How Credit Suisse’s 166-year history ended

Government-brokered sale to UBS marks final fall from grace

The global headquarters of Swiss bank Credit Suisse in Zurich, Switzerland. Getty
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Credit Suisse, once one of the stalwarts of the global financial system, is no more.

After tense talks at the weekend, UBS agreed to buy Credit Suisse in an all-share deal for about $3.25 billion, less than the market value of troubled US lender First Republic Bank.

The government-brokered sale marks the Swiss bank’s final fall from grace, succumbing to a crisis of confidence that threatened to spread to global financial markets.

For 166 years, Credit Suisse helped to position Switzerland as a linchpin of international finance and went toe-to-toe with Wall Street titans before a steady drumbeat of scandals, legal issues and management upheaval undermined investor confidence.

While the decay was years in the making, the end came quickly.

In the aftermath of the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank 10 days ago, long-suffering Credit Suisse quickly became a focal point of concern.

After top shareholder Saudi National Bank told Bloomberg Television on Wednesday that it would “absolutely not” invest more in the lender, a rout was on.

A $54 billion financing backstop from the Swiss central bank — sealed in the dead of night on Thursday to calm jitters — failed to become the lifeline Credit Suisse had hoped. With the country’s banking sector at risk, Swiss authorities stepped in to push UBS to become a reluctant white knight.

The Swiss government “regrets that CS wasn’t able to master its own difficulties — that would have been the best solution,” Finance Minister Karin Keller-Sutter said at a press conference in Bern on Sunday. “Unfortunately, the loss of confidence from the markets and customers was no longer able to be halted.”

Designated as one of the world’s 30 systemically important banks, Credit Suisse is the biggest casualty of the financial turmoil triggered by central banks as they tighten monetary policy to rein in inflation. While concerns about further contagion are sure to persist, the sale to UBS avoids a disorderly collapse.

Before the global financial crisis — which Credit Suisse survived without a bailout, unlike many of its peers — the Swiss lender had more than $1 trillion in assets, but after years of decay, they’ve dwindled to about $580 billion, roughly half of UBS’s.

“Let us be clear, as far as Credit Suisse is concerned, this is an emergency rescue,” said UBS chairman Colm Kelleher, who will remain in the role after the transaction.

For Switzerland, the blow could be significant. Home to 243 banking groups and 24 branches of foreign banks, the country’s stability and wealth is largely reliant on the finance industry.

The combined assets of UBS and Credit Suisse are roughly double the size of Switzerland’s gross domestic product, and Sunday newspapers, from tabloids to broadsheets, were filled with stories about the looming demise of a national symbol.

Credit Suisse chairman Axel Lehmann, left, and his UBS counterpart Colm Kelleher attend a news conference in Bern, Switzerland. Reuters

Even as market anxiety intensified, Credit Suisse insiders acted as if they could still control the situation.

Although the mood was sombre, managers organised town hall meetings to quell employee fears and investment advisers fielded calls from clients to discuss liquidity concerns, according to sources.

But in its hometown of Zurich, doubts and frustration were growing. Outside its headquarters on the stately Paradeplatz, someone scrawled: “The next bank to go bye bye?”

That question was later replaced by expressions of anger and disgust as reality gradually set in.

Over its history, Credit Suisse financed Alpine railroads and Silicon Valley’s development. It tended the fortunes of wealthy individuals — from Russia to the Arab world to the giants of Wall Street. But it struggled to control risk and consistently make money.

In recent years, the bank suffered a revolving door of senior management, with each leadership change putting more pressure on performance.

The stock has tumbled more than 95 per cent from its pre-financial crisis peak, and the lender was valued at a mere 7.4 billion Swiss francs ($8 billion) at the close on Friday — less than a tenth of the value of Goldman Sachs.

“In Zurich, we’ve had a ringside seat to this spectacular fiasco in slow-motion,” said Matthew Ruesch, founder and managing partner of Broad Creek Capital, a family office.

“We’ve watched the bank lurch from scandal to scandal for so long that it’s hard to recall all of them at this point.”

Burning bed

The seeds of Credit Suisse’s rise and eventual downfall were sown in the summer of 1990 when Rainer Gut, chief executive at the time, saw a chance to take control of the Swiss bank’s US partner, First Boston, in exchange for a modest capital injection and the backstopping of bad loans.

First Boston had embraced high-yield debt markets during the 1980s and lent billions of dollars to fund risky buyout transactions.

The once-lucrative industry had imploded, and one of the most problematic deals was a $457 million loan for the leveraged buyout of Ohio Mattress. The failed financing would go down in Wall Street infamy as “the burning bed”.

After the takeover, Credit Suisse embraced the same kinds of risky businesses — such as leveraged finance and mortgage-bond trading — that led to the burning bed deal.

Subsequent leaders of the Swiss lender pushed through numerous overhauls, eventually dropping the once-proud First Boston name in 2006.

The takeover was part of an aggressive growth strategy, including acquisitions of Swiss rivals, and the complexity kept growing. After succeeding Mr Gut as chief executive, Lukas Muehlemann bought Winterthur Insurance in 1997.

The Swiss bank then acquired Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette in 2000, but the deal for the New York-based investment bank turned out to be an expensive misstep, as several of DLJ’s top-producing bankers left for rivals in short order.

Winterthur was then sold in 2006 by Oswald Gruebel, chief executive at the time, who ran the bank alongside John Mack for a brief stretch. Frequent management changes created strategic turmoil at the top, while adding pressure on the rank and file to generate returns.

Cut and paste

In 2015, a fraud perpetrated by a private banker who had no clients and no banking experience before joining Credit Suisse was exposed.

In the aftermath of the market turmoil of 2008, Patrice Lescaudron — a soft-spoken Frenchman — started surreptitiously dipping into a wealthy client’s account, using the money to try to win back losses for other customers.

The deceptions were shockingly simple. He cut out the signature from a document, pasted it on trade orders and photocopied them, according to Lescaudron’s own admission.

There were red flags along the way, including verbal warnings and written cautions by supervisors in 2008, 2011 and twice in 2013 for breaching compliance policies. And yet Credit Suisse failed to stop him.

He was convicted of fraud in 2018 and took his own life in 2020.

As long as money was flowing, the bank indulged Lescaudron’s bad behaviour, according to an independent investigation commissioned by Finma, the Swiss banking regulator, although it stopped short of concluding that the bank knew of the fraud.

Boardroom spying

In January 2019, a long-festering feud between Tidjane Thiam, chief executive at the time, and Iqbal Khan, who ran wealth management and had his sights set on one day leading Credit Suisse, broke out into the open at a dinner in a wealthy suburb on Lake Zurich.

What started over a disparaging remark by Mr Khan about Mr Thiam’s garden evolved into a lurid corporate scandal, shattering the company’s reputation for discretion and exposing a culture in which personal vanities outweighed ethical and legal boundaries.

A few weeks after the dinner party, Mr Khan was passed over for promotion and then quit in July. When he later accepted a job at UBS, the move caused concern in Credit Suisse’s top ranks that he might poach key personnel. A private security firm was hired to monitor his activities, but was discovered by Mr Khan in an incident that led to a physical altercation.

Although the bank rushed to dismiss the embarrassing incident, it was soon revealed that it was not unique. Mr Thiam was forced out in February 2020, with Urs Rohner, chairman at the time, blaming “a deterioration in terms of trust, reputation and credibility among all our stakeholders”.

As part of an investigation prompted by the Khan episode, the Swiss banking regulator in October 2021 uncovered five additional cases of surveillance from 2016 to 2019.

The toxic atmosphere at the top contributed to damaging operational missteps.

Trading debacles

In March 2021, Credit Suisse’s trading desk was informed that its biggest client would not be able to pay the more than $2 billion it owed the next day.

Archegos Capital Management, the New York-based investment firm that managed billionaire Bill Hwang’s personal fortune, had spent the previous two days settling up with other lenders after outsize bets went bad, and there was not enough left for Credit Suisse.

The news set off a blame game internally, with executives in New York, London and Zurich turning on one another instead of focusing on damage control.

The headquarters of Swiss banks Credit Suisse, centre, and UBS, left, in Zurich, Switzerland. EPA

Rivals were quicker to sell off Archegos’s collateral, and it took about two weeks for Credit Suisse to come up with an initial tally of its exposure: $4.7 billion.

It would eventually grow to $5.5 billion, obliterating more than a year’s profit and tipping the bank into the existential tailspin that led to last week’s crisis of confidence.

Executives were already under fire for failing to protect the bank and wealthy clients from the collapse of a $10 billion suite of funds it ran with now-disgraced financier Lex Greensill.

The twin episodes shocked the finance world — but, in hindsight, they were decades in the making.

The bank’s complexity, culture and controls were to blame for the massive Archegos loss, according to an independent report into the collapse by law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison.

Credit Suisse had a “lackadaisical attitude towards risk” and “failed at multiple junctures to take decisive and urgent action”, the report concluded.

The bank responded with a series of measures to fix the shortcomings and vowed to use the ­incident as a “turning point for its overall approach to risk management.”

But time ran out.

Final plan

In October last year, the new leadership duo of chairman Axel Lehmann and chief executive Ulrich Koerner — who took charge last year after the fallout from the trading debacles — pitched a return to Credit Suisse’s Swiss roots as the best way forward.

They culled jobs and raised $4 billion in new capital. Most importantly, they planned to carve out the investment banking operations and eventually spin off the revived First Boston unit to end a three-decade effort to compete on Wall Street.

“The new Credit Suisse will definitely be profitable from 2024 onwards,” Mr Koerner said after presenting the restructuring plan. “We do not want to over promise and under deliver; we want to do it the other way around.”

But the world wasn’t standing still. The end of cheap money was over, the global economy was in turmoil, and investor confidence was scarce — a combination that proved too much for a bank that never really learnt its lesson from the global financial crisis.

“The banking sector isn’t like any other sector,” said John Plassard, investment specialist at Geneva-based Mirabaud. “Once trust is lost, you can’t just rebuild it.”

Updated: March 20, 2023, 4:12 AM

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