There are some interesting implications behind a story that is out this weekend. I found the details (that have come out so far) of interest.
The IRS of France, the National Directorate Of Tax Investigations (DNEF), has covertly sent agents into Switzerland to pursue tax evasion cases against French citizens. The Agents entered Switzerland claiming they were tourists. The Agents were not sightseeing in the Alps. They were doing what spies always do. They were covertly gathering information on enemies of France. In this case, the "enemies" are French citizens.
To be clear. This is 100% illegal activity in Switzerland.
Banking secrecy is still the law of the land in Switzerland. There have been several cases in the past few years where a Swiss bank employee has stolen information on private accounts. The lists of “names” were later sold to tax authorities in the US and Germany. Switzerland has vigorously prosecuted the individuals involved. Several have gone to jail; others are pending extradition and trial.
And now French government agents are breaking the same Swiss laws. The following thoughts come to my mind about this affair:
- How desperate are the French to do this? A covert operation in a foreign country? That’s over the top. If the French tax spies are doing this, what are the other arms of government doing? Are they spying as well? Listening in on phone calls to find out if the waiters are claiming their tips? How are the French going to react? Some, do doubt, with glee. Others, justifiably, with fear.
- I’m no fan of tax cheats. I have dozens of articles that have come down against banking secrecy, and the black money that is involved. But where do you draw the line? Illegal spying is, after all, illegal. Right?
- Is the DNFE alone in this type of activity? Does the US or the UK have illegal spies gathering information in foreign countries on their citizens?
- Does the French DNFE have spies in the USA?
- There are financial considerations to this. The first is the implications to the Swiss private bankers. The outlook for the Swiss banks was terrible before this development (UBS just hacked 10k heads – 2,500 in Switzerland), the outlook is worse again, after the revelation of state sponsored spying. I would not load up on Swiss bank stocks just yet. The fact is, without banking secrecy the Swiss banks are uncompetitive in wealth management.
- The second consideration is the possible implications on the Swiss National Bank. The SNB has been pegging its currency for more than a year now. In the process, it has accumulated 100’s of billions of Euro reserves. To hedge its bets, the SNB sold off those unwanted Euros and bought dollars, Yen, Sterling, Hong Kong and Singapore dollars. Basically, the SNB has been mucking up the entire global financial system in an effort to keep global economic problems from spilling over its borders.
There is going to be a pissing match between France and Switzerland over this story (there has to be). When the cross-border shouting starts, someone in France is going to point at Switzerland and claim it is a Currency Manipulator that is hurting France (it is). This scenario is one that will bring big pressure on the Franc, and another test of the SNB’s resolve to maintain the peg.
- The SNB had billions of excess Euros as a result of intervention. It bought German Bunds with the cash. In the process, the SNB pushed German rates below zero. This forced the SNB to diversify, and buy French government bonds. So now the SNB is sitting on a huge pile of French paper. And the French are spying on the country. I’m wondering if the SNB is so happy with all those French IOU’s it is sitting on.
- Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf is the President of Switzerland, she also is the Finance Minister; so she is very much on the hot spot. The Swiss will hate the idea of French spies acting covertly in their country and breaking the law (who wouldn’t?). Eveline can't soft peddle the French spying. There has to be a next chapter to this story. I can't wait.