Zurich — Bank secrecy - as Swiss as yodeling, cheese, and the Matterhorn - is under mounting foreign fire.
This time shots are not from third world interest groups, which see developing countries' riches disappearing into Alpine coffers. The complainers are industrialized countries - the United States, France, and Italy.
In recent months, a series of irritating events prompted Switzerland's European neighbors and the Americans to get tough. So much so that Swiss bankers have become more than a little concerned about a tarnished image and its effect on business.
This week, from March 1st to 3rd, a six-man delegation from the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the US Departments of State and Justice is airing its grievances in Berne and Zurich to federal officials and bankers. Top of the agenda: mysterious insider transactions on US stock exchanges last year which the SEC supposedly tracked to Swiss bank clients and a wall of silence.
Under Article 47 of the Swiss Banking Act, if a banker gives information, without a client's permission, he can be sentenced to up to six months in jail and/or a fine of $26,000. The only way a bank can open up its records is if an account can be tied to an offense which is a crime in Switzerland.
Threatened by SEC sanctions, one Swiss bank did persuade its client to give his name. Others stayed firm voicing a strong distaste for attempted American interference in Swiss law. Privately, however, Swiss bankers are concerned that a tough SEC could curtail Swiss bank activites in US stock exchanges. Discussing the ''conflict of laws,'' as one Berne US Embassy official put it, is what this week's Swiss-American talks are about.
Italy, fed up with billions of lira disappearing over the Swiss border, has boosted its anti-flight money campaign. Unsuspecting Swiss bankers are shadowed, tapped, and secretly photographed. Two respectable bankers fell into traps last December. After weeks in Roman cells, they faced the courts and a blaze of publicity bent on putting the Swiss banking system on trial.
Proving that if the going gets rough enough even the lips of a Swiss banker can be loosened, one of the bankers spilled the beans on his clients. This February he was sentenced to a suspended 14 months while his tighter-lipped fellow Swiss landed an unsuspended two years, a harsh warning to Swiss bankers caught with a bag of money in Italy which cannot be explained.
In France after the Socialists came to power, francs have flooded into Switzerland with estimates totalling around five times the usual annual average of $1.4 billion.
French customs has the awesome job of tackling countless smugglers who filter in by air, boat, and land to place their capital in a secret Swiss vault.
An angry French parliamentary commission held hearings into this illegal capital outflow to be told by leftist Swiss parliamentarian, the Genevan professor Jean Ziegler, that some 650,000 Frenchmen have Swiss numbered accounts.
The French have moved to increase their customs officers by about 1,000. Many are destined for the Swiss border. For travelers at the frontier, baggage searches are often long and tedious with officials looking for signs that a French citizen has been at a Swiss bank.
Between the Swiss National Bank and the country's commercial banks is a gentlemen's agreement which bans bankers from actively helping capital flight. There are heavy fines for violations.
Nevertheless, once flight money is in Switzerland, there is nothing to stop a bank from accepting it.