Swiss financial watchdog calls for stronger powers after Credit Suisse crash

By John Revill and Noele Illien

BERN (Reuters) -Credit Suisse came close to imploding months before its eventual rescue, the Swiss financial regulator said on Tuesday in its first detailed account of the crisis, as it argued for stronger powers to oversee lenders in future.

The regulator, FINMA, which has come under fire for its supervision of the bank, defended its role in the meltdown which eventually triggered the biggest rescue of a bank since the global financial crisis of 2008-2009.

The regulator said it took “far reaching and invasive” measures to rectify the deficiencies it found at Credit Suisse as panicked customers withdrew huge amounts of cash after a string of losses and scandals.

But FINMA said that its liquidity measures were unable to avert the imminent failure of the bank in mid-March 2023.

“FINMA used the full range of tools available to it, and identified the risk of possible destabilisation at Credit Suisse at an early stage,” said Thomas Hirschi, head of the regulator’s crisis unit.

“Although its actions had an effect, they were unable to overcome the causes of the loss of confidence, such as shortcomings in strategy implementation and in risk management.”

The regulator conducted 108 on site reviews at Credit Suisse from 2018 to 2022, and found 382 “points requiring action” – 113 where the risk was seen as high or critical.

“These figures and measures illustrate that FINMA exhausted its options and legal powers,” it said in its report.

The regulator said it wanted stronger powers, including the ability to impose fines and the option to publish details of enforcement proceedings.

It is also looking to implement a so-called senior managers regime, a set of rules that identify specific responsibilities for senior executives, mirroring the framework adopted in Britain.

Interim CEO Birgit Rutishauser said FINMA would campaign “vehemently” for the increased powers, which she said were widely established and used internationally.

“Without these new instruments, the probability of a major bank collapsing again will simply be higher than if we have these new instruments that we are demanding,” she told a press conference in Bern.

The regulator will have 60 employees overseeing UBS and may boost that number further, but the extent of the increase will depend in part on the new powers FINMA will get, Hirschi later told Reuters.

NEAR COLLAPSE

FINMA’s report confirms details reported by Reuters on the extent of the bank’s frailty in the autumn of 2022.

Looking back on the crisis, Credit Suisse came near to collapse in late 2022, with the embattled bank “very close on several occasions” to drawing on 50 billion Swiss francs ($57.72 billion) in emergency liquidity support from the Swiss central bank, FINMA said.

The cash crunch prompted the Swiss National Bank at the time to weigh nationalising the lender and injecting 50 billion francs into Credit Suisse to keep it afloat, Reuters reported, six months before its rescue takeover by UBS .

The bank needed to act after clients withdrew 138 billion francs during the fourth quarter, FINMA said.

FINMA also revealed details about how dire Credit Suisse’s condition became in March after the lender delayed publication its annual report, regional banks in the United States collapsed and the Saudi National Bank said it would not increase its investment.

Credit Suisse had also resisted some of the measures imposed by FINMA, the regulator said, while staff had given false information, resulting in some 16 criminal charges filed against them over the years.

“Only under repeated pressure from FINMA did Credit Suisse finally set up a reporting system that enabled its management to check implementation of the planned measures,” the report said.

Eventually, the Swiss government, the central bank and FINMA intervened to support the takeover of Credit Suisse by UBS, the report said, achieving their goal of protecting the bank’s creditors and ensuring financial stability.

As part of the rescue, FINMA decided to write off 16 billion Swiss francs of Credit Suisse’s Additional Tier 1 (AT1) bonds – a controversial move which has triggered legal cases against the regulator.

FINMA defended the decision, saying the bonds had attractive returns because of the risks they carried, which investors knew.

UBS said it supported efforts to identify the root causes of Credit Suisse’s fall, and remained in contact with the authorities to share lessons learned from the crash.

Banking supervision will be even more in the spotlight, with FINMA overseeing Switzerland’s one remaining globally important bank – UBS – which has a balance sheet of $1.6 trillion – nearly twice the size of the entire Swiss economy.

“It is clear that the state of the Swiss financial centre in five or 10 years’ time will be largely determined by whether the legal basis for supervision is strengthened today,” said Marlene Amstad, Chair of FINMA.

($1 = 0.8663 Swiss francs)

(Reporting by John Revill and Noele IllienEditing by Tomasz Janowski)

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