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Press apportions blame for Hildebrand’s exit

Philipp Hildebrand resigned on Monday in the face of growing criticism of a controversial currency trade made by his wife in August. Reuters

Admiration alternates with finger-pointing in the Swiss newspaper coverage of the resignation of Swiss National Bank (SNB) president Philipp Hildebrand.

This content was published on January 10, 2012 - 10:40
Clare O'Dea, swissinfo.ch

“Hildebrand leaves the national bank with his head held high and in the bitter knowledge that he and his family, while they stayed within the rules, acted unwisely in the management of their personal assets because they opened themselves up to moral and political attack,” wrote the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ).

Hildebrand told a news conference on Monday that his resignation, amid controversy over private currency deals, was with immediate effect. He explained he could not prove beyond doubt that he had been unaware of his wife’s financial transactions.

The NZZ openly admired Hildebrand’s mea culpa. “Hats off!” praised the editorialist. “It has seldom happened in recent times that someone in a position of public responsibility accepts the consequences of a particularly murky affair.”

French-language daily 24 Heures was less impressed, calling Hildebrand’s sincerity “convincing but insufficient”.

Blame game

The role of the rightwing Swiss People’s Party and its key strategist, former justice minister Christoph Blocher, in Hildebrand’s downfall looms large in the press coverage.

Bern-based Der Bund noted that Hildebrand had “paid dearly for the fact that he and his wife had poorly judged the demands of a highly exposed position”.

The paper wrote that his resignation showed class – “in contrast to the witch hunt carried out by the Swiss People’s Party and its shadow publicists”, a reference to the Weltwoche news magazine, believed to be closely linked to Blocher, which broke the story last week based on stolen bank data.

Der Bund added that it was “particularly disturbing that Hildebrand’s opponents, who used stolen data, baseless claims and hasty condemnations can hang his head as a hunting trophy in their sitting rooms”.

The German-language tabloid Blick could not contain its rage against Blocher in its editorial entitled “Who is next?”

“Now that he has achieved a major coup with criminally obtained data, a few invented ‘facts’ and nasty slander, Blocher will not rest. Whoever crosses him will become a target and be hounded with legal and illegal means.”

Blick’s front page was dominated by an “exclusive”, claiming that the SNB board forced Hildebrand to resign.

Double victory

According to the French language daily, Le Temps, Hildebrand’s fall from grace represented  “a double victory, personal and political” for Blocher.

However, “the noble intentions of the People’s Party boss would be genuine if they did not  mask an instrumentalisation which heralds a fierce battle against institutions and prominent individuals in this country”.

Pot shots at Blocher aside, Le Temps did not attempt to detract from Hildebrand’s personal responsibility for his actions, viewing the resignation as “the price of honour that a central banker must pay when he reaches the conclusion that his credibility is definitely compromised”.

“There will always be some doubt surrounding the famous banking order given orally by his wife to purchase dollars. Any suspicion would have been lifted if he had demanded the resale [of the dollars]. He did not do that. That’s his fault, and it is moral rather than legal,” Le Temps said.

The paper went on to acknowledge that “Switzerland is losing a man of honour, the only person with close contacts to the G20 and its forums”.

“Naive”

The Financial Times also led with the Swiss scandal, paying tribute to Hildebrand’s stance as a courageous policymaker while judging his conduct “naive at best” in its comment on the story.

“In banking regulation, he joined the side of progress by throwing the SNB’s support behind policies such as the high capital ratio requirements known as the Swiss finish,” the FT wrote. 

“A country so reliant on banking owes thanks to a central banker who sees and says that the national interest is not always identical to the interests of Switzerland’s two big investment banks.”

Ethics

The German finance paper Handelsblatt pondered the ethics of the burden of proof in the Hildebrand case.

“From a rule of law point of view, the grounds [for the resignation] appear grotesque at first. It is surely the burden of the accuser to prove someone’s guilt and not the burden of the accused to clear themselves,” it said.

“But this principle only applies conditionally to holders of high office. And central bankers who often carry out currency transactions on the side can hardly rely on the presumption of innocence.”

In a point echoed by many opinion writers on Tuesday, the Handelsblatt noted that credibility was the most important currency of a central banker.

The Hildebrand affair

At the end of 2011, a rumour reached the media that SNB chairman Philipp Hildebrand had used his insider knowledge for personal gain.

First the media reported that the financial affairs of the Hildebrand family had been investigated by auditors and given the all clear.

Then details started emerging about an advantageous currency trade made by Hildebrand’s wife Kashya – a Swiss-American dual national. The implication was that she had inside knowledge about the bank’s plans to weaken the franc.

This was followed by revelations in some Sunday papers that the source of the information about the Hildebrands’ accounts was none other than Christoph Blocher, former justice minister, and deputy chairman of the right wing People’s Party. Then it turned out that he’d got the information from an employee of Sarasin Bank.

The next bombshell: the Weltwoche weekly magazine, which is close to the People’s Party, announced that it had “proof” that Philipp Hildebrand himself, not just his wife, had indulged in insider dealing.

Hildebrand spoke to the media on January 5, 2012, denying any wrong doing and completely rejecting calls for his resignation.

But he did say that transparency over the financial affairs of Swiss National Bank managers needed to be improved.

On January 9 Hildebrand faced the media again, this time to resign after realising he could not prove that he had been unaware of his wife's transactions.

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