Why we’re talking about . . .

António Horta-Osório’s unforced error

The Credit Suisse version of ‘Partygate’ has claimed the scalp of a celebrated banker

“Credit Suisse is proving something of a graveyard for the reputations of once high-flying international financiers,” said Peter Thal Larsen on Reuters Breakingviews. Less than a year after arriving “to stabilise” the scandal-hit bank, chairman Sir António Horta-Osório – formerly the toast of Lloyds Bank – has sparked a scandal of his own, having been caught out breaching both UK and Swiss Covid quarantine rules (in the former case to attend the Wimbledon men’s tennis final). “Horta-Osório may have salvaged some of his good name by quickly accepting the consequences of his actions”, and resigning. “But another round of boardroom upheaval is the last thing Credit Suisse needs.” The bank has appointed a safety candidate, UBS’s Axel Lehmann, to replace him. But it’s a blow for international investors “who had pinned their hopes” on the Portuguese banker’s “turnaround skills”. 

Horta-Osório “was hoping for a slap on the wrist”, said Margot Patrick and Emily Glazer in The Wall Street Journal. He didn’t get it. His disregard of Covid rules while jetting in and out of Switzerland “struck a nerve with many Credit Suisse employees and the order-minded Swiss public”. It may also lead to greater scrutiny of executives in other companies. Hitherto, the only known corporate casualties of rule breaches were three Canadians who travelled out of the country to get early vaccines. “The default assumption”, said Nils Pratley in The Guardian, is that “Swiss banks are inward-looking institutions that always find a way to remove a reform-minded outsider from the boardroom”. But “no such conspiratorial thinking” is required here – especially as “Saint António” was hired to promote “a culture of personal responsibility and accountability”, after a boardroom spying scandal and expensive failures including the collapses of hedge fund Archegos and the supply-chain lender Greensill. “Resignation was the only possible outcome… Even on his own patch at Lloyds, AHO surely wouldn’t have survived this episode.” 

Horta-Osório did at least set the ball of reform rolling on risk management at Credit Suisse, said Brooke Masters in the FT – but in a bumper year for banks, “shares are still down more than 20% over the past year”. And “many at the bank were heartily sick” of the “flamboyant and outspoken” Horta-Osório, who had little experience of investment banking or wealth management. Ultimately, his actions illustrate a common attitude among the elite: that rules are for other people. “But what does it say about accountability that the chair of a Swiss bank has been held to a higher standard than the sitting UK Prime Minister?”

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