Indians may have much more than $2.5 bn in Swiss banks

It's official now -- Indians hold about $2.5 billion (over Rs 11,000 crore) in Swiss banks, but this figure of Switzerland's central bank may be a gross understatement of the total wealth directly and indirectly held there by entities from India.

world Updated: Jul 24, 2011 14:15 IST

It's official now -- Indians hold about $2.5 billion (over Rs 11,000 crore) in Swiss banks, but this figure of Switzerland's central bank may be a gross understatement of the total wealth directly and indirectly held there by entities from India.

The ever-growing judicial scrutiny and political outcry over alleged stashing of black money in Swiss banks also seems to be forcing Indian entities to move their monies to other safe havens like the Middle East, Singapore and Mauritius.

Some half a billion dollars have been moved out in the last three years, according to the central bank's figures.

In the first-ever disclosure of money held in various Swiss banks by Indians, Swiss National Bank (SNB) has said the quantum of such deposits stood at 1.945 billion Swiss francs (about $2.5 billion) at the end of 2010.

Giving a break-up of this amount, Walter Meier, the spokesperson for the SNB President, said this included about $2.1 billion dollars in the form of savings and deposits by Indian individuals, financial institutions and corporates.

The remaining about $400 million is of fiduciaries largely operating for private individuals from India.

Meier, however, said the bank had no further information when asked about the identity of these funds.

He further said that two of the largest Swiss banks, UBS and Credit Suisse, account for a vast majority of the deposits of entities from India.

Out of the 1.66 billion Swiss francs ($2.1 billion) held by Indian individuals and institutions at the end of 2010, the two banks accounted for 1.02 Swiss francs ($1.5 billion) and the remaining 636 Swiss francs ($775 million) are held in Swiss cantonal banks and private banks, he added.

Experts say that the fiduciaries are essentially wealth fund managers who hold the money of Indian private holders and families in the so-called numbered accounts.

A private banker, on condition of anonymity, said that the actual deposits by Indians could be as high as $15-20 billion, but also rubbished the figure of $1.5 trillion that has been reported from time to time.

"I would argue that both the Swiss central bank's estimate of $2.5 billion as deposits of Indians, as well as the Indian media stories of $1.5 trillion of Indian private deposits, are incorrect and somewhat outrageous," he said.

"From my involvement with banks, I would place the Indian deposits anywhere between $15-20 billion," the banker said.

He also said there was a "perceptible flight of funds" of Indian holders from Swiss banks to banks in Singapore and Dubai, which are now the two main centres for Indian funds from undeclared sources.

As per SNB's figures also, the Indian deposits in Swiss banks have come down by $500 million (about Rs 2,250 crore) in the past three years.

SNB figures show that the total money deposited by Indians, both individuals and companies, in Switzerland-based banks stood at $2.5 billion at the end of 2010, down from about $2.7 billion in 2009 and $3 billion in 2008.

While the bank did not reveal the reasons behind the flight of money from these accounts, officials at regulatory agencies in India fear that Indians might be moving their funds to safer locations like Mauritius, Dubai and other places in the Middle East region.

There have also been talks of Singapore being one such location where money is being moved from Swiss banks.

Sources have said that foreign capital-friendly regulations in places like Mauritius and Dubai were possibly being exploited by those seeking to move their funds away from Swiss banks, which have come under strict scrutiny of late.

Till the latest disclosure, SNB, as well as the Swiss Bankers Association, the apex body of banks in the European country, have been maintaining that they do not disclose country-specific data for funds deposited with them.

Such a level of secrecy around Swiss banks has resulted in various unconfirmed figures, of up to $1.5 trillion, being speculated from time to time with regard to the money stashed away by Indians in those banks.

The issue of black money, including that stashed away in Swiss banks, has been a matter of intense political debate for many years in India, while the courts have also widened their scrutiny in recent months.

Recently, the Supreme Court also constituted a Special Investigation Team to probe the matter and has gone on to criticise the government for not taking all required steps.

At the same time, the global pressure has been rising on Switzerland to ask its banks to share information about their clients with foreign governments.

India is also revising its bilateral treaty with the European nation to help it get more information about the Swiss bank accounts of Indians.

It is being suspected now that Indians having illicit wealth in Swiss banks may be moving their funds in fear of being exposed due to growing scrutiny. At the same time, even those having legitimate funds in Swiss banks may be moving away, due to a growing level of negativity attached to them.

Sources said that a number of Swiss financial institutions have set up arms in locations like Mauritius for their FII (foreign institutional investor), private equity and venture capital investment activities in India and these might be being used for routing of funds.

Top financial regulators Sebi and RBI have already stepped up their vigil over Indian entities routing their funds from secretly held Swiss bank accounts to India through Dubai and other locations.

Giving rise to the suspicion of funds moving to other locations, reports have suggested that banks in the Middle East are seeing a sudden spurt in their deposits.

It is feared that the money might be routed back to India, either into the stock market through FIIs or even via the FDI route.

The sectors suspected to be vulnerable to such funds could be real estate, agriculture and infrastructure, which are among the 'sunrise' segments of the Indian economy and have large-scale fund requirements.

First Published: Jul 24, 2011 12:56 IST