Vitol warns Swiss tax hikes could cause an exodus of traders

GENEVA Fri Jan 3, 2014 10:03am EST

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GENEVA Jan 3 (Reuters) - The managing director of oil trader Vitol could move its headquarters from Geneva if Switzerland hiked taxes on big commodity traders, and others would do the same, Vitol's managing director said in comments published on Friday.

"We could - and we wouldn't be the only ones - move the domicile of our assets elsewhere," David Fransen told Swiss weekly magazine L'Hebdo in an interview.

Switzerland has come under pressure from the European Union to end so-called "fiscal holidays", including those which the canton of Geneva offers to major trading firms such as Vitol, Mercuria and Gunvor.

Geneva has proposed a flat 13 percent corporate tax rate for trading houses, signifying a rise from the 11.6 percent paid by the big firms but a cut for companies that do not qualify for special tax breaks, who currently pay 24.2 percent.

Since the reform would leave a 460 million franc ($511 million) hole in the canton's budget, Geneva has said it cannot guarantee the reform will get through.

Fransen said Vitol could live with a 13 percent tax rate but Switzerland would suffer greatly if it doubled the tax rate on big Geneva-based trading firms such as Vitol.

Vitol is privately held and does not publish detailed financial accounts. But Fransen said its gross margin on sales of $303 billion was "much less" than 1 percent.

Geneva is the hub for a third of the world's physical oil traded volumes, according to the Geneva Trading and Shipping Association. For Switzerland as a whole, the commodity sector accounts for around 3.5 percent of gross domestic product and employs around 10,000 people.

In April the co-owner of Gunvor, Gennady Timchenko, said the trading house could move to Singapore, a rival trading hub, if Switzerland became less attractive. However, Timchenko said he was confident a solution would be found and added the company was not looking to move.

Most global commodity firms already have branches in Singapore, which can offer tax rates as low as 5 to 10 percent through its Global Trader Programme.

Vitol has been happily based in Geneva for 47 years but Switzerland was gradually accumulating disadvantages, such as the cost of living, while Dubai, Singapore and even the United Kingdom offered competitive tax regimes, Fransen said.

The slow pace of Swiss reforms, with a new tax regime expected only in 2018 or 2020, ensures that companies have the stability and long-term visibility that they need.

"But be careful not to take too long: some countries, like Singapore, are making great efforts to attract new companies and exploit the uncertain times that come with reforms." ($1 = 0.9008 Swiss francs) (Reporting by Tom Miles, editing by William Hardy)