The Swiss financial centre owes its success to business-friendly legislation – and also to bank confidentiality and low tax rates. Moreover, the history of the major banks is closely linked to that of the industry. However, the success story is peppered with difficult phases, especially in more recent times.
The success story
The Swiss banking system consists of the National Bank, cantonal state banks, major banks, regional mortgage banks and private banks. They are significant employers both in Switzerland and abroad. The Swiss financial centre is first and foremost a market for capital and wealth assets, with Zurich, Geneva, Basel and Lugano counting among the world's most important financial hubs.
The reasons are found in Switzerland's business-friendly legislation. Bank confidentiality and low taxes are of particular importance in this regard. Switzerland's financial centre gained an important position in the world market due to the country's neutrality during the two world wars. Moreover, the success story is closely linked to that of Switzerland's industry. The Swiss Credit Agency, for instance, was founded in 1856 to finance the railway companies as the construction of railways went hand in hand with huge requirements for capital.
Under international pressure
Bank confidentiality and tax legislation have been under increasing international pressure since the 1990s. Critics accuse Switzerland of attracting money from dubious business deals and promoting tax evasion. Furthermore, Switzerland had to put up with being accused of exporting capital and making investments in unlawful regimes such as the apartheid state of South Africa.
Historic research into the Swiss finance and banking system has intensified over the past 20 years. Interest focused predominantly on the role of the Swiss financial centre from the 1930s to the 1950s, which was thoroughly investigated by, among others, the Independent Commission of Experts Switzerland – Second World War (ICE). On conclusion of its work, the Commission (1868-2003) made its documents available to the Swiss Federal Archives.
Federal competency in the finance and banking system
Documents on the Swiss National Bank established in 1907 can be found in the fonds of the departments and authorities responsible for economic and financial policy, in particular in the fonds of the Federal Finance Administration (1849-2003). The documents of the Swissmint (1931-1993) and the Swiss Federal Banking Commission (SFBC) (1837-1993) are held by the Swiss Federal Archives. The SFBC ensures that banks and investment institutes conduct their business in a legally compliant manner.
Furthermore, the Swiss Federal Archives also retain documents relating to bank and tax legislation at a national level and on the negotiations of international agreements. These documents stem not only from the commissions, parliament and the delegations responsible for Switzerland's financial policy relations with European and global organisations. Information on the international dimension of the Swiss financial centre can also be found in the documents of the Department of Trade (1872-1995), the later Federal Office of External Economic Affairs (1883-2001), the Political Department (the current Department of Foreign Affairs) and the Swiss Clearing Office (1929-1978). Additional documents are available from the fonds of Switzerland's foreign representations, for instance in Berlin (1866-1997), Paris (1798-1995), London (1846-2000) and New York (1842-1997).
Tips for further research
- Historical Dictionary of Switzerland with, among others, articles on banks (ger) and the financial centre (ger).
- National Bank: proprietary archive with business documents.
- Swiss Bankers Association (SBA): central association of the Swiss financial sector.
- Some large banks, cantonal and other banks maintain their own archives.
- Federal Archives of the Cantons (ger): archives of companies and business associations. Some documents may also be found in university archives.
- Swiss Economic Archives (ger): archives of banks, commercial establishments, industrial businesses and private persons mainly from the Basel region.
- arCHeco: register of economic fonds preserved in archives of Switzerland and Liechtenstein.
- Swiss Society for Economic and Social History (SSESH) (ger): routinely informs on new scientific publications in the field of economic and business history and on conventions and congresses. Publisher of various periodicals on economic history.
- The European Association for Banking and Financial History EABH: supports research into the history of banking, insurance and finance.
Publications of the Federal Archives
Schweizerisches Bundesarchiv, Strafrechtlicher Schutz des Bankkundengeheimnisses.
Tanner, Jakob, Goldparität im Gotthardstaat: Nationale Mythen und die Stabilität des Schweizer Frankens in den 1930er- und 1940er-Jahren, Studien und Quellen 26, publ. by the Swiss Federal Archives, Bern 2000, p.49–79.
Last modification 04.11.2019