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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

UBS chiefs see risks ahead in Credit Suisse takeover

A screen displays Lukas Gahwiler, the vice chairman of UBS, as he addresses the bank’s annual shareholder meeting near Basel, Switzerland, April 5, 2023. UBS faces big risks as it prepares to absorb its longtime archrival, Credit Suisse, the bank’s chairman warned shareholders at its annual meeting on Wednesday.

By Michael J. De La Merced

UBS faces big risks as it prepares to absorb its longtime archrival, Credit Suisse, the bank’s chairman warned shareholders at its annual meeting this week.

In his first address to UBS shareholders since the takeover of Credit Suisse was announced on March 19, Colm Kelleher, the chair, said that the $3.2 billion deal — brokered at the behest of the Swiss government — was the first to combine two banks designated by regulators as “systemically important.”

It was an acknowledgment that taking over Credit Suisse, which imploded during the recent banking crisis over long-standing concerns about its history of scandals and financial losses, will present challenges. In announcing the deal, the Swiss government said that it was prepared to support UBS with billions of dollars’ worth of financial guarantees. (That said, the deal values Credit Suisse at a fraction of where it had traded before the takeover was announced.)

“You cannot just put numbers together and reach a sum,” Kelleher told the more than 1,100 shareholders assembled at the St. Jakobshalle arena in Basel, Switzerland. “You have to understand that there is a huge amount of risk in integrating these businesses.”

UBS’ vice chair, Lukas Gähwiler, noted the speed with which the firm had to carry out the transaction. “We had only 48 hours to carry out our due diligence,” he said. “So many questions remain unanswered.”

At a news conference in Bern on Wednesday, the president of FINMA, Switzerland’s financial regulator, said that the agency had weighed putting Credit Suisse into bankruptcy before deciding that selling it to UBS was the best way to avoid disrupting Swiss and global financial markets.

Shotgun mergers to save failing banks have had a rocky history. JPMorgan Chase’s chief executive, Jamie Dimon, has complained publicly about the headaches and legal costs that came with acquiring Bear Stearns and Washington Mutual during the 2008 financial crisis. They are experiences that Kelleher, who was the chief financial officer of Morgan Stanley at the time, saw up close.

But UBS officials on Wednesday were also quick to argue that their firm — which was bailed out by the Swiss government in the 2008 crisis — was in a far stronger financial position. Unlike Credit Suisse, which lost billions in recent years from bad trading bets, UBS has focused mostly on managing the money of wealthy clients, a far less risky business.

Kelleher reiterated that his firm intended to close down huge swaths of Credit Suisse’s investment bank to continue UBS’ emphasis on more stable operations.

“Our strategy is clear and unchanged,” he said, adding that risk management and prevention of financial crime were key focuses of UBS’ board — perhaps an oblique reference to his fallen rival’s checkered history.

But UBS executives said it was too soon to say how many employees would lose their jobs as the two banks are combined. Vincent Kaufmann of the Ethos Foundation, a prominent shareholder, said in his appearance at the lectern, “We expect that UBS will show social responsibility by preserving as many jobs as possible.”

Wednesday’s event was far less solemn than Credit Suisse’s final shareholder meeting, held Tuesday in Zurich. At that gathering, speakers repeatedly took to the microphone to accuse executives of mismanaging the 167-year-old bank, an icon of Switzerland’s banking industry, into oblivion.

At the UBS meeting, some shareholders said they worried that the Credit Suisse takeover would create a single giant institution that would dominate Swiss banking. UBS officials pushed back against that criticism, arguing that the combined firm would still have to compete with scores of smaller banks.

Climate activists also made their presence known. Two demanded that the UBS board refuse to do business with fracking companies that it would inherit from Credit Suisse, a major financier of oil and gas companies. Others greeted incoming shareholders outside the arena with inflatable props and banners decrying “fossil banks.”

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