TIDJANE THIAM is not the first non-Swiss chief executive of Credit Suisse. His American predecessor, Brady Dougan, held the job for eight years. But Mr Dougan was an insider, having been at the firm for ages. Mr Thiam was anything but. A citizen of France and Ivory Coast, where he was a government minister in the late 1990s, he had been a consultant at McKinsey and had overseen the European arm of Aviva and the whole of Prudential, two British insurers. Before taking the top job at Credit Suisse in 2015, he had never even worked for a bank. Charming in person and intimidating and forceful by reputation, Mr Thiam walked straight into a tempest.
From the start he knew that Credit Suisse’s defences against disaster were uncomfortably thin. Its common equity tier 1 capital covered just 10.3% of risk-weighted assets (RWAs), less than at any of its peers. To bolster them Mr Thiam quickly raised SFr6bn ($6.3bn) in equity. Unleashing his inner consultant, he set about reorganising the bank’s structure, steering it towards wealth management and away from the riskier whirlpools of investment banking. Mr Thiam promised deep cost cuts from the start, when, he now says, “there is the greatest willingness to change and no ‘restructuring fatigue’”.
But within months a nightmare had unfolded. In the last quarter of 2015 Credit Suisse made a stonking net loss of SFr6.4bn, as it wrote down the value of its investment bank and was buffeted by trading losses. More cash glugged away when the bank settled American charges that it had mis-sold residential mortgage-backed securities a decade before. Another share sale, raising SFr4bn, ensued in 2017. With a mild whiff of desperation, Mr Thiam even proposed floating Credit Suisse’s sturdy domestic bank, an idea he later ditched.
The firm’s shares—and presumably Mr Thiam—still bear the imprint of those rights issues and write-downs. Their price is half what it was when Mr Thiam took over, and about 70% of tangible book value. The bank is still not free of legal and ethical shadows: it is being sued over loans in Mozambique before his time (see article).
Nevertheless, Mr Thiam has survived and now argues the worst is over. The restructuring programme was completed last year. The “strategic resolution unit” (SRU) housing dud assets, which once held a quarter of RWAs, has been closed. In the latest quarter the firm’s return on tangible equity (RoTE) climbed to 9.7%, roughly what investors regard as par for banks. Many European banks struggle to do as well (although Credit Suisse’s bigger neighbour, UBS, which shifted its weight from investment banking to wealth management a few years earlier, rang up 11.9%). The question now is whether the restyled Credit Suisse can progress from mere stability towards higher profitability and growth.
Mr Thiam may have studied engineering in Paris, but instead of elegant simplicity he opted for an unusual, complex and asymmetrical structure for the firm, based around five divisions. One houses a Swiss universal bank. Another contains all the Asian businesses. Three functional divisions cover the rest of the world—wealth management, investment banking and global markets (trading).
In total, markets-related activities accounted for half of RWAs in 2015. Now their share is just one-third. Reckoning that banks’ sales and trading revenues would stagnate, thanks to overcapacity and technological advance, Mr Thiam chose “not to be all things to all people and to have very low costs”. Growth would come instead from managing the assets of rich people—especially the very rich indeed. The trading platform would still be needed, but at a size to serve those clients.
He borrows a parallel from his former trade. Insurers prefer policies with repeated premiums to one-offs. Revenues from managing the assets of the wealthy, Mr Thiam says, recur like the former, because once clients place money with you, then, if you look after them, they tend to stay; trading revenues come and go like single premiums. Net new assets in wealth management in all territories have been growing at about 5% a year, and profits at 15%.
Mr Thiam’s aim to be “the bank for entrepreneurs”—both while they are making money and once they have made it—is the rationale for the dedicated division for Asia, which is minting billionaires fast. If you are a tycoon whose personal and business finances are intertwined, you might want to sell shares in your firm and invest the proceeds: why should you face the hassle of dealing with different parts of the firm? Being joined up works: about half of wealth-management inflows in Asia, Mr Thiam says, come from referrals by local investment bankers.
He had also bet on Asia at Prudential, trying to buy AIA, a big regional life insurer. But that was predicated on the growing mass of the region’s middle class. At Credit Suisse, he is after the truly rich. In Asia’s fragmented wealth-management market, Credit Suisse’s SFr219bn of assets, or a 12% share, ranks a healthy second, according to Magdalena Stoklosa of Morgan Stanley. UBS leads the pack.
Asia still accounts for just one-sixth of revenue and pre-tax profits. After decades of globetrotting, the anchor of the firm remains reliable Switzerland, which yields fully half of profits. The integrated Swiss bank reflects the same reasoning about entrepreneurs as in Asia, but in an economy with several generations’ start. Two-thirds of total growth in assets under management in the past three years, Mr Thiam says, has come from existing clients, which are also more profitable than new ones.
Yet with wealth on the up and trading in retreat, revenue growth has been sluggish. Profits have risen mainly because costs have been cut. Operating costs have been slashed by 18% in four years. Rather than shave budgets across the board, Mr Thiam canned whole activities, such as private banking in America. “Cost cuts have to be binary,” he says. Then fixed expenses, such as floor space and computer systems, can be got rid of. He has also become stricter about spending on contractors and consultants, bringing some in-house. Rather than worry about the ratio of cost to income, a standard gauge of efficiency, he sets absolute targets, so that increases in revenue go to profit rather than being spent. Budgets are still scrutinised in weekly meetings.
Though an outsider, Mr Thiam has relied mainly on insiders. He brought in Pierre-Olivier Bouée, the chief operating officer, a colleague at McKinsey and Aviva and his chief risk officer at Prudential, and Adam Gishen, the head of investor relations and communications, who advised him at the Pru. But he has mainly promoted from within, having decided that Credit Suisse already contained the right people, even if they were a rung or two from the top. The chief financial officer, David Mathers, has been in his job since 2010. That is unusual; incoming bosses at other troubled banks have swept away more senior people. One internal success, however, has turned sour: Iqbal Khan, the head of international wealth-management, left abruptly in July.
With its time in purgatory seemingly over, Credit Suisse is aiming to push its RoTE into double figures. Market conditions permitting, it aimed to breach 10% this year, but that now looks a stretch. With global interest rates falling, trade wars raging and markets jittery, the months ahead may be tricky for banks and wealth managers everywhere.
After four years, Mr Thiam is an outsider no more. Running one of Europe’s banks is a hazardous occupation: ask John Cryan, sacked after less than three years at Deutsche Bank in 2018, or John Flint, ousted from HSBC this month, after 30 years at the bank but a mere year and a half in the hot seat. Mr Thiam says he wants to become a Swiss citizen in due course. He was recently elected to the International Olympic Committee, based in Lausanne. Perhaps he will stay a while yet.■