You know the following Bloomberg article is going to be a fair, honest account of serious international finance law when it begins “many Swiss bankers have had an easy job taking in often untaxed money from wealthy customers from around the world.” Wow. The rest of this should be fun. While it might seem like the rest of the article is a tirade against tax havens, tax avoidance, and international revenue collection, it actually goes much further.
Switzerland’s first female Finance Minister, Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, is on a quest to convince the Swiss Parliament that secrecy in banking is no less than the bane of all humanity. (Or something along those lines.) Widmer-Schlumpf, according to Bloomberg, is “changing the way Switzerland’s 300 banks are doing business.” But don’t worry; it wasn’t a complete fluff piece. Only once in the article did they mention the 57 year old finance minister is a vegetarian, has three children, and enjoys long hikes in the mountains. (I’m not kidding.)
At issue are the nation’s nearly eighty year old bank secrecy laws that prohibit government agencies (foreign or domestic) from gaining much, if any, information about depositors. The US has been engaged in a number of disputes with Swiss Banking authorities regarding depositors that may (or may not) be illegally sheltering money in Swiss banks. Of course, additional issues are also at play. This week the G-8 meetings are expected to focus heavily on “international tax avoidance” and international taxation efforts.
Tax havens, far from being limited, should be promoted. Just as companies must competitively set prices to attract customers to their brand’s value, countries should be setting tax policy in accordance with their value of government. When French authorities decided to tax the wealthy at 75 percent, a mass exodus of wealth from the country was only expected. And rather than set taxes at a tolerable level – while balancing government services to the level of possible revenue – nations seem far more interested in simply making tax avoidance more burdensome.
Of course the George Soros, and the Gerard Depardieus of the world will always be able to move around their finances to avoid some level of taxation. With enough money, margins of profit can always be achieved. Such international tax cooperation is nothing more than a coordinated chase for more revenue between overspending countries run by tax happy politicians.
With the G-8 taking place in Ireland this year, it should also be mentioned that countries with reasonable secrecy laws, and low taxes, tend to attract wealth regardless of international cooperation. Apple moved operations to Ireland for their beneficial corporate tax rates. French Billionaires moved to Portugal for their reasonable income tax properties. The wealthy and successful always have flocked to nations that respect their right to property and privacy. Western style Democracy, in fact, was largely founded on those two simple principles.
Outside of international concerns, there are also domestic issues at play for Swiss citizens – who currently enjoy nearly unmatched economic freedom in Europe. In a world of European style austerity – AKA: higher taxes and increased vilification of wealth – an oasis of economic liberty and individualism seems an enticing locale for wealthy investors, businesses, and retirees. And while the G-8 negotiates ways to limit tax competition among industrialized nations, Switzerland has traditionally stood strong as a beacon of privacy in an ever-more-Orwellian world. The sudden loss of that coveted privacy would be more detrimental to the Swiss people than many initially realize.
Eighty years of bank secrecy are more responsible than almost any other influencing factor for Switzerland’s wealth, prosperity, and successful neutrality. It wasn’t just Switzerland’s well regulated citizen militia that let it escape WWII with little damage; the fact that it had much of Europe’s wealth played a large factor. It wasn’t simply its beautiful country side and welcoming people that made it the choice country for refugees of oppressed nations. Its privacy and respect for wealth accumulation promised a nation built on the concept that property belongs, first and foremost, to the beholder.
Without their prized secrecy, Swiss depositors will see regulations, oversight and politically charged finance operations intrude on daily deposits, withdrawals and investments. Gone will be the days of citizen anonymity. Surprisingly, Swiss citizens seem temporarily disinterested in whether or not their government continues to protect their fiscal privacy.
Forty-seven percent of respondents said they’d be willing to have their bank data forwarded directly to the tax office. Such a response should solicit warnings from wealthy French businessmen, American success stories, and any tea party group that was recently hassled by the IRS. As news about the NSA spying program “PRISM” circulate the web, one would think privacy would be of paramount concern to almost any citizen of any country. IRS knowledge of American depositors is but one aspect of what makes their authoritarian nature even remotely possible.
Switzerland’s Lower Parliament would do well to ignore the pleading of a “progressive” finance minister. The culture of their economy, and more importantly their government-citizen relationship, will be altered forever if secrecy laws are severely weakened. Disputes between the US, Britain, and any other number of nations with the Swiss Banking authorities will not be settled; but rather exacerbated as revenue hungry nations turn their carnivorous eyes toward a previously untapped resource. After UBS handed over details on 4,450 accounts to the U.S. in 2010, America accelerated their efforts to get previously confidential information out of Swiss Banks. Nearly a dozen banks are under investigation, with at least one major bank closing their doors. As former Finance Minister, Hans Rudolf Merz, said: Banking secrecy should prevail, and foreign opponents should “bite their teeth out” on it.
Moreover, Swiss citizens should consider the government they are inviting into their daily affairs by offering to the taxing-authority direct access to their accounts. Switzerland, as compared to Eurozone countries, rate better on taxation, debt to GDP ratio and government spending. Such an economically free nation did not achieve its market strength and prosperity through a devolution of bank secrecy. . . But rather a respect for property and privacy.
Hopefully, while Swiss timepieces and world famous chocolates continue to be their largest export, they will have the common sense to hold on to the privacy of their depositors.