SHARE
COPY LINK

WEALTH

Report: Swiss are richer than ever but wealth inequality persists

The average household in Switzerland is 35 percent richer than it was at the turn of the century, but there has been no reduction in wealth inequality.

Report: Swiss are richer than ever but wealth inequality persists
Zurich's main shopping street Bahnhofstrasse. Photo: Ivo Scholz/Swiss Tourism
That’s the verdict of Swiss bank Credit Suisse, whose Global Wealth Report 2017, published on Tuesday, named Switzerland as the richest country in the world in terms of wealth per adult for the eighth year in a row. 
 
Switzerland’s wealth per adult figure of $537,600 puts it at the top of the table ahead of Australia and the US in second and third.
 
For Switzerland, that’s a 130 percent rise since the year 2000, though the report acknowledges that much of that is due to the appreciation of the franc against the US dollar. 
 
In Swiss francs, household wealth rose by 35 percent between 2000 and 2017, an average annual rise of 1.8 percent. 
 
The alpine country also topped the table when it comes to median wealth – perhaps a more accurate reflection of wealth distribution – with a figure of $229,000 per adult.
 
Swiss adults also have one of the highest debt levels in the world, but this “appears to reflect the country’s high level of financial development rather than excessive borrowing,” said the report. 
 
Unsurprisingly, Switzerland has a proportionately large number of high net worth individuals, with 1.7 percent of the world’s top one percent wealth holders living here, a “remarkable” fact given Switzerland comprises only 0.1 percent of the world’s population, said Credit Suisse.
 
More than 63 percent of Swiss adults have financial assets above $100,000 – compared with under ten percent globally – and nearly nine percent of Swiss residents are US dollar millionaires, far above the global average. An estimated 2,780 people are deemed ultra-high net worth individuals, with wealth exceeding $50 million. 
 
 
At the other end of the scale, just over ten percent of Swiss adults have less than $10,000 to their name, compared with a whopping 70 percent on a global scale. 
 
Nevertheless, Switzerland has achieved no reduction in wealth inequality since the year 2000, the only country among those with developed economies not to do so, found the report.
 
Wealth increased significantly across the globe in 2017 to $280 trillion, a rise of 6. 4 percent. Some 2.3 million extra US dollar millionaires were created, including 620,000 in eurozone countries, though the report added that some of this is due to the rise of the euro against the dollar.
 
The Credit Suisse report comes two months after another report by Allianz said Switzerland had been overtaken by the US in terms of wealth per household, though the insurance company acknowledged that America’s razor-thin lead was in part due to currency fluctuations.
For members

COST OF LIVING

EXPLAINED: Why not paying off your mortgage in Switzerland can save you money

The idea is strange to most of us, but the majority of people in Switzerland choose not to pay off their mortgage - and save money in the process.

EXPLAINED: Why not paying off your mortgage in Switzerland can save you money

Many of us who have been raised with the goal of one day owning property will have one thing on our mind as soon as that deal is done: pay it back. 

From avoiding credit rating issues to not seeing the erosion of our hard-earned money due to interest, there are a number of reasons we want to get out of mortgage debt as fast as possible. 

But in Switzerland, due to a variety of factors, it sometimes makes more financial sense not to pay off your mortgage – or at least to pay off less than you can afford to. 

Estimates vary, but statistics show that a majority of Swiss do not pay their mortgage off before retirement. 

Not only that, but Switzerland has the highest mortgage debt per capita of any country anywhere in the world, according to OECD figures. 

READ MORE: Buying property versus renting in Switzerland: What is actually cheaper?

Here’s what you need to know. 

Why would you not want to pay your mortgage off in Switzerland? 

There are a number of factors which contribute to Switzerland’s unique framework when it comes to mortgages. 

These include the country’s wealth tax, the dual system of mortgages and traditionally low interest rates. 

At this stage, it is important to mention that while a majority of people don’t pay off their mortgage during their working life, this does not mean they skip out and run for the Caymans upon retirement (although presumably some do). 

Instead, it means people are not actively paying off their principal, but investing the funds in an account with their bank. 

When they retire, they use the money in the account to pay off their mortgage debt – and keep the change. 

This sounds complicated because it is – and is explained at length below. 

For more information on buying property in Switzerland, check out this link. 

The Swiss mortgage system: Dual obligations

The reason you may not want to pay your mortgage off in full in Switzerland is partially because of the unusual structure of mortgage obligations. 

The Swiss mortgage system differs from that in most countries in that you effectively take out two mortgages when you buy a property, or more accurately, the mortgage is split into two mortgage obligations. 

The first obligation resembles a traditional mortgage seen abroad, in that it has an indefinite repayment period and covers the majority of the purchase price. 

This will usually be around 60 percent of the total purchase price, less the deposit and the amount included in the second mortgage obligation. 

The second will cover approximately 15 percent of the purchase price. 

Importantly, this will have a fixed repayment period, usually around 15 years (at around one percent per year) or by the time you retire (if shorter than 15 years). 

EXPLAINED: How to save on your mortgage in Switzerland

While you must pay off this amount, the ‘optional’ part relates to the other component of the mortgage. 

Mortgage rates in Switzerland are low by international standards. Photo by PhotoMIX Company from Pexels

Should you choose direct or indirect amortisation? 

Amortisation is an accounting term which refers to reducing the book value of a loan or debt, but basically means paying off your mortgage. 

In most countries, the only option is ‘direct amortisation’, which means paying money to the bank to cover your debt. 

Direct amortisation not only reduces the debt, but the interest (as the interest is based on the quantum of the debt). 

Indirect amortisation is something relatively peculiar to Switzerland and is where the idea of not paying off your mortgage comes in. 

Finding a flat in Switzerland: How to stand out from the crowd

Swiss financial advice site Beobachter points out that the system in Switzerland is effectively set up to allow long-term non-repayment of mortgages. 

“In hardly any other country are the amortisation standards as lax as in Switzerland… In no other national economy can debts remain “forever” in this way”, they explain.

Instead of paying off the mortgage directly, you make regular payments into a ‘third pillar’, which is basically an investment account or fund offered by the same bank. 

This money is then used as a security against the property. 

Keep in mind the amount you need to repay will be the value of the property when you bought it, not the value of the property when you retire. 

During this time you will continue to pay interest on the debt.

This interest will not decrease as you are not paying off the principal, although Switzerland’s low interest rates make this an attractive option. 

Eventually, the debt will be taken from the third pillar. Usually, this will happen when you retire, but you can also sell the property, organise some form of reverse mortgage or sell it to your kids and have them rent it to you, among other options. 

Why is this beneficial?

The main reason this is advantageous is for tax purposes.

In Switzerland, you can deduct mortgage payments from your tax. Also, the money you pay into a third pillar is not taxable. 

Another major reason is the country’s wealth tax, which is not as unique but still relatively uncommon. 

Property: Why you can be taxed four times over for owning a home in Switzerland

In most countries, you pay tax primarily on your income. In Switzerland, you are liable to be taxed on your total wealth as well (under one percent per year). 

The wealth tax is calculated by your total assets minus your total debts. If you have significant debts – including a mortgage – then this will reduce your wealth tax. 

Importantly, the money in your third pillar does not count towards your wealth tax. 

Look, I just clicked on this article to find out about my mortgage, can you speak English please? 

While this all sounds incredibly complicated and you are advised to seek the support of a licensed agent, the calculus is relatively simple. 

Calculate the amount you would pay if you invested the money in a third pillar – keeping in mind the tax savings – by the end of the mortgage, minus the interest payments and the mortgage principal upon retirement. 

Compare this to the amount it would cost you to pay off the mortgage completely, including interest payments, keeping in mind that your tax savings will decrease over time as your regular payments decrease as you pay more of the mortgage off. 

Generally speaking, your financial advisor will present this to you as comparable percentages over time, which means your income will be a major factor in your final decision, as will your retirement plans and the tax rate in the canton and municipality you live in. 

EXPLAINED: How where you live in Switzerland impacts how much income tax you pay

It is important to note that your bank is likely to offer a combined form of both direct and indirect amortisation, which will allow you to spread the risk/burden somewhat. 

Editor’s note: Please keep in mind this report is intended as a guide only and should not replace legal and financial advice from a qualified agent or advisor. 

SHOW COMMENTS