UBS cuts 240 wealth management jobs in Asia-Pacific

The job losses are primarily in Hong Kong and Singapore where most of the Swiss firm's private bankers are located.

UBS Wealth Management said yesterday that it is cutting approximately 240 jobs in the Asia-Pacific region.

That amounts to about 7.5% of UBS's wealth management staff in Asia-Pacific, or about 3% of UBS's employees out here. The cuts have been taking place this week, and insiders say they expect they will continue to happen throughout the week.

While even the bankers in the wealth management division don't know who exactly will be let go, they note that it is likely to break down to roughly 100 jobs from Singapore, 100 jobs from Hong Kong, where the bulk of their bankers are located, and 40 jobs from other parts of the region. The cuts are across the office -- front and back. Bankers in Asia say their wealth management colleagues elsewhere in the world expect cuts as well.

"In common with its competitors, the slowdown in the global economy and the ongoing challenging economic conditions have prompted a renewed focus on the management of costs including, as a last resort, those related to staff," says Hong Kong-based UBS spokesman Mark Panday. When noting competitors, he was undoubtedly referring to rival banks such as Citi, Credit Suisse and Societe Generale, which have all already reduced their private wealth staff in the region.

UBS Wealth Management bankers that FinanceAsia spoke to off-the-record, say that while no-one wants to be the one who is given a pink slip, the retrenchment in staff has been well telegraphed. One after another, top executives have signalled restructuring was imminent.

On February 26, the firm hired Oswald Gruebel, a former Credit Suisse executive, as its new chief executive; and he immediately signalled a need for cut backs, the bankers say. On March 4, UBS appointed Kaspar Villager, a former Swiss finance minister, as chairman to replace Peter Kurer. But even before Kurer left, he announced a restructuring during which he said he intended to "refocus UBS on its Swiss core business, its international wealth management franchise in Switzerland and on the growth potential of its onshore business globally". Then on April 1, UBS hired another former Credit Suisse executive, experienced restructurer Ulrich Korner, as its group chief operating officer -- and he too immediately made it clear that cost-cutting was a top priority. 

The Swiss bank made a loss of $17 billion in 2008. Some preliminary first quarter numbers may be made available later today (April 15) after the firm's AGM, while it plans to formally announce earnings on May 5. Late last year, the wealth management division was hurt by the fact that assets under management (AUM) have fallen, both as a result of declining asset values and, specific to UBS, because clients are concerned about the future of the Swiss firm. Other firms have boasted that they have gained market share (even if overall AUM has declined due to market conditions), thanks to clients switching banks.

Even rival Swiss private bankers, who you would think might be enjoying a bit of Schadenfreud every time UBS ends up with a black eye, have been saying recently that UBS has suffered unduly from "excessive badmouthing", as one banker put it. "That's hurt its business more than is necessary, and now it's hurting individual people," says one banker at another Swiss firm.

Indeed, the wealth management cuts are part of a larger retrenchment for the Swiss bank. Overall, UBS let go of 1,782 people during the fourth quarter of 2008, mostly in investment banking, which was marginally less than the 2,000 people it had planned to let go, as per an announcement in early October last year. In its fourth quarter earnings statement, the Swiss bank said it would trim the headcount within the investment bank by another 2,000 people to 15,000 by the end of 2009 from around 17,000. And aside from these cuts, many UBS bankers are actively seeking jobs at other firms, in anticipation that they might get the axe.

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