By THÉRÈSE MARGOLIS
It’s like that old sleight-of-hand shell game where the magician keeps switching the location of a tiny ball under one of three cups and, time and time again, some sucker falls for the rouse and bets he knows where the ball really is.
Most of the time, he doesn’t.
And even if he does, the magician will inevitably manage to relocate the ball from under the cup the mark choses in order to win the wager.
That is exactly the type of now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t thimblerig the Swiss banking system has been perpetrating with tax evaders and money launderers for decades.
And despite a plethora of scathing investigations by U.S. and other international forensic regulatory bean counters in recent years, followed by a gush of unconvincing promises to clean up their acts, Switzerland’s banks are still raking in the moolah big time as they shelter and protect felonious clients who don’t want Uncle Sam or the government of whatever nation they hail from to find out how much money they have stashed away in offshore accounts in Zurich.
Yes, it’s business as usual – with a slight flimflam bait-and-switch addendum – in good old Switzerland.
Some Swiss banks – pressured by foreign governments and the threat of international regulatory reprisals – have laid down the law to their tax-delinquent clients, giving them the option to either come clean and confess their holdings or take a hike to other offshore havens.
But many turn a blind eye when their wayward patrons play financial whack-a-mole by shifting their assets to a family member ortransferring their money to themselves in an account opened under a different name and/or passport.
The reason for this lackadaisical enforcement is simple: The foxes are guarding the henhouse.
The bankers are businessmen – shrew businessmen – and they are far more interested in keeping longtime clients than ousting them.
The Swiss banking tradition is one of nondiscrimination when it comes to welcoming cash flows.
These banks historically have taken money from whomever feels like depositing it, no questions asked.
Trying to transform Switzerland’s diehard financiers into international tax law enforcers is about the equivalence of trying to turn Al Capone into a FBI G-man – it just isn’t in their fiscal DNA.
The service-conscious practices of Swiss bankers are diametrically opposed to the gauche-fisted role of global tax enforcers that they are now expected to assume.
Moreover, there is no great incentive – other than avoiding legal headaches – for the banks to play nice with the international tax collectors.
They don’t make money off of clients who pull their cash out.
But with a globally connected world, it is getting harder and harder to keep anything – including financial assets – a secret, and Swiss bankers are keenly aware of this fact.
Many are still trying to pull off a shell game when it comes to helping their customers stash their assets, and a good deal of them are getting away with it.
But the days of the Swiss thimblerig are numbered, and it won’t be long before the hide-and-seek confidence game of asset ensconce in Zurich is replaced by a more transparent round of truth or consequences.
Thérèse Margolis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.