What You Need to Know
- Abandoning the deal likely signals that a difference in views between chairman Colm Kelleher and CEO Ralph Hamers.
- Hamers sold the deal as an acquisition of Wealthfront engineering talent and innovative culture.
- During Kelleher's tenure at Morgan Stanley, corporate strategy was geared more toward growing assets and wealth.
When UBS Group AG ditched its biggest acquisition in more than two decades with no explanation after markets closed on the Friday of Labor Day weekend, investors and everyone else were left to guess what happened.
Wall Street analysts have presumed that $1.4 billion is now just too much to pay for Wealthfront, a U.S. digital investment advisor that won’t make profits for years. Vertigo-inducing fintech valuations have returned rapidly to earth since the deal was struck in January, exemplified by Klarna AB. The Swedish Buy Now Pay Later company raised funds this summer at less than one-fifth of its valuation just 12 months earlier.
But price isn’t a sufficient explanation – UBS never attempted to justify the valuation, nor is it suddenly in need of conserving cash. Abandoning the deal likely signals that Colm Kelleher, who took over as chairman in April, may have a different view from Chief Executive Officer Ralph Hamers about how UBS should grow its U.S. business and improve its technology.
The bank gave no reckoning on the purchase price for Wealthfront when it struck the deal. Analysts viewed it as a high valuation at the time, equivalent to more than 5% of assets under management when similar businesses traded at closer to 3% of assets last year, according to data from Houlihan Lokey.
UBS also never disclosed financial expectations nor targets for the deal. In fact, Hamers told investors it would be counterproductive to try and make it profitable too soon. “If you expect [profits] to come from a business like that in the first five years, basically, you’re setting it up for failure,” he said when discussing the purchase during February’s full-year earnings call.
The CEO wanted to protect it from pressures to produce quick returns, preferring to let it pursue growth among younger, tech-savvy U.S. clients who are wealthy but not among UBS’s main super-rich clientele. But Hamers also sold it as an acquisition of the engineering talent and innovative culture of Wealthfront: UBS was buying the people who could improve its technology elsewhere.
Hamers had a technology-led focus on growth first and profits later in his previous role as CEO of ING Groep NV. The Dutch bank has long had a good reputation for innovation and digital banking in Europe but that didn’t translate into strong stock performance over the last two years of his leadership.