Steve Fox looks at the elegant range of investment instruments constituted by offshore banks' multicurrency accounts
In our increasingly globalised economy, travel, employment and business commitments can often evolve into assignments or contracts around the world, potentially leading to foreign investment opportunities, overseas property purchase, overseas educational or other family needs. Fortunately, the increased accessibility of international financial markets now means that individuals can regularly transact in currencies other than their domestic currency.
Offshore banks in jurisdictions such as the Isle of Man and Jersey can deliver a full range of multicurrency banking facilities. In fact, the above scenarios are increasingly contributing to the global nature and growth in the customer base of many offshore banks.
When operating in more than one currency, the key concern is managing exposure to foreign exchange fluctuations. The ability of an offshore bank to hold multiple currency accounts within one location and provide a wide range of services can be indispensable for international clients, particularly with regard to cross-currency transactions and foreign currency risk management.
Most offshore banks provide a comprehensive range of foreign exchange facilities, making use of highly sophisticated price and market information systems within their treasury operations, to enable their client relationship managers to quote foreign exchange rates instantly for all major currencies pairs. Some organisations will provide an advisory service to their clients with respect to market views and anticipated exchange rate movements; however, the discretionary management of a client's foreign exchange risk is uncommon in the offshore arena.
Undoubtedly, the ability to execute a foreign exchange transaction instantly is far more efficient, cost-effective and lower risk than moving funds from one institution to another to effect the same transaction. Transacting between institutions may require the provision of written instruction for transfer, may incur transfer charges and delays, and, as a consequence, may leave a client exposed to substantial foreign exchange rate movements.
This last point is particularly pertinent given the volatility experienced in the foreign exchange markets during 2008, where the exchange rates of major currency pairs have moved by almost 15%, with some very substantial intra-day movements occurring along the way.
Typically, a multicurrency account is structured like an umbrella bank account, with a single account number, under which any number of sub-accounts can be maintained in different currencies according to a client's specific needs. The multicurrency structure allows a client to receive an income in one currency, such as US dollars, and then offers the means to make payments from the account in different currencies, such as sterling or euro. If clients are based abroad for a predetermined period, one of these sub-accounts will usually be denominated in their domestic currency. Alternatively, clients planning to move or retire abroad in the future may wish to accumulate assets in the currency of their future residence.
Within a multicurrency account structure, account types can range from instant access deposit accounts through multicurrency borrowing facilities to more sophisticated structured deposit accounts, which offer clients the potential to enhance their income.
Instant access deposit facilities
Commonly available in various major currencies, these allow clients immediate access to their funds, while also providing a gross, competitive interest rate. It is important to note that if the client is an individual resident within the EU, interest may be subject to a retention tax charge.
Cheque guarantee, credit/debit card and international transfer facilities are widely available in conjunction with these accounts, often ensuring no foreign exchange charges when withdrawing money in the currency of the card.
Fixed-term deposit facilities
Commonly available in various major currencies, these allow clients to receive a set rate of interest for a defined period of time, usually ranging from overnight through to 12 months, although longer maturity terms can be obtained.
These deposit facilities can be one of the lowest-risk yet most useful elements of a well-structured portfolio, as they allow clients to know exactly how much interest is being earned and when the capital will be repaid.
Multicurrency borrowing facilities
Subject to each lender's particular criteria, finance in a range of currencies can often be secured against a variety of assets, including investment holdings and property, and is usually tailored to suit the needs of the individual client.
More sophisticated clients may use these facilities to reduce the interest they are paying by borrowing in a low interest rate currency, or attempt to reduce their outstanding capital borrowings by switching between currencies.
Structured deposit facilities
Over recent years structured deposit accounts denominated in many currencies have become far more accessible for private clients through offshore banks. Structured deposits may offer the potential to obtain an enhanced yield, while maintaining the comfort that capital is protected.
These products are suitable for clients who, while limiting risk to the capital they have deposited, are prepared to sacrifice all or part of the interest they could earn with a conventional deposit account in return for the potential to earn an increased yield.
For more sophisticated clients with a higher appetite for risk, additional enhanced-yield deposit accounts are also available where the capital may not necessarily be 100% protected.
Clients may wish to seek an offshore institution that does not charge a commission for foreign exchange transactions but provides a competitive foreign exchange rate quote based on the size of the underlying transaction. Clients can also make use of various financial instruments to take advantage of prevailing exchange rates for either speculative purposes or for reducing their own foreign currency exposures.
The rate most commonly quoted is the 'spot rate': this is the rate offered by a bank for an immediate exchange of one currency for another. However, spot trades are generally 'settled' two business days after the transaction date. Clients can manage future exchange rate movements by using 'forward outright' transactions, where the money actually changes hands at some agreed date in the future. This allows the client and the bank to fix an exchange rate for an agreed amount of money at a specified future date, regardless of the market rate on that day.
Managing exposure to foreign exchange fluctuations and mitigating foreign exchange risk are still key issues for the increasing number of clients operating internationally. The foreign exchange services offered by offshore banks can be used to support investment decisions in any of the world's major currencies, and with the multicurrency banking options generally available even the requirements of the most complex portfolio should be supported.
- Steve Fox is head of treasury at Fairbairn Private Bank.
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