Swiss bank secrecy emerges from 2009 with holes

 Switzerland's finance minister acknowledges that he had a rough time this year after the Swiss bowed to international pressure on banking secrecy under the onslaught of US lawsuits and a crackdown on tax evasion.

Yet, the Swiss banking industry insists that it was stirred rather than shaken by a tumultuous year that holed their sacrosanct secrecy, threatened to sap billions from their vaults and left their battered flagship bank UBS wheezing.

"You could describe it as a challenging year," James Nason, a spokesman for the Swiss Bankers Association, told AFP.

"Privacy remains the default setting," he insisted nonetheless, as the chairman of the association, private banker Patrick Odier, toyed with "Rubik" -- the buzzword for plans to anonymously retain tax on the savings revenues of foreign clients and discourage undeclared assets.

"The sector had already prepared itself mentally for the moment, sometime, when it could only take taxed money," Julius Baer bank spokesman Jan Bielinski told the Tages-Anzeiger newspaper.

The logo of UBS Swiss bank and Swiss flag are seen in Zurich.

The year started with a 780-million-dollar (543-million-euro) fine on the biggest bank, UBS, in the United States for aiding tax fraud, while the Swiss financial regulator FINMA swiftly ordered the bank to hand over about 250 customer names to the US Internal Revenue Service.

Yet, just as loss-ridden UBS -- propped up by a 2008 state rescue package after it suffered heavily in the financial crisis -- thought it had put the worst behind, US authorities launched another lawsuit.

By August, Washington and Bern came up with a settlement, obliging UBS to disclose details of up to 4,450 hidden offshore accounts of American clients but averting another financial penalty.

Meanwhile, Finance Minister Hans-Rudolf Merz grappled with a crackdown by the G20 leading economies, who blamed bank secrecy for encouraging fraud and evasion by their taxpayers.

After the OECD told Switzerland to face up to a "new, much harder climate," it joined other offshore centres by falling into line with international standards.

To avoid being stigmatised, the Swiss signed new dual taxation deals with at least 12 nations, ending a decades-old practice by agreeing to exchange confidential information on some bank clients.

"My presidential year was, it has to be said, very hard," Merz told the Swiss magazine L'Illustre.

Previously, banking secrecy could only be lifted for legally-sanctioned investigations into the criminal offences of tax fraud and money laundering, not evasion.

Now, specific requests from foreign tax authorities probing evasion will be allowed.

"This is certainly something that the Swiss banking sector didn't like and would have liked to avoid," said Manuel Ammann, director of the University of St Gallen's Institute of Banking and Finance.

"The time when tax evaders could take advantage of Swiss financial services and feel safe about it is certainly over," he told AFP.

Many observers believe that Swiss banks have lost a competitive advantage that had helped attract foreign customers.

Bankers are reluctant to put a figure on banking secrecy, but one valued it this year at half the industry's 12 percent contribution to Swiss national income.

On Wednesday, Italian authorities said 80 billion euros (114 billion dollars) had been declared by taxpayers so far in an amnesty, a policy that dismayed bankers in the southern Swiss canton of Ticino, bordering Italy.

Italian business daily Il Sole 24 Ore estimated that about 80 percent of the hidden deposits declared were in neighbouring Switzerland.

While Swiss bankers feared that they would lose deposits, an Italian tax lawyer told the Financial Times that most of the money was nonetheless likely to stay in Switzerland now that it was legalised.

Amman believes a more severe blow was delivered by the handing over of UBS customer data to the United States at the beginning of the year, a move that appeared to skip a few steps in the Swiss rulebook.

"I can imagine that this affected the trust of foreign customers in Switzerland and Swiss banking," he said.

Nason acknowledged: "Legal certitude is important, clients like their financial centre to be steady."

Meanwhile, the row over secrecy and taxation is still raging with France, and has even started to seep into Switzerland, where one canton, Jura, was set to introduce a tax amnesty in January.

source AFP

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