Are Citizenship by Investment programmes sustainable?

Alicia Nicholls

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) in its end of mission press release following its recently concluded Article IV Consultation mission in St. Kitts & Nevis highlighted that strong construction activity, driven in part by large real estate projects funded under the island’s Citizenship by Investment (CBI) programme, had contributed significantly to the island’s five percent economic growth in 2015. Although the Article IV report itself has not been made available, the end of mission press release noted as follows:

“The outlook for 2016 is positive, but remains dominated by developments in CBI inflows. Growth is expected to moderate to 3.5 percent in 2016 and 3 percent, on average, over the medium term, reflecting a tapering of construction activity associated with a potential slowdown in the pace of new CBI applications, given the increased competition from new CBI programs [emphases are this Author’s].”

Two main things are clear from this paragraph and indeed from the entire press release. Firstly, St. Kitts & Nevis’ CBI programme, which has been in existence since 1984 and was the first of its kind, has contributed significantly to the island’s recent macroeconomic performance at a time when some Caribbean countries are still seeing sluggish GDP growth. Secondly, the IMF has concerns about the sustainability of this  CBI-led growth. This is reflected in the lower GDP growth rate projected for 2016 and for the medium term. It raises the question of how sustainable a role can CBI programmes play in fostering growth and development in the host country.

Citizenship by investment programmes or jus pecuniae (economic citizenship) remain a controversial topic in the Caribbean. Despite this,  given the high level of indebtedness of many Caribbean countries, the need for economic diversification, the fickle nature of foreign direct investment inflows and limited access to concessional borrowing, Caribbean countries are increasingly considering their attractiveness. In January this year, St. Lucia recently joined four other Caribbean countries (Antigua & Barbuda, Dominica, Grenada and St. Kitts & Nevis) as the fifth Caribbean state currently operating a CBI programme. Each of these programmes differs in terms of fees, types of qualifying investment and admission and other qualification criteria.

If managed well, CBI programmes can be an important source of targeted foreign direct investment and other foreign exchange inflows. They can also be alternative means of financing infrastructure projects which might be otherwise unattractive to most private investors. As an example, the Government of Dominica recently announced that its West Bridge project under the Roseau Enhancement Project will be financed through its CBI programme. Without private sector-led involvement, such projects would require use of government’s tax coffers, borrowing or public-private partnerships. Construction activity pursuant to these projects, where provided for, contributes to economic activity and generates employment. High Net Worth Individuals (HNWIs) and their families  also bring with them expertise, contacts and know-how to the businesses which they establish. CBI programmes can to some extent contribute to poverty reduction by creating employment and creating infrastructure in rural communities.

Growing global demand for Second Passports

There is also no disputing that global demand for second passports is increasing. Contrary to popular belief, this demand is not fuelled in the main by nefarious purposes but by HNWIs either fleeing political or economic instability in their home countries or seeking the greater mobility a less restrictive passport could bring. Caribbean passports, for example, rank among some of the least restrictive passports outside those of metropolitan countries.

A growing and increasingly mobile Chinese, Russian, Middle Eastern and African HNW class, and continued instability in the Middle East, are two of the major developments to watch. Turning to this hemisphere, Fortune reports  that 2015 was the third straight year in which a record number of US citizens renounced their US citizenship. Besides the onerous reporting requirements under the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA), the main factor is that under US law,  American citizens or resident aliens living or travelling outside the  US are mandated to file taxes in the US in the same way as those resident in the US. Moreover, if media reports are to be believed, that number may jump depending on the outcome of the presidential election this fall! It is therefore no surprise that citizenship planning is a multibillion dollar global industry.

Sustainability issues

While it is unlikely that global demand for second passports will abate anytime soon, there are concerns about the sustainability of these programmes not just because of the inherent reputational risks to the host countries if applicants are not thoroughly vetted, the implications for loss of visa-free access with third states, but also the security implications in the context of the free movement of persons as envisioned under the CARICOM Single Market and Economy. For example, St. Kitts & Nevis had to revamp its programme after the US and Canada raised concerns. The latter revoked visa-free access  to Kittitian nationals. I have touched on these issues in previous articles so my main focus here is on issues of economic development.

Like all inflows, CBI  revenue inflows are not guaranteed and could leave a country in the lurch if there is a sudden drop in inflows due to competition from other CBI programmes globally. It is a concern that the IMF rightly raised  in its Article IV end of mission press release in regards to St. Kitts & Nevis. Even so, market and size constraints mean there is only so much real estate and tourism construction activity which can take place in a small country at once, and concerns have been raised that increased demand for luxury real estate could drive up the general price of real estate, making it unaffordable to ordinary persons.

The CBI programmes in the Caribbean are direct citizenship programmes, which means that once all fees are paid and due diligence requirements met, a qualifying investor is granted citizenship on the basis of a one-time qualifying investment and is not required to be resident in the country for any period of time prior to applying for citizenship or afterwards. A slight exception is that under Antigua & Barbuda’s CBI programme  an investor may lose citizenship if he fails to spend at least 5 days in Antigua & Barbuda during the period of five calendar years after having obtained citizenship. Five days out of a possible 1,826 days is hardly any time and only applies after citizenship is obtained.

This may be contrasted with residence-to-citizenship programmes, such as the US’ EB-5 programme, which require a period of residency before an investor may apply for citizenship. The lack of a residency requirement means there is no incentive for the investor to reside in the new country of citizenship or contribute through expenditure, tax paying or otherwise once he receives citizenship.

Some countries seek to address this by establishing a relationship with their new citizens. In this article on the Government of Dominica’s website, the Prime Minister of Dominica is reported to have visited and addressed several new citizens of Dominica in Europe, Asia, Dubai and the Arab Emirates and “impressed upon them the importance of their contributions for the development and modernization of [their] country.”

Another option could be to do like Malta did and introduce a one-year residency requirement. A drawback is that this would increase the waiting time for the potential investor, making such a programme less competitive.  While one could argue that this has not hurt Malta which is currently  ranked as the top global residency and citizenship programme on Henley & Partners’ Global Residence and Citizenship Programs 2016 report, I believe that its  visa-free access to 168 countries, including EU citizenship, offsets any negative fall-out from having a residency requirement.

Conclusion

To go to the heart of the question posed in this article,  CBI programmes have their benefits. The revenue  inflows and the economic activity generated make the macroeconomic fundamentals of a country look good. However, they should not be relied on exclusively as an engine of inclusive growth and sustainable development.

Careful planning is needed to ensure that investment under CBI programmes is steered towards targeted growth areas and sectors which can boost economic diversification and growth. To some extent we are already seeing this being done. CBI-funded projects in St. Kitts & Nevis are adding to the appeal of the island’s tourism product. St. Lucia is using its programme in order to develop its luxury tourism and real estate sectors. However, this should be done in a sustainable way in order to boost development and at the same time having a minimal adverse human and environmental impact.

The IMF has also made a very interesting suggestion in its above-mentioned press release that the categories for qualifying investments under the Citizenship by Investment regulations be broadened to include renewable energy, education and health. This merits consideration by policy makers. However, promoting investment in these sectors would require more marketing as their profitability for investors may not be immediately apparent.

The IMF also recommended the need for a prudent framework that “would help build resilience to a sudden stop in CBI inflows, and facilitate the accumulation of fiscal buffers necessary to address natural disaster shocks and absorb unforeseen financing needs if tax performance disappoints after a slowdown in CBI inflows”. The Fund also emphasised that a Growth and Resilience Fund using savings from the CBI programme should be established which could be used as a contingency buffer in the case of natural disasters.

Besides these very timely suggestions, it would be useful if Caribbean countries released more data about the operation of their programmes. For example, periodic impact assessments should be done on the operation of the programmes and made publicly available, highlighting their contributions, challenges and whether they have met their targets. Such an exercise would not only assist policy makers in their policy planning but also show the public that CBI programmes are not a cloak used by unsavoury characters to conceal their illegal activity but are a policy tool to assist in development. I would also add that countries should continuously evaluate and monitor, and where necessary, revise their due diligence frameworks, to ensure the integrity of their programmes.

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B. is a trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.

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