Banks no longer seek ‘Swiss solution’

The banks say they are playing ball and want equal treatment Keystone

Have Swiss banks found a new religion? They are now distancing themselves publicly from their belief in banking secrecy. Their new strategy: to influence global standards on the automatic exchange of client information.

This content was published on June 12, 2014 minutes
Chantal Britt,

“We’ve been fighting for banking secrecy for many years, but now we have changed our religion,” said Michel Dérobert, director of the Association of Swiss Private Banks.

Dérobert was one of the speakers at a two-day seminar with journalists earlier this month. The bankers used the occasion to put on brave faces – explaining how they think they can maintain their stature amidst a global crackdown on tax evasion.

“We want to stay an important financial centre, so we have to deal with the question of information exchange,” explained Claude-Alain Margelisch, chief executive of the Swiss Bankers Association (SBA). “We live in a time where the financial industry is criticised and questioned. The financial crisis has forced the authorities to more effectively collect their taxes. We can’t simply ignore that.”

The global financial crisis, market manipulations and prosecutions for tax evasion by the authorities in the United States, Germany and France have dented the reputation of the Swiss financial services industry – the world’s biggest centre for offshore wealth.

Financial standards

Switzerland already conforms with the Bank for International Settlements’ existing banking regulations and requirements when it comes to equity capital and liquidity aimed at supporting system stability.

The SBA estimates the costs of the implementation of the automatic exchange of tax information at between CHF300 million and CHF600 million for the entire industry. The OECD rules will mean in practise that banks must identify, document, control and report their clients, the SBA said.

In addition to the standard, Switzerland will have to enter bilateral agreements with every partner country to specify the terms.

The SBA opposes further tightening of regulations because it fears they would lower Swiss banks’ competitiveness. That is why it demands a better assessment and anticipation of the repercussions new regulations may have – not only on the banking sector but also on the entire economy.

(Source: SBA)

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Changing times

This culminated last year with the signing of a deal by Switzerland and the US for Swiss banks to cooperate with the US tax authorities, and last month Swiss approval of an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)  programme for the automatic exchange of tax information.

Switzerland has come a long way. Private banker Hans Bär was still seen as fouling his own nest in 2004 when he said that banking secrecy makes you fat and impotent and that it’s unethical to make a distinction between tax avoidance and evasion.

And even up to March 2008, the then finance minister Hans-Rudolf Merz told parliament that the attackers of the country’s banking secrecy legislation would have a tough time of it.

Playing ball

Six years later, there is not much left of the country’s original obstinacy. Today, the banks’ attitude is all about playing ball and getting equal treatment.

The OECD will fix an information standard and Swiss banks have to apply the rules, which will be the same for everybody else, Margelisch said. And this time, the Swiss experts want to actively participate in discussions and influence the standards’ definition, terms and application, said Stefan Flückiger, who headed the Swiss delegation to the OECD.

Later this year, the OECD is expected to release more detail on how the standards should be applied. Swiss bankers and diplomats are confident that their main concerns will this time be taken into account. According to Flückiger, a third of the technical input on the information exchange standard came from Switzerland.

Reciprocity, data protection, the principle that data may only be used for tax purposes, a level playing field and the regulation of loop holes such as trusts and off-shore vehicles are the main points Switzerland would like to see the OECD address.

Market access

An experts group urged the government in May to push bilateral talks with the European Union, as well as individual countries within and outside the EU, to make sure that Swiss banks will keep access to important financial markets abroad.

Switzerland should also analyse the pros and cons of a financial services agreement with the EU, the group said. One option may be to discuss market access within the framework of a transition to the automatic exchange of information in tax matters, according to the State Secretariat for International Financial Matters.

The announcement followed a warning from State Secretary Jacques de Watteville who had already said in February that it will become difficult for Swiss banks to offer services in EU countries after a reintroduction of immigration quotas had blocked bilateral relations between Switzerland and Brussels.

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The end of secrecy?

So do all these concessions signify the end of banking secrecy? Perhaps for cross-border banking and tax matters it does. Domestically, however, the mills still grind slowly – and a change is unlikely. Eventually Swiss citizens will have to decide the fate of banking secrecy in tax matters in a popular vote.

“It is a political decision whether we still have banking secrecy regarding tax in 10 years’ time,” Margelisch said. “Personally I don’t want the state to control what I do financially.”

The crucial decisions on the automatic exchange over the next two years will have repercussions on the industry for many years to come. The banking industry is well aware of that, and it has changed its tune on the concessions the negotiators make.

“I don’t see it as a submission to foreign judges,” said Flückiger. “You have to act in the interest of your country. You ask yourself what price you pay for the special case, what damage you may sustain if you risk a black listing.”

The OECD proposal is not ideal but it’s the “least bad solution”, Flückiger said.

And the banks themselves? They just want the uncertainty to end. Exchanging client data once a year is much preferable to the sword of Damocles dangling over your head.

“It’s much easier for us to hand over the data than being held accountable years later, having to work out what transaction took place on a particular day in the past,” said Martin Scholl, CEO of Zürcher Kantonalbank. “All we need to do is to programme our computers to provide that information.”

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