Opinion: Deutsche Bank′s new plan is no humdinger | Business| Economy and finance news from a German perspective | DW | 27.04.2015
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Opinion: Deutsche Bank's new plan is no humdinger

Deutsche Bank plans to consolidate in order to grow its earnings. DW's Henrik Böhme says the new plan - a long-delayed response to the great financial crisis - is no guarantee of future success.

Modesty seems to have set in throughout the executive suites tucked behind the glass facade of Deutsche Bank's glitzy Frankfurt headquarters.

At times during the press conference here, during which the bank's co-heads, Jürgen Fitschen and Anshu Jain, explained their new corporate strategy, there was a touch of humility in the air.

Whether simulated or real, the new mood reflected the bank's recognition that a return to normalcy was in order - a return that promises to be a painful and expensive process.

For years, the bank lived large, overstepping its boundaries, yet somehow it made it through the great financial crisis without major damage. Nevertheless, its past keeps catching up to it.

It's a past in which Deutsche's humility was scorned, one involving police raids and dramatic financial penalties for various forms of wrong-doing imposed by a variety of courts and regulators. The bank's reputation, once as unblemished as its shiny facade, has been marred by scratches and dents.

Somewhere between humility and arrogance

And yet, at a press conference meant to signal a major pivot, we hear sentences like: "We will in future concentrate on clients that are interested in a mutually beneficial partnership." Basically: We don't want clients who merely generate costs and no significant profits.

If I had an account at Deutsche Bank, I would have stopped by my local branch on the way home and closed it.

Anyway, back to humility: Deutsche Bank is not restructuring and slimming down because it is full of self-help groups obsessed with exuding humility. The bank is driven by circumstance. It is earning too little return on investments to satisfy shareholders and paying too high a price for the greed that characterized its business model in recent years.

If the world learned anything from the misery following Lehman Brothers' collapse, it was this: Taxpayers should never again have to pay for the gambling mistakes of bankers speculating with other people's money.

An expensive past

Since the crisis, Deutsche Bank has added 700 staff whose job is to monitor their colleagues - in an effort to ensure that they no longer engage in criminal activities like manipulating interest rates or cheating the taxman with dodgy CO2 certificates. The bank has had to put aside billions of euros to pay fines that have already been or will be imposed on it because of past misdeeds.

These are among the long-term consequences of the hubris that lead to the financial crisis. Jürgen Fitschen was right when he said the bank is different today than it was a few years ago. If the new strategy outlined at the press conference is implemented as planned, it will be different again tomorrow.

Gardeners know that a good pruning is necessary from time to time if a tree is to flourish. Such pruning is the order of the day for Deutsche Bank, even if it is bound to be painful.

The banking sector dances to a different tune now. The giants on Wall Street and big Chinese banks have continued to evolve their businesses. Deutsche Bank has to follow suit.

Henrik Böhme is DW's senior business editor

Henrik Böhme is Deutsche Welle's senior online business news editor

Deutsche Bank is the only remaining German bank that is global in scope. Given that Deutsche's only real competitor is Commerzbank, which had to be rescued by the state after the financial crisis and remains largely state-owned as a result, that isn't so hard.

The rest of Germany's banking sector is largely made up of publicly owned savings banks known as Sparkassen, whose mandates are limited by law to lending within their regional districts, plus some cooperative banks and some publicly owned development banks. There isn't really much competition for the No. 1 spot in German private banking.

No attempt at a big play

That may help explain why the bank's leadership seems to have lost its nerve in trying to agree on a sustainable business model for the institution's future. A more sensible plan than the one put forward today would have been to separate its private banking and investment banking businesses. That's what stock market analysts were expecting and hoping for.

But instead the bank's leadership has decided to stick to the old model. This new plan is anything but a humdinger. And there's plenty of risk in sticking with the old model.

On the bright side, one can find some comfort in the bank's clear commitment to keeping its headquarters in Germany.

The leadership duo, Fitschen and Jain, have a lot of work ahead of them, starting with the challenge of persuading their bank's senior employees to join them on the path they have chosen.

In the past, there was some pride in belonging to a powerful, widely respected institution. That pride has paled now that the bank is widely seen a prime example of all that's wrong with an arrogant, out-of-control financial sector.

Five years from now, the bank will celebrate the 150th anniversary of its founding. It will be interesting to see what condition Deutsche Bank will be in then.