For more than a century, Moore Stephens International has focused on the shipping industry. A key part of the company for the yachting sector is Moore Stephens Isle of Man. It provides accountancy and tax, consultancy, and wealth-management services, plus yacht structuring, registration, and crew benefits to clients worldwide.
As the director of Moore Stephens Yachting, Ayuk Ntuiabane knows full well how megayacht ownership is akin to owning a business. He and his team, including VAT manager Grant Atchison, are particularly knowledgeable about the European Union’s VAT system. That’s why Ntuiabane regularly speaks at industry conferences and writes articles for industry publications. He also publishes a monthy newsletter, Yachting VAT Note. It’s also why Ntuiabane is an ideal interview for the Megayacht News Leadership Series. Here, he provides insight into why the EU has cracked down on VAT compliance and, in some cases, has changed or fine-tuned rules to be stricter. It’s a situation that has caught some owners by surprise, especially impacting the traditional summer season in the Med. As Ntuiabane explains, “There could be more surprises ahead if the lag between compliance standards expected and owners not paying attention continues.”
Q: What spurred your interest in the yachting field?
A: One key phase in my past career involved working in the British export trade, where I was constantly in touch with EU VAT and Customs officials. I built up an interest and a practical knowledge of VAT internationally, which formal professional training has since strengthened. In 1999 I joined Moore Stephens Isle of Man. The firm’s client base included some of the earliest owners of superyachts as well as key service providers in the yachting sector. As the market for megayachts and private aircraft boomed, so did the demand for good VAT advice. Although some of our clients don’t use Isle of Man structures to register or own their assets, they or their lawyers come to us to get their VAT structures right and tax-efficient wherever they will own them.
A big part of my job is the ability to communicate globally with clients from many different countries. Linguistics, which is also part of my background, helps me understand their needs and communicate my advice. A high level of personal service is required in this industry, and it helps a lot to deal with a complicated subject if you can really hear what people say and they can understand you easily. So yachting and VAT really unite and challenge my skill base, and I love that.
Q: You have a great deal of knowledge about the EU’s VAT system and its impact on yachts. How has it changed over the past decade: more vs. less regulations, more vs. less exclusions, etc.?
A: The industry has evolved from an informal gentleman’s club/cottage industry without clear systems to a regulated one. Our expertise in VAT has developed into a niche service. We provide advice on ownership structuring, fiscal compliance, and consulting. With the EU tax authorities becoming more focused on the industry, it has become more formalized. Working with key players in the sector such as owners and their representatives, professional bankers, lawyers, managers and other intermediaries, we have the advantage of timely insight into how the industry is developing. We feel privileged and lucky.
Q: Last summer, several yachts encountered difficulties due to European authorities believing the owners had violated customs regulations. While I realize your firm was not directly involved in any of the conversations, can you shed light on what caused this seemingly sudden interest and high number of yachts being involved?
A: In fact, we were involved in the background in some of the cases, supporting and advising the lawyers and others who were taking up the yacht owners’ cases with the relevant authorities. The context flows from my answer to your last question. As a result of the industry’s evolution, there is more of a focus on the tax and compliance. Existing VAT rules are being more vigorously enforced, some rules have been re-worked so as to be more effective, and some rules are being fine-tuned so as to be more rigorously applied.
These changes have been combined with a lag in the industry whereby some owners have not moved with the times and have been caught unawares. There has been a tendency in the past for some to rely on handed-down practices and conventional wisdom that is not necessarily the law. These practices were believed to work, but that was because the authorities were not paying too much attention. Some of these assumptions are now a source of risk. For example, the arrest of at least two of the yachts in Italy last summer was partly an attempt to enforce laws relating to temporary importation. In another arrest the authorities were testing the legal standing of non-EU flags in the context of the VAT rules.
There could be more surprises ahead if the lag between compliance standards expected and owners not paying attention continues. Mistakes in matters of VAT are expensive. At Moore Stephens, we’re renowned for our conservative approach to VAT to avoid these mistakes – we don’t do “schemes.” Now, more than ever before, owners should always seek professional advice for their specific circumstances.
Q: France recently released information on changes to its VAT law and policy pertaining to commercial vessels. Since “commercial” includes charter yachts, many owners, charter clients, and charter brokers are concerned about having higher costs. Some brokers even fear it having a deeply detrimental impact on the summer Med charter season. Can you explain what the policy change entails, and how it will affect these groups?
A: The policy change in France specifically means that yachts/vessels are not entitled to a VAT exemption unless they operate on the high seas. France changed its legislation to say so. However, as we speak we’re still to know from France how it will enforce that change in a down-to-earth practical manner. However, from a client safety perspective, and for reasons to do with legal certainty, the change means that yacht owners who wish to charter in the EU should seek VAT registration so as to exercise their right to reclaim the tax that they suffer within the tax system. We’re continuing to monitor the situation and will cover any further practical guidance in upcoming Yachting VAT Notes.
Q: Your monthly Yachting VAT Note newsletter helps shed light on many current tax-related issues. Do you find that the readers are mostly captains, financial/legal advisers to the owners, and others in the owners’ circle of influence? Or do you also have some owners regularly reading it?
A: Our subscription list is made up of a broad spectrum of people within the industry, including owners, professional intermediaries, banks, captains, and crew. It’s read by everyone who wants to keep up to speed with the practical VAT issues affecting yachts from an EU perspective. We’re flattered to know that people are finding the Yachting VAT Note to be such a useful resource. (Editor’s note: To read copies of previous Yachting VAT Notes, please visit the company’s archive, or to sign up to receive the note, please email.)
Q: Are other countries, whether in Europe or elsewhere, considering amending their tax policies pertaining to commercial vessels?
A: As the yachting industry expands, many countries are taking an interest. One should naturally expect an evolution of the attitudes and practices relating to yachting. From an EU perspective, Croatia is likely to join the EU next year. Given how popular that country has become as a destination for yachts, one should expect significant adjustments there because of that change of its status. We will be monitoring the impact of this on the industry and will cover any updates in an upcoming Yachting VAT Note.