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The Game of Thrones at Credit Suisse
21/04/2017 , Freddie Pooter

Events at Credit Suisse, our Paradeplatz pals tell us, are becoming rather akin to a more lurid episode of Game of Thrones, the TV fantasy drama which sees plentiful bloodletting and sundry treachery as the dynastic families scheme for power. 

All that is missing so far are rather nice naked ladies and colourful CGI dragons, but give it time, we are assured by our Zurich chums.

Still, we must stress that it is difficult to work out what is really happening in the gloomy corridors of Castle Suisse, such is the extent of current over-excited rumour and speculation.

Can it really be true that CS chief executive Tidjane Thiam is not speaking to chairman Urs Rohner, as the men find it difficult to say hallo or even shake hands?   For Urs was a key figure in attracting Tidjane to CS from his previous job as head of the Prudential.

We can hardly credit this story of enmity and if there is even a smidgeon of truth, then surely Swiss regulator FINMA must pay attention under its remit to ensure good governance at important Swiss banks.

For effective governance is something that CS has been rather short of lately, it seems.   Firstly, there is the fresh embarrassment of further inquiries into suspect tax-lite transactions by CS clients – raising for the Swiss banking industry the nightmare of a whole new programme of punishment by its neighbours.

So far, CS offices in the Netherlands, France and the UK have searched by regulators in coordinated raids. That prompted CS quickly to take out double-page ads in several big newspapers, stressing that it applied a “zero tolerance policy” on tax evasion. 

Until the investigations are concluded, CS must be declared innocent until proved guilty. Even so, after billions in fines for past wrongdoing, including a whopping $2.6 billion punishment by the US for aiding evasion, it is hard to conclude that someone high in the bank had to be asleep at the wheel in the light in view of the latest revelations.

Iqbal Khan, head of CS international wealth management has declared that none of the assets seized in the raids came from the bank itself. Iqbal, a nice Swiss-Pakistani chap, may still be left carrying the can for this embarrassment, which would be a real shame.

Meanwhile, a safe bet would appear to be that CS faces a whole lot of expensive new fines if extensive evasion is found.  This would not exactly be helpful, considering that the bank lost CHF 2.7 billion last year and its share price has halved.

In the grand tradition of big banking, however, Tidjane and colleagues in the CS executive suite still considered it reasonable to pay themselves handsome bonuses for 2016. Important CS shareholders then got a tad peeved, with the result over Easter that these bonuses are to be pared back by 40 percent.

So it seems the future of Credit Suisse will very much come down to the outcome of the struggle between Messrs Thiam and Rohner – the former originally from the Ivory Coast and the latter a sober Swiss lawyer.  Forces are being marshalled in support of both men.

Influential Swiss pension fund adviser Vincent Kaufmann, of the Ethos Fund, wants Urs Rohner removed, charging that he is the wrong man to head the bank. Adding to the pressure, US-based group Glass Lewis is mounting a challenge to the re-election of several directors the CS board later this month, mainly those concerned with executive compensation.

In additional Tidjane & Co are alleged to have been waging a campaign in the major Anglo-Saxon business newspapers, with coverage spun to promote their cause. Urs Rohner is, so it is said, finding himself outclassed.

New directors for the CS board are being put forward at the impending Zurich annual meeting.  They include Alexandre Zeller or Andreas Gottschling; both are regarded as possible successors to Rohner.  Zeller most recently chaired stock exchange operator SIX's board, while Gottschling is a risk specialist and former consultant.

But in a real “Thrones” twist, perhaps a last minute solution could be found – a merger with Julius Baer. Talk of such a merger is one of the oldest chestnuts in Swiss banking but perhaps it’s time that the beleaguered CS cleaned house - and executive ranks - with a big deal.   Absorbing Baer, a pure-play private banking force, would help CS catch its old rival, UBS.

What would be in it for Baer, where chief executive Boris Collardi can rightly claim success for Baer’s progress?   Boris took over Baer in 2009, when only 35.  He has since doubled his bank in size with aggressive acquisitions.  

Would Ferrari-loving Boris, with a somewhat controversial recent past, be acceptable as the new leader of CS?  He spent 12 years at CS in Europe and Asia, with roles including chief operating officer and chief financial officer of EMEA private banking. So he knows the ropes. 

And a big acquisition premium could prove attractive to Baer shareholders as any deal would almost be a merger of equals, given CS’s sad state.

Someone in post like Boris, as a real banker and not a corporate executive timeserver would be infinitely better than the current distracting jousting for the Iron Throne of Castle Suisse.

Pip pip
 

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