Are we getting the Colombo Port City Financial Centre right?

portcity

By H. Dabarera and KD Vimanga.

Background

The Colombo Port City commission bill is to be debated in parliament this week.  Over the last few weeks, Sri Lankans have contemplated if the proposed Colombo Port City is the messiah that will rescue the country’s economy or whether it is another Trojan Horse that will throw firewood into the already smoldering regional geopolitical furnace. 

The Port City as a model has the potential to be a driver of growth.  For that, it must be governed well within a globally accepted, transparent and accountable regulatory framework. The project can bring in much needed foreign investment and kickstart growth especially at a time when the state of public finance is weak with a looming risk of default of debt. 

The major part of the investment for the Colombo Port City is already made, hence there’s no option other than making use of it and making it work. However, it must be done in a manner that does not compromise the best interests of Sri Lanka and our regional partners. 

The proposed bill aspires to have a financial centre within the proposed “special economic zone” in the likes of financial centres such as Singapore, London and New York. Then it is crucial that such a centre maintains a separate legal and regulatory framework that is unhindered by the delays and loopholes in the local court system and is established in accordance with international norms and practices. If implemented correctly, a financial centre can open up opportunities in investment banking, insurance, off-shore financial services, hedge funds, institutional investors, clearing houses, etc. A financial centre combined with international living standards and financing options can also be attractive for tech startups especially those aspiring to operate in the South Asian region. This creates opportunities for ambitious Sri Lankans for jobs they have to now go overseas.  

However, this is a process that is protracted over a longer period of time and is dependent on the confidence and trust that the project invokes for investors. The key to building trust and confidence is dependent on two main factors. One, having a sound financial regulatory system.  Two, having global recognition and acceptance for the governing law.  As a matter of fact, most financial centres resort to a framework based on English Common Law. 


Challenges

The comparative advantage Sri Lanka has compared to regional financial centre’s such as Dubai, Mauritius, Singapore, Hong Kong, etc. is limited in its strategic location, hence attracting investors to bypass established Financial Centres will take significant effort. The comparative advantage Sri Lanka offers must be unique to attract the global investor! 

The Island’s geographic proximity to the sub-continent and the present geopolitical landscape of securing friends and off-shore assets by the regional super powers makes a compelling case for many to develop the Colombo Port City as a regional hub to manage money from the heavy rollers in the region. 

However, becoming such a magnet for investment can only be done by building bridges with our regional partners. But the question is, is that simply enough? One might argue yes, as Sri Lanka’s economy is only a shade above 80 billion USD. However, the question arises if the global financial elite such as HSBC, Deutsche Bank, Citi Bank, Bank of China, IOB, JP Morgan etc, will enter Colombo Port City to do business. 

Is providing tax concessions simply going to bring in these reputed banks?  Observing the behaviour of these banks simply illustrate that a vast majority of these banks make big investment decisions such as opening onshore operations by assessing a whole range of factors including the regulatory environment, especially in the case of emerging markets. 

So, is the proposed financial regulatory arrangement sufficient? At present the act vests power onto the proposed commission to regulate and monitor and steer banking operations within the area of the Colombo Port City with the concurrence of the identified national bodies such as the Minister of Finance and the Monetary Board. Therefore, the bill lacks a regulatory framework conforms with international best practices set out by institutions such as the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision and the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). This is done in order to facilitate such capital flows due to the serious concerns on Money Laundering. So, it is vital that this issue of a lack of a supervised financial regulatory system is addressed, if the port city is to be operated as a productive financial centre. 

A second serious drawback of the drafted bill is the lack of an accepted global recognized governing framework such as English Law. If we are going to benchmark ourselves with established financial centres such as Singapore and Dubai, the said financial centre must be framed around English Common Law.  The rationale for this stems from the fact that, English Common Law underpins the legal systems of the world’s four top international financial centres—London, Hong Kong and Singapore. This is further exemplified by how the Dubai Financial centre functions as an independent jurisdiction governed by an English Common Law framework which is distinct from the rest of the UAE. Such a framework will bring in operational and cross jurisdictional mobility. This is because the global financial sector already functions on an English Common Law dominated platform. Moving to complaint jurisdiction with the same legal norms is the standard best practice. 

In fact, Sri Lanka ranks poorly in the World Bank’s Doing Business Indicator (99 out of 190 countries), due to the country’s fledgling legal system related issues and has fallen behind regional peers such as Nepal and India. 

So to attract the global banking elite such a framework is preferable and will not only open the core financial sectors such as banking, securities and derivatives, but also related sectors such as insurance, shipping, international trade, commodities and logistics. 

The Legal Framework for settlement of disputes.

For resolution of disputes the Commission is expected to establish an “International Commercial Dispute Resolution Centre.” Any dispute that arises within the Port City between the Commission and other entities within Port City shall be resolved by way of arbitration. Further, all agreements made by every authorised person with the Commission should have a provision on mandatory reference to arbitration for any dispute that arises within Port City. The International Arbitration Centre shall be the sole authority to hear all such disputes within the Port City. 

However, with regards to disputes that authorised persons within Port City can face over business activities carried out with other entities from all over the world, they will have the discretion to resort to any form of conflict resolution; litigation or any form of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) mechanism in any jurisdiction of the world. Hence, the reputation of our International Arbitration Centre will matter immensely. Especially if we are to ensure that these disputes can even be heard within the Port City in the form of ADR. This will bring in much needed business to the arbitration centre while reducing the cost to the investors within the Port City as other centres such as London, New York, Singapore, Hong Kong, Dubai, etc will be a costlier option than Colombo. 

International Arbitration Centres in Singapore and Hong Kong have gained worldwide recognition as leading arbitration hubs. They have made a significant contribution to the economic growth of these countries and helped them attract international business, trade and FDI. Thus, if strategically utilised, an international arbitration centre can be complementary to the growth of international business within the country. However, in order to ensure such results, it is essential that the International Arbitration Centre has in place a proper set of rules and principles to ensure swift resolution of disputes and ease through predictability and consistency to the business community. 

The current International Arbitration Centre in Sri Lanka, despite being based upon the UNCITRAL model law of Arbitration, has ultimately failed in winning over the confidence of the public and investors due to the arbitration proceedings dragging too long (as long as three years in certain instances). In the world of finance, time is money as money never sleeps. So special emphasis must be placed on maximising efficiency within the arbitration centre. Additionally, constant political instability in the country and the failure of the judiciary to uphold rule of law has also acted as hindrances to propel Sri Lanka as a global hub for International Arbitration.

Drawing from these failures, it is evident that if the Port City is to become like Singapore or Hong Kong as an International Arbitration Centre it needs to introduce sound principles that are able to win over the confidence of the business community. 

A case for Legal Neutrality and Jurisdictional Independence  

It is also important for the International Arbitration Centre at the Colombo Port City to establish legal neutrality in the eyes of International Stakeholders. Legal neutrality is of utmost importance for a Financial Centre as impartiality is key to attract investors and reputed financial institutions. Hence, ‘trust’ in resolving disputes impartially and transparently will be a deal maker for the Colombo Ports City to become a success. Especially as it will be competing with financial centres in the region, of the likes of Dubai and Singapore who enjoy reputational synergies due to the merits of maintaining neutrality and also efficiency. This further makes a serious case for the Colombo Port City to be an independent jurisdiction within an English Common Law framework. 

An International Arbitration Centre, manned by local expertise may not deliver the credibility investors seek from a virgin financial zone that has to compete with established facilities that operate with a proven track record on efficiency, transparency and infrastructure. Hence, the International Arbitration Centre can be opened to accommodate foreign professionals with a proven track in arbitration. The addition of such provisions to the existing Bill can make the International Arbitration Centre at the Colombo Port City attractive and marketable to become an alternative Financial Centre for the South Asian region. Further the inclusion of English Common Law which the international financial markets are very well versed in can bring in significant benefits when functioning as a financial centre.  If this fundamental issue is not addressed the Colombo Port City will yet again be a case of missing the bus yet again.

The authors are part of the policy analysis unit of the Advocata Institute, a free-market think tank. Their views are their own.  For more on Advocata please www.visit advocata.org