Swiss Banks

Swiss banks' anonymity and confidentiality have attracted streams of illicit cash from around the world.

Along with Chocolate and Cheese, Switzerland is synonymous with secrecy: it's long been known as a place to put your money if you don't like taxes or you commit crimes for a living. Not an entirely fair characterization, to be sure, but it's a safe bet that the decision by Swiss bank UBS to turn over the names of some accused tax evaders has a few of the world's richest criminals a bit nervous.

Switzerland's tradition of financial discretion goes back at least to the 17th century. In the wake of World War I, as many European currencies became unstable, the consistent (not to mention neutral) Swiss franc attracted depositors. After France, incensed by the loss of revenue, raided a Swiss bank's office in Paris and revealed the names on its accounts, the Swiss passed a law in 1934 making such disclosures criminal. Years later, Swiss banks both sheltered the assets of German Jews and accepted looted Nazi gold (and later set up a $1.25 billion compensation fund for Holocaust victims). Corrupt leaders ranging from the Philippines' Ferdinand Marcos to Nigeria's Sani Abacha have used Swiss banks to hide ill-gotten gains.

Faced with criticism from foreign governments, Switzerland has changed some of its ways. It added laws to combat money-laundering and cracked down on numbered accounts in the 1990s. But that doesn't mean the banks open their vaults for just anyone. When the U.S., which loses an estimated $100 billion in tax revenues every year on assets stashed overseas, demanded that UBS release information on an additional 52,000 accounts, the bank refused, saying the move would violate Swiss law. Of course, with some 27,000 UBS employees working in U.S. offices, Switzerland might not be the jurisdiction it should worry about.


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