Swiss bankers drop opposition to information exchange

Mon May 6, 2013 10:36am EDT

* Position shift comes after German tax deal failed

* Swiss under pressure after Luxembourg, Austria loosen secrecy

* Banking association head hopes for U.S. deal soon

ZURICH, May 6 (Reuters) - The Swiss Bankers Association has dropped its outright rejection of the exchange of bank client data with foreign tax authorities, its head was quoted as saying on Monday.

Swiss bank secrecy has come under heavy fire from the United States, France and Germany since the financial crisis. Switzerland agreed in 2009 to share more information with foreign authorities hunting tax cheats on request, but it has consistently rejected an automatic exchange of data.

Patrick Odier told the Aargauer Zeitung daily paper that the banking association's change of heart was largely down to Germany's rejection in December of a deal to have Swiss banks tax its citizens' assets without naming them.

Odier, who is also senior partner of Genevan private bank Lombard Odier, said it was "pure coincidence" that Luxembourg and Austria had both agreed last month to share data on accounts held by foreigners, increasing the heat on Switzerland to do likewise.

"We adjusted our position in the first quarter after numerous talks with bank representatives and came to the conclusion at the end of March that we should no longer categorically reject an automatic exchange of information," he said. "But it should be introduced globally."

Swiss Finance Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf has signalled a similar willingness to discuss automatic exchange of information, but the Swiss coalition government remains divided on the issue.

The Group of 20 advanced and emerging economies endorsed automatic exchange of tax data among nations last month, calling it the expected new standard for how governments can help each other to fight cross-border tax cheating.

Tax evasion has dominated European headlines in recent weeks after admissions by a former French minister and Bayern Munich soccer club chief Uli Hoeness that they held secret Swiss accounts.

Germany's finance minister said at the weekend that he sees no chance of renegotiating the failed tax deal with Switzerland.

Odier said Switzerland could be ready to discuss automatic information exchange with the European Union if it can settle the problem of existing untaxed assets in its banks, through amnesty programmes or other means.

"We are open for talks if we find a solution with the EU that deals with the past and improves market access," he said.

Odier also said he hoped for a deal soon to end the dispute between Switzerland and U.S. authorities over Swiss banks accused of helping wealthy Americans to evade tax, but that bank employees should be shielded from prosecution under any deal.

Last month sources told Reuters that the Swiss and U.S. governments were weighing a possible solution to the tax dispute.

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