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It’s dangerous having good friends in banking

In case there were any confusion, Tidjane Thiam at Credit Suisse has clarified something this week: there are no friends in finance, only colleagues of convenience. Even if you work with someone for 30 years.

This was Thiam’s claim in relation to Pierre-Olivier Bouée, the former Credit Suisse chief operating officer with whom Thiam had an intense professional affinity for three decades. Both French speakers, both passionate about Asia, the two men jumped from company to company in tandem, starting at McKinsey, then moving to Aviva, then to Prudential, then to Credit Suisse. When Thiam joined the Swiss bank in 2015, he made Bouée his COO in a move that was widely perceived at the time as a Thiam takeover of the bank’s top tier.

After such a long career in each other’s pockets, the two men were said to be, “thick as thieves,” by an unnamed fund manager who spoke to the Times last month. That same fund manager also claimed the two men went “clubbing in Ibiza” together, which briefly put Thiam’s dad dancing in a different light, but which was firmly denied by Credit Suisse at the time.

This was followed by another denial from Thiam this week. Not only did Thiam not hit the dancefloor at Pacha with Bouée, but it now seems the two men weren’t really that friendly after all. Bouée is a, “a good professional”, said Thiam this week, but, “I’m not sure you can describe him as a friend.”

If you asked him today, Bouée would probably agree. Credit Suisse’s former COO was ejected from the bank in September for his role in the Iqbal Khan spying scandal. Bouée is said to have authorized the surveillance of Khan; Thiam is said to have known nothing at all about it. Bouée has therefore taken a fall, while Thiam - who wasn’t actually a friend after a lifetime working together and who now says he only had dinner with Bouée once in four and a half years at Credit Suisse - is still CEO.

The Thiam- Bouée axis isn’t to say there are no friends in banking, but history suggests that being too chummy with colleagues comes with risks. When Lehman Brothers went under, it became apparent that the bank’s senior executives and their wives had been pally for years and took holidays together, thereby obscuring an ability to question each other’s reasoning. Similarly, Jes Staley at Barclays got into trouble last year after attempting to unmask a whistleblower who accused a friend Staley hired from JPMorgan of having a problem with alcohol. That particular friendship cost Staley a £640k fine and nearly lost him his job.

Keep your distance – and cultivate friends who work in entirely different industries; not only will it avoid conflicts of interest, but it help you stay grounded in non-finance reality.

Photo by Kevin Gent on Unsplash

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AUTHORSarah Butcher Global Editor

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