A Privileged World Begins to Give Up Its Secrets
About 10 years ago, when I was working in Frankfurt, Germany’s banking capital, I was invited to the top floor of the glittering skyscraper headquarters of one of the country’s most venerable banks. There, I was treated to something that, it was made clear to me, few eyes usually had the privilege of seeing — a tour of its private art collection, an impressive spattering of modern and ancient European and American masters.
The point was, those pictures reflected the bank’s wealth. And the fact the secretive treasures were kept forever behind closed doors for the enjoyment of the privileged few reflected its power.
If that seems like a different era, it is. Banks around the world are reeling, as we know; the European banks’ losses are among the most ruinous. And their prestige and putative secrecy and independence received a further blow last week, when the government of Switzerland agreed to release to the United States the names of 4,450 American citizens suspected of using secret Swiss accounts at UBS, the country’s biggest bank, for tax evasion.
The victory for the United States was made possible by evidence from an American-born whistleblower — code name Tarantula — a disgruntled former UBS employee from the Boston area who was working in Switzerland. Until he left the bank, he was part of a UBS team that made frequent trips across the Atlantic to aggressively market investment strategies to rich Americans to elude the scrutiny of the Internal Revenue Service.
But it would be wrong to see the settlement as a one-off strike against just one bank by a single government. It is in fact the result of a broader political moment created in the wake of the global financial crisis when disenchantment with financial globalization is causing governments to repatriate wealth back to within national borders, especially at a time when countries badly need to balance their books.
And, while some of the alleged tax evaders may be the war criminals, gunrunners or despots usually linked with secret foreign bank accounts, the target of the latest efforts are much more likely to include rich businessmen and high-net-worth individuals. “There is a political movement because of the financial debacle,” said one veteran European banker who insisted on speaking anonymously because he has retired. “They are turning toward the so-called rich and want to hurt them.”
Of course, the United States looks at it a bit differently. Prosecutors have contended that in the UBS case alone, wealthy Americans hid billions of dollars, thereby evading taxes of hundreds of millions of dollars a year.
While Switzerland is arguably the largest off-shore center, it is not the only one. Supporters of its banking secrecy code point out that the code is wrapped up in the country’s claims to neutrality and being above the global political fray. But secrecy has also turned out to be immensely lucrative; according to some estimates one-quarter of the world’s offshore money now resides in Switzerland.
Other countries or territories have copied the model — Liechtenstein, Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, Macao and Hong Kong among them. And while Switzerland is probably seen as the most conservative, blue chip, upstanding offshore haven, the others are measured by a sliding scale of probity and association with dubious business practices, if not crime. The European banker said that in the early 1990s, following the fall of the Soviet Union, he worked in Switzerland where he said agents of Russian expats would show up with “boxes of cash” from Cyprus, a popular haven for capital fleeing the Russian authorities and the country’s post-collapse chaos.
The backlash against this illicit world has not been confined to the United States; it is apparent across Europe, too.
France will become of one of the first European countries to put in place a new tax treaty with Switzerland to improve transparency and access to banking information. Germany is in discussions with Liechtenstein over issues related to tax evasion by German companies and individuals. Liechtenstein has also struck a disclosure agreement with Britain, encouraging British clients of Liechtenstein banks to volunteer information to British tax authorities in return for reduced penalties. In Italy, tax officials have started an investigation into whether the estate of the late Gianni Agnelli, the former chairman of Fiat, has money hidden away in Switzerland. In Britain, the government has become particularly exercised by tax competition — the offering of low tax rates and other advantages like tax secrecy to lure capital away.
In the Swiss settlement last week, the American authorities got the information they needed after they saw an opportunity in the weakness of UBS, a bank that once enjoyed a sterling global reputation but has suffered billions of dollars in losses linked to United States subprime securities and had to be saved by a big government bailout last October. For the Swiss government, the deal lifts the immediate threat of heftier legal action and frees the bank — one of the mainstays of the Swiss economy — to concentrate on recovery.
But will anything really change? Although the United States is supposed to learn the identities of a few thousand tax evaders, those names will go first to an intermediate tax administration in Switzerland for review. The actual process of recovering the names may become lost in bureaucracy and foot-dragging.
Moreover, as The Times reported last week, smaller Swiss banks say they are confident that they can continue to profit by finding new, more elaborate ways to protect the privacy of their clients. Those banks continue to help clients hide billions of dollars through complex structures in offshore havens.
But the I.R.S. commissioner, Doug Schulman, said the agreement with UBS was a “major step forward” in the government’s efforts to pierce bank secrecy, and he warned that “wealthy Americans who have hidden their money offshore will find themselves in a jam.”
In the new political climate, expect to see a few rich Americans shifting uncomfortably.