It was barely noticed at all when Macquarie shifted $4.74 billion out of one division into another the other day. Only The Wall Street Journal picked up the story, although it proffered no explanation for the latest asset shuffle.
However, insiders at the bank saw the move as further evidence that Shemara Wikramanayake is firming as a successor to chief executive Nicholas Moore. The 51-year-old Wikramanayake runs Macquarie Funds Group, and that's where the money was headed, along with another 20 staff.
"MFG contributes upwards of 30 per cent of [Macquarie's] earnings and the head of MFG is one of those tipped to succeed [Nicholas Moore]," one source told BusinessDay. The source then quipped: "Although being female, subcontinental, non-white and human, [it] would be a complete cultural overhaul and [is] unlikely to happen."
Others believe Wikramanayake is the logical choice for the top job.
"She's trusted by Nick Moore," says another source. "Shemara is the only one [of the bank's top executives] who came through the GFC unscathed. No transactions which went pear shaped.
"She's calmly spoken, has experience in Asia and in corporate finance, and she's super smart."
Among the rival contenders to succeed Moore are Andrew Downe, who heads the fixed-income, currencies and commodities division, and the head of Macquarie Capital, Tim Bishop. But while both Downe and Bishop have been embroiled in controversial transactions over the years, Wikramanayake appears to have a clean sheet.
Now she presides over the bank's most profitable and cherished division, overseeing about $300 billion in assets in 21 countries and 1500 staff.
Another telling sign Wikramanayake's star is on the rise lies in Macquarie's famous remuneration tables. Moore was paid $7.79 million in salary, bonus, benefits and vested shares last year - down from $8.69 million the year before.
And while Downe's pay slipped from $8.38 million to $7.26 million, Wikramanayake took home $7.36 million. It was well up on the $5.62 million she picked up the year before, thrusting her into second place behind Moore. That's a big rise in a year when the bank's profits fell 24 per cent to $730 million.
Bishop collected only $998,732, a far cry from the $3.78 million he was paid a year earlier.
During the halcyon days of the boom, and the $30 million salaries, it was Moore who routinely ranked just behind the then chief executive Allan Moss in the pay stakes. As architect of the "Macquarie model" of infrastructure trusts, Moore had booked more profits than any investment banker in Australian history. He was duly rewarded with the top job when Moss, with impeccable timing, stepped aside in May 2008.
While Moore inherited a business that had had its heyday and soon had to deal with four years of global financial turmoil, he did make some critical strategic blunders, too.
His principal mistake was diving into the North American and European markets to buy brokers and transaction-type businesses in the direct aftermath of the global financial crisis. Volumes in mergers and acquisitions and in broking failed to recover, and geographically Asia was where it was at.
The bank has been criticised for the lack of a compelling, coherent Asian strategy despite having some excellent businesses early.
This contrast tells the story: Macquarie many years ago entered Korea, where funds management was growing, but despite the difficulties in getting established - regulation and licensing and so forth - as the GFC took it sold its business to Goldman Sachs. Meanwhile, sensing an opportunity to acquire clients, distribution and a business network in Europe on the cheap, Macquarie swooped on private bank Oppenheim.
"The senior executives in the securities business - and it was ultimately approved by Nicholas Moore - liked the deal," a former insider says. "They thought they were getting it for almost zero ... so it went ahead ... and they extolled the virtues of the deal in the media.
"In short, since then the business has been pretty much a disaster, bleeding money since acquisition and now pretty much wound down. The cost would be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. This also coincided with the retirement of Roy Laidlaw [once touted as a possible chief executive too] and others ... again most probably receiving all their payouts."
Such transactions led to the unravelling of Macquarie Securities while the funds management division - with its stable, reliable annuity income - emerged as the jewel in the bank's crown.
It is the state of the markets as much as strategic performance that has kept Macquarie's corporate fortunes on the wane, and its stock price below $30. And while the knives are not yet out for Moore, there is now increasing speculation about succession.
There is another key element in all this. As revealed in BusinessDay this month, the bank's stockbroking division, Macquarie Private Wealth, (MPW), is being investigated by the Australian Securities & Investments Commission over alleged compliance failures.
MPW sits in the banking and financial services division (BFS). And it was from BFS that the $4.7 billion in assets were transferred.
Specifically it was some of the white-label hedge funds, Professional Series and the like, which were moved from Macquarie Global Investors "a tribal fiefdom within the Banking and Financial Services Group to the ever powerful Macquarie Funds Group", as one source puts it.
BFS is run by Peter Maher, once also considered a rising star at the bank. But ASIC's investigation, which could produce costly "enforceable undertakings", and further reduce the value of the broking business, comes on top of the Storm Financial debacle.
The remnants of the Storm business, now liabilities in the guise of the present Federal Court action against the bank, also reside in BFS.
And so it is that the funds transfer out of BFS might not be merely enhancing the career fortunes of Shemara Wikramanayake but might also presage something dramatic on the restructuring front.