Swiss banks break ranks as U.S. tax probe bites

Fri May 31, 2013 9:26am EDT
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By Katharina Bart

ZURICH (Reuters) - The unified front with which Switzerland's banks have defended their culture of secrecy is breaking down as some prepare to hand over data in a U.S. tax evasion probe, leaving others at greater risk of prosecution.

The Swiss government is trying to push through a law that would allow banks to release the information on clients, helping 13 banks under formal investigation to avoid criminal prosecution including Credit Suisse and Julius Baer.

Although the move could deal a further blow to Switzerland's waning status as a discreet parking house for undeclared wealth, the government hopes it will head off more determined action by U.S. prosecutors.

But some banks not named in the investigation, along with thousands of tax lawyers, custodians and small asset managers, fear the government is hammering out a deal that ignores their concerns and leaves them exposed to potential criminal lawsuits.

"This isn't a deal at all," said the Swiss Association of Asset Managers in a statement. "Swiss banks which have sinned are buying forgiveness by denouncing the independent asset managers, custodians, and lawyers they worked with in order to avoid being criminally prosecuted."

The investigation is focusing for now on the 13 Swiss banks suspected of abetting tax evasion by American citizens, but industry experts say as many as 80 financial institutions could face charges.

This would suggest an industry-wide response is needed to ensure smaller players do not collapse under onerous U.S. fines or career-destroying criminal sentences.

At first the industry tactic was to strike individual deals with U.S. authorities, beginning with private banking giant UBS, which agreed a landmark $780 million settlement in 2009 that involved handing over information that enabled American officials to pursue other Swiss institutions.   Continued...