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Weak markets leave bank customers jittery

Keeping track of financial institutions has become more difficult Keystone Archive

The Swiss banking ombudsman had his busiest year ever, due to an increasingly troubled stock exchange environment.

This content was published on July 13, 2002 - 10:29

Hanspeter Häni, the middleman between banks and customers, told a news conference in Zurich that the number of inquiries received by his office had increased by 15 per cent over the past year.

The Swiss Banking Ombudsman received 1,842 requests for mediation last year, up from 1,605 in 2000. Some 87 cases are still pending.

"This development confirms once more that banking customers need a neutral information and mediation service," Häni said.

Häni commented that the increase in requests concerned mainly the investment and asset management areas, which more than doubled in the past year, as a result of poor performance on stock exchanges.

Growing complexity

"Many people feel insecure about the growing complexity of banking services," he added.

"Customers are confused about the array of offers in the banking market. Banks have to inform clients not only about the opportunities that an investment offers but above all about its risks," Häni told swissinfo.

"Its up to banks to explain the services and to not sell an instrument if the customer does not understand it."

Häni commented that he was faced with two "unacceptable cases" last year in which he gained the impression that the banks in question wanted to get off lightly.

One of the cases concerned a pensioner who was sold Swissair bonds in Spring 2001 at a time when there was increased risk in the company. She eventually received compensation of SFr100,000 after advice from the ombudsman and intervention by the Swiss magazine "Beobachter".

Neutrality

Häni, whose office is funded by the Swiss Banking Ombudsman Foundation, established by the Swiss Bankers Association, has been questioned about the neutrality that he can offer to customers.

"I am paid by a foundation with independent people on the board. It's also a personal question - I feel independent and I am independent, otherwise I would not do the job," he said.

One of the key services offered by the ombudsman's office is a contact office for people searching for dormant assets.

"If someone suspects that they might be entitled to assets lodged with a Swiss bank, but do not know which one, they can initiate a search through the contact office.

The office, which deals mainly with written inquiries, said that with the help of the banks it identified claims to 27 dormant accounts last year with a total value of SFr2.9 million.

Asked about the success of the Swiss Banking Ombudsman's office since its inauguration in 1993, Häni told swissinfo that this depended on the criteria used.

"One of our main tasks is to inform clients and explain situations that people don't understand. And if I take this criterion as a yardstick we are nearly 100 per cent successful."

by Robert Brookes and Karin Kamp

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