Credit Suisse faces fresh scrutiny over culture after client data leaks

The logo of Swiss bank Credit Suisse is seen at its headquarters in Zurich, Switzerland March 24, 2021.

Arnd Wiegmann | Reuters

LONDON — Credit Suisse is facing fresh scrutiny from Swiss regulators and the European Parliament after leaked data purported to show the bank had served human rights abusers, corrupt politicians and businessmen under sanctions for decades.

The Swiss bank has denied any wrongdoing and said it “strongly rejects” the allegations published by dozens of global media outlets following a coordinated investigation. The leak of client data was initially sent to a German newspaper before being picked up by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project and 46 other news organizations.

Credit Suisse said the ensuing report, entitled “Suisse Secrets,” detailed “predominantly historical” matters and was based on “partial, inaccurate, or selective information taken out of context, resulting in tendentious interpretations of the bank’s business conduct.”

“Approximately 90% of the reviewed accounts are today closed or were in the process of closure prior to receipt of the press inquiries, of which over 60% were closed before 2015.

Swiss regulator FINMA said it was aware of the articles, though couldn’t comment on individual media reports.

“We can confirm that we are in contact with the bank in this context. Compliance with money laundering regulations has been a focus of our supervisory activities for years now. We refer to FINMA’s measures and procedures in the context of combating money laundering in recent years,” FINMA added.

Meanwhile, the European People’s Party (EPP) — the conservative grouping commanding the largest number of seats in the European Parliament — on Monday urged the European Commission to “re-evaluate Switzerland as a high-risk money-laundering country,” suggesting it could be included on the EU’s blacklist for countries notorious for laundering dirty money.

“The ‘Swiss Secrets’ findings point to massive shortcomings of Swiss banks when it comes to the prevention of money laundering,” said Markus Ferber, the EPPs coordinator on economic affairs.

“When Swiss banks fail to apply international anti-money laundering standards properly, Switzerland itself becomes a high-risk jurisdiction.”

In its recent earnings report and in the aftermath of the resignation of its former chairman Antonio Horta-Osorio – who was found to have broken Covid-19 quarantine rules on multiple occasions – Switzerland’s second-largest bank had emphasized focus on overhauling its corporate culture.

The bank was burned badly by litigation costs in the fourth quarter of 2021 as the fallout continued over its involvement with collapsed U.S. hedge fund Archegos Capital and insolvent supply chain finance company Greensill.

This resulted in Credit Suisse setting aside “major litigation provisions of 1.1 billion Swiss francs ($1.2 billion) and posting a full-year net loss of 1.57 billion Swiss francs for 2021.

Thomas Gottstein, designated new CEO of Swiss bank Credit Suisse attends an interview with Reuters in Zurich, Switzerland February 7, 2020.

Arnd Wiegmann | Reuters

Credit Suisse also recently became the first Swiss bank to answer criminal charges and faces a court case involving millions of euros in alleged money laundering for drug gangs between 2004 and 2008.

A banker accused of money laundering told the court last week that Credit Suisse learned of murders and cocaine trafficking allegedly linked to a Bulgarian mafia organization, but proceeded to manage the cash in question. Both the banker and Credit Suisse deny any wrongdoing.

In October 2021, FINMA concluded an investigation into a number of legacy anti-money laundering issues dating back decades before 2014, and some between 2016 and 2019. The regulator imposed measures on the group and continues to track their implementation.

Scandals have plagued Credit Suisse for years. Former CEO Tidjane Thiam resigned in early 2020 after a bizarre spying saga that also resulted in the death of a contractor and the ousting of its COO Pierre-Olivier Bouee.

Horta-Osorio was brought in to right the ship with regards to corporate culture, only to be forced to step down himself. CEO Thomas Gottstein told CNBC following the bank’s latest earnings report that righting risk management and controls was a top priority following a “challenging year.”

‘Extremely weak risk management’

Credit Suisse stock is already down more than 9.5% year-to-date and trades at a discount compared to its peers, at around 0.47% of the sector average in Europe.

DBRS Morningstar, which covers Credit Suisse stock, told CNBC on Monday that the recent news “highlights additional risk management shortcomings at Credit Suisse, including anti money laundering procedures and lack of internal controls and management accountability.”

“We consider the news adds to the significant failures observed in 2021 and point to extremely weak risk management and controls at the Group level and across the different businesses, to now include Wealth Management, after the Archegos issue in the Investment bank and the Supply Fund Chains issue in Asset Management,” Maria Rivas, senior vice president of financial institutions at DBRS Morningstar, told CNBC.

“This is another hit for CSG and the new Chairman and management team, who are trying to make a clean start and announced a 2022 transition year to restore confidence and improve risk management.”

Rivas suggested that despite new leadership’s focus on overhauling the bank’s risk culture and controls, these changes could “take years to materialize” given the complexity and scale of the group’s global structure.

“Also, there could be further implications for CSG if this is considered a breach of Swiss banking secrecy under the Swiss Banking Act article 47, as it is a federal crime to disclose the information or activity of clients banking domestically to foreign entities,” she added.