A heavy loss at UBS's investment banking arm is unlikely to cause serious problems for the Swiss firm's wealth management arm, figures in the industry say.
The last three years have not been kind to
Lurching from one disaster to the next, Switzerland’s largest bank
seems rarely out of the headlines. Unfortunately this is a trait
incompatible with the discretion-loving ideology of Swiss private
Last week’s rogue trading scandal cost UBS an eye-watering
billion (not to mention possible losses due to reputational damage), and
has wiped 11 per cent off the bank’s share price. Top private bankers
may trigger outflows by jumping ship if the loss eats into their bonus
pool, say headhunters. Critics believe the saga could be the final straw
for wealth management clients, who, spooked by the ostensible lack of
risk controls, may exit in their droves.
“The apparent failure of the bank's control systems in this
is a real worry to clients as such a failure could severely damage the
stability of the bank.” said David Scott, a former UBS private banker and founder of boutique manager Vestra Wealth.
UBS is doing all in its power to stem departures. Chief executive
Oswald Grübel wrote to private clients on Friday to reassure
them that the loss racked up by 31-year old "Delta One" trader
affected only the investment bank and not the bank’s wealth management
division. “Your assets are safe with us,” he said. In the letter he
asserted that UBS is “one of the world’s best capitalised banks.” Grübel
is expected to send out a second supplication to clients this week.
But perhaps counter-intuitively, some believe Grübel has little
fear – at least in the wealth management quarters. The saga is unlikely
to result in large numbers of UBS wealth management clients closing
accounts, according to Sebastian Dovey, managing partner at Scorpio Partnership.
“UBS remains a resilient business. For the present, this appears
be an investment banking-related event. If there is a fundamental change
in the business structure of UBS Group then possibly private clients
will re-evaluate. But at this moment in time, it is most likely going to
be isolated,” he said.
There are three fundamental reasons why clients may stay.
Clients have high pain thresholds
Firstly, one could argue that UBS’ more skittish clients will
have left long ago. Some will have left when UBS had to bailed out by
the Swiss government after sustaining heavy losses due to toxic
sub-prime mortgages. Others went when it was fined $780 million by the
US authorities to settle civil and criminal charges related to its
alleged role in helping US citizens evade taxes. Other clients left when
UBS was forced to surrender 5,000 client accounts to the US government.
Still more left when UBS had to close down its US offshore client
business – well over 2,000 have closed their accounts over the last
The ones who have stayed loyal to UBS are clearly unfazed by the odd scandal, said Scott of Vestra.
"There will inevitably be some movement from people who have
feeling nervous about the eurozone anyway. But a large exodus of clients
from UBS is unlikely. Most of UBS' clients should by now be used to the
bank being in the news for the wrong reasons. Unfortunately UBS has
been hit by a number of scandals so this is not the first time in recent
months its reputation has taken a battering,” he added.
Scott said that some clients will regard it as a criminal act
can happen and has happened to others before, while others will be
placated by the fact that no client money is affected.
And some clients, like the entrepreneurs, ultra rich and
offices which operate more like mini institutions, will still find that
UBS is one of the few banks to offer effective cross-collaboration
between divisions - something tried by many but successfully implemented
Better the devil you know
The second reason why clients may stick with UBS is their lack
alternatives. Christian Nolterieke, managing director of
MyPrivateBanking.com added that as far as private clients are concerned
in today’s volatile environment, it is better the devil you know. “In
the current tumultuous stage of the markets, all of UBS’ competitors are
subject to bad news for one reason or another. At least UBS is not in
the headline as a potential candidate for bankruptcy.”
Equally, the practical implications will dissuade many. Changing
accounts is a big hassle. If there is little to distinguish one
troubled bank from another, why go through the time and energy spent on
changing your account?
The shrinking investment bank
Savvy clients may also realise that in the long term the scandal will be good for the wealth management division.
head of UBS investment banking business, is planning to accelerate the
overhaul of the non-core divisions and higher-risk activities like fixed
income trading and equities, according to a report in the Financial Times.
Before the scandal broke, UBS had already started a review of
investment banking operations after a moribund set of first half
results. It said in June that it intended to refocus on its private
banking operations, and support its growing franchise in Australia and
Asia. If the rogue trading saga prompts a faster overhaul of the
investment banking activities it could prove pivotal in the progress of
the wealth management unit, say analysts.
“The exit from non-core businesses within the investment bank,
as Delta One, could be accelerated, thereby reducing risks and freeing
up capital. While we do not advocate a complete separation of the
investment bank, a more focused approach to client flows, wealth
management and capital . . . could be implemented,” said analysts at
Swiss bank Vontobel.
Others say the investment and private banking divisions could
separated as a result of the saga. Switzerland's two biggest political
parties, the Swiss People's Party and the Social Democrat's Party, are
lobbying the bank to split the divisions.
“Looking back, the investment banking unit has brought UBS
billions and billions of losses and so much bad press in the last
decade. The sooner UBS focuses purely on its core competence and brand
of wealth management the better,” said Nolterieke.
Still, it’s an expensive learning curve.