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29 May 2013

Demise of Swiss banking secrecy heralds new era

Over the past five years, Switzerland has fought tooth and claw to keep its 80-year-old tradition of protecting the secrecy of its banks’ clients alive. It is looking like an increasingly forlorn cause.

The latest blow came last week, when EU states – under mounting pressure to crack down on tax evasion following a rash of high-profile scandals – finally agreed to open negotiations on a new tax accord with Switzerland.

The precise nature of the EU’s demands is not yet clear. It seems likely, however, that the bloc will request that Swiss banks automatically share information about the offshore wealth stashed away in their vaults by EU citizens.

Such a move, says Stéphane Garelli, a professor at the IMD business school in Lausanne, would be the “final nail in the coffin” for the system of secrecy that has helped Swiss lenders suck in SFr2.7tn ($2.8tn) of foreign assets.

“Switzerland is now moving towards an orderly retreat,” he says.

Other observers are more circumspect. “Bank secrecy has certainly weakened,” says Rainer Skierka, a banking expert at Bank Sarasin in Zurich. “But I would hesitate to say that it is dead, because it is not clear that a deal with the EU would cover all types of assets, nor is it likely to cover the contents of safe deposit boxes.”


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