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OPINION OF THE WEEK: Credit Suisse's Demise Puts Focus Back On Liquidity, Strength

Tom Burroughes

24 March 2023

Economists and investment advisors continue to ponder the impact of UBS’s acquisition of Credit Suisse last weekend, and details such as the price paid, the support of Swiss authorities and the controversial write-down of high-risk “Additional Tier-1” bonds. And people are also digesting how the US Federal Reserve this week hiked rates a further 25 basis points, suggesting that the central bank thinks the problems of banks such as Credit Suisse and Silicon Valley Bank aren’t sufficient reason to hold fire. The European Central Bank also hiked rates. 

The shock of seeing 167-year-old Credit Suisse go under, and be taken over by its larger rival, has still not fully sunk in. Thousands of bank employees around the world are likely to lose jobs – and we can expect recruiters to be busy in fielding queries from anxious people wondering how they are going to pay their mortgages and provide for their families. It is worth remembering, amidst all the drama about banks, bond deals, share valuations and regulatory failings that human beings’ livelihoods are on the line. And there is the tragedy – not to put too strong a word on it – of seeing a renowned financial institution go down. This news service has known many capable and hard-working Credit Suisse bankers down the years, and one feels wretched for them. The same applies for SVB.

Another issue that strikes this writer is how Switzerland now has only one universal bank left standing – UBS. While there are plenty of other banks in the country, such as Julius Baer, Vontobel, Pictet, Lombard Odier and Mirabaud, for example, the dominance in some ways by one bank must give those of a pro-competition frame of mind a moment’s pause. Maybe at some point down the line a new bank may arise to challenge the status quo. Why not? UBS will from now on be very much the face of Swiss banking – and that may not always be a comfortable place to be. In any event, UBS has acquired a set of issues that still need to be resolved, but also a firm with a solid domestic business, and a growing operation in Asia-Pacific. In Asia, in fact, UBS has been able to accelerate the build-out of its footprint there.

Chatting about these matters with my colleagues and people in the industry, it occurs to us that the Swiss external asset managers’ sector, and the EAM sector in other regions, could be one of the winners out of this. Clients of Credit Suisse or even UBS might wonder what sort of operation will emerge from a government-backed M&A deal, and instead prefer to go down a more independent route. Some disillusioned bankers might choose to set up EAMs of their own. After all, this is how many EAMs came to be in the first place. True, the business of forming EAMs has become more expensive and burdensome because of new rules on the space from the Swiss Financial Market Authority, aka FINMA. But a few groups of bankers, maybe working in partnership, might join existing EAMs or form their own. Watch this space.

Another probable outcome is that, just as in 2008-2009, clients and intermediaries will want to know more about the financial strength of banks before depositing money. We have seen that having a fat Common Equity Tier 1 ratio – the “buffer” capital of a bank – isn’t the only marker of health. The ability to stay liquid when the pressure is on is essential. With Silicon Valley Bank, for example, it appears that some pretty basic asset/liability mismatches over bonds and short-term deposits were a big part of the problem. Not all of these weaknesses are easy to spot at first glance. Advisors to HNW clients will need to find out new ways to check the health of banks. Think “KYB” – Know Your Bank.

The digitalization of the banking sector and other snazzy developments such as AI can obscure basic realities of banking. Whether a bank sits in a neoclassical stone-clad office in Zurich or Wall Street, or is a virtual entity appealing to youthful clients browsing a tablet computer, certain fundamentals remain. In the weeks and months ahead, let’s hope that people remember to heed Rudyard Kipling’s “Gods of the Copybook Headings” once more.