By Dan Popescu
« Switzerland is for gold what Bordeaux is to wine », Gilles Labarthe, Swiss journalist and ethnologist.
When one thinks of Switzerland, banking comes to mind easily but gold doesn’t as much. After all, the relationship between Switzerland and gold is more ancient than the one with paper bank deposits. Certain bankers from Geneva, such as Lombard Odier and Pictet, started in 1800 and have more than 200 years of history. Back then, paper money didn’t exist yet and deposits consisted mainly of gold and silver. Today, still, a full two-thirds of the world’s gold goes through Switzerland and, in an average year, it refines grossly 70% of the world’s gold. Six of the gold refiners on the LBMA Good Delivery list make for 90% of global volume, and four of those are in Switzerland. Up until 1992, the swiss franc’s 40% backing by gold was written in the country’s Constitution. When Switzerland became a member of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) it had to abandon this backing by gold. Today, Swiss citizens have asked for a referendum to be called in order to get back to that backing.
Gold is, along with silver, the oldest money in the world, hence its unbreakable relation with the banking system. Gold is also the most liquid and transportable wealth protection in time and space. In case of war or revolution, it is hard to flea with one’s property or other valuable assets as can be done with gold. In 1685, when the Nantes Edict was revoked by Louis XIV, Protestants were definitely denied their religious rights. This led most of the Huguenots to flea to the european Protestant countries, such as Switzerland.
We all know about Switzerland’s banking secrecy, but a little less about its origins. One might think that it originates in a text of law, like in other banking centers. But banking secrecy is profoundly burried in the Swiss mentality. One can always revoke a law, but it is very hard to change one’s state of mind or tradition. When you ask a question of a Swiss, you have to follow up with ten more questions in order to get a complete response. He will answer bit by bit. If you ask the same question of an Italian, he will tell you about his whole life. Having lived in Switzerland, this is how I can best describe Switzerland’s banking secrecy. Swiss people are discreet by nature. They don’t need laws… laws only reinforce what is de facto.
« It is not the federal banking laws’ article 47 that defines the notion of banking secrecy in Switzerland, but common law; banking secrecy thus falls under the general dispositions of the code of contractual obligations, as well as under articles 27 and 28 of the civil code, which put into law the principle of identity protection. » (1) « Penalties for breaking this principle are covered by the federal banking laws’ article 47, constituting a disposition of administrative penal law. »(2) The civil code protects every personal right worth protecting and, notably, private life secrecy. The swiss federal Court estimates that, « the inviolability of private life does not only constitute a moral principle, but is also a civil right, a « judicial asset »; it is an attribute of personality, and the law protects it. »(3) And privacy in the economic sphere is also protected.
« What sane man would not put away some money in swiss banks? Switzerland is the vault of the world », Félix Houphouët-Boigny, former President of the Ivory Coast.
For a long time Switzerland has been building infrastructures to safeguard financial assets such as gold. Its political stability, its neutrality, its defense system based on a militia army, and the Alps, that serve as a natural fortress, make Switzerland the ideal safe vault for gold. And we can add to that ultra-qualified personnel, more dedicated to excellence than to volume.
During the crisis of the London Gold Pool in the ‘70s, Zurich has even come close to becoming the main gold trading hub, to the expenses of London. The Bank for International Settlements (BIS), the central banks’ banker, is still based in Basel. Almost all of central banks’ gold trades are effected by the BIS in the utmost discretion. The headquarters of the World Gold Council were in Zurich, before moving to London recently. Geneva, where the most important jewelry auctions take place, has also been the global center for jewelry and watchmaking for many years.
The sound management of public finances has the effect of the swiss franc mimicking the price of gold closely. Recently, in order to protect its exporting businesses, Switzerland decided to peg the swiss franc to the euro, thus diminishing its attraction as an anti-inflation currency (in favor of gold). Even though swiss banking secrecy is no longer backed as much by the authorities and the large banks, it still remains strong in the mentality of the Swiss people. True, the americanisation of the swiss banking system since the ‘80s has weakened banking secrecy and the role of gold in fortune management. But, having talked with Swiss fortune managers, I see that this is starting to change and that, without admitting it publicly, they include more and more gold in their clients’ portfolios. In the last ten years, several companies specialising in gold storage for businesses and individuals, outside the banking system, have appeared.
The Swiss have a reputation for excellence in gold refining. That has let Switzerland become the hub of gold refining, with nearly 70% of the world’s gold transiting through the country. Mining companies and gold recyclers export to Switzerland, where the gold is purified to the highest levels (.9999 or even .99999). It is then exported in the whole world to jewellers, investors or central banks.
The best precious metals storage and safekeeping companies are also based in Switzerland.
Other countries are trying to compete with Switzerland, but they still have a long way to go, especially since Switzerland is not sleeping on its laurels. Two of those countries are City-States like Dubai and Singapore. Singapore is a stable haven in Asia, as is Dubai in the Middle East, but they haven’t reached Switzerland’s level yet. Dubai is trying to develop an expertise in refining and trading gold, whereas Singapore, already with an excellent infrastructure for wealth management, is developing its capacity for gold storage and, also, a gold trading market for Asia.
We live in uncertain times, and no one is safe from unforeseen events. In the actual context, it seems to me that Switzerland is the best place to store gold. However good the infrastructures may be, one must never lose sight of the financial health of the country in which one wants to store gold. A fiscal or financial paradise that has gone into debt loses its independence and will not hesitate to use legal means to confiscate assets and, thus, gold, that are on its territory, as we’ve seen with Cyprus recently. The United States and the European Union have already adjusted their legislation for possible confiscation. Even Switzerland was taking the wrong road with its public finances in the ‘90s but, thanks to direct democracy, a positive radical change has taken place. This is a positive element for Switzerland, even though