Tag Archives: Switzerland

Offshore Tax Evasion: US versus Switzerland

switzerland tax haven

Fearful that other banks could suffer the same fate as Wegelin, a venerable private bank that was indicted in New York in 2012 and put out of business, the Swiss government has been seeking an agreement with America that would allow the industry to pay its way out of trouble in one go. Instead, it has had to make do with one covering banks that are not already under investigation, which excludes some of the country’s biggest institutions.

The deal is cleverly structured. Of Switzerland’s 300 banks, 285 will be able to avoid prosecution if they provide certain information about American clients and their advisers, and pay penalties of 20-50% of the clients’ undeclared account balances, depending on when the account was opened and other factors. Banks that persuade clients to make disclosures before the programme starts will get reduced fines. Banks will not have to take part but the legal risks are daunting for those that don’t, even if they hold little undeclared American money. Those with no foreign clients will have to produce independent reports proving they have nothing to hide if they want a clean bill of health.

One Swiss newspaper likened the deal to “swallowing toads”. Another called it “the start of an organised surrender”. The bankers’ association sees it as a necessary evil: the only way to end legal uncertainty, albeit at a cost that will strain some institutions. Small and medium-sized Swiss private banks are already struggling. In 2012 their average return on equity was 3%; the number of private banks fell by 13, to 148, mostly because of voluntary liquidations. KPMG, a consultancy, expects this to fall by a further 25-30% by 2016 as receding legal threats encourage the return of mergers.

Some of the prospective buyers in any future M&A wave still have to make their peace with the Americans. Excluded from the deal are 14 mostly large banks that have been under investigation for some time, including Credit Suisse and Julius Bär. They will have to settle individually, with fines expected to be steep, some perhaps comparable to the $780m paid by UBS in 2009. These banks are also under pressure from European countries that have suffered tax leakage, including Germany, whose parliament has rejected a deal that would have allowed the Swiss to make regular payments of tax withheld from clients while avoiding having to name names.

Swiss bankers gamely argue that bank secrecy remains intact, pointing out that privacy laws have not been dismantled. But banks are being bullied into providing enough information, short of actual client names, to allow the Americans to make robust “mutual legal assistance” requests that leave Swiss courts with no option but to order banks to provide clients’ personal details. The courts still have some flexibility because America has yet to ratify an amended tax treaty with Switzerland, thanks to blocking tactics by Rand Paul, a senator who argues it would violate Americans’ right to privacy. But this obstacle will eventually be cleared or circumvented.

All of which fuels speculation that Switzerland could lose its crown as the leading offshore financial centre, even though it is still well ahead of fast-growing rivals in Asia. It may find comfort in the fact that the Americans plan to use information harvested from the Swiss— including “leaver lists”, which contain data on account closures and transfers to banks abroad—to go after other jurisdictions. This is part of a “domino effect” strategy, says Jeffrey Neiman, a former federal prosecutor, aimed at forcing tax evaders “so far off the beaten path that they can’t be sure if the pirate waiting to take their money will be there when they return.”

Offshore tax evasion: Swiss finished?, Economist, Sept. 7, 2013, at 72

The Battery of Europe; Swiss hydroelectricity is not Green

Mauvoisin dam, Switzerland

Swiss energy companies are determined to turn the country into a ‘battery for Europe’. Vast investments are made in big-scale water power projects. But it is not certain they will eventually pay off.  With the decision for a nuclear shutdown, the spotlight in Switzerland and Germany has switched to renewable energy sources. In Germany there’s a massive boost to solar and wind energy production, while Switzerland’s energy companies focus on increasing their storage capacities in the Alps.  About 11 percent of Europe’s electricity flows through Switzerland. The Swiss electricity industry stresses the advantages of the country’s central location in Europe and its topography. On the European energy map, Swiss mountain lakes could function as a huge battery for unsteadily generated renewable energy, and generate high revenues.

Natural and artificial mountain lakes are an essential component of Switzerland’s energy supply. Water power makes up 57 percent of the country’s electricity production. Some of these lakes aren’t just natural water reservoirs though, but serve as basins for pumped-storage hydro power plants (PSPs).  The system is simple and has long been a good business. Throughout the day, cheap, spare electricity is bought on the market and then used to pump water from a lower reservoir to a basin further up the mountain. At times when demand for electricity is high, stored water is released and drives turbines that produce electricity, which can then be sold on the market for a higher price.  Currently, 11 such plants are running in Switzerland with a combined 1400 megawatt capacity. Three other projects are under construction, to increase Swiss pumped-storage capacity to 3500 megawatts by 2017. Two more PSPs are being planned: ‘Grimsel 3′ at the Grimsel Pass in the Bernese Alps and ‘Lago Bianco’ at the Bernina Pass in Grisons.

“The symbiosis between nature and technology has defined the character of this landscape,” writes the Grimsel region’s tourism agency. Ernst Baumberger, press officer at the regional energy company KWO looks at Grimsel through two lenses: while praising the region’s beauty, Baumberger points out that a plenty of precipitation, glaciation, rock as building ground and the immense altitude difference make it ideal for water power use. KWO put its first power plant at Grimsel in operation 80 years ago.  The company recently was licenced to implement its 1.2 billion Swiss francs project ‘KWOplus’, including the construction of a second PSP (‘Grimsel 3′). The plant will have a 660 megawatt capacity, which is about the power of an average Swiss nuclear plant. The plan is controversial, both politically and economically.

“Switzerland doesn’t need any additional PSPs. There’s neither a lack of batteries, nor a grid stability problem,” argues Jürg Buri, managing director of the Swiss Energy Foundation (SES). He says that no country operates as many flexible power stations as Switzerland….Environmental organisations say that mainly cheap electricity from coal and nuclear plants is used for the pumping and that during the process, about a quarter of the energy is lost. Even worse, at windy times, PSPs keep coal and nuclear plants running.  There’s nothing green about pumped-storage hydroelectricity anyway. “If today’s PSPs were supplied with clean energy, that business would be unprofitable,” Buri says. “The revenues of the peak current wouldn’t make up for the purchase price and the energy lost for pumping.”

According to the licence, KWO is obliged to run Grimsel 3 with as much renewable energy as “economically and technically possible.” No fixed share was defined however. KWO’s Baumberger stresses that in the long term, the company’s PSPs should run solely with green electricity. “However, the primary criteria will remain the profitability,” he adds.  While the energy company praises Grimsel 3 as an important contribution to the security of energy supply for the country, Jürg Buri claims that the pumped-storage business further strains transmission lines. “In fact, to run Grimsel 3, even more lines would have to be built, something which people often forget about….

The Swiss Association for Water Management (SWV) views investments in PSPs as risky and their profitability as volatile. At the Bernische Kraftwerke (BKW), which holds half of KWO’s shares and manages electricity trade, the media officer declines to comment on the prospects of pumped-storage hydroelectricity…

In contrast to environmental organisations, KWO’s Baumberger remains optimistic. He stresses that in the light of booming wind and solar energy in Europe, the demand for further storage capacities will grow. “What Switzerland so far offers in terms of energy storage is nothing but a drop in the ocean.”  While opinions on the future of Swiss pumped-storage hydroelectricity differ sharply, one thing seems sure: the industry’s prospects lie in the hands of European, not Swiss politicians and businessmen.

Excerpts from Ray Smith, Swiss Battery May Lose Power, IPS, Dec. 8, 2012