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The cryptocurrency revolution

By Andrew Lawford - Topics: Bitcoin, Blockchain, Cryptocurrency, investment diversification, Investment Risk, Italy
This article is published on: 29th July 2021

29.07.21

Hodling and the cryptocurrency revolution

Are you hodling? No, that’s not a typo – it is millennial-speak for what you do if you are a true believer in the cryptocurrency revolution. Look it up. I wouldn’t describe myself as old, but I’m certainly old enough not to be automatically in tune with what motivates millennials. However, you can hardly open a newspaper these days without some notable individual passing comment on cryptocurrencies, and they even seem to be going mainstream now that bitcoin has been made legal tender in El Salvador – you can buy residency there for 3 bitcoin. It seemed therefore like a good moment to try and get at least a vague understanding of what cryptocurrencies are, as I suspect that many of the readers of this newsletter will be as confused as I am on the topic, so let’s see what we can discover. I will be focussing particularly on bitcoin, as the main example of a cryptocurrency, but do be aware that bitcoin is only the most prominent out of the estimated 10,000+ cryptos out there.

Everything you don’t know about money, combined with everything you don’t know about technology

This was a tongue-in-cheek definition of cryptocurrencies that I heard not so long ago from an asset manager, but it kept coming back to me every time I saw cryptos mentioned in the press.

Once upon a time, “money” essentially meant some amount of precious metal, generally in the form of a coin which was easily recognisable. Then we evolved to a situation in which we used banknotes to represent an underlying amount of precious metal, and finally we arrived at where we are today, where any link with precious metals has been definitively severed in favour of fractional reserve banking and “fiat” currency controlled by sovereign states – the “fiat” is Latin, meaning “let it be done”, and is the essential expression of our concept of legal tender: something is money not because it has any intrinsic value, but because the law says it is. These fiat currencies rely on trust in the good economic management of the issuing countries, and we can all think of notable examples of where bad management has left fiat currencies broken. I have a 100 trillion dollar note issued by the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe in my office as a reminder of the importance of sound currencies.

Cryptocurrency

Not many of us could properly explain a fiat currency system and the interactions between bank deposits, bank lending and central bank reserves and, as a result, many find it tempting to say that even major currencies like the US dollar and the euro have little intrinsic value due to the fact that their supply is essentially unlimited. To a certain extent, cryptocurrencies were born out of a lack of trust in fiat currencies (even the “good” ones) and the desire to make money something more regulated (not in the sense of having more government oversight, but rather of wanting precise rules and limitations on the amounts of currency in circulation). In order to be worth something, so the reasoning goes, the supply must be limited and it must be difficult to create – hence the parallels that are sometimes drawn between cryptocurrencies and precious metals.

A lump of gold sitting in a vault somewhere has value simply because we think it has value; up until the time that you find a practical use for that gold, its value is dictated by that vague idea that come (almost) what may, at least it will always be there. Not an amazingly intelligent argument, it must be said, but better than many things that finance has come up with over the years. The basic reason for abandoning the link between money and precious metals was that the supply of commodities like gold or silver were subject to vagaries that had little to do with the overall economic situation, so bullion failed to keep up with our economic growth.

Bitcoin in your investment portfolio

As far as bitcoin is concerned, it is very clear that scarcity is central to its functioning given that it has been set up to have a maximum number of 21 million units. As of today, there are roughly 18.7 million bitcoins that have been created, but the number effectively available for transactions is much lower, due to the fact that many people hodl, and also due to the fact that a large number of coins have been lost (I have read estimates of 20% of the total in existence). You see, if you have a bitcoin, you better make sure you keep hold of the codes that allow you to access it, because there is no “lost password” function if you don’t. Losing the codes is the digital equivalent of throwing your gold bars into the Mariana Trench; they don’t cease to exist, but you will find it all but impossible to recover them. It is worth noting that whilst the scarcity value of bitcoin may be beyond doubt, the fact there are so many other cryptocurrencies around should give pause for thought about the scarcity of the category as a whole.

The creation of bitcoin is one of the things that I struggle with the most – it is commonly called “mining”, in an evident attempt to draw a parallel with precious metals, even though the mining in the case of cryptocurrencies is entirely digital. Essentially, they are discovered by computers contributing to the distributed ledger that monitors all bitcoin transactions. The only explanation of bitcoin mining that has made some sense to me so far is to consider it in terms of a triple-entry accounting system: There are two parties who record a transaction and this is then sealed into bitcoin transaction records by a third party that verifies it through its mining activities (and receives a reward for doing so). Mining, in the world of bitcoin, is technically called a “proof of work” and allows a participant in the network to be rewarded by participating in the distributed ledger and crunching the enormously complicated numbers that guarantee the transactions that have been recorded. This ledger, also known as the blockchain, belongs to everyone and no-one, rather like the internet itself, and it exists in order to eliminate the risk of someone being able to spend the same bitcoin twice. No, I don’t really understand it either.

It is also said that bitcoins and their transactions are “immutable” – I suppose to the same extent that precious metals are immutable. But does this really make any sense? Aside from the apparent lack of ability to hack the blockchain today, can we really be confident that in a thousand (or a million!) years bitcoin will still be unhackable and attractive to a sufficiently large community of people? Perhaps this is more of a philosophical question than anything else, but us humans do get wrapped up in the idea that the big issues of today are the big issues for all time. I suspect our distant descendants, assuming the human race is lucky enough to survive, will become interested in many things beyond bitcoin or cryptocurrencies in general. In this context, the best parallel to draw is with technological innovation: today, not many people are interested in steam engines or dirigible balloons, once important technological developments, and the same may be true for bitcoin in a few decades. For bitcoin to enjoy any value at all, it is dependent on the bitcoin community continuing to support it through time. It would be highly unwise to think that nothing will ever come to supplant it, because human experience with other technologies suggests that better things are always on the horizon. The same cannot be said for precious metals, which may wax and wane in terms of community interest, but do not depend on community interest for their existence. My gold bar will still be there in a thousand years if it is kept safe, regardless of what people might think about it. What might happen to it over the course of a million years is a question I find rather difficult to ponder, but it’s probably fine for the next few thousand.

investment talk

In all of this, the real evolution may be arriving shortly, and it is not to be found amongst the many new variations on the bitcoin theme that have come into existence. Many have looked upon cryptocurrencies as a way of thumbing one’s nose at traditional financial structures – no more central banks and traditional bank accounts for me please! Yet the governments of this world are not going to give up the privilege of being able to issue national currency without a fight, and it could be that they will try to beat the cryptos at their own game. Some cryptos, known as “stablecoins” are backed by a given fiat currency, but it has been suggested that the most appropriate issuers of such coins are the central banks themselves. One idea is that each of us could end up, as of right, with our own account at the central bank of the nation we live in. If this were to happen, then bank runs would no longer be an issue and commercial banks would have to reinvent their business models, at least in part. Presumably physical cash would become a thing of the past. This is not speculation on my part – the ECB is publicly discussing the benefits of digital coins and the Bank for International Settlements – the central banks’ central bank – has even commented that this is “a concept whose time has come.” The full BIS report is available here for anyone who is interested.

Much has also been said about the potential of the blockchain – essentially the network that runs bitcoin – to revolutionise everything from banking to contracts. We’ll just have to wait and see how all of that shakes out, but it is clear that there are numerous technologies being developed and brought to bear on finance and commerce and it’s by no means clear that blockchain technology is the only answer. In any case, even if the blockchain network is valuable, this says nothing about whether any given cryptocurrency that relies on it has value.

As I suppose must be obvious by now, my research for this article hasn’t convinced me that cryptocurrencies are a good place to speculate (please let’s not use the term “investment” in this context!) – and certainly I see no reason why investment in this sort of asset should supplant traditional assets in an investment portfolio. As boring as it may sound, what really counts in investment is not jumping on that latest bandwagon, but planning one’s affairs properly whilst having a disciplined approach and a long-term view.

As a final point, for any Italian residents, please also be aware that bitcoin investments and gains deriving therefrom are subject to declarations and taxation in Italy – you may think your cryptos are 100% anonymous, but I wouldn’t be betting on it.

Moving to Italy and the average cost of living

By Gareth Horsfall - Topics: Italy, Moving to Italy
This article is published on: 12th July 2021

12.07.21

You have made your tax calculations for life in Italy, but have you included everything?

In this video Gareth talks about the costs of living in Italy and how it varies depending on where in Italy you want to live.

He also explains that whilst it is almost impossible to calculate until you are living here, it has the same effect as a tax reduction and should be taken into account when making your decision about life in Il bel paese.

If you are interested in moving to Italy or perhaps already live here,
but need to discuss some financial areas of concern,
please use the form below to contact me.

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    Are you moving to Italy?

    By Andrew Lawford - Topics: Italy, Moving to Italy
    This article is published on: 16th June 2021

    16.06.21

    I hope you are enjoying the summer weather and the return to comparative normality – long may it last!

    I wanted to let you know about a new podcast episode that has just been released. It is entitled “Brexit (and more…)”, so will be of particular interest to UK nationals residing or considering taking residency in Italy, but it also explores quite a few topics that will be more generally applicable.

    As it’s quite a long episode, I thought it would be helpful to give you an index of topics covered and the approximate minute markers so that you can easily locate the sections that are of interest to you.

    • 1:28 – Working with a UK financial adviser as an Italian resident
    • 8:55 – Equivalency in financial services between UK and EU
    • 12:57 – Taxation of EU-domiciled managed funds vs UK-domiciled managed funds post-Brexit for Italian residents
    • 15:50 – Tax declarations in Italy for directly-held foreign financial investments
    • 18:15 – The €51,645.69 question – holding foreign currencies as an Italian resident
    • 21:38 – ISAs – what they mean in Italy
    • 23:42 – Quadro RW – why you need to declare the mere existence of your foreign assets (as well the income that derives from them). Common Reporting Standards and why you should assume that information is being exchanged automatically with the Italian tax authorities
    • 25:20 – The taxation of UK real estate as an Italian resident (rental income and wealth tax (from 28:20))
    • 33:00 – Thinking about real estate investments once you move to Italy
    • 35:15 – Capital gains tax on foreign property (with particular comment on the situation for UK property owners who are non-resident in the UK)
    • 38:15 – Tax-efficient investment wrappers – what they can do and how they need to be set up. Some comment on inheritance taxes in Italy
    • 43:44 – The 7% pensioners’ tax regime
    • 50:10 – Italy vs Italia – and why you should persevere if you want to move here
    Italian financial adviser

    Click on the above links to listen

    Tax Reporting in Italy

    By Gareth Horsfall - Topics: common reporting standards, Italy, Tax in Italy
    This article is published on: 4th June 2021

    04.06.21

    Excuses that will not fly with the Agenzia delle Entrate

    You wouldn’t believe it, but I started venturing out last week. I actually visited some clients and spent time with people, in the flesh, who exist outside my social bubble! It really was quite a bizarre experience because the first thing that hit me was that apart from the fist bumping and/ or deliberate distancing, that the relationship had not changed one iota. It was business as usual, which I found odd at first because after everything we have been going through I assumed that maybe that things would have changed a bit. I am now totally convinced that it will be business as usual once this phase passes!

    So I am going to let life take steps to getting back to normal and move onto important financial matters. This article is entitled ‘Excuses that will not fly’ because since tax reporting time is upon us again, I thought I would look at the most common excuses that I have heard over the years when it comes to reporting taxes correctly…and I have heard a few! I also want to cover the Common Reporting Standard again, what it is and why it is very important that you get the tax reporting right every time.

    Excuses, excuses
    I have to be honest and say that I have heard probably every excuse possible for not having made tax declarations in Italy, and whilst in many cases I do actually feel quite sorry for the person, because it is a genuine mistake mainly due to lack of knowledge, excuses will not fly with the Agenzia delle Entrate (AdE), no matter what your intentions were.

    tax reporting Italy

    So here are the top excuses that the Agenzia delle Entrate do not care about.

    1. I didn’t know I had to.
    This has to be at No 1 because it is the most common one I have heard over the years. Needless to say the AdE has no interest in whether you knew you had to do something or not. It is your responsibility to get informed, and failure to take the right advice or do the right thing means you are liable for all back taxes if they catch up with you.

    2. I am not a tax resident.
    I have written about this many times in the past. If you are registered as resident in Italy, i.e. you have registered at the comune and are registered at the Anagrafe, then you are more than likely, in the eyes of the AdE, going to be considered fiscally tax resident as well. Just because you live in another country for more than 183 days per calendar year and your main work and/or family interest are outside Italy, it does not matter to the tax authorities. You have registered to say you are resident and therefore they can legitimately come after you for taxes.

    I was recently contacted by someone who said that she had been registered as resident in Italy since 2007, when she bought a house, but the home had only ever been used as a holiday home (she was informed by the estate agent that if she registered as resident then she would only have to pay 2% VAT on the purchase rather than 9%). However, the registration meant that she was also fiscally tax resident. The tax authorities have recently contacted her to ask for all back taxes in the last 5 years on her worldwide incomes, assets and gains.

    The only way to resolve this now is to put a case forward to demonstrate than she was UK tax resident and falls under the double taxation treaty. That will likely mean lawyers and accountants needing to get involved and an extensive negotiation with the AdE and the UK tax authorities. In addition, they can legitimately ask for all the taxes to be paid whilst the situation is resolved.

    One simple rule to remember is that if you want to simply own a holiday home and have no intention of becoming a fiscal tax resident in Italy then do NOT, under any circumstances, register as resident at your comune!

    **A small note here, just to say that because of Brexit a number of Brits asked me about taking residency, pre 31 December 2020 as a way of getting around the travel restrictions imposed by the EU for non-EU citizens: 90 days in 180 day travel in the Schengen area. The answer is very simply that it is not possible unless you want to be on the radar for taxes as well. It is an all or nothing situation!**

    3. I am covered by the double taxation treaty (DTA) between my country and Italy, and therefore considered non-resident.
    This is one that I also hear often and stems from a misunderstanding of the DTA. The tie-breaker clause in the DTA states that where two states cannot agree on the residence of an individual then a number of criteria will be applied to determine the residency of the said person.

    This might seem cut and dried, but if you register as resident in Italy but maintain your family/work/social and business interests in another country it DOES NOT mean that you automatically fall under your home country rule. In reality Italy, as any other country, could ask you to pay your taxes for your time registered as resident. You would be expected to pay and then deal with the respective tax authorities to reach a ruling as to exactly where your actual residence lay in those years. The important part to note is that, if asked, you would be expected to pay your outstanding taxes and then claim them back! Better to plan your residency carefully before a permanent move or a simple house purchase.

    4. My commercialista told me not to declare it.
    This is another well-worn example of getting informed before you decide a course of action. The simple rule with the commercialista is that whatever they ‘advise’ must be written down either in an email or on headed paper and signed. The excuse that they told you not to do it, which you later find out not to be correct, will not pass AdE inspection. In addition, if it isn’t written down then you have no come back against the commercialista if they have advised you incorrectly. All commercilisati have to hold professional insurance in the case of them giving bad advise, but no evidence, no claim!

    Commercialisti are in general good at what they do, but you may find that your local firm is more knowledgeable about running a local agriturismo business than how to advise ‘stranieri’ with their overseas tax declaration. I now speak and intermediate with my clients’ commercialisti to ensure a) they know what products they are dealing with and b) how they should be declared. Most commercialisti are willing and want to learn and very frequently tell me something I was not aware of either.

    One quick rule: If your commercialista tells you that you don’t have to declare something then go and find another one. Everything needs to be declared in Italy!

    5. I pay tax already on my house in the country where it is located. Why I should pay the Italians as well?
    I can’t recount how many times I have heard this one and whilst I understand the feelings around paying taxes in one state and then having to declare them again in Italy, these are the rules. Property is a fixed asset, and by fixed I mean physically fixed to the ground (unless it’s a caravan!) and therefore you must, by law, declare the asset and income from it in the country where it is located, first. Once you have been through that process you then need to declare it in Italy in the same way. If there is a double taxation treaty between Italy and the country in which the property is located, and it covers property specifically, then you should be able to claim a tax credit for any tax paid. You will therefore end up only paying tax in Italy at Italian rates.

    I often hear people tell me that their commercialista has said that they cannot deduct expenses in Italy. This is correct. If your property is located in the UK, for example, then you cannot deduct any UK generated expenses ‘directly’ in your Italian tax return. However, this misses the point that they can still be deducted. You can and should still apply allowable expenses in the UK (in this example). In Italy, you report the UK income generated after UK allowable expenses.

    6. I don’t want to declare that for tax in Italy, it was a gift.
    This is one I don’t hear so often but it comes up every now and again. You may have received a gift from someone or received an inheritance as part of the distribution from an estate and obviously taxes may need to have been paid in the state where the estate is administered. Once you receive the money then it needs to be declared in Italy in whatever form you choose to hold it, annually. The gift/inheritance will not be taxed again as Italy respects the fact that taxes have already been paid on the gift/inheritance. Therefore, not declaring the monies you receive doesn’t make any sense and would be merely seen as a deliberate attempt to hide money from the tax authorities.

    7. My ‘stranieri’ friends have been living in Italy for years and none of them pay tax in Italy.
    These excuses are not in any particular order because if they were then this one would be nearer the top of the list. It’s a common one and makes me sigh with despair every time I hear it. It is also my favourite!

    The chances are that your friends are not doing what they should be doing and it is only a matter of time before they get picked up by the tax authorities. I know there are plenty of people who are living in Italy, and have been for many years, without having made any declaration to the Italian state. I don’t think I need to say that this is 100% illegal and is advice that should not be followed!

    For EU nationals, taking the risk of hiding under the EU Freedom of movement directive seems to be an option that some are happy to take. They remain resident in their home country but live in Italy all year round. Admittedly, I think they would be hard to find, but then they are not registered in the Italian system, are unable to buy a car or claim on the state for medical or other benefits.

    Those people who are registered as resident, but also failing to declare themselves as fiscally tax resident in Italy are in a much more precarious situation and given the recent example, (as highlighted above in excuse No 2), then it is not a position that I would want to be putting myself into.

    For non-EU nationals, then it is cut and dried. If you obtain a Permesso di Soggiorno to remain in Italy for over 6 months a year, then you are fiscally tax resident. If you fail to declare your taxes in Italy, and are subsequently contacted by the Agenzia delle Entrate, then you can’t say that you weren’t warned.

    I think that finishes the list of excuses. Clearly it is not a definitive list. I am sure there are more but these are the most frequent that I hear. I hope that they provide you with some direction if you are wondering about what or how to declare in Italy. I have a very simple mantra which I stick to which may also help you:

    IF IN DOUBT DECLARE THE ACCOUNT!

    common reporting standard

    The Common Reporting Standard

    In this next part I want to go over some old ground, but which will put what I have written above into context and show why getting your declaration right in Italy is becoming more and more important.

    I remember well, during the spring back in 2014/15 when I was contacted by a large number of people who had recently been contacted by the Agenzia delle Entrate (AdE) for unreported assets in their Italian tax return, or in a high number of cases, failure to even submit an Italian tax return for income/assets that they held overseas.

    This is now happening again but with more rigour!

    This is all coming about because of The Common Reporting Standard and Automatic Exchange of Information (AEOI).

    These are international agreements that were developed by the 34 member states of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (of which Italy was one) via its permanent “Global Tax Forum”. AEOI was designed to help combat cross-border tax evasion by individuals who were not reporting and paying applicable taxes on assets held through non-domestic financial institutions, whether these assets are held in the name of the individual or through certain offshore entities such as companies, trusts, foundations, partnerships and similar. It is primarily focused on individuals and “passive” income (i.e. dividends, interest, capital gains, etc.). It came into force in 2017 but information was backdated to the 1st January 2016.

    How does Italy know if I have assets abroad?
    Have you been contacted in the last few years to provide your TIN. (Tax Identification Number) to your overseas bank and/or financial institution? I have, on numerous occasions! If you a resident in Italy this number is your codice fiscale in the UK it would be your National Insurance number and in the US, your social security number, to name a few.

    It is now a legal requirement to provide your TIN number on any financial contracts that you adhere to, be it banks accounts, investment portfolios, insurance policies, or other financial instruments. I have a small investment account with Hargreaves Lansdown in the UK and was recently contacted by them to update my codice fiscale. Through an error in their systems they had failed to pick up on the fact that I had given it some years ago, but they were refusing to allow me access to my account if I did not provide it again. It got resolved, but it shows you how seriously this is now being taken when financial institutions will block access to your accounts if you don’t provide them with the information needed to share information with the correct tax authorities.

    data privacy

    What information will they share about me?
    Under the Common Reporting Standard the financial information reported includes the name, address and tax identification number (where applicable) of the asset owner; the balance/value, interest and dividend payments and gross proceeds from the sale of financial assets. The financial institutions that need to report include banks, custodians, financial institutions, investment entities such as investment funds, certain insurance companies, trusts and foundations.

    The tax authority will receive much more information than ever before and even simple bank account balances showing money coming in and out can raise red flags and the AdE can choose to investigate where the source of the money came from.

    Is this new?
    Exchange of financial information across Europe has been going on for a long time now and can be traced back to the introduction of the European Savings Tax Directive 2005. The Common Reporting Standard is an enhancement of this.

    I remember that in 2012 when I was contacted by a number of UK rental property owners who had been legitimately declaring their UK property income in the UK for tax purposes. However, as residents in Italy they had not declared anything because they didn’t know they had to. A clear exchange of information took place and the Guardia di Finanza did a significant number of visits to these people to fine them.

    ***This is also happening again this year! We are seeing the AdE issuing letters for unreported income going back as far as 2015/2016***

    ***The Covid crisis has sharpened the eyes of the tax authorities as they are now searching desperately for more tax revenue lost through the pandemic. We have seen AdE activity rise since the start of the year and even seemingly small mistakes on tax returns or undeclared assets are being investigated***

    Low hanging fruit!
    Remember that with the kind of information that the tax authorities are receiving from one another, we really are the lowest hanging fruit to pick from. Easy pickings! So, my advice is always the same. The past cannot be corrected but you can change your future. Hiding and hoping the problem will go away is not an option. The only solution is to get your financial situation ‘in regola’.

    What will I pay?
    How you declare your money and how much you will pay to regularise your situation is a question that can only be answered by a commercialista, but it does make sense to have a look at your whole financial situation beforehand to see what damage limitation you can do by planning efficiently as a tax resident in Italy.

    “Never look back unless you are planning to go that way”

    Do you have non-euro based cash deposits?

    By Gareth Horsfall - Topics: Italy
    This article is published on: 29th April 2021

    29.04.21

    Inspiration for this article came from a client (they often do) who fell into one of those sneaky little finance laws in Italy that not many know about, nor really pay much attention to, including the Agenzia delle Entrate (AdE) so it would seem.

    However, laws are laws and as I have written many times before, the rollout of the Common Reporting Standard in 2016: the international accord to share financial and tax information between different countries is appearing more and more on my radar. I now get a steady stream of people who say they have received a letter from the AdE asking them to declare their financial position regarding assets/monies held abroad.

    In the case of the subject of this article, this is not a law which has, as yet, been specifically identified by the AdE, but one might argue it is only a matter of time.

    Non-EUR based cash deposits

    €51645,69 or 1 million lira

    The figure quoted above is important in relation to how much money you hold in deposits in foreign currencies (cumulatively) at any one time.

    There is a part of the Italian tax law (L’art.67, comma 1-ter del Tuir) relating to the application of capital gains taxes and capital losses, which would appear to be little understood by most.

    The law states that where you hold over €51645,69, (1 million lira equivalent) cumulatively, in foreign currency accounts (non EUR) for a ‘period of over 7 days‘, then when you transfer any of that money into EUR (or another currency), the amount exchanged is automatically subject to the calculation of capital gains tax (or losses) in Italy, because the transaction of changing money from one currency to another itself, is assumed, after 7 days of the money being held in deposit, to be a speculative transaction as the result of a ‘trading operation’ instead of merely a conversion of currency for any other means.

    How do I calculate my gains?

    This is where it gets a bit complicated as you might imagine and is not quite as simple as the image above would make you believe.

    Without wishing to go into too much detail in this E-zine, you take the amount of euros (or other currency) that you end up with in your account ‘after exchange’, but then need to refer to a EUR cost of those monies at the time at which you originally received that foreign currency. You convert that sum into EUR using the Banca D’Italia exchange rate on the specific date or dates when they landed in your account, depending on whether you received the funds in one go or if they were accumulated over time.

    As you might imagine this could be hellishly complicated if you have been receiving monies in from various sources over a period of time. However, reference would have to be made to each deposit in non-EUR currency, and a EUR equivalent calculated on the day when it was deposited in the account. In the case where deposits are not documented, for whatever reason, then the Agenzia delle Entrate will refer to the worst monthly conversion rate to EUR for that said currency, in the tax period in which the liability arises (i.e. calendar year). This could work in your favour in some cases, and create additional tax liabilities in others, so care needs to be taken.

    Finally, if you do not convert all the funds in your foreign currency account into EUR then the ‘last in first out’ principle applies. This means you must refer to the latest deposit/s in any of your foreign currency accounts, which equate to the sum which you have exchanged to EUR or other currency, and use the Euro conversion value on the date that those funds arrived in your account.

    Sound complicated?

    It is!

    The client I referred to at the start of this email was pulled up by her bank because the bank itself, Fineco, is Italian, and therefore where they see or suspect a specific activity they must warn the client that they need to take remedial action (in this specific tax case it is the declaration on the Modello 770).

    In truth, a lot of you are using various currency exchange services, the most recent being Wise (ex-Transferwise). They are not an Italian institution and therefore are not obligated to tell you about this law, should it apply to you. The onus is on you to ensure that you make your tax declarations correctly and timely. However, without working knowledge of laws such as this one, then it is unlikely that you are going to do what you are supposed to do unless advised by someone like myself, or your commercialista highlights the fact to you.

    I hold more than €51645,69 in non-Euro deposits – what do I do now?
    Before we start worrying about any capital gains tax or losses, there is the usual requirement to ensure that any foreign currency accounts are declared in your tax return every year and you pay the €34.20 ‘bollo’ per account.

    In addition, we have this extra requirement that if you do hold ‘more than‘ €51645,69 in foreign currency deposits in any one calendar year, you are a resident in Italy, and have held the funds on cash deposit for more than 7 days, and exchange some of that deposited money into another currency (euro or any other) then you have an obligation to calculate any potential profit/loss as a result of the exchange.

    To avoid this law the simple answer is to bring the euro value of your foreign currency deposits under this €51645,69 and ensure they stay under every year.

    If you are potentially in this situation then it might simply mean looking at your overall financial planning and whether you a) need to keep high deposits and b) seeing if you can find alternatives, such as money market accounts or low risk investments, whilst meeting any shorter term cash requirements that you may have.

    Do you have overseas assets and are living in Italy?

    By Gareth Horsfall - Topics: Italy
    This article is published on: 11th February 2021

    11.02.21
    Lazio zona gialla

    I thought I would write about the colour yellow in this E-zine.

    I never knew how much I liked the colour yellow. It had never really come on my radar until Lazio moved into ‘zona gialla’ again on the 1st February.

    This lockdown has been quite challenging in many ways but it has really made me appreciate the small things which enrich our daily/weekly/monthly lives and break the daily monotony. For me, it’s those meals out with family, friends and clients, those mid-week trips to the cinema to see a film that has been newly released or a special theatre trip because some performing artists are in town. And I have to admit (I never thought I would ever write this) that I actually miss those kids parties when the parents lurk around at the back of the room talking and the fathers sneak off to have a beer or a glass of wine (or 2). Oh, and not forgetting those little trips, overseas or in Italy, that have been off the table now for sometime, but are the icing on the cake of life. I long for the day when I can make, even short trips away, with the family and friends again.

    What’s New

    Anyway, enough of my Covid colour thinking.

    Well, if you have missed it, there is a new technocrat government in Italy. This time under the supervision of Mario Draghi. For anyone who is unfamiliar with Mario Draghi, he is the last ex-President of the EU Central Bank, previous head of the Bank of Italy, previous economist for Goldman Sachs and has also worked at the World Bank. If you are interested, he also has a house somewhere near Citta delle Pieve, Umbria.

    What’s interesting about this appointment is that he was the man who pretty much stopped the EU crisis of 2012, merely by announcing that the ‘Within our mandate, the ECB is ready to do whatever it takes to preserve the euro. And believe me, it will be enough’. With those words he stopped the attack on Spanish and Italian government debt, being launched at the time by the worlds financiers, and prevented a complete meltdown when Greece was also in fear of default.

    There is no doubt that ‘Super Mario’ (his other widely known name) is a very adept politician and economist who has the ability and knowledge to get Italy out of it’s current predicament, as a result of Covid.

    It was Matteo Renzi who pulled out of the coalition which was keeping Giuseppe Conte in power and managing the Covid crisis, but Renzi being a ‘supposed’ pro-business politician didn’t think that Conte had the ability to manage the €266 billion Recovery fund which is shortly arriving from the EU, and which will be used to help rebuild the economy. I happen to agree (although I think Conte has done a good job of managing the pandemic in Italy) and also believe that Mario Draghi is probably the best person for the job.

    However, to what extent he will be prevented from doing so by the warring parties is anyone’s guess. He is a no nonsense economist/politican and has already made it clear that he wants to surround himself with capable people, and not politicans who are looking to advance themselves or their parties.

    I suspect he will get some new and interesting projects approved by Parliament, but like the technocrats before him (Letta and Monti), will eventually be stopped by the other political parties who will want to merely push their own agenda and take power.

    But, let’s not take this step for granted because if Mario Draghi is given enough leash to enact some serious recovery plans, and real effects can be seen, then they may give him more leash than we might expect.

    My thinking is that alot of the burden will now be placed on his shoulders, and should he be able to magic the economic bunny out of the crumbling Italian economy top hat then the other political parties will quickly amass like children around a fresh birthday cake, to benefit from his good work and look to ultimately grasp power and take all the credit.

    It’s all to play for. I shall be watching this one carefully. I think like most of us who have been living in Italy for quite some time, we really hope that something significant happens because we see so much potential for change.

    UK Offshore territories

    UK Offshore territories
    For anyone holding money in the UK offshore territories: Jersey, Guernsey, Isle of Man, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands etc, you should be aware that the EU voted to put these territories back on the EU black list as of the 1st February 2021.

    www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jan/22/meps-vote-to-add-channel-and-british-virgin-islands-to-tax-haven-blacklist

    I suspected that this would be the case once the UK lost its protected status in Brussels and these territories, which depend on the UK, have been now put back on the EU’s black list. Essentially this means that they do not share adequate financial information and lack sufficient fiscal transparency. By keeping arrangements in these jurisidctions you will be subjecting yourself to punitive tax rates as a resident in Italy.

    If in any doubt then you can always contact me on +39 3336492356 or on email gareth.horsfall@spectrum-ifa.com

    Agenzia delle Entrate

    Letters from the Agenzia delle Entrate
    Someone forwarded me a forum discussion chat the other day which was discussing the fact that British citizens around Italy were receiving letters from the Agenzia delle Entrate and being targeted in a campaign for undeclared finances.

    Firstly, I should say that I do not have any insight into what the Agenzia delle Entrate (AdE) is doing or thinking, but can only hypothese based on past experience.

    One thing I think it is fair to say is that I don’t think that the AdE is actually targeting British citizens living in Italy as a result of Brexit. What is more likely the case is that the AdE are doing what they do most years, at the start of the year, and send out standardised letters to foreign citizens resident in Italy with the hope that they will pick up somebody who has undeclared income/assets and/or gains.

    I myself have received 2 of these letters in the past. The first proved to be a mistake, the second however, put me in such a panic that I went back over my finances for the previous year with a fine toothcomb and realised I had mistakenly failed to declare a small dividend payment in the UK, but it should be said that there was no mention of this error on their letter. The letter itself was a standard letter merely saying that as a result of information gained from the exchange of information between tax authorities, it was ‘believed’ that I may have undeclared assets/incomes and/or gains and that I needed to regualrise my affairs. It was enough to make me look back over everything and get everything ‘in regola’ .
    I know that in the last few years the Italian authorities have become more sophisticated with the information that they have received and so should you receive a letter with specific figures mentioned, then I think it is fair to say that you have been caught and you will have to provide the information requested. It would also make sense to get a commercialista to help submit the information and negotiate with them on your behalf, if required.

    However, if you receive the generic letter then it could just be that they are on a ‘fishing’ mission. Setting a cat amongst the pigeons, pick one off and the rest become so much more wary. In my opinion, any letter from the Agenzia delle Entrate should not be ignored. It could certainly be the case that they are party to information which has been shared by tax authorities in other countries where you hold assets and so to ignore such a communication could land you in very hot water indeed.

    My simple message for anyone, to prevent ever receiving a letter from the Agenzia delle Entrate is

    ‘If in doubt, declare the account’
    (And don’t forget your other worldwide assets/gains and income too)

    tax in italy

    Imposte and Tasse
    Do you know the difference bettwen your ‘imposte’ and your ‘tasse’?’. In English they are both taxes, but in Italian they have different meanings and so it is probably a good idea to understand what the difference is.

    Tasse are taxes which are collected to fund a specific part of the Italian state. A good example is TARI (Tariffa sui Rifuiti) or even airport taxes. They are collected for the purpose of funding a specific part of the Italian state infrastructure.

    Imposte,on the other hand, are generic taxes which are charged but which have no specific objective in mind, other than to fund the ongoing cost of the Italian state. These would include things like IRPEF (income taxes) IVAFE (wealth taxes) and IVIE (a tax on property).

    So, the next time you have a chat with your commercialista, or when you are chatting in the bar about how much we have to pay in taxes in Italy, you can make sure that you use the right terminology for the correct type of of tax!

    Do you have investments in the UK?

    By Andrew Lawford - Topics: Investments, Italy, Tax in Italy
    This article is published on: 4th February 2021

    04.02.21

    Time for a closer look at foreign portfolios

    In one of my articles last year I looked into the complexity of the taxation regime for the various types of investment income that can arise for an Italian resident. I would suggest that you read that article, or at least its section on funds, as background before continuing. In this article we are going to look in greater depth at the taxation of funds, or collective investment schemes (from now on I’ll refer to these simply as “collectives”). While this may seem a somewhat dry topic, it will be of particular concern to those who have investments in the UK, given that their tax treatment will be changing now that Brexit has come to pass. Equally, though, many people will have investments in collectives that they made in their countries of origin that do not pass muster in Italy, and these will bring less than desirable consequences from a taxation perspective.

    Ufficio Complicazione Affari Semplici

    Let’s first make it clear that there is nothing in Italian law that makes it illegal for an Italian resident to own certain kinds of foreign asset, but as many people find out when navigating the Italian system, the fact that you are allowed to do something doesn’t automatically mean that it will be easy. In fact, Italy has a mythical government office known as the Ufficio Complicazione Affari Semplici (the Office of Complicating Simple Matters – it even has its own Facebook page) which, if it actually existed, might well be one of the most efficient government entities in the country (I am joking, of course, but it does sometimes feel that way)!

    tax in italy

    Anyway, back to the main point of this article: there is an important distinction made in Italian tax law between EU domicile as against non-EU domicile for collectives.* In order to enjoy the basic 26% rate of taxation for financial income, collectives must either respect the UCITS regulations (i.e. be authorised under the EU law for collective investment undertakings), or, if non-UCITS, they must be domiciled in the EU or EEA, registered for distribution in Italy and managed by an EU licensed asset manager. These requirements will exclude almost all non-EU domiciled collectives, with UK collectives the most recent addition to the list (as from 1st January 2021). So what happens when you have invested in a collective that isn’t covered by EU rules? Any income generated will be taxed at your marginal income tax rates, which is likely to be penalising for all except those with limited incomes (the lowest income tax band is 23% in Italy).

    Much has been made in the press of the fact that financial services were excluded from the Brexit agreement. Below is what this looks like in practice (the following is an excerpt from a letter sent by the fund manager Janus Henderson to investors in their UK domiciled funds):

    “With effect from 1 January 2021, UK domiciled investment funds that had previously operated under the Undertakings for the Collective Investment in Transferable Securities (UCITS) regulations will cease to be classed as UCITS and will instead become “UK UCITS”. From the same date, UK domiciled Non-UCITS Retail Schemes (NURS) will cease to be classed as EU Alternative Investment Funds (AIFs) and instead will be classed as third country AIFs. Any UK domiciled Janus Henderson funds that were registered for marketing purposes in any EU 27 countries will no longer be registered and marketing of the funds will therefore cease. For the avoidance of doubt our “UK UCITS” and NURS will not be registered for marketing in the EU as third country AIFs.”

    Also on the list for unfavourable tax treatment you will find any non-UCITS ETFs, which would include all of those listed in the US (remember that ETFs are simply collectives that trade on a stock exchange). It will also include holdings in Investment Trusts listed in the UK. To be fair, UK Investment Trusts have always been in an unusual situation – something I found out first hand a number of years ago after holding an Investment Trust through an Italian bank. I was amazed at the paperwork that arrived at year end relating to this holding, the income from which I was obliged to put in my tax return (to be taxed at marginal rates). At the time there was also a complicated distinction made between the variation of the fund’s NAV compared with the variation of the price of the shares that I had bought and sold – although I believe that particular distortion has now been resolved for listed funds like ETFs (every now and again something slips past the Office of Complicating Simple Matters).

    USA Federal Bank

    What about the US?
    Any American readers should be particularly concerned, because they cannot hold EU collectives due to the arcane nature of US taxation, which makes compliance difficult even for non-resident US citizens.

    You are unwise to hold EU collectives from a US point of view, and unwise to hold US collectives from an Italian point of view. So what to do? Do not despair: much will depend on your individual situation, but we can often help to improve substantially the overall tax efficiency and declaration burden relating to your portfolio.

    The bottom line is that you should never assume that what works well in one country will work well in another, and especially not one like Italy that has government offices specialised in complicating matters!

    If you would like to discuss your own situation then please get in touch. Our aim is to simplify complicated matters as much as possible whilst making sure that your assets are well managed, with a view to the long term. In this context, avoiding unnecessary tax exposure remains a key element of most successful investment strategies. With proper guidance in the process of portfolio construction, it is entirely possible both to enhance investment returns and reduce administrative complexity.

    * Normally you can tell where a collective is domiciled by looking at the first two digits of its ISIN code (ISIN stands for International Securities Identification Number, a 12 digit alphanumeric code which almost all financial instruments have): IT will identify an Italian security, GB a UK security, LU a Luxembourg security and so on.

    Understanding Italian tax legislation

    By Gareth Horsfall - Topics: Italy, Tax in Italy
    This article is published on: 22nd January 2021

    22.01.21

    I normally like to start a new E-zine or article with a story or some kind of recent experience to try and provide context to what I am about to write. However, because of my lack of travels, I am lacking stories at the moment. In fact, I am now starting to believe that there is a government conspiracy to bore me to death, or they are in collaboration with Netflix to lobotomize me with endless series and films. Lockdown phase 2 is proving somewhat monotonous!

    So, with the fact that there isn’t really much to tell you other than work related matters, then we might as well crack on, because the truth is that as a result of Brexit a number of financial things have changed. A lot of my clients are now non-EU citizens (i.e. Brits), and so a better understanding of Italian tax legislation is essential. We have done some extensive digging in this regard and our investigations have sprung up some unwelcome news for some.

    The information we found was buried so deep in Italian tax law text that it took us (in reality my colleague Andrew Lawford ended up discovering it through sheer determination and persistence) quite some time to dig it up. So make sure you read the whole E-zine as something might be relevant to you.

    I should add that the financial services industry is still trying to work itself out and we should remember that there is no deal for financial services as part of the Brexit trade agreement. A lot of hope is being placed on a potential trade agreement being reached on financial services by the spring, as professed by Rishi Sunak, but I have my doubts.

    UK Banks closed

    SO, WHAT ARE THE CONCERNS?
    Let’s start with the one that got the most press leading up to Brexit. The automatic closure of UK bank accounts for EU residents.

    There is not much to say here, other than the main culprits seem to be Barclays, Lloyds, Nationwide, Royal Bank of Scotland and Halifax. To date, my experience with clients is that the closure letters are a bit of a scattergun approach. Not everyone I know with an account in these banks is being approached to close it.

    I am asked a lot about the possibility of using a UK address of a relative or friend and whether this would alert the bank to you living in the EU or not? The likelihood is that it will for 2 reasons. The first is that under the Common Reporting Standard (International sharing of tax and financial information) banks only need to ‘suspect’ that you are resident in another country. This might be determined from activity on your account, or other financial information that they may receive from foreign tax authorities. The second reason is that ultimately you should be asked to prove the address you provide. A simple check on the land registry can avert them to the fact that you are not the registered owner of the property. A standard requirement is to request a copy of a utility bill showing your name and address on it or some kind of official tax authority document. If you are unable to prove these, then the chances are that the banks will catch up with you sooner or later.

    So, what are the alternatives? I have recommended Fineco as a good Italian bank alternative (for transparency purposes, I have been an account holder for approx 10 years) but I believe that more of you than ever are finding it easy to open and use Transferwise as a transitionary online solution. But it’s NOT a bank, so beware! There are online banks as well, such as N26 and the online offshoots of the regular Italian banks. There are certainly lots of options available although finding a non-UK alternative that will allow UK direct debit payments is pretty much impossible.

    taxation on overseas rental property for Italian residents

    UK PROPERTY OWNERSHIP
    I have written previously about this and the increased wealth tax that will now be charged on UK property ownership for Italian residents.

    To recap, in a pre-Brexit world a UK property owned by an Italian resident would have had a wealth tax charged against it each year, in Italy. The value for calculating this charge was 0.76% of the council tax value of the property. This is considerably lower than the market value in most cases. However, now that the UK has left the EU the method for calculating that wealth tax changes.

    Properties that are located outside the EU are subject to the same charge, 0.76%, but in this case the valuation basis moves to the purchase/acquisition value of the property, where provable, and the market value otherwise. For most people I am finding that this is quite a difference, and for anyone who has bought in the last 10 years or so, this means a mostly, higher annual wealth tax charge. To date, I have only come across one person who retired to Italy and had retained the family property in the UK for many years, and could benefit from a very low purchase value for calculation purposes, hence a net tax benefit as a result of the tax change post Brexit. Most are going to find that their cost of holding UK property will increase as a result of the UK leaving the EU.

    tax-italy-guide

    TAX BREAK…
    For anyone inclined to sell their UK property then we shouldn’t forget that there is the possible ‘sale-of-home’ tax break as an Italian resident. If you have owned the home for more than 5 full tax years then Italy does not consider a property sale speculative (even a property located overseas) and so no capital gains tax is charged in Italy. You may have tax applied in the country in which the property is situated, in which case you would need to check the local tax laws. In the case of the UK, a property sale as a non-UK tax resident means capital gains tax would be charged on the property, but only from the date at which the legislation was introduced: 6th April 2015. What this means is that any gains made up to that point can effectively be written off, and the cost value for the purposes of calculating the capital gain would be the value as at the 6th April 2015 or later, depending on when you bought the property. A handy tax break for anyone who has held property in the UK for more than 5 years.

    UK IFA

    UK IFAs
    Now, we come onto the more technical points and an area which I see evolving over the coming year/years: UK IFAs (Independent Financial Advisers).

    Even when the UK was inside the EU it was not uncommon for me to come across people who had existing relationships with UK based IFAs who advised them on their finances, in the same way that I do for my clients living in Italy. But, even inside the EU most firms were not licensed to work with clients who were living in an EU state (it was easy enough to check on the Financial Conduct Authority website in the UK), and even in the few limited cases where they had the licence they did not have any experience of the Italian tax and financial system, so their advice was mainly useless and normally bad for the client. However, many continued to operate regardless, protected (loosely) by being a member of the EU.

    Fast forward to a post Brexit world and the fog has cleared. If you are working with a UK based IFA, and living in Italy, then you should not be receiving any advice from them. They will not have the necessary authorities or licences to operate in the EU, and as such, you as a client are not protected for any advice that they give you. This has been very clearly highlighted in a Banca D’Italia document which was released at the end of last year.

    If you do work with any UK based financial professional it would be in your interests to contact them and ask if they have an EU based entity to ensure they can continue to work with you. In much the same way as the banks are pulling out of the EU (the ones that have no intention to develop or maintain their existing EU business), IFA firms (small or large) should also be doing the same.

    I have to admit, that I have benefited from this because a number of UK firms with Italian resident clients have already contacted me about passing on their clients because they are no longer able to work with them. I expect this to continue as more firms understand their legal liability of working with clients in an un-licensed capacity.

    If you are in this situation please speak with the firm and/or send me a message and I can help you to look into it in more detail.

    investment talk

    ASSET MANAGERS
    This is a category, very similar to UK based IFAs. These are firms which generally manage sizeable portfolios for clients and have a direct relationship with the end client. To date there are mixed messages coming out of this sector. Some asset managers are aiming to pass EU based clients to EU based firms, like ourselves, others are clinging onto various legal loop holes to retain business. If you have a portfolio managed by a UK based asset manager directly, then the best you can do is to contact them and ask them what their post Brexit plans are. We expect that over time the EU will develop a more protectionist and hardline stance on working with non EU based firms.T his will ensure that they can more readily protect their EU residents and citizens and also win business from the UK.

    Where UK asset managers are used inside Italian tax compliant accounts, in the way that we mostly structure assets for our clients, then you do not have to worry as the provider of the account will be keeping abreast of legislation as it changes.

    ***For all my clients, please be aware that we are on top of any changes in this regard and you do NOT need to contact your asset manager as a result of the content in this E-zine. If anything changes we will notify you as soon as we become aware. We also have contingency plans in place should any changes need to be made***

    italy tax

    TAX ON UK DOMICILED ASSETS
    This is probably the most revealing piece of information that we have discovered, and whilst it is new for UK residents, it has always been the tax case for other non-EU Italian residents e.g. US citizens. And very important information it is as well for the holders

    of UK domiciled non-property assets (excluding bank accounts).

    We are not sure if most commercialisti are aware of what we discovered and so we encourage you to have a discussion with yours if you think you might be affected!

    Essentially, if you hold non-EU approved investment funds in a portfolio with a bank or an asset manager, then these same assets must meet 3 simple rules for the flat 26% tax treatment for investment income and capital gains to be applied, in Italy.

    1. The fund or collective investment must be established in a member state of the EU or EEA
    2. It must be sold in Italy under the relevant distributions guidelines from the regulator CONSOB
    3. And if you are working with someone who manages your money they need to be subject to EU authorisations in the country in which they operate from

    And the important point to note is that any investment fund must be covered under all 3 criteria and not just one!

    What is the consequence if your collective investments don’t meet these criteria?
    Very simply all your investment income and capital gains are added up and taxed at your highest rate of income tax! They are added to all your other income for the year and taxed accordingly. For someone who is earning up to €15000pa (pensions, rental income and/or employment income) then this would be advantageous, but for any figure above then your tax rate will be higher than the 26% currently charged on the same asset.

    How can you check if you have a non-EU domiciled collective investment asset?
    Very simply, all securities are allocated an International Securities Number (ISIN code). You will need to check that yours starts with an EU approved code, such as IE, LU, FR, IT etc. For any UK citizen living in Italy holding securities/funds or assets, whose code starts with the letters GB, then it might be time to take another look at your financial planning as a resident to try and mitigate any future tax charges on these assets.

    And that’s it for this E-zine! There are quite a few financial planning considerations to be taken into account here and so I will elaborate on them in future E-zines, but if you have any doubts as to whether any of these topics may apply to you, or want some help looking into anything, then I would suggest you get in touch using the form below.

    Are you a UK IFA with Clients Living in Italy ?

    By Gareth Horsfall - Topics: Italy, UK IFA
    This article is published on: 8th January 2021

    08.01.21

    ARE YOU UNABLE TO SERVICE THESE CLIENTS POST BREXIT?

    UK IFA

    At The Spectrum IFA Group we can look after your clients long term as licensed and regulated financial advisers operating in Italy.

    The things you should know before you contact us for our help:

    • We specialise in financial planning for English speaking expatriates across western Europe
    • We are locally authorised in all jurisdictions in which we operate and across the entire EU (and Switzerland). Our regulatory status is unaffected by Brexit
    • We hold financial services licenses for both insurance mediation (Insurance Distribution Directive compliant) and investment advice (MiFiD compliant)
    • Established in 2003, we have 50 advisers and 12 regional offices
    • We work only with large, well known asset managers including Blackrock, Jupiter, Fidelity and Prudential. For clients with higher value portfolios we also use discretionary investment managers such as Rathbones, Smith and Williamson and Quilter Cheviot
    • As part of our terms of business, clients of The Spectrum IFA Group receive ongoing, long term service and support. All advisers live within easy travel distance of their clients
    • We are not an offshore broker. We do not use products from UK dependant territories (such as the Isle of Man or Channel Islands) as they can produce adverse tax consequences for clients living in Europe. We advise that you don’t use any of these structures for your clients if they are EU resident
    • We use only locally compliant products which are designed specifically for the jurisdictions in which our clients are based
    • We work on a transparent charging structure with all clients. Charges are deducted directly from the products and solutions we recommend. We do not invoice separately
    Why should I be wary of exchange rates?

    As the end of the transition period is rapidly approaching we ask that you contact us as soon possible to allow time for us to complete any necessary restructuring of client assets.

    If your clients are resident in the EU or Switzerland, or intending becoming resident, please feel free to contact us for a no obligation discussion to determine if we can look after your clients post Brexit.

    You can contact me at gareth.horsfall@spectrum-ifa.com

    Banks, Bonds and Badwill

    By Andrew Lawford - Topics: Banking, Italy
    This article is published on: 13th December 2020

    13.12.20

    Today I’d like to explore the topic of Italian banking consolidation – but first I’d like to mention my new podcast episode, which features an interview with entrepreneur Andrew Meo, who walks us through his experience of starting a business in Italy – Milan based Rocket Espresso www.rocket-espresso.com. Even if you have no interest in starting a business in Italy, his story is a compelling one and gives us the chance to think more deeply about the prospects for the Italian economy. Check it out on iTunes, Spotify, Google Podcasts or Stitcher.

    Now on to the banks
    It probably hasn’t escaped your attention that there has recently been a new round of consolidation in the Italian banking market. It’s really no exaggeration to say that once Intesa Sanpaolo completes its takeover of UBI Banca and if, as seems likely, Unicredit ends up having the House of Horrors that is Monte dei Paschi di Siena foisted upon it (see below), that there will really only be 2 large banks in Italy. Of course, Italy has many, many banks – just look here at the list of members of Italian Banking Association, but in terms of concentration of assets, the situation is clear.*

    Italian bank assets

    * Please note that the Intesa – UBI takeover has yet to complete and the combination of Unicredit – MPS is currently only a rumour

    Intesa, in particular, has been making the best of a bad situation over recent years, having taken on, for the sum of €1, the good parts of two failed banks from the Veneto region (Veneto Banca and Banca Popolare di Vicenza) in a deal that was breathtakingly good for them. Aside from being able to pick and choose only the best bits of the banks, they also received the following benefits (see the press release from June 2017):

    • A public cash contribution of €3.5bn to guarantee the stability of Intesa’s financial ratios;
    • A further public cash contribution of €1.285bn to cover “integration and rationalisation charges”;
    • Public guarantees of €1.5bn “to sterilise risks, obligations and claims” arising before the transfer to Intesa;
    • Full availability of deferred tax assets (roughly €2bn);
    • The right to give back certain higher-risk loans if these turn bad by the end of 2020

    Nice work if you can get it!
    The reality is that Intesa was able to call the shots in this deal, because Unicredit, the only other Italian bank theoretically able to take on the task, was still trying to sort out its own troubles with non-performing loans, having had to launch capital increases for €20bn or so in the period between 2012 – 2017 (a €13bn capital increase had just been completed at the time of the Intesa deal for the Veneto banks).

    Moving on to the recent deal to acquire UBI Banca, we encounter the curious phenomenon of badwill, or “negative goodwill” as Intesa prefers to define it.

    Intesa presentation

    Intesa presentation re: UBI Banca acquisition – February 2020

    Instinctively, we could define “goodwill” as that aspect of a business that defines the value it provides to its customers. In accounting terms, goodwill is an intangible asset that arises in an acquisition when the price paid is greater than the value of the net assets received. It follows from this that “badwill” arises when you get assets of a greater value than the price paid for them. Such is the story of Italian banking (and most banks in Europe, to be fair) – their assets simply aren’t perceived as having great value. In Italy, in particular, after a long period of struggling with non-performing loans, the market is worried that a fresh batch will be showing up over the coming years once the effects of COVID support have worn off.

    Moving on to Unicredit, there was some hope that under its CEO of recent years, Jean Pierre Mustier, that the bank could become an Italian champion of consolidation in Europe. In particular, Mr Mustier’s old employer, Société Générale, was floated as a potential candidate for a tie-up, and certainly a far more presentable option than that of a domestic union with Monte dei Paschi di Siena, undoubtedly the ugliest girl at the dance of Italian banking consolidation. In recent weeks, Mr Mustier has decided to hand in his resignation after clashing with his Board of Directors, so it seems only to be a question of time before the unhappy couple announces their engagement.

    All of this concentration of banking assets in two main groups leads to a number of considerations. Firstly, the unhealthy connection between bank balance sheets and Italian sovereign credit risk seems to be growing. Between them, Intesa-UBI and Unicredit-MPS hold about €175bn of Italian sovereign debt (as at 30/06/2020). The banks themselves have also become so large that they might not only be “too big to fail”, but also “too big to save” – assuming that the ultimate backstop is always an implicit government guarantee.

    From our perspective as depositors, whilst we wait for the proposed EDIS (European Deposit Insurance Scheme), the best we have is the Italian FITD (Fondo Interbancario di Tutela dei Depositi), which does guarantee deposits up to €100,000, but is based on a system of mutual assistance between the banks – if one of the two giants were to stumble, the system may well struggle to make good on all claims.

    All this brings to mind the wisdom of the following quotation from Mark Twain:
    “I’m more concerned about the return of my money
    than the return on my money”

    It clearly makes sense to have a bank account in Italy if you are living here, and there are some good, low cost options out there. Many of you may already have the bulk of your financial assets in Italy and some of you are probably thinking seriously about moving more funds here, given that a number of UK banks will struggle (or even refuse) to service Italian residents after Brexit. However, there are also good reasons to maintain a substantial portion of your financial assets outside of Italy, and I can help you to understand all the options and eliminate the complications that arise from the tax declarations. Please feel free to get in touch if you’d like to learn more.

    And with that, the only thing left to do is wish you all a pleasant and relaxing Christmas and New Year – with any luck, 2021 will be a substantial improvement on 2020 (admittedly a low bar to jump over!).