Business

If Financial History is Any Guide the Future of Switzerland Looks Dim

Switzerland…. Neue Zürcher Zeitung has:

Quote:

Switzerland: History shows that financial institutions can survive a prosecution in the USA – but often not for long.

In the debate on the ”Lex USA” the Swiss parliament faces uncomfortable compromises in solving the tax dispute. Much talked about was the question if a US prosecution against a Swiss bank really resembles a death sentence, which is the accepted idea. Primarily representatives for the regional banks have publicly doubted this idea. A historical perspective might give some hints. An American law firm has made an analysis of nearly a dozen cases the last thirty years to Switzerland’s financial circles, which seems to confirm the pessimists.

If Financial History is Any Guide the Future of Switzerland Looks Dim

According to the analysis all except one of the prosecuted institutes have either been taken over or has totally disappeared – perhaps not immediately, but years later.

List of prosecuted:

The allegations were among other things fraud, forgery, money laundering, insider trading, bribery and financing of terror:

E. F. Hutton. US-Broker.           Prosecuted 1985              Sold 1987 to Shearson Lehman.

Drexel Burnham.US-Investment bank               Prosecuted 1989              bankrupt 1990.

BCCI. Major international bank.            Prosecuted 1990              multiple charges bankrupt

Daiwa Bank.                  Prosecuted 1996              US-business has folded

Bankers Trust.                              Prosecuted 1999              taken over by Deutsche Bank.

Republic New York Corporation.           Prosecuted 1999              Sold to HSBC.

Arthur Andersen. Accountant                Prosecuted 2002              folded

Crédit Lyonnais.                           Prosecuted 2003              sold to Crédit Agricole.

Riggs Bank. US-Institute.         Prosecuted 2005              later sold to PNC.

Bank Wegelin.                              Prosecuted 2012              sold to Raiffeisen Group.

The typical consequences of the prosecution were: Other banks avoids collaborating with the targeted institute, funding by the interbank market gets difficult to impossible, clients withdraw funds, staff gets insecure, no new customers are coming in.

The mentioned exception is the Canadian bank – Bank Nova Scotia. It was prosecuted in 1982 (tax questions) and exists today with a slightly changed name (Scotiabank). The charged were dropped for procedural reasons as the law firm’s analysis calls it. The survival of the bank is ascribed to  ”special circumstances”.

Comment:

Something struck a chord!

UBS has been in the searchlight despite getting the former CEO of Bundesbank Axel Weber as chairman of the board. Despite claiming that UBS AG (NYSE:UBS) does not assist and abet tax-evasion, lately they appear to experience some funding problems.

Now what could happen in such circumstances – and it is just speculation – is that dirty (or at least tinged) get scared and move their deposits to the regional banks (hence the optimism of the regional banks) that will now lend the international bank funds from their deposits – or that may be the plan; but it is unlikely the regional bank wants to partly attract attention or it is not totally convinced of the international banks future.

This would explain the German position that a settlement with the major banks is not that interesting. Here the German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble is far from convincing in his lament that the Swiss-German agreement fell through. This was due to a refusal in the Bundesrat (approx. Senate) which is held (firmly) by the opposition as tax collection is a state – not federal – matter in Germany.

Considerable risks

This does not mean that f.i. a Swiss private or regional bank must fold or get sold off after charges have been brought. The circumstances in each case make an important difference but history does indicate that the risks for an institute under investigation are large. Nevertheless it could be argued that a sale of healthy parts – like the Wegelin case – does not constitute a national economic drama. Sale of major private institutions or local banks would be considerably more difficult and have larger job losses as a consequence. The number of institutes also has a major role. If a number of banks were charged simultaneously the systemic effect on the confidence in the total financial market cannot be disregarded.

Switzerland Rough estimates

The parliament has to make a risk assessment. If the parliament does not pass a ”Lex USA” and leave the thorny question to the Bundesrat [”senate” in Switzerland] some risk may come up. How great is the risk that a Swiss judge would prevent the exchange of the demanded files? And what is the probability that the US justice system would react with a prosecution? Multiplied it would mean a probability of between 2% and perhaps 30% with an average of about 15% – which a person with public responsibilities cannot ignore. This back of envelope calculation is not to be taken at face value and ignores qualitative factors; but they may give an impression of what estimates are to be made.

Besides: There are other factors to consider. You could ask: Will the USA accept the legal framework of the double taxation agreement for the legal assistance concerning bank customer data falling apart? Or would the probable return without the ”Lex USA” to the principle of individual treatment  for each bank be cheaper or more costly for the each bank than the offered US-framework. Such factors are difficult to calculate; but that does not mean that they can be ignored.

 Comment:

No doubt about it: Switzerland is in a bind.The Tagesanzeiger has this story:

The ominous”milk notebooks” from UBS France

Examples of codenames and weird bookkeeping crops up in a case against the subsidiary of a major bank accused of illegal acquisition of customers.

The plainly inevitable has happened – if surprisingly late: The French justice investigates after long deliberations now officially and formally UBS AG (NYSE:UBS) France. The Parisian investigation judge Guillaume Daïeff must have come to the opinion that he has gotten sufficient evidence and witnesses to prove foul play by UBS. The charge is abetting illegal customer acquisition. That is: The bank is supposed have helped dozens of UBS-investment brokers from Switzerland – the «amis suisses» – to tempt rich clients to hide their money in Switzerland. Clients in French show business, sports and the business community. The bank could also soon be investigated on the suspicion if abetting money laundering and tax fraud.

Up to now it is”only” the illegal systematic of acquisition, but if it hardens it could lead to rescinding the French banking licence and a large fine. 100 mio. EUR has been mentioned. In France the active acquisition of clients by investment bankers is only allowed provided the appropriate licences. In this case Swiss bank employees are supposed to have travelled incognito into France to encourage the desired clients to tax evasion at cultural- and sporting events specifically arranged for this purpose.

In the centre of the investigation are ominous and mysterious «carnets du lait» – or milk notebooks – in which illegal transactions between 2002 and 2008 are supposed to be noted. That is why the French media explains the public what the Swiss understand by milk notebooks. They explain the meaning of the bookkeeping of Swiss farmers that in these books note – quite legally – how much milk they deliver to the dairy. The metaphor seems appropriate for the system UBS is accused of perpetrating. Now in this case it is not cows that are milked, but presumably the French general coffers.

Has Daïeff such «carnets» in the original in his evidence file? And what do they look like? Do they really contain a handwritten parallel bookkeeping in notebooks from another era? Or is it the ordinary excel-spreadsheets that simply do not show up in the computer system? Or is it true, that all these ”milk notebooks” were regularly compiled centrally that curiously was «vache» i.e. ”cow”?

Gigantic System of Fraud?

Only now, as investigation against the UBS has been officially opened, does the bank have access to the whole file and form a picture of their more or less pathetic position. The CEO (just since March 2012) of UBS  – France Jean-Frédéric de Leusse will now have to answer for the practices of his predecessors makes light of the ”milk notebooks”: ”It is only noted who had what part of which deal,” says he, ”it is relevant is the bonus payout.”

But Daïeff investigates whether there is uncontroversial evidence in of a”gigantic systematic fraud”. That is at least how former managers of the UBS France describe it – which doesn’t exactly benefit the banks image.

Comment:

Looking at dates of promotions in UBS Wikepedia gives this information on the ex- Bundesbank CEO Axel Weber and present UBS chairman of the board:

Weber was elected to the board of the Swiss bank UBS 3 May 2012 by shareholder vote, and as chairman of the board by the board the same day. He succeeded Kaspar Villiger as chairman.  Weber’s appointment was announced in mid-2011, when Villiger had been expected to retire in 2013.

Shall we guess this goes a lot deeper? Bankers normally write off such speculations as “conspiracy theories” forwarded by obviously mentally unstable. It apparently is nothing of the sort; but standard banking procedure.

Wikepedia CV’s are at times amusing, about Alex Weber’s predecessor:

On February 1, 1989, he was elected to the Swiss Federal Council. He is affiliated to the Free Democratic Party (Liberals).

During his time in office he headed the following departments:

  • Federal Military Department (1989 – 1995)
  • Federal Department of Finance (1996 – 2003)

He was President of the Confederation twice, in 1995 and again in 2002.

In September 2003, he announced he was to resign on 31 December 2003.

Business career

In 2004, he became member of the board of directors of Nestlé and Swiss Re.

On 15 April 2009, he was elected Chairman of the Board of Swiss banking giant UBS, holding this post until 3rd May 2012.His successor was Axel A. Weber.

Who said bank owned state, not state owned bank?

Another thing springs to mind with the mentioning of “cultural- and sports-events”: The French actor Gérard Xavier Marcel Depardieu:

In recent years, Depardieu has attracted attention from the media and legal authorities for his behaviour. In August 2012, he was accused of assault and battery for punching a motorist in Paris.In November 2012, he was arrested for driving while intoxicated after he fell from his scooter, and was found to have a blood alcohol level of 1.8 grams per litre, well above the French limit for driving of 0.5.

He has been an official resident of Néchin, Belgium since 7 December 2012.[French prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault claimed the reason for the move was to avoid a looming 75% top rate of tax. On 15 December 2012, Depardieu publicly stated he was handing back his French passport.On 3 January 2013, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed an Executive Order granting Russian citizenship to Depardieu.Depardieu soon returned the favour by attacking Putin’s critics.

I had wondered what he was doing in Russia. It wasn’t the top tax; but ANY tax.

And as we are perusing the gossip columns. Uli Hoeneß:

On 20 April 2013, it was reported that Hoeneß is being investigated for tax evasion. He is reported to have held a Swiss bank account for the purpose of evading taxes due on investment income, and to owe between €3.2 million and €7 million in taxes to the German state. Despite increasing public criticism, Hoeneß has remained in his position as president and chairman of the supervisory board of Bayern Munich.

To stay chairman he must have sung like a nightingale.

Let’s just assume that the French Judge has a good deal more on UBS and Switzerland than Swiss papers let on to.

Not only that but the German leads are more than a little interesting.

Get our newsletter and our in-depth investor case studies all for free!