Tuesday, June 8, 2010
Swiss lawmakers miss opportunity to perpetuate banking secrecy
Do legislators in Switzerland have more sense than Swiss negotiators who reached a deal with the United States in 2009 to reveal the names of nearly 4,500 U.S. clients of Swiss banking giant UBS thought to be hiding assets overseas? It's hard to understand why the National Council voted to reject the deal, which had been demanded by the U.S. government despite Switzerland's long tradition of banking secrecy. The U.S. Department of Justice had already fined Switzerland nearly $800 million for keeping secret the names of thousands of UBS depositors suspected of evading billions of dollars in taxes, and the upper house, the Council of State, approved the deal earlier this week. Apparently, the lower house was bowing to pressure from Swiss banking interests, who wanted to hang onto the illogical secrecy tradition, when it voted to kill the agreement. The bankers certainly understand that the 4,500 names would only be the beginning of the eventual dismantling of the entire secrecy system, an anachronism in the global economy. But the deal seemed an overly generous compromise that would have endorsed the continuation of the strange system. After all, why should any depositors' names be secret? There may be legitimate reasons to conceal assets, but they're hard to think of offhand. And avoiding taxes should certainly not be one of those reasons. Swiss bankers have hidden behind the secrecy system long enough -- the world wants to know what happened to the billions of dollars and precious artwork deposited by Nazi officials when they looted the vaults and museums of Europe during World War II.