Five questions answered on the closure of Switzerland’s oldest bank

Weglin pleads guilty to charges.

Swiss bank Wegelin has announced it will close after being hit with a fine from the US authorities. We answer five questions on Wegelin’s closure.

Why is Wegelin closing?

The Swiss bank, which was established 35 years before the US declaration of independence, is closing after pleading guilty to charges brought against it by a New York court which has resulted in the bank being hit with a $57.8m (£36m; 44m euros) fine by the US authorities.

It has announced that once the fine is settled the bank will close permanently.

What charges did Weglin plead guilty to?

The bank pleaded guilty to allowing more than 100 American citizens hide $1.2bn from the Internal Revenue Service for almost 10 years.

Originally, the bank said it would fight the charges, declaring that because it only held branches in Switzerland it could be bound only by Swiss laws.

What is the bank's history?

Weglin was established in 1741 and resides in a small town called St Gallen in Switzerland with further offices in Zurich, Bern, Basel, Geneva, Lausanne, Locarno, Lugano, Chiasso, Schaffhausen, Winterhur, Chur and Lucerne.

It is the first foreign bank to plead guilty to tax evasion in the US.

What have American officials said?

US Attorney Preet Bharara said: "The bank wilfully and aggressively jumped in to fill a void that was left when other Swiss banks abandoned the practice due to pressure from US law enforcement."

Adding: "[This is a] watershed moment in our efforts to hold to account both the individuals and the banks - wherever they may be in the world - who are engaging in unlawful conduct that deprives the US Treasury of billions of dollars of tax revenue".

Are other Swiss banks being accused of the same conduct?

Four years ago UBS was accused by the US authorities of tax evasion related charges. Although UBS never pleaded guilty to the charges it did pay the US government a $780m fine in what is known as a "deferred prosecution agreement" whereby a fine is paid and the charges are then dropped. UBS also agreed to reveal US account holder details.

Credit Suisse, another big Swiss bank, also remains under investigation by the US authorities.

It is unknown whether the US authorities will continue with or drop other charges against three Wegelin bankers, Michael Berlinka, Urs Frei and Roger Keller.

Swiss bank Wegelin has announced it will close. Photograph: Getty Images

Heidi Vella is a features writer for

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.