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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 September 2018

Can new chief at Deutsche Bank do what old chief could not?

Reviving lender still requires even deeper cuts to staff and pay, upgrades to its creaky technology, and hard decisions on which businesses to let go

Christian Sewing, chief executive officer of Deutsche Bank (R), has replaced John Cryan. Andreas Arnold/Bloomberg
Christian Sewing, chief executive officer of Deutsche Bank (R), has replaced John Cryan. Andreas Arnold/Bloomberg

Deutsche Bank's near-farce of a CEO search, which saw the lender trying to lure glamorous outsiders, has ended with the "safety-first" candidate.

New boss Christian Sewing is a company lifer. He hails from the consumer rather than investment-banking side of the business. His most recent win was getting employees on board with deep job cuts, which gives a flavor of what might be next for Deutsche Bank's traders. Marcus Schenck, deputy CEO and co-head of the investment bank, is off - presumably because he could see the writing on the wall.

The decision marks an end of an era in terms of culture, and one that will probably please politicians and regulators. It’s a defeat for the global ambitions of the hard-charging risk-takers who have run Germany’s biggest bank for the past two decades, from Josef Ackermann to Anshu Jain. Most recently, John Cryan, who made serious efforts to halt excessive pay and risk-taking and shrink the lender to health, was unable to rally the institution behind him.

But this isn’t a victory for shareholders yet. Reviving Deutsche Bank still requires even deeper cuts to staff and pay, upgrades to its creaky technology, and hard decisions on which businesses to let go - particularly in the US. All of these come at a cost - profits and prestige will probably take a further hit. If Mr Cryan couldn’t pull this off, how can Mr Sewing?

Years of strategic about-turns and losses have left deep scars. Last year’s results showed a bank whose core businesses were barely making a profit, even after a big capital-raising designed to restore confidence. The “flow monster” trading arm’s best days are probably behind it, with cost cuts failing to keep pace with revenue declines.

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Even the private and commercial bank, where Mr Sewing has been co-head, is suffering from a home market where too many banks duke it out for too little profit. The division’s costs ate up 94 per cent of revenue, which is bleak indeed.

The response is likely more Deutsche, less Bank. Reducing its global footprint seems pretty much inevitable. A smaller US presence is on the cards, and prioritising Germany and Europe will no doubt keep stakeholders like the government and voters happy. Plans to ramp up lending to small- and mid-sized companies, while pruning the number of bank branches, should hopefully improve the commercial bank’s returns.

But how much freedom will Mr Sewing have to apply the scalpel to Deutsche’s trading operations? The last time a retail banker took over a big investment-banking brand in Europe, it didn’t end well: Antony Jenkins was ousted after three years at Barclays and replaced by Wall Street veteran Jes Staley.

It’s not clear how deep Mr Sewing’s institutional support runs. Chairman Paul Achleitner and the board have dithered just as much as anyone else over Deutsche Bank’s ambitions, as evidenced by the investment bankers initially approached to take over from Mr Cryan.

Deutsche Bank has been the cheapest European bank in its peer group for some time. Investors will probably find the new face at the top an acceptable and low-risk one. But that isn't grounds to be optimistic that this change will lead to revival in the near-term.

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