Rüschlikon is just a 20-minute boat ride from the centre of Zürich, yet a world away from the intense rivalry of the city’s financial powerhouses.
Every autumn, the sleepy lakeside settlement hosts the Private Banking Summit, where delegates seek safeguards for their threatened industry.
“Swiss private banking is in turmoil, even though no Swiss bank went down as a result of the financial crisis,” Shelby du Pasquier of Geneva law firm Lenz & Staehelin told the most recent gathering.
The current state of affairs is the result of a combination of unfriendly economics, regulatory and political attacks from the US and EU, and consumer pressure for new type of banking.
The old Swiss offshore model – helping foreign clients structure their affairs to minimise taxes back home – is fading fast, but the future remains uncertain.
Further changes looming in 2016 regarding tax compliance and the automatic exchange of information could signal a total transformation of the business models of Swiss private banks and the type of clientele they attract, says Jürg Birri, partner at KPMG in Zürich.
“What if a private bank deals with 90 countries and only 30 of them enter automatic exchange agreements with Switzerland? Do we get rid of the clients in the 60 other markets,” Mr Burri asked at the summit. “It will mean banks must focus on their key markets.”
Luigi Pigorini, Citi Private Bank’s regional head for Emea, predicts upheavals in the next two years. “At the moment, Switzerland is very attractive to us, and a lot of our clients from emerging markets like it,” he says.
“But Switzerland will go through a restructuring after the OECD common reporting standards in 2016. Many unprofitable banks, which competed on secrecy, are likely to fall by the wayside.”
Banking functions currently carried out in Switzerland could be exported to other centres, such as London, which “has always been very attractive and is becoming more so”, says Mr Pigorini.
Commentators agree that banks in Zürich and Geneva will see higher regulatory expenses in a lower-margin world than before 2008 along with anti-secrecy pressure from the US and EU. Many have local operations in Europe and Asia. “They no longer rely on offshore private banking as their main agenda,” says Gerard Aquilina, independent family office adviser and private banking veteran. “They will have to focus on relationship excellence rather than secrecy and confidentiality.”
Servicing legitimate clients such as the millionaires of the Middle East, without local tax issues, will remain a priority. But in order to survive in this “multi-shore” world, Swiss banks must offer a better service than their rivals, says Ray Soudah, founder of strategic consultancy Millenium Associates.
“Clients of Swiss banks in Hong Kong, Dubai and Abu Dhabi are very upbeat,” says Mr Soudah. “But their bankers are all depressed, moaning about compliance, competition and regulation” and failing to cater to customers’ interests.
However, others say the banks will recover. “Swiss banks have brands that don’t disappear that easily,” says Ivan Sacks, who chairs private client law firm Withers.
“Switzerland may have taken a hit on its reputation but it will remain one of the world’s key financial centres.”
Tax evaders: US authorities are cracking down
Shelby du Pasquier, a Swiss lawyer, says that 2014 will probably be seen as “an annus horribilis” for Swiss private banks.
Mr du Pasquier spends much of his time negotiating with US authorities on behalf of Swiss banks.
The continuing clampdown on tax evasion has led to fines and forced sales. Today, Mr du Pasquier says, Switzerland has 283 banks, a drop of more than 15 per cent over the past five years.
UBS agreed to settle with the US Department of Justice in 2009, following an investigation into whether it helped US clients evade taxes.
But Mr du Pasquier expects the consolidation, triggered by the fines, to continue through both M&A activity and liquidation.
He says the US is cracking down on tax evasion generally. “This has, in turn, led to an aggressive challenge on offshore banking centres, of which Switzerland remains the largest.”
He explains that banks are shedding non-tax-compliant clients leading to the disappearance of unprofitable banks and “the emergence of a smaller number of larger, stronger ones”.
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