Swiss banking giant UBS on Tuesday reported surprisingly strong first-quarter net profits, and announced an overhaul of its legal structure targeted at benefiting shareholders.For the three first months of the year the bank, Switzerland's biggest, posted a net profit up 7.0 percent to 1.05 billion Swiss francs ($1.2 billion, 865 million euros).It thus easily beat the expectations of analysts polled by the AWP financial news agency, who had anticipated a net profit of 855 million Swiss francs for the quarter.UBS chief Sergio Ermotti and chairman Axel Weber hailed the result as "a solid performance achieved despite a volatile operating environment."The bank's sales were meanwhile down 7.0 percent to 7.2 billion Swiss francs, just missing analyst expectations it would rake in 7.3 billion during the January-to-March period.The bank announced separately that it was creating a new group holding company aimed at making it easier to separate any divisions that might run into difficulties and shield the rest.
The new holding company is to be set up through a share-for-share exchange offer starting later this year if it receives the necessary regulatory approvals.It is meant to help the bank avoid a repetition of the 2008 crisis, when Switzerland had to step in and save the bank from tanking and dragging the entire Swiss economy down with it.
The new structure should bring the bank in line with Swiss requirements implemented after that crisis to ensure banks do not become "too big to fail", potentially allowing it to cut back on the amount of money it has to set aside to cover any possible losses."Following the completion of the transaction, UBS expects to propose a supplementary capital return of at least 0.25 Swiss francs per share to shareholders of the new group holding company," the bank said.- Shares rise -At the same time, UBS said it had pushed its cash holding ratio up to 13.2 percent, passing its 13.0-percent target for all of 2014 and keeping well in line with the global Basel III rules, drawn up after the global financial crisis to make banks reinforce their capital reserves."Surpassing the 13-percent ... ratio target we set two years ago is a major milestone for the firm and its stakeholders," Ermotti said in the earnings statement.Passing this mark had been one of the preconditions set by the bank for hiking the capital returns it dishes out to shareholders.In its earnings release on Tuesday, UBS said its wealth management division, which it is in the process of expanding, posted a pre-tax profit of 659 million francs, pulling in 10.9 billion in net new cash during the quarter, with the Asia Pacific and emerging markets contributing the most.Its Americas wealth management activities, which are accounted for separately, notched up a pre-tax profit of $284 million and booked $2.1 billion in new money.UBS's long struggling investment bank division meanwhile posted a pre-tax profit of 549 million Swiss francs, it said.Analysts at Jefferies were not very impressed, lamenting the group's "surprisingly weak performance relative to peers in the investment bank."The analysis firm, which maintained its "hold" rating, stressed though in a research note that while UBS's "strategy targets do not move the dial meaningfully against our expectations", "the 0.25-Swiss franc special dividend is welcome."Investors meanwhile welcomed Tuesday's announcements, pushing the UBS share up 0.77 percent to 18.41 Swiss francs a piece in late-morning trading as the Swiss stock exchange's main SMI index rose 0.01 percent.