GUEST OPINION: Switzerland Must Stand Up For Its Financial Center, Says Geneva Professor

Philippe Braillard March 4, 2016


A senior academic figure in Switzerland says the Alpine state needs to be more assertive in protecting its banking sector and condemns what he sees as the double standards of countries such as the US.

The following opinion item, written by Philippe Braillard, emeritus professor at the University of Geneva, argues that Switzerland must be assertive in protecting the interests of its financial industry. He writes as a recent US/Switzerland program comes to an end; that program required Swiss banks and other financial institutions to state if they were at risk of, or had, sheltered US persons against tax. The program has seen banks sign non-prosecution agreements and pay fines.

Professor Braillard’s views are not necessarily shared by this publication, but are a welcome addition to debate, and the editors invite readers to respond. (An earlier version of this article appeared in Le Temps, and in Finanz und Wirtschaft.)

In early 2016, the program to settle the tax dispute between Swiss banks and the US authorities reached an important milestone when the "category two" banks – of which there are around 80 – formed an agreement with the US Department of Justice under which they will face no criminal prosecution in return for paying fines in excess of $1.3 billion. The total bill, including banks in all categories and sums already paid by UBS and Credit Suisse in 2009 and 2014, will probably exceed $6 billion, a figure that excludes the huge legal and audit fees incurred by banks as a result of the US authorities' actions, which in some cases equal the size of the fine. This is an opportune moment to take a step back and take a critical look at the program, which has damaged the Swiss financial market because of a lack of clear-sightedness among the Swiss political authorities.

Firstly, we must not forget that the program has not yet been completed. Swiss banks will be required to work closely with the US authorities for four years, and in particular will have to send them various kinds of data. The US will be able to use the information thus obtained to make mutual assistance requests to Switzerland, enabling the US to identify taxpayers guilty of tax fraud. Another threat remains: the US authorities are reserving the right to prosecute certain Swiss bank employees and third parties such as external advisors and asset managers.

How did we get to this position? The US government's desire to make its taxpayers comply with their tax obligations is perfectly legitimate. However, it does not justify the unilateralism and imperialist behavior adopted by the US: using its decisive power over the operation of financial, economic and technological networks in our globalized world, the US is seeking to force the extraterritorial application of its laws.

Moreover, although it claims to be acting in the name of virtue and universal moral values, the main aim of the US's strategy is the pursuit of economic and political interests. It is clearly in the US's interests to weaken the Swiss financial market, which is a formidable rival to its own. The US's stance is therefore hugely hypocritical: there is a glaring contradiction between what it is saying and what it is doing. The US has zero credibility when it criticizes tax havens and Swiss banking secrecy, since the US itself is one of the world's largest centers of tax evasion. One just has to think of the entirely opaque legal vehicles offered by several US states (Delaware, Nevada, Wyoming, South Dakota). This was confirmed recently by a Bloomberg analysis, which said that large amounts of untaxed assets are being transferred from Switzerland and exotic tax havens to the US, which is sheltering those assets from the eyes of foreign tax authorities. In addition, the US does not want any genuinely reciprocal arrangement with other states, despite imposing full tax transparency on them via FATCA. This is why the US will not genuinely implement the OECD's new global standard on the automatic exchange of information, for fear that it will damage the US financial market, which is sheltering large amounts of untaxed assets owned by foreign taxpayers.

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