Three years after Lloyds Banking Group Plc sold its private bank in Geneva, the only signs of life at the now-empty building are piles of cigarette butts and nutshells lying on its dirty window ledges.
The riverside offices at Place de Bel-Air are a short walk away from the remaining private banks, hedge-fund managers and luxury-goods stores in the heart of the Swiss city. The locked entrance, where millionaire clients used to come and go, is a reminder that some of the biggest names in global finance have quit Geneva for good.
“The disappearance of international private banks has left an eerie silence in some of the downtown offices that were once the top end of the market,” said Raphael Reginato, who works in the city as a broker at real estate asset manager AMI International. “Geneva’s not the magnet for international finance it used to be.”
North American and European banks are quitting Geneva as companies battle with the loss of financial secrecy, the strong Swiss franc and pressure on profitability from low interest rates and tougher regulatory demands. Tax probes by the U.S. and France and a new system of bank-data exchange between governments have scuppered the traditional “no-questions-asked” approach to serving rich clients who reside in other countries.
“Everybody is expecting the number of banks in Geneva to contract even further,” said Stephane Muller, a partner at Ernst & Young in Geneva. “Fortunately, some of the local family-owned firms still have the appetite to buy them.”
The canton of Geneva derives about 17 percent of its gross domestic product from financial-services companies, according to the local industry group. That contribution is at risk after the number of banks declined to 119 in 2015 from 140 in 2008, and the industry’s workforce shrunk about 9 percent in the past three years.
The cuts are affecting everything from real estate to hotels. Bank employees now make up a quarter of the corporate overnight guests at the five-star Grand Hotel Kempinksi, half the level of 18 months ago, and room rates for business customers have fallen by about 10 percent, General Manager Thierry Lavalley said in an interview.
“People no longer need to come to Geneva to check their bank accounts,” Lavalley said. “There are fewer business trips.” The Four Seasons Hotel des Bergues is also seeing fewer bookings from financial companies, according to Fabrice Thome, director of sales and marketing.