Mike Ashley victim of ‘abuse’ by US bank Morgan Stanley, high court hears

The billionaire businessman Mike Ashley has claimed he was the victim of “abuse” by Morgan Stanley amid a high court dispute over the investment bank’s decision to impose a near $1bn (£790m) cash demand.

Ashley’s Frasers Group is taking legal action against the US investment bank Morgan Stanley and Denmark’s Saxo Bank over the May 2021 move linked to bets placed on shares in the German retailer Hugo Boss.

Frasers wants £40m in compensation for alleged costs and lost trading profits after Morgan Stanley imposed a “margin call” – a demand for collateral – to cover any potential losses on shares in Hugo Boss that the UK retail group was speculating on.

Lawyers for Frasers told the court the margin call was made by the US bank to allegedly produce “the forced eviction or close out of Frasers’ open positions in Hugo Boss shares”.

During the hearing in London, Ashley claimed Morgan Stanley had acted “grotesquely”.

Saxo Bank and Morgan Stanley deny the claims, with barristers for the US bank saying the allegations were “divorced from the legal and factual reality”.

Giving evidence on Thursday, Ashley was asked by Morgan Stanley’s barrister, Camilla Bingham KC, whether he agreed with his lawyers in suggesting he was a victim of “snobbery”.

She asked: “Your lawyers suggest that Morgan Stanley maintained the margin call at least in part as a result of snobbery. You don’t believe that.”

Ashley replied: “I do believe that there is an element of that, yes.” Bingham then asked: “So are you a victim?” The businessman said: “I am a victim of Morgan Stanley’s abuse.”

Frasers, which was known as Sports Direct International until 2019, owns a wide range of companies including House of Fraser, Game, Jack Wills, Sports Direct and Missguided.

Ashley was the group’s chief executive at the time of the Hugo Boss incident, but stepped down from the role in 2022. He remains Frasers’ majority shareholder.

In written arguments, Adrian Beltrami KC, representing Frasers, said Morgan Stanley’s “erratic behaviour” was “at least partly the result of snobbery” towards Ashley.

He said this was fuelled by a personal dislike of Ashley from a Morgan Stanley banker, which the barrister suggested was “class-driven” and because the businessman was seen as an “upstart”.

Beltrami said the margin call “simply became the vehicle by which Morgan Stanley would enforce that which it was otherwise not entitled to require, namely the total removal of the trades from Morgan Stanley’s books”.

skip past newsletter promotion

The move resulted in Saxo Bank, which acted as a broker, then asking Frasers to pay $900m, something Beltrami said would have been “disastrous” for the company. The request was eventually blocked by the high court in June 2021 after Ashley took legal action.

The retailer said on Thursday that he was in “disbelief” when Morgan Stanley made the margin call.

But Bingham said in her written submissions that Frasers’ claims were “not grounded in any form of recognisable legal or factual reality” and that it had “embarked on ‘lawfare’ against Morgan Stanley on an extraordinary scale” despite suffering “no true loss”.

When asked what the objective was, Ashley replied: “It is to show how, in my opinion, grotesquely and unfairly Morgan Stanley acted.”

Bingham also asked Ashley: “Is doing the right thing a mantra you live by?” He replied: “I like to think so, yes.”

The trial before Mr Justice Bryan is due to conclude next month, with a judgment expected at a later date.