Despite the woes of UBS, Swiss private banking remains in reasonable shape

Illustration by S. Kambayashi

AFTER visiting his bank in Zurich, Jason Bourne, an amnesic assassin, wonders: “Who has a safety-deposit box full of money and six passports and a gun?” In the popular imagination as well as Hollywood films the answer is clear: customers of Swiss banks do.

当失忆的杀手詹森•伯恩(Jason Bourne)从其位于苏黎世的银行走出后,自问到:“什么样的人会有一个装满了钱、6本护照还有一把枪的银行保险箱?”在大众的想像与好莱坞的电影中,这个答案是明确的:瑞士银行的客户就是这样的人。

If this reputation for skulduggery is right, Switzerland, home to about one-quarter of the world’s offshore money, is in big trouble. After nearly going bust, UBS, its biggest bank, is now being pistol-whipped by America’s Internal Revenue Service (IRS), which wants it to hand over the names of tens of thousands of alleged tax dodgers. A preliminary settlement between the two was agreed on July 31st, although its details have yet to be made public. In March Switzerland agreed to comply with an OECD tax code that will oblige it to reveal information on clients that other governments say they need to enforce their laws. Where will crooks, despots and war criminals go now? And what will Swiss private banks do when they leave?


Put those questions to Swiss bankers and they will explain—very smoothly, of course—that you are decades out of date. They are calm in part because the concessions on privacy are expected to be limited. Both the OECD code and, they hope, the UBS settlement will endorse the principle of “no fishing expeditions”. Foreign states would have to provide clients’ names and some evidence of wrongdoing before getting information on them. Even if the IRS remains on the warpath and goes beyond the OECD rules, perhaps only 5% of the $2 trillion of offshore assets in Switzerland comes from America. 


For the bulk of customers, Swiss bankers claim, tax is in any case not the main draw. They marshal some surprisingly good arguments. UBS has been haemorrhaging funds, with an outflow of SFr30 billion ($28 billion) so far this year (see chart). But the country’s next four biggest listed banks, Credit Suisse among them, have had private-bank inflows of SFr31 billion. Clients have fled a bank, not a country. Perhaps one-third of offshore funds in Switzerland are from places where the wealthy may not pay much tax anyway, including Russia and the Middle East. They are mainly in Switzerland for its political stability and well-run banks.

瑞士的银行家们辩称,对于大部分客户来说,避税无论如何都不是主要的吸引力。他们列举了一些很有说服力的论据。例如:瑞银一直在经受资金大量流出的困扰,单单今年就已经有300亿瑞士法郎(280亿美元)的资金流出(见图表)。但与此同时,该国排行第二至第五位的上市银行,包括瑞士信贷(Credit Suisse),却通过私人银行业务吸收了310亿瑞士法郎的资金。这说明客户只是逃离了一家银行,而并非一个国家。另外,大约有三分之一的离岸资金来自哪些赋税并不太高的地区,如俄罗斯和中东。这些客户所看重的是瑞士稳定的政治环境与经营良好的银行。

More vulnerable are the roughly 40% of assets gathered from the traditional hunting grounds of high-tax European countries, in particular Germany and Italy. Tax relations between Switzerland and the European Union have been fairly cordial—a limited agreement on co-operation in 2004 allows client confidentiality. Things could get more fractious, though. Germany has beaten up tiny Liechtenstein over secrecy. Italy and Britain are proposing tax amnesties to attract money back home. “We are emptying the cave of Ali Baba,” says Guilio Tremonti, Italy’s finance minister. But even if money leaves Switzerland, it may not leave Swiss banks. When Italy last held a tax amnesty in 2003, an astonishing 80% of the funds taken out of Credit Suisse returned to it as clients opened accounts with its Italian operation. Today, many private banks are building up their European operations to help mitigate the impact of any new amnesties.

更容易受到影响的是那些来自欧洲高税负国家(特别是德国和意大利)传统市场的资金,这些资金大约占到了总资产的40%。一直以来,瑞士和欧盟的税务关系是相当友好的, 2004年达成的一份有限合作协议允许客户信息的机密性。但是如今的事态已变得不那么容易控制了。德国已就保密问题教训过列支敦士登。意大利与英国也正盘算着利用税收赦免的政策来吸引资金回国。“我们正在清空Ali Baba的藏宝洞”,意大利财长朱利•特雷蒙蒂(Guilio Tremonti)如是说道。尽管资金离开了瑞士,但这些资金可能仍旧不会离开瑞士的银行。意大利上一次的税收特赦是在2003年,在那一次特赦中,从瑞士信贷出逃的资金中有惊人的80%又经由客户在其意大利分支机构中所开设的账户而回到了瑞士信贷。如今很多私人银行都在不断扩充其在欧洲各国的分支机构以减小新的税收赦免所带来的冲击。

Finally, as Swiss bankers point out, “there is nowhere else to go”. All mainstream offshore banking centres have committed themselves to the OECD rules, as have exotic upstarts such as Liberia and Brunei. Some argue that Hong Kong and Macau may become the destinations of choice for tax evaders. They are, it is said, less likely to enforce the OECD rules or to kowtow to foreigners. But the flip side for customers may be higher political risk. The offshore centres of the future will probably be politically stable, with good legal systems and firms and a strategy of non-confrontation with big economies on tax. Stefan Jaecklin of Oliver Wyman, a firm of consultants, reckons that Singapore and Switzerland are most likely to fit the bill. Indeed, emerging-market banks continue to set up in Switzerland. Recent arrivals include firms from Brazil and China.

另外,瑞士的银行家们指出,“其实资金已经无路可逃了”。所有的主流离岸金融中心都致力于遵守经合组织的规则,即便是那些具有异国情调的行业新贵,如利比里亚和文莱,情况也是一样。一些人认为香港和澳门可能成为避税者的最终选择。据说这两个地方在施行经合组织规则或屈服于外国压力上的可能性都较小。但对客户来说不利一面是政治风险较高。未来理想的离岸金融中心应该是政治稳定、法律体系健全、商业环境良好并且在税收上与大的经济体没有冲突。咨询公司Oliver Wyman的斯特凡•捷克林(Stefan Jaecklin)认为新加坡和瑞士最有可能符合这些条件。事实也是这样,新兴市场国家的银行不断的在瑞士设立分支机构。最近落户的商号中便有来自巴西和中国公司。

If a tax-related exodus from Switzerland seems unlikely, business is hardly plain sailing. Fewer people are getting very rich. Margins are under pressure as clients shy away from buying complex bull-market products. In response private banks are expanding into emerging markets and consolidating at home, says Huw van Steenis of Morgan Stanley. Zurich-based Vontobel has bought Commerzbank’s Swiss operation, for example. There are similar pressures in Germany, where Deutsche Bank is mulling taking a minority stake in Sal Oppenheim Jr & Cie.

即便资金不会因为税收问题而大量撤离瑞士,生意也不再是那么一帆风顺了。能够变得非常富有的人已经越来越少了。由于客户避免购买复杂的牛市金融产品,维持以往的利润率变得非常困难。为了应对这一现状,私人银行开始在新兴市场开展业务并努力整合国内的资源,摩根士丹利(Morgan Stanley)的胡•范•斯蒂尼斯(Huw van Steenis)如是说道。总部位于苏黎世的Vontobel收购了德国商业银行(Commerzbank)在瑞士的业务便是一个例证。德国的银行也有类似的压力,例如德意志银行(Deutsche Bank)正在考虑购买Sal Oppenheim Jr & Cie的少数股权。

That still leaves one outstanding thorny question: whether the modern trend to stick private banks together with riskier investment banks and hedge funds still makes sense. In theory, being a conglomerate makes it easier to meet rich people and create complex products to tempt them with. In practice, it can scare them off. The crisis has “vindicated the traditional Swiss model,” says Nicolas Pictet, a partner at Pictet & Cie. Julius Baer, another medium-sized bank, sold its institutional stockbroking arm in 2003 and is now spinning off GAM, its volatile hedge-fund operation.

生意的不顺与并购的增多也凸显出了一个重要而棘手的问题:这种将私人银行与更具风险的投行和对冲基金业务整合在一起的现代发展趋势是否仍然有效?理论上,集团化地经营更容易获得优质客户资源也更容易设计出复杂的金融产品以吸引客户购买。然而在现实中,这很有可能将客户吓跑。Pictet & Cie的合伙人尼古拉斯•皮克泰(Nicolas Pictet)认为这场金融危机其实已经“证明了传统的瑞士模式是合理的”。另一家中等规模的银行Julius Baer在2003就已经出售了股票经纪部门,如今它正在将GAM——其不稳定的对冲基金部门——剥离出来。

Of the two giant conglomerates, Credit Suisse is in rude health and maintains its investment bank is helping to boost its private bank’s margins. By contrast, on August 4th Oswald Grübel, the boss of UBS, reported yet another loss at its investment bank and cautioned that client outflows would continue. Reputation, he said, is crucial to the private-client business. Like other Swiss banks, UBS is not keen on having assassins as customers. Amnesiacs are a different matter.

两大金融集团之一的瑞士信贷如今经营状况很好,保留下来的投行部门也有助于提高其私人银行业务的利润率。相比之下,瑞银老板奥斯瓦尔德•格吕贝尔(Oswald Grübel)在8月4号报告其投行业务再次亏损,并告诫说,客户资金的流出仍会持续。在他看来,声誉对私人客户业务至关重要。与其他瑞士银行一样,瑞银也并不喜欢杀手成为其客户。但如果故意纵容那就是另外一回事儿了。