Call for island to open up to foreign capital
Bermuda will have to work harder to attract international business as competition with rival jurisdictions heats up during the Covid-19 crisis — and the time to adjust policies is now.
So say leading business-people, who believe struggling businesses will need freer access to overseas capital, while job-creating entrepreneurs will need to feel that they have a clear pathway to permanent residency or citizenship.
John Wight, chairman and chief executive of BF&M, an insurance group that operates in Bermuda, Cayman and Barbados, said Bermuda was going through the most uncertain times most of us had seen and recovery depended on bold and swift action.
“Extricating ourselves from the biggest global economic downturn and avoiding potential security issues that could follow should be mission critical,” Mr Wight said.
“The size of any economy, or the gross domestic product, is a function of the size of its labour force and how productive it is. It is absolutely essential that we open up the island to outside capital investment.”
To achieve that, the island needs to make potential investors and their capital feel welcome, he added.
“Specifically we can be looking at several policy and legislative changes — for starters changes to the business ownership and control rules,” Mr Wight said.
“There are many well-run Bermuda businesses that need just one thing to survive through this period — capital. Control of capital for investors is critical.”
Curtis Dickinson, the finance minister, announced in his Budget speech three months ago that the Government planned to reverse the 60:40 rule to allow foreign interests to have majority stakes in Bermudian businesses — however, boards of directors would still have to be under 60 per cent Bermudian control.
Sir John Swan, a former premier, said investors needed to be able to choose who represented them on boards, otherwise the move would fail to attract the desired capital.
Mr Dickinson has warned that Bermuda's GDP will shrink by as much as 12.5 per cent this year in a recession much more severe than that suffered by the island in the wake of the global financial crisis 12 years ago.
Thousands of tourism, restaurant and retail workers have been laid off, while many others have had their pay or hours cut. The Government has introduced an emergency unemployment benefit.
“Last time there was a global economic meltdown, in 2007-08, Bermuda lost roughly 7,000 work-permit holders and their family members,” Mr Wight said.
“These people rented Bermudian-owned homes, they ate in Bermudian-owned restaurants, and took Bermudian-owned taxi rides. Life has not been the same for many since.
“We have an opportunity now through public-private partnership to create a new Bermuda, but we don't have the luxury of time — we must act and we must act soon.”
The island's location between America and Europe, natural beauty, reputation for safety, and its status as a sophisticated and well-regulated business centre count heavily in its favour, Mr Wight said.
He added: “These are important factors to many who — if we are open-minded and welcoming — may consider Bermuda as an ideal place to set up a business or stay for a vacation.”
Malika Taylor is managing director of Expertise, a professional-services firm whose work includes executive recruitment.
She said ensuring international business leaders felt “vested” in the community was key to the island's future prosperity.
Expertise had worked with many international business start-ups over the last 20 years, she added. “One thing we have observed is that global investors often hire senior executives that have a track record of success with other international company start-ups,” Ms Taylor said.
“When those entrepreneurial executives are located in Bermuda and their experience of Bermuda is good both personally and professionally, they often recommend Bermuda as the domicile of choice. Unfortunately, the opposite is true as well.
“So key to attracting more international company start-ups, who create employment opportunities on island, is for Bermuda to entice entrepreneurial international business executives to make Bermuda their permanent home.
“We want Bermuda IB executives to feel vested. Our competitor jurisdictions make it clear they want them by providing a clear track to permanent residency or citizenship.”
Mr Dickinson said last Friday that the Covid-19 crisis presented an opportunity for “a profound shift” and added that “opting out from taking tough decisions at this time is no longer an option”.
Mr Wight also sees a silver lining to the crisis cloud, if bold actions are taken. He said: “While there are unprecedented stresses on the economy and on many businesses, there are also potential opportunities for Bermuda to seize, to get us through this period and position the island as a destination of choice — both for new foreign investment and as a tourist destination.”