GENEVA (Reuters) - Switzerland’s low corporate taxes, business-friendly regulations and reputation for discretion have attracted multinational commodities trading firms “as a dunghill attracts flies”.
This is how The Berne Declaration - a Swiss NGO which campaigns to ensure local companies act responsibly - describes Switzerland’s appeal in a new book that aims to shed light on the methods of an industry that traditionally prefers to conduct its business away from the gaze of regulators and journalists.
But that may be changing. The country’s pre-eminent position in commodities is under threat from Singapore just when it most needs the business after a series of blows to its banking industry.
In one of the highest-profile moves, the world’s no. 3 commodities trader Trafigura said in May it is shifting its trading centre and a key executive to the city state.
One of Singapore’s attractions is that unlike land-locked Switzerland, it sits at the centre of Asia’s booming demand for raw materials, close to many key physical markets.
But Singapore is also beating Switzerland at its own game - on taxes.
“Singapore has become more attractive than Switzerland on tax. There’s no doubt about it,” said Benjamin Knowles, a London-based partner advising commodities firms for Clyde & Co.
Official corporate tax rates in Singapore have fallen by around 3 percent to 17 percent over the past five years but held steady at just above 21 percent in Switzerland, according to accountancy firm KPMG.
What really matters for global traders is the rate they can negotiate, however.
Industry sources say it is now tough for new firms to negotiate tax rates in Switzerland below the official 10-12 percent rate usually granted to “holding companies”, whereas traders in Singapore can get a 5-10 percent rate via the Global Trader Programme.
The Singapore scheme has been in place since 2001 and has been regularly broadened, for example in 2011 when income from derivatives was added, considered a key factor in the Trafigura move.
Tax breaks may be tougher to come by as Switzerland faces growing pressure from the European Union, which says that some cantonal tax agreements - ‘fiscal holidays’ which can slash federal taxes in half over five-year periods - amount to unauthorised state aid.
Boston Consulting Group said in a study published this month that Swiss talks with EU authorities over tax were causing concern among some multinational firms in the cantons, or states, of Geneva and Vaud. The companies typically review the pros and cons of their location every five years.
“Many features that have made these cantons appealing to multinational companies are in decline ... Geneva and Vaud cannot afford to assume that the past success with multinational companies will continue,” the study said.
Swiss cantons, which compete with each other to attract firms, have been warned to expect more rigorous federal audits of companies seeking renewals of cantonal tax breaks after a dispute between Switzerland and Brazilian mining company Vale VALE5.SA.
Swiss authorities are fighting to recoup what they say are 212 million Swiss francs ($221.75 million) in unpaid back taxes over five years from Vale after tax officials said it had not honoured its commitments under the deal.
“I imagine that this will drive some multinationals to think twice before setting up shop here,” Vale SA President Renato Neves said in a recent interview with Swiss paper Le Temps.
Geneva is currently the world’s number one centre for oil trading with around 35 percent of global volume versus 25 percent in London, 20 percent in New York and Houston and 15 percent in Singapore, according to Geneva’s Trading and Shipping Association.
Geneva also holds the top spot in grains with 35 percent of volume. Singapore is in second place with 20 percent.
Location, living costs, the Swiss franc and lifestyle all also work to Switzerland’s disadvantage for some commodities traders.
Last year the Swiss franc soared some 20 percent in a few months because of alarm over euro zone debt, and is still under pressure despite a cap placed last September.
Clyde & Co.’s Knowles said Singapore’s position as a shipping hub means “it has warehouses and storage. It is very different from somewhere like Geneva which has no real reason, beyond tax advantages, from being a trading centre.”
Larry Sim, a tax partner at KPMG in Singapore, agreed.
“Companies want to be closer to where their customers are,” he said. “If all the action is in Asia, it makes sense to be here.”
Expensive housing and long waiting lists at schools are issues in both countries, but advantages such as cheap domestic help can make Singapore attractive for families.
“If you are ready to live far away from your relatives, it’s heaven,” said Frederic, an oil trader who transferred from Europe to Singapore in 2011 with his family and asked to be identified by his first name only.
“Everybody in my company wants to move there - it’s the most popular place.”
Geneva ranked no. 5 in Mercer’s cost of living index in 2011, against Singapore at six and London at 25.
Singapore also has an army of qualified, educated locals for trading and support positions, whereas an ‘inadequately educated workforce’ topped the World Economic Forum’s list of problematic factors to doing business in Switzerland.
Harry, 29, who moved from Singapore to Geneva in 2010, described the move as “a major anticlimax”.
“Accommodation is not a patch on Singapore. You don’t get pools and gyms in your building as standard. Restaurants are often shut and nightclubs are few and terrible,” he said.
Gary Klesch, an investor in oil refineries and founder of Geneva-based commodities trading firms SOTASSA and Panther Trading, said it was becoming increasingly hard to lure expatriate staff.
“You have to bring the traders here, so first of all you have to pay them more. And then when they get here they are still unhappy because they realise they have to mortgage their house to buy a Starbucks,” he said.
The loss of revenues and jobs from commodities trading houses is hitting Switzerland particularly hard at a time when it is seeking alternatives to make up for banking losses caused by a global campaign against tax cheats.
Switzerland’s oldest private bank Wegelin was indicted by the U.S. Justice Department in February for enabling wealthy Americans to evade taxes, prompting some rich foreigners to withdraw funds from secret accounts.
In 2009 UBS UBSN.VX paid $780 million and admitted to criminal wrongdoing to resolve U.S. criminal charges over its tax evasion services.
Daniel Loeffler, director of economic development in Geneva, said his department was counting on a narrowing gap between revenues from trading firms, which represent around 10 percent of cantonal GDP, and those from private banking, at 20 percent.
Efforts are being made to fight back: the University of Geneva, for example, is offering a Masters programme in International Trading, Commodity Finance and Shipping to increase the number of trained Swiss-based staff.
A new lobby group, the Zug Commodity Association, will meet this month to forge a common position on what it considers key dangers to the Swiss industry, such as tax reform.
The factors that make Switzerland competitive, like confidentiality and favourable taxation, must be defended, a new interest group called ‘Swiss Respect’ said a letter to the government.
“Switzerland is losing its assets one by one. We refuse to follow this destruction of value ... Nothing can give back to Switzerland that which it has lost over these past three years. However, it is not too late to raise our heads and fight strongly.”
($1 = 0.9609 Swiss francs)
Additional reporting by Ikuko Kurahone in London and Rachel Armstrong in Singapore; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall