Switzerland’s Third Largest Bank Plans to Introduce Crypto-Related Services

March 18

The trend of established banks partnering with technology companies to offer digital asset-related services continues in Switzerland.  Around the end of February 2019, Julius Baer, one of Switzerland’s largest and oldest banks, announced plans to offer access to digital assets through a partnership with SEBA Crypto, a Swiss-based start-up. This development follows similar arrangements between technology companies and other established banks such as Falcon Private Bank, Vontobel, and Gazprombank. This trend underscores Switzerland’s reputation as a friendly jurisdiction for digital asset and crypto-related services and businesses.

It is equally important to note Switzerland’s regulatory framework for companies that wish to offer financial services, which includes digital-assets and crypto. For example, taking custody of cryptocurrencies or tokens on behalf of clients may raise bank licensing issues. The banking license is often considered the most strictly regulated financial market category in Switzerland, with high organizational, capital and liquidity requirements.

Accepting and holding funds from the public, whether in fiat or cryptocurrency, will generally implicate bank licensing requirements, unless it is ensured by suitable technical means that the depositor can take ownership of his assets even in the insolvency of the holder of the funds. The capital and liquidity requirements that accompany a bank license pose significant hurdles for custodians of cryptocurrencies and tokens that intend to hold public funds within the meaning of the Banking Act. Also, trading in cryptocurrencies that constitute securities under Swiss law (asset tokens) on behalf of clients generally requires a securities dealer license. Likewise, a securities dealer license is required for the issuance of derivatives.

A novel option for crypto-companies that want to accept funds from the public, but neither intend to invest nor to pay interest on these funds, is the fintech license. This license category was introduced as of January 1, 2019 and allows innovative businesses to accept funds up to CHF 100 million. The fintech license is an appealing option for smaller fintechs and blockchain-based businesses due to the more relaxed liquidity and capital provisions and application requirements.

Companies that wish to offer cryptocurrency exchange services, custody wallets where the service provider maintains a private key, banks, securities dealers, fintech licensees and assets managers and all other financial intermediaries are generally subject to anti-money laundering requirements. These requirements can include obligations to perform due diligence on the customer (often referred to as “Know Your Customer” or “KYC”), and the ultimate beneficial owner of the assets.

Although there are many rules to navigate, the regulatory framework in Switzerland is an important aspect of its status as a reputable jurisdiction for companies seeking to offer digital asset and crypto-related services.

Christopher Murrer is an associate in the International Tax and Wealth Management practice groups of Baker McKenzie Zurich. He joined the Firm after practicing for seven years as a domestic tax and estate planning attorney in New York and Washington, DC.
Yves Mauchle is an associate in the Corporate Finance practice area in Zurich. He focuses on debt and equity capital markets as well as financial services regulation. Yves regularly represents financial intermediaries and other clients on regulatory matters and advises on the particular challenges posed by fintech business models, including ICOs.

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