Swiss president says talks with US still moving, but partner “not easy”

President, head of bankers’ association, say road ahead rough for bank competivity

Swiss President and Finance Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf

GENEVA, SWITZERLAND – The Swiss financial industry is facing tough times which are not likely to soon be easier, two financial leaders said at separate press conferences Thursday.

Swiss President Eveline Widmer-Sclumpf, who is also the country’s finance minister, met with journalists 12 January in Geneva to talk about the future, but the press conference not surprisingly turned to her hectic first 12 days in office.

The Swiss National Bank’s chairman resigned following a scandal, parliament moved into its new session, tax treaty talks with the US are back on the agenda after a holiday break and diplomatic posts were assigned as new ambassadors, including the European Union one, arrived to present their papers.

The financial sector will be a 2012 priority for the government

Widmer-Schlumpf says one of her top priorities is to ensure the stability and sound reputation of the financial sector. The resignation Monday of Philipp Hildebrand as central banker also left Switzerland without its important seat on the Financial Stability Board, an international body of key central bankers who have great influence over world financial policy.

Germany and the UK initialed tax treaties with Switzerland in 2011, as did several other countries (Uruguay and Taiwan in the past two weeks), and one is under discussion with Italy. The European Union opposes such bilateral agreements and has threatened to fight them. The Swiss president said Thursday that Switzerland is ready to review some of the technical issues.

US tax treaty talks: main points sorted out, more discussion needed

The most difficult discussions may be those with the US. Little information has come from either side about the status of the talks, but Widmer-Schlumpf said today that while the main points have been sorted out more discussions are needed. She qualified the talks today: “They are not easy partners, we know that, but still they are constructive.” She added that she hopes the situation can be resolved while respecting Swiss law.

The US Department of Justice is currently investigating 11 Swiss banks for possibly helping wealthy Americans in the US hide money from the IRS (tax arm) and it appears the US is putting pressure on Swiss banks in other ways, with the latest twist reportedly, according to some Swiss media, a demand for the names of all Swiss bankers who have had dealings with US citizens.

The tax talks are taking place in parallel with another Swiss-US set of negotiations, over American requests for access to Swiss police records as part of the US fight against terrorism.

Private bankers and clients face “tsunami of regulations”

Meanwhile, in Bern, the Swiss Privates Bankers Association held its annual day with the press, where President Nicolas Pictet noted that the financial industry in general and wealth management in particular are facing a “tsunami of regulations” that will increase costs and create a number of problems. Penalizing the entire profession “for the mistakes of a few” must come to an end, he argues. “We must stop making it impossible for clients to have room to breathe” – they are the first to suffer when an excess of regulations exists, with the pretext of protecting them.

Pictet did not comment on the specifics of the bank cases under review by the US. He emphasized, however, that while Swiss banks, like any other, must respect the laws of the countries in which they operate, “applying these outside a country is an unacceptable threat for a small export nation” such as Switzerland.

He was echoing concerns voiced by Widmer-Schlumpf 31 December, on the eve of her presidency, who in a radio interview offered a reminder that while banks the Swiss banks embroiled in problems with the US have not broken any Swiss laws, nor committed any moral wrong-doing, those that have broken US law will have to deal with the consequences of that. Part of discussions between the two countries involves clarifying the legal situation.

Pictet’s talk (Fre), pdf