In my Money Week column this week I've been looking at the possible demise of Switzerland's formidable banking industry. Here's a taster.
There are a few things we think we know for sure about Switzerland. It makes nice chocolate and reliable watches. It’s sort of pricy, and a little on the dull side. And it has the most formidable banking industry in the world.
For a hundred years or more, Switzerland and banking have been just about synonymous. Countless thrillers feature a scene where a shady deal gets done at some discreet Zurich or Geneva office where the secrecy of the transaction can be considered absolute. If London has a serious rival within Europe as a banking and finance centre, it is Switzerland rather than Frankfurt or Paris.
But now the country’s finance sector is looking challenged in a way that it hasn’t been for a generation or more. The country’s two giant banks, Credit Suisse and UBS, are struggling to recover from the credit crunch. Smaller banks such as Julius Baer are fighting to maintain client confidentiality as data gets passed onto WikiLeaks. Those may just be blips. Every industry goes through ups and down. But they may also be signals of long-term decline.
In reality, the success of the Swiss finance sector was based on secrecy and access to lots of cheap capital. Both appear to be gone forever. And that may well mean that Switzerland’s competitive advantage is at an end.
Whilst most of the global banking industry is roaring back from the credit crunch in fine fettle, and paying itself bigger bonuses than ever, the big Swiss banks seem to be stuck in the doldrums.
Credit Suisse came through the credit crunch better than most investment banks. It didn’t need a rescue. But it doesn’t appear to have recovered much of its old panache as the global economy grows stronger. It results earlier this month disappointed the market. It cut its 2010 dividend 35% last week and lowered its target for return on equity in the next three to five years to around 15% from more than 18%. It seems to have accepted that it will be permanently less profitable.
UBS doesn’t look any happier. The bank only just scraped its way through the credit crunch. Its fourth-quarter pre-tax profit from investment banking slumped
75% t to 75 million Swiss francs. The bonus pool was cut by 10% to reflect disappointing figures. Its chief executive officer Oswald Gruebel admitted that the results were “clearly not yet satisfactory.”
Meanwhile Julius Baer, one of the oldest names in Swiss banking, has been hit by an embarrassing scandal. A disaffected former staffer has threatened to publish the names of thousands of its clients on WikiLeaks. The whistle-blower has been arrested for breaking Switzerland’s bank secrecy laws, and it remains to be seen whether the data is ever released. Even so, it is not the kind of thing that will make the well-heeled clients of Swiss banks feel very confident.
Of course, every industry goes through bad spell. The problem for the Swiss banking sector is that it faces two huge challenges that may make it less competitive on a permanent basis.
The first is that secrecy is dead.
The European Union has been chipping away at Switzerland’s tradition of confidential, numbered bank accounts for years. Neighbouring countries suspected they were losing billions in taxes on money salted away in Swiss accounts, and they were probably right. German businessmen used to drive over the border at weekends with the boot of their BMW full of deutschemarks to deposit in the country. The Swiss have been forced to end all of that.
Now the internet is finishing the job. In an era of hyper-transparency it is impossible for the Swiss banks to maintain the old traditions of client confidentiality. They may succeed in locking up the latest whistle-blower. But it is simply too easily for a disgruntled employee to post thousands of account details on a website like WikiLeaks. If the US government can’t stop sensitive military data being published on the web, a few Swiss banks can’t hope to.
The trouble is, secrecy is often what people were buying. The banks might blather on about how they offered excellent service, and in-depth, personalised investment advice. But usually what the customers wanted was to keep their money hidden from the taxman, their wives, or their business partners. Secrecy was the main reason people went to Switzerland, and if its banks can’t keep their accounts under wraps you might as well go somewhere else.
Secondly, the giant Swiss banks, like the British ones, have grown too big for their home country. The Swiss central bank knows that both UBS and Credit Suisse have assets worth many times the country’s GDP. If both banks ran into trouble the way that Royal Bank of Scotland did in this country, it would quite literally bankrupt the country. In response, they have introduced the toughest capital rules in the world. The Swiss banks will have to maintain capital ratios at double the levels agreed under the Basel rules. In effect, that means the money the banks use as their raw material will be twice as expensive as it will be for British, American or German banks. In a competitive market, that is a huge handicap.
Swiss banking was a great model. Lots of people deposited tons of money in the country. They didn’t much care about how much interest was paid on it, or what the investment advice was like because what they really minded about was discretion. The banks could use all that cash as essentially free capital, which would bulk up their balance sheets, and allow them to go out and finance deals around the world. It was a fantastic way to make a lot of money.
Now it seems the model is broken. The accounts aren’t secret, and the capital isn’t cheap. Unlikely though it seems, in twenty or thirty years we might not associate Switzerland with the banking industry anymore. Still, there’s always the chocolate and the watch industry.