Swiss Strive for U.S. Tax Deal, No Update on Time, Official Says

Clinching a deal with the U.S. to solve a dispute over untaxed money in secret accounts is vital for Switzerland’s financial sector, the country’s top negotiator said, declining to name a time when that agreement might be reached.

Switzerland is in talks with the U.S. to end an investigation into Swiss banks suspected of helping wealthy Americans hide assets and cheat on taxes. In 2009, the country’s biggest bank, UBS AG, had to disclose the names of more than 4,000 clients after its business practices became the subject of a U.S. probe.

“It is crucial for us to find a solution with the United States for all Swiss banks,” Michael Ambuehl, head of the State Secretariat for International Financial Matters, said in Zurich today. “I will not tell you much more, also in regard to the time horizon.”

He represents Switzerland in negotiations with other countries over tax disputes. Any agreement would have to respect Swiss sovereignty and its legal tradition, he said.

Switzerland, which prizes banking secrecy, refuses to agree to the automatic exchange of bank account holders’ information.

The Swiss have withholding tax agreements in place with the U.K. and Austria, enabling citizens of those countries to pay tax on their accounts while remaining anonymous. The Swiss intend to strike similar deals with other countries.

“Analogous talks with Italy and Greece are under way,” Ambuehl said. “With Italy we have to wait until the new government is in place.”

The country also signed such a deal with Germany, though opposition parliamentarians in Berlin refused to ratify it last year. Germany will hold national polls, which could give Chancellor Angela Merkel a third term, later this year.

“Not much is likely to happen until the elections in Germany in the autumn of this year,” Ambuehl said.