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Credit Suisse scandal threatens Swiss efforts to clean up reputation

An anonymous tip to Dutch authorities on thousands of suspicious accounts at Credit Suisse could hardly have come at a worse time for Switzerland and its banks.

he information that triggered raids in five countries raises new doubts about the effectiveness of Switzerland’s efforts to shed its decades-old reputation as one of the world’s major tax havens.

“It’s a wake-up call not only for the banking community but also for authorities,” said Mark Pieth, an anti-corruption expert and criminal law professor at the University of Basel.

“Instead of really just being angry at others they should ask, have we really been zealous enough?”

Switzerland is among the countries that signed up to a global data-sharing programme led by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, known as the Automatic Exchange of Information, which was designed to root out tax dodgers.

Swiss banks, having paid more than $5 billion to settle allegations of helping wealthy Americans evade taxes, have trumpeted their reformed ways, publicly encouraging clients to sign up to government programmes allowing them to declare untaxed assets.

But last week’s raids of Credit Suisse’s offices in London, Paris and Amsterdam as part of a coordinated investigation in five countries show Switzerland still has a way to go to break with its past.

It is a wake-up call for financial markets as well.

“People really thought that, with the upcoming Automatic Exchange of Information and the cleanup of the European client portfolio completed, this stuff shouldn’t be an issue anymore,” Andreas Venditti, banking analyst at Vontobel, said. “Now the market seems to be confused about what to think.”

Mark Branson, head of Swiss financial watchdog FINMA, said last week’s news was unwelcome at a time when Switzerland is presenting itself as a reformed financial centre whose selling point is stability and reliability rather than tax perks.

“These headlines will not vanish overnight although the business model has fundamentally changed,” said Branson, speaking to reporters on Tuesday.

Another sign that Switzerland has to work harder to improve its reputation was the apparently deliberate efforts by Eurojust, the European Union judicial agency which helped coordinate last week’s raids, to keep Swiss prosecutors out of the loop on enforcement actions.

Switzerland’s Office of the Attorney General on Friday demanded a written explanation for the snub.

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