Swiss Finance Minister Merz to Step Down in October

Swiss Finance Minister Hans-Rudolf Merz said he will step down after seven years during which the government helped rescue UBS AG (UBSN) from collapse and agreed to weaken the country’s banking secrecy rules.

His resignation follows criticism from a parliamentary panel about his handling of UBS’s problems during the financial crisis and from the Social Democrats over his role in the Libya hostage crisis. Merz suffered a heart attack in 2008.

“I had to take a lot of criticism,” the 67-year-old Free Democrat told journalists in Bern today. “I believe a lot of it wasn’t justified. But that’s the way of politics.”

After joining the Free Democrats, Merz became the party’s local secretary in St. Gallen in 1969. He was elected to the upper house of the Swiss parliament in 1997. Merz took over the Finance Ministry from Kaspar Villiger in 2004 and held the rotating Swiss presidency last year.

“Public finances have been strengthened,” and “that has always been my main purpose,” he said today. Merz expects the 2010 budget to be “in the black” again after the country posted a surplus last year.

After flying to Libya in summer 2009, Merz said that two Swiss businessmen held in the North African country would probably be freed soon. The release of the men was delayed into this year after the Foreign Ministry took over the dossier.

Merz said he’s stepping down because most of the outstanding issues including public finances, the Libya crisis and the stabilization of UBS have been resolved.

Financial Crisis

In September 2008, at the height of the global financial crisis and efforts to rescue UBS, Merz underwent a quintuple-bypass operation following his heart attack. He was temporarily replaced by Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf and returned to office six weeks later.

Merz also agreed to weaken banking secrecy rules in Switzerland as he tried to ease pressure on the country’s offshore banking industry from trading partners including Germany, the U.S. and France.

The government and the Swiss National Bank had to rescue UBS from near-collapse in 2008 after the country’s biggest bank piled up what at the time were the biggest losses of any European lender from the global credit crisis. The following year, the government struck an agreement with the U.S. to hand over details of as many as 4,450 UBS account holders suspected of evading taxes. Failure to reach an agreement could have threatened UBS’s business in the U.S.

Parliamentary Panel

A parliamentary commission in May said Merz “never deemed it important to keep the justice minister up to date about the important issues of the Finance Ministry.”

“I didn’t cause the Libya and the UBS problems but I had to deal with them,” Merz said today.

Merz studied at University of St. Gallen and wrote his thesis on public finance in 1971. He later worked for Zurich-based UBS and set himself up as a consultant.

The father of three sons is the second member of the Swiss ruling coalition to step down this year. Transport and Environment Minister Moritz Leuenberger said last month that he’ll resign from his post at the end of the year.

The parliament will vote on the successors later this year.

To contact the reporters on this story: Klaus Wille in Zurich at kwille@bloomberg.net; Paul Verschuur in Bern at pverschuur@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: John Fraher at jfraher@bloomberg.net.

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