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Finma chief defends UBS data transfer to US

Eugen Haltiner says Finma has done no wrong Keystone

The president of the Swiss Financial and Market Supervisory Authority (Finma) has defended the body’s decision to hand over UBS data to the United States.

Eugen Haltiner’s comments to a newspaper on Saturday come a day after the federal administrative court said Finma abused its power when it ordered that confidential details of 285 account holders suspected of tax evasion in the US be sent to Washington.

The court ruled that Finma could not base its decision to hand over the data on emergency rights in the constitution. It said that the government did not give the green light to apply the emergency clause, but only asked Finma to take the necessary steps to prevent a legal complaint by the US against UBS.

In an interview with the NZZ, Haltiner said, however, that Finma had made “an appropriate decision” and said that it had been necessary.

He reiterated Finma’s position that the move had prevented a legal complaint against UBS and insisted that there was a sufficient legal basis.

The government had agreed to the transfer of data, he added. “The government knew about the negotiation options and gave us the latitude, if the situation needed it, to also take difficult decisions,” Haltiner told the newspaper.

The financial watchdog chief also rejected calls for his resignation, adding that he still believed that he had the government’s confidence.

On Sunday, the head of the court, Christoph Bandli, told a newspaper that he could not really understand Haltiner’s view.

Press reaction

Friday’s court decision was the subject of much discussion in the Saturday press. Several newspapers were of the view that government, and Finance Minister Hans Rudolf Merz in particular, had not taken enough responsibility in the matter.

“It’s not a job for shirkers” was the title of the editorial in the German-speaking Tages-Anzeiger and Bund newspapers.

“Government ministers are elected to take on responsibility, If they no longer want to do it, they are allowed to clear their seats for more those given to being more decisive,” it said.

The St Gallen Tagblatt directed its fire at Finma, saying that it needed better staff, but remarked that the government had, nevertheless, passed on the political hot potato to the regulator.

The tabloid Blick, while blaming Merz and Haltiner principally, said that the affair could pave the way for costly legal action.

For its part, Geneva’s Le Temps remarked that the handing over of the bank data would always be remembered as “the biggest humiliation inflicted on Switzerland… national interest prevailed, a small country had to get on its knees to save its bank that suddenly got too big to carry”.

Data transfer

The Corriere del Ticino’s editorial was written by the lawyer Paolo Bernasconi, who works for several UBS clients. His view was the court decision showed that the separation of powers worked well in Switzerland. He said it was imperative to restore the rights of those affected by the data transfer and to ensure that the US authorities were not allowed to use the information.

Last February Finma and UBS announced they would disclose details of 285 clients suspected of tax evasion by US authorities.

UBS paid $780 million (SFr806.5 million) in fines last February after admitting “improper activities” from some of its employees.

Following intense pressure, the Swiss government in August also agreed to hand over a further 4,450 account holder details to the US Internal Revenue Service investigating cases of suspected tax fraud.

As agreed with the US government as part of a deal the first 600 files were processed by the end of last year and will be handed over pending court appeals. and agencies

In February 2009 Finma ordered UBS to hand over confidential data about 285 clients to the US authorities investigating cases of tax evasion.

In March the government decided to adopt OECD rules, effectively easing banking secrecy rules for foreign clients of Swiss banks.

A further 4,450 account holder details are to be divulged to the US authorities as part of a deal agreed between the Swiss and the US governments last August.

The Swiss had processed the first 600 files of suspected tax evasion by the end of 2009.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR