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Swiss bankers clean up their act

By Peter Bosshard, International Rivers | San Fransisco, Dec 21 2010

[The following commentary, with illustrations and links to the original documents, lives at International Rivers]

UBS, one of the world's biggest banks, has been accused of dirty business for years. The Swiss bank helped the Marcos and Mobutu clans stash away their ill-gotten wealth, and allegedly funneled more than $1 billion into Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme. It was a key financier of South Africa's apartheid regime, and funds destructive coal mines around the world.

A leaked document shows that the bank is now making an effort to clean up its act. "We will strengthen the image of UBS as a company that has integrity and a sense of responsibility if we behave beyond reproach in our daily interactions with all interest groups", the internal document says. Yet it does not advise you on how best to avoid tainted assets. The manual will tell you what you may expect from your UBS banker in terms of proper attire and hygiene. Here are some examples from the bank's new dress code:

  • Your banker's shirt sleeves will extend 1.5-2.5 centimeters beyond his jacket. Her skirt will end at the middle of her knees, or up to 5 centimeter below.
  • His socks will be black, and will not show his legs no matter how he sits. His tie will get at least one day of rest after each call of duty.
  • Your banker may wear sunglasses outdoors, but not on top of his head. A wrist watch will give him an air of reliability and punctuality.
  • The wallet will not bulge the pockets of your banker's pants. (He does not receive his bonus in cash!)
  • Your banker will avoid meals with onions and garlic, and his finger nails will not extend more than 1.5 millimeters.
  • His underwear, in case you wondered, will be "exclusively made of high-quality fabric, can be washed easily, but will remain in good shape after being washed several times".

The 44-page dress code is mandatory for UBS staff with client contact; compliance will be enforced by the bank's management. Lest we Swiss come across as rigid, bankers may take off their jackets in hot weather if their supervisor agrees. And, the manual offers, "whether you shave wet or dry is up to you." Sounds better than casual Friday!

The dress code's insistence on proper underwear is not something to snicker at. I have friends at Swiss banks who take their high net worth clients to the sauna and try on dresses for their girl friends. The new manual shows that UBS will go an extra mile for integrity and responsibility.

While certainly elaborate, the bankers' cleanliness guide contains a few gaps. How do responsible bankers avoid the stench of corruption and environmental destruction? The Berne Declaration, a Swiss advocacy group, has documented strong UBS involvement in destructive goldmines around the world. Rainforest Action Network and the Sierra Club tell us that the bank is the biggest non-US financier of mountain-top removal.

And the anti-corruption watchdog Global Witness recently reported that UBS, together with four British banks, "helped to fuel corruption and entrench poverty in Nigeria by taking money from corrupt governors" between 1999 and 2005. May we hope that the bank's sense of hygiene and integrity will soon bring us stronger guidelines on protecting the environment and human rights?



Peter Bosshard is the policy director of International Rivers, and was active with the Association of Concerned UBS Shareholders from 1987-2000. He blogs at the International Rivers website.

International Rivers Website

Modern UBS was formed through a merger of the Union Bank of Switzerland and the Swiss Bank Corporation in June 1998.  UBS is headquartered in Zurich and Basel and it…

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