ZURICH: Credit Suisse’s chairman apologised for taking the Swiss bank to the brink of bankruptcy, as he faced shareholder fury over the demise of the once proud flagship.
The hastily arranged takeover by Zurich-based UBS, for which Switzerland invoked emergency legislation, bypassed Credit Suisse shareholders, who would otherwise have had a say, and all but wiped them out.
Its final meeting of shareholders on Tuesday (Apr 4) marks an ignominious end to the 167-year-old bank founded by Alfred Escher, a Swiss magnate affectionately dubbed King Alfred I, who helped to build the country’s railways and then the bank.
Protesters gathered outside the concert venue where the meeting took place, with some erecting a capsized boat to depict the bank’s demise.
Inside, chairman Axel Lehmann issued an apology, saying he had run out of time to turn the bank around, despite his belief “until the beginning of the fateful week” that it could survive.
“I am truly sorry,” said Lehmann. “I apologise that we were no longer able to stem the loss of trust.”
After years of scandal and losses, Credit Suisse came to the brink of collapse before UBS rode to the rescue with a merger engineered and bankrolled by the Swiss authorities.
“Until the end, we fought hard to find a solution. But ultimately, there were only two options: Deal or bankruptcy. The merger had to go through,” Lehmann said.
Shareholder advisory firm Ethos decried the “greed and incompetence of its managers” as well as pay that reached “unimaginable heights”, as it prepared to challenge top executives at the meeting.
“Shareholders have lost considerable amounts of money and thousands of jobs are on the line,” it said.
FIRST PUBLIC ADDRESS
The meeting saw chairman Lehmann and chief executive Ulrich Koerner publicly address shareholders for the first time since the takeover.
Credit Suisse had been attempting to put the past behind it and restructure, before a shock triggered by the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank in the United States sent it into a spiral.
After a run on deposits, the Swiss government turned to UBS, which agreed to buy Credit Suisse for 3 billion Swiss francs (US$3.3 billion), a fraction of its earlier market value.
The move angered not only shareholders but many in Switzerland. A survey by political research firm gfs.bern found that a majority of Swiss did not support the deal.
“The government’s use of emergency powers to push this deal through goes beyond legal and democratic norms,” said Dominik Gross of the Swiss Alliance of Development Organisations.
“Swiss taxpayers too are on the hook for billions of francs of junk investments and yet the government, (regulator) FINMA and the central bank have given little explanation about the state’s 9 billion (franc) loss guarantee to UBS.”
One of the world’s biggest investors, Norway’s sovereign wealth fund said that it would vote against the re-election of Lehmann and six other directors, in a public show of protest.
US proxy adviser Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS) had earlier rebuked the bank’s management for a “lack of oversight and poor stewardship”.
In the lead-up to Tuesday’s meeting, Credit Suisse said that it had withdrawn certain proposals from the agenda.
Those include the discharge of management, which is typically a bellwether of confidence. It also ditched plans for a special bonus linked to the bank’s transformation plan.
Credit Suisse’s near collapse also wiped out US$17 billion of Additional Tier 1 (AT1) debt.
A group of AT1 investors has hired law firm Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan to demand compensation.
Meanwhile, the office of the attorney general on Sunday said that Switzerland’s federal prosecutor had opened an investigation into the Credit Suisse takeover.