Malta Centre of Excellence in the Mediterranean

Published by The Daily Telegraph 

Malta’s historical journey has been exotic, eventful and long. Its history is bound up in a myriad of different battles with various nations and cultures. Over the years, these rulers and their occupations left their imprint and legacies, which make up the rich fabric of Malta’s cultural heritage. Freedom from foreign rule finally came in 1964 when the British granted Independence after their 150-year colonial stay. 

Full sovereignty was realised in 1974 when Malta was finally declared a Republic. Civilisations from the Ancient Greeks in 700 BC to the Phoenicians, Romans and successive powers have all recognised and leveraged Malta’s strategic geographic position at the crossroads of the Mediterranean and North Africa. For a country scarce in natural resources, save its famous limestone, Malta has shown itself to be incredibly resilient and forward thinking.

Despite only being a democracy for less than half a century, Malta acceded to the EU in 2004 and implemented a smooth adoption of the Euro in 2008. Today, it is considered one of the world’s most successful small island states. Indeed, with just 122 square miles of land mass, Malta is the smallest country in the European Union and certainly punches above its weight. This may largely be because of the dynamism of its people.

A population of some 413,000 inhabitants may seem tiny but Malta is actually the third mostly densely populated country in the world (behind only Monaco and Singapore) and has a tradition of competiveness. Malta’s Prime Minister, Dr Lawrence Gonzi confirms this, saying, “I think the reason this island nation has advanced over thousands of years with no resources whatsoever is because of its entrepreneurial spirit.”

Speaking in more topical terms, the Prime Minister points out that in business, “Being small gives Malta a big advantage because we are quick and we are flexible. We can react more ably as we are closer to people so we can intervene when required. The government gets to know its people and you can only really do this in a small country. This is what helped us to weather the global economic recession.” This sentiment about escaping the full effects of the downturn is echoed by comments from the private sector like that of Uwe Malezki who declared, “I always ask myself whether the recession was ever really here in Malta. At least that’s my feeling as Managing Director of the Freeport.”

That said, Gonzi’s re-elected Nationalist government is not resting on its laurels. It has had a strategy for the country’s future economic development since 2007. Named Vision 2015+, it essentially identifies six sectors for expansion and excellence. They are financial services, ICT, manufacturing and related services, health, education and perhaps most importantly tourism. The aim is to develop  these six pillars of the economy. They are complemented by a seventh distinct target which is special designation for Malta’s sister island of Gozo. The intention, Gonzi effuses is to, “Work on Gozo in order to retain its natural beauty but also make it an ecological economy so that it can move forward.”

Malta’s High Commissioner in London, Joseph Zammit Tabona certainly takes these targets very seriously and believes that, “Malta is a place of great opportunity for quite a few sectors today.” He certainly has proof of his statement given that he was instrumental in the country’s recent success in landing the business of another aircraft maintenance company. The avionics sector was, up until Lufthansa Technik’s major investment in Malta in 2003, a completely new and hitherto unexplored business opportunity.

At the start of his tenure, the High Commissioner was attending a dinner hosted by Ernst & Young London, and had the good fortune to be introduced to Cor Vrieswijk, Operations Director of easyJet. Within three weeks of that dinner, the commercially minded Zammit Tabona had easyJet’s directors visiting Malta to explore what the country had to offer. Subsequent to that visit, easyJet asked the CEO of SR Technics, the maintenance company that services their planes, to take a trip to discover Malta’s competitive advantages.

As James Stewart, CEO of SR Technics explains, “So far all our facilities were in Western Europe, and they all had a very high cost base. We needed to get a better mix. We looked at many different locations in Europe or on the fringe of Europe, and decided that Malta was the right place to be.”

As was the case with the directors at easyJet and SR Technics, the moment investors and visitors arrive in Malta they are pleasantly surprised. Zammit Tabona is adamant that Malta has to be seen to be believed. He says, “I ask investors to give me 36 hours of their time and I organise meetings for them in Malta with all the vital entities including accountants, lawyers, bankers and the regulator etc. Depending on the size and type of investment I then arrange for them to meet up with the Prime Minister or the Minister of Finance.” Charmingly modest he points out, “It’s useless me just telling people what a great place Malta is. You have to see it for yourself. Go here and taste it, touch it and feel it. To really appreciate Malta, you have to eat, sleep and breathe it. Experience it all. The people who do that love it.”

Alluding as much to the warm, temperate climate enjoyed in the islands and the welcome of the Maltese people, as to the excellent business climate, Zammit Tabona certainly has a point. A trip to Malta is a must – whether it is for business or pleasure. Efficiently run with excellent education and healthcare systems, a buoyant real estate and job market and a safe, virtually crime free environment, it is a great place to reside. No matter how dynamic or how efficient Malta is (part of the British legacy is a strong work ethic), it has retained a certain Mediterranean charm; the most important aspect of which is an appreciation of the importance of lifestyle.

As Prime Minister Gonzi puts it, “Quality of life is one of our strong points in Malta. Coming here, whatever sector you are in, quality of life is a fundamental issue.” The High Commissioner confirms this sentiment saying, “There are quite a number of British people who have relocated to Malta just for the lifestyle. I even know some who reside in Malta but they work, from Monday to Thursday in London and return to Malta for the weekend.”

Sadly, according to Zammit Tabona, the majority of people he meets in the UK have never even been to Malta. As he explains, “It’s just not on their radar screens. There is also a misperception that Malta is dull and boring or only for the older generation which is simply not true. Others think that Malta is a 5-hour flight from the UK so earlier this year there was an advert in Piccadilly Circus announcing that Malta is actually less than 3 hours away. 

It is important to get these messages across. That way people will begin to understand how accessible Malta is and that it makes an ideal weekend break. Many do not realise how rich in culture the country is. We are known as a sun and sea destination and while it’s true that ours is a sunny island nation – surrounded by pristine sea with 300 days of sunshine a year – we have so much more to offer.”

Indeed, Malta has all the ingredients for short breaks, during which visitors can sample bite-sized morsels of the impressive cultural and natural heritage that has been bestowed upon the islands. Given the fact that it boasts over seven millennia of history, Malta has plenty to keep visitors’ appetites whetted. Furthermore, because of its geographic location the islands also make an ideal base for multi-destination vacations. The country offers, in Gonzi’s own words, “A unique opportunity. You can holiday in Malta and then cruise round the Mediterranean.” So what are you waiting for?

A World of Treasures Waiting to be DiscoveredTOURISM

Think culture. Think heritage. Think history. What country are you thinking of? The UK, France, Italy or maybe even further afield, Egypt? Now think Malta.

Malta is infused with over 7,000 years of recorded history and is home to monuments
that pre-date Egypt’s pyramids. As Joseph Said, Chairman of Heritage Malta, points out,
“Though our country may not have been blessed with valuable natural resources it most
certainly made up for this in terms of historical and cultural heritage as is borne out by the fact that it ranks foremost in the UNESCO World Heritage sites of ‘Outstanding Value to Humanity’.”

The islands of Malta, Gozo and Comino have always held an abundance of pleasures; a blissful Mediterranean climate - to nourish grapes and olives - and their seas are rich with seafood. This tiny archipelago sits strategically at the apex of the ancient worlds – at the nexus of the East-West world’s trade routes. Successive waves of civilizations from Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs and Europeans have found and then coveted the islands. It was long said that whoever controls Malta controls the Mediterranean.

The legacy of this exotic and heterogeneous history could be termed as “an embarrassment of riches” that have left the islands groaning with attractions of breathtaking historical fascination. Most venerably the megalithic temples, including Gjantija situated on the island of Gozo, widely thought to be the oldest freestanding building in the world dating back as far as 4100 BC.

To walk amongst the Roman temples, Christian catacombs, cathedrals, ramparts, bastions of harbour defences and the forts of Britannia is to experience nothing less than history flowing through vivid honey-coloured limestone. The rock quarried, hewn and imagined into a sweeping architectural expression from medieval, Baroque to British Colonial.

It was after 1530 when the islands were given to the Crusading Knights of St John, to create a homeland that most of what we see today - largely unchanged - was built. Legend has it that Charles V of Spain granted the archipelago to the Order, in exchange for the annual “fee” of one Maltese falcon. After their gradual retreat from Jerusalem to Acre, Cyprus and then Rhodes the Crusading Knights of St John settled and became the Knights of Malta. 

For a period of two and a half centuries this proto multinational religious corporation underwrote the security which enabled the flourishing trade that financed a courtly paradise of Baroque palaces, gardens and the refined settings for entertainment that remain to this day.

It is this emphasis, on the astonishing cultural and historical importance of Malta’s towns, cities and settlements, that the government is now seeking to promote. As Dr de Marco, the Parliamentary Secretary for Tourism elucidates, “Unfortunately in the past we promoted the sun and sea far too much and not our wonderful heritage. Now we need to get the balance right; we need to position ourselves as a great heritage, historical and cultural centre.”

You need only step into “Citta Umillisima”, the island’s fortress capital of Valletta to see why this makes sense. Constructed to deter the Ottomans as it did so famously in the Great Siege of 1565, it is named in honour of the city’s founder Grand Master Jean Parisot de la Valette. The city is bordered on three sides by the Mediterranean and shielded by impregnable walls. It is one of Europe’s finest historical attractions boasting sumptuous palaces, theatres, gardens and numerous churches.

The Knights drawn from all over Europe; Castille and Leon, Aragon, Italy, France, Provence, Auvergne, Germany and England built their redoubt on the arid rock of the Mount Sceberras
peninsula. Designed by the architect Francesco Laparelli it has one of the earliest examples of a gridiron street plan. The city has grown lavish with time and this is embodied in the homes and places of worship of the Knights.

Little has altered since their expulsion by the invading Napoleonic forces in 1798 that left the Knights officially stateless. Malta’s capital is now one of the world’s best-conserved cities. Granted World Heritage status by UNESCO in 1980, the visiting British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli marvelled in 1830, “Valletta equals in its noble architecture, if it does not excel, any capital in Europe.”

A living, working city - Valletta is also the administrative and commercial heart of the islands. The cultural wonders are copious with highlights such as St John’s Cathedral, an apogee of opulent magnificence completed in 1578. It houses some of the country’s priceless treasures such as two works of art by Caravaggio, including his masterpiece – “The Beheading of St John the Baptist”. 

The Grand Master’s Palace, which was home to all of the grand masters from 1574 until 1798, now hosts to the President of Malta, Dr George Abela, and the House of Representatives. Meanwhile, the majestic Manoel Theatre, opened in 1731, has played a central role in the country’s cultural history ever since. Across the harbour from Valletta lie Senglea, Cospicua and Vittoriosa. Charming in their own right, “The Three Cities” are often left unvisited and yet they can lay claim to being the cradle of Maltese history. The islands boast acres of architecture and natural beauty that has, until now, rarely been fully appreciated. The reason for this may lie in past marketing drives that sought to attract visitors to the shores for the sunny climes. Historically many British and Northern European tourists flocked to Malta to enjoy the temperate weather and not to marvel at its cultural heritage.

However, as the Chief Executive of the Maltese Tourism Authority (MTA), Joseph Formosa
Gauci stressed to us, “We are no longer promoting ourselves as a pure beach destination. Frankly if somebody just wants to go and sit on a beach, Malta is not the ideal destination.” In many ways, it would be a waste to go to Malta simply for the sun and sea – as there is so much more to enjoy. Despite its apparent distance from Northern Europe, Malta is a mere two to three hours by air from most European cities. Moreover the island nation is hugely accessible.

There are frequent and direct flights from London, Rome, Paris, Frankfurt, Brussels, Geneva, Athens, Amsterdam, Madrid, Munich and Vienna amongst others. As an EU country, Malta’s visa requirements fall in line with EU policy and Malta also forms part of the Schengen travel area. The government has been working proactively to improve the air connections as Dr de Marco confirms. “This year we have managed to increase significantly our air connectivity with various new routes to and from Scandinavia, Copenhagen, Krakow, Oslo, Belund and we also have a number of new routes from Spain which is a growing market. This coupled with new routes from the UK and more frequency, is certainly something we have concentrated on.” The UK unquestioningly remains a core market for the Maltese tourism sector however, the MTA is eager to appeal to a more discerning traveller.

Equally it is keen to promote Malta as the ideal destination for MICE travel, that quirky
travel industry acronym denoting Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions. In this regard, Malta has an abundance to offer and the timelessness of the place is echoed in Malta’s principle dedicated convention centre that was originally constructed in 1574. Dating back to the time of the Knights, the Mediterranean Conference Centre was originally a hospital used to treat the wounded crusaders returning from The Holy Land. Its former hospital ward is now Europe’s longest banqueting hall with a vast state-of-the-art auditorium. Its facilities equal those anywhere else in Europe.

There are also a great many historic buildings, castles and villas that can be used for corporate events throughout the islands. Moreover, the island lends itself perfectly to business tourism because of excellent accessibility in every aspect. On arrival at Malta International Airport – as Alfred Pisani, Chairman of Corinthia Hotels succinctly puts it, “In the space of 7 minutes, you have landed, gone through the attractive, well-organised terminal, collected your luggage and you are off in your car travelling.” Coming from a seasoned business traveller like Pisani this means a lot. 

There certainly is a concerted effort to appeal to a different breed of visitor, from the business traveller, who can take advantage of the country’s excellent conference and meetings facilities to the culture buff who is seeking to enjoy a long weekend away. Aiming at a more upscale clientele that will appreciate the cultural heritage offerings is crucial, as is highlighting previously under promoted gems such as the city of Mdina. This city’s history can be traced back more than 4,000 years. It was here that in AD60 the Apostle St Paul is said to have lived in the grotto “Fuori le Mura” after being shipwrecked off the island.

The city has an ageless atmosphere and again heaves with cultural and religious treasures. Impressive palaces line its narrow shady streets. Lamp-lit by night you understand why Mdina is known as the “Silent City”. It is justly recognised as one of Europe’s finest examples of an ancient walled city and extraordinary in its mix of medieval and Baroque architecture. The Palazzo Falson is one of the oldest medieval buildings in Mdina and is unmissable. Formerly known as the Norman House it is home to an extraordinarily rich collection of antiques.

An example of the opulence Malta offers its guests is found in Mdina at the painstakingly restored hilltop palazzo of “The Xara Palace Relais & Chateaux”. Originally home to a noble family, it was requisitioned by the British during the First World War and, after a period of decline, reopened in 1999 having been meticulously renovated into an exclusive boutique hotel. With 17 individually designed luxurious rooms, the hotel has stunning panoramic views of the Maltese countryside that stretch all the way to the sea.

The hotel’s Director, Nicola Paris, was justly effusive in her praise of the islands, “Malta is the ideal destination for a short break especially for those interested in history. Malta is a place where one can fall in love with the warmth of the Maltese people and the richness of our culture”. Certainly, the Maltese seem to have hospitality in their blood. As Nicola puts it, “We, at The Xara Palace, pride ourselves in welcoming all our guests to our beautiful ‘home’, where one can enjoy the unique charm, character and courtesy of the Maltese people in breathtaking surroundings.”

For a country steeped in maritime history since Phoenician times, the Grand Harbour’s reputation as one of the safest natural harbours in the Mediterranean is also a magnificent port and a living display of Malta’s heritage of marine archaeology. Surrounded by the crystalline Mediterranean Sea, the Maltese archipelago has established itself as an attractive yachting centre with plenty of facilities for sailing enthusiasts. The central location, year round climate coupled with the north-easterly Mistral and the more humid southerly Sirocco winds make it an excellent base for a sailing holiday. The Msida Marina off Grand Harbour in Valletta has almost 300 berths, whilst the construction of a new marina is almost complete in Vittoriosa.

The pinnacle of the yachting calendar is the glamorous Rolex Middle Sea Race in October. It is a 606-nautical mile course, sailed anti-clockwise. Starting in Valletta’s Grand Harbour, the fleet heads north towards the eastern coast of Sicily up towards the straits of Messina, past the Aeolian Islands, the Egadi Islands, the islands of Pantelleria and Lampedusa and then through the South Comino channel to the finish line at the Marsamxett Harbour in Malta. Avid yachting enthusiast Ted Turner, CEO of CNN International, reportedly said that this race, “Must be the most beautiful race course in the world.”

The race was originally conceived in the early 1950s by British servicemen stationed in Malta. Since 2002, when Rolex SA came on board as the title sponsor, the event has seen an amazing growth in both the quality and number of entries. It is now firmly established on the yachting calendar attracting over 70 entries each year. Incidentally, if you fancy your chances, the course record has remained unbeaten for seven years at 64 hours, 49 minutes and 57 seconds.

The sister island of Gozo is a far more rustic alternative with its spectacular coastline bristling with tiny coves, red sand beaches and turquoise bays, traversed by stretches of limestone that crisscross the tiny saltpans. It is as far from the madding crowd as it is possible to imagine. The island has a policy of pursuing sustainable eco-tourism as Joseph Formosa Gauci of the MTA explained, “The way we promote Gozo is not for mass tourism or the large operators - we are going for the niche markets.”

Historically the island has been quite distinct from mainland Malta. It has a markedly different topography and its traditions are rooted in its rural ethos. Greener and far smaller, here life’s rhythms are dictated by the seasons, fishing and agriculture. Thought to be the legendary Calypso’s isle of Homer’s odyssey, Gozo is a peaceful almost mystical backwater where again Baroque churches and quaint old stone farmhouses dot the countryside. The rugged barren landscape and spectacular coastline await exploration concealing some the Mediterranean’s best dive sites.

In short, the Maltese archipelago may seem like any other small island nation in the middle of the Mediterranean but is in fact a treasure trove of abundance just waiting to be discovered. So think again when you think of Malta.

Life in a Less Taxing Environment Property

Malta is an amazing little country. Bursting at the seams with culture and history, the attractions of the archipelago are certainly a big tourism draw attracting approximately 1.2 million tourists annually – which is 3 times the number of its citizens. Majestic forts, bastions and fabulous churches abound, yet what has always attracted foreigners to Malta has always been the gorgeous weather, clear seas and the warmth of the Maltese people. All of these elements together make for a very enticing package for home ownership.

The variety of properties available in Malta and Gozo ranges from 300-year old converted farmhouses to modern penthouses and luxury villas. The selection is vast and hence
caters to a wide spectrum of budgets. From the popular coastal resorts to the beautiful old villages that are found in the interior of the islands – the diversity of real estate is astounding. Full of charm, traditional old “Houses of Character” make the most incredible homes as do bungalows and purpose-built flats.

These make a great rental investment and are also a haven in retirement age. Moreover, the spirit bound up in the village life gives a real sense of belonging that permeates Maltese communities. The other major attraction in Malta is the tax regime offered to foreigners who take up residence on the islands. There are huge tax savings to be made especially compared to the 40% or more paid on income at home in the UK. This factor alone is in excellent incentive to move to Malta. Moreover, there are neither inheritance taxes, nor property or council taxes and no capital gains tax is payable on a principal residence providing the property is not sold prior to three years of ownership. In addition, there is no minimum or maximum stay required for residency.

Purchasing property in Malta is also eminently simple and safe with the convenium written in English. For those seeking a real estate agent specializing in property conveyance, foreigners need look no further than award-winning Frank Salt Real Estate Ltd. Having operated in the market since 1969, their extensive knowledge and consultancy approach make them an excellent point of contact in the property market.

According to the statistics, the property market is extremely buoyant with an average annual appreciation that has consistently been 8-10% over the last 30 years. In fact, Malta has had a very steady increase in real estate value every year since 1965. Although prices in Malta may appear higher than some other European countries, there is a benefit to purchasing property in a healthy property market and one that has an excellent track record.

In these times of global economic uncertainty, investment in real estate in Malta also appears to make great business sense. Given the high level of repeat tourism, investing in property as a holiday home is a wise choice. The average rental return in Malta on long lets is 4-5% and there are plenty of diverse properties to choose from including new developments. As Alan Richards, CEO of HSBC Malta confirms, “There are a number of high quality builds in Malta under development.

Talking to the developers the target market is both domestic and international and demand has held up remarkably well.” One such development is Fort Cambridge in Tigné
Peninsula, Sliema. On the 28,000-square metre site, there are two historical buildings dating back to 1880. Erected by the British during their colonial stay in Malta, there is Fort Cambridge (after which the development is named) and a barracks building. Both are to be restored as part of the project. The development offers sea-views and is very strategically placed with Valletta, the state-of the- art national hospital, the airport, the seaport, yacht marinas and the golf course being only 20 minutes away by car.

In total there will be 350 apartments varying from one to four bedrooms, which will occupy only 17% of the whole site area as the rest will be covered by the historical buildings and beautiful landscaped gardens. All the apartments will have wide terraces which are part and parcel of everyday life in Malta as, due to the mild climate, the balconies can be enjoyed for 8 months of the year. Prices of apartments at Fort Cambridge vary from €245,000
up to €1,900,000 according to size (from 100-500 square metres), location and view. 

Great attention has been paid to the sustainability of this development, so much so that it was awarded Gold in the best eco-development category at the Russian “Home  Overseas” property awards. Malta, with its excellent air connections to all major European and North African destinations, adds up to a pretty compelling package. Indeed, sometimes the appeal of the islands is so strong that professionals who go there on secondments do not want
to leave. As Richards explained, “We have a problem in Malta actually because we have some very talented people at HSBC who we like to move around internationally. However once they are here they find it difficult to leave - the quality of life is so good.

A Safe harbour for financial services Finance

As punitive tax regimes begin to bite in the larger economies like the US and those in Europe driving some financial companies away and, with political pressure impacting on traditional tax havens such as the Cayman Islands, Bermuda and the Channel Islands; Malta has begun to look ever more attractive to banks, hedge funds and other financial service companies that are flocking to the island like never before.

With a proactive government in place determined to increase the sectors contribution to the GDP from 12% to 25% by 2015, Malta is showing itself to be an increasingly punchy little contender. Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi told the annual FinanceMalta conference recently, “Our strength as a financial services centre is based on innovation and on our will to provide a top-notch operating environment for business.”

The ongoing global economic turmoil has also given Malta an opportunity to present itself as a hub and a haven as savvy finance firms seek domiciles with a strong financial record of
accomplishment and a stable economy. Malta has certainly weathered the global financial crisis enviably. As the Minister of Finance, the Economy & Investment, Tonio Fenech explains,

“This was borne of several factors, firstly the diversity of our economy, secondly the regulatory framework within our financial sector and thirdly and most importantly the political project we had embarked upon with our European Union membership and subsequent adoption of the Euro.”

Accession to the EU in 2004 certainly contributed to the burgeoning growth of the financial services sector. It gave Malta the boost that propelled it to becoming one of the most dynamic and fastest growing financial centres in Europe. As a result, Malta is enjoying a hugely enhanced credibility that has placed it firmly on the radar screen of international finance. Equally, becoming part of the Eurozone in January 2008 provided not simply a change in the national currency but also culminated in the transformation of Maltese business culture. Indeed, adoption of the Euro was arguably the key underlying driver in the growth of interest in Malta as a domicile for financial service businesses.

As Kenneth Farrugia of FinanceMalta puts it, “With the onset of joining the EU, the huge increase in business potential changed our mindset, practitioners started to realise that the market had become suddenly vastly bigger and this encouraged many to travel outside our shores and begin to promote Malta as a serious financial destination.”

So having avoided the worst of the global banking crisis, Malta is now aggressively positioning itself as a regional financial centre, offering significant tax efficiencies and crucially all within an EU compliant regulatory regime. Malta has certainly worked diligently to improve the credibility of its financial regulatory system. The MFSA was set up in 1988 as a unified regulator with a remit to modernize Malta’s regulatory framework and to
meet or exceed best practices of countries within the EU.

As a tiny nation fine-tuned to industry trends, Malta has been adroit at adjusting to
economic realities. This gives the country a competitive advantage when responding to market opportunities and an ability to adjust the rules and regulations quickly in response to circumstances in the markets. Indeed, flexibility and nimbleness have been defining benefits of the economy and resulted in the country being able to “dodge the bullet” of the financial crisis.

The Chairman of the MFSA (Malta Financial Services Authority), Professor Joe Bannister,
declares, “We are always being asked what effect the crisis has had on us and we always say – ‘What crisis?’ Obviously this does not mean we are not vigilant - we have to be very vigilant – but in reality nothing happened.” Meanwhile Farrugia asserts that, “At no point was there a lack of trust by the general public in the banking system and the banking system did not lose trust in the economy.”

Dr Arthur Galea Salamone, Chairman of the Malta Stock Exchange, echoes this point saying, “We’ve got high investor protection standards. Locally, operators embrace core values of integrity, transparency, fairness and reasonableness and these core values are reflected in the regulatory stance we take in our approach towards investors.” He firmly believes that the global financial crisis was also a crisis of values and trust.

Malta was fortunate not to suffer a lack of confidence. However, in his opinion, it was not coincidental but rather by design. While Malta may be an open-market economy, as vulnerable as any to the upheaval (if not more so given its lack of natural resources), the belief is that their traditional, and relatively conservative, attitude has stood them in good stead. Certainly many major players in Malta’s financial and economic landscape feel that they escaped comparatively unscathed from the economic downturn. Indeed, The World Economic Forum’s Competitive Index has also highlighted the soundness and resilience of the Maltese banking sector for 2008-2009 by ranking Malta’s banking system as the 10th soundest in the world.

Other key factors behind Malta’s recent success are clear; the MFSA has been
universally praised as business friendly and industry orientated. The adherence to
EU regulatory standards, an internationally accepted EU recognized tax regime with an unmatched network of 50 bilateral tax treaties and a unique legal framework which is based on a combination of English common law and the Napoleonic code, make Malta an appealing destination. Legislation in Malta is pragmatic and regulations are speedily implemented.

The MFSA’S supervisory council met 34 times last year and granted a total of 168 new licenses, one of which was to Deutsche Bank – another big name that is looking to ride the wave and will certainly further place Malta on the map. To underline the respectability that the country has worked hard to win, Malta is now actively involved with the OECD, the EU and the Commonwealth in modelling global regulatory policy. 

Moreover, the government has been vocal in arguing Malta’s case to have an important role to play in the G20’s plan to reform the world’s economic and financial system, with the ruling Nationalist party outspoken in their support of open markets and free trade. Interestingly, a recent City of London study of financial centres worldwide rated Malta as being the only Western finance centre expected to “become more significant over the next two to three years” while placing it in the company of the usual high growth centres of Dubai, Shanghai and Singapore.

The financial services sector is now a major pillar of the economy, averaging an impressive annual growth rate of 30% over the last three years, with a number of leading international
financial institutions setting up shop on the island. These include banks, (with assets more than doubling in this period to over €45 billion), asset management firms, collective investment schemes and, the insurance sector alone, trebling in size over the past three years - mainly through increased international and captive insurance business. Currently employing around 7,000 people and accounting for 12% of Malta’s GDP, the figures certainly support the government’s rhetoric.

As Minister Fenech stressed, “This is having a multiplier effect on the whole economy and financial services are very much perceived as a growing sector, Malta is now being perceived very positively and we are seeing lots of funds being administered here, so we are certainly looking at growth in a number of financial service sectors.” Therefore, a well-developed, vibrant financial services sector is now of critical importance to sustaining the continued growth and development of Malta’s economy. What will be critical in achieving this is the continued development of “Brand Malta” and ensuring the hallmarks of that are solid foundations of confidence and trust.

FinanceMalta, takes this task very seriously because, as the Chairman Kenneth Farrugia says, “We are trying to build a name for the island and build a strong reputation because then business will flow by itself. I think our strategy is working and this is reflected in the extent of business that is coming our way.” He was also frank in his assessment of what sets Malta apart from traditional domiciles such as Dublin and Luxembourg, “The market has become increasingly homogenous and differentiating yourself from other jurisdictions is not easy, but being efficient, being effective and making sure legislation is up to scratch as well as fast-tracking important deals and changing legislation quickly, being a small country gives us a chance to be nimble.”

Whilst Malta is still undoubtedly developing as a financial centre, the country has certainly made great strides in creating the circumstances necessary to emerge as an excellent base for financial service firms of all types. Recording yet another year of growth, Professor Bannister of the MFSA was unambiguous, “Given the turmoil that followed the worldwide financial crisis, the performance of Malta’s financial services sector can be described as extremely good.”

Taking Malta Forward BANKING SERVICES

As Malta’s oldest bank and one of its largest domestic operations, the Bank of Valetta group (BOV) is the leading financial services provider in Malta, offering a full range of financial services including; retail & corporate banking, investment banking, private banking, fund management, bancassurance and stock broking.

Their domestic operations are extensive, including a national network of 41 branches, a corporate centre, five business centres, and a wealth management arm. In addition to this,
BOV is well represented overseas with a network of correspondent banks and representative offices in Australia, Canada, Italy, Tunisia Libya and Egypt providing Malta with the reach necessary to service customers in international banking and trade transactions.

Privatised in 1995, with the Maltese government maintaining a 25% stake, BOV maintains deliberately prudent funding, asset quality, liquidity and capital ratio policies. These stood it in good stead throughout the recent global financial crisis that witnessed some of the most brutal conditions experienced in the history of modern banking. During this period however, BOV was able to continue to provide credit and liquidity to local businesses.

While Malta’s wide-open economy has not been immune to the global recession, the impact has been more gradual and relatively mild when compared with other developed economies as Roderick Chalmers, BOV’s Chairman, explained, “Malta got through the recession very well. Inevitably, there was a downturn, but it was modest and Maltese business showed its resilience. Throughout the downturn the bank’s deposit base has continued to increase in a
robust manner, and we believe that Malta is well placed to get into the upturn quickly.”

Dubbed the “local local bank”, Chalmers explains BOV’s role in Malta’s economic landscape, “We are directly involved with 45% of Malta’s economy. We therefore have a great duty to not only service our customers to the best of our ability, but also, because of our very significant presence in the economy, we feel that as an organization.

We have an enormous responsibility to be part of Malta’s continuing economic development and evolution – particularly in the financial services sector.” Virtually every sector is a significant customer of BOV, using the bank’s wide array of services. Chalmers is convinced of the vital role that BOV plays in Malta’s economic well-being, and is passionate about supporting the repositioning of the “brand” of Malta. This is in part because BOV, with its very loyaln customer base, remains close to clients. As such, it hears (and listens to) the voice of business and the people. Moreover, with a 45% market share, “BOV is a vital cog in the future of the financial services sector in Malta,” asserts Chalmers, who is Maltese-born but with Scottish parentage.

Indeed, for the first time in its history, BOV now has total assets significantly exceeding €6 billion and customer deposits have also continued to show satisfactory growth with deposits
increasing by €245 million or 5.2% since September 2009. With the bank continuing to manage its balance sheet in a deliberate and conservative manner, its liquidity position remains strong, as does its capital base, with a Tier 1 capital of 10%, and with a total capital ratio position of 14.4%. The bank’s credit quality remains solid, with non-performing loans amounting to just 4.1% of gross advances.

Chalmers has been a steady hand on the tiller and, along with senior management, is strong-willed about the principles that have seen the bank through such a wrenching period. “We stuck to old-fashioned yardsticks of banking - which is where you have to balance what you have borrowed with what you lend. We didn’t take undue risk in what was clearly an overheated environment.” The bank recently announced pre-tax profits for the first six
months of the financial year 2010 that amount to €47.5 million, a stark improvement on the €6.3 million for the equivalent period ending in March last year. Results, Chalmers characteristically described as, “Solid, satisfactory and encouraging.”

HEDGE FUNDS Custom House Expands with Malta

Malta has made strident efforts in recent years to position itself as a stringently regulated, cost-effective domicile to the alternative investment market, able to compete with the best in the world. With the emphasis on continuing to build a strong and unimpeachable reputation, Malta now has a huge opportunity to develop into a truly global investment fund centre for a host of alternative investment products, catering to an international investor base engaged in a diverse array of strategies. Experience has been rapidly gained in the financial field and Malta is growing increasingly confident of its ability to attract new business.

This newfound prestige was strikingly reflected by the recent “Global Financial Centers Index” naming Malta as one of the top three financial centres likely to increase in importance over the next 2 to 3 years; outranked only by Shanghai and Dubai. Similarly, the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index 2009-2010 ranked Malta 13 out of 133 countries for its financial market sophistication.

So what is setting Malta apart from the more traditional domiciles and what does the future hold for the continued success of the island nation as a jurisdiction for the fund management

Dermot Butler, Chairman of the recently Maltese-registered Custom House Global Fund Services, is quick to point out the reasons behind their move to Malta, “We decided to redomicile our holding company to Malta because frankly the regulator in Malta (the MFSA) is more pragmatic, business friendly and helpful than anywhere else - it is actually quite
astounding. Today CHGFS is not only the Custom House Group holding company, but also operating as a full service alternative investment fund administrator and licensed Custodian of Funds of Funds.”

Malta’s accession to the EU in 2004 and its adoption of the Euro in 2008 undoubtedly changed the country’s status in many ways. Of course, as an EU member state it has established a comprehensive regulatory framework that is in conformity with all EU legislation. This places it in harmony with all other EU member countries. However, its comparative advantage is in retaining a much lower fees and cost structure. Vitally, professional investor funds (PIFs) are exempt from Maltese capital gains and income taxes, meaning non-residents are not liable to pay any income tax in Malta whilst benefiting from one of the world’s most extensive double-tax treaty networks. Numbering nearly 50 countries, this network includes all EU states, OECD member states and recently signed treaties with both the United States and China.

Butler is convinced that some fund managers are, “Leaving the UK because of the tax,”
and believes that, “There are some managers who are setting up in Malta because it’s a sensible place to have a management company, not just because it’s within the EU but also because it is relatively inexpensive in comparison to setting up in Luxembourg, Dublin or Switzerland.” This may explain why the variety of funds operating in Malta including hedge funds, SICAVs (an acronym for the Spanish, “sociedad de inversión de capital variable which is an open-ended collective investment scheme) and UCIT’s (Undertakings for Collective Investment in Transferable Securities), now constitute the largest single segment within the Maltese financial services industry.

Perhaps the biggest single factor in Malta’s achievements has been the conspicuous impact of the Malta Financial Services Authority (MFSA), the body responsible for the licensing and supervision of all Maltese-based investment funds. The regulator has been widely acclaimed for the manner in which it blends being flexible and accommodating with its adherence to international obligations. Much like the government of Malta capitalises on its diminutive size, which allows it to be flexible and pro-business, the MFSA as a regulator is can-do in its approach and, as a result, has succeeded in attracting important firms like Custom House to its shores.

Strikingly proactive in promoting Malta as a modern and efficient financial services centre, the MFSA has pursued a vigorous round of international conferences highlighting the
virtues of Malta’s regulatory framework and the comparative advantages for anyone wishing to re-domicile or set up business in Malta.

The MFSA’s role is to guarantee the country’s adherence to international best practices for probity and transparency, whilst encouraging innovation and competition within the
sector. Testament to their success has been the sudden spike in professional investor funds locating in Malta, now numbering some 400 funds operating in the jurisdiction; an increase of 44% since 2007 (Source - University of Malta).

Custom House Global Fund Services – one of the top independent administrators specialising in hedge funds and fund of funds has taken full advantage of this climate. The self-described “Specialist Fund Specialist”, recently won the prestigious HFM Award for “Best Administrator - Client Service”. With approximately US $40 billion in assets under administration, the figures speak for themselves and stand as testament to client satisfaction.

According to Custom House, Malta was a natural choice. Back in 2005, they brought a particular Canadian client to Malta. Butler explains, “There was a lot of quite complex legal structuring necessary, not only because the fund was being structured in Malta and due to the master-feeder structure of the fund we were doing, but also because there was some very delicate tax footwork that needed to be done, which the Maltese lawyers understood and helped achieve.”

Involving over 60 sub-funds, this was a landmark piece of financial engineering, and demonstrated the intellectual expertise and proficiency of Maltese finance professionals operating in the jurisdiction. Structured for The National Bank of Canada, this was
designed to combine the security of a fund vehicle with flexibility by a diverse portfolio of managed accounts. The master being a multi-segregated cell fund company with each segregated-cell fund representing a ring-fenced account. Thereby ensuring no
cross collateral risk.

As the Chairman of Custom House, Dermot Butler asserts, “This clearly enables the
manager to be very flexible: if something changes and the manager decides they don’t want to be in any particular sector, they can get out.Normally, with a hedge fund you are locked-in to an extent because you have to put in a redemption order, which could take up to eight weeks to process during which time the market could have done a lot of damage. By contrast, with daily dealing NAVs, the manager can get out when he or she wants. There is a lot of flexibility and transparency and that’s worked very well for everyone.”

Indeed, the success of this project was instrumental in Custom House’s decision to uproot and re-domicile its newly merged holding company to Malta. As Executive Director Albert
Cilia emphasizes, “Obviously we believe that there is a lot of potential for growth here and we are working with our partners in the UK, Equity Trust. It’s encouraging that we have won some big clients and I think that in the coming months, things will be kicking off here in Malta.” Dermot Butler is equally adamant in his
assessment, “I would add that Malta will grow and that it’s come quite a long way in a very short time. They are very pro-business here. Malta has changed dramatically and is now a sophisticated financial services centre.”

Custom House is effectively an independent company operating on its own but it is a member of the Equity Trust Group of Companies, which as Butler proudly states, “Is arguably the largest independent trust company in the world.” Custom House established itself in Malta after its merger with Equity Trust. Prior but the move Custom House had several years of experience in Malta, getting to know the service providers and regulators very well. It now administers some 30% of all Maltese funds and subfunds.

Such is Butler’s belief in the European microstate as a centre of excellence in the financial services sector, that he is often touted as an unofficial lobbyist for Malta. He elaborates by saying, “I have nothing against the Cayman Islands or other Caribbean centres and I expect them to thrive, probably on business from the BRIC countries. 

We are expanding the services we provideout of Malta, as our EU hub, not just because it is a nice place, but also because Malta is a lot less expensive than either Dublin or Luxembourg. What few people realise is that Malta is now the third biggest fund administration centre in the world. However, Malta’s great advantage today over the “offshore centres” of the Caribbean, is that it is in the EU, when being in the EU is likelyto be critical to any hedge fund or manager wishing to attract EU resident investors.”

In addition to Malta, Custom House has offices in Chicago, Dublin and Singapore, as well as Luxembourg and the Netherlands, and their unique service offering is a full 24/5 “round-the-world & round-the-clock” administration, covering all aspects of day to day operations that uses their PFS-“PAXUS” a fully integrated fund administration system.  

Their core offering is their daily dealing NAV (Net Asset Value) for a broad range of funds and sub-funds and the firm’s ability to “roll” the funds books from one regional office to the next and hence circumnavigate the globe seamlessly via one single integrated system. Simply put by Butler, “Malta is an important part of our daily dealing administration machine, which we are able to do because we have an excellent system and because of the positioning of our offices in Dublin, Malta, Singapore and Chicago.”

What is clear is that Malta has been a direct beneficiary of the fallout from the global financial crisis, as hedge funds, alternative investment vehicles and “offshore” tax havens (and really anything perceived as exotic) have increasingly attracted the scorn of both the media and public, and the concomitant ire of their political representatives, and the tax and regulatory authorities. 

Most notably, with the soon to be introduced EU AIFM (Alternative Investment Fund Management) Directive for alternative investment funds, no one yet knows what the effect of this legislation will be on the industry as a whole. However, given the zeitgeist for stricter controls it is likely to tighten the Custom House Expands with Malta scrutiny of the industry markedly and require an EU presence of some sort to get access to the EU investor market. Within Europe, this prevailing sentiment was recently exemplified by Angela Merkel’s hastily introduced moratorium on naked short selling. 

On the other side of the Atlantic, the Obama administration has also signalled its disdain for the industry and the perceived nefarious nature of hedge funds, short sellers (and) almost anyone else) operating out of the Caribbean.

Consequently, though an onshore jurisdiction, what Malta now offers the industry is a combination of some of the best advantages of an offshore centre whilst simultaneously being a full member of the European Union with a hard-won reputation for transparency and regulation. Hence, a good many funds have now re-domiciled to Malta to take advantage of this, moving from more exposed jurisdictions. 

For now Malta continues to register more funds and the close cooperation amongst the markets eco-system here (inter-alia custodians, legal advisors, fund directors, fund administrators and investment managers) andthe regulator has given Malta a clear competitive advantage in managing this impact.

As Professor Joe Bannister the MFSA’s Chairman said recently, “The world has experienced the worst economic conditions in the last 70 years, with the finance sector being one of the biggest casualties, yet Malta has seen its finance industry grow and its international reputation remain high. Our continued success is a tribute to the prudent policies of our banks and to our other financial institutions and to the high quality of the people who work in the industry. We have the expertise the world seeks, but more importantly we have established a sound reputation for stability, steadiness and high standards.”

Malta is therefore very likely to benefit from the phenomenon of, “a flight to safety” and the enhanced appreciation amongst alternative investment professionals for more regulated,
onshore funds - especially for those funds that are currently in the pipeline and looking for a sanctuary within the European Union. As a result of this sentiment, and in the words of Dermot Butler - Malta may well be, “About to have its day.

FDI An Entrepreneurial Culture

Since Malta gained independence from the UK in 1964, its economy has flourished and undergone many transformations. However, it was after 1979, when the Military Agreement between Malta and the United Kingdom expired leading to the closure of the UK’s military base on the island, that the country started to develop its industrial and service sector bases, focusing mainly on manufacturing and tourism. Evidence of early recognition in Malta’s potential is the presence, since 1971, of Germany’s highly successful toy manufacturer, Playmobil.

Malta’s progress, in five short decades of independence, is astonishing and serves as a reminder of how commercially minded the Maltese are. The nation has worked hard and fast to evolve with the times and even envisage future trends. Recognition has come in the form of impressive levels of foreign direct investment (FDI) – the country now has a highly productive manufacturing sector and is home to more than 200 international manufacturing and distribution companies.

A fifth of them underwent further major expansion in the past five years, which bears testament to their continued commitment to, and belief in, Malta. Manufacturing now makes up 17% of Malta’s GDP, a remarkable achievement given that, at the time of independence 46 years ago economic activity was minimal. 

Perhaps though it is unsurprising that the islands offer such a dynamic setting for business, the Maltese have long fostered an entrepreneurial spirit, rooted in their history as international traders in commerce and industry. Today there are many reasons why Malta is a special place to do business or to invest in. Amongst other things, it boasts a highly attractive incentive package, a stable economic and political environment, a strategic location, excellent air and shipping facilities and a highly educated, multilingual, skilled workforce.

This, combined with a pro-business climate, has made Malta a location of choice
for FDI and global trade. To facilitate this success further, Malta continues to invest
heavily to enhance international linkages. Undersea cables to the country have tripled, providing first-rate internet and telecommunications services. Air transportation has been made a priority making Malta better connected to the rest of the EU than many other member states. The country also enjoys impressive port and transhipment facilities with efficiency levels at the Freeport reaching record highs in 2009. Moreover, continued heavy investment in a 300-metre expansion of the quay will accommodate vessels of even greater capacity.

At the same time, the government has recognised the importance of investing in tertiary training in order to consolidate the connection between industry, education and workforce
development. Malta’s future economic advancement rests on the transition to higher value-added opportunities founded on a knowledge-based economy. As such, Malta College of Arts, Science & Technology (MCAST) has been further developed to improve the technical skills of the workforce and now commands a strong reputation in the private sector.

This readiness and responsiveness to market trends adds to the competitive advantages of the country’s business climate. Lufthansa Technik ostensibly recognized this potential when, back in 2003, it chose Malta as a base for a new venture. In addition, the country’s recent success in landing SR Technics, (another aircraft repair and maintenance company which sealed a deal to service easyJet’s fleet in Malta), is testament to the calibre of Malta as a “high skill and high value-added” commercial proposition.

As James Stewart, SR Technics’ CEO, puts it, “In today’s market, delivering the highest quality at the most attractive commercial terms is no longer a contradiction: it’s a must.” Alan Camilleri, the Chairman of Malta Enterprise – the government agency responsible for attracting inward investment and supporting enterprise in Malta - explains, “SR Technics wanted to set up at a lower cost location whilst at the same time maintaining the intricate and exacting standards required of the aerospace industry. Malta was picked from over 53 countries.”

Cor Vrieswijk, Operations Director of easyJet whose planes will shortly be serviced on the island by SR Technics, echoes this sentiment, “Malta has shown itself to be very competitive in the international market, by the very businesslike and swift approach of the Maltese government, as well as the quality of the workforce. easyJet was impressed with the Maltese education system that shall be responsible for providing the highly qualified
engineers for the maintenance facility.” Vrieswijk continues, “From a business point of view I was encouraged by the meetings I had with several business leaders. Without exception, they were positive about the work ethos of the Maltese and the engagement
of the government. Now the SRT maintenance facility is a fact, I can fully support these positive opinions.”

Referring to the lengths that Malta Enterprise was prepared to go to in order to facilitate SR Technics’ investment decision Camilleri was absolute, “Three years ago Malta didn’t have an avionics faculty, it didn’t even have a college in which to train airline maintenance technicians. Yet in just 36 months, we have managed to produce 500 qualified staff. This didn’t happen by chance. We sat down with the institutions, we supported them by setting up the faculties and we got the strategic partners to be able to certify these faculties for the European and global standards for the airline industry.

Then we incentivised students to take up these courses, because these were the requirements by industry and we managed to deliver.” This achievement is typical of the overall approach in Malta, as Camilleri elucidates, “I think that the secret of our success is that we are small so we can listen then act and we do this in a relatively short period of time. Structures are not very vertical; people are encouraged to make decisions. People like the ministers and me are very accessible. We can understand the beat and then we beat the drum!”

Further proof of this was the government’s tailor-made approach to dealing with the fallout of the recent global financial crisis. Instead of implementing blanket measures in the form of
general “stimulus packages” like a number of other sophisticated economies, the government convened with individual institutions that were suffering the effects or needed to downsize due to decreased demand. Together, in partnership with businesses (both local and international) the government took a proactive approach to safeguard jobs by providing funds for retraining.

Stainless Steel Products Ltd, a subsidiary in Malta of the Bradford-based Jacuzzi UK, was one such company to benefit from this close collaboration with the government. According to Camilleri, when business then started picking up again, investors appreciated how supportive the government had been and half the companies they had assisted in the past six months have since increased their investments in Malta.

Today the diversity of Malta’s economic activity is impressive, spanning numerous sectors including pharmaceuticals, mechanical engineering, electronics, maritime products,
biomedical equipment, rubber, plastics, packaging and security systems. The ever-increasing tertiary sector often takes advantage of the multilingual workforce and Malta has recently become home to several back office services and call centre operations for a number of large multinationals.

Malta is also strong when it comes to international trade. Its competitive edge as a supplier is not merely its proximity to Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, but also its reputation
for quality and reliability. Maltese companies tend to be large enough to cope with substantial orders, yet small and flexible enough to care for their clients and respond to their requirements with short lead times and quick deliveries. 

Camilleri is candid in his assessment of the country’s choices, “We realise that a country like Malta, with no natural resources, can only grow on the basis of two things: the local investors who continue to believe in their homeland and on the other hand the foreigners who believe that Malta is a good place for them to keep pouring in their resources and investing in infrastructure.

We realise those are the only two options for us to grow and obviously we are aggressive in pursuing both.” A core government strategy is to create niche areas in order to foster “centres of excellence” whether that is in ICT, remote gaming, financial services or the pharmaceutical industry. Indeed, Malta has been pioneering in a number of key areas and has realised that its status as an island and its distance from northern Europe need not hamper the achievement of its goals. Who would have imagined that Malta would become the “Mediterranean hub for remote gaming”? Yet it has and is flourishing under the watchful eye of Malta’s Lottery and Gaming Authority.

Malta was the first EU member state to regulate the remote gaming industry. According to the LGA’s CEO, Reuben Portanier, “In 2004 the regulations were all passed through the various stages at EU level. The UK followed in a very similar regulated way within a year.” What is clear is that there are incredible opportunities in a wide range of sectors. Malta Enterprise is leading a number of key developments that will create clusters of associated industries and will enable greater synergies.

One example is, Camilleri explains, “An investment of €28 million in a life sciences park
which touches on the one side with the new Mater Dei General Hospital and on the other side with the University of Malta.” He continues, “That will basically create a whole R&D knowledge village focused on life sciences. We are trying to attract other companies in life sciences from around the world to set up shop here, not only because we are a competitive low-cost location but also because we will be focused on R&D innovation. The aim will be to support the pharmaceutical industry which already exists in Malta.”

With developments like this and SmartCity Malta (a joint venture underway between Dubai’s SmartCity and the Government of Malta to create a self-sustained township for the knowledge economy), Dr Gonzi’s government is aiming to prove to the world that the country, though steeped in tradition, is ready for the future. Likewise, Malta Enterprise is spearheading an exciting new initiative that has just been launched – the creation of “Corporate Village Malta”.

The government has announced a call for expressions of interest and is looking to woo investment funds, property and construction companies, investment banks, venture capitalists and fund managers to invest in this ambitious

Urban regeneration project estimated to cost €200 million. When it comes to business, many may say “size matters” but try telling that to the Maltese. They have long learned what their strengths are and have capitalised on them. 

All their efforts have begun to pay dividends and the significant levels of FDI that Malta has attracted are a strong indicator both of Malta’s competitiveness and the wisdom of government policy. Indeed, Malta’s size makes it an ideal location for testing scalable energy technologies including smart grid design, wave and tidal power generation and algae fuel production. In brief, opportunities abound.


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