The Swiss financial market authority FINMA said Monday it is launching a preliminary investigation in reaction to a massive data leak that links Swiss banks, among others, to offshore deals with wealthy and powerful clients.
The watchdog would clarify whether Swiss banks had cooperated with Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca that allegedly handled the offshore business, and whether the banks violated regulations, it said in a written statement.
Switzerland-based banks and financial intermediaries played a major role in setting up offshore deals with the Panama firm, according to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ).
While such deals can have legitimate purposes, the leaked Mossack Fonseca files show that financial intermediaries often fail to determine whether their clients are involved in crime, tax evasion or corruption, according to the ICIJ network.
"FINMA's focus is on making sure that banks introduce and apply adequate preventive control mechanisms," the authority said.
The Swiss attorney general's office said it does not currently plan an investigation.
"There must be sufficient grounds for suspicion for launching criminal proceedings and to order coercive measures," the office's spokeswoman Nathalie Guth said in Bern, adding that there needs to be concrete evidence of criminal action to justify such steps.
The ICIJ network said 1,223 of the more than 14,000 financial middlemen who appear in the leaked Mossack Fonseca files operated in Switzerland.
Major Swiss banks Credit Suisse and UBS set up 918 and 579 offshore companies, respectively, according to the so-called Panama Papers leak.
Both banks stressed Monday that they had been acting in a lawful manner.
"We are absolutely not interested in money that has not been taxed or that stems from illegal sources," UBS said.
"It is of crucial importance for Credit Suisse that its clients use asset structures exclusively for permitted purposes," Switzerland's other major bank said.
Swiss newspaper Tages-Anzeiger reported that Russian cellist Sergei Rodulgin, a close friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin, had used the Swiss branch of Russia's Gazprombank and Zurich lawyers to control unusually large offshore assets in Russian armaments and media businesses.
Tages-Anzeiger was among the international group of media that published the Panama Papers investigation, along with ICIJ.
Major Swiss banks had gone through a learning process in recent years, the Tages-Anzeiger wrote in a commentary. "But financial intermediaries, high-end law firms in the Zurich financial district and foreign banks with branches in Switzerland have not yet understood that times have changed," it said.