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The Swiss banking world tries to reinvent itself

The financial sector is grappling with a new wave of digital technology that could transform personal finance and institutional trading around the globe.

This content was published on March 10, 2020 - 13:44
Skizzomat (Illustration)

The coronavirus pandemic has further highlighted the world’s reliance on an increasingly complex digital infrastructure.

At the cutting edge of change is distributed ledger technology (DLT) - or blockchain - that aims to change the way currencies are created, owned and transferred.

Rarely has a proposal raised so much expectation and scepticism.

In Switzerland, it has led to soul-searching. The country’s storied banking sector sees itself at risk of being uprooted by new forms of digital currencies that circumvent traditional money flows.  They also see great promise: could digital currencies lead to a revival of personal banking, allowing a greater number of people access to more efficient financial services? 

Switzerland has a lot to gain – and to lose – from the way in which this is done. The country manages more than $2.3 trillion (CHF2.07 trillion) in offshore wealth, more than any other nation, according to the Boston Consulting Group. That equals a third of estimated known overseas assets globally. But it also matters for Switzerland. About 10% of the country’s economic output comes from the financial sector.  

The arrival in Geneva of Facebook’s cryptocurrency project Libra was a watershed moment. Under enormous international political pressure, Libra changed its strategy, its name to Diem – and then left Switzerland for the United States.

Diem leaves behind a regulator that is getting to grips with a new breed of assets, legal updates that incorporate DLT into Swiss financial and company laws, and a central bank contemplating the creation of a digital version of the franc.

The financial regulator frequently spars with the crypto upstart community on how to protect small investors in the promised new world of digital finance. It has also awarded licenses to financial players specialising in crypto assets. 

What these actors agree on, however, is that Switzerland needs to be a global leader in the crypto and blockchain spheres. If that chance is missed, some fear it would disrupt Switzerland’s place in global finance, with digital assets flowing to other countries. 

Several hundred start-ups are backed by incubators, consultants and legal teams. The country is also home to specialist foundations that house the significant assets of some of the world’s leading blockchain projects. 

I have been closely following the emergence of this scene over the last years. Subscribe to my newsletter to keep in touch on latest developments. 


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