Q EXPERTS' BLOG
Uruguay Banking: Update from Peter Macfarlane
by Adam Richardson
Offshore banking continues to be one of our readers top interests. Today we get an eagerly anticipated update from Peter Macfarlane on the subject of banking in Uruguay.
Peter has been hard at work for the past week. He has met with a host of bankers, performed due diligence on their offerings, and he has written up the following briefing to share with us.
NON-RESIDENT BANKING AND INVESTING IN URUGUAY IN 2013
I’m writing to you today from Punta del Este, Uruguay, where I have just spent a few days in informal meetings with lawyers, bankers, government officials and clients. There’s lots of information around these days on moving to Uruguay, but there’s almost no up-to-date information on opening bank accounts or investing in Uruguay as a non-resident (tourist), so with this article I decided to correct that situation.
Uruguay has long been a beacon of stability in the region, dominated as it is by much larger neighbors such as Argentina and Brazil that have seen frequent devaluations and continuous inflation for much of recent history. Uruguay was and still is seen as a stable financial centre for those with money to stash it away safely, free from the exchange controls that have frequently been introduced by the big neighbors.
Besides bank deposits in dollars and other hard currencies, typical investments held by foreigners here are real estate and gold coins. Real estate is traditionally owned anonymously, through a Uruguayan corporation managed by bearer shares. Many real estate transactions here as little as five years ago were carried out in cash, with suitcases of untaxed banknotes from neighboring countries. Although this means of anonymous property ownership is now being phased out, it has long sustained the real estate market here – especially here in the booming resort town of Punta del Este, that comes alive from December to March as the playground of the rich and famous from Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, as well as further afield (other famous homeowners here include Shakira)
40% of dollar deposits in the Argentine banking system have been withdrawn in cash in the past year, and anecdotal evidence suggests that much of this cash has ended up in private Uruguayan safe deposits. Although Argentina has introduced strict border controls, including dogs specially trained to sniff for dollars, taking up to $10,000 in cash is still legal. Business is booming for the Uruguay safe deposit operators.
Gold, meanwhile, is freely traded here. The market is relatively liquid, albeit with high spreads – it is currently easier to sell than it is to buy, as demand for gold coins is high and most gold imported here is carried through in people’s pockets rather than being officially imported. There are numerous non-bank safe deposit options, both here in Punta, and in the capital Montevideo. Uruguay is generally a very safe country with low crime rates, so it’s a safe place to stash gold and cash.
Is Uruguay still a good haven for private offshore banking? These days there are basically two ways of using Uruguay to open offshore accounts: through foreign banks or in the local banking system.
Following Uruguay’s surprise blacklisting a few years back, as well as under pressure from Argentina, the government made a big effort to improve the image of the financial centre and avoid the old perception that it is assisting tax evasion. This led to pressure on foreign banks operating here, who mostly took the government’s hint and wound up their official operations.
A number of them still, however, have “freelance” representatives here, operating as financial consulting companies, who are happy to have personal meetings with non-Uruguayan prospective clients interested in opening accounts at head offices in European havens like Switzerland and Andorra. I met with a few of these representatives over the past couple of days and they seem to be doing a roaring trade, mainly with wealthy Argentinians, but also with local expats.
The other option, the local banking system, while ideal for those who choose to turn Uruguay into a part or full time home, is probably less attractive to non-residents. While there are no exchange controls, and cash still circulates relatively freely, account opening procedures can be cumbersome, especially for foreign corporations.
Opening a small personal account in the local Uruguayan banking system might be a good way to dip your toe into offshore banking: the state-backed BROU Bank still opens accounts for American citizens, while we hear that Discount Bank Latin America (DBLA) is a good option for other nationalities seeking personal accounts. While BROU has branches in every sizeable Uruguayan town, Discount Bank has just its head office in Montevideo’s old town, plus branches in the port town of Colonia (the closes point to Buenos Aires) and here in Punta del Este.
One other option is Banque Heritage, the only Swiss bank that has jumped through the required hoops to maintain a fully-fledged subsdidiary here. Banque Heritage Uruguay developed out of Surinvest Casa Bancaria, a bank originally set up by a consortium of international banks in the 1980s and finally rebranded as Banque Heritage after being sold to the Swiss bank of that name in 2010-2011. Banque Heritage specializes in private banking at a higher entry level and with substantial fees.
All in all, Uruguay is a discreet financial haven, which is ideal for clients who want to stay under the radar. It’s no longer explicitly offshore, but it still offers a heritage of offshore banking and investment services and can serve as a convenient bridge to doing business in other countries. Not to mention, it’s one of my favorite countries to visit, with friendly people, a free and open economy, reasonably priced and with great beef and wine! What more could a PT ask for?
We’ll be hearing more from Peter on this and his other findings while in South America. In the meantime, if you’d like to explore how banking in Uruguay could benefit you then consider becoming a Q Wealth member. For the price of a nice dinner you could be receiving a personal email consultation, receive personal introductions to our exclusive (hard to find, immensely valuable, discreet) contacts around the world, and much more.
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