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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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”