Business, Politics

Swiss central banker goes down – and might take Europe with him

By Richard Poplak 10 January 2012

What’s less trustworthy than a Swiss Bank? It’s the unanswerable question – a showstopper by virtue of the fact that the Swiss banking system utterly lacks virtue. Bern has now been thrown into further turmoil, presaged by the resignation of the head of the Swiss National Bank. Cue the “hole in the cheese” jokes. But no one is laughing. By RICHARD POPLAK.

By all accounts, Philipp M. Hildebrand, former chairman of the Swiss National Bank, was the perfect beancounter. Greyish of hair and suit, he walks with a “trust me, I’m a banker” bearing, carrying the grace and savoir faire of continental Europe on his ski-toned shoulders. But Monsieur Hildebrand has recently ceded to calls for him to step down from his post, all for an act of dodginess performed by his wife, which in turn makes him look like a total scumbag.

Hildebrand, who has hair that looks like it was sculpted in a plastics factory, was in charge of Swiss monetary policy. This is an enviable position, seeing as the Swiss franc is considered a haven from the newly disastrous euro. Currency buyers were all over the franc, driving up the price of the currency, so Hildebrand – a fierce advocate of tough, centralised banking regulations – decided to put a cap on it.

But not before his wife, a former hedge fund manager named Kashya Hildebrand, purchased $500,000 worth, a transaction on which she made good to the tune of 15% profit. Only days separated Kashya’s transaction and Mr Hildebrand’s intervention in the Swiss money market. Thusly, all smelled of a rat.

Or, more accurately, a rat smelled the rat. Enter a “former information technology worker” for Bank Sarasin, the institution at which Philipp Hildebrand does his personal banking. The rat noted the transaction, sizeable as it was, and sold out the chairman to the Swiss People’s Party, a right-wing institution that makes the Tea Party look like raving communist hippies.

Hildebrand and the SPP – who vocally loathe, among others, Jews, Muslims and bankers, but not necessarily in that order – have had the odd contretemps before. The SPP advocate an open banking system, free of regulation and all that other stuff that leads to hipsters pitching tents on Wall Street. Hildebrand has been one of the most stalwart pro-regulation bankers on any national financial institution, and has thus come in for his share of spittle-flecked opprobrium.

In his press conference, held on Monday, he read a quote by Woodrow Wilson: “If you want to make enemies, change some things.” Hildebrand has made enemies, and his wife’s bad timing – or absolutely illegal timing, depending on how you view these things – has sunk him for good. He initially dismissed calls for his resignation, and the banking fraternity of Europe – who have not been having a good year, despite the fact that it is only 10 days old – leapt to his defence.

Mervyn King, Bank of England governor, stated that Hildebrand was, “a man of total integrity, extraordinary ability and, most important of all, courage.” That statement largely reflects the consensus. But folks hate bankers in general, and Swiss bankers more than most. Surviving the brickbats of his enemies meant keeping a scrupulously clear record. Hildebrand failed in that regard.

“I can’t once and for all prove that it was the way I said it was,” he said during the standard press conference at which a man of power outs himself as a cad, a crook, or as a man with a wife who has an imperfect sense of good grace. “Credibility is a central banker’s most valuable asset.” While credulity is the most valuable asset of those the central banker is supposed to serve. “This is a step which saddens me greatly,” said Hildebrand, sadly. “I depart on good terms and I would like to think I have been a damn good central banker.” At which point the SPP chuckled into their goblets of puppy blood.

The scandal, followed by the resignation, couldn’t have come at a worse time. Europe and the euro are on the ropes, and Switzerland was an oasis of regulated secrecy among a desert of PIGS. No more. Thomas Jordan, Hildebrand’s deputy, is pulling the levers, and he vows more of the same, while hoping to implement a trading ceiling with the euro. Good luck with that.

The stakes, mind you, are high. Europe can’t afford any more tremors, and nor can the international market. As for the Sasarin rat, he seems to have taken things rather badly. He faces charges under the Swiss banking secrecy act, and has duly attempted suicide to try and avoid them.

In short, these people deserve each other. The rest of us, however, deserve a little better. DM



Read more:

  • “Swiss banking chief resigns among mid trading scandal,” in Sky News.

Photo: Swiss National Bank (SNB) Chairman Philipp Hildebrand gestures as he addresses a news conference in Bern, January 9, 2012. Swiss central bank chief Philipp Hildebrand resigned on Monday in the face of growing criticism of a controversial currency trade made by his wife in August. Hildebrand’s decision to relinquish one of the top 10 central banking jobs in the world, came as Swiss parliamentarians met to discuss the scandal, which erupted last week after Sarasin bank sacked an employee who leaked details of the trade to a political rival. REUTERS/Pascal Lauener

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