One question kept coming up when I announced four years ago that I was moving from Washington to Geneva: ”Will you get a Swiss bank account?”
There is an unmistakeable international cache surrounding Switzerland’s financial sector, whose infamy as a hiding place for Nazi gold has given way to Hollywood mystique about secretive numeric codes cracked by Da Vinci Code protagonists and James Bond.
But within the small Alpine country, which remains stubbornly outside the European Union despite sharing borders with France, Germany, Austria and Italy, bankers are in fact celebrated for being as dull as they are discrete.
Christian Raubach, managing partner of Switzerland’s oldest bank, Wegelin & Co, told the Reuters Wealth Management Summit that the biggest Swiss banks rely on their “Swissness and security and boringness” to attract clients from abroad.
Guillaume Lejoindre, managing director at the Swiss private banking arm of France’s Societe Generale, said it was precisely this reputation that made Switzerland such a powerful financial power, even in an age when total secrecy has been abolished and big institutions like UBS admit to taking big risks akin to those that took down Lehman Brothers.
Droves of Saudi and Gulf banking clients file into Geneva to spend the summer with their families every year and wealthy Latin Americans are also clearly inclined to store their funds in Switzerland to try to make them less likely kidnapping and extortion targets.
The strong overall brand means that the banks can charge a premium over other centres and also continue to draw in new funds even in dark economic times.
“What is the price of trust and confidence? What is the price of expertise? We all know that a Hermes bag is more expensive. Is it a problem? I don’t think so,” the Societe Generale executive said.
In this way, much like Swiss watches, Swiss hotels, Swiss chocolate and Swiss beauty creams, the biggest asset even the most endowed Swiss bank has is clearly its brand — which may actually hold more value internationally than at home.