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Minister says end to US tax dispute in sight

Widmer-Schlumpf (l) held talks with US Justice Minister Eric Holder (middle) in Washington last month Keystone

Swiss Finance Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf says a resolution may be not far off to end a long-running dispute with the United States over Swiss banks accused of helping wealthy Americans evade billions of dollars of taxes.

“We are on the point of presenting a solution,” Widmer-Schlumpf told Swiss national radio on Saturday.

Several points still need to be discussed and negotiated with the US authorities, but “we hope to soon reach the end”, she declared.

The Swiss government has been in protracted talks to end US investigations into numerous Swiss banks, including Credit Suisse and Julius Baer.

The finance minister said the result would not be met by enthusiastic support by the banks, which “won’t get that for free”, but declined to elaborate on any costs or fines that banks may incur.

“It is very important that we have a solution that resolves the banks’ past,” she told the Swiss radio news programme.

The Zurich-based Tages-Anzeiger newspaper said on Saturday that the American authorities had divided Swiss banks into four categories. It said a “Deferred Prosecution Agreement” solution had been worked out for the first group (A) of 13, which included Credit Suisse and Julius Baer, together with a financial agreement or recognition of fault and a fine. A second group (B) of 20-30 banks, according to the paper, who welcomed US clients but had not been subject to legal investigations should pay to “clear the past”. Banks in groups (C) and (D) were less affected, it claimed.

According to the Tages-Anzeiger, the total deal could cost banks as much as CHF10 billion. 

Bankers such as the president of the Swiss Banking Association, Patrick Odier, are calling for a swift resolution of the tax dispute with the US, which has dragged on for several years.

The US authorities have continued to aggressively pursue Swiss banks and individuals since forcing Swiss bank UBS to pay a $780 million (CHF720 million) fine in 2009 and the Swiss government to later hand over details of thousands of the bank’s customers.

Switzerland’s oldest bank, Wegelin, was forced to break up and effectively end its 271-year existence after being caught red handed poaching tax evading clients from UBS. It pleaded guilty in January 2013 to enabling American customers to evade taxes. The bank was ordered to pay $74 million to the US. government.

Switzerland is also under attack over banking secrecy from the European Union and the G20 group of nations. Bank secrecy, which has helped Switzerland become the world’s largest offshore centre with $2 trillion in assets, has come under heavy fire since the financial crisis as cash-strapped governments have sought to clamp down on tax evasion.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR