Hopes high for Thiam turnaround at Credit Suisse

ZURICH/LONDON (Reuters) - Tidjane Thiam starts work as CEO of Credit Suisse CSGN.VX next month with investors optimistic he can bring about a major change of strategy at the bank, even if he has to raise cash to do it.

Tidjane Thiam speaks during a Credit Suisse news conference in Zurich, March 10, 2015. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann

An expectation that the 52-year-old will successfully switch Credit Suisse’s focus to lucrative Asian wealth management and shrink its cash-intensive investment bank has propelled the Zurich-based lender’s shares around 12 percent since Thiam’s appointment was announced in March.

That's almost three times more than Europe's index of bank shares .SX7P has progressed over the same period.

The former Prudential PRU.L CEO's reputation follows his success at the insurer where he expanded into Asia with a clear strategy laying out medium-term targets, and, after an early spat over a failed takeover of rival Asian-focused insurer AIA 1299.HK, built a good rapport with regulators.

But revamping Credit Suisse will be a harder task.

While rival UBS UBSG.VX scaled back its investment bank to focus on wealth management by cutting businesses like fixed income, "Credit Suisse's position is very different," Vontobel analyst Andreas Venditti pointed out.

“Of course fixed income takes up a lot of capital but actually it generates more than 20 percent of the group’s revenues.”

In the short-term, Thiam faces the dilemma of whether to cut resource-intensive units that are unpopular with the market or look after the bank’s bottom line.


Credit Suisse insiders said they expected Thiam to begin work at Switzerland’s second biggest bank behind UBS in the coming days. Credit Suisse has said July 1 is his official start date as CEO.

He takes over an organization whose capital reserves lag those of many of its rivals because of the demands of its investment bank, parts of which many analysts and investors expect Thiam to slice up and sell off - in particular its rates business, foreign exchange trading and prime brokerage.

When news of Thiam’s appointment was first announced, analysts said he would have room to cut almost 3,000 jobs, or 15 percent of staff, at the unit.

Despite assurances to the contrary from Credit Suisse’s outgoing CEO Brady Dougan, analysts also see a need to boost cash reserves.

“One way (to boost capital) is to downsize the investment bank, the other is to raise capital. I would not be surprised to see a mixture of these two,” said Jonathan Fearon, investment director at Standard Life Investments which holds 0.07 percent of Credit Suisse shares, according to Thomson Reuters data.

Vontobel’s Venditti added: “If Thiam really wants to’s going to be really difficult, if not impossible, not to raise capital.”

Dirk Becker at Kepler Cheuvreux estimates Credit Suisse needs an extra 6 billion Swiss francs ($6.44 billion) to bring core capital levels close to that of UBS and at least double that amount to pursue any major strategic move.

Credit Suisse declined to comment on any of these proposed measures.


A key area for expansion could be Asia, the world’s major growth region for private wealth and where Credit Suisse is the third largest player behind UBS and Citibank.

Buying smaller banks and continuing to poach bankers in the hope that clients move with them are two routes Thiam could go down, though the bank would most likely need more cash for the former.

If Thiam does to tap the market for cash, he might do so early on to take advantage of goodwill over his appointment and before he is labeled responsible for any capital shortfall.

Standard Life Investments’ Fearon expects Thiam to wait until around three months into the job before outlining plans.

“The market wants to see the strategic direction and the implications for the near–term returns profile before it passes judgment,” Fearon said.

Investors expect Thiam to quickly build a team to implement his new strategy.

Long-time associates chief risk officer Pierre-Olivier Bouee and communications chief John Murray both left Prudential at the same time as Thiam, and several sources have said they are prime candidates to join their former boss at Credit Suisse.

Credit Suisse declined to comment on any appointments, while Murray and Bouee did not respond to requests for comment.

Editing by Sophie Walker