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Exploring Financial Horizons: Insights from CEO Tony Fe’ao of Cook Islands Finance

Step into the world of Cook Islands Finance with an exclusive interview featuring CEO Tony Fe’ao. Gain insights into the innovative financial products, brand-building endeavours, and strategic partnerships shaping the organization’s dynamic presence in the ever-evolving international financial services landscape. This interview unveils the multifaceted strategies and forward-thinking initiatives propelling Cook Islands Finance on its mission in the global financial arena.

NEE: What is the remit, mandate and role of Cook Islands Finance?

Tony Fe’ao: The Cook Islands Financial Services Development Authority, (FSDA), operating as Cook Islands Finance, is the government agency tasked with the promotion and development of the Cook Islands financial services industry (FSI). Our vision for the FSI is one of an industry that is economically beneficial to the people of the Cook Islands, socially responsible and which enhances our reputation as a relevant, compliant and progressive international financial centre.

We actively work with the both public and private sectors to develop new products and services whilst addressing challenges the industry faces and working towards effective solutions. This collective effort is not only geared towards fostering industry and economic growth, but also creating meaningful employment opportunities for the people of the Cook Islands.

NEE: You became Cook Islands Finance CEO in July 2023. Parking modesty and humility for a moment, what do you like to think the Board saw in you that led you to becoming the successful candidate? What do you hope to bring to the role, and what is your vision for the organisation that looks to build on the successes of your predecessors?

Tony Fe’ao: I’d like to think the Board saw in me a leader with a multifaceted skill set, that brings a unique mix of marketing acumen, leadership experience and a proven track record of aligning strategies with organisational goals to lead the FSI into the next phase of growth.

Throughout my career, I’ve held key roles in strategic leadership in both the private and public sector, worked with iconic Cook Islands businesses, and offered marketing and brand consultancy services for agencies both at home and abroad. These experiences shaped my professional growth, contributing to the wealth of knowledge and expertise I bring to the table.

My vision for Cook Islands Finance is to build our brand presence through innovative marketing strategies and collaborative partnerships with both public and private sector. I also aspire to strengthen relationships with industry stakeholders, many of which have decades of experience in the FSI. I see immense value in the ‘rising tide’ principle, where as an agency we promote collective success and empowerment. Top of Form

Previous CEOs have built a solid legal and technical foundation for Cook Islands Finance, leaving behind a rich reservoir of content, thought leadership, and articles that will underpin our marketing and brand messaging for many years to come.

NEE: Despite only taking on the role recently, you’ve already taken Cook Islands Finance on the road, most recently to the ABA Family Law Conference in Kentucky USA and STEP Asia in Hong Kong. What other upcoming opportunities will there be for HNWIs and their advisors to press the flesh with you and discover more about the wealth planning and asset protection tools available to them in the Cook Islands?

Tony Fe’ao: One of the best opportunities to press flesh with our industry leaders is to visit our little paradise! As part of their due diligence process, estate planning and wealth management attorneys often visit the Cook Islands to establish in-person connections with trustees. The loop road around the main island of Rarotonga is only 32km long and we have a small and closely-knit community. Ask around and you’ll quickly find someone who either knows or is related to who you’re looking for. We’re more than happy to facilitate meetings with government and industry leaders or simply meet over a coffee or tropical cocktail.

On the international front, we are planning to travel again to the United States in 2024. The US market is the mainstay of our business in the Cook Islands, simply because of the highly litigious nature of society and US HNWIs being subject to vexatious and frivolous litigation. It makes sense to continue to build awareness and presence there, especially for new products like the Cook Islands International Relationship Property Trust, that was created to protect the property of spouses and couples in relationships.

NEE: What can you tell us about the nature and extent of service provision in the Cook Islands?

Tony Fe’ao: The Cook Islands FSI offers a range of core services

Trust and Company services: The Cook Islands provides a comprehensive range of fiduciary and corporate services to individuals, their families, and businesses seeking wealth protection, succession planning, and expert financial guidance for long-term security and prosperity.

Banking: The Cook Islands provides retail and commercial banking options to its residents as well as non-residents. Non-residents establishing trusts and entities through the Cook Islands’ international legislation can also access private banking and asset management services in a number of the world’s leading financial centres.

Insurance: Through the insurers, managers, brokers and agents licensed to carry on insurance business, the Cook Islands is able to offer an extensive range of insurance services including life, health, accident, property, marine, aviation and travel. The Cook Islands can also provide captive insurance services to organisations looking to self-insure.

Legal & Accounting: The Cook Islands has excellent legal resources to assist clients. All licensed trustee companies have in-house legal counsel. The Cook Islands also offer excellent accounting resources to assist clients with their accounting & tax needs. Accountants in the Cook Islands are predominantly New Zealand qualified with domestic and overseas experience.

NEE: What makes the Cook Islands unique as an international financial services centre? What would you describe as the key differentiator? How would you reassure those who may be concerned a jurisdiction of its size may not have the requisite reservoir of talent from which to draw to provide a service that is comparable to or exceeds that provided by other IFCs with larger populations?

Tony Fe’ao: A key differentiator is the experience and expertise available to our clientele.

The Cook Islands was a pioneer in the asset protection. With 4 decades of operation under our belts our trust and corporate services industry stands as a mature and well-established sector. Our laws have been rigorously tested over time, solidifying their reliability.

The industry has many seasoned practitioners with extensive experience and expertise. They are well-versed in the intricacies of wealth planning and structuring, and the administration of those structures.  These factors instill confidence in clients, assuring them that when selecting a jurisdiction, the Cook Islands is experienced and well-equipped to safeguard and manage their wealth effectively.

NEE: Originally, the Cook Islands was best known for its much-aped asset protection trust. What would you describe as the stand-out product today?

Tony Fe’ao: The cornerstone of the FSI remains the Cook Islands Asset Protection Trust. Since its inception in 1989, The International Trust Act is often referred to as the Gold Standard in asset protection law. The law was innovative and ground-breaking at the time, its success reflected in the number of jurisdictions that have since copied it in part or in whole.

NEE: What is it about the International Relationship Property Trust that makes it so innovative?

In December 2021 the Cook Islands passed the International Relationship Property Trusts Act (‘Act’) providing for the establishment of Cook Islands International Relationship Property Trusts (‘IRPT’).

The Act is unique in that it provides a statutory regime under which couples in a relationship may settle an irrevocable trust and provide certainty as to how settled property is administered, managed and distributed during their relationship and in the event of their separation whilst protecting it from themselves as well as foreign courts where their circumstances change. The property is required to be held for the benefit of a couple and their issue in accordance with the couple’s agreement as set out in the trust instrument.

Despite courts often looking through trusts in matrimonial property disputes and settlements, it has also been observed that that the court should hesitate before overriding a decision or agreement made during a marriage to isolate funds in a separate legal structure for the formal benefit not only of the spouses but also of their children and remoter issue.

It is this argument, and that there is no clear legal premise that addresses the fundamental issue of keeping the assets of a family intact rather than being exposed to forced division and distribution upon the separation or divorce of the spouses, that has given rise to the Act.

NEE: With international AML/CFT controls and KYC criteria seemingly ever more exacting, how does the Cook Islands manage to achieve compliance while at the same time assuring its client base both existing and prospective of unrivalled discretion and privacy?

Tony Fe’ao: Over recent years the Cook Islands has passed laws and regulations necessary to meet international standards and promote and encourage compliant financial activity and business operations whilst maintaining its reputation for being a progressive, stable and safe jurisdiction to do business.

The ever increasing demands on jurisdictions to comply with international standards, including disclosure of financial information, would suggest that the confidentiality and privacy of one’s financial affairs can no longer be taken as a certainty. However, whilst governments should not be denied their rightful tax take and those profiting from crime should not be encouraged, there needs to be some comfort for those going about their lawful business that their personal information will not be available to those with no lawful need for it. The balance struck by the Cook Islands in this regard is to meet its international obligations but, through its laws, retain an individual’s right to legitimate confidentiality.

The Cook Islands does not have public registers for beneficial ownership of incorporated entities or trusts. The Commissioner of the Financial Supervisory Commission and the Financial Intelligence Unit do have investigative powers where there is reason to believe financial misconduct has taken place. However, the information they obtain will only be shared in accordance with the provisions of the law. Fishing expeditions will not be tolerated.

The Cook Islands approach to meeting its international obligations whilst recognizing and providing legitimate confidentiality for those doing business in and with the Cook Islands, should give governments, institutions, businesses and individuals globally great comfort when dealing with the jurisdiction and its financial services industry.

NEE: Are you looking to diversify/appeal to any new markets as part of a diversification process? If so, which of these are proving to be most receptive to the Cook Islands’ charms in respect of the structuring and management of private wealth? Why is this, do you think?

Tony Fe’ao: We are looking to continue to develop brand awareness in the Asian market. We have a diaspora that that spans the globe, but in particular the Asia-Pacific region. We have strong connections in the Asia market and our trust companies have been dealing with clients there for many years. In fact, we have a number of Cook Islanders that cut their teeth in our local offshore industry that are flourishing in financial centres throughout the region.