Opinion: Deutsche Bank — the decline of an icon | Business| Economy and finance news from a German perspective | DW | 08.04.2018
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Opinion: Deutsche Bank — the decline of an icon

Once again, Deutsche Bank has a new man at the helm. Once again, it’s hoped that his appointment will make everything better. The task he is facing? Nothing less than staving off collapse, says DW's Henrik Böhme.

It was the first Sunday in June, less than three years ago. Germany was hosting the G7 summit at Elmau castle in Krün, Bavaria. The eyes of the international media were on the event. Then came the bombshell news from Frankfurt that Deutsche Bank's boss was on his way out. Anshu Jain, a British-Indian lauded for his intelligence, was replaced by another Brit, John Cryan. Their personalities were considered contrasting. Cryan had a reputation as a dogged worker and was apparently called "Mr Grumpy" behind his back at Deutsche Bank's headquarters. He was brought in by supervisory board chairman, Paul Achleitner; the two men knew and respected each other.

Read more: Deutsche Bank names Christian Sewing new CEO

Cryan got to work and kept a low profile. For months, it was impossible to get your hands on an up-to-date photograph of him. He approached the bank's balance sheets with iron discipline, accepting losses of some seven billion dollars. The management board was shaken up and a new strategy introduced. Cryan faced enormous obstacles, especially in dealing with the fallout of legal proceedings in the United States. By late 2016, the bank was facing a 14-billion dollar fine which could have left it in ruins. In government circles in Berlin, there was even talk of a bailout. It is to the credit of John Cryan that this horror scenario was never realized.

Read more: John Cryan unleashes his fighting Spirit

Boehme Henrik portrait

DW's Henrik Böhme

An unfortunate fate

Cryan asked for patience. After all, dealing with the mistakes of the past would take time. But the comparison with the fate of other banks, which had also faced billions in fines for bad behavior, was unsettling. As many US banks began to recover, Deutsche Bank continued its descent in international ratings. In Frankfurt, hopes that the institution would continue to grow in global importance began to fade.

It is not clear when exactly the split between Cryan and supervisory board chairman Achleitner took place. But it may have been just before Christmas last year, when it became apparent that Deutsche Bank was preparing to post its third consecutive year of losses. The real reason for the poorer-than-expected results was in fact US President Donald Trump's tax reform. But nobody seemed too interested in this explanation, and Achleitner seemed unsatisfied with Cryan's overall performance. For example, Britain's imminent departure from the European Union was originally expected to result in an estimated 4000 investment bankers moving away from London, many of them destined for Frankfurt. But this has not materialized, which is hardly a surprise given that 90 percent of the team responsible for the move are Brits.

Back to its roots?

Now, once again, a German is to take charge of Deutsche Bank. Christian Sewing's connection with the institution began 30 years ago, when he worked as a trainee at a branch in Bielefeld. He is taking on an unenviable job. Already, confidence in his ability to turn the fortunes of the bank around does not appear high. Major shareholders have expressed the view that he is ill-prepared for the job. But supervisory board chairman Achleitner's decision to appoint him appears to reflect a change in strategy. Could less investment banking and more bread-and butter business at home be on the cards? In other words, is this appointment about putting the "Deutsch" back into Deutsche Bank?

For the new boss, the need for another overhaul also presents potential pitfalls. Once again, time and energy will be required to devise a new strategy – and this at a time one of fierce competition. Expanding operations domestically will not be an easy task as there are more than 1600 banks to choose from in Germany. In many cases, their business models involve financing the country's famed Mittelstand, a term referring to small and medium enterprises. Deutsche Bank is therefore unlikely to find many people lining up for its services. And major German companies have long been looking elsewhere for banks to oversee mergers and takeovers. 

Deutsche Bank, once an icon and driver of German business, has been reduced to mediocrity. Its share price has plummeted and its image is in tatters. The institution itself could be in the market for a takeover. But who would want to take it on? The next person to go should be Paul Achleitner. In its present form, Deutsche Bank is of no use to anybody. Achleitner had ample time to turn things around. But he has achieved nothing.

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