Photographer: Alessandro Della Bella/Bloomberg

SNB’s Mr. 7-Percent Stays Shy as Shareholders Meet in Bern

  • Siegert owned stake worth 7 million francs as of December
  • Swiss central bank holds annual shareholder meeting on Friday

When Swiss National Bank shareholders gather in Bern on Friday to hear from President Thomas Jordan and savor complimentary ice cream, there may be a heavyweight absentee: the central bank’s biggest private investor.

Media-shy German businessman and professor Theo Siegert, who holds almost 7 percent, has owned shares in the SNB since at least 2008. The stake was valued at about 7 million francs ($7.2 million) at the end of December -- making him the second-largest shareholder after the Canton of Bern.

Theo Siegert
Theo Siegert
Source: DKSH

Dusseldorf-based Siegert, who serves on the boards of German blue-chips Merck KGaA and Henkel AG, is one of about 2,000 private shareholders that own some 48 percent in the publicly traded central bank, with the remainder held by Swiss cantons and cantonal banks. Still, the private holders’ voting rights are restricted to those conferred by 100 shares and dividends are limited to no more than 6 percent of the share capital.

The 69-year-old, who spent two decades teaching at the Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich, likes to keep a low profile. Via a representative he declined to be interviewed for this story, and it appears he’s never obliged any other outlet with their request.

“He’s a very humble person -- he prefers understatement and that makes him very likable, in my eyes,” said Arnold Picot, a fellow professor at the Munich university where Siegert gave lectures on financial analysis and management until 2012. 

While Picot couldn’t say for sure why Siegert acquired his large stake, he said Switzerland always fascinated him.

“Maybe his interest got piqued because they have listed shares,” he said. “He’s someone with very wide-ranging interests that go beyond the topic du jour in the business world. He thinks outside the box.”

Switzerland hasn’t joined the EU, so it may appear surprising that its central bank’s biggest individual stakeholder is a foreigner. Yet while the stubbornly independent country has sparred with Germany over tax cheats with secret bank accounts, and Brussels over a wave of immigration, many big companies have foreign executives. Pharmaceutical giants Roche Holding AG and Novartis AG both have German chairmen.

The SNB’s annual general meeting in Bern’s Kulturcasino starts at 10 a.m. and will feature a speech by Jordan. Shareholders will have the opportunity to question him and fellow policy makers.

Due to a surge in the franc after the SNB abandoned its currency cap early last year, the central bank incurred a loss of 23.3 billion francs in 2015, though it still managed to pay a dividend of 1.5 million francs to private equity holders and 1 billion francs to the federal government and the cantons. For the first three months of 2016, it reported a profit of 5.7 billion francs, according to a statement on Thursday.

“There will be a payment to the cantons and the shareholders,” said Alexander Koch, an economist at Raiffeisen Schweiz in Zurich and a shareholder. “But the danger is that for next year, there won’t be enough reserves.”

The payout policy is up for a regular review later this year.

Sausage Spat

The strong currency is likely to remain a top concern for shareholders this year, though they will be able to distract themselves with the opportunity to stockpile food at the SNB’s generous lunch buffet and ice-cream stand. There’s never been a ruckus at the AGM -- in contrast with a gathering at car-maker Daimler AG earlier this month, where the police had to be called after two investors got in a fight over sausages.

Tales of such excess might even elicit a chuckle from SNB shareholder Siegert.

“He has an excellent sense of humor,” Picot said.

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