By Nir Sadeh, SVP, Head of Private Banking, Butterfield
Throughout the global pandemic, wealth managers have been navigating an unprecedentedly volatile and uncertain global economy. Across most major world powers, GDP has declined rapidly, and substantial losses have been witnessed in both emerging and established markets.
To mitigate against this market uncertainty, many wealth managers are actively seeking economic jurisdictions that are both stable and able to offer a diverse range of asset classes. Put simply, they have had to reconsider the most suitable options for regions, nations and assets that are positioned to deliver continued returns on investment in a significantly changed financial landscape.
Here at Butterfield, we have been closely observing the performance of different markets across the globe throughout the pandemic. As part of this analysis, we have additionally been engaging in the assessment of different COVID-19 containment policies as they relate to investor confidence across various prominent jurisdictions.
Of particular interest is the UK, which has long been favoured by wealth managers due to its political stability, multifarious investment opportunities and transparent judicial framework. For all these reasons and more, investment levels across the nation are notably high at present.
Looking at private equity investment figures alone, London’s prestige as an investment locale is evident. KPMG recently reported that there was a 53% increase in venture capital investment into UK scale-ups in Q1 2020, equating to over £2.6 billion.
And of course, the UK’s real estate market is renowned the world over as a premier investment avenue. Again, for international investors and wealth managers, much of this interest is directed at London; Knight Frank has reported that the city has received over £3.2 billion of commercial real estate investment in 2020 already.
The UK’s long-term perspective?
The two figures above suggest that domestic and international investors are optimistic about the UK’s economic prospects and are willing to invest accordingly. Generally, though, the UK’s future as a leading investment destination will be determined by two key factors.
The first is the UK government’s ongoing battle with COVID-19. Indeed, this is true of many global investment hubs: those best able to contain and manage the virus will likely win favour from wealth managers.
Recent weeks have seen the number of COVID-19 cases in Britain increase, and the rate of infection (‘R’ number) rise above 1 for the first time since a nationwide lockdown was imposed in late March. This will do little to inspire investor confidence.
Yet the government is also taking action in an attempt to ensure a speedy economic recovery from the financial impact of the pandemic; many policies have been recently implemented to this end, including removing the stamp duty land tax (SDLT) on the first £500,000 of all residential property purchases in England and Northern Ireland.
Thus far, the government’s economic stimuli have seen measured success, with the UK’s economy growing by 6.6% in July 2020. However, it is too soon to say whether this momentum can be sustained, particularly as COVID-19 cases rise.
The second key factor surrounds the ongoing geopolitical drama that is Brexit. With so much pandemic-related news constantly developing, it is easy to forget that the UK is still destined to exit the EU’s single market in less than four months’ time. Negotiations are now heating up once again, with the UK tabling a domestic bill that would allow it to breach numerous stipulations of the original withdrawal agreement with the EU enacted in January; a source of much controversy in Westminster.
As a consequence, a No-Deal Brexit is now looking more and more likely as time goes on. More positively, UK negotiators have been indefatigable in securing new free trade agreements across the world, with the UK and Japan agreeing on one such deal between the two nations on 11 September.
It’s paramount that the UK begins making equal progress regarding their current talks with the EU, given the immense impact they will have on the UK’s economic recovery in 2021 and beyond. Given the already high levels of uncertainty present in the global markets, the UK government should ideally be pursuing an agreement as soon as possible in order to provide some stability for those with assets based in Britain.
However, despite all of this, I am confident that the UK, and London especially, will remain a leading hub for investment for the foreseeable future. Though geopolitical trends often facilitate market shocks in the short-term, history has shown that the UK’s resilience and ability to facilitate quick economic recoveries make it a prime destination for investment in the long term. As such, wealth managers will likely continue to seek out UK-based opportunities for many years to come.
COVID-19 and PCL property – a market on the rise?
By Alpa Bhakta, CEO of Butterfield Mortgages Limited
Over the last five years, demand for prime central London (PCL) property has been fairly inconsistent. Sudden peaks in interest from buyers could be followed by periods of stagnate price growth. Nonetheless, the advantages of PCL property investment, particularly by international investors, has remained well known.
Well-funded development and neighbourhood re-generation schemes, alongside an influx of overseas investment, has resulted in a vibrant market with a diverse range of opportunities for prospective buyers.
Nonetheless, the PCL market has not been immune to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. During the first half of the year, the lockdown meant physical valuations and onsite inspections could not take place. People in the UK were also discouraged from moving properties unless they found themselves in extreme circumstances.
However, as we now enter the final weeks of 2020, I believe there’re plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the future prospects of the PCL property market. Buyer demand has resulted in a new wave of activity, and this is resulting in significant house price growth. Indeed, it was recently revealed by Halifax that the average rate of house price growth in November was at a four-year high.
Obviously, there are multiple factors that have helped sustain this strong level of house price growth. Most notably, the Stamp Duty Land Tax (SDLT) holiday has succeeded in coaxing buyers back to the property market––be they seasoned buy-to-let (BTL) investors or first-time buyers––by offering up to £15,000 in tax savings on any given property purchase.
However, it’s worth considering the other factors underway in London’s property market. With the UK in a second national lockdown, many investors will be keen on hedging against future COVID-imbued market uncertainty through acquiring safe-haven assets like British property. As you’ll read below, this is having a positive impact on the PCL market.
Investors are flocking to PCL opportunities
The PCL property market has managed to be one of the most active areas of the UK’s real estate market during the whole of 2020. When discussing why this is so, we must first begin by understanding the behaviours of overseas buyers.
Given that international investors represented over half (55%) of all the PCL property purchases recorded in the second half of 2019, anything to further incentivise or dissuade such foreign actors would hugely impact PCL property transaction figures.
Earlier in the year, alongside the announcement of the aforementioned SDLT holiday, UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak indeed announced that he would be implementing 2% SDLT surcharge for non-UK based buyers of British property from April 2021 onwards.
So, for those seeking properties worth over £5 million in the UK capital, a 2% additional cost may represent a substantial amount of wealth. To avoid this, many overseas buyers who may have been contemplating a PCL property acquisition have rushed to buy such properties before this surcharge is applicable. This trend will undoubtedly continue until 1 April, 2021.
Remote working and PCL
On the topic of the PCL market’s future, many property speculators were concerned earlier this year that London’s property market would potentially collapse entirely as a result of remote working. With homeworking set to remain the norm for the foreseeable future, commentators predicted that professionals would escape the capital en-masse in favour of roomier, cheaper properties farther from their London employer’s offices.
While there have been some signs of shifting demand from urban London neighbourhoods to suburban ones, according to Rightmove statistics, there has been no recordable effect on the UK’s property market as a result.
Conversely, property specialists Savills have actually discovered that over half of all transactions including properties worth more than £5 million in the UK this year were all located in just five central London postcodes.
A busy few months
Given the performance of the PCL property sector in 2020, I only foresee this market growing stronger and stronger in the years ahead. Recent developments in the production of COVID-19 vaccine have many hoping that we may return to normality by Spring 2021, which would represent fantastic news for those involved in bricks and mortar, should it transpire.
In the coming months, I anticipate a surge in activity across the PCL market as buyers look to take advantage of the tax breaks on offer. As such, it will be important that these buyers have access to the financing needed to complete these transactions quickly. If not, there is a risk any purchase they attempt might be concluded in April 2021 when the current tax breaks in place are removed.
Overall, I cannot help but be impressed by the performance of the property market more generally during the pandemic. Having experienced slow growth in the years following the EU referendum in June 2016, it is clear that buyers are eager to take advantage of the opportunities on offer. This is particularly true when it comes to PCL property.
An outlook on equities and bonds
By Rupert Thompson, Chief Investment Officer at Kingswood
The equity market rally paused last week with global equities little changed in local currency terms. Even so, this still leaves markets up a hefty 10% so far this month with UK equities gaining as much as 14%.
The November rally started with the US election results but gathered momentum with the recent very encouraging vaccine news. This continued today with the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine proving to be up to 90% effective in preventing Covid infections. This is slightly below the 95% efficacy of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines already reported but this one has the advantage of not needing to be stored at ultra-cold temperatures. One or more of these vaccines now looks very likely to start being rolled out within a few weeks.
Of course, these vaccines will do little to halt the current surge in infections. Cases may now be starting to moderate in the UK and some countries in Europe but the trend remains sharply upwards in the US. The damage lockdowns are doing to the recovery was highlighted today with the news that business confidence in the UK and Europe fell back into recessionary territory in November.
Markets, however, are likely to continue to look through this weakness to the prospect of a strong global recovery next year. While equities may have little additional upside near term, they should see further significant gains next year. Their current high valuations should be supported by the very low level of interest rates, leaving a rebound in earnings to drive markets higher.
Prospective returns over the coming year look markedly higher for equities than for bonds, where return prospects are very limited. As for the downside risks for equities, they appear much reduced with the recent vaccine news and central banks making it clear they are still intent on doing all they can to support growth.
Both factors mean we have taken the decision to increase our equity exposure. While our portfolios already have significant allocations to equities and have benefited from the rally in recent months, we are now moving our allocations into line with the levels we would expect to hold over the long term.
Our new equity allocations will be focused on the ‘value’ areas of the market. The last few weeks have seen a significant rotation out of expensive high ‘growth’ sectors such as technology into cheaper and more cyclical areas such as financials, materials and industrials. Similarly, countries and regions, such as the UK which look particularly cheap, have fared well just recently.
We think this rotation has further to run and will be adding to our UK exposure. This does not mean we have suddenly become converts to Boris’s rose-tinted post-Brexit view of the UK’s economic prospects. Instead, this more favourable backdrop for cheap markets is likely to favour the UK.
We will also be adding to US equities. Again, this does not represent a change in our longstanding caution on the US market overall due to its high valuation. Rather, we will be investing in the cheaper areas of the US which have significant catch-up potential.
We are also making a change to our Asia ex Japan equity holdings. We will be focusing some of this exposure on China which we believe deserves a specific allocation due to the strong performance of late of that economy and the sheer size of the Chinese equity market.
On the fixed income side, we will be reducing our allocation to short maturity high quality UK corporate bonds, where return prospects look particularly limited. We are also taking the opportunity to add an allocation to inflation-linked bonds in our lower risk, fixed income heavy, portfolios. These have little protection against a rise in inflation unlike our higher risk portfolios, which are protected through their equity holdings.
Optimising tax reclaim through tech: What wealth managers need to know in trying times
By Christophe Lapaire, Head Advanced Tax Services, Swiss Stock Exchange
This has been a year of trials: first, a global pandemic and, now, many countries facing the very real possibility of a recession. For investors, private banks, and wealth managers, these tumultuous times have manifested largely in asset price volatility, ultra-low interest rates and uncertainty about when things may level out, as well as questions about what can be done to safeguard portfolio performance.
The answer here lies within identifying and creating efficiencies to maximise performance and minimise cost, and while there is a slew of options as to how to do this, they are often siloed or have a single USP. Tax optimisation, on the other hand, provides benefits to all, not just in increasing returns for investors, but also in creating economies of scale across stakeholders, creating millions – if not billions – in savings for banks.
Evolving tax reclaim
The tax reclaim process used to be a tedious one banks had to manage themselves, and required detailed, industry and country-specific knowledge to stay on top of constantly shifting requirements and regulations. And when we consider that many countries – such as the UK – allow for capital gains exemptions, tax optimisation may not seem like an integral part of the process. However, this isn’t the case for all countries, and can lead to severe after-tax implications on global portfolios.
Furthermore, even if you’re able to avoid double taxation, getting the money back is not always as simple as it sounds. This, combined with the fact that countries often have contradictory taxation rules or requirements, makes navigating the tax reclaim space a challenge even for those with the right expertise and experience.
Ultimately, providing tax optimisation to investors ends up being a heavy lift for private banks and wealth managers, who often don’t have the right solutions, are relying on outdated technology and manual processes. While this is generally fine for business, it is no longer fit for the purpose when it comes to tax optimisation. To date, knowledge and expertise have been the key to protecting and maintaining profitable investments and avoiding tax leakage. However, through tax optimisation services starting to emerge, portfolio managers can now manage and reinvest easily.
Today, technology has evolved the process so that banks are able to access and submit tax reclaim – and the relevant documentation – online, leaving the tech provider to coordinate next steps with custodians and tax authorities behind the scenes. In essence, taking the legwork out of the process while assuring consistency and completeness in execution.
Simplifying tax through tech
While tax optimisation may seem like an easy choice in theory, it is not always the go-to for every private bank or wealth manager. Without the right supports and setup, including innovative technologies and automation, tax reporting must be done manually, leading to labour intensive processes and huge time wastage. Changing these processes can be overwhelming for those used to a certain way of operating.
By making tax reclaim digital, banks will be more able to optimise returns and gain efficiencies while reducing redundancies and unnecessary complexities. Cloud based solutions or platforms can offer a safe and secure solution for banks, wealth managers, and investors to access and submit any information required, processing the data automatically for conformity and completeness.
It is critical that providers who intend to offer tax services are able to do so efficiently with the right software and data processing capabilities. Not only does this drive continuity in service and efficiencies in process, but it is the only sustainable way to handle such a complex landscape sustainably without wasting time or money.
End-to-end, technologically driven tax services offer a huge number of advantages to private banks and wealth managers, the most important of which is the ability to provide continuity through tumultuous times. As we move through the end of 2020 into 2021 this will only be increasingly important as banks, managers and investors look to provide new services to clients and strengthen existing relationships in a difficult market.
As investors seek to find returns amid the global economic downturn, the demand for innovative solutions will only increase. Technology like cloud-based software, AI, and data optimisation can all serve to improve not just the tax reclaim processes, but the overall client experience within capital markets. Private banks and wealth managers are suitably equipped to provide these innovative solutions, but those who do not prepare themselves effectively and keep ahead of trends will run the risk of losing current and new clients to someone who can offer more for less.
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