Hoping to build on their reputation for private banking leadership, Swiss banks are developing Internet capabilities for serving wealthy clients.
UBS-the product of the June merger of Union Bank of Switzerland and Swiss Bank Corp.-offers transactional Web sites for private banking, as does Credit Suisse. They allow for on-line inquiries, cash executions, and securities trading.
U.S.-based rivals like Chase Manhattan Corp. and Citicorp have some of those capabilities but only through dial-up personal computer links rather than the Internet.
Each of the Big Three Swiss banks invested more than $120 million in all types of private banking technology in 1997, according to Tower Group of Newton, Mass. The research firm estimated that amount to be about three times the largest investment made by a U.S. institution.
The Swiss investments could have a market-share impact. On the Internet they could export the geopolitical advantage of their privacy laws worldwide, said Doug Dannemiller, research analyst at Tower Group.
"In the past private banking had a focus on protection of assets against tumultuous markets and government interference," said Mr. Dannemiller. "The new definition of private banking is much broader, with technology playing a greater role in competition as service and convenience become more important."
"Our customers are choosing to go toward the Web," said Jamal Sadick, project manager of Direct Net, Credit Suisse's Internet-based private banking system.
Among the features offered by Direct Net are an integrated view of all account information, the ability to view transactions by effective dates and in different currencies, and the ability to make banking and trading transactions from an investment account.
"There are clients who are very interested in following their accounts on a daily basis, and there are clients who say, 'Take care of my money,' and they come back in a year to see what you have done with it," said Thomas Schneider, application manager for electronic banking at UBS.
"For the people who want to handle business on their own, they need the market information about their" accounts "so they can react," Mr. Schneider said.
Though some of these services are available through a phone call or with PC software using dial-up connections, transactions can be executed only in person or through the Web site.
The Swiss bankers have built high-level security into their sites to assure privacy and confidentiality for the very sizable transactions they allow.
The banks' sites require browsers capable of 128-bit data encryption, the most robust now available for international use and not subject to U.S. export restrictions. The technology was developed by R3 Security Engineers, a Zurich company bought last month by Entrust Technologies Inc., a leader in public key infrastructure systems.
The system uses three tiers of security more common to wholesale funds transfer operations: a customer number, a password, and a randomly generated code on a card-based device that changes every 60 seconds.
Chase Manhattan anticipates making private banking information available via the Web by yearend, said Richard Dolny, managing director of its global private banking group.
"The high end of the market is looking at technology as a more efficient way" of viewing their complete financial picture, he said.
"When you have significant assets," Mr. Dolny said, "your demand for information becomes that much more important."