Jim Moore: Row over currency trading wife could help chip away Swiss banking secrecy
Friday 06 January 2012
Outlook Philipp Hildebrand is apparently a very good swimmer. Perhaps that's why he feels he can push on against what looks like an overwhelming tide flowing against him. The head of the Swiss National Bank (SNB) is facing calls to resign over currency transactions made by his wife Kashya. She used the proceeds of a property sale to buy dollars, an astute move given that shortly afterwards Mr Hildebrand imposed a cap on the value of the Swiss franc that caused its value to fall sharply against the greenback.
It is a murky affair that gets even murkier when one considers how the information was made public, through the leaking of the details of the trades to an ultra-nationalist political party, the SVP. Mr Hildebrand perhaps had a point when, speaking publicly for the first time, he noted the irony of a proponent of the country's outdated code of banking secrecy flagrantly breaching it to kick him wear it hurts.
It is not only disreputable political yahoos with whom Mr Hildebrand has crossed swords – critics of Britain's approach to banking regulation might care to look at what he has demanded of Credit Suisse and UBS. The Bank of England's governor, Mervyn King, isn't the only regulatory badass on the block.
But Mr Hildebrand can't be allowed to get off the hook just because his enemies look like bad guys. He says he was unaware of the transactions and that his wife had been talking about the dollar's weakness for weeks. Perhaps that's what passes for pillow talk in his household.
It doesn't matter. Nor does it matter that he was cleared by an internal inquiry referring to the rather woolly and (naturally) previously secret SNB code on insider trading. Nor does it matter that the alleged profit of about $63,000 (£40,600) wasn't that much in the scheme of things.
It still looks dreadful. And the head of a central bank simply cannot be allowed to continue in office with such a stain hanging over him at such a sensitive time.
These things have a way of ending badly, with the incumbent battling on until all support has ebbed away. But ironically, some good may come of this, perhaps to the SVP's chagrin. The SNB has had to publish details of that insider trading code. It will now likely be tightened and held up to public scrutiny. Thus another little bit of that banking secrecy – used to draw a shroud across everything from stolen Nazi gold to widespread tax evasion among wealthy individuals – will have been chipped away.
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