UBS board considers investment bank's fate

SINGAPORE/ZURICH Fri Sep 23, 2011 6:09pm EDT

1 of 2. Swiss bank UBS Chief Executive Oswald Gruebel reacts during a news conference to announce his company's second quarter 2011 results in Zurich, July 26, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Christian Hartmann

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SINGAPORE/ZURICH (Reuters) - The board of UBS (UBSN.VX)(UBS.N) extended on Friday its meeting amid the glamour of Singapore's Grand Prix event to decide the future of its scandal-hit investment bank and CEO Oswald Gruebel, on whose watch it lost $2.3 billion in alleged rogue trading.

Top executives at the Swiss bank, which has staggered from crisis to crisis over the past three years, are under pressure to downsize or fence off risky trading activities and protect its core business of managing private investors' wealth.

"The meeting is not yet over. The board has only ended its meeting for the day," a UBS spokesman said.

UBS's board meeting, one of four regular meetings per year, had originally been due to end on Friday ahead of the UBS-sponsored Singapore Formula One motor racing Grand Prix on Sunday, when executives will be trying to reassure big clients.

"It's a sign that there's still big decisions on the agenda that haven't been made yet," said Sarasin analyst Rainer Skierka of the decision to extend the meeting.

UBS shares, which had touched their lowest level since March 2009 earlier in the session as stocks tumbled worldwide, were trading up 2.2 percent at 9.87 francs at 1412 GMT as markets turned positive on talk of European Central Bank action.

After the meeting a casually-dressed Gruebel -- a big motor racing fan himself -- declined to comment on his future.

Wearing a black polo shirt and khaki trousers as he crossed the lobby of Singapore's Ritz-Carlton hotel -- where the bank's top brass are staying -- Gruebel shook his head when asked by a reporter whether he could say anything.

Clients pulled nearly 400 billion Swiss francs ($442 billion) -- almost 20 percent of total client assets -- from UBS during the financial crisis as the bank was battered by subprime losses, a prolonged dispute with the U.S. tax authorities and the biggest annual corporate loss in Swiss history.

Under Gruebel's leadership, the bank's inflows have since turned positive but other private banks are now circling again to nab clients worried about reputational risk in the wake of the rogue trader affair.

The $2.3 billion loss allegedly caused by UBS trader Kweku Adoboli in unauthorized trades compares to the 4.9 billion euros

($6.6 billion) lost by rogue trader Jerome Kerviel at Societe Generale just three years ago, an event which prompted calls for tighter rules and felled that bank's then-chairman and CEO Daniel Bouton.

With his job now on the line, Gruebel, a former trader himself, was expected to urge the board to keep him and his 'integrated banking' strategy -- maintaining the investment bank which he placed at the heart of UBS' recovery when he took over in 2009.

A UBS source said the board meeting -- held in UBS offices at the exclusive Raffles Quay location -- would be given an update on its internal investigation into the trading debacle -- potentially helping it decide where the buck should stop.

Former UBS CEO Peter Wuffli was ousted unceremoniously at a board meeting in Spain in 2007 to coincide with the America's Cup yachting event there, in which UBS was sponsoring a team.

RISK CONTROL

The crisis has left Gruebel facing not only strategic issues, such as whether the bank should stick to its safer core wealth management business, but also concern about his management team and lax risk supervision.

The 67-year-old German delivered "a consistent message" throughout the week that the investment bank is a key part of UBS's future, despite twin British and Swiss investigations into how Adoboli evaded UBS's compliance department, sources said.

UBS's largest shareholder, Singapore sovereign wealth fund GIC, met the bank's management earlier this week and in a rare public statement expressed its disappointment. It urged them to take firm action to restore confidence and wanted details of how the bank would tighten risk controls.

Gruebel is expected to scale back proprietary trading and fixed income, but not do away with them completely.

"They need to complete the internal investigations first. It's not necessary to call for heads to roll yet, we need more detail for that -- and it's not clear who could take over anyway," said Florian Esterer, senior portfolio manager at Swisscanto, which manages some 57 billion Swiss francs and holds around $170 million in UBS shares.

"The board is in a bind because it is not sure anyone could realistically take over from Gruebel at present."

UBS lacks many heavyweight internal candidates after a series of management shakeups during the financial crisis, although it has been grooming Sergio Ermotti, former deputy CEO of Italy's UniCredit (CRDI.MI), since he joined in April.

Other names touted as possible successors -- include Hugo Baenziger and Axel Lehmann, chief risk officers respectively at Deutsche Bank (DBKGn.DE) and Zurich Financial (ZURN.VX).

As Gruebel presented his plan to the UBS board, the bank has this week been fulfilling previous promises of cutting jobs and costs, losing between 5 and 10 percent of the jobs within the advisory arm in the investment banking division.

The move is part of 3,500 job cuts previously announced in August from which UBS had hoped to make an annual saving of around 2 billion francs -- most of which will have been canceled out by the $2.3 billion loss it unveiled last week.

Adoboli, meanwhile, was "sorry beyond words" and "appalled at the scale of the consequences of his disastrous miscalculations," his lawyer said at a brief court appearance in London on Thursday.

(With additional reporting by Charmian Kok and Rachel Armstrong in Singapore and Silke Koltrowitz, Catherine Bosley and Martin de Sa'Pinto in Zurich; Writing by Sophie Walker; Editing by David Cowell and Mike Nesbit)

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Comments (2)
JoeObserver wrote:
The most sensible thing that UBS has to do is to close down its investment bank division and focus on core competency, rather than loosing billions of dollars each year.

Sep 23, 2011 6:03am EDT  --  Report as abuse
Actually if UBS spun off the Investment Banking Department and made it a Dillon Read-Warburg like firm again it would probably do well–it’s the “trading” part of the Investment Bank that has had the issues, not the advisory and underwriting part. Small boutique firms like Moelis & Co or regional firms like Bernstein that focus on client relationships are doing mich better than the bigger integrated banks.

Sep 24, 2011 9:34am EDT  --  Report as abuse
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