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Voices: UBS needs a radical new boss


Within a few months of joining UBS in 2011, Sergio Ermotti found himself in just the right place. Switzerland's biggest bank needed to restore stability after a spate of trading losses, and the newcomer was quickly elevated to the chief executive role. His exit isn’t going so smoothly.

Ermotti, 59, has signaled that he plans to step down this year and the Zurich-based lender is now seeking a replacement, Bloomberg News reported. After implementing a successful turnaround by taking UBS out of some parts of the trading business and bolstering its lead as the world’s biggest wealth manager — just as central-bank stimulus infused markets and the rich became richer — Ermotti has allowed the bank to drift recently, and the stock has languished. It’s hard to see an obvious successor, which doesn’t reflect well on the CEO and his chairman, Axel Weber.

While the shares have outperformed European rivals since Ermotti took over, that hasn’t been the case over the past two years. Crucially, the bank now trades below book value. The CEO has struggled to meet key financial targets, seen as unambitious at first, and he cut his goals again in January, the third time in three years that he’s had to reset ambitions.

In an era of negative rates, the $2.6 trillion wealth manager hasn’t adapted as quickly as some rivals — including Credit Suisse Group AG — to preserve its private-banking margins. The shift to passive investments and lower expectations on returns for customers have made it difficult to defend higher fees, while geopolitical tensions have muted client trading.

Chasing absolute growth in assets under management hasn’t helped improve returns as much as hoped as costs at UBS remained elevated. Even with its lead in the booming Asian market, managing money from the rich has become tougher.

The succession doesn’t appear to have gone to plan either. With both Weber and Ermotti having been in their jobs for almost eight years, the bank should have assembled a deep bench of potential candidates. Instead, a series of botched senior appointments and management changes, including the exit of investment bank chief Andrea Orcel 18 months ago, are limiting UBS’s choice.

Iqbal Khan, a prized hire from Credit Suisse brought in to help run the wealth management division, may not be among the runners, Bloomberg News reported. That isn’t surprising. He’s only been in the role a few months, and revelations about his acrimonious split with his former employer will be fresh in everyone’s minds.

It may be too soon to turn to asset management chief Suni Harford, who’s also only been in the job since September. That leaves Sabine Keller-Busse, the chief operating officer, among the most promising internal candidates. But the former McKinsey consultant hasn’t managed a big division at the bank.

A $5 billon fine in France for helping clients avoid taxes is clouding the outlook for higher investor returns this year, after the bank passed on the chance to settle when the opportunity arose. Still, lower targets for profit and cost efficiency are seen as achievable because they rely less on revenue than before. Khan’s plans to offer more tailored products for wealth clients, and to cut bureaucracy and increase lending, should juice up returns and profit. But that big shift into lending carries risk.

UBS is still in a privileged position compared to some European competitors. It’s not in the midst of a deep restructuring like Deutsche Bank and HSBC, nor is it beset by scandal like Credit Suisse and Barclays. So this is a chance to think radically. As robots replace workers and banks invest heavily in the digital revolution, UBS would be wise to look beyond the usual circles for its next leader.

Bloomberg News