Toomre Capital Markets LLC

Real-Time Capital Markets -- Analytics, Visualization, Event Processing, and Intelligence

Wealthy Americans Under Scrutiny in UBS Case

For publication on Friday, June 6th 2008, The New York Times has produced an article by Lynnley Browning entitled Wealthy Americans Under Scrutiny in UBS Case. This article details some of the concerns that wealthy American clients of UBS are having much agitation ahead of the expected guilty plea on Monday, June 9th 2008 of former-UBS private banker Bradley Birkenfeld to conspiring to helping a former American client, Igor Olenicoff, avoid paying taxes on some $200 million held in undeclared UBS accounts. Previous Toomre Capital Markets LLC ("TCM") posts on Bradley Birkenfeld and UBS can be found at this tag link.

The noteworthy fact that this article reveals "Under pressure from the authorities, UBS is considering whether to divulge the names of up to 20,000 of its well-heeled American clients, according to people close to the inquiry, a step that would have once been unthinkable to Swiss bankers, whose traditions of secrecy date to the Middle Ages. Federal investigators believe some of the clients may have used offshore accounts at UBS to hide as much as $20 billion in assets from the Internal Revenue Service. Doing so may have enabled these people to dodge at least $300 million in federal taxes on income from those assets, according to a government official connected with the investigation." [emphasis added]

If UBS were to reveal such a large list of wealthy Americans, there no doubt will be phenomenal anger directed against UBS and its CEO Marcel Rohner, who also just happens to be the head of the private banking arm when this supposed "wink and a nod" tax-avoidance activity supposedly occurred. Surely there will be considerable press coverage of this "tax scandal". There also no doubt will be considerable questioning by other UBS private banking clients about just what the value of supposed Swiss banking privacy truly is. This surely is to lead to some withdrawals and a likely decline in the UBS franchise value.

On the other hand, UBS could elect to fight the United States Justice Department. Of course, there likely then would be criminal charges against the institution itself to fight and the possible loss of United States banking and securities licenses. What the franchise value might be under such a scenario is anybody's guess. However, it is likely to be less than today's closing stock price. Would you want to own a deeply flawed investment banking franchise coupled with a disgraced private bank?

Toomre Capital Markets LLC suspects that this story is going to pick up a life of its own in coming days. With the American electorate entering the Presidential campaign season that is keenly focused on the economy and general tax policies, TCM strongly suspects that these rich Americans are about to be vilified as part of the contentious political season. UBS no doubt is going to receive plenty of bad publicity.

The interesting question, though, that TCM keeps on returning to is: What is the value of this institution in the sharply changed environment for investment banks? Surely, is it not over-valued because of very expensive operating costs relative to low transaction volumes? Does not this conclusion about investment banking profitability mean that operating costs need to come down further both through lower operating costs (particularly employee compensation and bonuses) and additional layoffs? And thinking through this line of thought further, does not this thought process imply that the urban centers of London and New York are going to be under further economic pressure? Thoughts and comments are most welcome.