From rogue trade to no trade at UBS

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UBSAboboli REUTERS Former UBS trader Kweko Adoboli arrives at Southwark Crown Court in London, November 20, 2012. The jury in the London trial of former UBS trader Kweku Adoboli, who is blamed for a loss of $2.3 billion, continues to consider its verdicts. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth (BRITAIN - Tags: BUSINESS CRIME LAW)

The $2.3 billion fraud by UBS trader Kweku Adoboli, who was convicted on Tuesday, didn't stop client money flooding in, but the disbanding of the Swiss bank's riskier investment banking activities can be laid at its door.

Adoboli's conviction on two counts of fraud 14 months after the losses emerged comes shortly after UBS announced it would slash 10,000 jobs and wind down large, risky parts of its investment bank, where 32-year-old Aboboli worked.

UBS said there was no direct link between what insiders call “the UTI” - unauthorised trading incident - and the partial retreat from fixed income, but the truth is more complicated.

A swathe of top executives including former Chief Executive Oswald Gruebel and investment banking co-head Carsten Kengeter have resigned, been sacked, or sidelined following the scandal.

UBS, clearly nervous about what Adoboli might say, had up to a dozen lawyers and public relations people in court every day of the 10-week trial.

In one of the more dramatic moments, Adoboli gestured towards them, railing at “the machine” that singled him out for blame when all he had done, he said, was try too hard to make the profits the bank wanted.

For many of UBS's investment bankers, the trial took a back seat to the overhaul announced on Oct. 30. Roughly 4,000 of the 10,000 lay-offs could fall in sales and trading, sources at the bank said.

Sergio Ermotti, appointed CEO after Gruebel quit, is leading a three-year fixed-income retreat to save 3.4 billion Swiss francs ($3.6 billion), on top of 2 billion identified last year.

“The UTI wasn't part of the restructuring debate, but it did lay the groundwork in that it's what caused Gruebel to leave, which paved the way for Ermotti,” a UBS banker said.

Ermotti's plan will partly reverse Gruebel's course by cutting loose businesses that are no longer profitable due to stricter Swiss capital rules on riskier activities introduced after the financial crisis.

The trial provided a snapshot of a trading floor culture where testosterone flowed freely and traders laughed in the face of risk, which Adoboli's defence said showed that the message from above was to trade more aggressively.

The court heard that one trader casually asked if Adoboli was using his “slush account” that day. Another asked: “How many billions are you short today? That's my leading indicator.”

Such material painted the investment bank as the “ugly twin” to UBS's low-risk private banking unit - the second largest in the world after Bank of America - which handles the affairs of wealthy clients.

The private bank had only just recovered from spooked clients taking out more than 200 billion francs after the bank's$50 billion in mortgage losses and 2008 government rescue.

The details that emerged from Adoboli's trial couldn't have helped UBS's branding as trusted advisor to the rich, but this time clients seemed sanguine; the unit posted robust inflows in the quarter following the scandal, and secured 7.7 billion francs in net new money in the most recent quarter.

In July, UBS was named best bank in Switzerland and best global wealth manager by Euromoney magazine.

ERMOTTI ASCENT PAVES WAY FOR REVAMP

The trial highlights how the private bank ultimately won the cultural armwrestle with the investment bank.

Alongside the roughly 500 made redundant at the bank after the trading scandal was exposed, the departure of Gruebel, whose four-decade career began as a bond trader, marked the first step in the investment banking revamp.

The appointment of Ermotti, also an investment banker who spent a large part of his career with Merrill Lynch and UniCredit, paved the way for far bolder changes.

“This could not have happened had Gruebel still been CEO. It took a change at the top to look at this with a fresh pair of eyes and question whether UBS really needs a big investment bank,” a UBS banker said.

When Gruebel was hired in 2009 to revive UBS after the bailout and settle a messy U.S. crackdown on tax evasion, he said UBS needed to “trade harder”, even as Swiss lawmakers demanded even stricter capital requirements for its banks than international rules mandated.

Though he toned down that rhetoric, Gruebel was still a huge backer of the investment bank until he left last September, UBS insiders say.

Gruebel declined to comment.

To be sure, UBS retains an investment bank, but focused on corporate advice and equities, home to the Exchange Traded Funds desk where Adoboli worked in London. Trading in foreign currencies and precious metals also survives.

Former investment bank co-head Kengeter remains with UBS, but sidelined and on borrowed time, tasked with winding down the discontinued fixed-income activities.

Kengeter spoke to Adoboli on July 12 and said the market was going to rally, which Adoboli said encouraged him to keep buying, when he was racking up huge losses in a falling market.

“He was Gruebel's choice to succeed him as CEO. (Former chairman Kaspar) Villiger was a huge fan, too,” said one former senior insider. “I really liked him and thought he was a smart guy who could have gone far,” but for the trading scandal.

Kengeter is expected by several former and current colleagues to leave of his own accord soon. Kengeter declined to comment.

UBS's investment bank is returning to the mould of SG Warburg, a respected British merchant bank absorbed by UBS more than 15 years ago and where some of the firm's dealmakers started out. Andrea Orcel, who now heads the investment bank alone, must walk a tightrope: turn a profit with what remains while trimming risk and taking a more conservative approach to the way it finances deals.

“I am sure it has taught them (UBS) a lot about governance, incentives, controlling traders, how to punish bad behaviour and how to minimise any kind of collusion meant to cover up these kinds of cases,” said Martin Janssen, professor of finance at the University of Zurich.

And perhaps how to close for good the door through which that horse has bolted. - Reuters


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