Why is UBS sticking with investment banking?

COPYING AND DISTRIBUTING ARE PROHIBITED WITHOUT PERMISSION OF THE PUBLISHER: SContreras@Euromoney.com

By:
Helen Avery
Published on:

Trading scandal raises further questions about validity of investment bank; Does the integrated model work for UBS?

"It’s sad that such a legend in Swiss banking has left the industry under the shadow of this trading scandal for which he was not responsible"

Following the departure of chief executive Oswald Grübel in the wake of a humiliating and costly control failure, UBS insists it is going to stick with investment banking. UBS group chairman Kaspar Villiger says: "The investment bank will continue to strengthen its alignment with UBS’s wealth management businesses, in addition to serving its corporate, sovereign and other institutional clients."

It raises the question: why?

The bank appears to believe that it needs an investment banking division at least big enough to be an execution desk for the private bank, otherwise that division will suffer as a price-taker from third-party providers. But the industrial logic seems questionable.

Grübel himself told Euromoney in 2010, one year after joining UBS, that what had most surprised him was the strength of its private banking franchise with high-net-worth and ultra-high-net-worth clients. He reasoned that they had been pulling their accounts only because the bank was losing money because of the investment bank’s excesses in the credit crisis and would come back to UBS as soon as it turned profitable. "No one likes a bank that’s losing money," Grübel said.

It took the firm until the final quarter of 2010 to re-establish net inflows of client money after the investment bank of UBS suffered $50 billion in write-downs from the financial crisis, necessitating a state rescue. Grübel had slowly given the industry a sense that risk management was being overhauled. Now, with a $2.3 billion loss from allegedly unauthorized trades on its synthetic-equity trading desk, UBS’s reputation has once again been badly damaged. The bank explains that the so-called rogue trader had built up speculative positions in stock index futures and then matched these with offsetting trades in forward-settling cash ETFs that turned out to be fictitious.

It explains its failure to secure confirmations of these trades by stating that this was not an established market requirement. But, following best practice rather than standard practice, many banks do require confirmations. UBS’s failure to match best practice, in light of its horrendous experiences in 2008, is baffling. The world’s wealthy must once again be wondering why they should entrust their riches to such an accident-prone institution.

Surely it would be easier just to get out of investment banking altogether?

"Does UBS need the investment bank to subsidize the wealth management operations? If that is the case, then one has to think they are not charging enough"

Bruce Weatherill, Weatherill Executive Consulting

Bruce Weatherill, founder of industry consultant Weatherill Executive Consulting

Bruce Weatherill, founder of industry consultant Weatherill Executive Consulting, who has been working in the wealth management industry for 30 years, argues that this desire for an integrated one-bank model is misplaced. "Only very rarely in my interaction with clients do they tell me that it is necessary for their wealth manager to have an investment bank," he says. "The main reason they choose a wealth manager is based on the financial strength of the organization and this has been threatened over the last few years by having an investment bank as part of such groups."

He adds that the concept of a wealth manager not being able to survive financially without an investment banking arm is also questionable from the viewpoint of clients. "Does UBS need the investment bank to subsidize the wealth management operations? If that is the case, then one has to think they are not charging enough for wealth management. If you have a good proposition in wealth management it pays for itself."

Operating profit from wealth management (including the Swiss bank) dwarfs that of investment banking – in the first two quarters of this year it was almost twice as much as investment banking. But wealth management profits have been dropping. Full-year 2010 operating profits from wealth management including the Swiss retail bank were SFr4 billion ($4.4 billion) compared with SFr6 billion for 2008.

The former head of a European private bank says that UBS has to keep its investment banking if it wants to stay ahead in wealth management. "Private banks have to offer some investment banking capabilities if they want to appeal to ultra-high-net-worth clients. If not, those clients will simply go elsewhere."

But he adds: "What UBS needs to do is understand that the investment bank is there to service their main business – wealth management. It really needs to reorganize and structure it so the investment bank is there integrated with, but ultimately reporting to, the wealth management business."

Weatherill argues that most investment banking lines are superfluous for private banking clients. "You don’t need M&A or corporate advisory, and these days there is no longer a need to be able to arrange IPOs for clients," he says. "If you’re just executing bonds at wholesale prices that is pointless too." He says the value lies in being able to offer value-added, high-margin structured products. "So yes, they need to keep some of it. I’ve no idea why they were still in proprietary trading, however."

Wealth management profits decline at UBS

Operating profit by business line 

Source: UBS 

Credit Suisse provides the best example of the integrated model. Grübel himself was responsible for building that strategy as group chief executive at Credit Suisse in 2006, alongside Brady Dougan, who then headed the investment bank. It has worked well, although whether that is attributable to the integrated model, or because of Credit Suisse’s position as being the Swiss private bank that did not need bailing out, is up for debate.

In an interview with Swiss business magazine Bilanz last month, Urs Rohner, chairman of the board of directors at Credit Suisse, said it is impossible to run the type and scale of global wealth management business that it does without a capital markets business and investment banking operation, particularly for entrepreneurial emerging market ultra-high-net-worth clients, the category with the most promising growth prospects, who require more than traditional investment products.

It was hoped that Grübel would emulate Credit Suisse’s success at UBS. But the two firms are very different.

A former colleague of Grübel says he probably did not know what he was taking on: "Grübel was always very open when he was put into UBS about how surprised he was that the investment bank and the private bank had been kept separate, with no joint oversight or strategy. He never hid the fact that there needed to be a big change if it was going to have an integrated model. No wonder he bowed out. He probably just got tired of the prospect of being at the reins of another big Swiss business realignment that would take many years. It’s sad that such a legend in Swiss banking has left the industry under the shadow of this trading scandal for which he was not responsible, however."

Behind the curve

UBS is still working out how to restructure so that the investment bank is just a tool of the wealth management business. Villiger says that from now on the investment bank will "be less complex, carry less risk and use less capital to produce reliable returns and contribute more optimally to UBS’s overall objectives". It seems rather late in the day for such piety. It was back in 2007 and 2008 that Credit Suisse moved to a capital-efficient and low-risk model and pretty well exited proprietary trading. UBS was behind the curve then and has been since.

Saying that the bank is going to keep on with investment banking is not enough to convince clients that the board of UBS has thought through its model. Grübel’s interim replacement, Sergio Ermotti and the board of UBS will have to explain in better detail, and quickly, what the relationship between the investment bank and wealth management business will be if they want to hold on to those high-net-worth clients. 

Related articles:

Why should UBS stick with investment banking?


Abigail with attitude: Chaos in the ranks at UBS


Risk managers lack tools to monitor rogue trading


Exclusive: UBS's operational risk management unit used rogue trader loss events data


UBS rogue trader exploited ETF settlement loophole


UBS loss is a body blow to the ETF lobby


Rogue trader scandals: roll-call of shame