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Bankrate.com, February 2001 27
In David Mamet's 1997 movie The Spanish Prisoner, a con man played by Steve Martin establishes a numbered Swiss bank account with a few keystrokes on a laptop computer in New York. The new account belongs not to him but to his flattered victim.
"All of 15 Swiss francs in it," Martin's character modestly tells his naive mark. "But you ever want to impress anybody, they can find out you have a Swiss account -- but Swiss law prohibits the bank from revealing the balance.
That bit of dialogue makes M. Micheloud laugh. "No, no, no," the Swiss account broker says. "You can't open an account online." He shakes his head good-naturedly as he talks from his office in Lausanne. He laments that movies give the impression that Switzerland is a "no-questions-asked country."
"But it's not like this at all," he adds. "No, no, no, not at all. The big motto of all banks here is, 'Know your client.' They keep repeating it ad nauseum."
And in our popular culture, misinformation about Swiss banks is repeated ad nauseum. A few points about the above-quoted movie excerpt:
Doctor, dodger, consul, spy
Who opens a Swiss account? Swiss citizens, mostly. Nomadic consultants who hopscotch from Brussels to Lisbon to Berlin for a few months at each job. People who live in countries with unstable governments and shaky banks. And, yes, the occasional spy or tax dodger or doctor who worries about malpractice suits.
Swiss banks prefer people to open accounts in person, but they'll work with brokers such as Micheloud, who runs Micheloud & Cie., a company that helps foreigners open Swiss accounts by mail.
If you ask Micheloud to help you open an account, he will send you a Matterhorn of paperwork to fill out, including details about your life and job, and a letter of introduction from a stateside banker. Your signature and identity have to be "authenticated" -- by a notary public or consul or someone else, depending on circumstances -- and you send the completed paperwork back.
Micheloud says he vets applicants as strictly as Swiss banks do. His credibility is on the line. "It's a serious business, so it means we don't help criminals," he says. "We don't help drug dealers. The identity of the client and the whereabouts of the client and the economic origin of the money have to be known."
When someone wants to open a Swiss account by mail, bankers wonder why. They might understand why someone in India or Japan might not want to pay airfare to Geneva, but generally, Micheloud says, "someone who deposits money and doesn't want to come and see it is strange, OK?"
Micheloud says his company rejects about half of applicants. He has to feel comfortable with the applicant's motive for getting a Swiss account, and he has to understand how the applicant earns the money. And the applicant has to be from a country he understands. For example, he's not interested in applicants from Kazakhstan.
Closed mouths, many tongues
Beyond those people, your identity is hidden. Bank documents are printed with the account number, not a name. You or a minion need not speak your name in dealings with the bank; the number is enough.
Because the bank has to maintain numbered accounts separately from other accounts, numbered accounts cost more.
Micheloud says an annual service charge of 200 francs (about $121) is common, "whereas with any other account, you don't have to pay anything."
Switzerland isn't the only place that touts banking secrecy. Luxembourg and Liechtenstein prize secrecy, and so do banks based in the Cook Islands (a Polynesian tax haven roughly halfway between Hawaii and New Zealand) and in the Caribbean. The Bahamas and Cayman Islands are popular offshore banking destinations for Americans.
The Swiss boast that they have hundreds of years of political stability and well-educated bankers who are able to discuss financial matters in English, French, German and Italian. If you need a banker who speaks Hindi or Cantonese, they'll produce one. Caribbean bankers, they sniff, are not as well-educated and are prone to rolling over when the IRS knocks on the door.
Opening the door
Banks raise the bar higher for private banking, in which the bank manages clients' investments. There are 15 privately owned Swiss banks --
some have been owned by a single family going back generations -- that discreetly handle the financial affairs of the rich. They might be willing to open an account if you have a million francs to invest -- about $600,000. The private banking departments of financial giants UBS and Credit Suisse might open their doors to someone with $200,000 to invest.
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