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Bonus issue preoccupies Switzerland

(Keystone)

The Swiss authorities are considering tougher rules over high pay and bonuses at big banks, says acting Finance Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf.

The move, revealed on Sunday, follows on from a turbulent week in which the country's largest bank UBS was given a huge government bailout. The bank's bonus policy has also come under fire.

UBS's rescue package, worth more than SFr60 billion ($53 billion) and announced on Thursday, sent shockwaves through Switzerland.

The surprise bailout has, however, prompted some politicians and the media to once again question the multimillion bonuses and large salaries awarded to bankers in the past.

Earlier this year, campaigners submitted enough signatures to force a nationwide vote on the issue. When it will be voted on is still open but Widmer-Schlumpf entered the debate in several Sunday newspapers.

She said she wanted to strengthen the country's shareholder law to prevent excessive executive pay in the future.

"We must tackle the problem now," she was quoted as saying in the German-language SonntagsZeitung.

This would, according to the report, include allowing shareholders' assemblies a say in how much the board and top management are paid. The minister said she would also look into whether a legal bandwidth could be set for top salaries.

Another measure could mean that additional agreements on top of pay could be forbidden by law, which might include bonuses in the form of stock options.

Widmer-Schlumpf's proposals go further than any other measures previously put forward.

Bonus paybacks

For its part, the German-language tabloid Blick, the most widely-read non-free newspaper in the country, has stepped up its campaign to make former and present top bankers to pay back their bonuses.

Particularly under Blick's fire is former UBS chairman Marcel Ospel, whom it said had been paid SFr130 million during his ten years at the helm.

Ospel was forced to step down in April after the bank revealed huge writedowns brought on by the subprime crisis. He was replaced by current chairman Peter Kurer.

Kurer, also included in Blick's hitlist, was forced to publicly apologise on Saturday. This followed an outcry – including from Widmer-Schlumpf - over his comments two days earlier that bonuses for top managers at the bank "could not be ruled out" in the future.

In a radio interview, Kurer said that there had been a "misunderstanding" about his comments and that he personally found high million bonuses "shocking". He would not be accepting one this year or for 2007, he added.

Kurer confirmed that UBS was currently in confidential discussions about the paying back of high bonuses made in the past. It was up to those involved to decide, said Kurer.

However, Kurer said to his knowledge there was no legal basis for requesting bonus repayments.

Salary caps

A poll published by the SonntagsZeitung showed that 79 per cent of those asked were in favour of the introduction of regulations to cap top management pay at SFr5 million a year.

Eugen Haltiner, chairman of the Federal Banking Commission - the Swiss banking watchdog - said that he would like to see a system in which bonuses would be deferred and only paid if there were no nasty surprises.

"If by the end of the holding time something negative happens, the bonus from the previous years can be further shortened or axed," he told the NZZ am Sonntag.

It also emerged from the same SonntagsZeitung poll that the public is roughly split in half as to the merits of the bailout package for UBS.

As for government funds, according to the head of the Federal Finance Administration – the government's "treasurer" Peter Siegenthaler - there will be no extra bailout for the bank in the future.

An interbank transaction guarantee would be a last resort if relations between banks did not improve as expected, he told the NZZ am Sonntag.

But he said that he thought the package would be enough to strengthen confidence in UBS and the Swiss financial system.

swissinfo with agencies

UBS bailout

At the start of the week the Swiss government said that it did not need to follow the example of many other countries, which had raised massive amounts of taxpayers' money to bail out stricken banks.

But on Thursday the Swiss National Bank announced it would guarantee up to $54 billion of UBS bad debt and pumped $6 billion into the bank.

Following the United States' $700 billion (SFr790 billion) rescue package earlier this month, Britain, Germany, Spain and on Sunday South Korea are among those to have announced measures.

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US crisis summit

United States President Bush has invited world leaders to a first summit on finding ways to coordinate an action plan against the current economic crisis, to be held soon after the November 4 US presidential election.

A joint statement after a meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso at the presidential retreat in Camp David on Saturday said it would focus on "principles of reform" needed to fix the financial system.

It would be the first in a series of meetings on the issue.

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