On paper at least, history will show that 2019 was a very good year. Encouraged by sustained low interest rates, declining trade policy uncertainty and diminished fears of an economic slowdown, US stock markets led the way: the S&P 500 ended the year up 28% and the Nasdaq 35%. Meanwhile, the Europe-wide STOXX 600 increased by 23% and the FTSE 100 by a more modest 12%.
But on the ground, things seemed a little different for many offshore law firms. ‘Even by recent standards, 2019 was an extraordinary year in geopolitical and macro-economic terms: US-China trade wars, Brexit uncertainty, volatility in the US dollar/GBP exchange rate, tension in Hong Kong and the growing risk of a global economic downturn,’ says Jonathan Rigby, global managing partner of Mourant. Continue reading “Global offshore – Stick or twist for the sector’s leaders”
Protracted arguments over Brexit have led a divided Britain to the point of exhaustion. In the months leading up to the June 2016 referendum, offshore firms were concerned about the potential impact of a ‘Yes’ vote – although perhaps less so than some of their onshore counterparts. Even before the financial crisis, there had been a continued diversification by larger firms in the major offshore jurisdictions away from a reliance on the UK economy.
Since the referendum, offshore firms in the British Crown Dependencies and Overseas Territories have been dealing with the problems of continued uncertainty that Brexit has created for their clients and advising them in relation to investment opportunities that may arise once it is eventually resolved. Continue reading “Offshore: Deal or no deal?”
Among Asia’s competing financial centres, Hong Kong is the essential place to be for leading offshore law firms. Collectively, their local offices have grown significantly over the past few years to around 300 lawyers, making Hong Kong the third most-heavily lawyered jurisdiction by offshore firms after the Cayman Islands and Jersey.
But in early June, the first visible signs emerged of real discontent with Beijing’s increasing threat to Hong Kong’s freedoms: around 3,000 lawyers took part in a silent protest march in opposition to a government bill that would amend the city’s extradition law – the largest-ever protest by lawyers in history. They argued vehemently that the proposed amendment would allow Hong Kong to handle extradition requests from jurisdictions with no prior agreements, most notably China, and would strike a blow to the rule of law. Since that peaceful march, Hong Kong has deteriorated to become a city in crisis. Several months of much larger pro-democracy protests by millions of its citizens have provoked widespread violence and a sustained fall in business activity. Continue reading “Offshore: The unsilent majority”
Donald Trump is still in office, Brexit is still about to happen, but the global economy in 2018 provided few of the seismic shocks that have reverberated offshore in recent years. Uncertainty remains a continuous theme, although there were none of the revelations like the Panama Papers of 2016 and the Paradise Papers in 2017, both of which generated big headlines but ultimately little impact.
The media attention has been underpinned by what Ingrid Pierce, global managing partner of Walkers, calls ‘a deliberate unwillingness to understand the benefits of international financial centres to the global economy’. Offshore reputation remains a concern for Michael O’Connell, Appleby’s group managing partner. ‘Considering the escalating media, political and regulatory scrutiny that the industry is under, combined with the pressures of an uncertain economic environment, there is a continued need to focus on perception and reputation,’ he says. ‘Any large mistakes are likely to be blown out of proportion in the current climate.’ Continue reading “Offshore leaders’ year in review: Under pressure”
The inferno of disputes arising from the financial crisis is finally being reduced to embers. Although this may have caused the volume of commercial litigation in London to plateau, disputes in the main Caribbean offshore centres continue to be very buoyant: several firms report significant double-digit revenue growth in their dispute resolution teams over the past 12 months.
Driven by different dynamics, the Cayman Islands, the British Virgin Islands (BVI) and Bermuda have each developed in their own right as sophisticated jurisdictions in which to litigate – supplemented by the expansion of specialist commercial courts, a raft of high-quality judges and a regular flow of top-drawer London silks to argue significant cases. Continue reading “Offshore disputes: Centre of the cyclone”
Carlyle, Tchenguiz and Crociani are cases repeatedly cited by the leading players in Jersey and Guernsey as shorthand for big disputes and big fees. These cases just keep on giving: all three are now subject to further appeals or related proceedings, prolonging their life in litigation terms. Elsewhere, the mood among local dispute resolution and insolvency lawyers is generally upbeat. Although less high-profile litigation might not deliver the big headlines, there is enough going on below the radar for revenues to remain healthy.
‘Insolvency-related disputes are still a significant source of work globally,’ says Jeremy Wessels, Mourant’s head of litigation and dispute resolution. ‘Other areas where we have seen increased activity include trust-related litigation, regulatory, debt restructuring, cross-border enforcement and go-private transactions.’ Mourant remains the biggest Channel Islands firm for disputes with 25 lawyers in Jersey (five partners and 20 other fee-earners) and 23 (six and 17 respectively) in Guernsey. Continue reading “Offshore disputes: Big fish, small pond”
Global stock markets rose by 22% in 2017, according to the Morgan Stanley Capital International index of bourses. Meanwhile, the World Bank is forecasting global economic growth to increase to 3.1% this year after a better-than-expected 2017 as investment, trade and M&A continue to rebound while commodity prices recover. Against this favourable economic background, it is no surprise that offshore law firms had another very good year.
But there were some local difficulties. Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria created havoc across the Caribbean, not least in the British Virgin Islands (BVI). ‘It had a devastating impact on the lives of our BVI colleagues,’ says Jonathan Rigby, managing partner of Mourant Ozannes. ‘None of us will ever fully understand what they have been through, but their strength of character and resilience has been truly humbling.’ Continue reading “The offshore elite in review – rolling with the punches”
Think offshore centre and certain calm images spring to mind: elegant yachts, crystal blue water, sparsely-populated beaches and gently sloping palm trees. However, in September this idyllic cliché was superseded in the public consciousness by horrific scenes of destruction as Hurricane Irma and then Hurricane Maria ripped through the Caribbean. The British Virgin Islands, where nine of the top ten offshore law firms have an office and nearly 400,000 offshore companies are registered, were catastrophically affected.
Favoured by Chinese companies in Hong Kong for more than 30 years, ‘a BVI’ is shorthand for an offshore company, so renown is its status. But while the narrative coming out of the British Overseas Territory has been defiant with Lorna Smith, interim executive director of BVI Finance, saying there was ‘no doubt’ it will fully return, it could take some time before full operational normality as a commercial and litigation centre is restored. At press time, the territory’s company register continued to function via the online portal, VIRRGIN and just prior to the disruption, company incorporation certificates were sent to London by the BVI Financial Services Commission to have them issued there. The commercial division of the High Court had resumed and matters were being heard by the commercial judge sitting in nearby St Lucia in person, or by teleconferencing or videoconferencing if agreed by the parties. Continue reading “Offshore: Riding the storm”
Despite a year of pronounced headwinds, our annual focus on the ten largest offshore firms reveals that 2016 activity levels remained robust with an increasing focus on Asia and continued strength in dispute resolution. However, among the leadership of these firms there is little doubt that Brexit has had an inevitable effect on performance.
‘The reality of Brexit has and will continue to impact business as much as the prospect of Brexit has done,’ says Jonathan Rigby, managing partner at Mourant Ozannes. Continue reading “The year offshore in review – The Iron Islands”
On April Fool’s Day this year, Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca & Co notified its clients that it had sustained an email hack. It instantly became the world’s best-known law firm following the leak of 11.5 million documents, cherry-picked by global media outlets, that revealed confidential client information. The Panama Papers made news and so did offshore law firms. Again.
But for every offshore firm, regardless of jurisdiction, the Panama Papers leak was no laughing matter: the inevitable public outcry further fuelled the enduring debate over tax and transparency. Continue reading “Standing apart – the offshore fallout from the Panama Papers”