BELIZE, an English-speaking country in the heart of Central America, is a relative newcomer in the field of international financial services. Since attaining independence from Britain in 1981, Belize has been endeavoring to diversify its economy away from the agricultural sector. Belize, therefore, saw the international financial services sector as a window of opportunity where it could seek to achieve competitive advantage. Belize also earns a substantial income from the tourism sector. In 1989, the enactment of the Registration of Merchant Ships Act which constituted an open ship registry, gave birth to the International Merchant Marine Registry of Belize (IMMARBE). Today, more than 3000 vessels fly the Belizean flag and there is a network of IMMARBE offices around the world. Belize has ratified most of the International Maritime Organization Safety Conventions.
In 1990, Belize enacted the International Business Companies Act based on the British Virgin Islands model. In a short space of ten years, Belize has registered more than 15,000 IBC's. Belize's IBC legislation is viewed internationally as one of the most modern and user-friendly. It is particularly designed with the offshore investor in mind. A Belizean IBC is an ideal corporate vehicle for international financial transactions and allows the investor to engage in a wide variety of activities ranging from asset protection to operating bank accounts, brokerage accounts, ship ownership, commission arrangements and various other commercial transactions.
The IBC legislation was supplemented in 1992 with the enactment of a Trusts Act which provides for both onshore and offshore trusts. Universally acknowledged as one of the best in the field, Belize's trust law contains provisions that are specialty designed to meet the needs of differing and diverse cultures and religions.
Belize further expanded its offshore sector in 1996 with the passing of the Offshore Banking Act. This provides for two categories of offshore banking licenses – the Unrestricted “A” Class and the Restricted “B” Class license. The holder of a “B” Class license maintains lesser capital and is restricted to conducting certain limited business activities only.
The election of a new Government in Belize in 1998 provided fresh impetus to the development of the offshore services sector. A spate of seven offshore industry measures were added to the statute book in 1999.These included:
- the International Financial Services Commission Act which seeks to promote, protect and enhance Belize as an international financial services center and to regulate the provision of international financial services;
- the International Insurance Act which provides for the regulation of persons establishing and carrying on international insurance business;
- the protected Cell Companies Act which allows for the incorporation of protected cell companies or the conversion of an existing company to a protected cell company;
- the Mutual Funds Act which provides for the regulation, authorization and control of mutual funds and their managers and administrators;
- the Limited Liability Partnerships Act which permits the creation of limited liability partnerships;
- the Retired Persons (Incentives) Act which offers certain tax exemptions and incentives to qualified retired persons;
- the International Business Companies (Amendment) Act which provides for the establishment of limited life companies.
Belize now offers a full menu of investment vehicles designed to meet the needs of sophisticated investors around the world. As the range of services has widened, Belize has become a more convenient place to do business. It has truly become a 'full service' jurisdiction – 'a One-Stop Shop' (as it were).
While developing its Offshore sector, Belize has not overlooked the fact that the offshore vehicles may be used by unscrupulous elements to launder the proceeds of drug trafficking or other illicit activities. Simultaneously with the enactment of the Offshore Banking Act in 1996, Belize also passed the Money Laundering (Prevention) Act which established mechanisms and procedures to ensure that the country's financial institutions are not used to disguise the source of illicit funds. This Act is central to the country's strategy to develop a reputable and viable offshore services sector. It is virtually an 'all crimes' law and is not limited to drug related offenses. The definition of 'money laundering' is extremely wide and covers 'engaging, directly or indirectly, in a transaction that involves property that is the proceeds of crime, disguising, disposing of or bringing into Belize any property that is the proceeds of crime, knowing or having reasonable cause for believing the same to be the proceeds of crime.'Belize's banking sector (including offshore banking) is regulated by the Central Bank of Belize, while the non-banking sector falls within the jurisdiction of the International Financial Services Commission (IFSC) established in 1999. Membership of the IFSC includes representation from both public and private sectors. The present membership of the IFSC is as follows:
(1) Mr. Joseph Waight
Financial Secretary – Chairman
(2) Mrs. Neri J. Matus
(3) Mr. Glenford Ysaguirre
Governor, Central Bank of Belize
(4) Ms. Joy Grant
Director, Financial Intelligence Unit
(5) Ms. Anika N. Jackson, Solicitor General
(6) Mr. Kent Clare Commissioner of Income Tax
The IFSC' mandate includes:
- promoting and developing Belize as a center for international financial services;
- protecting and enhancing the reputation of Belize as an offshore financial center;
- providing appropriate supervision and regulation of international financial services,
- formulating policies and providing advice and assistance to the government on the regulation of such services;
- collecting, storing and disseminating reliable and timely information to interested parties on changes and new trends in these services.
The Commission relies on self-regulation, meaning that while government sets overall standards, it expects much of the actual work in terms of monitoring and compliance to be done by the industry itself.
The Commission has recently issued licensing regulations to license all international financial services providers. The licensing process is designed to ensure that only 'fit and proper persons' are allowed to provide, carry on or transact international financial services in or from within Belize. The application fee is US$500.00 while the annual license fee is US$2,500.00. In addition, the Commission is developing a statutory Code of Conduct for international financial services providers, to ensure compliance with internationally-accepted best practices by all services providers.
Belize is an active member of the Caribbean Financial Action Task Force (CFATF) and subscribes to its core principles to eradicate money laundering and to foster stability in the global financial system. Belize has also made a commitment at the political level to adhere to the objectives of the U.N. Offshore Forum on Money Laundering.
The International Financial Securities Regulatory Commission was established to promote investor confidence in the securities and capital markets by providing more structure and government oversight.