The Banker Who Died
If a Swiss private banker appears in a thriller it is normally a side-act in a plot, which might entail espionage, corruption or money laundering.
The cheery Swiss banker in Casino Royale happily manages the wealth of half a dozen dubious characters. The Bourne Identity links safe deposit boxes in Switzerland with secret agents. The Wolf Of Wall Street features a less sophisticated Swiss banker, but it was the film’s subsequent links to Malaysia’s 1MDB scandal that crossed the line between banking fiction and reality.
This fictionalisation and negative stereotyping of the Swiss banker has caused some angst among its cohorts. Following the release of The Wolf Of Wall Street, the Swiss Banker’s Association said they were “trying to show the public that there is nothing clandestine about Swiss banking”.
If that’s the case then they will be less than happy about a new novel that brings the role of Swiss private bankers from the side-act into the fore. The Banker Who Died is the debut novel of Matthew A. Carter, himself a veteran of the Zurich banking scene. The book is described as “the world’s first novel based around the Swiss private banking world.”
While on the one hand this book brings rock-and-roll into an industry perceived as stagnant and dry – drugs and drink feature prominently – on the other, it paints a picture of an industry deep in corrupt and poor ethical practices.
“A principled banker is a nonsensical creature”, says the head of Laville & Cie, a fictional family run Geneva private bank, which could be based on any number of the Swiss city’s centuries-old firms.
Within Laville’s fictional vaults lay Russian diamonds and Congolese Gold, something else that sits uncomfortably close to the truth. In 2007 Switzerland said that it would finally release funds belonging to the late Congolese dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko. More recently Swiss banks have been under pressure to freeze accounts belonging to Russian individuals subject to sanctions.
But it is the rationale for these dubious banking practises that come across most vividly in Carter’s novel. His characters acknowledge that the days of the small and secretive Swiss bank are limited. Common Reporting Standards (CRS) and other data sharing agreements have curtailed their secrecy. Add to that increased operating costs and suddenly their business models become unviable. “A look at revenues and operating costs shows that gross profits have fallen by more than 30% since the record breaking year of 2007, especially at small wealth management banks,” says a recent report from PwC. The consultancy expects the overall number of Swiss private banks to fall from 130 to 100 in the next few years.
“The gnomes of Zurich are just going along, thinking that their century-long banking party will just continue forever. But no! The party has been over for a long time, and nobody wants Switzerland without banking secrecy,” says one of Carter’s fictional private bankers. They have 10, maybe 20 years left, going by this account.
With the clock ticking, Laville’s bankers are squeezing “as much money as possible from these stupid wooden Pinocchios”. Hence the dubious banking practices that make up the plot of this book, woven between Russian oligarchy and the billionaire party scene.
But this leaves the reader wondering: Where does the line between fiction and reality lay here? Are Swiss private banks maximising their short-term income, aware that their party will soon be over?
Given historic discretion, these questions are not easily answered. But, regardless, Swiss banking authorities will be keen to limit such questions. They will be eager to put the secretive Swiss private banker back into a side-act role before forgetting about them altogether. Switzerland is desperately trying to rebrand its banker.
If they have their way then all fictional Swiss private bankers would be squeaky-clean money managers delivering vast returns to their clients alongside cutting edge technologies.
Small wander then that thriller writers resort back to the secretive sort. Fictional Swiss private bankers seem more believable than the image Switzerland upholds today, and that all makes for a better thriller.