x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Deutsche Bank's fall from grace

Throughout the financial crisis, Deutsche Bank was a shining beacon of international finance. Or so it seemed.

Police vehicles line up outside Deutsche Bank's Frankfurt HQ as part of an investigation into alleged involvement in tax evasion. Kai Pfaffenbach / Reuters
Police vehicles line up outside Deutsche Bank's Frankfurt HQ as part of an investigation into alleged involvement in tax evasion. Kai Pfaffenbach / Reuters

For decades, Deutsche Bank, Germany's biggest lender, traded on its reputation as a beacon of solid, dependable banking.

It helped to engineer the country's postwar economic miracle, not only with credit but by providing guidance as a major shareholder in the biggest industrial companies.

It advised the German government on how to tackle the 2007 to 2009 financial earthquake, during which it didn't require a bailout itself, and on complex international debt negotiations during the euro crisis.

Its executives walked tall, as veritable international statesmen of capital, controlling a global banking empire - with more than 100,000 staff in more than 70 countries - from their impressive twin-towered headquarters in Frankfurt.

How times have changed.

On Wednesday, December 12, an army of 500 police officers, tax investigators and prosecutors pulled up in front of those towers in dozens of cars and vans and searched offices, including that of Jürgen Fitschen, the co-chief executive.

They were investigating Deutsche's alleged involvement in tax evasion on trades in carbon emissions certificates, and they accuse some Deutsche Bank staff members of failing to cooperate fully with the police in the case, which dates back three years.

Five Deutsche Bank managers were arrested last month, and 25 employees are under investigation, including Mr Fitschen and Stefan Krause, the chief financial officer, who signed an allegedly erroneous sales-tax return for Deutsche Bank for 2009.

A helicopter hovered over the location in downtown Frankfurt during the raid, which had all the hallmarks of a swoop on an organised-crime syndicate.

It was a humiliating display of judicial force that symbolises the bank's dramatic fall from grace since the financial crisis.

Deutsche Bank's recent past has started to catch up with it. The bank raked in billions in profits during the wild years of no-holds-barred investment banking that led up to the 2008 crash. It scored its highest-ever net profit - €6.5 billion (Dh31.2bn) - in 2007.

But it is now inundated with lawsuits from investors demanding compensation and alleging Deutsche sold them subprime assets without telling them how risky they were. The bank has saddled itself with a reputation for being bent on aggressively maximising its own profits, with scant regard for what it sells or who it deals with.

Deutsche said in its third-quarter report that in the worst-case scenario, its possible future losses from various "litigation risks" amounted to €2.5bn.

The events have sparked reactions from top politicians including Wolfgang Schäuble, the finance minister and a member of the ruling conservative Christian Democratic Union party, which tends to be more favourable to banks than other parties.

"Of course all this isn't good news and it does make me wonder," said Mr Schäuble. "But I have the confidence and the faith that those in charge will take these things seriously and investigate and put a stop to it as quickly as possible."

Bad news rained down on Deutsche during the final weeks of last year. On December 14, a Munich court ordered it to pay damages to the representatives of the late media mogul Leo Kirch, who claimed Deutsche's former chief executive, Rolf Breuer, triggered his media group's downfall by questioning its creditworthiness during a 2002 television interview.

Kirch sought for years to recoup about €2bn in damages before he died in 2011 at the age of 84. The level of damages will be determined by an outside expert, the court decided. Deutsche maintains the claims made by Kirch are unfounded.

A further risk looms from an ongoing probe into Deutsche's role in a global interest rate-fixing scandal.

It has received subpoenas from various regulators around the world in connection with the setting of the benchmark London Interbank Offered Rate (Libor).

To give an idea of the potential costs from the Libor case, on December 19, the Swiss bank UBS admitted to fraud and bribery in connection with efforts to rig the interest rates and agreed to pay US$1.5bn (Dh5.5bn) in fines to regulators in the United States, United Kingdom and Switzerland to settle the charges, while Barclays paid a $450 million fine in June.

As if that was not enough, three former Deutsche Bank employees have filed complaints with US securities regulators claiming the bank failed to recognise up to $12bn of unrealised losses during the financial crisis.

They include Eric Ben-Artzi, who worked in the risk division of the bank's North American headquarters in New York. He alleges billions of dollars in liabilities from its complex trades should have been recorded on the bank's balance sheet, but were not. He was fired at the end of 2011 after pointing out his concerns to his superiors.

If those particular accusations are true - which Deutsche Bank vehemently denies - it would mean the bank may have avoided a bailout under false pretences during the financial crisis.

Adding to the bad news, Deutsche warned last month that charges relating to its restructuring, which includes shifting risky assets into a non-core subsidiary to clean up its balance sheet, would have a "significant negative impact" on the bank's earnings during the fourth quarter of last year.

Few doubt that Deutsche is financially strong enough to weather the lawsuits. It may lose some, win others and settle the rest. Indeed, according to the bank's stock-performance calculator, 100 shares bought for €3,394 on November 30 were worth €3,479 by Friday's close.

But it is the damage done to its reputation that will be far harder to repair. The bank's main asset, its trustworthiness as a business partner, is at stake.

Mr Fitschen and Anshu Jain, who took over the helm as joint chief executives in June after Josef Ackermann retired, have pledged to revamp the bank's business culture and put a stop to the aggressive, high-risk profit chasing Deutsche, like scores of other players in the business, was known for.

The problem is they are not exactly new brooms. They are tainted by Deutsche's past activities because they have been at the bank for a combined total of more than 40 years.

Many of the police investigations centre on the investment banking business, which Mr Jain was in charge of before he became co-chief executive.

Mr Fitschen, who previously headed the bank's Germany business, was installed alongside Mr Jain because of his knowledge of the domestic political system and business environment - and because he has a reputation as an old-school banker who represents Deutsche's traditional values.

It is ironic, therefore, that Mr Fitschen is the one under investigation, and that he made a serious political faux-pas in response to the December 12 raid.

He rang up the governor of the state of Hesse, Volker Bouffier, to complain about the scale of the police operation and to point out it would have a disastrous impact on the bank's image.

Mr Bouffier replied, predictably, that police operations were up to prosecutors and that he, as a politician, could not interfere.

When news of the call was leaked, politicians reacted with outrage, accusing Mr Fitschen of trying to put himself and his bank above the law.

"A politician would have lost his job if he had tried to obstruct the work of the prosecutors or the police with a call to the state governor," said Sigmar Gabriel, the leader of the opposition Social Democratic Party (SPD).

Mr Fitschen's move is likely to make the SPD all the more determined to carry out its threat to break up the bank if it wins the next general election in September.

"If we shrink the big banks back to health, separate the investment banking from the normal bank business and forbid fantasy yields from being earned on fantasy trades at the taxpayers' expense, we may see honest business people return to the boardrooms of international banks," said Mr Gabriel.

Deutsche's management has grasped what is at stake. In a letter to staff before Christmas, Mr Fitschen and Mr Jain pledged to redouble their efforts to change Deutsche's business culture.

"This change isn't easy and will take time," they wrote. "But it must, and will, take place."

Time will tell.