Credit Suisse Replaces Varvel, Halts Bonuses as Clients Fume
(Bloomberg) -- Credit Suisse Group AG raced to contain the widening fallout from the collapse of Greensill Capital as it acknowledged defaults are coming in a $10 billion group of now-frozen funds that the bank touted for their safety.
Facing client furor and regulatory probes over the collapse of the short-term debt funds, the Swiss bank demoted one of its top executives, withheld bonuses for some and separated the asset management unit at the center of the scandal from the much more valuable wealth unit.
Chief Executive Officer Thomas Gottstein, who has largely shied away from making deep changes since taking over a year ago, is contending with threats of litigation and demands from regulators to hold more capital as the crisis renews questions about risk management and controls. Clients from rich individuals in the Middle East to Swiss pension funds are expressing their anger over potential investment losses, threatening key relationships far beyond the asset management business.
“There remains considerable uncertainty regarding the valuation of a significant part of the remaining assets,” the bank said in its annual report on Thursday. “The portfolio manager has been informed that certain of the notes underlying the funds will not be repaid when they fall due.”
The bank has so far returned about $3.1 billion to investors and said it has an additional $1.25 billion in cash across the four funds.
Shares of Credit Suisse rose 3.1% at 4:18 p.m. in Zurich amid broad-based gains in bank stocks. Before today, the bank had lost more than 8% since freezing the funds March 1.
As part of the changes announced Thursday, Eric Varvel, who oversaw asset management from the U.S., will be replaced next month by Ulrich Koerner, until recently the head of the fund unit at rival UBS Group AG. The payout and vesting of variable compensation for a number of senior employees involved in the Greensill debacle -- up to and including the executive board -- is on hold so the bank can reconsider it.
Asset management will become a separate unit, with Koerner reporting directly to CEO Gottstein. Varvel will work alongside Koerner in the coming months and then focus on his other roles as CEO of the bank’s U.S. holding company and chairman of the investment bank. The changes cap two frenzied weeks in which the bank launched an internal probe, brought in outside help to deal with regulators’ queries and sought to calm investors by returning cash portions of the funds.
In most cases when an asset manager has to liquidate a fund, losses are borne by the investors. But for Credit Suisse, which sold the products across business units, the case isn’t as clear-cut. The funds were used to invest money for retirees, the bank pitched them to corporate treasurers and insurers, and offered them to rich families as an alternative to cash.
Credit Suisse sold a disproportionate amount of the funds -- more than $1 billion -- through its private banking arm in the Middle East, according to people familiar with the matter. It was part of a push to move rich Middle Easterners, who frequently hold large amounts of money in Switzerland, out of costly cash deposits and into fee-generating investments.
Some of the Swiss bank’s most important clients in the Gulf also borrowed against their holdings in the funds to amplify returns, the people said, asking for anonymity to discuss internal information. These clients are now facing the dual problem of potential losses in the Greensill-linked funds and possibly calls to put up more collateral for their borrowings.
The situation has left Credit Suisse bankers in the region scrambling to salvage client relationships, without being able to answer key questions about the extent of possible losses and who will end up paying for them.
At home in Switzerland, where Credit Suisse is a top provider of investment management services for retirees, at least one pension plan has been pressuring the bank and local politicians to ensure they’re made whole, according to a person familiar with the matter. The pension is asking why the bank didn’t take action despite warning signs, the person said.
A spokesperson for Credit Suisse declined to comment.
Varvel’s replacement marks the highest-level shakeup so far in the wake of the Greensill debacle, after the bank temporarily removed a number of lower-ranking managers while it conducts the probe. A Credit Suisse veteran of almost three decades, he took over as head of asset management in 2016, pursuing a “barbell strategy” of focusing on alternative investments on the one hand, and cheaper, passive instruments on the other.
While he was able to boost assets under management, the unit has been in the spotlight for the wrong reasons recently. On top of the issues with the Greensill-linked funds, setbacks include a $450 million impairment on a stake in York Capital Management, the closure of two re-insurers backed by the unit’s insurance-linked securities strategy, and a 24 million-franc charge on seed capital for a real estate vehicle.
The Greensill-linked funds initially invested in loans backed by invoices that would be paid in a matter of weeks or months, making them relatively safe. But as they grew into a $10 billion strategy, they strayed from that pitch and much of the money was lent against expected future invoices, for sales that were merely predicted, Bloomberg has reported.
Credit Suisse rated the flagship fund the safest on a scale of one to seven, in part because many of the assets were insured. A high-octane version of the fund that didn’t use insurance was still given the second-safest rating in investor documents. Credit Suisse decided to freeze them after a major insurer of the assets refused to continue coverage.
Some investors are now threatening legal options, Credit Suisse said. Edouard Fremault, a partner at Deminor in Brussels, a company that funds investment-recovery litigation, said his firm has already been approached by around 10 investors in the funds. The investors are private and corporate clients of Credit Suisse in the U.K. and Switzerland, according to a person familiar.
Credit Suisse earlier this week warned it may take a financial hit related to Greensill. Questions also remain surrounding the bank’s decision to further its exposure to the former billionaire financier by providing a $140 million bridge loan last fall, and whether Chief Risk Officer Lara Warner played a key role. The bank has said she only learned of Greensill’s problems securing insurance cover for its supply chain finance loans on Feb. 22, about a week before Credit Suisse gated the funds.
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