ZURICH (Reuters) - Credit Suisse Chief Executive Tidjane Thiam likes to joke he has a predilection for being under pressure. A year into the job he may have got more than he bargained for.
Shares in Switzerland’s second-biggest bank touched record lows in June, and have plunged more than 50 percent since the former head of British insurer Prudential took up his new post on July 1 last year.
Turbulent financial markets, exacerbated by Britain’s vote last week to leave the European Union, have complicated what was always likely to be a difficult restructure of a global investment bank.
But muddled communication of a new strategy, 2018 pre-tax income targets that many felt were optimistic to begin with and concerns the bank needs more cash have undermined his credibility, experts said.
“At the beginning everyone thought he could walk on water. Nowadays everyone thinks he struggles to swim,” said Zuercher Kantonalbank analyst Andreas Brun, who has a “market weight” rating on the stock.
An outsider to both the bank and banking, hopes were high Thiam could make the tough decisions that had eluded predecessor Brady Dougan. This included cutting back in investment banking, doubling down on wealth management and catching up to peers on capital, all of which Thiam has pursued.
But uncertainty over how the bank will grow revenue enough to meet 2018 pre-tax income targets and concerns Thiam may need to ask the market for more cash have accelerated Credit Suisse’s share price fall, one of the biggest of all large investment banks this year.
Inside the bank the share price drop and the prospect of 6,000 layoffs have hit morale, particularly at the investment bank which is facing the biggest cuts, current and former executives told Reuters.
“In a difficult European banking industry context, the lack of clear communication, objectives, business plans and intentions have certainly not helped,” said Hans-Joerg Rudloff, who ran Credit Suisse First Boston from 1989 to 1994 and was a member of Credit Suisse’s executive board.
“They’ve created confusion among investors and, most likely, employees.”
Credit Suisse’s problems have put pressure on Chairman Urs Rohner who hired Thiam. He feels if his CEO pick does not work out they would both likely exit the bank, a person familiar with the matter said.
A spokesman said Credit Suisse is aware its share price is dependent on the successful execution of the new strategy over the long term and is working to achieve this.
Thiam, 53, a former Ivory Coast government minister whose size supports his passion for basketball, won praise for the successful Asian expansion strategy he oversaw at Prudential.
He has had to adapt to a higher profile in Switzerland where people even approach him in the street for autographs.
A natural charmer gifted with a razor-sharp memory, Thiam is less of a micro-manager than Dougan, said one senior executive who worked under both men. He impresses clients with a rolodex full of political and corporate contacts, according to one person familiar with the matter.
Thiam has been more present at Credit Suisse’s Zurich headquarters than Dougan, who spent much of his time in New York and London. He has also been able to visit New York 11 times and Asia on six occasions in his first year as CEO.
Yet some said they felt cut off from their CEO who can appear insulated by loyalists from internal criticism. There is also a concern he does not take well to people disagreeing with him, though this is rejected by one senior executive.
When Thiam outlined his strategy for Credit Suisse in October, he did much of what investors had hoped for.
He ditched parts of the capital-guzzling investment bank to focus on managing the fortunes of the world’s wealthy, especially in emerging markets, and pledged to cut billions of dollars in costs.
He has pushed to cut risk exposure at Credit Suisse’s trading division, which the bank said has helped it cope better with recent market turmoil.
‘TIME WILL TELL’
But confidence was shaken after he said he only discovered the scale of the bank’s risky credit trading positions days before its fourth-quarter results in February, when $1 billion writedowns were taken.
In March, he made a U-turn over his decision to keep some of the banks most lucrative, but also riskiest, trading businesses.
For some in the industry, this has highlighted his lack of banking experience. He has pointed to his background in physics and mathematics, and his time advising banks while a consultant with McKinsey as adequate banking credentials.
“He certainly has to prove, with his background, that he is also able to manage the investment banking part,” said GAM’s Daniel Haeuselmann, who manages 370 million francs in Swiss stock funds and holds Credit Suisse shares. “Time will tell.”
In the private bank, which Thiam hopes will be Credit Suisse’s main money maker in the years ahead, the mood is better but there are teething problems over a new structure.
Moving the bank to a regional structure from a centralized set-up of two business divisions is designed to help drive profitability, but a lack of internal clarity has made the transition a complicated one.
“It does increase the transparency and therefore the spotlight on things and it does require people to be very focused on their patch, but it doesn’t feel that logical when you’re inside it,” said one Credit Suisse executive who declined to be named because they were not authorized to be speak publicly on the subject.
A Credit Suisse spokesman said the bank was undergoing a “fundamental and necessary restructuring” and it was therefore understandable the process involved a certain level of disruption for some employees.
Perhaps the biggest question mark over Credit Suisse remains one of capital, an issue Thiam’s predecessor failed to resolve.
Thiam tapped investors for around 6 billion francs, and next year Credit Suisse plans to float a stake in its Swiss business to raise as much as 4 billion francs.
Credit Suisse’s common equity tier 1 ratio, a key measure of capital strength, stood at 11.4 percent in the first quarter. Although this is the highest in the bank’s recent history, it is still behind many peers.
These doubts look set to persist at least until the partial flotation of the Swiss business next year.
Thiam will have to get used to the pressure.
Additional reporting by Simon Jessop and Alex Chambers in London, and Carmel Crimmins in New York