ZURICH, March 13 (Reuters) - Switzerland, Austria and Luxembourg all sought ways on Friday to fend off a global crackdown on tax evasion by making concessions on bank secrecy.
All three have been under increasing pressure to open up by cash-strapped governments eager to claw back tax money during the financial crisis.
Here are five key facts about bank secrecy in Switzerland, whose banks have attracted an estimated $2 trillion of wealth from foreign clients, attracted at least in part by its strict privacy laws:
- Sharing information about bank client data is a criminal offence in Switzerland. Banks are forbidden from handing over bank client data directly to foreign authorities even if requested to do so. Switzerland's protection of banking secrecy goes back to 1934 when it passed a law imposing heavy penalties, up to and including prison sentences, for breaches of banking secrecy.
- Unlike most other countries in the world, Swiss law distinguishes between tax fraud and tax evasion. Tax fraud is a criminal offence that involves actively forging documents to hide income from the tax man. Tax evasion, which is defined as not fully declaring one's income to the Swiss tax authorities, is an administrative offence, punishable with a fine as the law accepts that citizens can sometimes innocently forget data or make mistakes when filing their tax returns.
Tax evasion is distinct from tax avoidance, which is the legal exploitation of tax loopholes to minimise tax payments.
- Switzerland can share tax information under a so-called administrative process enshrined in tax treaties signed with the United States and other countries. Up until now, it has mainly shared information on tax fraud.
Banks supply information requested by foreign governments pursuing criminal investigations of individuals, but this does not automatically extend to tax matters.
Swiss law requires the other jurisdiction demanding the information to come forward with a detailed claim about a precise individual. Berne does not offer cooperation in the case of blanket requests for data.
- UBS UBSN.VX(UBS.N), Switzerland's largest bank, became the target of a U.S. investigation alleging the bank had helped thousands of Americans to hide money from its tax authorities in Swiss bank accounts. In a landmark settlement, UBS agreed to pay a $780 million fine in February. Berne also agreed to the transfer to the U.S. of a few hundred UBS client names even before a Swiss court had ruled on whether tax fraud had been committed.
- Switzerland allows European Union account holders to keep their affairs secret by paying withholding tax on the interest of savings from their income instead.
Switzerland shares the bulk of the revenues collected in this way with relevant EU governments without revealing the identity of the EU bank account holders. The matter is regulated by the so-called EU savings tax directive.
Compiled by Lisa Jucca; editing by Guy Dresser