be the second thing the viewers notice after they see you. (The Twitter account @RateMySkypeRoom is an amusing ongoing commentary on the environments people on television are connecting from.)”

A busy background as seen by a webcam

  1. Make the most of virtual backgrounds

If you’re really struggling with finding a background that looks professional, try using a virtual background.

Jeff suggests: “Some apps can identify your presence in the scene and create a live mask that enables you to use an entirely different image to cover the background. While it’s a fun feature, the quality of the masking is still rudimentary, even with a green screen background that makes this sort of keying more accurate.”

  1. Be aware of your audio settings

Our laptop webcams, cameras, and mobile phones all include microphones, but if it’s at all possible, use a separate microphone instead.

“That can be an inexpensive lavalier mic, a USB microphone, or a set of iPhone earbuds. You can also get wireless lavalier models if you’re moving around during a call, such as presenting at a whiteboard in the camera’s field of view.

The idea is to get the microphone closer to your mouth so it’s recording what you say, not other sounds or echoes in the room. If you type during meetings, mount the mic on an arm instead of resting it on the same surface as your keyboard.”

  1. Be wary of video app add-ons

Video apps like Zoom include a ‘Touch up your appearance’ option in the Video settings. This applies a skin-smoothing filter to your face, but more often than not, the end result looks artificially blurry instead of smooth.

“Zoom also includes settings for suppressing persistent and intermittent background noise, and echo cancellation. They’re all set to Auto by default, but you can choose how aggressive or not the feature is.”

  1. Be the best looking person in the virtual room

What’s important to remember about video calls at this point in time is that most people are new to what is, really, personal broadcasting. That means you can easily get an edge, just by adopting a few suggestions in this article. When your video and audio quality improves, people will take notice.

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Bringing finance into the 21st Century – How COVID and collaboration are catalysing digital transformation

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Bringing finance into the 21st Century – How COVID and collaboration are catalysing digital transformation 5

By Keith Phillips, CEO of TISATech

If just six or seven months ago someone had told you that in a matter of weeks people around the world would be locked down in their homes, trying to navigate modern work systems from a prehistoric laptop, bickering with family over who’s hogging the Wi-Fi, migrating online to manage all financial services digitally, all while washing their hands every five minutes in fear of a global pandemic… You’d think they had lost their mind. But this very quickly became the reality for huge swathes of the world and we’re about to go through that all over again as the UK government has asked that those who can work from home should.

Unsurprisingly, statistics show that lockdown restrictions introduced by the UK government in March, led to a sharp increase in people adopting digital services. Banks encouraged its customers to log onto online banking, as they limited (and eventually halted) services at branches. This forced many customers online as their primary means of managing personal finances for the first time.

If anyone had doubts before, the Covid-19 pandemic proved to us the importance of well-functioning, effective digital financial services platforms, for both financial institutions and the people using them.

But with this sudden mass online migration, it’s become clear that traditional banks have struggled to keep up with servicing clients virtually. Legacy banking systems have always stilted the digitisation of financial services, but the pandemic thrust this issue into the limelight. Fintech firms, which focus intently on digital and mobile services, knew it was only a matter of time before financial institutions’ reliance was to increase at an unprecedented rate.

For years, fintechs have been called upon by traditional players to find solutions to problems borne from those clunky legacy systems, like manual completion of account changes and money transfers. Now it is the demand for these services to be online coupled with the need for financial services firms to cut costs, since Covid-19 hit the economy.

Covid-19 has catalysed the urgent need to bring digital transformation to a wider pool of financial services businesses. Customers now have even higher expectations of larger institutions, demanding that they keep up with what the younger and more nimble challengers have to offer. Industry leaders realise that they must transform their businesses as soon as possible, by streamlining and digitising operations to compete and, ultimately, improve services for their customers.

The race for digital acceleration began far before the recent pandemic – in fact, following the 2008 financial crisis is likely more accurate. Since the credit crunch, there has been a wave of new fintech firms, full of young, bright techies looking to be the next big thing. Fintechs have marketed themselves hard at big conferences and expos or by hosting ‘hackathons’, trying to prove themselves as the fastest, most innovative or the most vital to the future of the industry.

However, even during this period where accelerating innovation in online financial services and legacy systems is crucial, the conditions brought about by the pandemic have not been conducive to this much-needed transformation.

The second issue, which again was clear far before the pandemic, is that fact that no matter how nimble or clever the fintechs’ solutions are, it is still hard to implement the solutions seamlessly, as the sector is highly fragmented with banks using extremely outdated systems populated with vast amounts of data.

With the significance of the pandemic becoming more and more clear, and the need for better digital products and services becoming more crucial to financial services firms and consumers by the day, the industry has finally come together to provide a solution.

The TISAtech project was launched last month by The Investing and Saving Alliance (TISA), a membership organisation in the UK with more than 200 leading financial institutions as members. TISA asked The Disruption House, a specialist benchmarking and data analytics business, to create a clearing house platform for the industry to help it more effectively integrate new financial technology. The project aims to enhance products and services while reducing friction and ultimately lowering costs which are passed on to the customers.

With nearly 4,000 fintechs from around the world participating, it will be the world’s largest marketplace dedicated to Open Finance, Savings, and Investment.

Not only will it provide a ‘matchmaking’ service between financial institutions an fintechs, it will also host a sandbox environment. Financial institutions can pose real problems with real data and the fintechs are given the space to race to the bottom – to find the most constructive, cost-effective solution.

Yes, there are other marketplaces, but they all seem to struggle to achieve a return on investment. There is a genuine need for the ‘Trivago’ of financial technology – a one stop shop, run by an independent body, which can do more than just matchmaking. It needs to go above and beyond to encompass the sandboxing, assessments, profiling of fintechs to separate the wheat from the chaff, and provide a space for true collaboration.

The pandemic has taught us that we are more effective if we work together. We need mass support and collaboration to find solutions to problems. Businesses and industries are no different. If fintechs and financial institutions can work together, there is a real chance that we can start to lessen the economic hit for many businesses and consumers by lowering costs and streamlining better services and products. And even if it is just making it that little bit easier to manage personal finances from home when fighting with your children for the Wi-Fi, we are making a difference.

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What to Know Before You Expand Across Borders

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What to Know Before You Expand Across Borders 6

By Sean King, Director of International Tax at McGuire Sponsel

The American retail giant, Target Corporation, has a market cap of $64 billion and access to seemingly limitless resources and advisors. So, when the company engaged in its first global expansion, how could anything possibly go wrong?

Less than two years after opening its first Canadian store in 2013, Target shut down all133 Canadian locations and terminated more than 17,000 Canadian employees.

Expansion of an operation to another country can create unique challenges that may impact the financial viability of the entire enterprise. If Target Corporation can colossally fail in its expansion to Canada, how might Mom ‘N’ Pop LLC fare when expanding into Switzerland, Singapore, or Australia?

Successful global expansion requires an understanding of multilayered taxes, regulatory hurdles, employment laws, and cultural nuances. Fortunately, with the right guidance, global expansion can be both possible and profitable for businesses of any size.

Permanent establishment

Any company with global ambitions must first consider whether the company’s expansion outside of the U.S. will give rise to a taxable presence in the local country. In the cross-border context, a “permanent establishment” can be created in a local country when the enterprise reaches a certain level of activity, which is problematic because it exposes the U.S. multinational to taxation in the foreign country.

Foreign entity incorporation

To avoid permanent establishment risk, many U.S. multinationals choose to operate overseas through a formal corporate subsidiary, which reduces the company’s foreign income tax exposure, though it may result in an additional level of foreign income tax on the subsidiary’s earnings. In most jurisdictions, multinationals can operate their business in the foreign country as a branch, a pass through (e.g., partnership,) or a corporation.

As a branch, the U.S. multinational does not create a subsidiary in the foreign country. It holds assets, employees, and bank accounts under its own name. With a pass through, the U.S. multinational creates a separate entity in the foreign country that is treated as a partnership under the tax law of the foreign country but not necessarily as a partnership under U.S. tax law.

U.S. multinationals can also create corporate subsidiaries in the foreign country treated as corporations under the tax law of both the foreign country and the U.S., with possibly two levels of income taxation in the foreign country plus U.S. income taxation of earnings repatriated to the U.S. as dividends.

Check-the-box planning

Under U.S. entity classification rules, certain types of entities can “check the box” to elect their classification to be taxed as a corporation with two levels of tax, a partnership with pass-through taxation, or even be disregarded for U.S. federal income tax purposes. The check the box election allows U.S. multinationals to engage in more effective global tax planning.

Toll charges, transfer pricing and treaties

When establishing a foreign corporate subsidiary, the U.S. multinational will likely need to transfer certain assets to the new entity to make it fully operational. However, in many cases, the U.S. multinational cannot perform the transfer without recognizing taxable income. In the international context, the IRS imposes certain outbound “toll charges” on the transfer of appreciated property to a foreign entity, which are usually provided for in IRC Section 367 and subject to various exceptions and nuances.

Instead, the U.S. multinational may prefer to license intellectual property to the foreign subsidiary for a fee rather than transfer the property outright. However, licensing requires the company and foreign subsidiary to adhere to transfer pricing rules, as dictated by IRC Section 482. The U.S. multinational and the foreign subsidiary must interact in an arms-length manner regarding pricing and economic terms. Furthermore, any such arrangement may attract withholding taxes when royalties are paid across a border.

Are you GILTI?

Certain U.S. multinationals opt to focus on deferring the income recognition at the U.S. level. In doing so, they simply leave overseas profits overseas and delay repatriating any of the earnings to the U.S.

Despite the general merits of this form of planning, U.S. multinationals will be subject to certain IRS anti-deferral mechanisms, commonly known as “Subpart F” and GILTI. Essentially, U.S. shareholders of certain foreign corporations are forced to recognize their pro rata share of certain types of income generated by these foreign entities at the time the income is earned instead of waiting until the foreign entity formally repatriates the income to the U.S.

The end goal

Essentially, all effective international tax planning boils down to treasury management. Effective and early tax planning can properly allow a company to better achieve its initial goal: profitability.

If global expansion is on the horizon for your company, consult a licensed professional for advice concerning your specific situation.

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