This year, the BVI celebrates the 35th year anniversary of its first international business legislation, the International Business Companies Act, 1984 (the IBC Act). It has paved the financial services’ landscape of the BVI as a well-known and respected international financial centre. Growth in the financial services products offered by the BVI is evidenced by the number of new and innovative legislations enacted since 1984, which keep the BVI relevant, robust and compliant.
Taking A Drive Along The Financial Services Pathway
There were many amendments made to the IBC Act prior to its Darwinian evolution in January 2005 when it was repealed and replaced with the BVI Business Companies Act, 2004 (the BC Act). The BC Act, among other things, saw the introduction to the BVI of seven different types of companies, including companies limited by shares, companies limited by guarantee authorised to issue shares and those not authorised to issue shares, restricted purpose companies, and segregated portfolio companies, whereas the IBC Act had only one type, companies limited by shares. Under both legislations, the acts of and transactions entered into by the BVI company are not invalid by reason that the company lacks capacity. This is a salient provision which serves to protect third parties dealing with BVI companies.
The BC Act removed the concepts of “authorized capital” and “share capital” and the requirement for par value shares.
Another useful feature introduced by the BC Act is the ability of the directors of a company (when in the best interest of the company or its creditors or members) to approve a plan of arrangement and to apply to the BVI Court for approval of the proposed arrangement, which is given effect upon filing the Court order with the Registry of Corporate Affairs (the Registry). The Court may make interim or final orders, which are not subject to an appeal unless a question of law is involved.
To embark on an exercise to list all the amendments to the BC Act would be a herculean task. I will make mention of a few notable ones below:
Development of the Financial Services Legislations
The BVI enacted several pieces of financial services legislation over the years, including the Banks and Trust Companies Act, 1990; Partnership Act, 1996; Proceeds of Criminal Conduct Act, 1997 (PCCA); Insolvency Act, 2003; Trustee Act; Virgin Islands Special Trust Act, 2003; Financial Services (Exemption) Regulations, 2007 (creating private trust companies); Insurance Act, 2008; Financing and Money Services Act, 2009; Securities and Investment Business Act, 2010 (SIBA); Trade Marks Act 2013; and the Limited Partnership Act, 2017.
The Financial Services Commission Act, 2001 (which came into force on 1 January 2002) established the BVI Financial Services Commission (Commission) as the regulator and supervisor of financial services being conducted by BVI business companies or foreign companies registered in the BVI. The functions of the Commission (among other things) include:
The world of investment funds in the BVI has welcomed approved funds and incubator funds to the existing private, professional, and public funds. These funds are lightly regulated vehicles, attractive to emerging managers or persons wishing to manage funds for a group of investor friends, family members, or non-institutional investors.
Since coming on stream in 2015, the number of incubator funds and approved funds has increased from nine of each type at the end of March 2015, to 46 and 71, respectively, as at the end of March 2018[i].
The Investment Business (Approved Managers) Act, 2012 introduced a fast-track approval process and “light tough” regulation of managers by the Commission where, among other requirements, the managers did not have more than US$400 million hedge fund assets or US$1 billion closed ended fund assets. Approved managers may manage funds established in the BVI or in a jurisdiction recognised by the Commission as having similar AML laws and regulations to the BVI.
Changes in the BVI Anti-Money Laundering Regime
One cannot mention changes in the financial services landscape without mentioning changes in the compliance regime, in particular the changes made to the penalties over the years. The PCCA imposes penalty restrictions on the AML Regulations, the Code, and on the administrative penalties that may be levied by the Commission under the Code.
Initially, the PCCA penalties were in the range of US$3,000 to US$25,000. The Commission could not levy administrative penalties above US$4,000 prior to 2010. In 2010, the maximum fine increased to US$20,000, and in 2012 the amount increased to US$150,000.
Similarly, the maximum penalty for an offence under the AML Regulations was US$15,000. In 2010, the maximum fine was increased to US$30,000 and in 2012, to US$150,000.
The increases resulted from the 2008 CFATF[ii] Mutual Evaluation Report of the BVI and a subsequent report in 2011. While the BVI received favourable ratings for its legal and regulatory regimes, the BVI was required to enhance compliance with its AMLCTF[iii] laws by making its penalties more dissuasive.
The BVI conducted legislative reform and fully implemented FATF[iv] Recommendation 14.2 (tipping off) and Recommendation 17 (sanctions) in 2010 and further increased the penalties in the AML Regulations, Code and the PCCA in 2012.
Observing the regulatory amendments enacted by the BVI over the years, it is clear that the BVI is dedicated to complying with and, in some cases, surpassing its international obligations to combat money-laundering and terrorist financing.
More Recent Enactments:
The BVI enacted the Economic Substance (Companies and Limited Partnership) Act, 2018 on 1 January 2019 (ESA), and the BVI International Tax Authority (ITA) published Rules on ESA on 9 October 2019, to address the European Union’s concerns about the possible misuse of BVI companies for profit shifting and the OECD’s concerns regarding economic presence.
ESA applies to all BVI companies and limited partnerships (LPs) (including foreign registered ones) (the Entities) unless they are and can prove that they are tax resident outside of the BVI in a jurisdiction that is not included on the EU’s list of non-cooperative jurisdictions. Entities tax resident in the BVI are required to demonstrate economic substance by reference to adequacy of expenditure, staff, and premises in the BVI if they carry on any of the nine “relevant activities” defined by ESA.
ESA amends the Beneficial Ownership Secure Search System Act, 2017 (as amended) (BOSSS) requiring Entities to annually submit basic information on their tax residency and their activities. Entities tax resident in the BVI must provide information via BOSSS to the ITA to enable it to determine whether or not the Entity is carrying on relevant activities during its financial period and, if so, whether it is complying with the economic substance requirements.
SIBA will also be amended to introduce a new supervisory regime for private investment funds aimed at improving the BVI’s fund regime and satisfying the ESA requirements for collective investment funds.
Other Topical Financial Services Products:
Cryptocurrencies and Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs)
While the BVI does not have any specific legislation dealing with cryptocurrencies and ICOs, BVI companies play a significant part in the cryptocurrency markets in the world. The future seems to be where cryptocurrencies lie and the BVI is embarking on carefully launching its own digital currency in order to diversify and keep modern its financial services.
The Commission is aware of the rise in FinTech globally and will be offering the use of regulatory sandboxes to provide a defined test environment for regulation and innovation of business models.
Over the last 35 years of participating in the financial services industry, the BVI has demonstrated that it has the skill and readiness to develop innovative financial services products to respond to the challenges and needs of the evolving times.
The BVI is acutely aware of, and is vigilant, in its role and ethical duty in the fight against money laundering and terrorist financing and has put in place the legislation to strengthen its fight.
It is also aware of the honest and innovative ways in which its products may be used and is primed to facilitate and encourage such use of its financial services.
[i] BVI Financial Services Commission, Q1 Statistical Report 2018.
[ii] Caribbean Financial Action Task Force.
[iii] Anti-Money Laundering Counter-Terrorist Financing.
[iv] Financial Action Task Force.