Home / Politics / Policy /  HSBC accounts | Swiss govt says data stolen, nothing new

Geneva: India vowed to investigate the new names in a list published Monday of 1,668 Indians with accounts in HSBC bank in Geneva between 2005 and 2007 but the government is unlikely to receive any cooperation from the Swiss government on the basis of the stolen information, a Swiss official said.

“This is nothing new for both governments as this is an old case based on the stolen information," said Mario Tour, the spokesperson for tax evasion cases in the Swiss finance ministry in Bern, commenting on the names that were published by a consortium of newspapers that investigated the issue (In India, The Indian Express published them).

“We are cooperating with the Indian government on cases that are reported after 2013," Tour said, adding that his government is ready to share information with New Delhi in cases where there is credible evidence of tax evasion.

Monday’s disclosure, under the aegis of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists in Washington, came courtesy of a former HSBC employee Herve Falciani. Falciani, who was a software professional in the bank’s Geneva office, stole the bank’s list of private clients and handed it over to the French government. Paris, in turn, informed the US, Germany, India, and several other countries.

The list of Indian names in the HSBC accounts includes those of several businessmen, diamond traders and a few politicians. The total deposits held by the 1,668 Indian account holders are estimated at around $4.1 billion. Monday’s disclosure also revealed how the world’s second largest bank aggressively marketed schemes to enable wealthy clients to avoid taxes and conceal undeclared “black" accounts from their domestic tax authorities.

It wasn’t immediately clear whether India’s finance ministry or the Reserve Bank of India would take the bank to task for that, but a senior official at HSBC in Geneva claimed it has left behind its earlier practice of attracting funds from foreign clients by helping them evade taxes or launder money. HSBC Geneva “began a radical transformation in 2008 to prevent its services from being used to evade taxes or launder money", Franco Morra, the chief executive of HSBC’s Swiss bank, told The Wall Street Journal on Monday.

“New senior management have comprehensively overhauled the business, including closing the accounts of clients who didn’t meet our high standards and ensuring we have strong compliance controls in place," Morra added, emphasizing that “the old business model of Swiss private banking is no longer acceptable."

For long, Swiss banks were renowned for their secrecy.

That changed starting 2009 when the country’s banks started coming under unprecedented political and commercial pressure from the US and other countries such as Germany, France, and the UK to reform their banking secrecy provisions. The Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the economic think-tank of the developed world, also forced new disclosure norms on tax havens, including Switzerland.

After the disclosures made by a former Union Bank of Switzerland (UBS) official Bradley Birkenfeld, an American citizen, Washington declared a commercial war against Switzerland, threatening to cancel US banking licences to UBS and other banks.

UBS was forced to share information about nearly 4,500 rich American clients and pay a financial penalty of $780 million to compensate the loss of tax revenue by the US Internal Revenue Service.

Under pressure, the Swiss government amended its banking provisions to share information with the US and eventually, the UK. Effectively, the Swiss government now transfers the tax revenue on deposits held by US and UK private clients in Swiss banks.

India may not receive such special treatment like the US and UK which play an important role in the global financial system. “Unless the Swiss parliament approves an amendment to share information with India as it did with the US (Lex USA bill) and later with UK, there is no prospect for sharing information on Indian accounts soon," said a Swiss private banker who asked not to be named.

There is no clear estimate of the quantum of illegal funds held by Indians in Swiss banks. While some bankers in Geneva say this could be around $ 25 billion, the Swiss official refused to provide any estimate.

“It is ridiculous to say that the Indian account holders have $1 trillion in Swiss banks," said Tour.

Private funds held by foreigners in Swiss banks amount to $500 billion, he argued.

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