* The private bank was founded in Geneva in 1805
* Posts first-half net profit of 203 million Swiss francs
* Bank held 319 billion francs in net assets under
By Joshua Franklin
ZURICH, Aug 26 Swiss private bank Pictet opened
its books to public scrutiny for the first time on Tuesday,
after being dragged into the spotlight by a change in its
209-year-old structure and a U.S. tax investigation.
The first public accounts of famously discrete Pictet
affirmed its position as Switzerland's third-largest wealth
manager, ahead of Julius Baer and behind UBS
and Credit Suisse.
Pictet's first-half figures also showed a bank that holds
capital well above regulatory minimums.
The publication of the results comes several days before
cross-town rival Lombard Odier is also expected to publish its
earnings for the first time since it was founded in 1796.
Neither are making the disclosure by choice. Both cases are
the result of these partially family-controlled banks becoming
limited partnerships, moving away from a structure where its
eight partners assumed unlimited personal liability in the event
of a crisis.
Some industry experts argue that a key reason for the change
was to limit the partners' exposure to potential fines from the
U.S. probe. Pictet is one of about a dozen Swiss banks under
criminal investigation in the United States for allegedly
helping wealthy Americans evade taxes.
Jacques de Saussure, senior partner at Pictet, denies this
was the motivation, saying the bank had originally hoped to make
this move six years ago but the financial crisis put it on hold.
"We wanted to make it in 2008, but then came the Lehman
crisis and we decided to stop it because we thought the timing
would not be very appropriate to make a big change at a time
when everybody was concerned about the health of the banking
system," de Saussure told Reuters.
The change is a result of the bank needing to adapt its
structure to help expand abroad, he said, although Pictet has no
plans for now to open any new branches.
On the ongoing U.S. tax investigation, de Saussure said the
case would be settled at the pace set by the United States.
"It's not in our hands," de Saussure said. "The rhythm is
decided by the U.S. authorities, not by us."
The bank has not set aside any provisions specifically to
cover potential fines, as it cannot adequately gauge the size of
possible penalties. This is the same stance taken by Julius
Baer, which is involved in a similar investigation.
Pictet is well-positioned to handle any fine, holding 21.7
percent in core capital -- the ratio of equity to risk-weighted
assets -- Tuesday's results showed. This is almost three times
what is required by the Swiss financial regulator.
Pictet posted net profit of 203 million Swiss francs ($222
million) for the first half of 2014. The bank did not disclose
any historical data. The figures were some way behind UBS,
Switzerland's biggest bank, which saw first-half net profit of
1.8 billion francs.
Return on equity, a key measure of profitability, was 17.6
percent, higher than the 16.2 percent posted so far this year by
rival Julius Baer.
Net assets under management at Pictet were 319 billion
francs. This was evenly split between its wealth management
branch for individuals and families, and its asset management
arm where the main clients are institutional investors such as
pension and sovereign wealth funds.
The move to publish results is a marked change for a key
player in an industry that has historically sought to ensure
maximum discretion for its clients.
"I remember very well when, in the 1960s and early 1970s,
the private bankers did not even have the name of the bank on
the front door," de Saussure said. "We had just a brass plate
indicating, 'P & Cie'."
The bank has raised its profile since then and de Saussure
said the bank had seen little reaction from clients to the
change in structure, adding that some may be more likely to bank
with Pictet given they can now learn more about the bank.
Pictet's structure of controlling partners - two of whom
bear the bank's name - has not changed and, while the move to a
limited partnership has made it easier for the bank to tap
capital markets through shares or debt, de Saussure said there
was currently no plan to do so.
"It is not the purpose of the change," he said. "But it is
certainly an element of comfort that we could more easily have
access to financing if we want."
(1 US dollar = 0.9149 Swiss franc)
(Editing by David Clarke)