The banking sector appears to be in the midst of a wobble at present, so it seems like a good idea to examine exactly how worried we all should be about our banking arrangements.
Is my money safe?
By Andrew Lawford - Topics: Italy
This article is published on: 7th April 2023
As no doubt everyone will have read, the current concerns have been triggered by Silicon Valley Bank, an institution the existence of which I was blissfully unaware until it suddenly collapsed. On examining what happened to SVB, the most startling thing to me was that it essentially suffered a good, old-fashioned bank run: depositors lost faith, ran for the exit and, well, you know the rest. The bank didn’t even have particularly exotic lending practices – most of its problems were caused by the fact that it had purchased government bonds with relatively long maturities, which had suffered temporary losses due to rising interest rates (the value of a bond will fall as interest rates rise, but this generally won’t result in a loss if you hold it until maturity).
If the crisis had been circumscribed to SVB and a couple of other similar banks in the US, we might all have gone on without further thought, but then all of a sudden we found out that Credit Suisse was in trouble. Was this the same sort of crisis, or something new? In reality, CS had, in the words of one analyst: “spent the last decade finding astonishing new ways to lose money and embarrass itself”. Some of the best examples of this were: allowing drug money to be laundered in Eastern Europe, getting caught up in a corruption scandal in Mozambique, channelling client funds to a fraudulent trade finance lender and a spying episode involving management and former employees. It is fair to say that CS had made its bed quite well and recent events finally forced it to lie down.
Once we had digested the idea of CS’s failure, then the market started to be concerned about Deutsche Bank – another institution which stands as an example of the colossal risks emanating from global banks with a wide variety of activities, from retail to investment banking and everything in between. For the moment, at least, it would appear that the markets have been soothed somewhat, but one could be forgiven for being concerned over the safety of one’s money in the current environment.
How safe are deposits with Italian banks?
Turning to the safety of Italian banks, we need to examine the provisions of Italian depositors’ insurance, which is available up to €100,000 per account holder (so if you have a joint account, for example, you get €100k for each person). Opening more than one account with the same bank doesn’t change anything, but opening an account with another bank would give you a further €100k for funds deposited with that bank.
As always, however, there are a number of devils in the detail, and the FITD (Fondo Interbancario di Tutela dei Depositi), the entity that provides the guarantees, has its fair share. First of all, it should be noted that all banks licensed in Italy must adhere to the FITD, which functions like a mutual guarantee system. What this means is that if a bank fails, the FITD basically has a whip-round amongst the other member banks in order to make good on the guarantee. This might be all well and good when the bank in trouble is some rustic banca popolare, but if it happened to be one of the big names, then this would almost instantly translate into a systemic crisis whereby trying to prop each other up would lead to them all falling over. The image that comes to mind is that of a group of drunks staggering down the street trying to keep each other upright. At that point the big question would be whether, and to what extent, the state would step in to provide a blanket guarantee. The current orthodoxy in such matters would seem to imply that some sort of guarantee would be forthcoming, although obviously much would depend on the state of the public finances at the time.
The mechanics of FITD guarantees
The FITD has been in existence since 1987, but only recently has its name (“Fondo” meaning “Fund”) actually corresponded to the reality of the situation. Up until 2015 the guarantee was totally unfunded, but a 2014 European directive obliged member states to institute depositors’ guarantees of €100,000, and for these to be pre-funded in the measure of 0.8% of the total guaranteed deposits by 2024. As of the end of 2022, the FITD had funds of €3.3 billion to cover €740 billion of guaranteed deposits (i.e. those under €100k), so roughly 0.44% of the total. The FITD forms part of EU and Italian banking regulation mechanisms and has been used primarily as part of various solutions contrived to avoid failure for struggling banks in the first place. In fact, since 1987 the fund has paid out about €3.3 billion, of which only €77 million was used to make depositors whole, with the rest being used to fund “solutions” to avoid collapse – the most recent example of this being Banca Carige which received €530 million as part of its sale to Banca BPER in 2022.
In the background, the EU is working towards EDIS – the European Deposit Insurance Scheme – which would institute a pan-EU fund as part of the banking union, but the machinations of this project have yet to be worked out satisfactorily, so for the time being we are stuck with national systems, albeit ones offering similar guarantees.
So what does this mean for me?
Notwithstanding the inherent weakness of a system based on mutual guarantees as described above, it would appear that the €100,000 minimum would be respected in any reasonable scenario. It also seems likely, based on past form, that the state would intervene to encourage a solution in any critical situations long before even a relatively unimportant bank actually failed. The fact that the depositors’ insurance is based on an EU directive also seems to imply that any need for state intervention to guarantee the basic level of depositors’ protection would be supported by the EU. So on the basis of all this, it seems reasonable to choose your local Italian bank by considering the services it is able to provide you as opposed to any perception of its security.
The proviso to the above is that you make sure to maintain only a modest amount of money in any bank and look at more secure solutions for the bulk of your financial assets. In this context, EU investment wrappers remain the gold standard for Italian residents, offering greater levels of protection as well as myriad other benefits – please take a look at this article – and get in touch if you’d like to explore how this might work for your own situation.
Is Giorgia Meloni the new Mussolini?
By Andrew Lawford - Topics: Italy
This article is published on: 21st February 2023
This may seem like something of a provocative title, but I am merely picking up on the common refrain that Italy’s current government is the most right-wing since the fascist era.
It would be no minor issue for the country if indeed we did find ourselves heading down a similar path, so rather than simply dismissing out of hand the possibility that Meloni could be a Mussolini for the new age, I thought I would look into it further. We are, after all, talking about someone who as a much younger woman expressed the view that Mussolini was “a good politician”, whatever exactly that is supposed to mean. I imagine we all expressed at least some views when younger that we might cringe to think about today, but certainly Meloni’s comment on Mussolini was something of a clanger considering the office she now occupies.
Before we talk about Meloni’s politics, let’s think about the difference between the Italy of 100 years ago and today. 100 years is a useful timeframe, because 1922 was the year of the March on Rome – the moment when the fascist movement kicked into a higher gear and, notwithstanding the fact that it was poorly resourced and even more poorly organised, managed to bring Mussolini to power. The fascist movement had begun a few years earlier, populated initially by disaffected soldiers returning home to anything but a victor’s welcome following the First World War. Subsequently, the fascists managed to find their raison d’être and much broader support in the fight against socialism/communism, yet the entire movement might easily have fizzled out had it encountered even a modicum of resistance from the monarchy and the political establishment or if one of the many assassination attempts on Mussolini had succeeded in the early years of the regime* .
As fascist power grew, the desire to return Italy to its rightful place in the world, as heirs of the Roman Empire, took hold of Mussolini’s imagination, leading to the conquest of such places as Libya, Ethiopia and Albania. At home, the country was dragged into the modern age through the execution of public works programmes as well as monumental changes to cities such as Rome. The next time you wander down the via dei Fori Imperiali, consider that you are in an area profoundly changed by Mussolini, who demolished an entire area of Rome to make way for what was initially called via dell’Impero – put in place so that he could see the Colosseum from his office in Palazzo Venezia at the far end of the road. It is fair to say that from an economic and social perspective, the Italy of 1922 is almost unrecognisable compared with the country we live in today.
Now let’s consider the Italy of 2022 that swept Giorgia Meloni to power. Notwithstanding its difficulties, Italy is undoubtedly among the wealthiest countries in the world. I know there can be large regional differences and often the systems are confusing, but generally speaking Italian healthcare, education, infrastructure and other public services range from adequate to excellent. Italy is the home to world-leading industries and is certainly a place where one can rise through the social hierarchy regardless of one’s origins. If you need proof of this, consider that Leonardo Del Vecchio, the founder of Luxottica who died last year as one of Italy’s richest men, was born in 1935 to a solo mother and grew up in an orphanage.
Italy has many of the hallmarks of modern, well-heeled democracies, including an ageing population and a prevalence of small families (when people decide to have children at all). It is incredible to think, but over the course of my lifetime (I’m not quite 50 years old), the number of babies born in Italy each year has halved from about 800,000 to about 400,000 currently. The odd incentive for young families isn’t going to change that trend in any substantial way.
Imagine, now, if you will, that Meloni decided to pick up the fascist cudgel and start to take a more aggressive geopolitical stance. The current army of one-child families is probably the greatest guarantee against this because how many of these parents will permit their children to march off to war? Occasionally one does see fascist meetings – for example I recall seeing one reported in Cremona to commemorate the death of Roberto Farinacci, a particularly hardcore exponent of the black shirt, but to be honest the sight of fat old men singing “Giovinezza” (the fascist anthem, dedicated to youthful courage), was as comical as it was pathetic. It is also amusing to note that one of the main scandals so far in the Meloni era has been her decision to use the masculine article “Il Presidente” as opposed to “La Presidentessa” or something similar. This seems to me to be the kind of problem you discuss when you really don’t have any serious problems (or, perhaps more accurately, you don’t wish to discuss the various intractable problems that do exist). I also don’t think we should be particularly concerned over the apparent revival of Berlusconi’s connections to Putin: he simply can’t accept that he’s become a marginal figure, almost a caricature of himself, so he’s returned to his advertising roots and is willing to do anything to get attention.
What I do see is a general trend towards nationalism, which can, I suppose, be seen as a very watered-down version of fascism. There is at least the possibility of some expansion of state participation in business, although one can but hope that no one is considering a return to the days of IRI (L’Istituto per la Ricostruzione Industriale) – the behemoth state holding company founded during the fascist era that for decades controlled huge swathes of the Italian economy. In this context, it is disturbing to hear discussion of the potential nationalisation of Telecom Italia (TIM), although this might be best seen as an (expensive) opportunity to correct a poor privatisation that left the company imprisoned by its debt burden. It is more likely to see the state getting involved at a smaller scale, with the recent trend in the use of the state-controlled CDP (Cassa Depositi e Prestiti) for financing and even venture capital activities an indication of things to come. It is also more than likely that the state guaranteed loans issued as part of Covid support measures will eventually result in the need to absorb zombie businesses in politically sensitive sectors.
All in all, it seems to me that Meloni fortunately has neither the innate tendency towards fascism, nor a populace willing to be led in that direction. We would probably do better to think about whether the current global trend of rearmament will lead to problems in 10 – 20 years time when all the shiny new weapons are ready for use. I worry that if you build enough of them then sooner or later an excuse will be found to use them – violence is violence, regardless of political ideology.
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The difficulties of 2022 and how to approach 2023
By Andrew Lawford - Topics: Italy
This article is published on: 10th February 2023
As we begin 2023 we find ourselves yet again in rather uncertain times. 2022 proved to be a very difficult year for investors (especially up until about the middle of October), given that there was basically nowhere to hide. The classic 60/40 equities to bonds balanced portfolio returned somewhere in the region of -18% over the year¹ ; you have to go all the way back to 1937 in order to find another negative performance greater than -15%.
The fact is though that this type of portfolio historically has worked remarkably well: looking at data from 1928 onwards, such a portfolio has lost money on an annual basis only 21 times, and only 10 times was the loss greater than 5%. Even 2008, which most people will recall as a truly atrocious year for equity markets, was not so bad for the 60/40 portfolio due to the strong support received from the bond market.
So why did this happen? Should we consider 2022 the moment in which broadly diversified, balanced portfolios stopped being a valid investment strategy or was last year simply an aberration (or the exception that proves the rule)?
It is fair to say that there had been a creeping risk in the 60/40 portfolio for some time, it’s just that this particular risk wasn’t where people were accustomed to finding it. In recent years, fixed income investors have found themselves grappling with low or even negative interest rates. In practical terms, if you buy a bond with no yield, your best-case scenario (excluding the absurdity of negative interest rates) is that the bond goes nowhere for the entire time you hold it. Our risk-free returns gradually transitioned into return-free risks. Given this scenario at the beginning of 2022, it should come as little surprise that many fixed income investments performed even worse than conservative equity investments and certainly failed to provide the support that most people would hope for in a bad year.
¹Using US market data – S&P500 for equities and 7 – 10 year Treasuries for bonds
The good news is that after the difficulties of 2022, many assets now offer better value than they did 12 months ago, but whether or not 2023 will offer great returns or is destined to test our nerves again is a matter of great debate.
It would be tempting at this point to start looking at economic forecasts for 2023 to get an idea of what to expect. The issue here is that which I examined in my article on inflation – we can’t actually know what the future holds, so let’s concentrate on putting together a portfolio that is likely to serve us well as we attempt to generate a reasonable return for the medium-long term.
Far more important than economic prognostication when constructing a portfolio is understanding your own risk profile, because this allows you to give appropriate consideration to matters that you can ascertain and that will certainly affect your investment returns. In no particular order, you need to be thinking about:
- Where are you in the life-cycle of contributing to or drawing down from savings?
- What are your overall financial resources and how adequate are these compared with your needs?
- What are your aspirations?
- What is your ability to withstand market volatility?
- How much do you worry about your money?
Once you have answered all of these questions, you can come up with an appropriate posture to risk. Whether or not you should vary this posture depending on the current market circumstances is a question that you must try to answer at the outset. If you are going to change your posture on the basis of current circumstances, then you must believe that somehow you are able to understand the current situation better than the market consensus, and also understand the affect your view might have on the markets if it happens to be correct. Your assessments might be correct occasionally, but are also likely to be wrong quite often (rather like those of professional forecasters). This leads to the maxim that for nearly all people, nearly all of the time, the appropriate posture is their neutral one based on their risk profile.
There is one other extremely good reason why you would always be well-advised to maintain this neutral posture: it will help you to avoid the cardinal sin of investing – selling low. As I explained in the article linked above, long-term investment offers magnificently favourable odds of good returns, but if you are prone to selling at the bottom, as you may well be if you decide to oscillate between “risk-on” and “risk-off” postures, those odds are turned upside down and will likely cause serious damage to your wealth. Of course, you might also end up buying high occasionally, which may lead to a period of regret, but if you have invested wisely, then time will iron out these wrinkles. It is undoubtedly better to concentrate your attention on what you can know and influence, rather than wringing your hands over economic forecasts.
These are complicated issues that all investors have to face. My advice aims to keep you focused on the important issues rather than leaving you to try and puzzle through the ever-present “noise” in the investment markets. Over the long-term, you will almost certainly find that ignoring the distractions provided by the market action in years like 2022 will contribute to, rather than detract from, your investment success. If you would like to know more, or to conduct a review your current portfolio, then feel free to get in touch for a no-obligation consultation.
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Responsible investing and ESG
By Andrew Lawford - Topics: ESG Funds, ESG investing, Italy, responsible investments
This article is published on: 12th July 2022
Why things really aren’t that bad
It might seem rather strange for me to be writing an article with this title given everything that is currently going on in the world. In truth, however, I have been vaguely working on this for some months, and whilst in no way am I trying to downplay the difficult situation in Eastern Europe, I have no particular insights to share on the topic (apart from wishing that calmer heads will soon prevail), and I am quite sure everyone is receiving enough information about it already.
We have a natural tendency to focus on bad news for the simple reason that no newspaper ever appeared with the title: “Everything’s going well – not so much to report today”. This is not strictly true – the website Future Crunch offers a periodic newsletter dedicated to good news. It is the perfect complement to the diet of negativity that we receive from traditional news outlets.
I had assumed that I was fairly knowledgeable about the world around me and had an objective view of humanity’s current state of affairs. I was thoroughly disabused of this notion by Factfulness by Hans Rosling, one of the most eye-opening books I have ever read and which I thoroughly recommend to everyone.
However, if you have little time or inclination for reading, you can take the Gap Minder test here, which is based on the work done by Rosling. It won’t take long and I suggest you do it before reading the rest of this article.
So what is my point? We tend not to realise that improvements are so gradual as to be imperceptible to us, and this, combined with the fact that we don’t often receive information that challenges our negative stereotypes, leads to a bias towards negativity. It is interesting how much bad news is anecdotal and how much good news is statistical – but of course you wouldn’t want it to be the other way around!
Is a negative bias worthwhile as we consider challenges such as climate change? I don’t know, but I would say this: panic is not a strategy, and going from bad to slightly better (whilst creating incentives to improve continually) is something we should celebrate. This reflection is also relevant to the field of investments: almost all investment houses now make ESG (Environment, Social & Governance) considerations part of their “process”. Are these processes perfect? Certainly not, but it is a start, and some of the leaders are blazing a trail that others are bound to follow. Again, from bad to not-so-bad is still something to celebrate.
In Italy, it is easy to complain about the bureaucracy, but I have to admit that some things are getting better. For anyone doubting this, consider the advent of SPID (Sistema Pubblico di Identità Digitale), which acts basically as a digital gateway to any interaction with the public administration. It is a Substantial Headache to get set-up (capital letters intended), but once you have it working, it is very useful. Also, consider PEC (Posta Elettronica Certificata) – a sort of “registered e-mail”. For anyone who has spent time and money sending raccomandate from their local post office – and let’s face it, you haven’t really lived in Italy until you’ve had to send a raccomandata, you really should invest in a PEC. For 10 euros or so a year you can send as many digital raccomandate as you like from the comfort of your own home, and they have the same legal validity as their paper counterparts. All companies and state entities have to have a PEC, so they are a very effective way of making official communications.
Of course, this technological advancement has also been a way for the Agenzia to concentrate its tax-collecting efforts. They are no longer in the dark about your assets abroad, thanks to the mechanisms of CRS (Common Reporting Standards). Most people have now come to terms with this and are making the necessary declarations. If you or someone you know have been sitting on the fence – talk to me about the best way of sorting out your situation – the key being that you should do this before you receive any requests for clarification.
There are also a number of tax incentives that have been launched in recent years, favouring pensioners, digital nomads and even very wealthy people. I took the opportunity recently to speak to tax practitioner Judith Ruddock from Studio Del Gaizo Picchioni about a number of them (as well as other matters of interest for Italian residents) and have published a podcast which you can find on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts or Stitcher.
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How do I deal with inflation?
By Andrew Lawford - Topics: Inflation, Italy
This article is published on: 18th January 2022
“The only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology respectable”
This opening quotation might seem somewhat defeatist. Surely economic forecasting, given the importance of the economy’s performance on our investments, must be necessary. The problem is that in order to have a useful piece of information, that information must be both important and knowable. There is no doubting that the economy’s future performance is important information for us investors, but to what extent can we know it?
At the risk of using excessive quotations, there is a good story from Kenneth Arrow, who subsequently won a Nobel Prize in Economics in 1972, about his time analysing long-range weather forecasts in World War II. He came to the conclusion that there was no difference between the forecasts and pure chance, and communicated this finding to his superiors. The following is the memorable reply that he received: “The Commanding General is well aware that the forecasts are no good. However, he needs them for planning purposes.”
Which leads me on to inflation, without a doubt the economic piatto del giorno being served up in all current market analyses. Following a 2020 – 2021 in which it was decided, essentially on a global basis, to close down pretty much every non-essential activity and subsequently to apply massive amounts of government stimulus in the hopes of starting things back up again, we are finding a large number of anomalous economic effects. I imagine many people will have their own stories to tell, but my particular one is this: my son got to the point where he needed a new bicycle, having outgrown his previous one. A couple of years ago, this would have been as easy as going down to the local bike shop, choosing the model and swiping my credit card. This time, however, the bike shop told me that they hadn’t had a delivery of new bikes in two months due to logistics problems. They were, however, very happy to take my son’s old bike, a buyer for which was found in a matter of hours.
There have been plenty of variations on this theme in recent times, and it would appear that the process of economic restarting, with its attendant logistics issues, has fed into the current levels of inflation that are being reported. However, it seems unwise to extrapolate one observable trend and conclude that there is some inevitability about inflation remaining at its current high levels. This is the essential problem with economics: modelling extremely complicated systems such as economies is all but impossible: there are simply too many factors to take into consideration and the interactions between them all are unclear.
Of course, if we are investing, then it does seem like we have to take a view on macroeconomics and position ourselves accordingly. Financial newspapers exist to provide daily analysis of current trends and allow various experts to opine about their future path. There is little downside for those prepared to make forecasts: if they happen to be right about some particularly important phenomenon, they can trumpet for all time how they called the event. Their many incorrect calls, on the other hand, will be studiously forgotten about. If we extend this reasoning to well-known hedge fund managers, those who appear to have the Midas touch, we find ourselves subject to what is known as “survivorship bias”: for the few investors with truly long-term records, there are many others who have fallen by the wayside and whose investing results have been lost in the mists of time. This gives us the impression that there are gurus out there who know exactly what is going on in the economy, but it doesn’t correspond to the hard reality of investment: most truly successful investors don’t have a strong view on macroeconomic trends, because they understand that they are unknowable and that any market timing decisions based on forecasts are fraught with difficulty.
So if we can’t divine what is going to happen in the economy, can we know anything that is of use for protecting and growing our investments over the long-term? It turns out that the most important thing for investors is the mere fact of remaining invested. JPMorgan has shown that over the period from 1999 – 2018, the average return on the S&P500 index, the most important aggregate of US shares, was 5.6% p.a. However, your return would have been a paltry 2% p.a. if you had missed the 10 best days of that period, and you wouldn’t have made any money at all if you had missed the 20 best days. Keep in mind that those returns were produced notwithstanding several gut-wrenching market moves associated with the tech bubble bursting in 2000 (which led to three years of negative returns) and the financial crisis of 2008. If we zoom out even further, the annual returns for the US stock market in the post-war period have been positive in about 70% of the years. Those are odds that you want to take.
I should add as a proviso to the above that you need to have invested intelligently, and by that I mean choosing quality asset managers that are worthy, long-term stewards of your capital and who put your interests as clients before their own. It should, of course, be a given that financial professionals put their clients’ interests first, but the various scandals over the years have shown that one can never be complacent in this regard. My job as financial adviser is to help you to choose quality investments and to make sure that you understand the basic tenets of investment and stay with it for the long-term. If you’d like to discuss your own situation further, please don’t hesitate to get in touch for a free initial consultation.
With all of the above, I don’t mean to diminish the importance of inflation, but we need to keep it in its proper context: this isn’t a problem that has suddenly come out of the woodwork! It has been there all along, working quietly in the background to chisel away at your wealth. The graph below shows the effect of different levels of inflation over a number of time periods.
It should be clear that even modest levels of inflation can prove very pernicious – taking the example of a 2% inflation rate over a 20 year period, you will find that prices have risen almost 50%, and so if your capacity for generating income hasn’t risen commensurately, you will find yourself dedicating ever more of your resources to the bare necessities, leaving you less money available for discretionary expenditure. We are told that we have lived through a couple of decades of very low inflation, but I distinctly remember the prices of milk, fuel and train travel (between where I live and Milan) when I arrived in Italy in 2004, and the inflation rate based on these basic goods and services is in the region of 2 – 3% p.a. over the period 2004 – present day (the official value is about 1.3% p.a.). There is no need to get into a debate about how inflation is calculated – I fully recognise that some goods (like consumer electronics) have improved and become cheaper over this period, but I buy fuel for my car far more frequently than I buy a smartphone.
The effects of inflation on your economic well being often become clear only after a long period of time, so the best idea is to work out a plan right from the start to make sure that your expenses are going to be sustainable in the long-term. Doing this can be quite difficult however, as you need to factor in variable investment returns, withdrawal rates and inflation in order to see how your plan is likely to play out. Investing for a positive real return (a real return is adjusted for the effects of inflation) over time relies on taking a long-term view and, as with choosing the right investments, my role as financial adviser is to help you understand all the variables and to find a sustainable path for the future. If you worry about inflation, then you are right to do so, but I can help you in finding ways to protect yourself from its worst effects.
Please also check out my latest podcast – dedicated to citizenship, visas and estate planning, available on Spotify, Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts and Stitcher.
Italy – 300,000 tax disputes, trusts and 7% tax regime
By Andrew Lawford - Topics: Italy, Moving to Italy, Retiring to Italy, Tax in Italy, UK pensions in Italy
This article is published on: 12th October 2021
First, let’s start with some good news. It was recently announced that the number of outstanding tax disputes winding their tortuous way through the Italian courts had dipped below 300,000 for the first time. If it doesn’t sound like much to be proud of, consider that back in 1996 it was almost 10 times that number! It just goes to show how much things have already improved, and yet much still remains to be done if we compare this statistic with a similar-sized country like the UK, where there are fewer than 30,000 outstanding disputes. Considering that almost 50% of the disputes in the courts relate to amounts lower than €3,000, it should be easy to find ways to tidy the system up (Mr Draghi, we are awaiting your reforms with bated breath!).
Now let’s look at a couple of recent clarifications/consultations from the Agenzia delle Entrate (Agenzia) – I try to keep people updated on issues that may be of interest to them, with the goal being that of not ending up in the legion of 300,000 referred to in the paragraph above.
A recent ruling (interpello) from the Agenzia has offered some further clarity on the 7% tax regime. Technically, a ruling only applies to the individual who asked for it, but they are obviously indicative of the Agenzia’s thinking on the topic at hand. In this particular example, we have a US resident who is transferring residency to an eligible town in southern Italy (for more basic details on the regime, first have a look at this article). Their pension is in the form of withdrawals from a US IRA account under a SEPP regime (Substantial Equal Periodic Payments) which allows the individual to make periodic withdrawals from the account prior to their ordinary retirement age (which in this case would be 59 years old). After a long introductory disquisition on the subject, the Agenzia has clearly stated that this kind of pension is eligible, the main reason being that it derives from the working activities of the individual in question.
A couple of other points that are also clear from the ruling: 1) there is no minimum age requirement for the 7% regime and; 2) even one-off payments received upon the termination of a work contract could qualify, as long as these derive from pension funds accumulated for that specific purpose during the individual’s working life.
If you find yourself in a grey area, applying for a ruling is a great way to get clarity on your personal situation and is money well spent when considering the alternative of being audited at some point after you have opted into the regime.
Trust consultation document
Anyone who has listened to one of my early podcasts on the subject will know that trusts are a thorny issue for Italian residents – they are formally recognised, thanks to the fact that Italy ratified The Hague Trust Convention, which came into force in 1992 – but from there it has been a constant source of trouble, mainly relating to how they should be taxed. Anyone who has any kind of link with a trust should make sure that they get a working idea of its potential consequences from the Italian point of view. I say “potential”, because there isn’t a great deal of clarity on the subject. The only thing for sure is that the Agenzia is taking a greater interest in these structures – hence the recent publication of a consultation document that seeks to give a cohesive vision of trusts in the Italian context.
You can expect some changes before it becomes definitive, but I am summing up its main points in a series of questions you should be asking yourself (and your advisers) if you have any kind of connection to a trust.
Is the trust itself Italian resident?
- The fact that a trust has been set up outside of Italy doesn’t mean that the Agenzia cannot consider it to be an Italian resident (the same is also true of company structures)
- The consultation document indicates that the basic criteria upon which a trust will be considered resident in Italy are the location of its registered office, its centre of administration, or its principal activities
- There is a simple presumption of Italian residency for any trust that has at least one settlor and one beneficiary resident in Italy
- A presumption of Italian residency also exists when an Italian resident individual transfers assets to a trust set up in a non-white list country
- An Italian-resident trust is taxed at IRES rates (Italian corporate taxation) regardless of when distributions are actually made to the beneficiaries
What kind of trust is it (regardless of its residency)?
- The consultation document discusses two types of trust: “opaco” and “trasparente”, with the distinction essentially being whether or not the beneficiaries have the right to receive distributions from the trust (trasparente), or are only amongst those for whom it is a possibility, but not a right (opaco). In simpler terms, we might call the “opaco” a discretionary trust and the “trasparente” a naked, or transparent trust
- If you are the beneficiary of a naked trust, essentially you will be taxed on a “look-through” basis, as if the trust didn’t exist. This will involve the potentially difficult process of reconciling the trust’s reporting to the Italian reporting requirements for individuals
- If you are the beneficiary of a discretionary trust, you are likely to be taxed at financial income tax rates (26%) on any distributions
Is the trust set up in a tax haven or does it otherwise enjoy preferential tax treatment?
- If a discretionary trust is set up in a tax haven, or otherwise happens to enjoy a preferential tax regime, the trust’s income is automatically attributed to its Italian beneficiaries, regardless of whether the trust has actually made a distribution. You could end up paying tax on amounts you haven’t actually received
- This point follows the similar regime for companies set up in tax havens or enjoying low tax regimes
- People often set trusts up as vehicles for estate planning. One main source of doubt over the years has been the moment at which Italian gift or inheritance taxes fall due. The doubt has been created by the fact that the Italian Supreme Court (Cassazione) has oscillated between two competing interpretations
- The first interpretation is that taxes are due at the moment the trust is set up, and should be paid at appropriate rates considering the relationship between the settlor and the ultimate beneficiary. This approach was favoured by those who wanted to pay the taxes now under the relatively low Italian IHT regime, in the anticipation of higher taxes in the future
- The second interpretation is that taxes are due at the moment of final distribution to the beneficiary concerned
- Interestingly, both approaches have been applied in the Italian courts, but it seems that the second interpretation is destined to become the definitive one. This puts people who have already applied the first interpretation in something of an awkward position
Will I be subject to foreign assets declarations (IVAFE/IVIE) as a result of being considered “titolare effettivo” (beneficial owner) of the trust’s assets?
- This is quite a complicated point and is intertwined with the fact that recent reforms have made Italian resident trusts subject to foreign asset declaration rules
- In some circumstances, even the beneficiaries of foreign discretionary trusts may have to declare the assets held by the trust due to the rules relating to beneficial ownership
- The penalties for non declaration are such that, if you find yourself in a grey area, you should probably make the declaration (which is a fairly difficult thing to do properly)
Don’t underestimate the level of sophistication that the Agenzia is reaching with its interpretations of trust instruments – they can and will dig into the nature of a trust in order to understand exactly how it works and increasingly they have the expertise to do so. If you do have a connection to a trust or are thinking about setting one up, now might be a good idea to have a chat and review your situation. There are a limited number of circumstances in which they might make sense (for example in terms of protecting vulnerable individuals), but in most other cases we find that there are easier and more “Italian-friendly” ways of reaching the goals people have with their trusts.
If any of the above has raised doubts or queries, I’m always happy to hear from people by e-mail, or even just drop me a WhatsApp message and we’ll organise a time to speak.
Reflecting on estate planning
By Andrew Lawford - Topics: Estate Planning, Inheritance Tax, Italy, Succession Planning
This article is published on: 24th August 2021
Could the oldest woman in the world have been a fraud?
Not many people will recognise the name Jeanne Calment, but she is the main character of this article and her story invites reflection, regardless of the truth of the various claims made about her.
First, let’s see who Jeanne Calment (probably) was: she was born in Arles, in the south of France, in 1875 and died in 1997 at the age of 122 years, 164 days: this happens to be the oldest age, as far as we know, of any human being ever to have lived. This is clearly remarkable – having been born at a time when the average life expectancy of a French woman was 45 years, she managed to outlive not only her own generation, but also a number of successive ones. It is worth noting that average life expectancy has been influenced greatly by the high rate of infant mortality in the past: in 1875 roughly 18% of babies in France died before their 1st birthdays – today it is less than 0.03% – so once you made it through your first year, your prospects were much better.
Of course, becoming really really old is the sort of thing that might get you into the Guinness Book of World Records, and may provoke a certain amount of interest from medical researchers concentrating on life extension, but how much else of interest can there be in the topic? Well, according to Norris McWhirter, one of the founders of the Guinness World Records (and as reported in the article linked below): “No single subject is more obscured by vanity, deceit, falsehood, and deliberate fraud than the extremes of human longevity.”
It turns out that the case of Jeanne Calment is complicated by the possibility of her not being who she said she was. The accusation of fraud is based upon the idea that she actually died in 1934, the year in which Jeanne’s daughter Yvonne is supposed to have passed away. Jeanne’s family, so it is argued, decided to declare that the daughter had died, with Yvonne then playing the role of her mother Jeanne for the rest of her life. Yvonne was born in 1898, making her death at 99 years old in 1997, if the accusation is true, somewhat less remarkable.
What could possibly have motivated the family’s decision to switch places between mother and daughter? Look no further than those two certainties of life – death and taxes – for the answer. It is clearly quite difficult to cheat death, but as the Calment family was well-to-do, saving an estimated 250,000 francs in inheritance taxes (something close to €1M in today’s money) can’t have seemed like a bad idea. If this is true, then full marks for creativity – we are certainly well beyond the bounds of your average tax evasion scheme! The story gets even better, though, with the decision of Jeanne (or Yvonne?) to sell the life estate of her apartment to her notary in 1969, at the age of 94. The agreement allowed Jeanne to remain in the property and obliged the notary to make regular payments to her until receiving full title upon her death. This sort of agreement, also reasonably common in Italy (the nuda proprietà), is essentially a bet by the buyer on how long the life tenant is going to live for. In this case, Jeanne not only outlived the notary but enjoyed continued payments from his heirs as well, ultimately receiving more than twice the value of the property she sold. Talk about a bad bet!
Reflecting on estate planning
What does the above have to teach us? Either that people will go to extreme lengths to save on their taxes, or that they like to dream up good stories on the topic. Certainly we should reflect on estate planning and wonder what might be coming down the line in terms of inheritance taxes in the reforms that will be forthcoming from the Draghi government over the coming months. Currently, assets passing from parent to child are taxed very lightly in Italy compared with other European countries, with a rate of 4% applied on the excess value over €1M per heir. The rates increase to a maximum of 8% with a zero threshold for an heir with no family connection to the deceased, so even in the current worst case scenario taxes are relatively low.* It is worth noting that gifts and inheritances are treated in the same way under Italian law, so it is possible to make a gift up to the threshold limit today without incurring taxes; subsequent amounts inherited would then be subject to the taxes applicable at that time, but a gift now would be made under the current rules that may well become less advantageous in the future. There are various other mechanisms available for efficient estate planning in Italy, the main one being life insurance wrappers: the amounts received by the beneficiary of a life insurance policy are not technically part of the deceased estate, as long as the policy itself is set up in the correct way.
The above constitutes a simple comment on estate planning in the Italian context, but every situation is different and I often engage with clients’ legal counsel to help make sure that the overall plan will work well in the various interested jurisdictions. If you are thinking about reviewing your estate planning in Italy or are considering moving here from abroad, it is never too early to start the discussion – feel free to send me an e-mail and we can organise a time to talk.
Where does this leave us in the case of Jeanne Calment? If you want to read the whole article, which is long but fascinating, the link is here. I won’t spoil the outcome, but I think the journalist’s ultimate conclusion is the right one. I do hope, however, that they never do the DNA testing suggested: the world is better with a bit of mystery every now and again.
* Inheritance taxes may also be due in other jurisdictions depending on the location of your assets and links to other countries.
The cryptocurrency revolution
By Andrew Lawford - Topics: Bitcoin, Blockchain, Cryptocurrency, investment diversification, Investment Risk, Italy
This article is published on: 29th July 2021
Hodling and the cryptocurrency revolution
Are you hodling? No, that’s not a typo – it is millennial-speak for what you do if you are a true believer in the cryptocurrency revolution. Look it up. I wouldn’t describe myself as old, but I’m certainly old enough not to be automatically in tune with what motivates millennials. However, you can hardly open a newspaper these days without some notable individual passing comment on cryptocurrencies, and they even seem to be going mainstream now that bitcoin has been made legal tender in El Salvador – you can buy residency there for 3 bitcoin. It seemed therefore like a good moment to try and get at least a vague understanding of what cryptocurrencies are, as I suspect that many of the readers of this newsletter will be as confused as I am on the topic, so let’s see what we can discover. I will be focussing particularly on bitcoin, as the main example of a cryptocurrency, but do be aware that bitcoin is only the most prominent out of the estimated 10,000+ cryptos out there.
Everything you don’t know about money, combined with everything you don’t know about technology
This was a tongue-in-cheek definition of cryptocurrencies that I heard not so long ago from an asset manager, but it kept coming back to me every time I saw cryptos mentioned in the press.
Once upon a time, “money” essentially meant some amount of precious metal, generally in the form of a coin which was easily recognisable. Then we evolved to a situation in which we used banknotes to represent an underlying amount of precious metal, and finally we arrived at where we are today, where any link with precious metals has been definitively severed in favour of fractional reserve banking and “fiat” currency controlled by sovereign states – the “fiat” is Latin, meaning “let it be done”, and is the essential expression of our concept of legal tender: something is money not because it has any intrinsic value, but because the law says it is. These fiat currencies rely on trust in the good economic management of the issuing countries, and we can all think of notable examples of where bad management has left fiat currencies broken. I have a 100 trillion dollar note issued by the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe in my office as a reminder of the importance of sound currencies.
Not many of us could properly explain a fiat currency system and the interactions between bank deposits, bank lending and central bank reserves and, as a result, many find it tempting to say that even major currencies like the US dollar and the euro have little intrinsic value due to the fact that their supply is essentially unlimited. To a certain extent, cryptocurrencies were born out of a lack of trust in fiat currencies (even the “good” ones) and the desire to make money something more regulated (not in the sense of having more government oversight, but rather of wanting precise rules and limitations on the amounts of currency in circulation). In order to be worth something, so the reasoning goes, the supply must be limited and it must be difficult to create – hence the parallels that are sometimes drawn between cryptocurrencies and precious metals.
A lump of gold sitting in a vault somewhere has value simply because we think it has value; up until the time that you find a practical use for that gold, its value is dictated by that vague idea that come (almost) what may, at least it will always be there. Not an amazingly intelligent argument, it must be said, but better than many things that finance has come up with over the years. The basic reason for abandoning the link between money and precious metals was that the supply of commodities like gold or silver were subject to vagaries that had little to do with the overall economic situation, so bullion failed to keep up with our economic growth.
As far as bitcoin is concerned, it is very clear that scarcity is central to its functioning given that it has been set up to have a maximum number of 21 million units. As of today, there are roughly 18.7 million bitcoins that have been created, but the number effectively available for transactions is much lower, due to the fact that many people hodl, and also due to the fact that a large number of coins have been lost (I have read estimates of 20% of the total in existence). You see, if you have a bitcoin, you better make sure you keep hold of the codes that allow you to access it, because there is no “lost password” function if you don’t. Losing the codes is the digital equivalent of throwing your gold bars into the Mariana Trench; they don’t cease to exist, but you will find it all but impossible to recover them. It is worth noting that whilst the scarcity value of bitcoin may be beyond doubt, the fact there are so many other cryptocurrencies around should give pause for thought about the scarcity of the category as a whole.
The creation of bitcoin is one of the things that I struggle with the most – it is commonly called “mining”, in an evident attempt to draw a parallel with precious metals, even though the mining in the case of cryptocurrencies is entirely digital. Essentially, they are discovered by computers contributing to the distributed ledger that monitors all bitcoin transactions. The only explanation of bitcoin mining that has made some sense to me so far is to consider it in terms of a triple-entry accounting system: There are two parties who record a transaction and this is then sealed into bitcoin transaction records by a third party that verifies it through its mining activities (and receives a reward for doing so). Mining, in the world of bitcoin, is technically called a “proof of work” and allows a participant in the network to be rewarded by participating in the distributed ledger and crunching the enormously complicated numbers that guarantee the transactions that have been recorded. This ledger, also known as the blockchain, belongs to everyone and no-one, rather like the internet itself, and it exists in order to eliminate the risk of someone being able to spend the same bitcoin twice. No, I don’t really understand it either.
It is also said that bitcoins and their transactions are “immutable” – I suppose to the same extent that precious metals are immutable. But does this really make any sense? Aside from the apparent lack of ability to hack the blockchain today, can we really be confident that in a thousand (or a million!) years bitcoin will still be unhackable and attractive to a sufficiently large community of people? Perhaps this is more of a philosophical question than anything else, but us humans do get wrapped up in the idea that the big issues of today are the big issues for all time. I suspect our distant descendants, assuming the human race is lucky enough to survive, will become interested in many things beyond bitcoin or cryptocurrencies in general. In this context, the best parallel to draw is with technological innovation: today, not many people are interested in steam engines or dirigible balloons, once important technological developments, and the same may be true for bitcoin in a few decades. For bitcoin to enjoy any value at all, it is dependent on the bitcoin community continuing to support it through time. It would be highly unwise to think that nothing will ever come to supplant it, because human experience with other technologies suggests that better things are always on the horizon. The same cannot be said for precious metals, which may wax and wane in terms of community interest, but do not depend on community interest for their existence. My gold bar will still be there in a thousand years if it is kept safe, regardless of what people might think about it. What might happen to it over the course of a million years is a question I find rather difficult to ponder, but it’s probably fine for the next few thousand.
In all of this, the real evolution may be arriving shortly, and it is not to be found amongst the many new variations on the bitcoin theme that have come into existence. Many have looked upon cryptocurrencies as a way of thumbing one’s nose at traditional financial structures – no more central banks and traditional bank accounts for me please! Yet the governments of this world are not going to give up the privilege of being able to issue national currency without a fight, and it could be that they will try to beat the cryptos at their own game. Some cryptos, known as “stablecoins” are backed by a given fiat currency, but it has been suggested that the most appropriate issuers of such coins are the central banks themselves. One idea is that each of us could end up, as of right, with our own account at the central bank of the nation we live in. If this were to happen, then bank runs would no longer be an issue and commercial banks would have to reinvent their business models, at least in part. Presumably physical cash would become a thing of the past. This is not speculation on my part – the ECB is publicly discussing the benefits of digital coins and the Bank for International Settlements – the central banks’ central bank – has even commented that this is “a concept whose time has come.” The full BIS report is available here for anyone who is interested.
Much has also been said about the potential of the blockchain – essentially the network that runs bitcoin – to revolutionise everything from banking to contracts. We’ll just have to wait and see how all of that shakes out, but it is clear that there are numerous technologies being developed and brought to bear on finance and commerce and it’s by no means clear that blockchain technology is the only answer. In any case, even if the blockchain network is valuable, this says nothing about whether any given cryptocurrency that relies on it has value.
As I suppose must be obvious by now, my research for this article hasn’t convinced me that cryptocurrencies are a good place to speculate (please let’s not use the term “investment” in this context!) – and certainly I see no reason why investment in this sort of asset should supplant traditional assets in an investment portfolio. As boring as it may sound, what really counts in investment is not jumping on that latest bandwagon, but planning one’s affairs properly whilst having a disciplined approach and a long-term view.
As a final point, for any Italian residents, please also be aware that bitcoin investments and gains deriving therefrom are subject to declarations and taxation in Italy – you may think your cryptos are 100% anonymous, but I wouldn’t be betting on it.
Are you moving to Italy?
By Andrew Lawford - Topics: Italy, Moving to Italy
This article is published on: 16th June 2021
I hope you are enjoying the summer weather and the return to comparative normality – long may it last!
I wanted to let you know about a new podcast episode that has just been released. It is entitled “Brexit (and more…)”, so will be of particular interest to UK nationals residing or considering taking residency in Italy, but it also explores quite a few topics that will be more generally applicable.
As it’s quite a long episode, I thought it would be helpful to give you an index of topics covered and the approximate minute markers so that you can easily locate the sections that are of interest to you.
- 1:28 – Working with a UK financial adviser as an Italian resident
- 8:55 – Equivalency in financial services between UK and EU
- 12:57 – Taxation of EU-domiciled managed funds vs UK-domiciled managed funds post-Brexit for Italian residents
- 15:50 – Tax declarations in Italy for directly-held foreign financial investments
- 18:15 – The €51,645.69 question – holding foreign currencies as an Italian resident
- 21:38 – ISAs – what they mean in Italy
- 23:42 – Quadro RW – why you need to declare the mere existence of your foreign assets (as well the income that derives from them). Common Reporting Standards and why you should assume that information is being exchanged automatically with the Italian tax authorities
- 25:20 – The taxation of UK real estate as an Italian resident (rental income and wealth tax (from 28:20))
- 33:00 – Thinking about real estate investments once you move to Italy
- 35:15 – Capital gains tax on foreign property (with particular comment on the situation for UK property owners who are non-resident in the UK)
- 38:15 – Tax-efficient investment wrappers – what they can do and how they need to be set up. Some comment on inheritance taxes in Italy
- 43:44 – The 7% pensioners’ tax regime
- 50:10 – Italy vs Italia – and why you should persevere if you want to move here
Do you have investments in the UK?
By Andrew Lawford - Topics: Investments, Italy, Tax in Italy
This article is published on: 4th February 2021
Time for a closer look at foreign portfolios
In one of my articles last year I looked into the complexity of the taxation regime for the various types of investment income that can arise for an Italian resident. I would suggest that you read that article, or at least its section on funds, as background before continuing. In this article we are going to look in greater depth at the taxation of funds, or collective investment schemes (from now on I’ll refer to these simply as “collectives”). While this may seem a somewhat dry topic, it will be of particular concern to those who have investments in the UK, given that their tax treatment will be changing now that Brexit has come to pass. Equally, though, many people will have investments in collectives that they made in their countries of origin that do not pass muster in Italy, and these will bring less than desirable consequences from a taxation perspective.
Ufficio Complicazione Affari Semplici
Let’s first make it clear that there is nothing in Italian law that makes it illegal for an Italian resident to own certain kinds of foreign asset, but as many people find out when navigating the Italian system, the fact that you are allowed to do something doesn’t automatically mean that it will be easy. In fact, Italy has a mythical government office known as the Ufficio Complicazione Affari Semplici (the Office of Complicating Simple Matters – it even has its own Facebook page) which, if it actually existed, might well be one of the most efficient government entities in the country (I am joking, of course, but it does sometimes feel that way)!
Anyway, back to the main point of this article: there is an important distinction made in Italian tax law between EU domicile as against non-EU domicile for collectives.* In order to enjoy the basic 26% rate of taxation for financial income, collectives must either respect the UCITS regulations (i.e. be authorised under the EU law for collective investment undertakings), or, if non-UCITS, they must be domiciled in the EU or EEA, registered for distribution in Italy and managed by an EU licensed asset manager. These requirements will exclude almost all non-EU domiciled collectives, with UK collectives the most recent addition to the list (as from 1st January 2021). So what happens when you have invested in a collective that isn’t covered by EU rules? Any income generated will be taxed at your marginal income tax rates, which is likely to be penalising for all except those with limited incomes (the lowest income tax band is 23% in Italy).
Much has been made in the press of the fact that financial services were excluded from the Brexit agreement. Below is what this looks like in practice (the following is an excerpt from a letter sent by the fund manager Janus Henderson to investors in their UK domiciled funds):
“With effect from 1 January 2021, UK domiciled investment funds that had previously operated under the Undertakings for the Collective Investment in Transferable Securities (UCITS) regulations will cease to be classed as UCITS and will instead become “UK UCITS”. From the same date, UK domiciled Non-UCITS Retail Schemes (NURS) will cease to be classed as EU Alternative Investment Funds (AIFs) and instead will be classed as third country AIFs. Any UK domiciled Janus Henderson funds that were registered for marketing purposes in any EU 27 countries will no longer be registered and marketing of the funds will therefore cease. For the avoidance of doubt our “UK UCITS” and NURS will not be registered for marketing in the EU as third country AIFs.”
Also on the list for unfavourable tax treatment you will find any non-UCITS ETFs, which would include all of those listed in the US (remember that ETFs are simply collectives that trade on a stock exchange). It will also include holdings in Investment Trusts listed in the UK. To be fair, UK Investment Trusts have always been in an unusual situation – something I found out first hand a number of years ago after holding an Investment Trust through an Italian bank. I was amazed at the paperwork that arrived at year end relating to this holding, the income from which I was obliged to put in my tax return (to be taxed at marginal rates). At the time there was also a complicated distinction made between the variation of the fund’s NAV compared with the variation of the price of the shares that I had bought and sold – although I believe that particular distortion has now been resolved for listed funds like ETFs (every now and again something slips past the Office of Complicating Simple Matters).
What about the US?
Any American readers should be particularly concerned, because they cannot hold EU collectives due to the arcane nature of US taxation, which makes compliance difficult even for non-resident US citizens.
You are unwise to hold EU collectives from a US point of view, and unwise to hold US collectives from an Italian point of view. So what to do? Do not despair: much will depend on your individual situation, but we can often help to improve substantially the overall tax efficiency and declaration burden relating to your portfolio.
The bottom line is that you should never assume that what works well in one country will work well in another, and especially not one like Italy that has government offices specialised in complicating matters!
If you would like to discuss your own situation then please get in touch. Our aim is to simplify complicated matters as much as possible whilst making sure that your assets are well managed, with a view to the long term. In this context, avoiding unnecessary tax exposure remains a key element of most successful investment strategies. With proper guidance in the process of portfolio construction, it is entirely possible both to enhance investment returns and reduce administrative complexity.
* Normally you can tell where a collective is domiciled by looking at the first two digits of its ISIN code (ISIN stands for International Securities Identification Number, a 12 digit alphanumeric code which almost all financial instruments have): IT will identify an Italian security, GB a UK security, LU a Luxembourg security and so on.