A well-known figure in private offshore banking shares his views with us on the potential impact of COVID-19 on the global banking system as well as current investor sentiment. Luigi Wewege, Senior Vice President and Head of Private Banking at Caye International Bank in Belize discussed the situation with reference to several scenarios that investors could and should anticipate.
Regarding liquidity and stress tests, Wewege says that “Overall, United States and European based banks have showed reasonable improvement since the last financial crisis around 2008 however Europeans in particular do remember what happened with bail-ins and bailouts so you do see a lot of investor concern with what the European Central Bank might do next.”
When asked about some of the biggest concerns facing investors, Luigi noted that “There has been huge inflows of capital into the USA during the Trump administration. But now, people are a bit concerned about how far FEMA measures will go. People who have put large portfolios in either the USA or Europe are rethinking whether their safe-haven decision was the correct one. The Fitch Ratings agency already warned that the Italian banking system may struggle to cope with the fallout of the Coronavirus – and yes, it was not in a particularly good shape even prior to this. You also have countries like Greece that risks sliding straight back into a deep recession. So overall, investors do feel uneasy about the EU and US right now.” He went on to explain the various indicators that were taken into consideration during February plus March 2020 and said “Bank shares in Europe and the United States saw a very sharp repricing and decline. Government bond yields are falling, with US corporate high yields shooting up. This all shows that investor confidence in the global financial system has been shaken.”
Elaborating more on the scenario in Europe, Wewege believes “With such a substantial socio-economic shock unfolding in front of us, the brightest of financial analysts find it hard to see how Banks in the most affected European countries can maintain good assets and earnings. If repayment of loans ceases in the case of many European families – toxic assets becomes a big risk to them very quickly.”
About IMF policies during these challenging times, Luigi says “In fairness, the International Monetary Fund acted quickly to help countries during the time of Ebola, but that was a much smaller issue than what we face today. We know that given the huge spike in uncertainty that some in the IMF are proposing that there is a consensus worldwide to have a common monetary policy – and that will hopefully prevent a scenario where some currencies end up being the losers in Black Swan events. Yet all these instruments have their limits and at some point, it will come right back to the question of liquidity. That’s precisely why so many middle income to HNWI’s have allocated a decent portion of their portfolios to offshore banks that do not face the same exposure and risk that European and USA based banks do.”
Wewege went on to explain common risks that each individual country may face in the immediate future and aftermath of COVID-19: “A reduction in revenue and productivity may affect many countries – it is already doing so with disrupted supply chains and right now more borders are shutting. Then we have crippled public health systems in Europe who will need to consume a lot of public funds/stimulus in order to continue. Then off course there is one word that scares just about every European country and US state: Tourism. It is an important sector that is showing early signs of major strain that will likely continue for many more months. All these risks add up and will cause great strain on the global economy for the duration of 2020 and possibly even into 2021.”
On the ongoing appeal for offshore banking, Luigi says “Investors from all over the world gained a lot of respect for jurisdictions, like ours in Belize, where our banks were largely untouched by the 2008 financial recession. And yes – they certainly remember what happened to some large banks in Europe and the USA at the time and thus feel the writing is on the wall, whether it is indeed the case or not. Although we cannot predict accurately what the state of the global banking system will hold especially in Western countries, we can see a clear shift towards diversification and the start of more deposit inflow at offshore financial institutions like ours in Belize.”
Some may argue that the Dodd-Frank law that was passed in 2010 rendered the United States a less of a risk today than it was around 2008 and doomsayers who closely watch the Italian, French and Greek economies may have a point that the worst is still to come. Ultimately, these are very challenging times and to some extent, unchartered territory for the global financial system dealing with the Coronavirus pandemic.
The Perfect Investment: RAD Diversified and Income-Producing Farms
Amidst the global lockdown of 2020, Dutch Mendenhall, founder of RADD America, began looking for an alternative to standard residential real-estate investments. So, he turned his analysis to farms and was blown away by the immense potential he saw. After going public in late 2019, RADD America purchased US farmland and made slices of the real estate available at minimum investments of $10,000.
Income-producing farms vs. other real estate asset classes
According to Mendenhall, an apartment complex in today’s US real estate market commands approximately a 4% or 5% cap rate. Farms offer somewhere around a 15% to 20% cap rate.
“When I first began looking at investing in farms, I compared each acre to an apartment or housing unit,” Mendenhall recalls. “The variety that income-producing farms provide is what I really love about them as an opportunity. With one season producing wheat and corn the next, you can double tap — you can raise livestock on top of agriculture. Putting money into the farm only pays off in time. Everything from improving soil to increasing irrigation makes a major impact on potential income, and so much of America’s farmland has fallen into disrepair during the last 20 years.”
When Mendenhall began investing during the early days of the pandemic, sustainable acres of producing farmland sold anywhere from $3,500 to $5,000. Today, he finds that income-producing acres of farmland easily sell for $9,500 to $10,000.
“I’ve seen farmland values almost double during the last couple of years,” Mendenhall says. “Currently, we’re in Tennessee, Arkansas, and Idaho, but we are analyzing land all over America. What reports don’t show is the difference between a properly maintained acre of farmland and an acre that is in disarray. There’s only so much workable farmland on the market today. We’ve hit the tipping point, and now, there’s a scarcity of land for people to buy. If you have the opportunity to purchase amazing agricultural land, you have to pull the trigger quickly.”
Income-producing farms as an asset class
Mendenhall is no stranger to investors. Since 2006, he’s connected them to deals in short sales, wholesaling, residential properties, and storage units, though he admits that every asset class has caused the same excitement as farmland. “At this point, we can’t find enough bargains for our investors,” he says. “They take real pride in their investments and keep asking us for more.”
RADD America takes a true grassroots approach when connecting its investors to farmland. “The farming world is different from any other in real estate,” explains Mendenhall. “We start by having our acquisitions and agricultural teams meet with farmers. When we get ready to brand cattle or plant, all the local farmers come and help. In the same spirit, our teams go out and help the local farmers when it’s their turn to brand and plant. To do it right, you have to build a relationship and a connection that’s quite different than other types of investing.”
RADD America is composed of expert investors and expert farmers. The company offers its investments through fractionalized ownership. In other words, the company purchases one farm and then allows a joint pool of investors to own it together.
“If you don’t have a team that knows how to farm and maximize income, you’re not going to get the best possible return for investors,” warns Mendenhall. “Thankfully, our team isn’t so big for this type of investing that we forget who we are, and we have the economy to scale at a great pace.”
The impact of global competition on income-producing farm investments
RADD America closely monitors global trends. In Mendenhall’s experience, investors win when they move before the market. However, when they move after the market, they lose.
“When Russian first invaded and sparked its war with Ukraine, for example, we kept a close eye on its global impact,” he says. “As one of the largest producers of wheat in the world, we knew that Ukraine — now in the midst of a war — wasn’t going to be able to produce wheat at the same scale, so someone else needs to step in and fill the gap. We’re constantly monitoring what’s happening in the world to stay on top of evolving trends.”
In terms of global competition, Mendenhall is frustrated by foreign entities staking ownership of American farmland and agriculture. In this area, China has positioned itself as the number one threat to the sovereignty of the United States.
“When foreign powers have ownership of agricultural land in the US, it puts us all at risk as Americans,” remarks Mendenhall. “Over the past few years, we’ve seen soil quality erode, closures of meatpacking plants, and numerous fires. The likelihood of nuclear war in this age is very small. The quiet war of buying American agriculture and unsettling the American dollar is the threat we face today.”
Clearly, RADD America has a lot to pay attention to at home and abroad. “We’re monitoring weather patterns and making one-year, three-year, and five-year predictions,” Mendenhall explains. “We’re also paying close attention to interest rates to see where this shifting economy is headed. The up-and-down cycles are faster than they’ve ever been. Monitoring the industry is critical. With expert investors and agricultural specialists from RADD America on your team, farmland can be one of your most promising and rewarding investment opportunities.”
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