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Tough times for private banks

Raymond Bär, head of private banking at Julius Bär, is the latest to announce a drop in profits

(Keystone Archive)

Switzerland's private banks are facing a shake-out in a market where too many small players are overburdened by high costs.

The country's biggest private bank, Julius Bär, is the latest to confirm job cuts after forecasting an 11 per cent fall in net profits.

The bank's difficulties are seen as symptomatic of a general crisis for small banks.

High costs have already prompted moves towards consolidation, with the most high-profile merger involving Geneva's oldest private banks Lombard Odier and Darier Hentsch.

Last week, the Financial Times noted that over the past 12 years, the number of Swiss banks had fallen 38 per cent to 369 and would continue to decline.

Julius Bär was putting a brave face on a disappointing year in which it expects profits to dip under the SFr200 million mark ($136 million), compared with SFr225 million last year.

The bank also announced a drop in assets under management to SFr107 billion at the end of September from SFr116.8 billion three months earlier.

Global downturn

The company claimed that the slide in profits was actually "reassuring", taking into account the current economic climate.

"I'm pleased with the financial results which we have achieved this year," Julius Bär CEO Walter Knabenhans told swissinfo.

"We were one of the early movers as far as spotting the necessity for cost-cutting, and up to now I'm pleased with how things have progressed."

Knabenhans added that the 150 job losses, which come on top of 145 in the previous year, would be mainly achieved through natural attrition rather than forced redundancies.

Around half of the latest job cuts have already been realised, with the rest to follow by the middle of 2003.

The losses are expected to be evenly divided among positions in Switzerland and abroad. Julius Bär currently employs almost 2,300 workers.

Sector in trouble

Announcements of job cuts and tumbling profits are far from rare in the private banking sector.

Knabenhans agrees with the general prognosis but insists that there is still plenty of life in the private banking sector.

"Clearly there is a need for even more consolidation," Knabenhans told swissinfo. "When you look at the number of banks and asset managers which sprung up in this country during the boom times, it's obvious that they can't all survive when the markets are performing poorly.

"The recipe for success is for private banks to refocus on their core competencies.

"I'm sure that the banks which maintain critical mass will continue to find this an interesting market."

Knabenhans' optimism is echoed by banking analyst Philippe Lévy, who also thinks the country's private bankers can bounce back in the future.

"I have my doubts about what the Financial Times wrote," Lévy told swissinfo. "It's true that Swiss banks have faced difficulties, but that is also true of London where the effects might even be said to be worse.

"The global recession and the state of the world's stock exchanges have affected everybody."

Dangers ahead

Lévy conceded that future developments could have a more localised effect on Switzerland's private banks: if Italy's recent tax exemption move was to be adopted by Germany, for example, or if the Swiss were forced to make major concessions on the issue of banking secrecy.

On Wednesday, the rating agency Standard and Poor's said that a tax exception scheme by the European Union could hit the Swiss private banking sector particularly hard.

"I haven't heard much talk of tax exemption in Germany since the general election, though," noted Lévy, "and the current negotiations between Switzerland and the EU seem more focused on possible tax evasion than on banking secrecy per se."

Lévy said one ace-up-the-sleeve for private banks was their ability to offer a higher level of customer care than the big institutions.

"The restructuring that's currently underway has certainly been necessary, and if private banks are to survive they will have to keep on improving services and make themselves attractive in purely commercial terms," he said.

"But if they can do that, then I'm sure the supposed death of private banking will turn out to have been exaggerated."

swissinfo, Mark Ledsom in Zurich

Key facts

Switzerland is the leader in private banking but revenues are falling faster than costs.
The country employs nearly 220,000 in the financial sector.
The sector employs 180,000 people outside of Switzerland.
In 1991, the country had 592 banks - by 2001 this had dropped to 369.
Total profits for the banking sector were SFr5.1 billion in 1991 and SFr12.5 billion in 2001.

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