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Switzerland and Liechtenstein

Executive Summary

Switzerland is welcoming to international investors, with a positive overall investment climate. The Swiss federal government enacts laws and regulations governing corporate structure, the financial system, and immigration, and concludes international trade and investment treaties.  However, Switzerland’s 26 cantons (analogous to U.S. states) and largest municipalities have significant independence to shape investment policies locally, including incentives to attract investment.  This federal approach has helped the Swiss maintain long-term economic and political stability, a transparent legal system, extensive and reliable infrastructure, efficient capital markets, and an excellent quality of life for the country’s 8.4 million inhabitants.  Many U.S. firms base their European or regional headquarters in Switzerland, drawn to the country’s low corporate tax rates, productive and multilingual workforce, and well-maintained infrastructure and transportation networks.  U.S. companies also choose Switzerland as a gateway to markets in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and beyond.  Furthermore, U.S. companies select Switzerland because hiring and firing practices are less restrictive than in other European locations, and due to the availability of a skilled workforce.

In 2019, the World Economic Forum rated Switzerland the world’s fifth most competitive economy.  This high ranking reflects the country’s sound institutional environment and high levels of technological and scientific research and development.  With very few exceptions, Switzerland welcomes foreign investment, accords national treatment, and does not impose, facilitate, or allow barriers to trade.  According to the OECD, Swiss public administration ranks high globally in output efficiency and enjoys the highest public confidence of any national government in the OECD.  Switzerland’s judiciary system posts the shortest trial length of any of the OECD’s 37 member countries.  The country’s competitive economy and openness to investment brought Switzerland’s cumulative inward direct investment to USD 1.3 trillion in 2018 (latest available figures) according to the Swiss National Bank, although nearly half of this amount is invested in regional hubs or headquarters that further invest in other countries.

Many of Switzerland’s cantons have used tax incentives to attract investment to their jurisdictions, including tax waivers for new firms for up to ten years in some cases.  However, following criticism from the European Union – as a bloc, Switzerland’s top trading partner – this practice was strongly curtailed by a new law passed in 2019.  The Federal Act on Tax Reform and Swiss Pension System Financing (TRAF) entered into force on January 1, 2020, obliging cantons to offer the same corporate tax rates to both Swiss and foreign companies.  However, the law allows cantons to continue to set their own cantonal rates and offer incentives for corporate investment through deductions and preferential tax treatment, for example for income derived from patents or expenses related to research and development.

Individual and corporate tax rates vary widely across Switzerland’s cantons.  In 2019, Zurich, which is sometimes used as a reference point for corporate location tax calculations within Switzerland, had a combined corporate tax rate of 21.15 percent, which includes municipal, cantonal, and federal tax. The effective tax rate in Zurich was expected to fall to 19.7 percent in 2020, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers.  The United States and Switzerland have a bilateral tax treaty, for which a new protocol on information sharing was ratified in 2019.

Key sectors that have attracted significant investments in Switzerland include IT, precision engineering, scientific instruments, pharmaceuticals, medical technology, and machine building.  Switzerland hosts a significant number of startups, including a sizeable ecosystem for companies in blockchain and distributed ledger technologies.

Switzerland is a highly innovative economy with strong overall intellectual property protection.  Switzerland enforces intellectual property rights linked to patents and trademarks effectively, and new amendments to the country’s Copyright Act to strengthen online copyright enforcement led to Switzerland’s removal from USTR’s Special 301 Watch List in 2020.

Some formerly public Swiss monopolies continue to retain market dominance despite partial or full privatization.  As a result, foreign investors sometimes find it difficult to enter these markets (e.g. telecommunications, certain types of public transportation, postal services, alcohol and spirits, aerospace and defense, certain types of insurances and banking services, and salt).  The Swiss agricultural sector remains protected and heavily subsidized, with direct subsidy payments comprising two-thirds of an average farm’s profits.  However, this is starting to change: newly negotiated trade agreements, including between the European Free Trade Association (of which Switzerland is a member) and Mercosur, contain provisions which would open Swiss markets to new levels of agricultural imports.

Liechtenstein

Liechtenstein’s investment conditions are identical in most key aspects to those in Switzerland, due to its integration into the Swiss economy.  The two countries form a customs union and Swiss authorities are responsible for implementing import and export regulations.

Both Liechtenstein and Switzerland are members of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA, including Iceland and Norway), an intergovernmental trade organization and free trade area that operates in parallel with the European Union (EU).  Liechtenstein participates in the EU single market through the European Economic Area (EEA), unlike Switzerland, which has opted for a set of bilateral agreements with the EU instead.

Liechtenstein has a stable and open economy employing 39,653 people (2018 – latest figures available), exceeding its domestic population of 39,137 (2018) and requiring a substantial number of foreign workers.  In 2018, 70.4 percent of the Liechtenstein workforce were foreigners, mainly Swiss, Austrians and Germans, most of whom commute daily to Liechtenstein.  Liechtenstein was granted an exception to the EU’s Free Movement of People Agreement, enabling the country not to grant residence permits to its workers.

Liechtenstein is one of the world’s wealthiest countries.  Liechtenstein’s gross domestic product per capita (at current USD) amounted to USD 179,258 in 2018.  According to the Liechtenstein Statistical Yearbook, the services sector, particularly in finance, accounts for three-fifths of Liechtenstein’s jobs, followed by the manufacturing sector (particularly mechanical engineering, machine tools, precision instruments, and dental products), which employs nearly 40 percent of the workforce.  Agriculture accounts for less than 1 percent of the country’s employment.

Liechtenstein’s corporate tax rate, at 12.5 percent, is one of the lowest in Europe.  Capital gains, inheritance, and gift taxes have been abolished.  The Embassy has no recorded complaints from U.S. investors stemming from market restrictions in Liechtenstein.  The United States and Liechtenstein do not have a bilateral income tax treaty.

Table 1: Key Metrics and Rankings
Measure Year Index/Rank Website Address
TI Corruption Perceptions Index 2019 4 of 180 http://www.transparency.org/
research/cpi/overview
World Bank’s Doing Business Report 2019 36 of 190 http://www.doingbusiness.org/en/rankings
Global Innovation Index 2019 1 of 129 https://www.globalinnovationindex.org/
analysis-indicator
U.S. FDI in partner country ($M USD, historical stock positions) 2018 USD 278,044 https://www.bea.gov/data/intl-trade-investment/direct-investment-country-and-industry
World Bank GNI per capita 2018 USD 84,410 http://data.worldbank.org/
indicator/NY.GNP.PCAP.CD

1. Openness To, and Restrictions Upon, Foreign Investment

Policies Towards Foreign Direct Investment

With the exception of its agricultural sector, foreign investment into Switzerland is generally not hampered by significant barriers, with no reported discrimination against foreign investors or foreign-owned investments.  Incidents of trade discrimination do exist, for example with regards to agricultural goods such as bovine genetics products.

A Swiss government-affiliated non-profit organization, Switzerland Global Enterprise (SGE), has a nationwide mandate to attract foreign business to Switzerland on behalf of the Swiss Confederation.  SGE promotes Switzerland as an economic hub and fosters exports, imports, and investments.  Some city and cantonal governments offer access to an ombudsman, who may address a wide variety of issues involving individuals and the government, but does not focus exclusively on investment issues.

Limits on Foreign Control and Right to Private Ownership and Establishment

Foreign and domestic enterprises may freely establish, acquire, and dispose of interests in business enterprises in Switzerland.  Switzerland does not maintain an investment screening mechanism for inbound foreign investment; the Federal Assembly instructed the Federal Council to prepare one in March 2020, a process expected to take two years.  There are some investment restrictions in areas under state monopolies, including certain types of public transportation, postal services, alcohol and spirits, aerospace and defense, certain types of insurance and banking services, and the trade in salt.  Restrictions (in the form of domicile requirements) also exist in air and maritime transport, hydroelectric and nuclear power, operation of oil and gas pipelines, and the transportation of explosive materials.  Additionally, the following legal restrictions apply within Switzerland:

Corporate boards: The board of directors of a company registered in Switzerland must consist of a majority of Swiss citizens residing in Switzerland; at least one member of the board of directors who is authorized to represent the company (i.e. to sign legal documents) must be domiciled in Switzerland.  If the board of directors consists of a single person, this person must have Swiss citizenship and be domiciled in Switzerland.  Foreign-controlled companies usually meet these requirements by nominating Swiss directors who hold shares and perform functions on a fiduciary basis.  Mitigating these requirements is the fact that the manager of a company need not be a Swiss citizen and company shares can be controlled by foreigners.  The establishment of a commercial presence by persons or enterprises without legal status under Swiss law requires a cantonal establishment authorization.  These requirements do not generally pose a major hardship or impediment for U.S. investors.

Hostile takeovers: Swiss corporate equity can be issued in the form of either registered shares (in the name of the holder) or bearer shares.  Provided the shares are not listed on a stock exchange, Swiss companies may, in their articles of incorporation, impose certain restrictions on the transfer of registered shares to prevent hostile takeovers by foreign or domestic companies (article 685a of the Code of Obligations).  Hostile takeovers can also be annulled by public companies under certain circumstances; the company must cite in its statutes significant justification (relevant to the survival, conduct, and purpose of their business) to prevent or hinder a takeover by a foreign entity.  Furthermore, public corporations may limit the number of registered shares that can be held by any shareholder to a percentage of the issued registered stock.  In practice, many corporations limit the number of shares to 2-5 percent of the relevant stock.  Under the public takeover provisions of the 2015 Federal Act on Financial Market Infrastructures and Market Conduct in Securities and Derivatives Trading and its 2019 amendments, a formal notification is required when an investor purchases more than 3 percent of a Swiss company’s shares.  An “opt-out” clause is available for firms that do not want to be taken over by a hostile bidder, but such opt-outs must be approved by a super-majority of shareholders, and must take place well in advance of any takeover attempt.

Banking: Those wishing to establish banking operations in Switzerland must obtain prior approval from the Swiss Financial Market Supervisory Authority (FINMA), a largely independent agency administered under the Swiss Federal Department of Finance.  FINMA promotes confidence in financial markets and works to protect customers, creditors, and investors.  FINMA approval of bank operations is generally granted if the following conditions are met: reciprocity on the part of the foreign state; the foreign bank’s name must not give the impression that the bank is Swiss; the bank must adhere to Swiss monetary and credit policy; and a majority of the bank’s management must have their permanent residence in Switzerland.  Otherwise, foreign banks are subject to the same regulatory requirements as domestic banks.

Banks organized under Swiss law must inform FINMA before they open a branch, subsidiary, or representation abroad.  Foreign or domestic investors must inform FINMA before acquiring or disposing of a qualified majority of shares of a bank organized under Swiss law.  If exceptional temporary capital outflows threaten Swiss monetary policy, the Swiss National Bank, the country’s independent central bank, may require other institutions to seek approval before selling foreign bonds or other financial instruments.  Government deposit insurance of individual current accounts held in Swiss banks is limited to CHF 100,000 per client per bank.

Insurance: A federal ordinance requires the placement of all risks physically situated in Switzerland with companies located in the country.  Therefore, it is necessary for foreign insurers wishing to provide liability coverage in Switzerland to establish a subsidiary or branch in-country.

U.S. investors have not identified any specific restrictions that create market access challenges for foreign investors.

Other Investment Policy Reviews

The World Trade Organization’s (WTO) September 2017 Trade Policy Review of Switzerland and Liechtenstein includes investment information.  Other reports containing elements referring to the investment climate in Switzerland include the OECD Economic Survey of November 2017.

  • Link to the WTO report:

https://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/tpr_e/tp_rep_e.htm#bycountry 

Business Facilitation

The Swiss government-affiliated non-profit organization Switzerland Global Enterprise (SGE) has a mandate to attract foreign business to Switzerland on behalf of the Swiss Confederation.  SGE promotes Switzerland as an economic hub and fosters exports, imports, and investments.  Larger regional offices include the Greater Geneva-Berne Area (which covers large parts of Western Switzerland), the Greater Zurich Area, and the Basel Area.  Each canton has a business promotion office dedicated to helping facilitate real estate location, beneficial tax arrangements, and employee recruitment plans.  These regional and cantonal investment promotion agencies do not require a minimum investment or job-creation threshold in order to provide assistance. However, these offices generally focus resources on attracting medium-sized entities that have the potential to create between 50 and 249 jobs in their region.

References:

Switzerland has a dual system for granting work permits and allowing foreigners to create their own companies in Switzerland.  Employees who are citizens of the EU/EFTA area can benefit from the EU Free Movement of Persons Agreement.  U.S. citizens who are not citizens of an EU/EFTA country and want to become self-employed in Switzerland must meet Swiss labor market requirements.  The criteria for admittance, usually not creating a hindrance for U.S. persons, are contained in the Federal Act on Foreign Nationals (FNA), the Decree on Admittance, Residence and Employment (VZAE) and the provisions of the FNA and the VZAE.

Setting up a company in Switzerland requires registration at the relevant cantonal Commercial Registry.  The cost for registering a company is typically USD 1,300 – USD 15,200, depending on the company type.  These costs mainly cover the Public Notary and entry into the Commercial Registry.

Other steps/procedures for registration include: 1) placing paid-in capital in an escrow account with a bank; 2) drafting articles of association in the presence of a notary public; 3) filing a deed certifying the articles of association with the local commercial register to obtain a legal entity registration; 4) paying the stamp tax at a post office or bank after receiving an assessment by mail; 5) registering for VAT; and 6) enrolling employees in the social insurance system (federal and cantonal authorities).

The World Bank Doing Business Report 2020 ranks Switzerland 36th in the ease of doing business among the 190 countries surveyed, and 81st in the ease of starting a business, with a six-step registration process and 10 days required to set up a company.

Outward Investment

While Switzerland does not explicitly promote or incentivize outward investment, Switzerland’s export promotion agency Switzerland Global Enterprise facilitates overseas market entry for Swiss companies through its Swiss Business Hubs in several countries, including the United States.  Switzerland does not restrict domestic investors from investing abroad.

5. Protection of Property Rights

Real Property

Physical property rights are recognized and enforced within Switzerland, which currently ranks 18th out of 190 countries in the ease of transferring and registering property, according to the World Bank’s Doing Business Report 2020.

Intellectual Property Rights

According to the World Intellectual Property Organization’s (WIPO’s) World Intellectual Property Indicators, in 2018 Switzerland ranked 8th globally in filing patents, 11th in industrial designs, and 14th in trademarks, which reflects Switzerland’s overall strong protection and enforcement of intellectual property rights (IPR).

In 2020, Switzerland was removed from USTR’s Special 301 Watch List for revisions to its Copyright Act that came into force on April 1, 2020.  The revisions are intended to address specific difficulties in Switzerland’s system of online copyright protection, particularly regarding online infringement.  This is an important step after many years of engagement, and the United States will carefully monitor the implementation, interpretation, and effectiveness of the newly enacted legislation, as well as continue to engage with the Swiss government on these and other IP issues.

Federal customs authorities in Switzerland have the authority to seize counterfeit goods, upon request from the IPR holder or from related interest groups (e.g. professional associations).  Goods can be seized and held for 10 days if there is reasonable suspicion that they are counterfeit.  Provisional measures can also be obtained from a Swiss court to ensure evidence is not destroyed.  If the destruction of goods is requested by an IPR holder, the owner of the goods can dispute that claim in writing within 10 days.  In 2019, Swiss customs conducted 2,906 interventions to seize counterfeit commercial goods, up 73 percent from the number of cases in 2018.  The number of items seized rose from 14,388 in 2018 to 22,324 in 2019, most of which were counterfeit bags and watches.  In 2019, a total of 9,012 consignments of unauthorized pharmaceuticals were seized, the large majority of which were unauthorized erectile dysfunction medications from India and Eastern Europe.

Detailed information is available on Swiss Customs website:

https://www.ezv.admin.ch/dam/ezv/en/dokumente/stab/2020-fakten-und-zahlen.pdf.download.pdf/FaktenZahlenEZV_2020_WEB_en.pdf

For additional information about national laws and points of contact at local IP offices, please see WIPO’s country profiles at https://www.wipo.int/directory/en/ .

Resources for Rights Holders

Theodore Fisher, Economic/Commercial Officer
U.S. Embassy in Bern, Sulgeneckstrasse 19, 3003 Bern, Switzerland
+41 31 357 7011
Business-bern@state.gov

Country / Economy resources

Swiss American Chamber of Commerce
Talacker 41
8001 Zurich
+41 43 443 72 00
info@amcham.ch

7. State-Owned Enterprises

The Swiss Confederation is the largest or sole shareholder in Switzerland’s five state-owned enterprises (SOEs), active in the areas of ground transportation (SBB), information and communication (Swiss Post, Swisscom), defense (RUAG, which was divided into two companies in January – see below), and aviation / air traffic control (Skyguide).  These companies are typically responsible for “public function mandates,” but may also cover commercial activities (e.g., Swisscom in the area of telecommunications).

SOEs typically have commercial relationships with private industry.  Private sector competitors can compete with SOEs under the same terms and conditions with respect to access to markets, credit, and other business operations.  Additional publicly owned enterprises are controlled by the cantons in the areas of energy, water supply, and a number of subsectors.  SOEs and canton-owned companies may benefit from exclusive rights and privileges (some of which are listed in Table A 3.2 of the WTO Trade Policy Review – https://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/tpr_e/tp455_e.htm ).

Switzerland is a party to the WTO Government Procurement Agreement (GPA).  Some areas are partly or fully exempted from the GPA, such as the management of drinking water, energy, transportation, telecommunications, and defense.  Private companies may encounter difficulties gaining business in these exempted sectors.

Privatization Program

In the aftermath of a 2016 cyberattack, the Federal Council reviewed RUAG’s structure in light of cybersecurity concerns for the Swiss military, and decided in June 2018 to split the company. Swiss defense and aerospace company RUAG was split into two holding companies as of January 1, 2020.  One, MRO Switzerland, will remain state-owned and provide essential technology and systems support to the Swiss military.  The other, RUAG International, includes non-armaments aviation and aerospace businesses, and will be fully privatized in the medium term, according to the Swiss government.

8. Responsible Business Conduct

The Swiss Confederation and Swiss companies are generally aware of the importance of pursuing due diligence to responsible business conduct (RBC) and demonstrating corporate social responsibility (CSR).  In response to criticism from civil society about the business practices of Swiss companies abroad, the Swiss government commissioned a series of reports on the government’s role in ensuring CSR, particularly in the commodities sector, and in December 2016 published a national action plan in conjunction with its commitments under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (https://www.admin.ch/gov/en/start/documentation/media-releases.msg-id-64884.html ).  In June 2017, the Swiss government concluded that Switzerland promotes voluntary principles, such as the upholding of human rights standards, and also supports including mandatory CSR market incentives, such as minimum conditions for the protection of workers abroad, in forthcoming legislation.  In January 2020, the Swiss government approved the CSR Action Plan 2020-2023, which covers sixteen measures – particularly promoting sustainability reporting and due diligence by companies, stakeholder dialogue, and the alignment of private section CSR instruments with the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises.

The latest updates on corporate social responsibility are available on https://www.seco.admin.ch/seco/en/home/Aussenwirtschaftspolitik_Wirtschaftliche_Zusammenarbeit/Wirtschaftsbeziehungen/Gesellschaftliche_Verantwortung_der_Unternehmen.html 

There is ongoing political debate over whether Swiss courts should exercise jurisdiction over allegations of human rights and environmental abuses by Swiss companies abroad.  In March 2019, the upper house of the Swiss parliament (the Council of States) voted narrowly to reject talks on a proposal on responsible business put forward by the lower house (the National Council).  The National Council reaffirmed its proposal in March 2020, with some concessions. A planned vote by the Council of States was postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak, but was expected later in 2020.  The debate may culminate in an eventual referendum, known as the “Responsible Business Initiative” (RBI), in which Swiss citizens will decide whether to adopt or reject a partial revision of the Swiss Constitution that aims to introduce a specific provision on responsible business (https://www.bk.admin.ch/ch/f/pore/vi/vis462t.html ).

Switzerland ranked 1st out of 180 countries in the 2018 Yale University-based Environmental Performance Index (EPI).

The Swiss government implements the OECD Due Diligence Guide for Responsible Supply Chains of Minerals from Conflict and High-Risk Areas.  Switzerland is a member of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative and supports the Better Gold Initiative, which promotes responsible gold mining in Peru, with plans to expand to Bolivia and Colombia.  Switzerland’s Point of Contact for the OECD Guidelines at the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) may be contacted at: https://mneguidelines.oecd.org/ncps/switzerland.htm .

Information about the Swiss Better Gold Association: https://www.swissbettergold.ch.

Switzerland has signed a number of nonbinding agreements outlining best practices for corporations, including the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights and the International Code of Conduct for Private Security Service Providers.

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