Horses without riders raced across a frozen lake in the Alpine resort of St Moritz, throwing snow into the faces of men on skis dragged behind them.
In February last year, weeks before public events across Switzerland were canceled due to the coronavirus, Credit Suisse flew its most valuable clients to White Turf – an equestrian event more than a century old, including the particularly dangerous “skijoring” race that the Swiss bank had sponsored for decades.
While the seven intrepid skijorers risked their lives in the Credit Suisse Grand Prix, it was one of the guests who posed the biggest threat to the bank: British steel magnate Sanjeev Gupta.
Today, Gupta’s sprawling conglomerate, GFG Alliance, falters after the collapse of its largest lender Greensill Capital. The metals group is also under investigation by the UK’s Serious Fraud Office. He denies any wrongdoing.
Credit Suisse was known to have indirect exposure to Gupta through Greensill, which pooled banknote loans acquired by funds from the Swiss bank. When Greensill collapsed in March, Credit Suisse was faced with the fact that much of the debt can be bad, including loans to GFG.
What was not known until now, however, is that Credit Suisse also has a significant direct relationship with Gupta.
A series of former executives at the Swiss lender have revealed to the Financial Times how its private bankers and world leaders wooed the metal mogul, giving him VIP treatment that extended far beyond the trip to St. Moritz.
Forging a deep relationship with the Indian-born industrialist, Credit Suisse ignored warnings from affected corporate clients and its own bankers.
The revelation that Credit Suisse handed Gupta everything from a mortgage on a trophy mansion to a private hearing with its then CEO, will further anger its clients who potentially face billions of dollars in losses.
Some of those clients are expected to sue Credit Suisse, alleging flaws in the way the funds were managed. And Greensill’s troubles come as the bank is reeling from yet another risk management scandal over its work with Archegos, the collapsed family office.
“The decision to finance entrepreneurs like [Gupta] at all costs was the wrong decision, ”said a former senior executive at the Australian bank who cited unease over loans to Gupta as the reason for his resignation. The banker added: “It was a lot of capital for a very risky situation.”
Credit Suisse and GFG declined to comment.
Five star treatment
After spending years courting Sanjeev Gupta, Credit Suisse filed for divorce at the end of March, asking UK and Australian courts to put several of its core businesses into bankruptcy.
With $ 1.2 billion to recover on behalf of angry customers, the Swiss bank has other tools. Some of Gupta’s credit facilities with Greensill had personal guarantees, according to people familiar with the terms, which could allow creditors to hunt down the so-called “man of steel” himself.
To that end, Credit Suisse recently hired private investigators at Kroll to trace Gupta’s assets around the world, according to three people familiar with the matter.
As Gupta embarked on a corporate buying frenzy that built a metals conglomerate with 35,000 employees, he also amassed a personal collection of trophy assets. The flashy purchases ranged from a private plane and a helicopter with matching placards to a large £ 42million London townhouse – owned in his wife’s name.
Credit Suisse won’t need Kroll’s services to get information on another of Gupta’s luxury homes: a 19th-century sandstone mansion overlooking Sydney Harbor.
“Credit Suisse provided the mortgage. They were proud of it, ”said the former executive. “Tackling subprime mortgages in Australia was a key strategy. “
Helping Gupta buy the AU $ 35million (US $ 27million) house, which is owned by a trust overseen by an Australian broker friend, was only part of the service Credit Suisse offered as manager. of private assets.
The Swiss bank also managed the fortunes of Lex Greensill, the 44-year-old Australian founder of Greensill Capital, who was a paper billionaire before his eponymous financial company went bankrupt.
Managing the wealth of controversial businessmen was part of Credit Suisse’s plan. Helman Sitohang, the bank’s longtime boss for Asia-Pacific, has built a franchise for the region’s richest businessman, assuming some reputational risk.
“We are positioning ourselves as the bank for entrepreneurs,” Sitohang said in February, days before the implosion of Greensill Capital. “In Asia, this positioning resonated very well for us. ”
Gupta and Greensill even shared the same private banker at Credit Suisse: Shane Galligan, one of Sitohang’s biggest rainmakers, who made it his mission to manage the money of Australia’s richest tycoons.
“If you look at the strategy in Asia in terms of supporting very high net worth clients, no one is bigger than him in private banking,” said a second former banker at Credit Suisse. “It covers billionaires. It was his thing.
Galligan has ensured that Gupta has the full five-star Swiss banking experience. In addition to inviting the steel mogul to the Alpine horse event, he negotiated a coveted meeting in 2019 with the bank’s chief executive, Tidjane Thiam.
Galligan and Sitohang helped allay concerns about the bank’s growing entanglements with Gupta and Greensill, according to former Credit Suisse bankers. A person close to the bank said Sitohang was not close to Gupta or Greensill.
Another former executive recalled an internal call in 2020 between Galligan, Lara Warner – chief risk and compliance officer until she left following the Greensill and Archegos fiascos – and a handful of other bankers to discuss the risks. crescents surrounding his activities with Greensill.
“There was no sensitivity or appreciation of the dimension of risk,” he said. “The tone was purely, ‘We want to bank this entrepreneurial client.’ “
Credit Suisse said Sitohang and Galligan declined to comment.
Flight to Zurich
In February 2020, the same month that Credit Suisse hosted Gupta in St. Moritz, UK banking regulators contacted the SFO with concerns about the opaque conglomerate of metals for his family’s finance.
The Swiss bank then received a stern warning a few months later. In July 2020, commodities trader Trafigura warned Credit Suisse that the bank’s supply chain finance funds appeared to contain a suspicious invoice from Gupta’s business empire. The warning came as the bank was in the midst of an internal review of the funds, sparked by FT’s report of their unusual relationship with Greensill shareholder SoftBank.
And yet, not only did funds linked to Greensill continue to lend to Gupta, but Credit Suisse also considered offering the steel mogul its own balance sheet.
In October 2020, Gupta revealed a plan to take control of one of Germany’s oldest – and most symbolic – industrial companies: the more than 200-year-old Thyssenkrupp steel unit.
When the steel mogul unveiled the bold offer, he had yet to commit debt financing, but had letters of support in his pocket from two familiar financial institutions: Greensill and Credit Suisse.
Support for the Thyssenkrupp offer was not ad hoc. Another former senior executive said Credit Suisse’s investment banking division was ‘everywhere’ GFG, drawn by the potential charges on a seemingly endless chain of transactions, having also won a tenure on his company’s much-vaunted InfraBuild list. in Australia. .
The charges never came, however. Both deals fell apart earlier this year when Greensill began to crumble and threatened to take GFG down with him.
Greensill’s fate was sealed last weekend in February, when Credit Suisse made a decision to freeze its $ 10 billion lineup of supply chain finance funds, after discovering that a contract key insurance underlying the bill securitization machine had expired.
On the Friday before this fateful decision, Gupta flew to Zurich with his loyal lieutenant Jay Hambro, a descendant of a British banking dynasty. Twelve months after the Steel Baron had enjoyed Credit Suisse’s hospitality at White Turf, he entered the Swiss lender’s lavish headquarters on Paradeplatz to a very different welcome.
Gupta and Hambro have pressured the bank not to cut funds, according to people familiar with the talks.
This time, however, Credit Suisse was unwilling to welcome its once highly regarded client.
Additional reporting by Owen Walker and Stephen Morris