Joseph Camilleri, Executive Head Business Development & Corporate Services at BOV Fund Services, talks to Finance Monthly about Malta’s fund industry, Brexit and the hurdles that the fund services sector is faced with in a scenario of on-going regulatory developments.
Within the context of a highly regulated fund industry, how is Malta coping in ensuring that it keeps pace with bigger fund domiciles?
I trust we’d all agree that the fund industry is increasingly becoming overcrowded with regulation, well intended as that may be. We’d also agree that such poses challenges to all stakeholders, be they investors, investment managers, service providers and fund domiciles too of course. Malta is in no way an exception to this.
The challenges may seem somewhat bigger and more difficult to address if the domicile is a relatively new and upcoming one; particularly if the domicile has built its fund and fund management industry on the small and medium sized funds and fund managers, as is the case for Malta, which by the very nature of their size, are impacted to a larger extent by the over-regulation in the industry.
Notwithstanding the above statements hold true, Malta has in my view, weathered the storm in a convincing manner. The key word here is “adopting” rather than adapting to new regulation, and ensuring that its pre-emptive stance pays dividends. The island’s positioning as a fund domicile has seen it consolidating its strengths in particular niche areas which it has continued to develop over the past few years. All of this further underpinned by the pro-active mindset of stakeholders (service providers in particular) in ensuring compliance to new regulations through the timely provision of additional services to the industry, in a cost competitive backdrop.
Malta’s fund industry has established itself as a domicile of choice to many start-up hedge fund managers. Its highly competitive package, the pro-business approach and accessibility of Malta’s single regulator, the robust yet flexible regulatory framework for deminimis (out-of-scope) funds in terms of the AIFMD, the efficient process for licensing, as well as the presence of several service providers on the island, within the context of a cosmopolitan lifestyle have and are attracting several investment managers to our shores.
Within the AIFMD realm, Malta too has identified its own niche segments: the past couple of years have been characterised by full scope AIFMs, whether based in Malta or other EU member states, structuring fully compliant AIFs having diverse strategies. Most notable, we have seen a growing number of AIFs being set up investing in real estate and other real assets, we have seen Private Equity funds being set-up, as well as the emergence of loan funds. Thus funds that require depo-lite services, as opposed to fully fledged depositary services, have been very conspicuous in Malta’s development of its fund industry.
The recently introduced Notified Alternative Investment Fund (NAIF) has thereagain been an innovative and positive contributor to the growth of the industry in the AIFMD space. Full scope AIFMs across the EU now can have their fund structures, SICAVs, Contractual Funds, Limited Partnerships, or Unit Trust Funds up and running within 10 working days of notifying the regulator. A far cry from passing…
How do you see the Brexit realities impacting Malta’s fund and fund management industry?
Difficult to tell given that the Brexit realities are still an unknown. The shape of things to come post conclusion of negotiations between the parties is still to be seen. Having said that, we’re already seeing major cities within the EU taking rather aggressive approaches in an attempt to position themselves in time (particularly should all go the hard Brexit way) to attract London-based businesses their way.
To a degree, I tend to think that attempts at unseating London as Europe’s main financial services centre is rather delusional. There’s likely to be a repositioning of course, yet London is London and will remain a major player, not necessarily very different to what it is today.
The way Malta is looking at Brexit is quite different; rather than adopting a vulture approach, as seems to be the case for the other EU contenders for the top spot in financial services, Malta’s approach is a softer one – one that augurs for a strengthening of the legacy relationship between the UK and its former colony Malta.
Malta is in fact in an ideal position to act as a bridgehead for UK-based businesses (and not limitedly to financial services businesses at that) to access the wider EU market.
There are various reasons why Malta sees it differently; apart from the legacy relationship mentioned earlier, there are other realities that are worth mentioning that render the relationship one based on mutual respect and understanding:
– English being an official language of Malta.
-The island’s membership and active participation in the Commonwealth.
-The British business ethics deeply rooted in Malta’s own conduct of business.
-The similarities in the socio-political make-up of the two countries.
It is thus of no surprise that we are seeing London-based operators teaming up with ManCo and Super ManCo platforms in Malta to explore alternative solutions for different Brexit scenarios that would allow them access to the EU market. Others are setting up their own “lean” fund management operations in Malta, as UCITS managers or AIFMs, to carry out the risk management function for their fund vehicles, whereas the day-to-day portfolio management activities are outsourced back to base, in London.
Malta’s way of looking at the opportunities coming out of Brexit are of the win-win sort; and it is precisely this that is elevating Malta’s stature in the eyes of UK-based operators.
What are the major challenges for a company like BOV Fund Services in a scenario of on-going regulatory developments?
There are various facets to regulation: some see regulation as a safeguard to investors, others to the system itself, some see it as an overkill and an unnecessary money drain.
Whichever line one might take, it is indisputable that regulation presents both challenges and opportunities for service providers, particularly fund administration companies. BOV Fund Services is in this space, and it too is not immune to such.
Regulation has predominantly meant additional and extensive reporting. In view that most fund data is held by fund administrators, it follows that the latter are in such scenarios are best placed to provide additional services to funds and their fund managers, thereby enabling these to comply with the newly introduced obligations.
This has been true for AIFM Annex IV reporting, FATCA, CRS and others. So has regulation impacted all fund administrators in the same manner? The short answer to this question is no. There have been winners and losers in the game; the winners where those service providers that ensured a level of preparedness in good time. The ones losing out on the other hand have been the laggards, those that considered the aforementioned regulations as the Managers’ and the funds’ problems. In effect, such regulations place obligations, sometimes onerous ones, of the funds and their managers.
Yet, fund administrators that evaluated the regulations as their draft versions were published, that understood the implications, and that geared themselves up to provide timely solutions in a cost competitive environment, not only ensured that their clients were compliant as from d-day, but they also consolidated the loyalty from their client base as well as created new revenue streams for themselves.
BOV Fund Services is in this second category. It has invariably sought to be ahead of the curve in terms of assessing the likely requirements of its client base emanating from new regulation. It invested heavily in its IT infrastructure and entered into agreements with system providers to automate reporting.
This has ensured that the company consolidate further its market leadership in Malta as the island’s number 1 fund administration firm (in terms of Assets Under Administration as well as number of Malta-based funds administered by the company), within a context of crowded market of 27 fund administration firms operating from Malta.
What has the AIFMD meant to your clients in the alternative space?
Essentially there are three categories of clients that we service, and for whom the AIFMD and its implications came to the fore.
When the initial draft of the AIFMD was published, it was quite evident as of those early days, that the directive had two core outstanding features:
– Albeit purporting to be intended to address systemic risk, it was largely perceived as being an EU protectionist measure, and
– It was bound to negatively impact small-sized alternative fund managers and fund domiciles that catered for this segment of the market.
Malta’s financial regulator, the MFSA, thanks too to the listening ear, lends to the local operators in Malta, wisely decided to defend its territory. As mentioned earlier, Malta had by then attracted a relatively large community of international small and medium sized fund managers to structure their fund vehicles in Malta. It was thus imperative that the goose that laid the golden eggs be safeguarded from the overarching burden that the new regulation was set to bring to the table.
In effect, rather than replacing the old with the new, MFSA introduced a new fund regime, the Alternative Investment Fund rule book, as distinct from the already existing Professional Investor Fund rule book. This latter regulatory platform for alternative funds, with its inbuilt flexibility within a robust framework, had enabled hundreds of fund managers (several of whom small-sized) structure their alternative strategies, ranging from hedge funds, to private equity, real estate, fund of funds, distressed debt, high frequency trading funds to a myriad of others.
It was inconceivable that this segment should be burdened by the heavy regulatory baggage that the AIFMD promised to introduce. In view that the directive’s provisions become mandatory for alternative managers having in excess of Euro 100 million in AUM (leveraged funds), it followed that those below the threshold should be given the opportunity to retain the status quo in terms of the regulation they were subjected to.
Now that the directive has been up and running for a number of years, it is clearly evident that retaining the PIF regime was a wise decision: alternative funds subject to this rule book continue to grow year-on-year.
Back to the three categories:
– The deminimis fund managers and the below threshold self-managed funds were given an option to sign up for the regulation, be subject to all its provisions, and on the upside, benefit from the EU passport. In most cases, they opted to stay put!
– A second category was made up of those that actually “went for it”, driven by one or two factors: the growth potential arising from the passport, and/or the fact that their AUM was just short of the threshold, so it was a question of time for them to adhere to the regulation.
– The third category consisted of those that were captured by the directive due to their respective AUMs (which were already in excess of the threshold). This segment had no other option but to comply, and make the most of it through the passporting rights.
In conclusion, I’d say that Malta’s regulations for the alternative strategies is such that enables acorns to grow into oak trees, without imposing upon them at the early stages of their lives, the rigours of over regulation that the AIFMD seems to be riddled with.