Finance

Duncan Mavin is a former Bloomberg Gadfly columnist.

Two questions have lingered about Julius Baer in 2015. How would the Swiss bank settle with U.S. authorities investigating its tax dealings with American clients? And would Julius Baer be an acquirer or a target in Swiss banking? On Wednesday, CEO Boris Collardi answered the first of these -- a move that could stoke more debate on the second.

The bank said it expects to pay $547 million to U.S. authorities having reached an agreement in principle. The amount is $197 million more than Julius Baer previously set aside in its accounts in June. Investors tend to shrug off such settlement-upsizing though. The clarity of a solid number, even a bigger one, is preferable to the uncertainty of an estimate.

Even after the bigger U.S. bill, Julius Baer should comfortably beat its target Tier 1 Capital ratio of 12 percent, with more than $1 billion in excess capital to spare, according to analysis from KBW. That leaves Collardi with a decent budget to push for more growth after a recent run of acquisitions at home and abroad.

Last month, Collardi told Bloomberg News that "the moment is now" for investing further in China. Julius Baer is also reportedly among those interested in the Swiss unit of troubled Brazilian bank BTG Pactual and Barclays's Asian private wealth business. Domestic Swiss wealth management is also due a bout of consolidation, with a number of smaller players struggling to deal with rising costs and regulation.

But the U.S. tax probe has also been viewed as an obstacle to any bigger fish who might be considering whether to swallow Julius Baer.

Baer Essentials
Bloomberg Data

The most widely cited potential buyer is Credit Suisse, whose new CEO Tidjane Thiam is in the midst of reshaping the bank with an emphasis on wealth management.

There are plenty of hurdles to Credit Suisse launching a bid, not the least of which is the likely price tag. Julius Baer has a market capitalisation of about $10.7 billion and about $300 billion in assets under management. Apply a premium to the current market value and any buyer would have to shell out a price something close to 4 percent of assets under management -- much higher than the 1 percent to 2 percent that's more typical for wealth managers.

But with the size of Julius Baer's settlement now more or less fixed, any potential buyer knows what they're getting. And adding Julius Baer's assets under management to Credit Suisse would transform its operations, skewing the business much more toward wealth management.

Collardi has downplayed the potential for a takeover in the past. In the new year, his resolution may be tested.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Duncan Mavin in London at dmavin@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
James Boxell at jboxell@bloomberg.net