Swiss banks say rich Chinese clients worried about sanction prospects
Bank executives highlight concerns about business fallout from country’s tough line on Russia since Ukraine invasion
Executives at Switzerland’s biggest banks say rich Chinese clients have become much more worried about parking money in the country because of its tough approach to applying sanctions since Russia invaded Ukraine.
“We were not just surprised but shocked that Switzerland abandoned its neutral status,” said one board director who oversees Asian operations at his bank. “I have statistical evidence that literally hundreds of clients that were looking to open accounts are now not.”
Although Chinese companies have been flocking to IPO in Switzerland, the Financial Times spoke to senior bankers from six of Switzerland’s 10 biggest banks about their experience with private clients and all of them told a similar story. Many said they were worried about the chilling effect on a lucrative line of business and crucial source of future growth.
“The question of sanctions has come up with clients,” one banker said. “It was definitely a topic of concern with clients late last year. They were asking whether their money would be safe with us.”
Anke Reingen, analyst at RBC, highlighted what was at stake for the Swiss banking sector, which accounts for 10 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product.
“Asia has been a strong contributor to profitability for Swiss banks,” she said. “If you look at their share prices, they are very closely correlated to Asian indexes because such a large part of earnings has been coming from the region and historically a large part of the earnings growth in wealth management.”
Some Swiss banks said they were already “war gaming” how to handle the fallout if international relations with China worsen significantly, and how to protect and reassure their biggest Chinese clients.
Andreas Venditti, a Vontobel analyst who covers banks, said all Swiss wealth managers were having to weigh the impact of the country’s approach to sanctions. “It’s the topic high on the agenda at board and executive level,” he said. “They are all trying to prepare for what comes next.”
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, the Swiss government has moved in lockstep with the EU in imposing sanctions against Russia and wealthy Russians close to Vladimir Putin.
In recent weeks, several incidents have brought the possibility of sanctions against China closer, including the spy-balloon spat and Beijing’s possible supply of weapons to Moscow.
A US diplomat based in Bern said officials in his office were “keeping a close eye” on Chinese wealth in Switzerland.
One of the bank executives who talked to the FT said he believed Switzerland had moved against Russian clients too quickly. “At some place, we must draw a line on what [Switzerland] will and won’t get involved in.”
The government maintains the country’s neutrality remains sacrosanct but said sanctions against Russia involved weighing the “credibility of Swiss neutrality” against the magnitude of Russia’s “violation of the fundamental norms of international law”.
Foreign minister Ignazio Cassis has nevertheless opened a domestic debate on what neutrality means and has publicly advocated a more “co-operative” approach with like-minded partners.
Switzerland is still the world’s number one centre of offshore wealth, responsible for a quarter of the global total.
About SFr7.5bn ($8bn) of Russian money is currently frozen by Swiss sanctions — a small proportion of the SFr46.1bn of Russian assets domiciled in the country by around 7,500 wealthy Russians, according to the Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs.
Over the past decade, however, Asia has become a far more important source of revenues.
The Swiss government has not disclosed the scale of Chinese assets in the country, but a cache of files released in 2014 to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists revealed Swiss banks had set up accounts for many of China’s ruling elite and their children, including the son of former premier Wen Jiabao.
Swiss bankers say the majority of their Chinese clients do not fit this profile. One said in his experience, most were successful, small-scale entrepreneurs, with fortunes in the SFr10mn-SFr50mn range.
Cutting those kind of people off from Switzerland’s banks would be a major blow to the industry, he said.
But another senior figure in the wealth management industry sounded more sanguine. “I’ve had conversations with Chinese clients who were wary about Switzerland adopting sanctions last year, but they are not staying away yet.
“There was $700bn of trade between China and the US last year — that’s not going to change any time soon.”