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Just as some men buy Playboy for the interviews, so others bank in Switzerland for the chocolates. Swiss banks maintain there is far more to the offshore wealth management business model than privacy from prying tax authorities. Many clients, they say, are above all seeking a stable home for their funds, access to centuries of banking competence, multilingual staff and a gemütlich setting for holidays and medical care.
This package is now being unbundled. Friday’s 12 per cent fall in the shares of UBS, the target of a judicial assault by US authorities, suggests investors in fact put a high value on Switzerland’s fortress-like bank-client confidentiality. The right to secrecy has, of course, never been absolute. Bern co-operates in individual cases of tax fraud punishable as a criminal offence under Swiss law, but refuses to cough up non-criminal tax evaders to extra-territorial fishing expeditions.
UBS’s behaviour and fragility meant Bern was unable to withstand US pressure to bypass a lengthy Swiss appeals process. How its bankers could be so stupid as to travel to the US to market bank secrecy to US tax evaders is beyond belief, even for an industry losing its capacity to shock. Despite paying $780m in a deferred prosecution agreement with the US Department of Justice, it still faces a fishing trip for the files of 52,000 US customers, on top of the 200-300 already surrendered.
Foreigners had SFr733bn parked with Swiss banks in November, down 25 per cent on the year. Many will now be re-evaluating their options as other states scent weakness. If the multiple put on UBS’s wealth division’s earnings tumbles from 11 to eight, close to that of onshore manager Schroders, that will hurt. So much for the stability of wealth management.
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