‘It was a horrifying year’: Credit Suisse chairman warns ‘it will not look great’ for bonus season

Credit Suisse Group AG Chairman Axel Lehmann warned employees should brace for bonus cuts as the Swiss lender embarks on a painful and costly turnaround after a grim year that forced it to tap shareholders for fresh funds.

“It was a horrifying year for Credit Suisse,” Lehmann said in an interview with Bloomberg TV at the World Economic Forum in Davos. “So I think people will have realistic expectations that it will not look great” for bonuses.

Bloomberg reported earlier this month that Credit Suisse is considering cutting the bonus pool for 2022 by about half, as the bank is likely to report another quarterly loss amid billions in dollars of client outflows.

Lehmann is seeking to appease shareholders by showing moderation on bonuses, while still keeping onside valuable personnel, such as investment bankers who will form part of the First Boston business it plans to spin out, and private bankers in growth regions such as the Middle East and Asia. The bank has been struggling to stem an exodus of talent amid speculation about its future.

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“On one hand, you have the topic of retention and then we also have plenty of parts of the group that are doing very well,” he said on Tuesday. “So you need to compensate somewhat fairly, but you also need to look at it from the shareholders’ perspective. When you suffered huge losses, it is clear that the budget gets cut also on bonuses.”

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Credit Suisse isn’t alone in signaling lower variable pay, though reductions at the Swiss lender are likely to be steeper than at Wall Street peers. JPMorgan Chase & Co., Bank of America Corp. and Citigroup Inc. are all weighing plans to cut bonus pools for their investment bankers by as much as 30%, according to people with knowledge of the internal deliberations.

A reduction by half would leave Credit Suisse’s 2022 bonus pool at about 1 billion francs ($1.1 billion), compared with 2.9 billion francs two years earlier. The Swiss lender already slashed variable compensation by more than 30% for 2021.

At the same time, Credit Suisse has shown a willingness to make extra payments outside the regular bonus round to retain top staff. The bank handed out more than $300 million in a single month last year to retain some bankers. For the 2021 bonus round, it gave its senior staff an additional long-term award to try to cushion the blow of cuts.

Retaining top talent is key as Credit Suisse seeks to rebuild client and investor confidence. Lehmann on Tuesday reiterated that the asset outflows that spooked the firm and its backers in the early days of October had stopped and started to reverse, with clients seeking to put money to work again.

Client money “has now stopped dripping out, it’s slightly coming back,” he said. “So that is very positive to see and I’m rather optimistic for the remainder of the year. It is still early days, so it will depend on how the global economy is going.”

Credit Suisse is in the early stages of a costly restructuring that includes cutting 9,000 jobs and carving out large parts of the investment bank under the revived First Boston brand. It raised 4 billion francs from investors late last year in a two-pronged capital increase to help finance the steps.

Lehmann said the bank will update investors on progress with the investment bank spinout and other changes when it publishes first-quarter results next month.

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