Swiss lawmakers pick apart Credit Suisse woes ahead of deal

The country’s parliament is discussing accountability for long-troubled Credit Suisse, state emergency funds for the merger with UBS and what it will mean to have one giant bank

Alain Berset
Swiss Federal President Alain Berset, front, attends an extraordinary session of the Federal Assembly in Bern, Switzerland, on April 11, 2023.Associated Press/LaPresse (Associated Press/LaPresse)

Switzerland’s parliament opened a special session Tuesday to scrutinize the state-imposed takeover of Swiss bank Credit Suisse by rival UBS — and consider strengthening the legal arsenal to better gird against financial blowups.

The debate could run up to three days, with lawmakers voicing — and needing to iron out — disagreements over the 3 billion Swiss franc ($3.25 billion) fusion of Switzerland’s top two banks, a thunderclap for a country that prides itself on finesse and acumen in finance.

Swiss authorities stepped in as shares of Credit Suisse plunged last month and depositors pulled their money after the failure of two U.S. banks sparked concerns about the stability of global financial system and the long-troubled lender. Credit Suisse is among 30 “globally systemically important banks,” and authorities worried about the fallout if it were to fail.

“The situation on the financial markets has calmed down, but it is not fully stabilized, and our country — Switzerland — has emerged shaken by this painful episode,” Swiss President Alain Berset said at the session.

He said lawmakers would need to ensure that the legal framework was “as solid as possible to prevent this kind of crisis from happening again.” The executive branch also would look into “too big to fail” rules for key banks passed after the 2008 global financial crisis that may need changing, Berset added.

Lawmakers also are considering accountability for Credit Suisse and concerns about thousands of expected job cuts and looking at state-backed guarantees of over $100 billion aimed at holding the bank together until the merger is completed and buttressing UBS against possible losses.

They also are debating what it will mean for Switzerland to have one giant bank.

Johanna Gapany, a centrist lawmaker and rapporteur for the upper chamber’s finance commission, said the parliamentary panel had made three main proposals: change competition rules in light of the emergence of megabank UBS, examine how Credit Suisse executives might be held accountable and block the executive branch from unilaterally releasing more emergency funds for the rescue plan.

The proposals showed a “clear intention to not only prevent this situation from happening again, but to make sure that the solution protects the interests of citizens as much as possible — thus by taking the least risk with the guarantees that have been provided,” Gapany said.

Despite the talk, few concrete results were expected from the session, which is primarily to flesh out ideas — and possibly some vitriol — from lawmakers who all face reelection this fall.

Yvan Lengwiler, an economics professor at the University of Basel, suggested that the debate would play into a longtime “tug-of-war” between lawmakers who have lobbied in favor of Swiss banks over the years and others who have long sought to stiffen regulation.

“It seems that the pendulum, after this debacle we’ve seen, has clearly shifted towards strengthening,” he said. “Two years from now … the political situation might be very different, and it could be quite difficult to get this through parliament.”

Jakob Stark, an upper-house lawmaker from the populist, right-wing Swiss People’s Party, said the rescue of Credit Suisse was “was probably right and ultimately unavoidable” but that the Swiss Financial Market Supervisory Authority — known as FINMA — must become “more decisive.”

“It should, for instance, get the authority to impose fines, but then it should also really impose the fines, and particularly on the big institutions,” Stark said of the regulator. “My feeling is that it was too considerate toward Credit Suisse, perhaps because of a legal basis that wasn’t sufficiently clear.”

The Swiss attorney general’s office has already opened a probe into events surrounding Credit Suisse ahead of the takeover, and the executive branch last week ordered tens of millions in cuts to the bonuses of top Credit Suisse executives.

Lawmakers largely were expected to line up behind the rescue plan — even if reluctantly for some — and were not yet expected to authorize a parliamentary investigation of the epochal rescue of Credit Suisse, a 167-year-old pillar of Swiss banking.

Lengwiler, who specializes in financial market regulation, noted that the combined bank will have a balance sheet that will be twice as large as Switzerland’s annual economy.

That’s nothing new: Both Credit Suisse and UBS had bigger balance sheets than the Swiss economy before the 2008 financial crisis. But this combined bank will be unprecedented in size and heft, presenting new challenges for government officials.

“What’s new here is that it’s the only kid on the block now,” Lengwiler said. “UBS is really the only game in town and … has become extremely dominant, and that is a problem for Switzerland.”

“It’s maybe too large for the country,” he added.

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