Bermuda's economy has been buffeted by the challenges of COVID-19 during 2020. But a robust response from government working closely with the private sector appears to have put it in a good position to take advantage of numerous opportunities emerging in a post-pandemic world. Eight leaders discussed this issue in a virtual roundtable.
HOW WOULD YOU CHARACTERISE THE HEALTH OF THE BERMUDA ECONOMY IN THE CONTEXT OF THE CHALLENGES OF COVID-19?
Dennis Fagundo: I would say that the Bermuda economy is now divided into two distinct sectors. Normally one would think of it in terms of international business and then the domestic economy, but that has shifted. The split is now between businesses that were able to stay open and continue normal operations and those whose demand has been significantly reduced.
Estimates suggest that maybe 10 percent of the economy has taken a hard hit, and the remainder is doing well and stabilising. In that sense, we are in much better shape than most other jurisdictions and are in a strong position from a health perspective.
We believe we are able to maintain that health while continuing to operate and keep the economy moving.
The Chamber of Commerce supports the Work from Bermuda programme and views it as highly successful. We would support the ability to renew those certificates when they expire. We would like those people to become permanent residents and for that process to be smooth and painless.
Roland Andy Burrows: I agree. In terms of international business (mainly the financial services sector), there is still growth. Because Bermuda has been open for business during the pandemic, albeit with less face-to-face contact, the insurance sector and others have benefited.
We are seeing a lot of new businesses looking to come to the Island, as well as some startups.
The Work from Bermuda One Year Residential Certificate has been successful and people are using the extended tourism 180-day provision as an opportunity to come to the Island on a long-term basis.
More than 140 applicants for the Work From Bermuda Certificate have come through the BDA's concierge service directly, while the government has received a total of 557 applications as of the end of October, with 442 of those approved.
Ultimately, we hope that those kinds of moves will translate into permanent domicile on the Island. All in all, many sectors are still doing well.
Jerome Wilson: The government has done a very good job of keeping the Island open and putting in place a system that ensures everyone is kept safe and tested regularly—whether they are visiting or living on the Island.
Work from Bermuda is a brilliant idea that is proving very successful. Our firm has been assisting a few of those individuals with their applications, which is beneficial to the whole community. It is injecting some much-needed economic activity and buzz into Bermuda.
As for the economy itself, we remain busy. We are doing plenty of work including mergers and acquisitions on a large scale. We continue to handle regular financing for our Bermuda clients and haven't noticed a huge impact from COVID-19—apart from the fact that most of us are working from home most of the time.
The future looks bright. We are very busy and as we head towards the end of the year, plenty of companies are trying new things before the calendar turns to 2021. All indications suggest that we will continue to be busy.
I agree that there are now two economies: one that's face to face—hotels, restaurants and so on; the other is business like ourselves which have had a different impact.
Damian Cooper: I agree with most of what has been said, but I think the important thing is looking forward. How does Bermuda capitalise as the world comes out of COVID-19? We are seeing a lot of activity in terms of new startups, re-designations and mergers.
It will be important to have those parts of the economy that are doing well support those parts of the economy that have been struggling. How does the government encourage increased immigration and increased job residencies from new companies so they can support and fuel growth in parts of the economy that have been sidelined?
Targeted efforts in that area will be important if Bermuda is to come out of the pandemic in as strong a place as possible.
John Huff: I hope we can capitalise on the next 18 months, because it is a great opportunity—particularly for the P&C global reinsurance market. When there is uncertainty in the world, our industry always does well.
On the positive side, the government has contained COVID-19 and we have probably the strongest record in the world for keeping residents and visitors safe. The question is how to leverage that into new business opportunities.
Work from Bermuda is a fantastic programme, and my slogan is "every dollar counts". This is all new economic activity for Bermuda, and we should think in terms of being granular enough to count every person that comes to the Island because of that programme. According to the most recent estimates, around 500 have been approved to arrive.
Analysts are predicting a strong, hardening market on the P&C side, which is a great opportunity for us. We are seeing some startup companies, but also a flight to quality with our established Bermuda members being able to go to market and raise capital.
It's not uncommon for firms to come back with $1 billion of new capital ready to deploy for 2021.
Greg Wojciechowski: We need to reflect on where Bermuda sits in the world in relation to the continuum of COVID-19. We are in the middle of an increasingly alarming situation currently within the US, Europe and the UK, but for a small country we have handled the pandemic remarkably well.
If you come to Bermuda, the only thing that is amiss—other than daily air traffic—is the fact that we are all walking around with masks on. We have it under control to a point where we have the best of personal freedoms of any country in the world right now. That is exceptional.
Yes, I agree we have a two-track economy. On the one hand, there is the tourism and service economy; on the other is the international business economy. When you pull the plug on cruise ships and visitors coming in to Bermuda, that is bound to send serious shockwaves through the domestic economy.
One of the things that the Bermuda government did early on was to recognise the challenges ahead and stimulate the economy by providing unemployment relief so they could help families that were impacted by job losses. The international business community also received credit for assisting Bermuda during these difficult times. That was phenomenally helpful.
Currently, we are in a very interesting position. We are coming out of the darker days of the pandemic, but we are moving into this new situation with massive uncertainty around what will our new business environment look like.
For the Bermuda Stock Exchange (BSX), I am pleased and quite surprised how well Bermuda has held up and how we continue to effectively service our international clients. In terms of ILS we have record numbers of new issuance at the moment. We are busy. Of course, we had to pivot from in-office meetings to a virtual world, but I don't think we've missed a beat.
The interesting question is how we capitalise on that and move forward. Fortunately, it may not be as hard as earlier predictions because an important reason Bermuda continues to be successful is because of the foresight and hard work put in beforehand.
We created a solid infrastructure, a sound regulatory environment, and a reputable product that is respected internationally—whether it's insurance or financial services. The future is bright, and we must leverage that.
Charles Thresh: I see three recognisable phases: immediate emergency measures, contingency planning, and substantial ongoing fiscal stimulus by the government. Now that we have come out of the dark days, we are trying to claw our way back to normality and create something approaching sustainability.
But what does the new normal look like? What is the Bermuda economy going to look like and how many people do we need in Bermuda to sustain us for the long term?
The ideas that we are implementing right now are laying the foundations for what the new normal will look like. Issues such government investment in infrastructure to stimulate jobs in the economy, for example.
There is also the question of the Work from Bermuda certificate initiative. Is it an experiment? Will the public accept an influx of people? Will it have a trickle-down effect on the economy?
That requires an important dialogue between the private sector and the public sector. But I see many positives coming out of this situation.
Penny MacIntyre: As well as my real estate business I am the chair of the Bermuda Hospitals Charitable Foundation so I can see both sides of the COVID-19 equation—the general economy as it relates to real estate, and the health impact. We are all extremely grateful to the doctors, nurses and care providers who continue to keep us safe.
In terms of real estate, we are seeing a huge uplift; if you are not making money right now, you really should not be in real estate. Every single sector is packed.
The Work from Bermuda programme has taken up all the inventory that was available on the residential side and now we are struggling to find accommodation that manages the expectations of the international visitor.
Tourists are also staying longer, so they want to have a lifestyle component to match their expectations. They want to cook in their own homes and stay up to 180 days. Factor in the Work from Bermuda programme and it is easy to see why a lot of our sales listings are occupied.
People want to be on the water. They also want to have a certain image and are looking for more modern inventory. The hardest part for us is finding furnished properties.
On the sales side, the market has not been this active for more than a decade in terms of local buyers. Bermudians either think their home doesn't have enough space, or they have too much space and are thinking about selling or upscaling their home. Others are doing renovations.
We are getting a huge cross-section of activity and the international market is also very busy. People who are leaving the cities and seeking a new quality of life see us as an attractive proposition.
We are very safe, very civilised and business-orientated. We are attracting people on an international scale because they know that they can settle in, bring their families and potentially do business here.
Our commercial world is also busy. There are several startups, and many people are taking on office space so that they can achieve social distancing in their company. Others, who are continuing to work from home, decide they don't need as much space and cut costs as a business.
There are also clients who are acquiring commercial properties right now. So, in every aspect, we are flat out.
Fagundo: On the construction side, we are still seeing a fair amount of activity. There was quite a bump, particularly over the summer months when people who had set aside a budget for vacations decided to spend that money on improving their surroundings.
As a result, there was an increase in small renovations and more modest contractor-type work. But we have seen a continued interest in larger, investment-style properties and are bringing them up to speed.
WHERE ARE THE OPPORTUNITIES FOR BERMUDA IN THE POST-COVID WORLD?
Burrows: Greg talked about ILS, capital raising and new startups—and we are excited about them coming to the Island. We are also aware that the government is working on some new legislation that is going to have an impact on high net worths and family offices. It is likely that this will go through shortly, so people who are investing can also start thinking about coming here.
Others are using the domicile to move assets and create new opportunities for themselves. Once people are on the Island, they tend to wonder why they haven't been here before. They want to know how they can set up, live, work and enjoy themselves here with everything that is on offer.
Growth is happening in every line of business—the only challenge we face is how to make it even easier for people to come to the Island in the current circumstances. All the stakeholders I have been talking to recently are seeing growth in their businesses: new opportunities are arising, and referrals are coming to the Island in greater numbers.
We must accommodate growth, and we are doing that, but there are some infrastructure issues that we have to address and modernise if we are to take full advantage of the opportunities available—some of them are legislative, some relate to technology.
We are also seeing growth in the ESG space. People are looking at that side of things, and we need to make sure that we are sending the right messages to the global community about where we stand as a country and what we have to offer as it relates to sustainability and sustainable investing.
In short, I have a positive view on growth and how we can continue to facilitate and accommodate that growth.
Thresh: These are all great initiatives, but they are not going to move the dial in terms of repairing our balance of payments or reducing our government debt. I don't want to be a naysayer, I am hugely positive about Bermuda, but we need to find ways of attracting many more people and putting more bums on seats.
We have been the beneficiaries of a hardening market and the arrival of new startups. The key question is how many people they bring with them, and how can we make the case for much larger-scale head offices in Bermuda when everyone else is in a lower-cost jurisdiction.
There needs to be a compelling case for businesses to move to Bermuda. In the end, it's all about a close partnership between government and business, about what is sustainable. What can business tolerate in terms of expense loading and the tax burden?
There are good reasons why international business is here, but there is a tipping point beyond which companies cannot afford to keep people on the Island—especially when they have international shareholders who look at expense ratios.
We need to make sure that the cost of doing business in Bermuda is justifiable—and volume helps. The more people that are contributing to the economy, the lower the per-head tax. Anything we can do to liberalise our borders in terms of getting more people here is bound to be good for business.
If we can demonstrate the positive economic impact of more people being here, then maybe the public will accept a slightly more liberal immigration policy—so that it becomes politically acceptable to have 5,000 more people here in Bermuda, rather than only 500.
Burrows: If the government doesn't want to increase taxes, there needs to be more people on the Island. The government of course needs to consider the cost of more immigration and the cost of not doing it.
Clearly it is not sustainable to continue spending money without any source of revenue coming in. If you are not going to tax the Island's residents, that means attracting and welcoming in more people from elsewhere.
MacIntyre: Bermuda needs the kind of shot in the arm it had with the America's Cup in 2017, but it also needs companies to drive the headcount, the use of services, restaurants and so on. At the moment, we are benefiting because people can be outdoors and enjoy the fresh air—it's the health connection.
Once a vaccine is available and people feel that they can return to their homes, interest in coming to Bermuda may wane. We need to figure out a way of ensuring that Bermuda is a permanent draw for visitors.
Cooper: The government has been particularly good at short-term decision-making over the past year, but how do we develop on these advantages and make the positive impacts systemic?
How does the government encourage businesses to come to the Island and stay for the long term?
Wojciechowski: They say you should never waste a good catastrophe, whether it is a global financial crisis or a pandemic. I am encouraged by the tone and the tenor coming out of government in terms of immigration reform.
It is a highly emotive subject, and something that has always been a speed bump for this country. However, the government understands the revenue side of the balance sheet and there being limited ways of bringing additional money into this country.
We are relying on international business and we can promote other innovative ideas, but sustainability comes down to the number of people who are generating revenue for the government.
I have been encouraged by the discussions around immigration. While there may not be clearance for 5,000 people, it is our job as business leaders to continue to build the story of Bermuda.
There are inherent friction points such as costs, but Bermuda has been hugely successful being placed, very neatly, between two of the deepest capital markets and insurance markets in the world.
If Bermuda can continue to innovate in the financial services industry (including insurance and ILS), we will be OK.
At the moment, the BSX has a record number of listings in ILS. Despite a skeleton staff in the office, we have had a record year with about 94 percent of the global market cap outstanding of all ILS issuance listed in Bermuda.
We must continue to work together to create an environment that is conducive to innovation and bringing new business to the Island.
Another potential growth area is the digital asset space—cryptocurrency. Our new owners at the BSX are focused on this developing business and we must look at how we continue to innovate and evolve our offering as a domicile.
While we stay on the right side of regulatory standards, other jurisdictions that we compete with are having to face more significant challenges. This pandemic is a disruptor that will sharpen our focus, so we can fully determine what our value proposition is once again.
Huff: The next big economic pillar for Bermuda is not a new pillar, it is a related pillar. Many of the things we do well are connected, from captives to ILS to traditional insurance and reinsurance.
People say we need another golden goose, but we could simply make our current goose fatter. There are tremendous opportunities in three key areas.
First and foremost is climate change. President-elect Joe Biden's victory in the US Presidential election will change the approach to climate with our largest global trading partner.
The US federal reserve has said it is going to start a conversation about what climate means in terms of systemic risk. Those are opportunities for the Bermuda market because our legacy work of managing natural catastrophe risk in many ways positions Bermuda as a leader in managing climate risk.
Second, there is cyber risk. The book has not yet been written on cyber risk management and regulation, but COVID-19 has taught us there is more risk globally than we first imagined.
The regulations have not been documented and the aggregation methodology of risk has not been calculated. It is a great opportunity for companies who are doing these things correctly.
The third issue is capturing legacy run-off business, which is the hottest new thing in insurance and reinsurance right now. It's a capital management tool that allows existing companies to shed books of business.
Companies and startups using these tools are very sophisticated—they are well capitalised and it is going to be a strong area for Bermuda. Again, it is a related pillar, not a new pillar.
Wojciechowski: The other issue of focus for me is environment, society and corporate governance (ESG) factors. This is going to be a big thing over the next five to 10 years and we are focused on it at the BSX. With some ILS structures having demonstrated ESG-compliant features as securities, we can begin to unlock a new global demographic of investors with a focus on sustainability and driving a new source of capital into an already interesting and evolving market.
The history and story of Bermuda is strong and compelling, we just need to articulate it in the right way.
Huff: We were climate-aware before climate was cool. We were the original conservationists. And I was so thrilled to hear that the Bermuda government's first capital improvement project coming out of COVID-19 will involve taking advantage of our bountiful sunshine to provide solar power for government buildings.
It is a great project for Bermuda, and it is a great project for our global messaging.
Fagundo: When we look at government over the last nine months or so, part of its strength has been its relationship with the business community, with the Chamber of Commerce, with representation on the various committees and boards that are helping to shape strategies and make decisions.
Now that we are starting to see the economic impact of decreased revenues and increased debt load, it is particularly important for the government to recognise the single biggest contributor to the cost of living is the burden of paying for government.
While many aspects of that cost structure are external—be it importing food or importing fuel for energy—the one thing that is under our control is the cost of government.
It is very easy to say that Bermuda is expensive, but when you compare that to a big city such as London or New York, it is not as expensive as it might seem—which is important when people are choosing between Bermuda and another jurisdiction.
MacIntyre: The word "expensive" crops up when you are not getting value for your money. We have international clients who come here and remark that food is pricey, or service is substandard. But this is a mindset.
We want people who are eager to have a job and become ambassadors for Bermuda, so that they can deliver high levels of service. If not, you get complaints.
Fagundo: Focusing on the positive side, we have a beautiful product—and we can provide value. As the government moves forward, it is vital to bear in mind the role that it plays. There have been discussions about a more robust unemployment system and much has been made of downsizing government.
In fact, those two things go hand in hand, and you can finance a more robust social safety net that works for everybody—provided its development runs in tandem with rationalising the civil service and focusing on process improvements.
In turn, that should create a better service to the business community by making all interactions with government predictable and therefore faster.
Burrows: Infrastructure is part of the problem as well. We need to enhance our existing platform for doing business and move towards something that is technology-based. If we can get the infrastructure and the connectivity right, that would be important.
The Bermuda story is fantastic, but I think future growth is dependent on changes to the infrastructure or the modernisation of that infrastructure.
Jerome Wilson: We are seeing business as usual in my field, which means that companies are borrowing and taking action to advance the capital markets. Companies are acquiring other companies, and they are looking to position themselves ready for the time when the economies re-open without any restrictions.
Most of my clients in the US—and even in Europe—are now working from home. In Bermuda, there was a time when you only worked from home out of necessity, but that is changing.
Although the focus has been on getting people here and growing the economy, we must not forget that thousands of workers are already living and working here very successfully. For them, the question is what does a new work environment look like?
Also, why would people want to come to Bermuda right now? In the pandemic world there is a move towards the depopulation of urban centres. I am sure we all know people who used to live in big US conurbations but are now moving out to Pennsylvania, Connecticut, or other destinations away from the big cities.
Bermuda is also an option. It is close enough by time zone and by connections to the eastern US and has strong links to Europe too.
As the world evolves, I am not sure whether there will be a huge rush back to those urban centres. That is very hopeful from a Bermuda perspective, but the key point is that the government needs to be creative in its thinking.
It will need to take risks and put in place policies that are friendly towards those who are already living here, but also friendly to those who would like to come here and contribute to our community.
That is going to be important for the next 18 months or so. From my perspective, we are still seeing a lot of incorporations and structures being put in place (some of them relating to ILS). There is also optimism because companies have seen that COVID-19 is not necessarily a death knell to their businesses.
They have been able to move to online operations where necessary and have continued to service their customers. People are continuing to spend but they are simply changing their habits to suit the current climate.
If you look at the markets, most of the stocks that are performing well have some component involving people doing stuff from their homes. Or they are pharmaceutical stocks and things of that nature.
I think that optimism trickles down to our business and what we are doing too. It is a question of harnessing that energy and optimism so that we can plan.
That is going to be key for us as a jurisdiction, both in government and in the private sector—each acknowledging the role that the other has to play.
Wojciechowski: Bermuda is a small country and the government is still learning. It has never been challenged with a global catastrophe or an economic impact on this scale in recent history.
This is a 'work in progress', and we are not going to come up with all the answers overnight, but there must be a collaborative approach. From my experience of working with this current administration (as well as previous administrations), the government of this country understands where revenue is generated.
I also think that the government has a lot of respect for the professionals who operate in the different international business industry segments here.
There is a level of trust stemming from all the things that have been accomplished here including getting recognition from the NAIC in the US on our insurance supervision standards, becoming a full member of the World Federation of Exchanges, and having a seat on the international regulatory table on the BMA side.
I believe there is an inherent level of trust here between those who operate businesses, the policymakers and the government. And I think the industry understands that government does not create revenue or jobs.
Government has to be mindful of the circumstances that create a conducive environment for all business to flourish, and that has to be balanced against the community's desires and wishes—and in a smaller country, those desires and wishes become amplified and that translates into votes.
As I have said before, never waste a good catastrophe. It gets people focused on how to create innovative new solutions.
Bermuda provides a large amount of support globally to countries in their times of need, and it has not stalled in terms of solutions for development and innovation. Whether it is the captive insurance market, prominence in P&C or ILS, there is no doubt in my mind that there are enormous opportunities ahead.
ILS is an indication of what's to come when you start to see securitisation and transferring of risk. The global capital markets become highly interested in consuming that risk and the global insurance market can utilise this capital to narrow the global protection gap.
If we look at this through the domestic lens, we will always have challenges—every country does.
However, one of the things that gives us a tremendous tailwind is that we have decades of experience in specific and niche areas. That experience has given us the expertise and credibility to operate on a global scale—so our challenge is to leverage those attributes, drive innovation forward and keep Bermuda relevant in a changing world.
I would have a quite different approach if I were sitting in a jurisdiction that did not enjoy our legacy and world-class reputation. In short, the global capital markets have demonstrated that participants are quite comfortable with Bermuda. It would be genuinely concerning if we did not have a seat at those tables. But we do.
We must act maturely and continue to send out a message that Bermuda is managing this crisis. We also have to work hard and work together locally to ensure continuity, but we have the fuel and the capacity to move through these challenges.
Sometimes politics and democracy are not pretty, but we can deal with that. I believe we are going to come out of this in a stronger position because I do not see any of our competitors managing the situation as convincingly as Bermuda has done.
Huff: Bermuda deserves more credit for the stability of our government. If you look around the world, there is a tremendous amount of instability in the UK as they go through Brexit and some of their political challenges, while the post-election situation in the US is well documented.
In Bermuda, we have a strong government and a clear majority from the October 2020 election. Now it is our job to engage with that government for the benefit of the whole Island. We are sometimes harder on ourselves than the record reflects.
WHAT ARE YOUR FINAL THOUGHTS?
Fagundo: We have established strong foundations and the challenge is to build on them and move forward. Sometimes the work is being done quietly, at other times it is in the public domain, but we are making progress.
The government is listening, and it is up to all of us to grab those opportunities, remain optimistic and move forward.
Huff: I would add that Bermuda offers the opportunity to work collaboratively along all lines of business, and (more importantly) at all levels of business and government. You can be in an elevator with a global CEO who is having a conversation with a member of the catering staff.
We sometimes take that closeness and transparency for granted, but Bermuda is such a unique place in which to do business—and much of that success is down to its size and the ability to collaborate.
MacIntyre: We are in the business of selling vision and optimism, so it is really important to continue with that message, whether we're talking about it locally or internationally. We always speak about the opportunities that Bermuda presents, but people have not had a proper chance to sample what we have to offer.
We are in that teaser phase right now, so we must do a good job of teasing the audience, and then let them do the work. As soon as they start to enjoy living and doing business here, they are the best people to advertise and market Bermuda for us—because they will tell others how great it is.
When the new normal kicks in, we will see more people coming here to experience what the Island has to offer.
We must start doing things on the same scale as global businesses. Once visitors arrive here, they should expect the same internet speeds and every bit of technology working seamlessly (no pixelation on video calls, for example).
Once the technology and infrastructure have caught up, we can make further investments and hope it pays off for us beyond COVID-19.
Cooper: We should remember the importance of the life insurance and reinsurance sector to the Bermuda economy.
It has been a bit quieter than the P&C and SPI industry, but it has continued to grow this year despite COVID. We have seen new registrations during 2020 and increased deal flow.
Bermuda is in a fantastic position right now in terms of the global economy, so we need to monetise that and keep the foundation going for as long as possible.
Our aim is to help encourage new businesses across all sectors into Bermuda, creating new jobs and redeploying economic activity throughout the Island.
Thresh: I see a closer alignment between all sectors of business and the government than I have ever seen before. COVID-19 has been a massive shock to the system, but it also provides a platform to look again at some of our established truths.
I love ESG, but we can now see it through refreshed eyes and consider the direct impact of new people on the Island.
We should consider if that can yield some liberalisation around immigration. In short, there is great alignment going forward and I remain optimistic.
Burrows: At the BDA, we continue to facilitate engagement between the private sector and the public sector—and vice versa.
We hear both sides of the conversation and can rely on the insights to ensure there is a mutual understanding of what's needed in order to be successful.
I am extremely optimistic about the future. I would embrace everything that has been said, but I do think there is a short window—probably 12 months—in which we need to move aggressively in order to take full advantage of the opportunities that are there and to put Bermuda in the best possible position to drive growth.
Originally Published by Bermuda Finance Magazine
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