Monday, January 6, 2014

Dismantling of a Swiss Holy Cow

In my last blog article, I took a look at the deterioration of the brand “Swiss” and noted that this was in part due to the negative publicity that Switzerland has been getting abroad concerning its banking secrecy and opportunistic taxation schemes. While Swiss banking secrecy may now soon be something for the history books, it is still interesting to note that the Swiss banks and taxation regimes originally had their roots in virtues, and not vices. Whereas most of Europe featured unstable governments and legal frameworks, engaged in endless wars and built their “social contract” on the premise of mistrusting its citizens, Switzerland provided stability in both governance and law, was largely peaceful and had a basic “social contract” that espoused trust before mistrust (this being in part a consequence of its direct democratic tradition and a source of the extensive privacy rights as pertaining to financial matters). This resulted in the flourishing of the Swiss banking sector as it attracted wave after wave of foreign depositors, fleeing instability, insecurity, and states more interested in the gleaning of the wealth of its citizens than in the provision of needed services. While Switzerland – again, beginning with a virtue - for centuries already practiced a strongly decentralized (federalized) “good governance” regime which paired up freedom with accountability by allowing every commune and canton to freely levy their own taxes and invest these resources as best they saw fit, thus also creating a healthy competition to keep a sound budget and make wise investments, much of Europe experienced just the opposite: top-down directives with little to no citizen participation and consequently freedom and accountability.

With time, however, bit by tiny bit, these virtues became corrupted. Banking secrecy became no longer so much a reflection of privacy and trust between citizens and their state, but rather was a convenient pretense for the easy garnering of money from abroad. On the haughty altar of “discretion”, Swiss bankers would willingly bunker the millions and billions of dictators, tyrants or simply the clever evaders of taxation in their home countries. Much the same happened with the taxation regimes in Switzerland. Cantons and communes realized that much money could be made by adroitly positioning themselves in a zero-sum race to the bottom and attracting wealthy individuals – for whom special taxation schemes would be negotiated – and global companies in search for a more profitable tax haven from which to conduct their business. This led to the proliferation of countless “mail-box” companies which had little or no real connection to Switzerland.

Since the recent financial crisis and its accompanying scandals, however, the EU and the USA have increasingly started to put pressure on Switzerland (as also on other similar finance and tax havens, although often conveniently omitting some of their own) to change its “bad habits”. While a minority of Swiss citizens has always openly criticized its banking and taxation practices, and probably a healthy majority in private moments admitted to the status quo being ethically questionable, the matter was nevertheless nothing less than a “holy cow” amongst the Swiss economic and political establishment. So strongly was this self-righteousness engrained, that when a professor at the renowned Swiss Business School of St. Gallen was openly critical of this situation in an interview with a German magazine a couple of years ago, some voices (granted isolated, but nevertheless remarkable for a country with a rightfully proud democratic tradition with guaranteed free-speech) branded him as a national traitor and demanded his immediate demission!

It is a well known and studied phenomenon that countries that are blessed with ample natural resources such as oil, are often cursed with having their economies develop asymmetrically with an over-dependence on just these natural resources. As with abundant natural resources, the incentives that the Swiss legal system and historic precedents provided also resulted in relatively “easy money” to be made in the finance sector. Some of the nefarious side-effects of this in turn resulted in what may well be deemed an internal resource and brain-drain, as investors invested in the areas of greatest returns for the least risk (and for a long time, the Swiss private banking sector was a very low-risk investment, as success was not so much based on any unique, rapidly changing know-how but a legal framework which virtually ensured its competitive advantage) and many of the brightest labor market entrants turned their back to work in other sectors such as for example the risky high-tech area or lower-margin machine industry, in favor of the far more stable and lucrative financial industry.

While Switzerland still has a highly sophisticated, diversified and competitive economy, always jousting for the top spot in global assessments, there is a real risk and an increasingly high price that Switzerland has to pay for its extensive financial center. Apart from public bailouts (such as the UBS in 2008) and the internal resource and brain drain, the very fact that salaries paid in the financial sector are so high drives up concomitant costs such real-estate, making it increasingly difficult for, say, high-tech companies to get started in the country. Starting an export oriented business from scratch in Switzerland is simply prohibitively expensive, especially if the returns, as in many high-tech sectors, take years to materialize. Add to that the finance sector’s negative impact on the overall reputation on Switzerland, and you can well comprehend that the Swiss financial industry is increasingly unpopular also in Switzerland.

The tragedy of this entire matter is however that the age old Swiss social contract of trust between the state and its citizens may now have to be sacrificed in view of the financial center and taxation policies of decades past. The United States, long also a bastion of individual freedom and with a delicate awareness of privacy rights, has already sacrificed much of this on the altar of national security. The question thus remains one of just how much freedom are we willing to sacrifice for security, and how much privacy for fairness.

Manuel Dawson

No comments:

Post a Comment