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New top banker to fight for confidentiality

Patrick Odier, left, presented a strategy for restoring the confidence of the Swiss banking system Keystone

The designated new chairman of the Swiss Bankers Association (SBA) has vowed to preserve banking secrecy and stamp out misconduct in the embattled sector.

This content was published on June 22, 2009 - 20:04

Patrick Odier will take over from the charismatic, but sometimes controversial, Pierre Mirabaud in September following the incumbent's surprise decision to step down.

Switzerland is still engaged in an ongoing battle to defend the traditional anonymity of banking clients from several countries, including Germany, France and the United States – backed by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Last week, Switzerland agreed in principle on a new double taxation agreement with the US. But it is as yet unclear whether this would be enough to halt a court case brought by the US tax authorities against Swiss bank UBS, in which it is demanding the names of more than 50,000 of the bank's customers.

At the same time, ministers from OECD countries will meet in Berlin on Tuesday to talk about sanctions against countries that are dragging their feet on tax reforms. Switzerland has been placed on an OECD "grey list" of uncooperative tax havens and is expected to change its ways.

Secrecy in DNA

Odier insisted that Switzerland was serious about increasing its transparency to foreign tax authorities, but said he would draw the line at the automatic exchange of information demanded by some states.

"Further relaxation of the rules would damage not just the financial centre, but the whole way we perceive the state," he said at a news conference in Zurich on Monday.

"Discretion and data protection should be practised in every modern society, but they are particularly part of our national DNA here in Switzerland."

Odier presented a four-pronged strategy to restore the confidence of the Swiss banking system when he takes over the job on September 17. This included protecting privacy, restoring harmony to the financial sector and promoting ethical practices.

"We cannot allow misconduct by the few to jeopardise the image, and hence the business model, of the many," he said.

The fourth pillar of Odier's plan is to develop dialogue with regulators and other authorities and politicians. Mirabaud's six-year tenure at the helm was somewhat tarnished by outspoken comments against critics, including one interview in which he likened Germany's acquisition of Liechtenstein banking records to the Gestapo.

Mirabaud admitted that he had made some mistakes, but also protested that he had been dealt with unfairly by some sections of the media. He said on Monday that he was retiring from the office in order to "reclaim his private life" after a tumultuous 18 months.

Not just offshore

Odier told swissinfo.ch that the traditional Swiss banking system would remain intact despite an intense international pressure to change that has led to some concessions.

"The economic crisis has shown that investors worldwide are still very interested in Switzerland's traditional advantages of discretion, preserving privacy and professionalism," he said.

"We have not lost huge fortunes for our clients even though markets have gone down and we are still attracting large inflows from many other countries."

Many observers believe that a crackdown on tax havens will spell the end of offshore banking – one the central pillars of Swiss wealth management. But Odier insisted that Swiss banking has plenty more to offer.

"Our industry will continue to develop provided we can make ourselves attractive to top quality hedge fund managers, private equity managers, family offices managers and the new generation of assets manager," he told swissinfo.ch

Matthew Allen in Zurich, swissinfo.ch

Odier and Mirabaud

Patrick Odier is, like the man he is destined to replace, a respected Swiss private banker. He is a managing partner of Lombard Odier Darier Hentsch bank.

He is already on the SBA board of directors and his appointment continues a tradition of private bankers assuming the role of chairman.

He is also vice-chairman of the Swiss Business federation, economiesuisse, a founding member of the Swiss Finance Institute and vice-chairman of the Geneva Financial Center.

Pierre Mirabaud is a senior partner at Mirabaud private bank in Geneva and has been SBA chairman since September 2003.

The flamboyant character was also chairman of the Swiss Private Bankers Association from 1990 to 1993. He has been or still is on the board of many other organisations, including think tank Avenir Suisse and Geneva airport.

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