(A partly unfinished version of this article was initially published. I have amended this now.)
This is an old request that I have been struggling with. I don’t like talking about myself for a number of reasons (privacy and compartmentalization of the Streber persona, worried it comes of self-aggrandizing, or just plain uninteresting). Nonetheless, I’ve decided to put together an article about what a month can look like for me.
I have a strong aversion to the self-centered writing of many of a group of bloggers and authors who could be considered peers to the Streber persona. If they aren’t selling you something directly (secret insider newsletters and ebooks that offer easy solutions to all your problems!), they are selling you on a jet-setting lifestyle where every article is written from some exciting, exotic location that’s often stated in the opening of the article as if it were a news article from a reputable international news correspondent.
OK, I feel better now. Let’s get to it.
During a recent month, my travel plan looked like this:
- South Africa
- Switzerland and Liechtenstein
The reality is that while I travel a lot (sometimes), things aren’t at all as exciting as it may seem. With established relationships, I can do most of the things I write about here (incorporation, opening bank accounts, tax/wealth planning, setting up asset protection structures) remotely, from almost anywhere. Aside from the occasional clueless journalist hoping to break some huge news with “boots on the ground” research, no one actually goes to Belize or Seychelles to open companies there.
The month began in Malta, which had seen an unusually cloudy and cold winter.
I have made no secret that I hold Malta in high regard. There is a strong entrepreneurial spirit here, which feels like such a drab platitude to write but I genuinely think and see real excitement in Malta. It’s largely driven by igaming (online gambling) but also banking and financial services.
Costs of living are low in Malta, without much of a sacrifice in standard of living compared to for example northern Europe. (The locals, though, need no help finding flaws.) This combined with a well-educated population that speaks English as a native language leads to Malta being a superb location for start-ups in a wide range of IT and finance fields. There are major tax advantages available, too.
Aside from HSBC, banks in Malta are actually by and large quite pleasant to deal with. Don’t let the floor-to-ceiling ads all over the walkway from your gate to baggage claim trick you into believing this is in any way a truly global bank. HSBC varies a lot between countries and jurisdiction, and sadly Malta is one of the bad ones. In fact, one reason I was in Malta was to close a number of corporate accounts with HSBC. Some were being moved to for example BOV and some even dipping their feet in the very new waters of Satabank.
Much of my time in Malta is often spent with banks and meeting with senior compliance officers at these banks. As much as I praise Malta, compliance here is sometimes taken a bit too far. The banks do a good job of keeping bad clients away with this at times excruciating level of due diligence, but it can be a headache. Definitely a double-edged sword type of situation.
Most time is spent in various capacities related to online gambling. It’s hard to discuss my involvements in any details but I am lucky enough to see all sides of the industry: operators, regulators, and software/service providers. Malta as a jurisdiction is key for all of these, although with more and more countries across Europe setting up local licensing regimes, the industry is seeing a lot of uncertainty and smaller operators are being bought for pennies.
I often end up flying between Malta and Lebanon, and when I do, I always try to find a reason to stop by in Cyprus. The island is quite large and it’s easy to find a secluded spot surrounded by nature. That’s practically impossible in Malta and Lebanon isn’t safe enough right now to roam around as freely as a few years ago.
Despite its lush hills and valleys, the air that fills the conference and board rooms in Cypriot companies engaged in the financial services market is stale. It’s as if nothing new has happened here since the bank shutdown, capital controls, and of course the FBME debacle. If you go to Luxembourg, Malta, Latvia, and other EU countries, there is a much stronger spirit of innovation and fresh thinking.
Fintech is pretty much unheard of here.
The only new real entrant on the market is Ancoria Bank, which opened its doors just a few years ago but already looks and feels outmoded. It’s as if they submitted the application in 1996 and slipped through wormhole in the space-time continuum only to end up in 2016 with nothing new or interesting to offer the market.
Confidence in the island is low, among Cypriots, expats, and non-resident foreigners alike. Not much effort is being spent on pitching Cyprus to Brexiting banks and firms.
Cyprus is also being too transparent for many Russians and other CIS nationals.
Re-ignited talks about unity or closer cooperation with Northern Cyprus makes thing uneasy here. No one really knows what a united Cyprus would look like. It might seem natural to assume that because the Republic of Cyprus is so much bigger and better established than its breakaway, unwanted northern neighbour, it would simply absorb Northern Cyprus. This would likely not go over well with the Turkish.
I was in Cyprus mostly to meet with banks and check in on some investments clients have. Met with a couple of clients. It’s not long until I find myself back in an airplane for a short flight over to Beirut.
Beirut seems impervious to is surroundings. You wouldn’t know there is a multi-front war happening across the border in Syria. Beirut has seen it all, though. The only difference now is an increase in security personnel. As always, there are parts of Beirut one should be careful to wander into aimlessly.
Lebanon has seen a handful of new banks being licensed in the last couple of years. I was in Beirut to check in on some of them, meet old contacts, and have a couple of client meetings.
As much as businesses in the region and wealthy individuals remain confident in their local banking system, there is always an increase in demand for foreign placement of funds in times of uncertainty.
Doing some quick math and estimations, I am probably helping roughly as many clients open accounts in Lebanon as I help residents in Lebanon open bank accounts elsewhere. The net wealth change in Lebanon is close to zero.
Some want to bank here for the perceived stability, investment opportunities in the region, and banking secrecy. Others want to get out of here because of the neighbouring wars, sometimes spilling over into Lebanese soil, and reputational disadvantages.
Flying via Dubai, I arrive in South African and take a few days off.
It’s hard to mention South Africa in this context without touching on the fairly obvious: a regional financial powerful rife with corruption, financial tensions and uncertainty, huge class divides, and high unemployment. It is easily the most divided upper-middle-income country.
The population is quite distrustful of the local banks and banks in South Africa charge generally high fees, which is one reason some 25% of the 53 million residents still do not bank. On top of this, the wealthy are moving their funds out of South Africa and often abandoning the local currency in favour of GBP, EUR, CHF, USD, and other currencies perceived to be more stable and valuable long-term.
After my days off, I meet with clients, by and large just gathering due diligence documents that I will take with me to where I plan to finish this month: Switzerland and Liechtenstein. Dozens of personal and corporate accounts to be applied for and opened on behalf of South Africans. Sometimes these accounts are held directly; sometimes more convoluted structures are arranged to lawfully reduce taxation or enhance client privacy.
Windhoek is a brisk two-hour flight away from both Johannesburg and Cape Town. I’m afraid of turning this article is into a travel blog but it’s hard not to compare Namibia to South Africa. Namibia has a much more palpable German heritage with street names like Bahnhof Street in Windhoek and a robust train network, built by left behind by the German Empire during the turn of the 20th century.
English is the sole official language of Namibia but less than 5% of the population use it as their primary language. Instead, Oshiwambi is the most commonly spoken language with some 50% of all households speaking it. Afrikaans is spoken quite a bit in the south, near the South African border. You can get by perfectly well in most of Namibia with English but skill levels will vary.
In a country where only some 50% of the population holds a bank account, Namibia presents a lot of opportunity for nimble banking services.
I was in Namibia for three reasons: meeting with clients, consultancy meetings with a bank to improve compliance and application reviews, and to oversee the import and installation of computer equipment on behalf of a foreign client.
Switzerland, and Liechtenstein
For a brief moment, I find myself back in South Africa before getting on the next flight to Zürich Airport. It’s a long but well-timed flight, which takes off in the early evening and lands early morning.
One of the best things about travelling between Europe and Africa is that there is never any major time difference. It takes approximately 11 hours from Johannesburg to Zürich and although that is a long trip, you don’t get any jetlag. Some of my most productive hours are on long flights north and south. Especially since I first got my hands on a good pair of noise-cancelling headphones.
I spend the remaining days in Zürich and the surrounding area, including a visit to Liechtenstein. I had a big backlog of emails to sift through, articles to read, and papers and documents from regulatory bodies. This is often time during which I find moments to work on articles for STREBER Weekly.
Once the reading and sifting material was decreasing, I met with clients, banks, and oversaw some investments and businesses.
But what do you actually do?
Client meetings are meetings during which I meet up with new clients or, most often, meet with existing clients.
Clients are usually organizations (businesses, institutions, charities, foundations/trusts) but can be individuals or sometimes families. Meetings with business clients are often on a consulting or advisory basis to help businesses on matters related to taxation, finance and financing, investment (such as intermediating with investors), payments processing, cash flow, corporate structures, cross-border trade, and so on.
When I meet with clients who are natural persons or families (often lawyers or senior representatives of the family), it’s often to discuss or catch up on wealth planning, residence and citizenship questions, and asset protection.
Clients are practically always referred to me. These days, it’s almost entirely unheard of that I take on a client directly. (I don’t want to come off pompous, but please don’t ask. See FAQ.)
At bank meetings, I’m usually presenting new applications to a bank that requires a hands-on or in-person approach for success. Sometimes, I visit a bank along with a client to act as an introducer. An application’s risk rating can drop significantly by simply meeting up in person and talking things through.
I also sit on the board of a couple of companies, usually in a non-executive or advisory role, and I still do some old-fashioned consulting for businesses.
Streber’s Travel Tips
Since STREBER Weekly is masquerading as a travel blog this week, here are some apps and websites I use to make travelling easier.
- Google Flights (flights meta-search). There are lots of others I use sometimes but I like the filtering and advanced features of Google Flights.
- I am making an effort to go by train as much as possible within Europe and have found GoEuro and Trainline very helpful for searching but I prefer to book the tickets directly with the train operators.
- Airlines’ apps. No more paper boarding cards that get folded in your inside pocket. Especially convenient when flying with carry-on luggage only.
- Recently, I have been trying out Flio and it has been a handy companion a couple of times.
- If you justify the cost, noise-cancelling headphones are a life-safer. They will shut out fellow passengers as well as engine and ambient noise.
If someone else is paying or if you can afford it yourself, upgrading from Economy to Economy Premium (or equivalent) is nice, upgrading to Business is extremely nice, but upgrading to First is not worth the money. Chances are you’re not flying from Frankfurt to Singapore to eat caviar and drink champagne in a semi-private cabin. You’re probably traveling for vacation or business. First class seats are not significantly more comfortable for sitting or sleeping than business class.
Similar can be said about lounges. They can be very nice to spend some time in if you have a long layover. Some airports offer different tiers of lounges. Unless you automatically qualify for one of the higher tiers, it’s practically never worth it.
Be the first or be the last person to board an airplane (but don’t be late). Anything else means unnecessary standing in a line.