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Banking ombudsman flooded with complaints

(Keystone)

The global financial crisis has not only hit banks, investors and savers hard, but also Switzerland's banking ombudsman.

At a news briefing on Friday in Zurich, Hanspeter Häni said his office had to deal with 4,073 complaints last year, a huge increase from the 1,505 he received in 2007.

Most of the extra burden came from last September's collapse of the United States investment bank Lehman Brothers, which provoked 1,800 complaints from people who thought their money was safe.

"Part of their hard-earned savings was lost and they didn't even think they could lose money on what was proposed to them as capital-guaranteed investments," Häni told swissinfo.

At present, there are about 1,200 files pending, with two-thirds of them relating to Lehman Brothers' products.

Häni, as a neutral figure, did not disclose names of individual Swiss banks involved in such transactions, but it is no secret that Switzerland's second-largest bank, Credit Suisse, has been in for much of the criticism.

Clients have complained that they were not told about the possible risks of such deals. Banks argue that their clients were informed.

"I think [our work] has become even more difficult than it was before... We now have cases which last months, some more than half a year," he said.

In the past, 60 per cent of cases were dealt with within a month. Ten per cent were handled within two months and a further ten per cent needed three months.

Bottleneck

"For the time being we reckon that it takes several months before an [individual] case is settled from our point of view." The bottleneck isn't just with the Swiss banking ombudsman but also with the banks, which, according to Häni, have to put in a "considerable effort" to answer his demands.

Häni has never had a large staff but it is now almost double the size of a year ago, having risen to the equivalent of nine full-time people.

"We have a very heavy workload but it's not stress. We know how to handle it. We are organised. It's just time consuming."

Bank bashing?

Häni insisted that in his position as ombudsman he could not afford to be a critic of the banks. "Sometimes people expect that I bash their bank and that's not my job. My job is to find a solution in a dispute.

"Theoretically I have no power at all because I am not a judge. I have to convince a bank that it made a mistake and that it should correct it. That's the issue," he said.

Häni is pragmatic in his function. He has to ask questions as well as be totally impartial. But there are occasions when he would like to hop across the fence, so to speak.

"I admit sometimes I would really like to be able to name and shame. My colleague from Canada, he can. I can't.

"I think at the end of the day it would be counter-productive. I need the confidence of the banks as well as that of the clients."

swissinfo, Robert Brookes in Zurich

Swiss Banking Ombudsman

The Swiss banking ombudsman is an independent mediator whose services are free of charge. He deals with specific complaints raised against banks based in Switzerland.

The banking ombudsman also runs a contact office for persons searching for dormant accounts.

The organisation took up its duties in April 1993. Since then the office deals with an increasing number of enquiries.

Hanspeter Häni has been the banking ombudsman since September 1, 1995. He is supported by a multilingual team of lawyers, economists and bankers.

The office of the Swiss banking ombudsman is supported by a foundation, established by the Swiss Bankers Association.

The foundation's board consists of independent public personalities and appoints the ombudsman. Its president is Annemarie Huber-Hotz, who was previously the Swiss federal chancellor.

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