Three more Swiss banks join U.S. tax deal

Reuters

* Bank Coop, Migros Bank, Linth plan to co-operate with U.S.

* Up to 100 Swiss private banks expected to take up deal

ZURICH, Dec 11 (Reuters) - Three more Swiss banks said theywould work with U.S. officials in a crackdown on wealthyAmericans evading taxes through hidden offshore accounts, atrickle that could rise to about one third of the country'sprivate banks.

The number that participate in the government-brokeredscheme is important for larger banks facing criminalinvestigations in the United States, such as Credit Suisse, Julius Baer and Pictet & Cie.

These banks' talks with U.S. justice officials to settletheir cases have been frozen pending a solution for the widerSwiss banking sector.

If the U.S. deems its deal with Switzerland a failurebecause too few banks come forward to make amends for aiding taxevasion, it is likely to hold up settlements for the largerbanks.

The deal for second-tier banks, agreed in August, is part ofa U.S. drive to lift the veil of Swiss bank secrecy which in2009 led to UBS paying $780 million in a settlementwhere the bank agreed to hand over U.S. client names with secretSwiss accounts.

Bank Coop, Migros Bank, and Linth Bank said on Tuesday they would participate in the U.S.scheme.

They join Valiant Holding and Berner Kantonalbank, two mainly retail banks, that have also said theywould take part. Zurich-based private bank and securities firmVontobel Holding AG is also participating, but has putitself in a category of institutions that have not committed anyU.S. tax-related offences and are therefore exempt from penaltypayments.

Banks had until Monday to inform the Swiss regulator oftheir intentions.

Peter V. Kunz, professor of business law at BerneUniversity, told Reuters on Tuesday he thought about 100 of thecountry's 300-plus private banks would participate.

The vast majority of Switzerland's private banks such asGeneva-based Lombard Odier & Cie are not listed on the stockmarket, meaning they are under no obligation to publiclydisclose how they plan to deal with the U.S. tax crackdown.

Eleven listed banks, such as private banks EFG International and VP Bank and a host of small, largely retailplayers including local government-backed cantonal banks, haveyet to tell shareholders what they intend to do.

TOO RISKY

The U.S. scheme, which lapses at the year-end, requiresbanks to hand over some previously hidden information and facepenalties of up to 50 percent of assets they managed on behalfof wealthy Americans. If the banks shun the offer, individualfirms and senior staff risk criminal prosecution.

Coop, majority-owned by Basler Kantonalbank whichis among the banks in the crosshairs of U.S. prosecutors, saidstaying out of the programme was too risky.

Coop took a 9 million Swiss franc ($10.14 million) provisionand said it had only a few customers who were based in theUnited States, whose assets amounted to less than 0.3 percent ofits total.

Migros said it was coming forward following comments fromthe Swiss regulator, which told banks they should err on theside of caution in judging their dealings with American clients.

Linth said it is entering the program in an effort to bringthe matter to a swift conclusion.

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