And there are still plenty of secrets to go around, with about 20,000 UHNWIs living in the world today, more than a quarter of them in the United States. Germany, say experts, is home to an impressive 1,150 UHNWIs. What they all have in common are personal assets of at least $50 million. For some time now, discreet crisis management has been in demand in their milieu. "We work like a coach who asks the right questions," says Weber.
Family-owned companies, in particular, "have faced difficulties," he says, adding that many are deeply in debt. "For instance, I am urgently seeking a buyer for an enormous art collection," says Weber, who only shows limited pity for his clientele.
There is a reason for his relative lack of compassion. Those affected by the financial downturn generally do not need to change anything about their lifestyle, as selling their villas or luxury cars would simply not bring in enough money, and the running costs represent a negligible share of their total income. And, of course, they can still afford to pay for the services of someone like Weber, even though the traditional culture of banking secrecy in his native Switzerland is gradually crumbling.
Weber takes a relaxed approach to his clients' problems. Most are from the Middle East, and although banking secrecy is of great concern to them, it is not because of its impact on taxes, but because of what Weber calls "protection of the private sphere." However the ban on minarets the Swiss recently approved in a referendum has not led to any significant withdrawals of assets from the country's banks, he says.
Weber is far more concerned about the illegal disclosure of data, as evidenced by recent cases involving the Swiss branch of Britain's HSBC and Liechtenstein's LGT Bank. In mid-2007, a former LGT employee sold account information to Germany's foreign intelligence agency, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), for about €5 million. A former employee of HSBC provided account information to the French government. Tax authorities in both countries have used the information to pursue tax evaders.
Weber's advice to banks is to defend themselves against such activities. "Account information should be linked to a code name and not the customer's real name," he says. To ward off illegal disclosures of information, he recommends that bank computers be equipped with neither CD burners nor ports for USB drives, and that documents not be removed from bank premises in all but exceptional situations.
But despite all precautions, Weber too was once the target of prying paparazzi, in an incident that involved a prominent royal family. As always, his meeting with his royal clients did not take place at the bank, but in a secret location. After a gala dinner that lasted several hours, Weber's team and his clients left the location shortly after midnight -- only to be confronted by paparazzi.
"A few days later, a photo of me with my clients appeared in a magazine," says the banker, recalling the mishap. From then on, every industry insider knew the identity of the royals whose assets he was managing.