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.

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.