ZURICH Swiss bank Julius Baer BAER.VX said on Friday it had suffered a "minor trading incident" last year, playing down investor concerns over an anonymous letter which said employees hid losses.
Shares in the bank fell as much as 40 percent as copies of the letter circulated among traders on Friday, but the stock later recovered much of that ground as the bank estimated the resulting loss at just 5 million Swiss francs ($4.2 million).
Hans de Gier, who was appointed chief executive of the private bank after the suicide of Alex Widmer in December, told a news conference on the day of the full-year results that Julius Baer took proper action after a letter was sent to the authorities relating to an incident.
"There was a minor trading incident in October but it was absolutely irrelevant," de Gier said.
Julius Baer later confirmed that a former employee of its markets division failed to follow instructions in respect to certain bond positions, causing an unrealized loss of 5 million francs which it disclosed in its annual report on Friday.
"This issue is really not of relevance for the group given our large business volumes," a spokesman said in an internal memo to staff sent to Reuters, adding that auditors and the Swiss regulator had signed off on its 2008 annual report.
Julius Baer said it was in contact with the Swiss bourse about a possible investigation into market manipulation about what it called the "anonymous defamatory letter."
"It looks as if the situation is not material, but they didn't handle the communication very professionally," said Rainer Skierka, an analyst at Bank Sarasin. "The results look relatively good in the circumstances."
The letter, purportedly from several unnamed directors in Julius Baer private banking, said junior employees in the market division had parked loss-making securities on the bank's own account to avoid booking "several millions in losses."
The letter also said a junior trader had been fired over the incident and questioned whether this action was sufficient.
After De Gier's comments, the shares recouped some of their losses, and after the later statement from the bank they recovered further to stand 9.7 percent lower at 30.00 Swiss francs at 1552 GMT (10:52 a.m. EST), compared with a 4 percent rise in the DJ Stoxx European banking sector index .SX7P.
A spokesman for the Swiss financial regulator confirmed it had received the letter. He said Julius Baer had responded and taken measures since then, but added that the case was not yet closed and the regulator was still assessing the situation.
De Gier did not say who the letter was from. The bank said it had reported the matter to the police.
Last year, the bank denied claims by a former employee that its Cayman Islands branch was used to help clients avoid taxes.
Those allegations had been in the public domain since 2005 but caused a storm last year when they were republished on Wikileaks.org, prompting a U.S. judge to shut down the site before a free-speech backlash prompted him to lift the order.
The news of the October trading incident came as Julius Baer reported full-year net profit fell 25 percent to 852 million Swiss francs and weak equity markets led to a 32 percent fall in assets under management. Analysts polled by Reuters had expected net profit to fall to 863 million francs.
Switzerland's third-largest bank again ruled out the sale of its battered hedge fund arm GAM even after it said the unit had significant outflows in 2008 and forecast redemptions to continue into 2009.
Julius Baer has been denying speculation since last spring that it was looking to sell poor-performing GAM.
MADOFF SPARKS Q4 REDEMPTIONS
The bank said that the fourth quarter was particularly hard for GAM as investors lost confidence in hedge funds in December with news of the alleged fraud involving U.S. businessman Bernard Madoff, even though GAM was not involved.
Davis Solo, who heads the asset management business at Julius Baer, told an analyst conference that roughly half of the asset decline at GAM was due to redemption and added he expected redemptions to continue into the first quarter.
The group said on Friday that AuM fell to 275 billion francs because of falling prices in most asset classes, particularly in the second half of the year, and due to the effects of the strong Swiss franc.
Inflows were strong with net new money of 22 billion Swiss francs at Bank Julius Baer and private banking contributing a record 17 billion Swiss francs.
"The strength in private banking does not come as a surprise, but is burdened by large outflows in asset management," Kepler analysts said in a note to clients.
Baer left its dividend unchanged at 0.50 Swiss francs per share and said it would continue its share buyback program of up to 2 billion francs between 2008 and 2010. It said it still intended to float U.S. asset management unit Artio.
(Additional reporting by Rupert Pretterklieber and Emma Thomasson; Editing by Andrew Callus and David Cowell)