How Swiss banking went from a Rolls-Royce to a toxic mess
Swiss banking was long regarded as the Rolls Royce of finance – a byword for discretion, exceptional service and above all, safety.
But as Credit Suisse teeters on the brink, that reputation is so tarnished as to appear irrecoverable.
Instead, years of dysfunction and mistakes mean parts of the industry are becoming regarded as the biggest threat to financial stability in Europe since the 2008 crisis.
Credit Suisse could now be taken over by Swiss rival UBS in a deal brokered by the country’s regulators.
“When you have one or two issues, you might say it’s bad luck,” says Guy Ellison, an analyst at wealth manager Investec.
“But once you see a multitude of these reputational hits emerge, you have to suspect that it's something wrong within the structure, the governance within Credit Suisse, and the decisions that have been made about what risks it's been prepared to take.”
The Swiss banking industry started in the early 18th century and became a bolthole for wealthy international clients seeking a neutral home for their money.
As the country's reputation grew, and underground vaults were dug deep into the mountains to store gold and diamonds, the likes of Union Bank of Switzerland gained a reputation for security in times of crisis - as well as a willingness to deal with all sides when conflict broke out, giving the industry a mercenary reputation that it has struggled to shake off.
Credit Suisse itself was founded in 1856 and helped bankroll development of the country, funding its railways and even developing its currency system.
After the Second World War - when the industry was heavily criticised for accepting money from the Axis powers - there were a wave of mergers as Swiss financiers branched out into investment banking.
Credit Suisse launched a joint venture with US rival First Boston in the late 1970s, taking full control of the American bank in a rescue deal in 1990.
UBS was the result of a merger of two large banks – Union Bank of Switzerland and Swiss Bank Corporation – in 1998.
Three years earlier, Swiss Bank Corporation became a big player in investment banking after buying out S.G. Warburg & Co., a leading British firm in the sector.
This was perhaps the zenith of the industry. In 2008 it was rocked by the financial crisis. Credit Suisse, in particular, never seemed to fully recover.
The bank brought in Tidjane Thiam, former chief executive of FTSE 100 company Prudential, in 2015 to try and address the slide.
But in 2020 he was forced to quit after a corporate espionage scandal in which Credit Suisse hired private detectives to follow two outgoing executives.
The bank's next attempt at cleaning up its act was driven by a new chairman, Antonio Horta-Osorio, the former boss of Lloyds, but he was forced to resign after breaking Covid quarantine rules, including by attending Wimbledon finals.
Since then the lender has limped on under chief executive Ulrich Koerner - but doubts about its long-term stability have only grown greater.
In February, the bank posted a £6.5bn annual loss, its biggest since the financial crisis. Then last week it became the focus of a market sell-off when a delayed annual report revealed problems with its internal financial controls.
Credit Suisse’s shares have plunged 70pc in the past two weeks, rattling investors when it said it found “material weakness” in its financial reporting.
It is now likely to be taken over by UBS, but wider questions persist about whether the world’s wealthy will trust the Swiss ever again. The industry's customers, experts point out, have no difficulty moving their funds to other jurisdictions.
“It's unhelpful from Credit Suisse’s perspective that they have courted larger, internationally focused clients,” says Ellison.
“That means the size of the deposits is larger, but these are also international citizens. They can choose to bank wherever they want, and they can very quickly reconsider whether or not Switzerland is a market that they need to be in.”
Whatever happens now, Swiss banking’s standing is in tatters and it is hard to see how it can be regarded as a Rolls Royce again. “Clearly this hasn’t helped the reputation of Swiss banking,” says Ellison.
He says Credit Suisse’s problems have been well-documented for years, with its share price weakening over the past decade. This is just the final straw that broke the camel’s back.
He says the bank does not have a problem of solvency, but a problem of liquidity because of the pace of withdrawals being made. “It’s very hard once a run on a bank starts,” he says.
There are other looming problems, not least of which will be the cost to the Swiss government.
Credit Suisse and UBS will have a combined balance sheet worth £1.3trillion, twice the size of the Swiss economy.
Douglas McWilliams, deputy chairman of the Centre for Economics and Business Research, an economic consultancy, says it will be challenging and the state of Credit Suisse remains shrouded in mystery.
He says the “holes in the balance sheet” have not been entirely divulged, and if they are bigger than expected they could make it more difficult for the Government to step in.
McWilliams says he would expect UBS to have guarantees made by the Swiss Government so that if anything happens that they did not know about, UBS would not have to absorb the cost.
Ellison says the combination of the two biggest banks in Switzerland is not what regulators would want, but they have no choice.
Mergers between the two banks have been discouraged for years to preserve competition in the Swiss banking market.
But they may now be the only option to keep this increasingly tatty Rolls-Royce on the road.