ZURICH (Reuters) - Prince Max von und zu Liechtenstein, chief executive of Liechtenstein’s biggest bank LGT, said it was striking how fast opinions on tax evasion had shifted since 2008, when stolen data revealed hundreds of Germans had hidden assets in the principality.
But the Prince, who runs the royal-family-owned bank, is not worried by an international push to fight tax evasion and expects Swiss and Liechtenstein banks to flourish if disputes over untaxed assets are settled quickly.
“The data theft of 2008 was the first example of that change of attitude but at least it put us ahead of the game. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” he said in an interview.
Discussing the outlook for Liechtenstein banking over a lunch of monkfish and asparagus at a luxury Zurich hotel, Prince Max was relaxed about the future. “People are focusing on the threats but there are more chances than threats.”
Secrecy has fostered an usually large banking industry in the tiny principality wedged between Austria and Switzerland, helping to make the 36,000 inhabitants of a territory slightly smaller than Washington D.C. among the world’s wealthiest. The banking sector contributes about a third of national output.
But LGT was one of the first major banks to be caught up in an international clamp down on tax evasion since the financial crisis. In the lean times since then, governments from the United States to Germany and France have had to try to boost tax receipts to fill empty coffers.
LGT, which had expanded aggressively overseas, suffered a client exodus in 2008 and 2009 after it featured in a U.S. Senate report on tax evasion.
But the bank has recovered faster than LLB and VP Bank, the country’s second and third biggest banks, reporting net asset inflows of 10.5 billion Swiss francs ($11.18 billion)in 2012, taking total assets under management to 102.1 billion.
Prince Max says customers are attracted by LGT’s “Princely Portfolio” that allows them to mirror the strategy used for the royal family fortune, estimated to be as much as 8 billion francs.
“If you delegate investment decisions to somebody else you should only do that if that person has his own skin in the game,” he said. “We offer our clients the same sort of deal.”
“Having been through ups and downs in our 900-year history, one of the things that has helped the family survive is that we’re well diversified.”
Harvard graduate Prince Max, 44, worked for JP Morgan for more than a decade in New York, London and Germany before taking over at LGT in 2006 from his uncle Prince Philipp. Prince Max is the second son of Prince Hans-Adam, who handed over daily running of the principality to his oldest son Prince Alois in 2004.
Prince Max said the failure in December of a Swiss tax deal with Germany - which Liechtenstein had hoped to mimic - and U.S. investigations into Swiss banks - including the Swiss arm of rival LLB - could scare clients again in the short term.
“Big clients have come back but smaller clients are worried that they might look suspicious if they get mail from a Swiss or Liechtenstein bank,” he said.
That is why he is supportive of attempts to settle those tax disputes. Liechtenstein’s prime minister told Reuters last month the country was prepared to discuss an automatic exchange of client data with the European Union after Austria and Luxembourg pledged to drop bank secrecy.
“If information exchange comes with the EU it will strengthen our ability to attract capital again from EU countries - because it provides legal certainty,” he said.
EU finance ministers gave their officials approval in May to start formal negotiations with Switzerland, Liechtenstein, San Marino, Andorra and Monaco about surrendering bank data on an automatic basis, exposing savers to tax claims.
Despite the upheaval in the private banking business caused by the tax issue, LGT is not targeting more acquisitions after it bought the Swiss business of Dresdner Bank in 2009.
“Why should we run the risk and spend a lot for growth, which we can achieve ourselves in two or three years if we let our people do their job?” he said.
Editing by Jane Merriman