When most investors think about offshore asset havens, the first prospect that comes to mind is the traditional Swiss Bank Account. This has become a virtual stereotype of asset protection, probably because Swiss banks have been in this field of financial services the longest compared to other countries.
Switzerland has maintained a longstanding political distance between itself and the rest of Europe; it maintained neutrality through both World Wars (leading to charges it collaborated with the Nazis); it is not an EU member; and only joined the United Nations in 2002. Christoph Meili, a security guard at the United Bank of Switzerland, became a prominent whistleblower by preventing the destruction of Holocaust-era financial records in 1997 and bringing them to the attention of the public. Subsequently, Meili lost his job and received death threats, and became the first and only Swiss national to be granted political asylum in America. Descendants of Holocaust victims claim Swiss banks are still holding onto some their ancestors’ funds, despite disbursements in recent years.
Regardless of its somewhat unsavory past, Switzerland has traditionally had much to recommend it as an asset haven. It is a stable western country with a well established system of laws, so investors will get no sudden surprises after a coup or regime change.
The financial establishment in Switzerland Banking in Switzerland is known for stability, consistency, privacy and protection of client assets and data. The nation’s tradition of bank secrecy dates back to medieval times, but was officially codified in a 1934 law. All Swiss banks are regulated by the Federal Banking Commission,or FBC, which derives its authority from a series of federal statutes. Banking is a major industry in Switzerland, employing approximately 5% to 6% percent of its workforce and generating 14% to 15% of its annual GDP. It is estimated that approximately one third of offshore funds are stored in Swiss banks. The UBS AG and Credit Suisse are the two largest Swiss banks, holding more than 50% of all deposits in Switzerland.
While secrecy of banking data is guaranteed under Swiss law, in practice it is not unlimited. While secrecy is protected, all bank accounts are linked to an identified individual, and a judge or prosecutor may issue a “lifting order” to give law enforcement access to information relevant to a criminal investigation. Swiss law discriminates between tax evasion and tax fraud. If money is not declared, this is considered tax evasion, a misdemeanor under Swiss law. However, tax fraud such as filing forged tax declarations is considered a criminal offence.
Also, in an effort to stop the use of Swiss banks by criminals, The Money Laundering Act sets standards for the identification of account holders, and requires reporting of any suspicious transactions to the Money Laundering Reporting Office. After 9/11, Switzerland was one of several countries to participate in joint task forces targeting financing of the Al-Queda terrorist organization.
Due to Switzerland’s high profile in the world banking community, it has come under pressure from many nations including the U.S. to alter its privacy laws. European Union members complain that their nationals use its convenient nearby services to avoid taxation at home. The EU is working towards a harmonized tax regime among its member states, and the the Swiss banking officials (and, according to some polls, the public) are against further integration. However, some cooperation has been forthcoming, and since July 1 2005, Switzerland has charged a witholding tax on interest earned by the personal Swiss accounts of E.U. nationals.
In 2001 and 2002, the government of Italy offered a limited amnesty to tax dodgers with Swiss accounts, resulting in the repatriation of 30 to 35 billion euros. In 2003, another such amnesty program was offered by Germany. In 2003, the U.S. announced a new information-sharing agreement under the previously-signed U.S. – Swiss Income Tax Convention, to facilitate more effective tax information exchange.
Swiss numbered bank accounts are legendary to the public as bastions of secrecy, but in reality, the information required to open such an account is the same as that of an ordinary account; completely anonymous accounts are legally forbidden. The only difference between a numbered account and a regular account is that personal data concerning such accounts is restricted to senior bank officers, rather than being accessible to all bank employees. In a criminal investigation, law enforcement can access the numbered account holder’s identification just as easily as that of a regular account.
In summary, anyone who wants to keep a legitimately-gained amount of capital in a safe off-shore asset haven should consider Swiss banks to be a safe bet. However, due to their high profile, these banks may offer less assurance of privacy than some lesser known, and less carefully scrutinized, countries such as the Turks and Caicos or the Guernsey Islands.