Friday, 6 March 2009

Swiss banking secrecy - a no win situation

At a press conference on Friday, the Swiss President failed to deliver on any specifics in relation to the international tax dispute with the United States Government involving UBS and the identities of approximately 50,000 US taxpayers that are suspected to be engaged in some form of tax evasion schemes. The Swiss government are becoming increasingly isolated on the banking secrecy issue, and with pressure coming from Germany, France and other EU members as well as the US, there is a risk that Switzerland could see its status as one of the more desirable banking domiciles transform into something more like that of an outcast in the financial system of the future.

According to Reuters

Switzerland has yet to respond beyond forceful defenses of banking secrecy as a fundamental part of Swiss identity and tradition -- not to mention the economy, which has benefited greatly under the system over the last seven decades. The current rules allow for international cooperation in cases of tax fraud but strictly prohibit assistance in matters of tax evasion -- an unclear distinction that will now be re-examined by the expert commission.

Finance Minister Hans-Rudolf Merz said a group of experts brought together by the Swiss government to discuss how the country should proceed with its bank secrecy rules will give an initial report in around 14 days.

"Banking secrecy shall be guaranteed in the future," Merz said, defiantly rejecting foreign criticism of how Swiss banks work. "Protecting the private sphere against unjustified government encroachment is deeply rooted."

Merz will meet the finance ministers of both Austria and Luxembourg, which also have bank secrecy, on Sunday to discuss the international pressure each country is facing and how to avoid being placed on a blacklist of tax havens.

Switzerland has enjoyed unusual benefits as a money center for many years in the smoke and mirrors world that is now starting to come apart, and the reasons why Swiss bankers historically have had things relatively easy rested largely on the secrecy guarantee as well as a supposed tradition of prudence in financial management. In addition to pressure to clean up their act on the secrecy issue the recently announced massive losses at UBS have revealed that the gnomes of Zurich were no wiser than their counterparts in London and New York when it came to structured financial products.

It’s beginning to increasingly like a no-win situation for the Swiss government. On the one hand if the secrecy assurance is taken away quite a lot of the super-rich could decide that it's time to look elsewhere to park their money. On the other hand if the Swiss government does decide to retain its secrecy traditions there is a growing likelihood that new controls being contemplated as part of the G20 in its plans for a new financial architecture would marginalize Switzerland’s financial centers even further. Just the prospect of increased vigilance by foreign tax authorities will unsettle many who may be thinking about continuing with their numbered Swiss bank accounts as they contemplate the possibility of becoming more exposed to prosecution from governments that are getting hungrier by the day to boost tax revenues.

1 comment:

  1. The Swiss government knows very well that if they give in, their banking industry will be over.