Switzerland shifts gold off the books in preparation for Basel III

Swiss banks move private investors to institutional accounts.

Contrary to popular myth, there are at least a few Swiss people who won't shy away from a fight. One of them is Nicolas Pictet, chairman of the Swiss Private Bankers Association.

The American Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has been duffing up the Swiss banking industry for quite some time now. Some of the biggest Swiss banks have had to surrender their US client list to the IRS under subpoena, and the US tax authority has been dogged in its pursuit of those US citizens they have found to be using the international banking system to avoid domestic tax requirements — even little old ladies.

Now, Pictet has decided enough is enough… it is time for the banks in question to stand up and if not hit back, at least defend themselves properly.

This week we saw another move that is likely to alter the perception of Swiss banks. UBS and Credit Suisse, two of the banks at the centre of the IRS investigations, significantly raised their charges for holding gold — making it very unattractive for private individuals to deposit the precious metal with them.

The primary reason for the decision was not to stick it to the IRS, of course. Rather it is to move gold off the banks' balance sheets ahead of the introduction of the Basel III rules, which require them to change the ratio of capital to assets.

The banks are encouraging clients to move their gold deposits to “allocated” accounts, which sit outside the banks’ balance sheets and generally attract far larger fees, and are primarily aimed at institutional investors.

The rise in charges on “unallocated” will undoubtedly discourage private individuals from keeping gold on deposit with Swiss banks. One gold market analyst told me the banks were now “terrified of US clients, who account for a significant proportion of their client base”.

“The Basel III requirements are providing the banks with a good excuse to get rid of their American clients,” they said.

So is it a case of Swiss banks reflecting some of the IRS’s heat onto its US clients? That would probably be to cut off their nose to spite their face, since there are plenty of other places investors can keep their precious metals.

But it will undeniably cause private investors, both in the US and elsewhere, problems. For many, there is no more solid investment than bars of gold, and nowhere more secure - or private - to keep them than a Swiss bank.

Either way, those banks are changing their rules. And with Basel III deadlines ramping up we are likely to see even more drastic changes to the private banking landscape.

Most of those changes are likely to further weaken the relationship between Swiss banking institutions and their clients. As Pictet told his compatriots: “[Switzerland] runs the risk of being dropped from the squad and finishing the race out of time, in the complete indifference of the political world.”

While shifting gold deposits off the balance sheet might help in some way to pacify the IRS, the result may well be the erosion of Switzerland’s position in the global banking world – leaving a lot of people holding out for a turnaround in the cuckoo clock market.

Photograph: Getty Images

James Ratcliff is Group Editor of  Cards and Payments at VRL Financial News.

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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.