Why is London filling up with the very very rich?

Foreign investors flooding in.

The allure of the UK to overseas buyers has been apparent for some time and certainly long before we had a home-grown Wimbledon champion, victorious rugby and cricket teams, the birth of a Royal baby and what seems like endless blue skies and hot sunshine!

Indeed, much has been made of the influx of high net worth non-UK nationals to London and its impact on London’s buoyant prime residential property market. Undeterred in most cases by the recent hike in stamp duty land tax rates imposed upon houses priced at more than £2m, statistics show that foreign investors (and especially those who are victims of the worldwide economic turmoil, euro crisis and rising wealth taxes in their home countries) continue to look to London.

It is understood that between 45 and 65 per cent of London’s most desirable areas are owned by high net worth individuals from abroad. But, what is it that makes UK, and in particular, London, so desirable?

Recent commentary suggests that one explanation for the movement of foreign investment into the UK is that beneficial exchange rates are effectively giving those buying into London huge purchasing power, with some currencies having appreciated as much as 45 per cent against sterling over the past five years. 

Overseas buyers can, therefore, enjoy a healthy discount on their property investment as a direct result of the depreciation of sterling – the deals often made even sweeter by the UK’s low interest rates.

However, experience shows that, while these economic factors are no doubt influential, there are a number of other drivers of market demand such as the UK’s stable legal system as well as its status as an unlikely low tax jurisdiction.

Indeed, the UK has an established history of political and social stability, coupled with a sophisticated legal system, and comprehensive (if occasionally unwieldy) tax code. It boasts a comprehensive network of bilateral tax treaties: principally in respect of income tax, capital gains tax and corporation tax but also inheritance tax. 

In particular, the tax regime is highly beneficial for individuals who become resident in the UK without also becoming "domiciled" here – provided they structure their affairs appropriately.

Furthermore, it is relatively simple for international UHNWs to come to the UK. As a member state of the European Union, EU citizens of course benefit from the fundamental freedom of free movement. However, for non-EU/EEA nationals, it is possible to obtain an "investor visa" by making a £1m, £5m, or £10m investment in specified "permitted investments" in the UK (with a view to obtaining settlement in the UK within 2-5 years). Surely a relatively inexpensive gateway to the UK?

The UK investment opportunities generated by strong currencies may be relatively short-lived. Much the same might be said for this glorious weather. However, London has long been regarded as a key international business centre, a safe political haven, extremely strong in its professional services offering and a centre of educational excellence. It is perhaps, therefore, not so difficult to see why, all things considered, London really is the capital city of choice for the internationally mobile UNHWs.

Lydia Essa works for private wealth law firm Maurice Turnor Gardner LLP.

This piece first appeared on Spear's.

Photograph: Getty Images

This is a story from the team at Spears magazine.

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Leader: The unresolved Eurozone crisis

The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving.

The eurozone crisis was never resolved. It was merely conveniently forgotten. The vote for Brexit, the terrible war in Syria and Donald Trump’s election as US president all distracted from the single currency’s woes. Yet its contradictions endure, a permanent threat to continental European stability and the future cohesion of the European Union.

The resignation of the Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, following defeat in a constitutional referendum on 4 December, was the moment at which some believed that Europe would be overwhelmed. Among the champions of the No campaign were the anti-euro Five Star Movement (which has led in some recent opinion polls) and the separatist Lega Nord. Opponents of the EU, such as Nigel Farage, hailed the result as a rejection of the single currency.

An Italian exit, if not unthinkable, is far from inevitable, however. The No campaign comprised not only Eurosceptics but pro-Europeans such as the former prime minister Mario Monti and members of Mr Renzi’s liberal-centrist Democratic Party. Few voters treated the referendum as a judgement on the monetary union.

To achieve withdrawal from the euro, the populist Five Star Movement would need first to form a government (no easy task under Italy’s complex multiparty system), then amend the constitution to allow a public vote on Italy’s membership of the currency. Opinion polls continue to show a majority opposed to the return of the lira.

But Europe faces far more immediate dangers. Italy’s fragile banking system has been imperilled by the referendum result and the accompanying fall in investor confidence. In the absence of state aid, the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the world’s oldest bank, could soon face ruin. Italy’s national debt stands at 132 per cent of GDP, severely limiting its firepower, and its financial sector has amassed $360bn of bad loans. The risk is of a new financial crisis that spreads across the eurozone.

EU leaders’ record to date does not encourage optimism. Seven years after the Greek crisis began, the German government is continuing to advocate the failed path of austerity. On 4 December, Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, declared that Greece must choose between unpopular “structural reforms” (a euphemism for austerity) or withdrawal from the euro. He insisted that debt relief “would not help” the immiserated country.

Yet the argument that austerity is unsustainable is now heard far beyond the Syriza government. The International Monetary Fund is among those that have demanded “unconditional” debt relief. Under the current bailout terms, Greece’s interest payments on its debt (roughly €330bn) will continually rise, consuming 60 per cent of its budget by 2060. The IMF has rightly proposed an extended repayment period and a fixed interest rate of 1.5 per cent. Faced with German intransigence, it is refusing to provide further funding.

Ever since the European Central Bank president, Mario Draghi, declared in 2012 that he was prepared to do “whatever it takes” to preserve the single currency, EU member states have relied on monetary policy to contain the crisis. This complacent approach could unravel. From the euro’s inception, economists have warned of the dangers of a monetary union that is unmatched by fiscal and political union. The UK, partly for these reasons, wisely rejected membership, but other states have been condemned to stagnation. As Felix Martin writes on page 15, “Italy today is worse off than it was not just in 2007, but in 1997. National output per head has stagnated for 20 years – an astonishing . . . statistic.”

Germany’s refusal to support demand (having benefited from a fixed exchange rate) undermined the principles of European solidarity and shared prosperity. German unemployment has fallen to 4.1 per cent, the lowest level since 1981, but joblessness is at 23.4 per cent in Greece, 19 per cent in Spain and 11.6 per cent in Italy. The youngest have suffered most. Youth unemployment is 46.5 per cent in Greece, 42.6 per cent in Spain and 36.4 per cent in Italy. No social model should tolerate such waste.

“If the euro fails, then Europe fails,” the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has often asserted. Yet it does not follow that Europe will succeed if the euro survives. The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving. In these circumstances, the surprise has been not voters’ intemperance, but their patience.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump