There is nothing like a cold snap to focus the mind and it certainly arrived with a bang this year. In Rome we lost about 20 degrees of temperature in a week. However, I have to confess that I am rather glad that the autumn months are now upon us because the prolonged hot temperatures play havoc with trying to be productive.
In this article, as you will see, there are a number of shorter topics, but ones which I think are relevant for our lives in Italy. During the summer I have been scanning the financial papers and the ‘norme e tributi’ pages of Sole 24 Ore to see what might affect our lives in the future. Fortunately, the Italian government seemed to give us a break this year and I didn’t find much of significant interest. However, a number of other matters have arisen in the last few weeks
UK pensions and tax when living in Italy
Let’s start with one of the more interesting matters that arose during the summer. I was contacted by a client who was enquiring about taking money out of her QROPS pension (a QROPS is a UK pension that has been moved away from the UK but still operates like a UK pension – useful when living abroad!).
I have always advised my clients that any withdrawals from a UK personal pension are taxed at income tax rates in Italy, but over the last few years I have come across a number of clients whose commercialista has been declaring the pension as a ‘previdenza complementare’. This is the Italian equivalent of a UK personal pension. The main reason for choosing this route seemed to be a preferential flat tax rate of 15%. My argument has always been that the 2 structures have fundamentally different characteristics and therefore a UK personal pension should be considered an irrevocable trust, hence withdrawals are subject to income tax. In fact as far back as June 2018 I wrote the following in an article:
I have heard stories from various people over the years that their commercialisti declare their UK pensions as ‘previdenza complementare‘, which loosely translated means complementary pension. However, the definition does not accurately complete the story. The reason for declaring it in this manner is that it is taxed at a preferential tax rate of 15%.
I must admit here that I don’t think is the correct way of declaring income from an overseas pension / retirement plan. The ‘previdenza complementare‘ is a vehicle used in Italy to complement the pension which is offered through Italian social security (INPS). You may argue that this has the same purpose as that of an overseas pension fund. However, this is where the similarities end.
In the case of a UK pension fund your contributions would attract tax relief during the accumulation phase. In the ‘previdenza complementare‘ (PC) the fund is taxable during the accumulation phase. The UK scheme is also not linked to the state scheme in any way and you can withdraw money from age 55 (personal pension) or scheme retirement age (occupational pension). The PC is linked to the Italian state retirement age. Lastly, since the contributions into a UK fund are paid gross into the plan, then the income is instead taxed on the way out, at the normal rates. The Italian PC has a preferential rate of taxation starting at 15% and reducing to 9% depending on how many years you have been contributing to the fund, because it is taxed during the accumulation phase. In short there are some distinct differences which lead me to believe that declaring a pension fund / retirement fund (which is a trust) as a ‘previdenza complementare’ in Italy, is incorrect. If you are in doubt then speak with your commercialista.
In a lot of cases I was informed that the commercialista had contacted the local Agenzia delle Entrate and they had confirmed that this is correct. So, who was I to challenge it? However, I still believed that it was incorrect. Of course, no-one challenged it because it also meant the difference between being paying a 15% flat tax rate on that income or progressive income tax rates starting from 23%.
However, during the summer the client I referred to above contacted her commercialista, who did not accept this definition, but in fact presented an ‘interpello’ issued by the Agenzia delle Entrate (an interpello is basically an ‘opinion’ from the Agenzia delle Entrate on a specific case that is presented to them) from May 2020 regarding a UK personal pension holder.
In the interpello (which you can find HERE – the interesting part starts on page 7) it indicates that a UK personal pension should not be considered a ‘previdenza complementare’, but should actually be subject to progressive tax rates in Italy. This is quite an eye-opener because if this is the case, then it flies against the information gained from various commercialisti.
I should add here that the interpello is merely an indicative judgment in this particular case and is by no means a definitive decision for everyone holding a UK personal pension and resident in Italy. However, the fact that the AdE has gone to the trouble to write this gives us a pretty good idea into their thinking, should they choose to follow it up.
What to do?
So what should you do if your commercialista has advised you to declare your UK personal pension as a ‘previdenza complementare’ and you are now benefitting from the 15% flat tax rate? I would take the interpello to them and ask their opinion based on the new evidence. Or you may choose to do nothing. Whatever your choice or the advice from the commercialista, we are now a little more enlightened into the thoughts of the Agenzia delle Entrate on this topic.
It is worth noting here that Brexit is almost upon us and whatever your opinion as to how the UK will exit, a messy unfriendly exit may bring a few matters to light. In particular, the interpello also states that pension funds which ‘could’ be deemed to qualify are those which conduct business cross border and meet the pension rules of both EU states in which they are operating. I don’t know of a UK personal pension provider that does this anyway, but the mere fact that the UK is in the EU may gloss over some of these finer points. But then, what will happen once the UK leaves the EU?
Which leads nicely on to the next problem that Brits are now facing in Italy.
Bank account closures for UK citizens living in the EU
By now, I am sure you have read the headlines saying that a number of UK banks are contacting or have contacted their customers living in the EU to close down their UK banks accounts, potentially leaving them without a UK account. To date the main culprits are the Lloyds banking group, which includes Halifax and the Royal Bank of Scotland, Coutts and Barclays.
I am afraid to say that the rumours are true and I know of a number of people who have been contacted already.
The culprit, of course, is Brexit…
These banks have now had to weigh up the benefits of retaining bank account holders in the EU post Brexit, because once they out of the EU market place they will be forced to adhere to individual EU jurisdictional regulations, as well as UK regulations, if they want to continue to service clients in any EU state. Clearly, for a bank which has no intention of developing business in Italy (in our case), nor does it have a sufficiently large client base in Italy already, then they are going to need to look to close down activities in those jurisdictions to ensure they do not fall foul of the regulators.
It is interesting that, in contrast, HSBC Bank has not decided to pull from its EU markets because it has sufficient activities which take place throughout the EU. I have also heard that Nationwide is also not pulling any activities just yet.
For many clients this is going to be a very tough time, as you could lose a bank account in the UK when you may still have bills being paid, or you simply use it when you are in the UK. To make matters worse, because you are no longer a resident in the UK, you can no longer request an account from another UK banking group.
Many of the groups will also offer their international bank account services, of which the majority are based in the Isle of Man. This is not a good idea because the Isle of Man is not in the UK, but is a UK dependant territory and is deemed a fiscal paradise. It is currently on the grey list of ‘could do better’ in global fiscal transparency with the EU. It is anyone’s guess what will happen after the UK leaves the EU, but it is certainly not beyond imagination that the EU will look to impose punitive tax measures for anyone holding accounts in UK offshore jurisdictions. Let’s not forget that it only came off the black list in 2015!
So, without any other options perhaps one of the better solutions is to look at an Italian bank which can provide a GBP account. I have used Fineco for years, and recommend it to many clients. They offer a EUR current account linked to a GBP and USD account and transfers of cash between accounts are made at spot rate, with no fee. It might be a solution, but will be no consolation for losing your UK bank account. Once again, another downside of Brexit for those of us that have chosen to live in the EU.
Why you should never leave more than €100,000 (or currency equivalent) in your bank account
Still on the subject of banking, does the sound of a bad bank sound appealing to you? A bank that is so bad that it can take all the bad from all the other banks and just keep it there and away from us all. It sounds like a great idea in theory.
On the 25th September the EU had a consultation round table event with a number of European bank leaders, asset management groups and government officials to discuss the possibility of creating a European-wide ‘bad bank’ which would take all that bad debt (debt which cannot be paid back for one reason or another) and which is currently sat on the balance sheets of a lot of European banks, particularly Italian ones and other Southern European states. The idea being that this bad debt could be whisked away from the banks, freeing them up from the worry of having to manage this debt and giving them the liberty to start lending once again, supposedly to individuals and businesses which pose a better credit risk and would be more reliable at paying the debt back.
So far so good. I would not argue at this point. It seems like a good idea to help stimulate economies especially after the COVID-19 crisis.
But morally, should we accept this?
This is the argument put forward by a number of EU functionaries who argue that the banks are, once again, getting another bail out at the cost of the taxpayer. You and I.
To remedy this, the ‘Bank recovery and resolution directive’ (BRRD) has proposed that certain parties should also have to meet some of that cost as well as the EU/taxpayer. Those parties have been identified as the shareholders of the bank, holders of the banks bonds and lastly, the one that should interest us all: deposit holders with more than €100,000 or currency equivalent held in any banking group. Does this mean that the EU, to fund the COVID-19 crisis, could make a cash grab on deposit holders with more than €100,000 or currency equivalent in their accounts? At this point it is only a proposal, but I shall be watching this space carefully.
Based on this news, there is probably no better time to look at your financial plans closely, especially if you are holding high levels of cash in any banks around Europe.
NS&I slashes rates!
You might be someone who has been investing in NS&I products in the UK as a diversifier to your other holdings, or maybe just someone who likes to ‘play it safe’ with your money.
National Savings and Investments, NS&I, are backed by the UK government and due to the COVID-19 crisis, the government has now moved to slash rates on all national savings products to the point where you have to ask yourself, ‘are they worth it?’
The rate on the Direct Saver account has been slashed from 1% interest per annum to just 0.15%. Income Bonds, which have for a long time been considered a best buy, have been slashed from 1% interest rate to just 0.01% pa.
Not only that, but the average interest rate on Premium Bonds (with the chance to win the big prize) will fall from 1.4% to just 1% and the amount of prizes issued will be reduced significantly.
If that is not enough, the Bank of England is also toying with the idea of introducing a negative base interest rate. If they apply that to the NS&I products, then you will be effectively paying the government to hold them.
Time to consider alternatives to protect your capital?
Cashback for cashless transactions
Italy has been desperately trying to find ways for the people to start using digital forms of payment instead of cash so that the economy can become more fiscally transparent and they can raise more tax revenue.
By the end of November we will have confirmation on the new push to drive people towards using digital methods of payments in Italy, even for small transactions, such a buying coffee at the bar. The Italian government has come up with an idea to incentivise the drive to digital forms of payment.
Firstly, from next year the maximum spend on contactless forms of payment will rise from €30 to €50.
In addition, they have dreamt up another seemingly difficult to navigate proposal for a refund of expenses paid by card payments. I will have a go at deciphering it here:
1. You will get a 10% reimbursement on expenses paid up to a maximum spend of €3000 per annum (hence a tax refund of max €300 pa).
2. But, to achieve this you must make a minimum of 50 transactions every 6 months (100 every year) and the €3000 is in fact split into a spend of a maximum of €1500 every 6 months. The idea being that you can’t just go and spend on something costing €1500 every 6 months or a series of high value items to reach the limit.
To receive the refund you will need to register on the app and enter your codice fiscale, and your debit/credit card details.
3. Not only are they offering cash back on transactions but they are discussing a ‘super cashback’ prize of €3000 for the first 100,000 people who reach the maximum number of digital transactions in a year, within the limits provided above.
Certainly food for thought. Watch out for confirmation of these offers sometime before the end of November and then start registering to get your cashback. In theory it should be easy, but based on previous experience of Italian government initiatives I fear it may turn out to be more complicated than first glance.
I hoped you have enjoyed this ‘return to normality’ article. I will be sending out more information in the coming weeks and months to keep you up to speed with the goings on in the financial world and how that might impact our lives in Italy.