Tidjane Thiam: No Regrets, No Mistakes

Credit Suisse, Tidjane Thiam, relief, quarterly results

Tidjane Thiam, Credit Suisse chief executive

CEO Tidjane Thiam has borne the brunt of criticism leveled at Credit Suisse in recent months. An encouraging second-quarter performance has partly vindicated his strategy and approach.

Credit Suisse (CS) surprised investors earlier on Thursday with a quarterly profit instead of an expected loss.

A closer look showed that the bank's businesses continued to perform – if not brilliantly – under massive public and investor scrutiny which has led the share price to historic lows.

Official Caution

All in all a successful day for Tidjane Thiam, who defied expectations with the results. 

His reaction? Officially, he was cautious, telling journalists that «we can never say the worst is over» and would «never want to declare victory after two quarters,» and that CS has «a lot of work left.» 

His unscripted remarks revealed how he has been affected by the goldfish bowl-like scrutiny of the bank, particularly in Switzerland but also in major U.S. business outlets such as «The Wall Street Journal» and with shareholders.

«Little Game»

Thiam said he was comforted by the results because they were produced in the worst possible combination of factors for banks such as historic low interest rates, Brexit, and a slowdown in China. 

«This little game which consists of blaming me for the existence of that mix; simultaneity is not causality,» Thiam said, lapsing into consultant verbiage.

«I happen to have taken my job at a time just before banks entered a huge storm, and I’m lifting those words from what other bank CEOs have said: a perfect storm. I didn't cause those events, there's just a simultaneity.»

Missing Insurance?

He was asked several questions which gave him the opportunity to reflect critically on his first 12 months as Credit Suisse's CEO, or to concede that perhaps he had sometimes struck the wrong tone. He took none of them.

Thiam said he had «absolutely no regrets» about taking the top job at CS, which he called a fascinating, but not easy one.

He did take a pointed dig at his predecessor, Brady Dougan, who ran Credit Suisse from 2007 until last year and has been widely criticized for failing to scale back investment banking in time.

«We’re fixing a lot of problems that were developed over a long period of time, but we are making good progress in the right direction,» Thiam said.

Helicopter Absurdity

He was at his most revealing when he hit back at reports of using helicopter travel domestically – an unprecedented move in low-key Switzerland, where ostentation is frowned upon. Credit Suisse has denied the report, and Thiam hit out at it as well, deploying a sarcastic form of humor which often is used to deflect criticism.

In his previous job running British insurer Prudential, Thiam said, colleagues and employees would have pointed out such stories to him, poking fun at their absurdity.

«'Oh, He Can Talk, Even Walk'»

«Here I do have to make a bit more of an effort because there’s been such misrepresentation that I do have to go around» and meet staff personally.

«Often I just have to show up and people are impressed because the picture that is painted is that people have created a huge upside for me. You go around the company and, 'oh he can talk, even walk,' so thank you for the opportunity.»

Comments of this sort, among Thiam's most animated in a briefing which lasted less than an hour, reveal just how sensitive the CEO is to criticism, both internal and external.

Shareholder Criticism

They also show that the dual French and Ivory Coast citizen underestimated the public scrutiny that accompanies Credit Suisse, whose history is closely linked with Switzerland's infrastructure development.

Asked about criticism from Credit Suisse's second-largest shareholder in the «New York Times» of his management style, Thiam clammed up and said he was «not going to comment on comments in a newspaper.»

He was careful to praise his team's efforts at another point in the briefing.


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