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Saturday, 24 September 2011

High on a hill stood a lonely goatherd

I am not sure what the opposite of a fan (i.e. fanatic), but I have long been an "un-fan" of UBS.  This, let us remember, was the bank that managed in 2009 to come to a Deferred Prosecution Order with the US Department of Justice and book a $20 billion loss for the year.  To be engaged in criminal activity (tax evasion / money laundering) and still lose a shedload of money takes incompetence of the highest order.

Not that that was too surprising.  UBS has always had lousy head office management.  The original UBS was a combination of Swiss cantonal banks, who purchased Phillips & Drew, the London stockbroker, probably the only bit of quality in the organisation.  The bank was criticised by major Swiss investor Martin Ebner for its underperformance and lack of shareholder and after many years of harranguing by Ebner, UBS merged with with Swiss Banking Corporation, taking the U from UBS and the B and S from SBC to make a new larger bank called UBS.  This brought the additional merchant banking skills of Warburg, who had realised that merchant bankers braces and bullshit could be combined with commercial banks' balance sheets bearing to achieve the all important target: bigger bonuses.

The combined bank grew, acquiring Paine Webber and with it the former Kidder, eabody, and grew hoovering up talent from various second tier US investment banks, so that the US investment banking arm was like the Bolton Wanderes of Wall St., although the profitable part was probably the "Wealth management" (put all your cash in this holdall and we'll take it to Switzerland and hide the interest from Uncle Sam).

But all of these overseas mergers and acquisitions did nothing to improve the quality of the senior management back in Switzerland, who remained very much as though they were from the Aargauische Kreditanstalt or the Bank in Winterthur. While the world's financial press would lap up every word of JPM's Jamie, Goldman "partners" or the co-head of Pan Global Equities and Everything Else at Morgan Stanley, nobody gave a fig for the opinions of the Ulis, Hans-Ruedis and all the other spaetzli munchers, because all they knew about was the tax efficiency of bank secrecy.

Which is why the UBS risk management sytems were so bad in 2008 that the lost a bunch of money and decided to create a position for a "Chief  Risk Officer", which is probably something they should have had years ago.

Not that it did them any good. When the Kweku Adoboli multi-billion loss first surface, UBS Chief Executive said there would be a full investigation but he wouldn't be resigning over the issue commenting that “if someone acts with criminal intent, you can’t do anything.”

He got that wrong too.

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