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Tax haven closes for wealthy Americans

MistlkaS | E+ | Getty Images

A tax deal reached between Switzerland and the United States on Thursday effectively puts an end to the status of the small Alpine country as a tax haven for wealthy Americans.

The agreement, which came after more than three years of intense discussions between the two countries, is expected to punish Swiss banks that helped wealthy Americans hide money from United States tax authorities in offshore accounts and require them to disclose information about United States account holders.

Even before the agreement, many banks in Switzerland had started to turn away American clients, fearing at least additional administrative burdens from the United States authorities. The deal is expected to accelerate that trend and make it even harder for American expatriates in Switzerland to find banking services.

"It's pretty close to the end for Swiss banking for wealthy Americans," Ben Jones, principal associate at law firm Eversheds in London, said. "But then again you had to be a pretty naïve U.S. taxpayer if you were thinking you could still hide funds in Swiss banks."

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The formal agreement, which was announced on Thursday by the Justice Department in Washington and which was presented by Swiss authorities on Friday, calls for stiff measures that lift the veil of Swiss banking secrecy. As part of the deal, banks will be required to provide the details on accounts in which American taxpayers have an interest through treaty channels, disclose all cross-border activities and close the accounts of Americans who are evading taxes.

The Swiss government said the deal allows Switzerland to draw a line under past tax disputes with the United States and create some certainty for the Swiss banking industry. "It's a solution we can live with," Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, the Swiss finance minister and president of the Federal Council, said at a news conference in Switzerland Friday morning. "It provides the possibility for us to move forward and not have to continue fighting with the past."

Without an agreement, the reputation of Switzerland as a financial center would have continued to suffer for years to come, she said. But she also said it was still possible that a bank could collapse under the heavy financial burden of fines imposed by American authorities.

The Swiss government has been resisting cooperation until now because the secrecy of its banking system has long made the country an offshore money haven for wealthy foreigners. But scrutiny in Europe of tax havens has been widening and pressure from the United States, including a number of arrests of Swiss bankers who traveled to the United States, started to increase pressure on Switzerland to come to an agreement.

For Swiss banks, the agreement ends uncertainty about possible prosecution, but the final size of the penalties remains to be decided. Even banks that will not have to pay large penalties that could hurt their finances and operations are bracing for spiraling costs because of the additional data they will be required to dig up and provide to authorities.

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Sindy Schmiegel Werner, a spokeswoman for the Swiss Bankers Association, said the deal was "the least bad solution." "There's no doubt that this will be very, very painful for the banks," she said.

Despite greater tax scrutiny, money continued to flow into Swiss banks from abroad over the past years. Amid the chaos of the European debt crisis and growing fears about the safety of deposits in some European banks, Switzerland continued to be considered a safe haven for investments. Switzerland was the top destination for offshore wealth, defined as assets booked in a country where the investor has no legal residence or tax domicile, in 2012, registering $2.2 trillion, followed by Hong Kong and Singapore, according to the Boston Consulting Group 2013 Global Wealth report.

Ms. Schmiegel Werner said American taxpayers would continue to be "a very important client group" for Swiss banks. The banking association said it started to urge its members in 2009 to only accept money from American clients who are taxed in the United States. It was in 2009 that UBS, the largest Swiss bank, agreed to enter into a deferred-prosecution agreement with the United States, turning over thousands of client names and paying a million dollar fine. But soon after UBS admitted criminal wrongdoing in selling tax-evasion services to wealthy Americans, the Justice Department authorities were incensed that other Swiss banks offered shelter to American clients fleeing UBS.

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In 2012, the United States Justice Department indicted Wegelin & Company, Switzerland's oldest bank, for misconduct from the early 2000s until 2011. The once prestigious Swiss bank pleaded guilty in January, putting it out of business after 272 years. The Swiss government feared that more indictments could follow, seriously threatening the existence of some banks.

The recent tax deal does not include 14 Swiss banks and Swiss branches of international banks that are already under criminal investigation by the United States authorities. They include Credit Suisse, Bank Julius Baer, Pictet, Bank Frey, Züricher Kantonalbank and Basler Kantonalbank. Swiss banks that follow the program will be eligible to enter nonprosecution agreements that do not involve guilty pleas or criminal penalties. Those that enabled tax evasion after the United States authorities began their investigation will face more severe punishment.

By Julia Werdigier, The New York Times.

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