January 27, 2012 / 11:01 AM / 7 years ago

Oldest Swiss bank falls victim to US tax probe

ZURICH (Reuters) - Wegelin, Switzerland’s oldest bank, has been forced to sell its non-U.S. business to shield it from the fallout over a row with U.S. authorities, which have threatened to charge it with helping U.S. taxpayers to hide assets.

The St. Gallen-based bank is transferring most of its clients and employees — centered on Switzerland — to Notenstein Privatbank, which is being bought by Raiffeisen, the country’s third largest bank, for an undisclosed price, the banks said.

“One can certainly imagine how difficult this step was for us, we are giving up our life’s work,” Konrad Hummler, one of Wegelin’s eight top managing partners and a leader in Swiss financial circles, said on Friday.

“The monstrously difficult and existence-threatening situation that the dispute with U.S. authorities has put us in, forces me and my partner of several years Otto Bruderer...to this extraordinarily painful course of action,” Hummler said.

Hummler, who built up Wegelin into a bank that has over 20 billion Swiss francs in assets, said he was relieved that Raiffeisen was taking over Wegelin’s clients and employees.

Wegelin, founded in 1741, is the first standalone Swiss bank to sell off its operations in Switzerland as a result of the United States’ efforts to catch clients who used Swiss banks to evade the tax man.

Banks being probed by U.S. authorities are worried that clients, even in their non-U.S. operations, will pull their money out because of the investigations.

Switzerland has been locked in a tax dispute with the United States for years.

But Swiss Finance Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf said progress had been made at the World Economic Forum in Davos towards solving the row with the United States over untaxed money stashed in secret Swiss bank accounts and she is hoping for a deal this year.

CHARGES

Wegelin will remain in charge of U.S. customers, the two banks said.

Reuters has reported that U.S. authorities are moving toward taking legal action against Wegelin that could lead to an indictment on charges the bank enabled wealthy Americans to evade taxes.

An indictment of it would be a blow to a national tradition of banking secrecy that dates back to the Middle Ages.

Three Wegelin employees have been indicted by U.S. prosecutors for selling tax evasion services to well-off Americans. The charges outlined the sales role of senior unnamed partners at the bank.

The U.S. Justice Department is probing 11 Swiss and Swiss-style banks, including Wegelin, suspected of selling offshore tax evasion services to tens of thousands of Americans.

The investigations, growing out of scrutiny of Swiss financial giant UBS AG, are also focused on Credit Suisse AG and Basler Kantonalbank, among others.

The new private bank, Notenstein Privatbank, will be headed by Adrian Kuenzi, who was until now the chief of Wegelin’s west-Switzerland’s business. It will be run as an independent unit within the Raiffeisen Group.

The global attack on Swiss banking secrecy, fuelled by cash-strapped governments seeking to crack down on tax evaders, has been painful for smaller Swiss private banks.

Rich foreigners have started pulling funds from secret accounts in Zurich and Geneva, prompting big players to gobble up smaller rivals and undermining the personal touch that is the pride of Swiss private bankers.

The deal, which will give Swiss cooperative bank Raiffeisen a foothold in the business of wealth management, will secure 700 jobs in Switzerland, Raiffeisen said.

Raiffeisen, which specializes in mortgage lending, is looking to build up its presence in wealth and asset management. It missed out last year in buying Swiss private bank Sarasin after Dutch cooperative Rabobank agreed to sell its majority stake in Sarasin to Safra.

Additional reporting by Robin Bleeker in Geneva, Editing by Mark Potter

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