UBS confident about Credit Suisse deal despite ‘huge’ risk

At the Swiss bank’s annual shareholders meeting, the UBS chairman said the $3.25 billion takeover would close in the next few months but fully integrating the two institutions is expected to take three to four years

UBS Group former Chief Executive Officer Ralph Hamers speaks during the Annual General Meeting, two weeks after buying rival Swiss bank Credit Suisse, in Basel, Switzerland, April 5, 2023.
UBS Group former Chief Executive Officer Ralph Hamers speaks during the Annual General Meeting, two weeks after buying rival Swiss bank Credit Suisse, in Basel, Switzerland, April 5, 2023.PIERRE ALBOUY (REUTERS)

The UBS chairman voiced confidence Wednesday that the Swiss bank will succeed in a government-engineered takeover of hobbled rival Credit Suisse, pledging the deal will reduce costs, benefit shareholders and buttress Swiss finance despite “huge” risks in knitting the global lenders together.

Speaking to UBS shareholders, Colm Kelleher gave an overview of the 3 billion Swiss franc ($3.25 billion) takeover that he said would close in the next few months, alluding to the complexity of the first-ever merger of two “global systemically important banks.”

Swiss government officials and regulators hastily orchestrated the deal that was announced on March 19 after Credit Suisse’s stock plunged, and jittery depositors quickly pulled out their money.

Authorities feared that a teetering Credit Suisse could further roil global financial markets following the collapse of two U.S. banks.

“Whilst we did not initiate these discussions, we believe that this transaction is financially attractive for UBS shareholders,” Kelleher said at the annual shareholder’s meeting in the Swiss city of Basel. “I’m convinced that we made the right choice.”

Kelleher said fully integrating the banks is expected to take three to four years and that while UBS is “laser-focused on integrating Credit Suisse,” there are possible pitfalls.

“There is a huge amount of risk in integrating these businesses,” he said. “But let me assure you, we are doing everything to execute this deal in the best possible way in order not to let it compromise our financial strength or stability.”

UBS executives did not face the same outcry that Credit Suisse shareholders unleashed a day earlier at what was likely the 167-year-old bank’s last annual general meeting. On Tuesday, Credit Suisse Chairman Axel Lehmann acknowledged the anger and apologized for the failures leading up to the bank’s rescue.

The Swiss attorney general’s office has opened a probe into events surrounding Credit Suisse ahead of the UBS takeover.

Swiss regulators, meanwhile, said the takeover was “the best option,” with the least risk of fanning a wider crisis and damaging Switzerland’s standing as a financial center.

The merger “minimized risk of contagion and maximized trust,” said Urban Angehrn, chief executive of the Swiss Financial Market Supervisory Authority, or FINMA.

Angehrn said two other solutions — a takeover by the Swiss government or putting Credit Suisse into insolvency proceedings — had serious drawbacks.

Insolvency would have left the functional parts of Credit Suisse in operation as a Swiss-only bank, but one with a “damaged reputation” through bankruptcy, he told reporters in the Swiss capital of Bern. A temporary takeover by the Swiss government would have exposed taxpayers to the risk of losses.

“One can well imagine what devastating effect the insolvency of a big wealth management bank of Credit Suisse AG would have had on Swiss private banking,” Angehrn said. “Many other Swiss banks could have faced a bank run, just as Credit Suisse did itself in the fourth quarter.”

The world’s biggest banks, including Credit Suisse and UBS, are required to submit emergency plans for winding them up if they fail, emerging from international negotiations aimed at preventing a repeat of the 2008 global financial crisis triggered by the failure of globally connected U.S. investment bank Lehman Brothers.

Triggering such an emergency plan “would have achieved its immediate aim” of preserving payments and supporting the economy in Switzerland, Angehrn said.

“But the damage to Switzerland as a place to do business, to the reputation of Switzerland, to tax revenue and jobs, would have been enormous,” he said.

Shareholders did not get to vote on the merger after the Swiss government passed an emergency ordinance to bypass that step.

Kelleher acknowledged that the government-organized deal meant UBS shareholders could not be consulted before the takeover was announced.

“I understand that not all stakeholders of UBS and Credit Suisse are pleased with this approach,” he said.

At the meeting, UBS shareholders approved reelection of the board, compensation for executives and a 10% increase to the 2022 dividend, totaling $7.3 billion after the bank recorded a net profit of $7.6 billion last year.

“We have laid the foundation that now puts us in a position to stabilize Credit Suisse for the benefit of both banks and the Swiss financial center,” Kelleher said.

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