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Credibility Of Swiss Regulatory System Called Into Question

Osmond Plummer

3 March 2009

It was a short honeymoon. On 1 January 2009 the new Swiss regulator FINMA took over the roles of the Swiss Banking Commission, the Federal Office for Insurance and the Money Laundering authority.

The new body has to regulate activities that produce some 12 per cent of Swiss GDP. To do this FINMA has some 300 staff with a budget of SFr95 million (about $81 million). Ninety people are responsible for the surveillance of some 260 insurance entities, 80 people review 337 banks and 5,794 authorities funds, and some 60 people are responsible for the three local exchanges. This, it has now been noticed, seems rather a low ratio of staff to institutions.

Excuses are made, for example that the number of employees is not so important as their quality - and it is also true that a number of the tasks that FINMA undertakes are delegated to the big four audit firms and some large law firms, but the lack of clear oversight and the mishmash of 11 self-regulatory organisations for the 6,869 independent financial intermediaries is beginning to look less than prudent.

One of the results of this structure is that the authorities are “very tolerant of the large banks and very intolerant of the small ones” according to Hans Geiger, a professor at the Swiss Banking Institute. There has long been a muttered suspicion amongst the smaller players that the large Swiss banks were not subject to the same oversight as the smaller concerns and this now seems to be coming to the surface.

There has also been a considerable amount of criticism to the effect that FINMA has not censured any senior member of UBS’s board or management over its recent problems in the US. FINMA's report states blandly that there is no evidence that senior management knew what was going on.

While one can agree that this may be the case, should not the regulator be asking why the board and the senior management did not know what UBS was doing in the US? Surely ignorance is no excuse when dealing with corporate governance?

There are now suggestions that the fact that Eugen Haltiner, president of FINMA, worked for UBS from 1973 to 2005 should have disqualified him from the position. Otto Stich, a past member of the federal council was quoted in local media over the weekend as saying “In order to exercise the function of president of FINMA objectively (the holder) should be at a healthy distance from the banks”.

One thing is also clear, but has yet to become a part of the debate in Switzerland. Some 7.7 million people live in a country that manages about one third of the world’s private wealth. There is no way that you can both do this and regulate what is going on, however much you delegate, if you are relying fundamentally on home-grown talent or self-regulation.