It has been a hard year for the biggest Swiss bank, UBS. After losing millions in the US sub-prime mortgage market, it has had to beg the Swiss government for help. As Imogen Foulkes reports, its reputation in Switzerland may never recover.
In Zurich, UBS head office sits astride Paradeplatz – Parade Square to you and me.
But in recent months, the Swiss have renamed it Piratenplatz – or Pirate Square – to signify what they believe is the daylight robbery that has taken place over the last 12 months. Not of their biggest bank, but by it.
When the news began to trickle out that UBS was in big trouble because of its exposure to sub-prime mortgages, there was first surprise, then concern, and then finally, as the multi-billion pound extent of the losses became clear, fury.
I remember going to an emergency shareholders meeting earlier this year.
Touch their money and the Swiss get mad
UBS has thousands of small shareholders, mostly relatively well-off, mostly elderly, and none of them expecting the value of their shares to be cut in half in a few short months.
I watched as greying heads bent over the agenda and as mutterings of irritation turned to angry comments. By the time the 6,000 strong crowd were seated, the mood was decidedly tense.
“We know of course that investing money is a risk, but we didn’t expect this. Now we want to know who was responsible,” said Roby Tschopp, spokesman for one of the shareholder groups.
Well, those responsible were plain to see – a phalanx of UBS chief executives in expensive suits, on a raised dais, bathed in spotlights. It was not the best public relations image.
The Swiss know that UBS bosses earned among the highest salaries in Europe. Added to that were huge bonuses which they continued to award themselves even as the financial crisis unfolded.
It was all too much for one indignant shareholder. Leaping to the podium he turned to UBS chairman Marcel Ospel and told him “give back your fat bonus, now”.
Food for thought
“Here, just in case you go hungry, I’ve brought you something to eat,” he continued.
And reaching into his pocket he produced a string of traditional Swiss sausages and waved them under Mr Ospel’s trembling nose.
It was an unforgettable moment, and shows just why the Swiss are so angry.
This may be a wealthy country now, but Switzerland endured famine in the 19th century, and those hard times remain in the collective memory.
Most Swiss are extremely cautious – they hate the idea of money for nothing, let alone the idea of earning millions while making billion pound mistakes.
“Touch their money and the Swiss get mad,” says Bernhard Weissberg, editor of the mass circulation Blick newspaper.
He should know, his desk is piled high with readers’ letters that are so angry you can almost see them smouldering.
“UBS bosses,” writes one reader, “give us our money back, or we’ll feed you to the crocodiles.”
That is enough to make the residents of Pirate Square nervous – but UBS bosses do not seem to be able to turn their ship around.
Management assurances that the bank was on the road to recovery were swiftly followed by a £40bn ($60bn) rescue package from the government, available to all Swiss banks. This caused more fury among taxpayers.
Marcel Ospel stepped down as chairman, and a new pay structure with fewer bonuses was announced.
But Mr Ospel has so far declined to return the rumoured £10m bonus he received last year.
“I think ordinary Swiss feel betrayed by UBS,” banking analyst Hans Geiger says.
It was special to us, it controls 25% of the domestic banking market, which is huge.”
“We believed that UBS had the best risk managers and it turned out the opposite was true,” he adds.
So, like spurned lovers, the Swiss are taking their affection elsewhere. At least £70bn have been removed from UBS over the last year.
The bank is haemorrhaging money, and smaller local banks are doing a roaring trade.
Those mild mannered pensioners may have included some crocodiles in their pockets, along with the sausages
One of those who has closed his account is Thomas Minder, the manager of a small but successful business.
He regards UBS’s catastrophic investment in sub-prime mortgages as deeply un-Swiss.
“The whole sub-prime thing is an American invention,” he says in a disgusted tone, “but a Swiss bank got involved.”
And so, like the patriot he is, Mr Minder has embarked on a truly Swiss course of action to prevent such excesses in the future.
Using Switzerland’s system of direct democracy, he has collected the required 100,000 signatures to hold a nationwide referendum to end, as he puts it, “the corporate rip off.”
His proposal would forbid golden handshakes, bonuses would be performance related, and excessive salaries banned.
Perhaps luckily for Swiss business leaders, it will be a year or so before this goes to the vote – because given the current national mood, if the polling stations opened tomorrow, Mr Minder’s idea would be a shoo in.
In the meantime though, UBS’s piratical top brass have another ordeal to face – Thursday’s extraordinary shareholders’ meeting – and this time those mild mannered pensioners may have included some crocodiles in their pockets, along with the sausages.
From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 22 November, 2008 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.
Published: 2008/11/22 11:37:28 GMT