Alternative Investment: Non-Financial Alternative Investments

by the Investors Offshore Editorial Team, March 2012, 30 March, 2012

The ideal tax shelter traditionally turned income into capital without taxation. Such mythical beasts used to exist in no-tax offshore jurisdictions, but they were not usually to be found in high-tax countries, and when sighted were rapidly hunted down by heavily armed tax inspectors.

Most governments do however provide tax-friendly regimes to support particular economic activities they regard as beneficial, or alternatively allow tax-planning to continue if it delivers a public benefit. Forestry falls into both these categories: everyone loves trees, which are seen as environmentally valuable, provide recreational amenities, are beautiful, and even have a useful product. Many countries therefore offer tax-breaks to investors in forestry, or allow tax-efficient forestry investment to continue. What could be greener?

The basic tax equation with a forest is that you have to maintain it over a long period, during which the costs involved (often including the financial carrying cost of the investment) are deductible from taxable income. Yet there is no income from the forest until it matures, perhaps after 30 or more years. Then it can either be sold for a lump capital sum, or cropped over a period of time to provide an income. At the minimum, payment of tax will have been shifted many years into the future; at best, tax will be payable at a far lower rate than would have been due on the original income.

Although forestry investment is somewhat unusual at the moment, there is evidence that the number of investors acquiring timberland solely for investment purposes has risen quite dramatically in recent years. This form of investment usually provides competitive returns, low risks, and is an effective diversification from financial assets. Several studies have shown that timberland returns are not correlated, or are negatively correlated with returns of financial assets such as stocks and bonds, and that the inclusion of timberland in a portfolio of financial assets can therefore reduce the volatility of portfolio returns.

Between 1988 and 2003, annual returns from timberland reached 15%, according to the NCREIF Timberland Property Index, outpacing both the bond and equity markets. The market continued to improve during the decade: in 2008 investment returns from the tax-privileged UK forestry industry outperformed domestic commercial property and equities, producing a positive annual total return of 7.0%, according to according to the IPD UK Forestry Index; while the NCREIF Timberland Property Index showed returns of 17.45% and 9.24% in 2007 and 2008 respectively.

However, the performance of the forestry sector has lately been much lower than the record levels seen in 2006 and 2007The fall in timber prices, by 28.5% in the 12 months to March 2009, was the key driver behind lower returns, and after the NCREIF Timberland Index lost 4.55% in the fourth quarter of 2009 returns equaled a meagre 0.35% in 2010 and 1.57% in 2011.

There are, nevertheless, encouraging signs that the longer term trend of healthy annual returns will be maintained in the years ahead, mainly due to soaring demand for wood products from key emerging economies like China and Russia. China's imports of logs, lumber, woodchips and pulp hit record levels in 2011 while figures from Wood Resources Quarterly predicted that 2011 exports of softwood lumber from the US and Canada to China would also reach a new record at around double the USD1.3bn worth of softwood products exported from the two countries in 2010. In the meantime, timber prices in the UK rose by 38% in 2011. And as demand for wood products from certain countries grows, concerns about deforestation have caused an increasing share of the world's native forests to be set aside for conservation, meaning that the forces of supply and demand are only likely to force timber prices up in the future.

However, there is a downside. Investment in forestry is relatively illiquid, and the holding period required to optimise returns will usually be quite long (10 years is considered a reasonable period). Timberland investment therefore makes sense only for investors looking to the long term; although the rewards can be worth waiting for, wait you must…

There are two main risks inherent in this type of investment, and these are:

1)Market Risk: There is a danger that 'stumpage' prices (the price paid by loggers for wood on the stump) may be depressed at the proposed time of harvest, or that prices might increase at a slower rate than general inflation. However, the good thing about forestry investment for those not in a hurry, is that trees, unlike many other crops, do not need to be harvested at a particular time. They can simply stay on the stump and continue biological growth until the markets are more attractive.
2)Natural Risks. These include things such as fire, storm losses, insects, etc. Other than insuring where you can, there ain't a lot you can do about these factors, other than make sure before you are committed to an investment that the area in which you are planning to invest is not particularly prone to natural disasters and acts of God! 

However, compared to the roller-coaster volatility of hedge fund investing, and trading in equities and derivatives, this type of investment may sound like a walk in the park, and if you are using forestry investment to diversify your portfolio, you may welcome the change of pace.

Although the details differ from company to company, and scheme to scheme, there are basically two different ways to invest in forestry - directly or indirectly. Indirect investment involves buying shares in an established forestry investment company, whereas direct investment involves purchase and direct ownership of the land, and timber grown on that land, by an individual or partnership.

There is, as always, due diligence to be done before you make any decisions, and below are some of the areas you might like to look into before you invest:

Many forestry investment schemes welcome international and expatriate investment with open arms, and as well as the tax benefits which international investors may be able to accumulate to be claimed against the income at harvest, forestry investment in some countries, for example Panama and New Zealand, can be used to support an application for residency. To conclude, then, if you are looking for a long-term investment (for example to supplement retirement income), or would like an alternative way of acquiring permanent resident status in a country, forestry investment may be the way to go.

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AnchorReal Estate

Another possible avenue (if you'll pardon the pun!) for the international expat with a reasonably long-term investment horizon to explore is international real estate investment. Real estate can be purchased in many forms, and has traditionally been sold as an investment for income and long-term gain, as well as a hedge against inflation and stock market volatility.

If you are in the right place at the right time, investing in real estate can be one of the most profitable and enjoyable forms of medium to long term investment there is. Depending on your circumstances, international real estate investment may prove preferable, for a number of reasons, despite the additional challenges it can sometimes pose. Diversifying your investment portfolio by buying property in several different countries, for example, can help to cushion you against downturns in any one particular market. Even if you cannot afford to do this, you may find that you will be able to snap up an incomparable bargain in an up-and-coming country which would never have been available in your country of residence. (Unless you happen to have the good fortune to be resident in a newly popular emerging market country, of course!)

For the last three years, of course, the air has been rapidly leaking from the global housing bubble. Beginning with the US, as has been demonstrated time and again with deflating asset bubbles, a wave of price falls has spread around the world, attacking in turn each of the countries which had seen particularly aggressive house price rises. Despite appearances, however, there is no demonstrable direct relationship between house prices in the USA, UK, Spain, Dubai or Australia for example, other than the impact of global wealth and global 'feel good' sentiment. Certainly these factors were what drove the upward spiral of real estate prices during the 15-year long boom that ended in 2008, and it is now their absence that is driving the downward spiral. Look more closely, though, which is what any aspiring real estate investor must do, and local circumstances can be seen to have had a major impact on the extent of the boom, and now, the extent of the bust.

It cannot be denied that the latest boom in house prices has been unprecedented in both its extent and international synchronicity, enduring even through a brief period of economic recession in the United States. From 1997 to 2005, house prices escalated by 154% in the United Kingdom, 192% in Ireland, 145% in Spain, 114% in Australia and a stunning 244% in South Africa. Even in the United States, which for years consistently denied the existence of a national housing market or the growing danger of a real estate bubble, prices rose by 73% in the same period – a boom unparalleled at any time since the end of the Second World War. Only in Hong Kong among major jurisdictions did prices fall in that period, by 43%, a testament to the importance of local market factors (and as prices continued to fall or stagnate in the major markets, Hong Kong witnessed something of a property boom, with prices hitting a 13-year peak in March 2011), although they also more or less went sideways in Germany.

The recent worldwide upward trend was fuelled to some extent by a sustained period of low interest rates. Between 1990 and 2004, the average base interest rate in the United States and its twelve main trading partners fell from 13% to 4.4%. This was of particular significance in the housing markets of Ireland and Spain which had to accept a sharp drop in interest rates after entering the European Monetary Union. Coupled with the growing availability of credit and rising real incomes in most industrialised countries over the last decade, plenty of fuel was thus provided to power demand in the housing market across most of the developed world.

Still, interest rates do not tell the whole story of what happened in the global housing market. According to some economists, the boom had no basis at all in economic fundamentals, and was being driven purely by a similar “irrational exuberance” to that which characterised the stock market bubble in the late 1990s. In other words, houses were being viewed increasingly by people as a short-term money-making vehicle rather than a mere a dwelling or long-term asset to bequeath the next generation.

Despite constant warnings that the enduring boom was unsustainable, and that allowing it to continue was increasing the chances of catastrophic collapse, politicians paid no attention (they never pay attention to anything except opinion polls and the next election) and allowed the toxic mess that was the sub-prime mortgage market to reach unsustainable proportions.

There has been cause for optimism in some markets, but uncertainty is still very much the watchword with regards real estate. The Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) concluded in its European Housing Review in February 2012 that while prices across the continent are generally stable, there are no signs of a recovery on the horizon.

In 2011, prices in most European housing markets were flat or declined moderately. The most notable exceptions were Switzerland, Norway, Iceland and France, where house prices experienced increases of more than 5%. Meanwhile Ireland, Spain and Cyprus registered again the sharpest falls, as a result of their severe new supply overhangs and economic problems.

RICS's research shows a dramatic fall in the number of homes being built since 2007 across much of Europe, including in those markets with no supply overhang. Spain (-89 per cent) and Ireland (-86 per cent) registered the sharpest declines in residential building permits being granted, with only Switzerland experiencing an increase in the last five years.

Moreover, the deep economic downturn and especially the eurozone debt crisis forced banks to pull back their mortgage lending by the end of 2011, which is serving to prolong the market stagnation. And with weaker economic growth and cutbacks in state expenditure, less confidence was observed in Europe’s residential markets at year end.Markets are also likely to be very sensitive to any increases in interest rates, which have been slashed in many countries.

The report's author, Professor Michael Ball, said: “Outside of a few countries, house prices in 2011 were relatively stable across Europe and in the absence of new dramatic turmoil, major falls are not expected in the months to come. However, after five years of European housing downturn, full recovery is not on the horizon. The future of the housing market in Europe will clearly depend on a good supply of mortgage credit and the ability to cope with the economic and financial crisis in the Eurozone. But on-going austerity measures are not helping to ease the situation. Public intervention today is more likely to undermine, rather than stimulate, the residential market.”

The situation in the United States is not much better. While the National Association of Realtors (NAR) said that pending homesales continued on an upward trend in January 2012, suggesting that confidence was returning to the market, the Obama Administration's Housing Scorecard for February dampened expectations of a bounce by stressing that the recovery remains fragile. Currently, one-in-five American homeowners are in negative equity, and this "lasting scar" of the recent recession, as Housing and Urban Development Assistant Secretary Raphael Bostic said, "is a clear sign that we are not yet out of the woods".

Existing home sales continued to improve in February 2012, reaching their highest pace since May 2010. However, home prices dipped again in December, as measured by the Case-Shiller index, which showed that all three headline composites ended 2011 at new index lows. The national composite fell by 3.8% during the fourth quarter of 2011 and was down 4.0% versus the fourth quarter of 2010. Both the 10- and 20-City Composites fell by 1.1% in December over November, and posted annual returns of -3.9% and -4.0% versus December 2010, respectively. These are worse than the -3.8% respective annual rates both reported for November. At the end of 2011, all three composites were at their lowest levels since the housing crisis began in mid-2006.

While unemployment has begun to fall and the pace of economic growth has picked up, as is the case in many countries banks remain reluctant to lend, and this could put the brake on any 'feel good' recovery in the US housing market. Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist is nevertheless optimistic: “Movements in the index have been uneven, reflecting the headwinds of tight credit, but job gains, high affordability and rising rents are hopefully pushing the market into what appears to be a sustained housing recovery."

Boom or bust, there will come a moment at which you judge that you want to invest (sorry, we can't tell you when that should be). Some investors opt for the low key approach, and having decided to relocate to somewhere sunny and sandy in their twilight years, purchase property there, and rent it out until they are ready to retire. Others, who would prefer to take a more pro-active approach to real estate investing with a view to making it a primary source of income, choose to purchase and rent property on a larger scale, or to purchase property and then resell it at a profit at a later date. (Although care needs to be taken here, because many countries impose punitive taxes if the property is resold within a certain period.) You may want to consider the establishment of some kind of offshore vehicle to hold your real estate investments if you decide that it is the type of investment for you, but where you establish this, and what sort of instrument you choose will depend on your personal circumstances and the tax and legal regime of the area concerned. Our site has comprehensive details on the tax and offshore regimes applying in more than fifty of the most popular offshore (low-tax) regimes around the globe.

Both approaches have their own benefits and drawbacks, and which you choose will depend on your circumstances, means, and inclination. Here, however, we will principally concentrate on real estate investment for the purposes of providing pre-retirement income. According to some experts, one of the secrets of successful real estate investing is to keep an eye out for distortions that create greater value in one place than another where there is equal utility, and invest in property in the distressed area before it becomes desirable. (This is not, by the way, a recommendation to rush out and buy property in the most war-torn, technologically backward, or otherwise stricken country you can think of. It obviously takes a lot of real estate and investing know-how to be able to predict which countries or areas will become desirable in the future.)

An investor that had purchased real estate in London during the property market depression of the seventies, for example, would be a very rich man (or woman!) today, despite recent falls in value. This is because the circumstances which caused the property market to fall were more or less localised, so while property prices everywhere else were high, London's prices were low, and stayed that way for about 5 years.

However, in those intervening years, technological advances began to change the face of big business, creating what essentially became a global community. Now where did many newly mobile multi-nationals choose to locate? That's right - London, which had the same level of business infrastructure as other major cities, but substantially lower property prices. To cut a long story short (too late), this drove property prices up again, which meant that anyone that had invested in London real estate during the bust period was very firmly in the money. This approach to real estate investing, while interesting, is perhaps a little too labour intensive, and expensive for some, however, and a more accessible way to take advantage of the benefits afforded by international real estate investment could be to invest in an international real estate fund, which allows you to benefit from professional expertise and global diversification.

Oh, and a final note for those more interested in the low-key, retirement investment approach. As with forestry investment, purchase of a substantial (definitions of which vary from country to country) luxury residential property can sometimes prove to be an aid to residency applications. This is especially true of many of the smaller, more selective offshore jurisdictions, where space and resources are at a premium, and ordinary immigration is restricted.

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Now for the fun bit - wine investing. (As a rule of thumb, if it disappears down your throat the day after you bought it, it isn't an investment!) Of all the non-financial areas in which a profitable investment can be made, wine investing seems to be one of the most popular. Wine investment takes two basic forms - you can invest in a particular wine producer, vineyard, or region by buying shares listed on any of the major stock exchanges, or you can invest in (buy) the actual wine itself. Here, we will be dealing with the latter, as the former option does not differ much in principle from ordinary stock trading.

According to the Liv-ex Fine Wine Investables Index fine wine was the best investment of the last decade, with the top French vintages earning returns that far outstripped equities, gold and property. The average price of a fine bordeaux red jumped 138% in the noughties, equal to a gain of 11% a year, with the most sought-after labels, such as Lafite Rothschild, up almost 10-fold. The best performer was Lafite Rothschild 1982, which cost GBP2,613 for a case of 12 bottles at the beginning of 2000 and sold in March 2011 for GBP25,500, a return of 876%.

The Liv-ex Fine Wine 50 Index, which tracks the Medoc First Growths across ten different vintages, rose 57% in 2010. By comparison, the S&P 500 and FTSE 100 indices rose 13% and 11% respectively, gold increased by 35% and the price of crude oil increased by 20%. The Liv-ex index has also outperformed these assets over longer timeframes - in the case of stocks substantially so. On the December 29, 2010, the Fine Wine 50 Index broke the 400 point barrier for the first time, having been based at 100 in January 2004. Over the five years to the end of 2010, the wine index gained by 269%. Over the same period, gold appreciated by 204%, crude oil by 69%, the FTSE 100 by 5% and the S&P 500 by just 1%.

The decision by one of the City of London's most prominent figures to buy into a leading wine trading firm in 2011 was further evidence that a drop of the red stuff may be the new favourite among alternative investors. According to Alternative Asset Analysis (AAA), the alternative investment advocacy and research group, the purchase of a stake in the Bordeaux Index, described as "the Goldman Sachs of the wine market", by Michael Spencer, founder and chief executive of online trading exchange ICAP, demonstrates the asset class’s popularity.

“The fact that many alternative asset classes have become extremely pricey in recent months has meant that the more alternative of alternative assets are now becoming a more valid option for those looking to invest,” stated AAA’s analysis partner, Anthony Johnson. “Although wine is still seen as somewhat of a niche investment market, this is changing rapidly and with high profile moves like this one, involving Mr Spencer, more investors could follow this lead,” he added.

The founder of Bordeaux Index, Gary Boom, said: "If you take wine from when we started measuring in 1983 it has outperformed all the stock exchanges out there. Not by masses, but by one or two per cent a year. The only commodity that has stood up to that is gold."

However, while fine wine has been one of the star performers of the alternative asset world over the last decade or so, very few markets have been immune to the global economic trends that have shaken markets of all varieties across the world, not least the sovereign debt crisis in Europe and the United States. Combined with a slow down in growth in the Chinese economy, which has rapidly become the centre of wine speculation, these factors caused something of a slump in the market for fine wine in the latter half of 2011. In the year to the end of February 2012, the Index had fallen 20%, while the prices of some vintages have fallen by up to 30% from their 2011 peaks, which just goes to show that in the world of investment, there is no such thing as a sure-fire winner! The flip side to this of course, is that there may be some good buying opportunities for certain vintages that could now be said to be somewhat undervalued.

Wine investment is complicated by the fact that in any discussion of wine investing, a distinction needs to be drawn between those that collect wine, and those that invest in it. Collectors tend to buy fine or rare wines with the intention of ageing and appreciating them at some point in the future. They can be spotted by their tendency to wail inconsolably when forced to part with an old favourite. Now of course collectors of fine wines make investments when they purchase new cases or bottles of wine, but the mindset is entirely different to that of the wine investor proper.

Some investors in wine do so primarily for profit, and on paper it is easy to make a profit from wine (for example a USD10,000 investment in selected vintage Bordeaux in 1975 was worth USD225,000 in 1996). However, although wine investment has the potential to outperform many other commodities, and to offer better returns than stocks, bonds, or real estate, it isn't always easy money…

In order to make a profit investing in wine, you need to be able to predict which wines will be in demand in the future, buy them at the lowest possible price, and sell them once their value has escalated. Easy, right? Well, no. No easier than predicting which stocks investors will be clamouring for in years to come. You may know a great deal about wine, and what determines a fair market value (roughly, in order of importance: demand, quality, provenance, and quantity) but there are a lot of variables.

It is worth remembering that the demand for fine and rare wines is linked strongly to the health of the general economy- if times are hard, people will be less likely to shell out for expensive luxuries. Although the returns offered by the Bordeaux mentioned above seem very attractive, only a few wines appreciate regularly, so although this is by no means the exception, it isn't quite the norm either. As a final word of warning; the market for fine wine is not a terribly liquid (groan) one, although there are alternative avenues such as charity wine auctions (which may bring additional tax benefits).

However, on the plus side, the product both improves with time, and the quantity declines over time, so the demand for it is greater. And if you can catch a good wine at the right time, the returns can be incredible. There are an increasing number of private client and institutional brokers starting up (many of them online) to offer professional expertise, long range financial planning and diversification, and general support to the less experienced wine investor, and some will arrange for your immature wines to be stored in bond, thus avoiding the need to pay duty on wines that are too young to drink or sell. As with any kind of investment, though, it is unwise to follow unthinkingly the advice of others, so it would be a good idea to decide for yourself a strategy which suits your needs and goals.

You could go with the blue chips (such as leading Bordeaux, or highly regarded Californian Cabernets) which are always popular, but if you focus on high-end collectibles, you will be buying at the top of a rising market, so it may be wise to wait until prices drop. Alternatively, you could invest in less expensive wines that may become hot tickets in years to come, although many of the highly touted up and coming wines are made in such small quantities that getting your hands on enough may be a problem. The most important things to remember in wine investing are to pay close attention to the market and be prepared to sell, and to make sure that your wine portfolio is diversified, so that you don't end up top-heavy in a particular wine or vintage that suddenly declines in value.

A successful wine investor should have an appreciation of wine, and should ideally be a mixture of collector and investor. Wine, like many other forms of investment, can be alternately lucrative and risky, but it is unlike other forms, in that even if your investment doesn't appreciate as well as you had hoped, there is always something to drink at the end of the day! And however you choose to invest in wine, you have the perfect comeback if anyone takes you to task about your drinking habits; you aren't drinking too much wine, you are simply checking your inveshtment…hic!

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AnchorThe Best of the Rest…Antiques, Fine Art, and Coins.

Although investing in collectibles can bring substantial profits and tax advantages in the right circumstances, due to the relatively uncertain nature of the market for these objects, experts agree that one of the primary reasons for making a purchase should be aesthetic appreciation of the object itself, for the simple reason that if it doesn't appreciate, at least you'll always appreciate it!

As with wine investing, however, a distinction must be made between collectors and investors (see previous section for the identifying characteristics of a collector- same applies here) and for the purposes of this article, we will be concentrating on the latter group. Numismatism (the collecting of rare gold and silver coins) has many advantages for the investor interested in diversifying his (or her) portfolio. Coin investment can provide an effective hedge against inflation, as gold and silver have intrinsic value in a way that securities do not, are a portable and usually easily maintained investment, can provide long-term tax-deferred capital appreciation, and can be totally confidential. (Should you be so inclined, you can bury your investment at the bottom of your garden, although needless to say, we don't recommend this!)

However, there are risks- the market for rare coins, while not linked to inflation, does fluctuate due to factors such as change in tastes, and lack of interest due to a bullish stock market. So while investment in numismatic gold may provide you with a degree of protection in the event of runaway inflation and other such financial crises, and may be a profitable sideline, you are unlikely to amass vast fortunes investing in coins…

Investment in art and antiques brings with it a whole new set of risks again, but also the possibility of substantial rewards in the right circumstances. The degree of knowledge, and the amount of capital needed to invest successfully in these areas mean that the collection of artwork and antiques is not usually recommended for inexperienced or small investors, and the practice requires a great deal of patience, a quality not usually associated with investors! This is because the market for these commodities (collective grinding of teeth from art collectors the world over…) is not a terribly liquid one, and investment quality art and antiques cannot generally be resold quickly at a profit, but must be held until their value increases sufficiently for a profit to be made. (Taking into account the fact that although you will probably be buying the piece at the retail price, you may be reselling it at a wholesale price, or lower.) There are also other costs to be considered, which may include storage, maintenance, and transportation (which is where coin collectors get the last laugh!)

Investing in antiques and works of art can be advantageous, however. As previously stated, experts in this, and related fields, hold that the primary reason behind any investment purchase of this nature should be aesthetic, and for many, this is enough. However, the resale of an investment piece at the right time can bring spectacular returns, and meanwhile you have the advantage of tax-deferred capital appreciation.

Experts suggest that in order to increase your chances of successful investing, you should limit your field of investment, and reduce risk by acquiring as much information about your area of interest as possible. Other tips (by no means a comprehensive list - you should consult a professional before taking the plunge) include:

To conclude, although investing in rare coins or fine art and antiques may not be to everybody's taste (or indeed budget!), there can be clear advantages to these forms of investment in terms of taxation, aesthetic appreciation, protection against inflation (and other potential financial crises), and diversification. However, the illiquid and unpredictable nature of the markets in these and other commodities (for such they are, essentially), does pose risks, and it is therefore generally recommended that any such investments form a small part of a balanced portfolio (usually no more than 15%) for investors with fairly substantial net worth.



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