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Banks pay heirs of dormant Swiss accounts

Swiss banks paid just over $6 million last year to the heirs of people who left dormant accounts under a system created after a scandal over money left by Jews during the Second World War.

Banks pay heirs of dormant Swiss accounts
Counter hall in Zurich of UBS, Switzerland's largest bank. Photo: UBS

The banks paid out 5.81 million francs ($6.1 million), Switzerland's banking ombudsman said in its annual report released on Thursday.

Last year a total of 32 heirs received money from dormant accounts, as well as the contents of two bank safes
   
All the funds had been banked after the war.
   
Since 2001, about 303 heirs have received funds worth a total of 42.9 million francs.
   
Heirs who believe that dead relatives may have had money in Switzerland have been able since 1996 to apply to a special office which tracks down long-forgotten accounts.
   
The system was set up amid a scandal over the failure of Swiss banks to release funds owned by Jews who had hidden money in secret accounts in neutral Switzerland but then perished in the Holocaust.
   
Most of the beneficiaries last year were from Europe, with six of the 32 cases concerning French citizens, and a similar number, Germans.
   
Under Swiss law, banks must inform a central search office if they have had no contact with a customer for the past ten years.
   
The ombudsman said that it often received search requests from heirs a few months after a relative had died, but underlined that potential accounts would not be considered dormant until a decade had elapsed.
   
It pointed to a typical case in which the search process took up to five years, and resulted in a six-figure sum being paid out to the heirs, who decided to give it to charity.
   
Last year, five percent of search requests concerned potential pre-war bank accounts.
   
The ombudsman's office said that such search were carried out even though the likelihood of finding any money was minimal, given that in 1997, Swiss banks had published a list of pre-war accounts to facilitate claims.

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TAX EVASION

Swiss banks eye Chinese wealth opportunities

Switzerland's banking sector, facing the end of the secrecy that was once the bedrock of its business, is turning to China as it seeks new markets for the future.

Swiss banks eye Chinese wealth opportunities
Photo: AFP

"One of the first ports that the Swiss financial centre is steering for . . . is the port of China," Claude-Alain Margelisch, chief executive of the Swiss Bankers Association, told reporters in Geneva this week.
   
"Together with our member banks, we want to make Switzerland an international hub for the renminbi," also known as the yuan.
   
Switzerland will abandon its long-prized banking secrecy in 2017 when it starts automatically exchanging account details with other countries, and with it goes one of the main attractions of placing money in its banks.
   
For generations, investors have paid Swiss banks high fees to hide their money from tax authorities around the world, providing a lucrative stream of revenue for them.
   
But the global financial crisis prompted demands for a tougher regulatory environment. Switzerland was reluctantly forced to accept the new rules, leaving the banks facing an uncertain future.
   
Not only are private Swiss banks looking for new sources of revenue, but they have also faced probes and massive fines from countries accusing them of abetting tax dodging.
   
"The Swiss financial centre and the Swiss banks have recognized the need for action," said Margelisch.
   
"We have drawn the necessary conclusions from previous mistakes and introduced counter-measures."
   
In 2013, Switzerland still held 26 percent of global offshore assets, or $2.3 trillion, according to an analysis by Boston Consulting.
   
But Nicolas Pictet, president of the Geneva Financial Center, which represents hundreds of banks and financial companies, warned in October that the sector must wake up.
   
Pictet, a managing partner in his family's eponymous bank, said Geneva must stop "behaving like hedgehogs on a freeway" as they risked losing out to other financial centres.
   
Many now believe that China could be the answer.
   
Margelisch said relations between China and Switzerland were stronger than ever, noting a free-trade agreement signed in 2013 and which came into force this year.
   
Officials from both sides have met twice in the past year to discuss finance, while national banking associations held their first "financial round table" in June.
   
The Swiss National Bank and the People's Bank of China also reached a bilateral swap agreement —a currency exchange deal — in July.
   
Such moves were "small steps", said Margelisch, but he insisted that things were moving forward.
   
The next step would be for a Chinese bank to open a branch in Switzerland, he said, acknowledging that was a decision for the individual bank.
   
He also identified asset management as an area for growth — Switzerland is currently only a minor player in a sector dominated by London, New York and Hong Kong.
   
However, he acknowledged there may be visa issues, as many of the small teams who managed the wealth of pension funds and firms were from outside the European Union.
   
"We will ask for visas when the moment comes," he said.

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