Banking in Switzerland is characterised by stability, privacy and protection of clients' assets and information. The country's tradition of bank secrecy, which dates to the Middle Ages, was first codified in a 1934 law. All banks in Switzerland are regulated by Swiss Financial Market Supervisory Authority (FINMA), which derives its authority from a series of federal statutes.
Switzerland is a prosperous nation with a gross domestic product (GDP) higher than that of some larger western European nations. In addition, the value of the Swiss franc (CHF) has been relatively stable compared to that of other currencies. In 2003, the financial sector comprised an estimated 14% of Switzerland's GDP and employed approximately 180,000 people (110,000 of whom work in the banking sector); this represents about 5.6% of the total Swiss workforce.
Swiss neutrality and national sovereignty, long recognized by foreign nations, have fostered a stable environment in which the banking sector was able to develop and thrive. Switzerland has maintained neutrality through both World Wars, is not a member of the European Union, and was not even a member of the United Nations until 2002.
Currently an estimated one-third of all funds held outside the country of origin (sometimes called "offshore" funds) are kept in Switzerland. In 2001 Swiss banks managed US$ 2.6 trillion. The following year they handled US$400 billion less which has been attributed to both a bear market and stricter regulations on Swiss banking. By 2007 this figure has risen to roughly 6.7 trillion Swiss francs (US$5.7 trillion).
The Bank of International Settlements, an organization that facilitates cooperation among the world's central banks, is headquartered in the city of Basel. Founded in 1930, the BIS chose to locate in Switzerland because of the country's neutrality, which was important to an organization founded by countries that had been on both sides of World War I.
Foreign banks operating in Switzerland manage 870 billion Swiss francs worth of assets (as of May 2006).
The Swiss Financial Market Supervisory Authority (FINMA) is a public law institution that supervises most banking-related activities as well as securities markets and investment funds. Regulatory authority is derived from the Swiss Financial Market Supervision Act (FINMASA) and Article 98 of the Swiss Federal Constitution.
The office of the Swiss Banking Ombudsman, founded in 1993, is sponsored by the Swiss Banking Ombudsman Foundation, which was established by the Swiss Bankers Association. The ombudsman's services, which are offered free of charge, include mediation and assistance to persons searching for dormant assets. The ombudsman handles about 1,500 complaints raised against banks yearly.
The Swiss Parliament passed the Banking Law of 1934, which codified the rules of secrecy and criminalizes violation of it. The secrecy provisions were not included in the first draft of the law, which mainly concerned administrative matters such as bank supervision. The provisions, found in Article 47(b), were added before passage of the bill due to Nazi authorities' attempts to investigate the assets of Jews and "enemies of the state" held in Switzerland.
Swiss banks, as well as the post office (which handles some financial transactions) use an electronic payments system known as Swiss Interbank Clearing (SIC). The system is supervised by the Swiss National Bank and is operated via a joint venture. SIC handled over 250 million transactions in 2005, with a turnover value of 41 trillion Swiss francs.
As of 2006, there are 408 authorized banks and securities dealers in Switzerland, ranging from the "Two Big Banks" down to small banks serving the needs of a single community or a few special clients.
UBS AG and Credit Suisse are respectively the largest and second largest Swiss banks and account for over 50% of all deposits in Switzerland; each has extensive branch networks throughout the country and most international centres.
Due to their size and complexity, UBS and Credit Suisse are subject to an extra degree of supervision from the Federal Banking Commission.
UBS came into existence in June 1998, when Union Bank of Switzerland, founded in 1862, and Swiss Bank Corporation, founded in 1872, merged. Headquartered in Zürich and Basel, it is Switzerland's largest bank. It maintains seven main offices around the world (four in the United States and one each in London, Tokyo, and Hong Kong) and branches on five continents.
UBS has used the slogan "You & Us" in their marketing communication. The slogan aims to highlight the firm's client-based approach. Source: UBS branding
Credit Suisse is the second-largest Swiss bank. Based in Zürich, it was founded in 1856; its market capitalization (as of 2007) is $95.2 billion, and the company has about 40,000 employees. Credit Suisse Group offers private banking, investment banking and asset management services. It acquired The First Boston Corporation in 1988 and merged with the Winterthur insurance company in 1997; the latter was sold to AXA in 2006. The asset management services were sold to Aberdeen Asset Management in 2008 during the GFC
The Swiss National Bank (SNB) serves as the country's central bank. Founded by the Federal Act on the Swiss National Bank (16 January 1906), it began conducting business on 20 June 1907. Its shares are publicly traded, and are held by the cantons, cantonal banks, and individual investors; the federal government does not hold any shares. Although a central bank often has regulatory authority over the country's banking system, the SNB does not; regulation is solely the role of the Federal Banking Commission.
The term private bank refers to a bank that offers private banking services and in its legal form is a partnership. The first private banks were created in St. Gallen in the mid 1700s and in Geneva in the late 1700s as partnerships, and some are still in the hands of the original families such as Hottinger and Mirabaud. In Switzerland, such private banks are called private bankers (a protected term) to distinguish them from the other private banks which are typically shared corporations.
There are, as of 2006, 24 cantonal banks; these banks are state-guaranteed semi-governmental organizations controlled by one of Switzerland's 26 cantons that engage in all banking businesses. The largest cantonal bank, the Zürich Cantonal Bank, had a 2005 net income of CHF 810 million.
Swiss bank secrecy does not protect private banking information; the protections afforded under Swiss law are similar to confidentiality protections between doctors and patients or lawyers and their clients. The Swiss government views the right to privacy as a fundamental principle that should be protected by all democratic countries. While secrecy is protected, in practice all bank accounts are linked to an identified individual, and a prosecutor or judge may issue a "lifting order" in order to grant law enforcement access to information relevant to a criminal investigation.
Swiss law distinguishes between tax evasion (non-reporting of income) and tax fraud (active deception). International legal assistance is only granted with respect to tax fraud. In domestic prosecutions, banking secrecy may be lifted by court order in cases of tax fraud or particularly severe cases of tax evasion.
In 2001 and 2002, an amnesty was offered by the government of Italy in which taxes and penalties on repatriated funds were limited on funds repatriated from Switzerland; 30 to 35 billion euros worth of deposits were returned to Italy. In 2003, a similar amnesty was approved by the government of Germany.
Swiss bank accounts cannot be opened without the holder signing a legal document asserting that they have no outstanding financial obligations to the IRS. Despite this, Swiss banks have been criticized for improperly shielding individuals practicing tax evasion. Because only tax fraud (actively lying to authorities) is a crime in Switzerland, while tax evasion (passively neglecting to report income) is not, it is believed that many tax evaders have been able to take advantage of the Swiss privacy provisions.
In January 2003, the United States Department of Treasury announced a new information-sharing agreement under the already extant U.S.-Swiss Income Tax Convention; the agreement was intended to facilitate more effective tax information exchange between the two countries. However, Swiss policy has continued to come under international criticism, and in March 2009 Switzerland agreed to renegotiate more effective tax cooperation with the United States and other countries.
There are several measures in place to counter money laundering. The Money Laundering Act sets forth requirements of account holders' identification, and requires reporting of any suspicious transactions to the Money Laundering Reporting Office.
According to the CIA World Factbook, Switzerland is "a major international financial center vulnerable to the layering and integration stages of money laundering; despite significant legislation and reporting requirements, secrecy rules persist and nonresidents are permitted to conduct business through offshore entities and various intermediaries..." However, Switzerland's cooperation in transnational financial issues has been praised by several major U.S. officials. A Federal Bureau of Investigation anti-terrorism official noted that Switzerland was one of several countries to participate in joint task forces targeting financing of Al-Qaeda terrorist cells; a former Assistant Secretary of the Treasury praised Swiss cooperation and the country's assistance in the finding and freezing of terrorist and Iraqi assets.
Some bank accounts are afforded an extra degree of privacy. Information concerning such accounts, known as numbered accounts, is restricted to senior bank officers, rather than being accessible to all the employees of a bank. However, the information required to open such an account is no different from that of an ordinary account; completely anonymous accounts are not allowed by law. Should a criminal investigation take place, law enforcement has access to information related to a numbered account in the same way it has access to information about any other account.
Several inquiries have been made into the conduct of Swiss banks during the Nazi Germany period (1933–1945), especially regarding funds deposited by or stolen from victims of the Holocaust. The campaign causing the highest outlays ($1.25 billion in 1999) on the part of the Swiss banking industry as of 2009 was the World Jewish Congress lawsuit against Swiss banks launched by Edgar Bronfman, president of the World Jewish Congress, in concert with US Senator Alfonse d'Amato of New York.
In October 1996, as this campaign was underway, Swiss ambassador to the United States Carlo Jagmetti admitted that some banks prevented Holocaust survivors from accessing their funds, although he disputed the amounts claimed in lawsuits by survivors. Union Bank of Switzerland security guard Christoph Meili became a prominent whistleblower when he removed Holocaust-era records from the bank and alleged that records of accounts of Holocaust victims were being destroyed (see main article on Meili).
In 1998, an international panel of historians released a study that claimed a significant amount of gold had been stolen from Holocaust victims, as well as the treasuries of conquered countries, and deposited in the Swiss National Bank. The panel found that, despite evidence of theft and wrongful acquisition of the gold, the SNB continued to accept the deposits. In 2000, Judge Edward R. Korman of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York approved a US$1.25 billion settlement between several Swiss banks and the plaintiffs, a group of Jewish organizations.
An estimated 50,000 accounts in Switzerland were opened by victims during the Nazi era; some banks refused to make payments to victims' families because of the lack of death certificates. However, an article published on October 13, 2001 in The Times of London reported that the tribunal entrusted with tracing Holocaust era accounts found that only 200 of the 5,570 abandoned foreign accounts in question, containing about $12 million, could be traced back to Holocaust victims; most of the abandoned accounts were owned by wealthy gentiles, and half the accounts contained less than 1,000 francs.
With recent changes in the Swiss bank secrecy regime, other states, such as Singapore, have attracted depositors seeking privacy and protection. Having taken steps to make its banks more attractive, Singapore strengthened penalties for violators of bank secrecy (and now imposes steeper fines and longer jail sentences for offenders), and modified its laws on trusts and inheritance. Singapore is also now the location of Credit Suisse's international banking headquarters.