Stockholders go easy on Deutsche Bank | Business| Economy and finance news from a German perspective | DW | 19.05.2016
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Stockholders go easy on Deutsche Bank

With record losses, dismal stock prices, and a quarrel in the oversight committee, there was plenty of incriminating material at hand. But stockholders seemed rather resigned to the misery during their annual gathering.

A short film, a rapid ride through Deutsche Bank's 146-year history, sought to set the tone for the institution's annual stockholder gathering at Frankfurt's Festhalle. "The biggest bank in the world," one featured newspaper headline boasted. The catch: it was from 1914.

A century later, searching for Deutsche Bank's name among the rankings of top institutions would be in vain, with its place only secured on the list of so-called systemically important banks. With a current market worth of around 20 billion euros ($22.4 billion), the bank is rather a buy-out candidate, though no one seems now to want to make the move.

Cheers and jeers

The mood was charged in the Festhalle, which was packed with some 5,000 stockholders. On his last day as co-chairman of the board, Jürgen Fitschen had to endure furious heckling as he touched on tough topics like the bank's promised change in culture. There was applause at the end of his speech, however, which capped 30 years working for the bank.

Fitschen made every effort to explain to stockholders what had been done in the past business year to get the institution back on track. It brought in 33 billion euros, the second-highest sum in the past decade. Of course none of that remains, having gone to put out fires, managing lawsuits and liabilities. Deutsche Bank's bottom line from the past year came in at a record loss of 6.8 billion euros.

Deutsche Bank Paul Achleitner John Cryan Juergen Fitschen

Co-chief executives John Cryan (left) and Jürgen Fitschen (right) and supervisory board chief Paul Achleitner (center)

Setting the record straight

Deutsche Bank was said to be getting back in the business of corporate financing, for example with the AB InBev and SAB Miller fusion into the world's biggest brewing company. Fitschen gave no explanation though as to why the bank wasn't involved in Volkswagen's 20 billion-euro loan late last year.

In reference to offshore business, he assured that the bank doesn't offer accounts to companies when "we don't know the person standing behind them."

The bank has also distanced itself from ethically questionable deals, for example the financing of mountaintop removal mining, which controversially extracts coal through explosions set off on mountain summits.

Cryan looks forward

John Cryan, from now on the bank's sole chief executive, took a similar approach, directing focus towards the future and distracting from the bank's painful past. Deutsche Bank was enjoying a lot of special attention, especially in Germany, he said. "Though enjoying may be the wrong term," he added, earning laughs.

Deutsche Bank Protest von Demonstranten

Only a few protesters gathered outside of the assembly

Cryan said he felt misunderstood when people labeled him exclusively as a hatchet man, but if it helps the bank further along its new track, "then its fine with me." This could suggest that Cryan is indeed a transitional leader, taking the helm until the bank is back on its feet. Stockholders certainly hope so: not only have share prices halved since Cryan assumed the role, but dividends were also nixed for 2015. And things are likely to stay the same this year. Nevertheless, Cryan received applause as he promised to promote virtues like diligence, honesty, trust and thoroughness - virtues that Deutsche Bank once stood for.

Anger over a leak

The board's efforts to quell stockholders concerns only worked to a certain extent. Many complained about the recent resignation of supervisory board member Georg Thoma. The highly-esteemed lawyer stepped down at the end of April under pressure from colleagues, who publically accused him of being "overzealous" in his investigations of corporate wrongdoing.

"That such a thing was carried out in the public marketplace shows how low this honorable institution has since sunk," said Klaus Nieding, vice president of the stock group DSW. Similar criticism hailed from Ingo Spieth of Union Investment, one of the bank's biggest shareholders. "The reputation has suffered, the trust of the capital market has been shaken, the stock price is a disaster," he said, adding that the bank was still stuck in its largest ever crisis.

No drama in the Festhalle

The head of the supervisory board, Paul Achleitner, touched on the situation as well. He regretted that it took place in public, but said that there had been different conceptions among the board's members that dealt with form rather than content. He then went on the offensive, trying to take wind out of the sails of those stockholders who have reservations about him. Was he still the right person for the bank's new start? Applause filled the Festhalle. But Achleitner then answered his own question - saying yes - and was then met with silence.

Rather quickly during the debate, it became clear that Achleitner had no reason to fear that he wouldn't receive the approval of the general assembly. Most of the important investment funds signaled their support. New board members also were given hope for approval. Last year the situation was different: only 60 percent stood behind co-chiefs Anshu Jain and Jürgen Fitschen, a historically low result. Two weeks later, Jain was gone. But this year, such drama seems to have been omitted.

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