When you step into one of those traditionally discreet Swiss private banks that crowd the city centre of Zurich, you cannot help feeling that you have just stepped into a John le Carré novel.
Bank Sarasin is no exception. Its offices are in a nondescript building halfway down Löwenstrasse between the railway station and Paradeplatz, the square where you find the headquarters of UBS and Credit Suisse, the country’s two biggest banks.
There is nobody in the Sarasin lobby and visitors walk directly into a glass lift that takes them to the first floor. There you will find a couple of counters and someone will eventually show you down a narrow corridor into one of the spartan meeting rooms where clients discuss their portfolio with their banking advisers. While you wait, a kind elderly employee will bring you a cup of coffee with the ubiquitous little Swiss chocolate bar in the saucer.
But first impressions can be deceptive, and no more so than at Sarasin. Joachim (Joe) Straehle, the stocky 52-year-old chief executive of the Swiss private bank, bounces in with a friendly smile and immediately strikes an odd chord for someone who has always worked in a sector traditionally known for secrecy.
“I can’t understand any bank that today is looking to poach tainted money or any banker who can seriously advise a client to place his or her money in a secret account when everyone knows there’s no future in that way of doing business.” How about that for an opening remark from a Swiss banker who seems to have few qualms about breaking rank with most of his local banking peers?
Yet although Mr Straehle may seem to be a classic product of the Swiss banking establishment, his roots are in fact German. He was born in Baden-Württemberg – home of companies such as Daimler and Porsche – where his father worked as an engineer in a foundry.
His family moved to Zurich when he was eight years old. He went to school in Zurich, then to management school. He gained Swiss citizenship and trained as a banker in Zurich, joining Credit Suisse when he was 20. He stayed at the big Swiss bank until 1992, when he moved to Julius Baer in New York, before rejoining Credit Suisse in 1999 and then taking over as CEO of Sarasin four years ago.
In short, a pretty steady ascent to the top of the pleasant peaks of Swiss banking. Pleasant that is until the G20 group of industrial nations launched its concerted attack against the country’s laisser-faire attitude to tax evasion. Ever since, the Swiss banking industry and, indeed, the federal government have been on the defensive, desperately seeking to protect the sacrosanct principle of Swiss bank secrecy.
They feel they have made some headway in what they consider a critical issue for the country, by negotiating compromise tax agreements with the UK and Germany. In exchange for preserving the prized secrecy of their banking system, the Swiss have agreed to impose a stricter withholding tax on the money stashed away by British and German investors in Swiss banks. Similar deals are now expected with the French and Italian governments.
But Mr Straehle says this does not resolve the problem. After all, British and German residents are still obliged to declare their foreign assets. So he has decided to take a hard line view by becoming the only head of a leading Swiss private bank to have set a clear deadline for the elimination of all “tax neutral” money, as these undeclared assets are coyly termed by some in the industry, from his bank’s books.
“By 2012 we want to have no undeclared assets here and we’re doing everything we can to ensure that happens. It’s true to say that historically we’ve had very little exposure to this money. Before I arrived in 2006, the majority of our clients were Swiss, so tax was largely irrelevant to our business. And since then our expansion internationally has been in markets where tax is just not an issue.”
Like many of his peers, Mr Straehle has been expanding his bank’s operations in low-tax jurisdictions in the Middle East and Asia, which also offer obvious growth potential.
He is familiar with these regions, having worked in Singapore for Credit Suisse before eventually becoming head of the bank’s international private banking and a member of its executive board.
Not that Mr Straehle, who lives in the low-tax canton of Zug, about 30 miles from Zurich, supports the way his small country was targeted by the world’s biggest economies. “Some of my countrymen have been playing ostrich. But it’s also true that the attack was exaggerated,” he says in his straightforward and urbane manner. “There are basic protections any citizen has the right to expect and a legitimate level of financial privacy is one of them.”
Mr Straehle is also outspoken on other issues that have troubled the industry during the crisis. “We don’t put our clients’ money into hedge funds,” he says. “I have nothing against the people who run these funds; when I worked at Julius Baer in New York, I visited all the big names and so I know many of them well. It’s just that they don’t give us the day-to-day transparency we need for our client conversations. The same goes for private equity.”
The year after he joined Sarasin, he took it out of the US market. “It was too much of a headache. Instead we have been moving to the Middle East and China.”
He has even decided to take his clients out of direct investments in individual US equities because of potential US inheritance tax implications, and is investing instead in US mutual funds. Even though the new US inheritance tax rules have not been adopted, Mr Straehle says he takes these threats “very seriously”, especially after all that has happened between the US and Switzerland following the UBS scandal in the US.
What some may regard as a rather rigid stance seems to have served Sarasin well in recent years. The bank went into the financial crisis with no exposure to the structured derivative products that caused bigger peers so much pain.
Sarasin has increased its assets under management from CHFr65bn when Mr Straehle joined the bank in 2006 to this year’s CHFr100bn ($103bn) level. He aims to boost this to CHFr150bn by 2015.
Sarasin’s low-key maverick has also pushed the bank to make sustainability a structural part of its investment process. What in the past was regarded by many consultants and competitors as little more than a fad has helped Mr Straehle in his drive to remove the bank from the untaxed money debate.
“Our oak tree [logo] stands for something. Sustainability and undeclared money are clearly not compatible,” he says. “We’ve lost some clients as a result of our stance but we’ve gained more.”
Some of his local banking peers sniff at what they call his worthier-than-thou approach.
“Yes,” he admits, “some of our competitors have taken some of our business by going around saying that ‘Sarasin does not like black money, so bring it all to us’. Funny isn’t it.”
These same critics also claim that Sarasin, after all, is not a Swiss bank but a Dutch one. “And yes,” he adds, “Rabobank owns a 46 per cent stake and 65 per cent of the voting rights, but they don’t interfere with our strategy. We are totally independent and we run our own business, although I must say their triple A credit rating has certainly been helpful.
“And in any case is Credit Suisse really a Swiss bank? At least 60 per cent of their shareholders are from foreign countries.”
But there also seems to be a simple reason why this banker, who likes to describe himself as an “entrepreneur” even though he has spent his entire working life in banking, wants nothing to do with undeclared tax money sitting in his bank.
“I also want to sleep at night,” he says. “I don’t want to wake up and find one of my guys getting arrested. I’m not just protecting my clients.”
Sounds a bit like old world-weary George Smiley.
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