Deutsche Bank fuelled Germany’s rise to the status of economic powerhouse, financing its industry in the 19th century and helping the country’s economy to rise again from the rubble of the second world war.
It took on the giants of Wall Street in the postwar globalised economy and survived the 2008 banking crisis without a bailout.
Such is its stature that in 2008 Angela Merkel organised a special 60th birthday party, with a dinner of fresh asparagus and veal schnitzel, for its then head, Josef Ackermann, at her chancellery.
But now as the institution enters its 146th year, questions are being raised about how it will reinvent itself in a banking landscape that is undergoing seismic change as a result of regulatory change and fears of a global economic downturn.
The bank has turned to a 55-year-old Briton, John Cryan, to try to carve out a vision for its future and its 100,000 employees. But Cryan – taking the extraordinary step of declaring Deutsche “rock solid” – has spent the last 72 hours trying to calm concerns about its financial health after a dramatic plunge in its share price that, even after a 10% rise on Wednesday, is still down more than 30% in the first six weeks of 2016.
After announcing the bank’s first full-year loss since the 2008 crisis last month, Cryan’s bank has become the focus of anxiety about the health of the global financial system, and its woes are raising questions about Germany’s reputation as a haven of financial stability. Experts suggest that the country’s entire banking system would have to be redesigned in order to save its standard-bearer.
According to Jörg Rocholl, president of Berlin’s European school of management and technology, “there is no other country in the world in which a bank has a similarly central role as Deutsche Bank has in Germany”.
Christopher Wheeler, banks analyst at Atlantic Equities, said Deutsche had resembled the UK’s Barclays: an investment bank and large lender to big businesses with a retail banking arm. But it is now attempting to cast off its retail business – Postbank, which it only acquired in 2010 – raising questions about how it will generate revenues in the future.
Attempts to spin off Postbank are proving troublesome and a report on Wednesday suggested that Deutsche would have to write down the value of the business by a third to €2.8bn (£2.2bn) before it could proceed any further.
Add to that concerns about the potential bill from litigation and fines. Analysts at Morgan Stanley have forecast another €3.9bn of charges in 2016 and 2017. “It is also possible the litigation may not be resolved until 2017, leaving uncertainty on the stock,” the analysts said.
They cite “unresolved litigation which the market struggles to book-end, weak capital generation and need for capital raising actions”.
Cryan – who has already announced plans to reduce the workforce by a quarter – took on a bank that had been rocked by scandals, including a record £1.7bn fine for rigging the Libor interest rate, which sparked accusations it had been obstructive towards regulators.
He has described the task ahead of him like mowing the lawn. In December he said previous attempts to cut costs at the bank had involved taking off the top layer, which grew back when it rained as the number of blades of grass remained the same. What he needed to do, he said, was to make the lawn smaller.
Investors are yet to be convinced by his plan for shrinking the bank. The cost of insuring Deutsche against default – by using complex financial instruments called credit default swaps (CDS)– has risen, although the Morgan Stanley analysts suggest this could be for technical reasons.
With rumours – denied – that Deutsche might not be able to make payments on specialised bonds known as CoCos that can be converted into shares during times of crisis, investors may have been using the CDS as a form of insurance.
Others point to speculators. “Hedge funds are betting the regulator will make Deutsche pass on paying the coupon on the CoCo, so buy the CDS as a proxy for the subsequent decline in the CoCos’ value … As the CDS spikes, other investors get nervous about the bank’s health,” said Wheeler.
He is confident that Deutsche will emerge from the crisis, which has already prompted German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble to intervene to insist he had “no concerns” about the bank.
While Schäuble will have been pleased to see the lack of panic about Deutsche’s troubles in the German media, he may have been irked by a damning front-page comment in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
Headquartered in the same city as the bank, the newspaper said: “What is one to think of a bank that has to promise its customers and investors that it is able to pay back credits? How solid is a bank that has shed a third of its shareholder value in a month, and half of it over the course of a year? It’s no longer just the customer of a couple of Greek banks that are asking such tough questions, but the customers of Deutsche Bank.”
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