20th May 2024

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Business Industry and Financial

How will UBS strip back Credit Suisse’s investment bank?

In the days after agreeing to rescue Credit Suisse, UBS executives rushed to assure investors they would not let their rival’s scandal-plagued investment bank infect their own.

With the takeover complete, UBS is now embarking on a project few have succeeded in doing before: stripping the lossmaking and capital-intensive business back to its bare bones.

“If UBS proves they can crunch down Credit Suisse’s balance sheet in a value-neutral way it could have big consequences for the banking sector as a whole,” said Justin Bisseker, banking analyst at fund manager Schroders.

“Could the likes of Barclays or Deutsche be inspired to collapse their underperforming investment banks if there was no value drag?”

More than three months after the shotgun wedding was agreed, there are still few details about what UBS intends to do with Credit Suisse’s investment bank beyond the target for the combined investment banking businesses to account for no more than 25 per cent of risk-weighted assets.

At the end of 2022, both UBS and Credit Suisse had investment banks that accounted for about 30 per cent of group RWAs. Assuming Credit Suisse’s business bears the brunt of the cuts, its RWAs could drop by two-thirds.

Analysts and shareholders are expecting UBS to provide more clarity when the bank reports its delayed second-quarter results on August 31. They have already begun speculating about the fate of a business that employs thousands of bankers, has hundreds of billions of dollars of leveraged exposure and was the source of so many of its crises in recent years.

The task of overseeing the wind-down has been handed to Bea Martin, the former UBS group treasurer, who combines her new role as head of non-core and legacy with being president of Europe, Middle East and Africa.

While the likes of Deutsche Bank and Royal Bank of Scotland have hacked back their investment banks over the past decade, UBS’s task is more daunting given it is merging two businesses at the same time and also dealing with the riskier products that Credit Suisse offered.

“Credit Suisse was more exotic and had a higher risk tolerance compared to UBS in a big way,” said a person involved in the wind-down plans. “UBS is also dealing with different systems, people and culture — which all creates added layers of complexity.”

Divergent fortunes

A comparison of the two investment banks highlights the differing paths of UBS and Credit Suisse in recent years.

Based on first-quarter results, the UBS business generated more than twice the revenues of its former competitor but with just 24 per cent higher costs, resulting in UBS’s investment bank producing a $2.1bn profit, compared with a $1.4bn loss at Credit Suisse.

Since the global financial crisis, UBS has been restructuring its investment bank to service its much bigger wealth management business, focusing on areas such as equities, foreign exchange and certain underwriting and advisory services.

UBS’s investment bank has accounted for 25-30 per cent of the wider group’s profits since the bank cut back its fixed-income division a decade ago.

Credit Suisse has belatedly tried to follow a similar strategy but its investment bank has weighed it down over the past five years with an aggregate $2.8bn loss over the period, thanks to a litany of trading losses, regulatory fines and legal expenses.

Two years ago it suffered the biggest trading loss in its 167-year history following the collapse of family office Archegos Capital Management. The initial $5.5bn hit is set to be exacerbated by fines, the Financial Times reported last week, with regulators having concluded their investigations into the case.

The business was also embroiled in a string of ill-fated deals, including its involvement in the $2bn Mozambique “tuna bonds” scandal.

Despite some attempts in recent years to de-risk and shrink the investment bank, Credit Suisse’s main problem was that the areas it excelled at — such as high-yield and securitised products, leveraged finance and certain advisory markets — were of little interest to its wealth management clients.

“Most of this business, which was already undergoing an extensive restructuring, is likely to be radically downsized or closed,” said Nicholas Watts, banks analyst at Redburn, the Rothschild-owned research business.

He predicted that by 2027, UBS will have slashed 85 per cent of jobs and costs from Credit Suisse’s investment bank, meaning 14,500 bankers and $4.7bn of expenses would go.

A person with knowledge of UBS’s plans said fewer investment bankers would lose their jobs, while another added that the number of redundancies from the combined group would be about 20,000 of a total workforce of slightly more than 100,000 but cautioned that it was too early to outline final numbers.

Johann Scholtz, banks analyst at Morningstar, expected even heavier cuts. Of the $8bn overall reduction in spending UBS has earmarked from the takeover by 2027, he predicted 70 per cent — or $5.6bn — would come from Credit Suisse’s investment bank.

“Reducing the size of Credit Suisse’s capital-hungry investment banking operations will release significant capital that UBS can return to shareholders,” he added.

As part of its strategic review unveiled late last year, Credit Suisse set up the non-core unit — a “bad bank” to wind down exposures in unwanted businesses and release capital. UBS will use this as the basis for its own plans to reduce its former rival’s investment bank.

“Credit Suisse used the NCU as a capital optimisation strategy — the intention was to release capital rather than eliminate business that were non-core — and they executed it very slowly,” said the person involved in the wind-down plans.

“For UBS, the NCU will be the starting point, plus on top a bunch of businesses that remain in the Credit Suisse investment bank that UBS does not want, such as leveraged finance, complex derivatives and loans in countries where UBS does not have a presence.”

They added that while Credit Suisse had $130bn of leverage exposure in the NCU, that could rise to between $250bn and $300bn after UBS decides where to cut back.

UBS executives secured an agreement whereby the Swiss state would provide up to SFr9bn ($10bn) to cover losses associated with the wind-down after UBS had borne the first SFr5bn.

The terms were struck in mid-March, at the height of a banking crisis that followed the collapse of US lender Silicon Valley bank. Since then markets have calmed and UBS executives are keen to avoid using taxpayers’ money for a deal that is unpopular domestically.

“UBS will be hesitant to use these support measures, as . . . it could limit UBS’s options when it comes to returning excess capital to shareholders,” Scholtz added.

Picking and choosing

There are some bits of Credit Suisse’s investment bank that UBS would like to retain, however. These are mostly in areas of banking and advisory that are high-growth and where business founders can be persuaded to become wealth management clients.

For sectors such as technology and pharmaceuticals in the US and Asia-Pacific, UBS has made generous offers to retain a select group of Credit Suisse bankers, according to people familiar with the plans.

“Credit Suisse, from its First Boston and Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette heritage, has exceptional capabilities and presence across the Americas, particularly across investment banking,” said a person with knowledge of UBS’s plans. “The acceleration of our strategy in the US represents one of the most exciting aspects of the integration.”

UBS has also taken advantage of disquiet at Barclays by poaching at least 10 senior investment bankers in New York, according to people familiar with the moves.

“UBS has been very aggressive on hiring for certain roles,” said a headhunter involved in some of the negotiations. “There are certain people who have been on their radar for a few years and now UBS are striking hard.”

Given the size of the task ahead, UBS chair Colm Kelleher has said the integration of Credit Suisse could take up to four years. But the person involved in discussions with UBS over the wind-down said the process could be much quicker.

“UBS has a strong management team, a large integration team and will be fully focused on being as speedy as possible,” they said. “I think they will deliver in two years.”

A rival banker who advises financial institutions added: “UBS are likely to approach this in the same way they dealt with SG Warburg 25 years ago — they will take the best people and close everything else down. But the big difference this time is they are taking on idiosyncratic risks within the Credit Suisse business.”