Swiss banks slam German invasion of client secrecy

After relentless international pressure on Swiss banking secrecy, history came full circle last week when Germany decided to use stolen bank data to corner taxpayers with money hidden in Switzerland.

Weary Swiss bankers tried to contain another onslaught that shook the remnants of the lucrative wall of secrecy they have been struggling to maintain against Europe and the United States.

However, their minds were increasingly set on growing business with Asia and emerging markets.

"Banking secrecy is being called into question," admitted the secretary general of the Swiss Private Bankers Association, Michel Derobert.

"It is important for past clientele, and it's losing its importance for the clients of the future," he said.

Swiss banks were legally sworn to secrecy over their clients' affairs in 1934, as a wave of espionage by Germany's then Nazi regime against Germans with deposits in Switzerland added to other tensions of the era.

Although nobody in Switzerland is making comparisons with 1930s Europe, an anonymous whistleblower's recent offer to German authorities – thought to be the third leak in two years – annoyed the banking establishment and fuelled domestic doubts about the value of secrecy.

The Swiss Bankers' Association (SBA) condemned the German decision, claiming that Germany was turning into "a receiver of stolen goods" and testing good neighbourly relations.

At least one bank in Zurich reportedly faced a flurry of calls from German customers. Germany has been in the forefront of European pressure on Switzerland to counter tax evasion in recent years.

That was followed by the G20 group of leading economies last year, which forced the Swiss to water down secrecy and bolster cooperation.

"Banking secrecy no longer has a future. It has run its course," German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble told the Saturday edition of Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper.

Information from a former UBS banker arrested in 2008 formed the backbone of multi-million dollar US government litigation last year that obliged the Swiss bank to hand over details on some 4,500 US offshore clients suspected of dodging tax payments.

And last month, Swiss and French ministers smoothed over a spat over French use of data taken from the Geneva private banking subsidiary of global giant HSBC by a former employee.

The SBA says more than half of the securities in Swiss banks are foreign held, but just 17.5 per cent in recent years belonged to foreign private clients while the bulk came from institutional investors with little concern for secrecy.

But Dutch authorities alone said that of the €2.2 billion declared during a recent tax amnesty, most was stashed away in accounts in Belgium, Luxembourg and Switzerland.

The Swiss banking establishment also highlights new business with emerging markets and Asia, and a smaller role for Europe.

The country's biggest private bank, exclusively serving wealthy clients, Julius Baer on Friday noted an increase in new money and deposits last year, with "continued strong inflows from emerging markets and in particular Asia."

"The big potential of the future is Russia, Central Asia, the Middle East and above all Asia," Kenel said.

 

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