Bright Bermuda Sun Shines On Trusts as Well as Tourists

Global business is 'second pillar' of island economy; a Hong Kong influx

When Madeline Joell was growing up in Bermuda, she never could have imagined her career path, which has led from a hotel reservation desk to an executive office in a global insurance firm.

Her professional development mirrors that of this ocean outpost.

For decades, Bermuda's 22 square miles have basked under the tropical sun of tourism.

But, especially in the last 10 years, this fishhook-shaped string of islands has become a major angler in global business.

Now Bermuda means international banking as well as pink sand beaches; reinsurance as well as golf, tennis, and scuba diving; a growing stock exchange as well as pastel houses with ridged, rain-gathering roofs.

International business contributes as much foreign currency to the nation's economy - about $500 million - as does tourism. Of Bermuda's 34,000 workers, about 10 percent are in global business.

Moreover, business activity stands to benefit from the impending transfer of Hong Kong to Chinese rule in 1997. The transition is motivating many Hong Kong companies to establish Bermuda ties.

"Some 45 percent of companies on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange are registered in Bermuda," says Finance Minister E. Grant Gibbons. The two islands share British law and accounting practices. With 500 employees in Hong Kong, the privately owned Bank of Bermuda is encouraging Hong Kong companies to list also on the Bermuda Stock Exchange. What's more, individuals in Hong Kong are setting up private accounts to secure personal assets.

Bermuda's most prominent financial sector, however, is insurance. The island is a world leader in this area.

"This is a thriving industry, very much on a growth curve," says Ms. Joell, who is vice president of marketing at ACE Insurance Company, a top provider of high-level excess-liability insurance. Since the mid-1970s, the number of Bermuda-based insurance and reinsurance companies has tripled to 1,400.

Faced with stiff competition for tourist dollars, the island is determined to maintain its high living standards. Unlike the Caribbean islands to the south, Bermuda boasts a large middle class, high per-capita income of nearly $33,000, and a low unemployment rate of about 4 percent, says Finance Minister Gibbons.

Recently, both of this economy's "two pillars" have launched advertising campaigns.

The global-business sector, for now, is forging ahead more steadily than tourism. In addition to insurance, the island is home to mutual funds, individual and institutional trusts, foreign-sales corporations (tax-sheltered subsidiaries of US exporters), banks, and firms that lease and register aircraft or ships.

But "unless tourism is robust, we can't attract international business," says Wendy Davis Johnson, executive director of the Bermuda International Business Association, a marketing and lobbying group representing 40 companies.

In addition to the Hong Kong connection, business and government leaders here point to several advantages Bermuda offers as an "offshore" jurisdiction (whose legal environment is designed to attract foreign financial business):

Political stability. This is the second-oldest parliamentary democracy, after England. It has AA credit ratings from Moody's Investors Service and Standard & Poor's Corp.

Bermuda also chose, in a 1995 referendum on independence, to retain its 400-year status as a British colony. The 3-to-1 vote pleased business interests, which see the connection providing both security and enhanced access to an important British market.

Infrastructure. The island has skilled legal, accounting, and bank professionals. Advanced communications technology, including fiber-optic links to Europe and America, supports the world's highest telephone usage per capita, Gibbons says. Airline and hotel services are exceptional. And Hamilton even has parallel streets.

Tax advantages. Bermuda imposes no stamp duties or capital-gains or income taxes - a policy set to continue at least to 2016.

Developable land. The closing of US, Canadian, and British military bases is returning 10 percent of the island's land mass to Bermuda control. Premier David Saul calls it "the biggest boon of the century."

Offsetting the loss of 500 jobs and $50 million in foreign currency, he explains, is 900 acres of land that can be developed for recreation, or new industries. Potentially, 3,000 new jobs could result.

"Electronic data deposits and telecommunications are likely to be winners," Mr. Saul predicts, offering a potential "third pillar" to Bermuda's economy.

Regulation. "There is sometimes a sense that offshore centers are not always careful, so it is very important to us to know our customers and provide an environment that is credible and first-rate," Gibbons says.

"Those in the business," says Premier Saul, "have more than a passing interest that the legislation is tough and rigorous. We now have an insurance business that rivals, and complements, New York and London."

Brian Hall, chairman of a government-appointed insurance advisory commission, says regulations are now both credible and flexible.

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