Coutts braced for hit from US tax inquiry into Swiss bank

Coutts said it was ‘taking a judicious approach to its involvement’ with the US Department of Justice settlement

Deputy business editor

The blue-blooded bank Coutts has set aside possibly as much as SFr100m (£68m) at its private Swiss banking arm to cover the potential hit from an investigation by the US authorities over tax evasion.

Coutts is owned by RBS, which has previously admitted the Swiss arm, Coutts AG, was going to take part in the US programme insisting all Swiss banks review whether their American account holders have evaded tax.

Reports in Switzerland suggest the potential US liability has stymied efforts by RBS/Coutts to sell the Swiss division, which also has branches in Hong Kong and Singapore.  Setting aside the provisions helped drive Coutts  AG  into a net loss of nearly Sfr50m, according to the Swiss financial website insideparadeplatz.ch.

Coutts confirmed it was “taking a judicious approach to its involvement” with the US Department of Justice settlement. It is, it said, in Category 2 of Swiss banks being investigated.

These are banks which, in return for not facing prosecution, have agreed to disclose any incriminating details about how they may have helped Americans evade US taxes. They could be hit with financial penalties equal to as much as 50 per cent of the value of any tax-evading bank accounts.

Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley’s Swiss businesses recently emerged as being in Category 2 along with dozens of others, and those found not to have aided US tax evasion will be shifted out and into Category 3.

Category 1 banks are those like HSBC’s Swiss arm, which are under criminal investigation and are not eligible for amnesty. The whole process is deeply unpopular in Switzerland, where it is deemed by many to be a gross infringement of sovereignty. 

The Department of Justice is expected to complete sifting through the information provided by Category 2 banks by the end of June.Coutts AG’s liabilities tothe US tax investigation are contained within a total of Sfr112m set aside under “other business risk” in its previously undisclosed 2013 financial statements.

The RBS chief executiv, Ross McEwan, has been looking at all of the bank’s businesses to decide which are “core” and which should be disposed of.

His review of the bank this year stated a commitment to focus on UK business, not international. But he said Coutts’ UK operations would now be working closer with RBS’s other wealth management and commercial businesses, which include the kind of entrepreneurs who would fit into Coutts’ core UK client base. Nothing has been agreed, however, on its Swiss-based international arm.

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