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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Emily Thornberry heckled by Labour MPs as tensions over Trident erupt

Shadow defence secretary's performance at PLP meeting described as "risible" and "cringeworthy". 

"There's no point trying to shout me down" shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry declared midway through tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. Even by recent standards, the 70-minute gathering was remarkably fractious (with PLP chair John Cryer at one point threatening to halt it). Addressing MPs and peers for the first time since replacing Maria Eagle, Thornberry's performance did nothing to reassure Trident supporters. 

The Islington South MP, who voted against renewal in 2007, said that the defence review would be "wide-ranging" and did not take a position on the nuclear question (though she emphasised it was right to "question" renewal). She vowed to listen to colleagues as well as taking "expert advice" and promised to soon visit the Barrow construction site. But MPs' anger was remorseless. Former shadow defence minister Kevan Jones was one of the first to emerge from Committee Room 14. "Waffly and incoherent, cringeworthy" was his verdict. Another Labour MP told me: "Risible. Appalling. She compared Trident to patrolling the skies with spitfires ... It was embarrassing." A party source said afterwards that Thornberry's "spitfire" remark was merely an observation on changing technology. 

"She was talking originally in that whole section about drones. She'd been talking to some people about drones and it was apparent that it was absolutely possible, with improving technology, that large submarines could easily be tracked, detected and attacked by drones. She said it is a question of keeping your eye on new technology ... We don't have the spitfires of the 21st century but we do have some quite old planes, Tornadoes, but they've been updated with modern technology and modern weaponry." 

Former first sea lord and security minister Alan West complained, however, that she had failed to understand how nuclear submarines worked. "Physics, basic physics!" he cried as he left. Asked how the meeting went, Neil Kinnock, who as leader reversed Labour's unilateralist position in 1989, simply let out a belly laugh. Thornberry herself stoically insisted that it went "alright". But a shadow minister told me: "Emily just evidently hadn't put in the work required to be able to credibly address the PLP - totally humiliated. Not by the noise of the hecklers but by the silence of any defenders, no one speaking up for her." 

Labour has long awaited the Europe split currently unfolding among the Tories. But its divide on Trident is far worse. The majority of its MPs are opposed to unilateral disarmament and just seven of the shadow cabinet's 31 members share Jeremy Corbyn's position. While Labour MPs will be given a free vote when the Commons votes on Trident renewal later this year (a fait accompli), the real battle is to determine the party's manifesto stance. 

Thornberry will tomorrow address the shadow cabinet and, for the first time this year, Corbyn will attend the next PLP meeting on 22 February. Both will have to contend with a divide which appears unbridgeable. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.