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Press say UBS settlement comes at a cost

Agreement in UBS tax case... but what will the consequences be?

(Reuters)

Swiss newspapers have mixed feelings about Wednesday's accord to settle the tax case against UBS bank in the United States, but they all agree there is a price to pay.

Headlines include "Too early to rejoice", "UBS gets out of a tough spot" and "Agreement which avoids the worst". The international press said the deal would have far-reaching consequences.

They refer to the fact that the details worked out between Swiss and US negotiators are not yet known and therefore the consequences for Swiss banking and its prized customer confidentiality are not yet easy to assess.

US tax authorities have been seeking the confidential details of up to 52,000 clients suspected of cheating the US tax system.

The Bund newspaper of Bern points out that Switzerland has now come to the rescue of what was once its largest bank three times since October 2008.

"Official Switzerland has to lick its wounds. It had to allow itself to become a hostage of one single enterprise because it could not let it collapse because of its national importance. That leaves a bitter aftertaste."

And the Berner Zeitung makes the point that if the details of thousands of US customers are handed over, this would be giving in to the US authorities again.

Strong pressure

The editorial in the Geneva newspaper Le Temps says the "UBS affair", the strong pressure put on the country by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the prospect of new talks with Europe on tax matters have one thing in common. They show that Switzerland is on the defensive.

"It [Switzerland] reacts in absolute secrecy and without any indication of a clear strategy."

The Financial Times of London says the UBS case "has significant implications for the future of client confidentiality, amid fears among many Swiss bankers that a dilution of traditional secrecy rules could prompt a defection by worried foreign customers".

It adds: "The difficulty of finding a formula allowing Bern to authorise a breach of secrecy rules, while maintaining the façade of confidentiality, probably explains why the deal took so long, after lawyers indicated agreement in principle last month."

In this context, La Liberté of Fribourg says the damage has already been done.

"In the minds of foreign clients of Swiss banks, nothing has been the same since a certain day in February 2009 when the names of 255 American holders of UBS accounts were handed over to the justice authorities of their country."

"Treason"

The paper describes that as an act of "pure and simple treason".

"Switzerland went a step too far. Its banking secrecy will never recover. Neither will its status as a tax paradise."

The Tribune de Genève sounds an alarm bell by commenting that the US administration may now aim to "attack" about 20 other Swiss banks, including those in Geneva – a bastion of private banking.

It also says that the compromise reached could cost the Swiss authorities as much as SFr80 million ($74.4 million), or to put it more accurately, Swiss taxpayers.

The prestigious Neue Zürcher Zeitung says that the biggest relief should be in the UBS camp after fears of possible collapse.

UBS destiny

"Today there are grounds for greater confidence. It will not be a judge in far away America, but UBS itself that can set the course for its future. The bank has won back control of its destiny."

The paper says that the Americans also have reason for optimism.

"With the UBS pilot case, the Internal Revenue Service has sent a clear message that no bank or bank client is safe from [hiding from] the tax authorities."

The Tages-Anzeiger, also of Zurich, is critical of UBS, even though Swiss negotiators may have come up with a good deal.

"UBS with its negligent, illegal behaviour not only made great difficulties for itself. It disavowed customers, Switzerland as a financial centre and dragged the state into an extremely delicate situation.

"Total loss"

"It's a total loss, which you cannot put a price on and which no one will take responsibility for."

The Wall Street Journal notes that while the settlement ends a long-running chapter, the bank is still trying to recover from a blow to its reputation.

"Huge flows of money have flowed out since the dispute began, and the bank has indicated it expects further outflows."

It adds: "UBS has largely written off the US market and is seeking more business in Asian and Middle Eastern cities to replace the loss."

Robert Brookes, swissinfo.ch

UBS and the US

On May 14, 2008, former UBS employee Bradley Birkenfeld and a Liechtenstein businessman were charged by the US authorities with helping an American billionaire avoid paying taxes on $200 million of assets deposited in Swiss and Liechtenstein bank accounts.

Birkenfeld turned whistleblower, giving details of UBS private banking practices to US prosecutors.

In July, a Miami court authorised the Internal Revenue Service to issue a summons on UBS demanding the release of confidential information on clients the agency suspected of tax evasion.

In the same month, UBS told a congressional hearing that it would stop offshore banking activities for US clients.

UBS agreed in February to pay $780 million and name some United States clients to resolve criminal fraud charges against it. However, this did not affect a separate demand from the IRS for the details of 52,000 UBS clients, in direct contravention of Swiss banking secrecy laws.

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