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Opinion

Opinion: Deutsche Bank in search of meaning

The situation must be really bad for a firm that tries to sell a gigantic loss as a success story, as Deutsche Bank has done. After a year of transition, it's time for CEO John Cryan to deliver, says DW's Henrik Böhme.

The year 2016 would be "a year of transition," insisted Cryan in the summer of 2015 when he took over as CEO of Germany's biggest financial institution. The transition meant: cleaning up the bank, getting rid of its toxic assets and leaving the past behind. It also included mending the bank's shattered reputation, bolstering its market value and coming up with a new strategy.

Still, the bank's annual figures for 2016, presented on Thursday in Frankfurt, disappointed investors. The lender reported what bankers call a "negative surplus" of 1.4 billion euros ($1.5 billion) for the year. In clearer terms: a loss of 1.4 billion euros.

The bank, however, didn't make any announcement regarding a potential restructuring of its activities, like a possible spin-off of its investment banking division or sale of the Postbank.

Instead, Deutsche simply noted that abrupt shifts in strategy had never proved successful, especially when it came to banks. The bank's heavily battered investors have been once again asked to remain patient. Perhaps there will be new developments by May, when the Annual General Meeting is scheduled to take place.

Boehme Henrik Kommentarbild App

DW's Henrik Böhme

Why do we need it?

This is the most important question: Why do we need a Deutsche Bank? It was once the linchpin of the German corporate world, financing large German firms on their journey to emerge as business champions on the global market. But when the bank tried to emulate this success and become a big player itself on the world stage, troubles began.

And the problems became so severe that during last fall the once proud bank was left teetering on the brink of collapse and rumored to be ready to beg the government for state aid.

To repair the damage, the bank has had to slash thousands of jobs and pay fines worth billions. And although it was too late to come, Cryan finally issued a sincere apology for the long list of misdeeds committed by the bank over the years. John Cryan deserves respect for doing that. But it's time for the Brit to deliver now and give clarity on the bank's future direction.

It's not enough to simply say: "Our strategy is to become a successful bank." It's just an empty platitude for an almost 150-year-old bank, which has always wanted to be the benchmark of performance, at least in Germany.

Cryan must deliver!

It is also not enough to announce that the bank will give no loans for the construction of coal-fired power stations. It's a laudable move, but that cannot be all when it comes to what the bank can do, unless Deutsche is attempting to make mediocrity the new benchmark. In terms of its market capitalization, the bank already finds itself way behind the champions in the sector.

Given the current state of affairs, Deutsche might also do well to consider reverting to its previous role as the bank for Germany, financing the country's famed Mittelstand - the small- and medium-sized companies - and hippy start-ups in the capital Berlin.

And of course, it must also once again become a big player in deals involving German firms.

It should never allow a repeat of what happened last year when Bayer clinched Monsanto. The German drug and crop chemicals maker bought the US seeds firm for $66 billion, and Deutsche Bank wasn't among the banks that offered financing for Bayer. 

Likewise, Deutsche didn't play any part in a 20 billion euro ($21 billion) bridging loan for automaker Volkswagen.

If 2016 was a "year of transition," then 2017 must be a "year of departure." John Cryan, who is without doubt a meticulous, hardworking executive, must now become the architect of a new Deutsche Bank. Otherwise, he will remain only a man of transition.

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