Global Policy Forum

Swiss Fight against Tax Cheats


Island Seeks Foreign Deposits to Diversify
Its Economy; Denies Wanting 'Evaders'

By Edward Taylor and Cris Prystay

Wall Street Journal
February 6, 2006

For decades, the ultrarich looking for discreet banking services gravitated to Switzerland, where account secrecy was sacrosanct. But when Swiss authorities acceded to pressure from the European Union to discourage tax evasion, the door opened for a new challenger to woo the world's wealthy: Singapore. The tiny Asian nation has beefed up account secrecy protections, has changed trust laws and has begun allowing foreigners who meet minimum wealth requirements to purchase land and become residents.

Now private-banking money is flooding in from at least three sources: Asians who have grown rich from the booming Asia-Pacific economy, foreigners seeking to invest and do business in Asia, and Europeans moving money from Switzerland for tax purposes. Swiss banks are expanding in Singapore to get in on the action. The money flow demonstrates how one nation, in the borderless world of international banking, can use banking regulation as an economic development tool -- and how complicated it is for tax authorities around the world to plug revenue leaks.

"While tax authorities have increased surveillance and regulation in a bid to stem the flow of investment capital and profits to low-tax jurisdictions, it's easier to shift money around than it used to be thanks to technology," says Chris Edwards, director of tax policy at Cato Institute, a Washington think tank that favors free trade. "Both legal avoidance and illegal evasion techniques have become more accessible."

In Singapore's asset-management business, which includes private-banking, total funds under management rose to more than $356 billion at the end of 2004, from $94 billion at the end of 1998, according to the Monetary Authority of Singapore, the nation's financial regulator. Roman Scott, a director of Boston Consulting Group in Singapore, estimates private-banking assets account for about $125 billion of the total.

Singaporean officials involved in the private-banking push say the new foreign depositors are attracted by Singapore's sound legal system, lack of corruption and transparent financial systems. Some Swiss private bankers also have been billing Singapore as a way around new taxes in Switzerland, Luxembourg and tax havens such as Jersey in the English Channel. Under pressure from the EU to crack down on tax evasion, Switzerland imposed a withholding tax last July on some accounts held by EU citizens.

"Singapore is one way of getting around the withholding tax," said Raymond J. Baer, chairman of Zurich private bank Julius Baer Holding Ltd., in a September interview following the announced purchase of Banco di Lugano, a small Swiss bank with private-banking operations in Singapore. Last week, Mr. Baer said that being in multiple jurisdictions enables the bank to serve an international clientele, and that the Singapore office was a platform for growth in Asia. "Singapore also offers a tax-friendly environment," he noted. A spokeswoman for the Monetary Authority says Singapore "does not seek to attract tax evaders."

The number of private banks operating in Singapore jumped to 35 at the end of 2005, from 20 in 2000. International banks such as Swiss giants Credit Suisse Group and UBS AG have expanded private-banking operations in Singapore to cater to new demand from Asians and Europeans. Private banks typically provide customers holding at least $1 million of liquid assets with advice on investments, estate planning and taxes. They also often help the wealthy move assets abroad, which some use to avoid domestic taxes.

Singapore has taken various steps to attract wealthy foreigners. Under legal changes made in 2004, foreigners with assets of at least $13 million now can apply for residency if they place $3.1 million in a financial institution in Singapore. Those applying for residency can use as much as $1.25 million of the $3.1 million to buy property in a government-backed resort-style residential development on Singapore's Sentosa Island. New residents are entitled to take advantage of Singapore's income-tax rate of about 20%. (Americans, however, face U.S. tax liability on their income regardless of where they live.)

The incentives are prompting some private-banking customers to actually move there. Helmut Widdeck, an Austrian who owns a company in Hong Kong that makes leather shoe uppers, heard about the new policy from his private bankers at Goldman Sachs in Hong Kong and decided Singapore would be a good place to semiretire. After Singaporean authorities conducted an audit to verify the source of his wealth, he says, he transferred the required amount to an account in Singapore, then bought a 8,557-square-foot oceanfront property at Sentosa Cove. He and his wife are planning their dream home, which they expect to cost $3.8 million.

"For me, it's an interesting plan. I can invest the money into a property I want, and with that I get residency in a place I'd like to live in," says Mr. Widdeck, who is 63 years old. He says he will gain no tax benefit from the move because taxes in Hong Kong, where he used to live for eight months each year, are even lower.

Last summer, Gianpiero Fiorani, former chief executive of Banca Popolare Italiana Scarl, shifted some assets to Singapore from Jersey, an offshore banking center that also came under EU pressure. He had assets with various banks and used Banco di Lugano, the Swiss bank now called Banca Julius Baer (Lugano) SA, to move the assets. Mr. Fiorani was arrested in December in Milan and remains jailed pending an investigation into suspected market manipulation and misuse of corporate funds. When he was questioned by prosecutors, he told them he had shifted the funds "to better protect the money" and for "peace of mind," according to a person familiar with the matter. His lawyers declined to comment, as did the spokeswoman for the Monetary Authority of Singapore. A spokesman for Julius Baer said the bank is cooperating with investigators.

Singapore's private-banking expansion is part of a broad effort to diversify its economy away from electronics manufacturing, which faces increasing competition from lower-cost countries such as China. The government is trying to foster growth in biotechnology, and in chemical and pharmaceutical manufacturing. In 1998, after the Asian financial crisis, it drew up a plan to turn Singapore into an investment-banking, mutual-fund and private-banking hub.

Switzerland's private-banking industry, currently home to about 30% of offshore assets globally, was a model. Banking confidentiality has been a feature of Swiss law since 1934. For decades, foreigners could hold personal accounts recorded within the banks merely by numbers. Tax evasion is an administrative offense, not a crime. Swiss authorities refuse to cooperate with other countries' tax investigations, although they lift confidentiality in criminal matters.

Stiffer Laws

In 2001, Singapore stiffened laws against breaching the confidentiality of bank customers, making penalties for violators even tougher than in Switzerland. It imposed fines of $78,000, imprisonment for as long as three years, or both. In Switzerland, a similar breach could result in a prison term of six months or a fine of about $38,600.

Singapore's private-banking initiative aimed to capture some of the new wealth created by Asia's economic boom. China's rapid economic growth has created fortunes throughout Asia. Liquid assets held by individuals in the Asia-Pacific region, excluding Japan, are projected to increase 8.9% annually from 2004 through 2008, according to UBS, far exceeding the global annual average of 5.5%. Credit Suisse customers domiciled in the Asia-Pacific region accounted for $47.8 billion in private-banking assets as of September, compared with $105 billion in such assets from customers domiciled in Switzerland.

While Singapore was bidding for new private-banking business, the EU was pressuring authorities in Switzerland and other offshore banking centers to take a tougher line with EU citizens who move money to reduce the taxes they pay. In 2000, EU finance ministers proposed ending client confidentiality in tax havens in Europe, including Switzerland. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, of Paris, also had pushed for an "exchange of information" on tax matters in an effort to suppress "harmful tax competition."

Although Switzerland, Jersey and other offshore centers aren't EU members, they are dependent on EU nations for trade. Swiss authorities agreed to compromise. The new withholding tax compels Swiss banks to withhold a portion of interest earned on personal savings accounts held by EU citizens living outside of Switzerland, and to hand over some of that money to national tax authorities. The withholding tax applies to account holders who haven't reported all of their assets to their own tax authorities.

Swiss bankers say the withholding tax and the continuing push to further restrict client confidentiality are discouraging wealthy Europeans from keeping money in Switzerland. Singapore isn't a member of either the EU or the OECD, so it hasn't faced the same pressure. By keeping money in Singapore, Europeans can avoid the new tax, some bankers say.

Tax evasion in Singapore is a crime. But Singaporean authorities tend to respond to requests from other countries for information about tax evaders only when evasion of Singaporean taxes is at stake, says Jeffrey Owens, director at the center for tax policy and administration at the OECD.

In a written response to questions about its policies, Singapore's Finance Ministry said requests for information from tax authorities in other nations are considered under the terms of international agreements designed to avoid double taxation. Singapore has such agreements with 50 countries, a Finance Ministry spokesman says.

'Open and Transparent'

Singapore bills itself as being tough on crime and free of corruption. Like Switzerland, Singapore says it cooperates with foreign authorities investigating money laundering and terrorism financing. "Our banking and financial system is open and transparent, and our rules are strictly enforced," the Monetary Authority of Singapore said in a statement.

Singaporean officials traveled repeatedly to Switzerland to describe Singapore's private-banking capabilities to wealthy customers of Swiss banks, to Swiss bankers themselves and to lawyers specializing in wealth management. In February 2002, for example, Alison Lim, an executive at the Monetary Authority of Singapore, appeared at a seminar in Geneva. According to written promotional materials, the program touted Singapore as a "jurisdiction that protects clients' interests." Ms. Lim says she spoke about Singapore's role as a financial center and some trends in Asian investments.

To become better versed in private banking, Ms. Lim completed an internship at UBS in late 2003, according to UBS. Ms. Lim declines to comment on the internship, but says the Monetary Authority routinely places staffers with various types of banks for short-term stints so they can learn about the industry.

Lee Hsien Loong, Singapore's prime minister and finance minister, has personally overseen the city-state's private-banking push. Before becoming prime minister last year, he served as deputy prime minister, finance minister and chairman of Singapore's Monetary Authority. Under Mr. Lee, the government set up working groups of bankers, consultants and ministry officials to drum up ideas for creating a global banking hub. In that capacity, Mr. Lee met regularly with Swiss and other international bankers to discuss how to structure a bank-friendly regulatory environment, according to some bankers who attended.

One suggestion from the bankers: make Singapore's trust laws more attractive. Many European nations practice a concept known as "forced heirship," in which the state dictates the proportions of an estate that must pass to certain family members. These laws supersede wills and trusts. In December 2004, Singapore adopted new trust laws that let foreigners who set up trusts in Singapore avoid these limitations. Assets placed in trusts in Singapore have increased to almost $50 billion in 2004 from just under $25 billion in 2002, according to the Monetary Authority of Singapore.

Singapore is now Credit Suisse's largest private-banking center after Switzerland. In 2005, the bank moved its head of international private banking to Singapore from Zurich and hired 150 additional staffers, bringing its total there to 450. By 2007, Credit Suisse aims to hire an extra 100 client advisers to serve the Asia-Pacific region. "Singapore is run like a company, and regulators want to help you win business," said Joachim Straehle, Credit Suisse's head of international private banking who relocated to Singapore from Zurich in April 2005.

Credit Suisse runs a "eurodesk" in Singapore where bankers versed in English, French, German, Italian and Spanish work until almost midnight Singapore time to serve European clients. Credit Suisse now has at least $4.6 billion of European private-banking assets booked in Singapore, according to someone with knowledge of the figures. UBS has at least $3.1 billion of such assets, according to another person familiar with that bank. Representatives of both banks declined comment on those numbers.

Clariden Bank, a Swiss private bank controlled by Credit Suisse, opened a Singapore office at the end of November. "Singapore will be the fastest growing offshore private-banking center in the next five years," says Roland Knecht, a member of Clariden's executive board of management. He estimates that within three years about 20% of private-banking assets booked at the bank in Singapore will come from Europe.

Already Clariden has started assembling staff for a eurodesk, and a number of Clariden's clients, including some Russians, have flown to Singapore for a visit, he says. Several clients have inquired about becoming Singaporean residents.

Sabrina Cohen contributed to this article.

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