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Swiss Life bosses face calls to resign

Andres Leuenberger (left) and Roland Chlapowski are under presssure to resign

(Keystone Archive)

Top executives at troubled insurer Swiss Life are facing growing pressure to resign after a series of scandals.

Swiss media and politicians have called for heads to roll following the disclosure of two huge accounting errors and a secretive investment vehicle for top managers.

Swiss Life revealed on Friday that six top managers made millions by investing in Long Term Strategy AG (LTS), a three-year-old company with close ties to the insurer. Its existence was only disclosed earlier in the week.

The managers, including chief executive Roland Chlapowski, invested their own money in LTS, making a combined profit of SFr7.7 million ($5.24 million).

On Monday, a Zurich district prosecutor announced that he was starting a probe into LTS.

Chlapowski said that LTS's activities were above board and that there were no conflicts of interest. He also denied the business had been a licence to print money for the firm's management.

LTS's activities were terminated after Swiss Life's chairman of the board, Andres Leuenberger, ordered its dissolution earlier this year.

Leuenberger said he had known about LTS since 2000 but had not invested in the company. He explained that he had only acted after the insurer's own financial problems became apparent.

Heavy criticism

Swiss newspapers and politicians called for the resignations of both Chlapowski and Leuenberger over the weekend.

The "SonntagsZeitung" newspaper said both men should leave their jobs quickly "for the sake of the insurer".

In the same paper, Herbert Lüthy, head of the Federal Office of Private Insurance, admitted that his faith in Swiss Life was no longer "intact".

Chlapowski and Leuenberger have been summoned to Bern to give further explanations about LTS, which is being investigated by the Office.

In the "Sonntagsblick", Christine Egerszegi, like Leuenberger a member of the Radical Party, also called for changes at Swiss Life.

"They have cast the whole insurance sector in a bad light," she said. "I hope there will be staff changes."

Difficult times

Gerold Bührer, president of the Swiss Radical Party and a Swiss Life board member, admitted the situation was disagreeable.

But he also said he would not quit the board because he felt he should see the reorganisation of the company through to the end.

Other politicians voiced their concerns. Ueli Maurer, president of the right-wing People's Party, said he feared further irregularities.

Philipp Stähelin, head of the Christian Democrats, said the lack of confidence in the insurer had now spread across the entire Swiss financial sector.

Rudolf Strahm, a Social Democrat member of parliament, called for strong measures. "What the managers of Swiss Life did is close to corruption," he said on Swiss radio.

Bad timing

Media and political pressure could hardly have come at a worse time for Swiss Life.

The company recently admitted two separate accounting errors, worth more than SFr450 million, plunging its figures even further into the red.

Managers are currently attempting to revive the insurer's fortunes, which took a turn for the worse after a failed earnings diversification drive.

Shareholders approved a SFr1.2 billion ($810 million) capital increase last month, and the company is preparing to shed 700 jobs, including 500 in Switzerland.

Analysts say, however, that the ongoing furore is unlikely to lead to a revision of Swiss Life's plans.

Giving up on the capital increase would be disastrous for the insurer, as would management and board changes before its issue, they say.

Shareholders have little room to manoeuvre. According to analysts, they have no choice but to underwrite the capital issue, since failure to do so would only undermine their earlier investment.

Swiss Life shares have lost over 80 per cent of their value since the beginning of the year.

swissinfo with agencies


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