Swiss banks will be allowed to pass some data to U.S. authorities under a government plan agreed on Wednesday to save the industry from criminal charges of tax evasion.
U.S. authorities want Swiss banks to pay fines potentially amounting to $10 billion for the whole industry and hand over the names of Americans it suspects of using secret accounts to evade tax, but strict secrecy laws stop them from complying.
The Swiss government said it agreed the parameters under which banks could seek to resolve the dispute and said they could apply for individual authorization to allow them to cooperate with the United States, but stressed they would not be allowed to hand over client names.
Banks will be allowed to reveal information such as details of accounts moved to other banks, names of bank staff, lawyers and accountants, helping U.S. authorities identify wealthy clients who are evading taxes, without naming them.
Last month, the Swiss parliament rejected legislation that would have allowed banks to sidestep secrecy laws.
Swiss secrecy laws have helped to make the country the world's biggest offshore financial center, but it has also drawn the ire of countries seeking to fight tax evasion, with Swiss banks also under investigation in Germany and France.
More than a dozen banks are under formal U.S. investigation, including Credit Suisse, Julius Baer, the Swiss arm of Britain's HSBC privately held Pictet in Geneva and local government-backed Zuercher Kantonalbank and Basler Kantonalbank.
Finance Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf told a news conference those banks should now be able to settle with the U.S. authorities as they could seek permission to hand over information on accounts of clients who had moved to other banks.
But she said the government was conducting further talks with the U.S. Department of Justice concerning a program it is offering to Swiss banks not yet under investigation, which could involve dozens more institutions.
Widmer-Schlumpf, who warned of the threat of U.S. indictments of banks after parliament rejected the legislation, said it remained to be seen how Washington would respond to the latest move by the Swiss government.
U.S. authorities have consistently declined comment on the matter.
Earlier this year a U.S. indictment felled Switzerland's oldest private bank, Wegelin & Co., which closed after paying a $58 million fine and pleading guilty to aiding tax evasion.
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