GENEVA - Swiss banks are scrambling ahead of a December 31 deadline to decide whether to join a US programme aimed at zooming in on lenders that helped Americans dodge taxes.
Around 40 of Switzerland's some 300 banks have already said publicly they will take part in a US programme set up to allow Swiss financial institutions to avoid US prosecution in exchange for coming clean and possibly paying steep fines.
"What are the others going to do? That is the very big question," Swiss business lawyer Douglas Hornung told AFP.
Washington alleges that Swiss banks have helped US citizens hide billions of dollars in assets from tax authorities, in a row that has soured relations between the two in recent years.
The two countries reached a deal in August aimed at ending the dispute, piercing a significant hole in the tradition of secrecy upon which the Swiss banking industry was built.
The banks have until the end of the year to decide whether to fess up to potential wrong-doing and hand over their files to US authorities, and thereby shield themselves from legal action, or take their chances outside the programme.
Picking the wrong option could saddle a bank with crippling fines, fees or a US indictment.
Banks that opened undeclared accounts for US clients - especially the ones that actively wooed such clients - definitely should join the programme, experts say.
Washington in 2009 fined Switzerland's biggest bank, UBS, US$780 million (S$987 million) for complicity in tax evasion.
"If one of the 10 to 15 banks the US Department of Justice already has in its files does not show up..., you can be sure there will be a BOOM in January," Hornung said.