The exclusive Swiss private banking sector has been revolutionized by key players Pictet, Lombard Odier and Mirabaud, amid a tough new regulatory environment and a crackdown on tax cheats.
On Jan. 1, the elite trio radically changed their business model by ditching the near-unique status of Swiss private banks and transforming themselves into operations almost like any other.
Switzerland’s two-century-old private banking sector has been based on rules that make the wealthy managing partners personally responsible for the money they manage for rich clients.
In other words, if the bank gets into trouble, the partners can lose all their assets, not just those they have invested in the operation.
Drawn from the elite of Geneva Protestants, in a city which was a driving force in the Reformation five centuries ago, Swiss private bankers have over time refreshed their ranks with wealthy, likeminded members from their own community.
Pictet and Lombard Odier have eight managing partners, and Mirabaud, six.
“The eight partners represent up to the seventh generation of bankers at the helm of the company,” Lombard Odier said.
“Since it was founded in 1796, the company has remained loyal to its primary calling, which is to conserve, make fruitful and contribute to the handing down of the assets with which it is entrusted,” it said.
Not being listed on the stock exchange, private banks are not required to publish their results and are the preserve of select clients.
Unlimited responsibility for those who run private banks has long been seen as a selling point for wealthy clients who want the comfort provided by such a guarantee.
However, the tougher regulatory environment since the global financial crisis and scandals such as the Madoff fraud case in the US have been a wake-up call.
Switzerland’s tradition of banking secrecy has been battered as governments crack down on tax cheats who stash cash abroad.
The US has been at the forefront, and in August last year Switzerland struck a deal with Washington over the thorny issue of undeclared money banked by US citizens.
Swiss banks had until Dec. 31 to decide whether to take part in a US program to settle past wrongdoing.
Banks that do so will ward off lawsuits, but still risk being fined in proportion to the sums involved.
According to research by Ernst & Young, the overwhelming majority of banks across Switzerland’s sector believe that the US-driven solution is damaging business.
Three-quarters of the banks told the consultancy firm that they expect the automatic exchange of customer information to become the global standard, meaning the final death knell for banking secrecy.
Ernst & Young said private banking faced the greatest pressure.
“The increasingly unfavorable conditions are currently leading many banks to reassess their business models,” said Bruno Patusi, head of wealth and asset management at Ernst & Young Switzerland. “The competitive pressure and the tax agreement concluded with the US will tend to accelerate the consolidation.”
Each of the three banks has been recast into a “corporate partnership,” a hybrid status that will make it easier to compare them with fully-listed Swiss players such as Credit Suisse and UBS.
Complex global finance has made it hard for private bankers to feel safe with a traditional approach that puts all their assets on the line as they expand their operations.