8

The development of Swiss trading companies in the twentieth century

Sébastien Guex

Over the course of the twentieth century, Switzerland became one of the leading world centres of international trading. Swiss-owned trading companies, and foreign trading companies established in Switzerland, developed alongside the Swiss financial centre to produce an agglomeration of trading and financial markets and institutions in the country.

According to information given by the Swiss Commodities and Futures Association, for example, Switzerland was the ‘second centre in Europe, after Great Britain, for the trade of raw materials’ in 1985 (Easier Zeitung 27 March 1985). At this time, a statistical study of the leading international trading companies revealed that for each of twelve categories of products, extending from non-ferrous metals to grain, including petroleum, coffee and cotton, a Swiss company is included in half of all cases (Chalmin 1985:164). When the count was repeated five years later, with a much wider range of products, a Swiss company was named in one-third of all cases (Chalmin and El Alaoui 1990). Moreover, according to different estimates for around 1980, between 30 per cent and 60 per cent of the trading transactions on the international grain market were then conducted in Switzerland (Green and Laurent 1985:159; Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 10 January 1980; La Suisse, 17 October 1980). It is, therefore, unsurprising to discover that a specialist in the field has characterised Switzerland as the ‘true centre of world trade’ in grain, adding that Switzerland has the same function for several other products (Morgan 1980:159-60). A final example is the 1981 study by the CNUCED, which stated that Switzerland had become a ‘world centre for the trading of cotton and textiles’ (CNUCED 1981:67).

This ‘success story’ of the Swiss trading centre is even more remarkable when it is considered that it has been accomplished with neither colonial possessions nor any outlet to the sea. This double handicap was largely compensated for by a series of other advantages which will be examined in detail later in the chapter. For now, suffice it to say that the most important of these advantages were the relationship networks, established over several centuries, and Swiss political neutrality, especially military non-participation in the two world wars of the twentieth century. Of equal importance was the strength of the Swiss currency and the adoption of a tax system which looked

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