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Swiss set sights on the Big Apple

Swiss bankers and regulators are in the United States this week to fly the flag for Switzerland as a financial centre.

The trip is a prelude to an eight-week festival called "swisspeaks" in New York, which is a unique celebration of everything Swiss.

The main financial event takes place on Wednesday in New York and features a panel discussion followed by a dinner attended by this year's Swiss president, Pascal Couchepin, and former Texas senator, Phil Gramm.

Gramm, who will deliver one of the keynote speeches, is now vice chairman of UBS Warburg, the investment arm of Switzerland's biggest bank.

On Tuesday, a seminar is being held in Washington to sing the virtues of the Swiss financial regulatory environment to staff in Congress and federal regulatory agencies.

The New York event is a follow-up to a similar function in March last year under the banner "Swiss Plus", a partnership of the Swiss Bankers Association, the SWX Swiss Exchange, the Swiss Financial Services Group and the Telekurs Group.

"The basic aim is to inform New York's financial community about the strengths of the Swiss financial centre," James Nason of the Swiss Bankers Association told swissinfo.

Banking secrecy

"It's also to hammer home the message that Swiss financial privacy certainly does not protect terrorists and criminals, if that was ever a worry, and to tell people that Switzerland is a very well regulated international financial centre," he added.

Although the issue of dormant accounts from the Holocaust era clouded relations between Switzerland and the US several years ago, it is now considered by many to be a closed chapter.

"That was obviously a very big issue several years ago. It has reduced now in salience... the court is distributing money now but that wasn't really the catalyst for this information event," Nason commented.

Myths

"It was more a realisation that today you can't just sit in an armchair and expect the world to understand you. You have to get off your backside and proactively tell the world about certain things, to demolish myths and legends and inform people about the real state of affairs in your financial centre," he added.

The Bankers Association has been at pains over the years to quash the myth that anyone can walk into a Swiss bank with a suitcase of cash and open an account or that anyone can open an anonymous account. Nason says such ideas are "straight out of thriller books".

"Also since September 11, there were reports flying around initially that the terrorists had their money in places like Switzerland, where financial privacy is sacrosanct.

"We try to explain that Swiss financial privacy or bank customer confidentiality isn't 100 per cent absolute. When a criminal investigation is underway, it simply doesn't exist," he added.

Some 300 people from New York's financial community, including stock dealers, investment bankers, financial advisers and institutional asset managers, have been invited to Wednesday's event.

Brains trust

The panel discussion, a kind of brains trust on stage, takes place at the Metropolitan Club.

Speakers include Urs Roth, CEO of the Swiss Bankers Association, Daniel Zuberbühler, director of the Swiss Federal Banking Commission, Swiss private banker Pierre Mirabaud, and John Fund, a member of the Wall Street Journal's editorial board.

Nason told swissinfo that the panel might have to field questions about what progress Switzerland is making in tracking down and freezing terrorist-connected funds.

He said other subjects were likely to be corporate governance and accounting standards in Switzerland after the Enron and WorldCom scandals in the US and what Switzerland is doing to fight money laundering.

"It's an open floor, which is really the idea. Our guests can ask what they like to inform themselves about the Swiss financial centre," Nason said.

Entertaining the elite of the Big Apple's financial world comes with a hefty price tag, but Nason thinks the money is well spent.

"You can't take 300 New York financial professionals out for a hamburger and chips.

"You have to do things properly because these are very busy people who probably have dozens of invitations every week to functions such as these. And yes, certainly, it's not cheap."

swissinfo, Robert Brookes

In brief

Under the banner Swiss Plus, Switzerland is showcasing its financial centre in New York.

Wednesday's event will feature a panel discussion and a dinner attended by this year's Swiss president, Pascal Couchepin, and former Texas senator Phil Gramm.

The idea is to inform New York's financial community about the strengths of the Swiss financial centre.

The event is also to hammer home the message that Swiss banking secrecy does not protect terrorists and criminals.

Some 300 New York financial professionals have been invited to the function at the Metropolitan Club.

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