European Banks’ Merry-Go-Round

Executives at banks across Europe are trading top posts with one another.

In the latest moves at the top of Europe’s biggest banks, Charlie Nunn—currently head of Wealth and Personal Banking at HSBC—is stepping in as chief executive of Lloyds Banking Group. He will replace António Horta-Osório, who is in turn leaving the UK lender later this year to become chairman of Credit Suisse. Meanwhile, UBS’ recently recruited former ING boss, Ralph Hamers, is settling in as CEO and already making an impact. Another major development is the departure of UniCredit’s longstanding CEO Jean Pierre Mustier, after disagreements over where the Italian lender was heading.

What does this merry-go-round at the top say about European banking? Lloyds’ selection of Nunn—a Briton and former McKinsey partner—comes at a time when the strongly UK-focused lender is preparing to cope with the combined economic fallout of Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic.

Frenchman Mustier’s departure from UniCredit comes after his resistance to a merger with the bailed-out Monte dei Paschi and criticism that, by planning to establish a separate holding company in Germany, he was intent on diluting UniCredit’s identity as primarily an Italian, rather than pan-European, lender.

And while the Portuguese Horta-Osório’s move to Switzerland confirms his international credentials, there was a hotly contested ousting of Credit Suisse’s former boss, the Ivorian Tidjane Thiam, and his replacement by Thomas Gottstein, the first Swiss national to become CEO in decades.

Can one detect a strain of resurgent nationalism—or at least a preference for homegrown talent—amid this game of musical chairs? If so, it runs counter to many policymakers’ recommendations that cross-border mergers and acquisitions are needed to strengthen Europe’s banking industry.

The skill sets of the new appointees are also striking. Nunn will bring to Lloyds his strong digital expertise, while the digital transformation of ING is at the very center of Hamers’ achievements as CEO.

“Strategic vision” is also high on the list of leadership qualities, as Europe’s banks struggle with negative interest rates while preparing for Covid-19-related loan losses. Horta-Osório and Mustier have well-established track records here, since both marked out their respective bank’s road to recovery from the 2008 financial crisis. And while Nunn is the new guy at the top, his years at strategy consultant McKinsey may provide him with the holistic vision that will be needed at Lloyds.