Still in some people's minds...secret numbered accounts, code words, bank statements tucked away inside a newspaper, 50,000 dollars in an envelope, diamonds hidden in a tube of toothpaste…the cloak and dagger style of Swiss private banking we know from the movies, was actually only prevalent amongst those US account holders set on avoiding their US tax obligations.
While only a small fraction of the Swiss banking industry, US client engagement received worldwide attention in 2008 when the IRS began their crackdown on American tax avoiders. In the following years, paying their dues, Swiss banks paid billions of dollars in fines to the US for enabling Americans to avoid their tax obligations, and consequentially, asked their US clients to close their accounts and move their funds elsewhere, wary of more damaging legal battles with the US Department of Justice.
FATCA, the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, a unilateral US tax law aimed at curtailing potential tax evasion by US taxpayers, came into effect in 2013, ensuring that all foreign accounts and investments held by US taxpayers are disclosed by foreign banks. The implementation of FATCA entails high administrative and financial outlays for financial institutions and almost all of Switzerland’s 246 banks opted out of serving American clients, as legitimate as their banking needs may be.
Swiss banks not only dropped tax avoiders, but also were not so keen on US expatriate citizens, living and working in Switzerland, as the paperwork built up along with potential penalties for letting a non-compliant US client slip through the net.
Some people think it is still this way today, but times have changed and a new environment for US clients has evolved.
In 2009, Switzerland adopted a white money policy. In 2018, Swiss banking secrecy, as a presumed support of potential tax evasion, was dropped when Switzerland joined the OECD Global Forum on Transparency and Exchange of Information for Tax Purposes.
Nevertheless, Switzerland's competitive advantage remains intact. Due to its long-term political and economic stability (AAA-rating with a stable outlook), neutrality, and state-of-the-art financial services industry with an ingrained respect for privacy, Switzerland still remains the global leader for private wealth management in the new, transparent world. Swiss banks and independent asset managers manage around 25% of cross-border assets worldwide. In our present Covid-19 environment, Switzerland has been named the world's most resilient country to handle the coronavirus and its aftermath successfully.
In times of heightened volatility and uncertainty, Switzerland is considered a safe haven for assets from investors around the world.
In 2016, Suzan LeVine, the United States Ambassador to Switzerland in Bern at the time, sent a letter to many of the Swiss banks asking them not to shun US citizens wanting to open accounts in Switzerland. A few heeded her request and made it possible for American expats in Switzerland to open and maintain a Swiss bank account for regular banking activities, such as receiving salaries, making payments, mortgages etc. However, for asset management purposes, for Americans in the US and in Switzerland, Swiss banks require that a Swiss SEC-registered investment advisor is involved.
Previous to the IRS' massive crackdown on US tax evaders, there were only a few Swiss wealth managers registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission in the United States as an investment advisor. Most of them were fund managers and institutional client advisors at the time. Six years ago, the number had risen to 30 and today there are around 50 Swiss wealth managers (with more to come) registered with the SEC, focused on providing US private clients with international and geographical investment diversification with traditional Swiss reliability and personal quality service.
Swiss banks and Swiss SEC-registered wealth managers are happy to serve US clients.
These forward-thinking Swiss wealth managers established relationships with leading Swiss banks, happy to open custodian accounts for US clients when a wealth management mandate is established between the US client and a Swiss SEC-registered wealth manager.
These Swiss banks have added the mechanisms of FATCA to their banking operations and also deliver accurate bank statements for a correct and timely FBAR reporting of foreign financial accounts and the fulfillment of US tax obligations.
Swiss SEC-registered investment advisors come in all shapes and sizes, from big banks with US-focused affiliates, to entities backed by their Swiss private bank parent companies. Family offices and larger and smaller independent wealth managers have also registered with the SEC and work with US clients on an individualized and personal level.
There have always been legitimate reasons for US persons to hold assets in Switzerland.
While jurisdictional diversification, holding some assets outside of the US banking system is an important reason to engage a Swiss wealth manager, several of the them also work together with US custodian banks, providing their wealth management expertise, while leaving funds in the US, thereby avoiding FATCA, FBAR and tax reporting issues required for foreign bank accounts. A few Swiss wealth managers are also able to serve Canadian clients due to the proper registrations with the Canadian authorities.
There have always been legitimate reasons for US persons to hold assets in Switzerland and many Americans dutifully fulfilled their reporting and tax obligations as required. Holding some funds outside of the US banking system is considered a prudent strategy by many investors, reducing geopolitical and institutional risk. Gaining access to the perspectives of globally-experienced, Swiss wealth managers and leaving the home-bias for a more globally diversified investment portfolio is often sought after by internationally savvy investors, and having access to funds abroad anytime is another good reason for holding funds in Switzerland, perhaps even when planning to move or retire abroad at some point in time.
As you may have read, Reuters, Bloomberg, the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal reported that Swiss banks are gearing up in an effort to bring in US clients. The hunt is on with powerful statements filling the articles: "attractive target," "aiming to attack," "moving back into battle," "sharpening focus," "gearing their growth strategy," "intending to achieve above-average growth," and "wanting to grow overproportionally".
Swiss SEC-registered investment advisors range from aggressive hunters to more toned-down independent wealth managers offering individualized wealth management solutions geared to the American investor's individual set of circumstances with emphasis placed on discreet, personal, long-term relationships and individually-designed solutions. Independence is key as they are not obliged to take any particular in-house investment, product or service into consideration, their sole obligation is to their clients. Personal, long-term relationships are nurtured and chosen strategies continuously monitored on an individual basis to meet changing needs and circumstances.
No disguised language or cloak-and-dagger rendezvous, wealth management activities with a Swiss SEC-registered investment advisor are now openly and readily available to US investors domiciled in the United States and around the world. Not only for the ultra-wealthy, accounts can start with as little as CHF 100,000 depending on the investment advisor of choice. Another great point: Swiss asset management can easily be accessed without leaving home. Your Swiss wealth manager will guide you through the process every step of the way.
There’s simply not an easier way to get started in Switzerland.
The Swiss platform, AW+SWITZERLAND is a directory of the Swiss SEC-registered investment advisors and other Swiss service providers such as US tax advisors, lawyers, Swiss trustees and more. We are happy to make personal e-introductions to the Swiss wealth managers and others . There’s simply not an easier way to get started in Switzerland.
Publications are for your information only and are not intended as an offer, promotion, or solicitation to buy or sell any financial instrument or perform any other financial transactions. All information and opinions expressed in the publications reflect current views as of the date of publication and may be liable to change without notice.