Backstabbing and Brexit: Leaving the EU is making banks more political places than ever

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Alex Wilmot-Sitwell's exit from Bank of America in March 2018 was a sign. Wilmott-Sitwell, who was BAML's president for Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA), reportedly resigned after six years because he wasn't happy with the bank's strategy of shifting people to Europe and because he felt marginalised by the promotion of Bruce Thompson as head of the non-European UK business. It turns out he's not the only banker for whom Brexit is proving a political maelstrom.

As banks prepare to shift teams out of London to Paris or Frankfurt (mostly), insiders say Brexit has unleashed a wave of politicking within banks as senior staff compete to establish new centres of power. The winners and losers will help determine what the European banking industry looks like in future.

Bank of America is a case in point. In June, the U.S. bank announced plans to shift three executives to Paris, including Othmane Kabbaj, the former head of emerging markets EMEA fixed income, currency and commodity (FICC) sales, who became EU head of FICC sales in the process. BofA insiders say Kabbaj's acolytes are keen to move with their man as a way of future-proofing their careers: "The implicit message is that if you move with your boss so that he can fill the seats that need to be filled in the new Paris office, your career will be taken care of," observes one.

The same allegedly applies to those who move to work with Sanaz Zaimi, BofA's global head of FICC sales, whom the bank announced in June will be moving to Paris: London markets professionals who join her there expect to be remembered and rewarded in the Brexit afterlife.

However, the displacement of senior staff to Paris is also expected to create opportunities for those who stay behind, particularly those marginalised by the new Brexit-related offices in Europe. At BofA, insiders say people like Diego Parascandalo, the EMEA head of FICC structuring, who'd originally been expected to move to Paris, but isn't (partly because he doesn't speak French), are shaping up as opposing centres of power in London. Similarly, Bernard Mensah, who took over from Wilmott-Sitwell as president of the European business and is also global co-head of FICC trading based in London, is allegedly seen internally as an alternative pole of power to Zaimi and Vanessa Holtz (the new EU head of FICC trading) in Paris.

"A lot of people here think the Paris moves are just the vanity project of a few managers," says one BofA insider. "People are resistant to moving because costs are already high in the European business and it's not clear yet that these big new offices in Europe are necessary."

One senior headhunter said BofA is not the only bank where Brexit-related political issues are causing problems. "Exactly the same things are happening at Goldman Sachs, Citi and J.P. Morgan," he says, speaking off the record. "Brexit has become a big political issue - managers are positioning themselves to benefit from the fallout, or competing on how willing their teams are to move to Europe."

Arguably, Bank of America's Brexit politics are particularly pernicious though. - The U.S. bank has historic fault lines relating to the combination of Bank of America and Merrill Lynch, followed by the recruitment of a clique of ex-Goldman Sachs professionals under Tom Montag. "The Mensah-Zaimi-Montag dynamic is the one to watch," suggests one insider.

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