UBS rolls the dice with Andrea Orcel grab

March 22, 2012

By Peter Thal Larsen

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Sergio Ermotti is taking a gamble. The UBS chief executive is preparing to install his former colleague Andrea Orcel as co-head of the Swiss group’s investment banking division. Luring the BofA Merrill Lynch dealmaker would be a sign that battle- and scandal-scarred UBS can still attract big names. But given Orcel’s patchy management track record, he has a lot to prove.

There’s no question that UBS could do with a shot in the arm. The combination of its 2008 near-death experience, last year’s 2 billion Swiss franc rogue trading loss, and the departures of a string of senior bankers have prompted rivals to predict its demise. Orcel’s famed contacts book should ensure a steady stream of deals: he was closely involved in BofA Merrill’s decision to underwrite last year’s hair-raising – but ultimately successful – 7.5 billion euro rights issue by Italian lender UniCredit. And though his work on the 2007 break-up bid for ABN Amro, which helped drag down Royal Bank of Scotland and Fortis, must count as a black mark, it was a bold and imaginative deal – not to mention the lucrative fees.

As investment banks like UBS shrink their trading arms and concentrate on fostering relationships with senior corporate clients, Orcel’s skills will arguably become more valuable. The bigger question is whether he is capable of leading a large and complex investment bank. His defenders would argue that he has not yet had the chance to prove himself, and that BofA Merrill was preparing to install him as its European chief when he decided to leave. However, the acrimonious nature of his departure is hardly exemplary. According to a person familiar with the matter, Orcel did not tell his superiors he was in talks with UBS until after they had told BofA’s current European chief, and the UK regulator, about the planned internal reshuffle.

Orcel’s reputation as a lone operator will also prompt questions about his ability to coexist with Carsten Kengeter, the former Goldman Sachs trader who is currently UBS’s sole investment banking chief. It will no doubt also prompt unease among UBS investment bankers unused to having outsiders parachuted in from above.

Ermotti may feel that a shake-up is precisely what UBS’s investment bank needs right now. Nevertheless, Orcel will have to prove he can deliver more than fees.

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