Shemara Wikramanayake.

IT WAS barely noticed when Macquarie shifted $4.74 billion out of one division into another earlier this week. Only The Wall Street Journal picked up the story, though 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 [Moore],” one source told BusinessDay.

”Although being female, subcontinental, non-white and human, [it] would be a complete cultural overhaul and [is] unlikely to happen,” the source quipped.

Others believe Wikramanayake is the logical choice for the top job.

”She’s trusted by Moore. 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,” says another.

Among the contenders to succeed Moore are Andrew Downe, who heads Fixed Income, Currencies and Commodities, and the head of Macquarie Capital, Tim Bishop. But while Downe and Bishop have been embroiled in controversial transactions over the years, Wikramanayake seems to have a clean sheet.

And now she presides over the bank’s most profitable and cherished division – about $300 billion in assets in 21 countries with 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 – that was 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. That’s a big rise in a year when the bank’s profits fell 24 per cent to $730 million. It was well up on the $5.62 million she picked up the year before, eclipsing Downe and thrusting her into second place behind Moore.

Bishop received $998,732, a far cry from the $3.78 million 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. And 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 that was now sailing into four years of fierce global headwinds, he did make some critical strategic blunders, too.

His principal mistake was diving headlong into the North American and European markets to buy brokers and transaction-type businesses in the direct aftermath of the GFC. Volumes in M&A and in broking failed to recover and, geographically, Asia was where it was at. The bank has been criticised for lack of a compelling, coherent Asian strategy despite getting in early with some excellent businesses in the region.

This contrast tells the story: Macquarie had entered Korea many years ago, and Korean funds management was growing, but despite the difficulty of getting established – regulation and licensing and so forth – it sold its business to Goldman Sachs as the GFC took hold.

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 rising speculation about succession.

There is another key element in all this. As revealed in BusinessDay recently, the bank’s stockbroking division, Macquarie Private Wealth is being investigated by the Australian Securities & Investments Commission for compliance failures.

MPW sits in the Banking and Financial Services division. And it was from BFS that the $4.7 billion in assets were transferred. BFS is run by Peter Maher, once also considered a rising star. And so it is that the funds transfer out of BFS may not be merely enhancing the career fortunes of Wikramanayake but may also presage something dramatic on the restructuring front.