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Opinion

Whatever Happened to Swiss Bank Secrecy?

By Ingo Walter

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What financial secrecy is worth depends on where the money came from and the consequences of disclosure, all the way from family tensions to the firing squad.

Financial secrecy – or more politely “confidentiality” - involves non-disclosure of financial information concerning individuals, firms, financial institutions and governments. It is a key element of banking and financial services, fiduciary relationships, and regulatory structures. It is vital in tax evasion, the drug trade, organized crime, money laundering, terrorism, political and economic corruption, and host of other activities that can cause real damage to civil society. But financial privacy can equally be considered a human right – what regime hasn’t made great efforts to compromise personal privacy in the name of the state?

What financial secrecy is worth depends on where the money came from and the consequences of disclosure, all the way from family tensions to the firing squad. And who’s tasked with safeguarding financial secrets? All the usual suspects ranging from uncle Harry, lawyers, accountants investment advisers, banks, and the ultimate gold standard – highly reputable financial institutions operating abroad in politically and economically stable sovereign countries that maintain tough secrecy laws and blocking statutes.

As long as the bankers can keep it up there’s a treasure trove of fees to be earned and high-paying jobs to be had, much more reliably than grinding away at the mug’s game of trying to outperform the competition on investment returns and risk. As in any good market, financial secrecy is bought and sold and both sides are happy – albeit sometimes at the expense of somebody else.

Read the full article as published in Banks and Markets.

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Ingo Walter is the Seymour Milstein Professor of Finance, Corporate Governance and Ethics.