Can Deutsche Bank survive any more penalties? Can it even survive those it has recently agreed to?
Late last year, there were rumours of fundamental financial instability at German bank Deutsche Bank (Deutsche). In September, the German government said it would not provide support for the bank. Speculation was rife as to why but perhaps the strongest was that Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, was already on a sinking raft in heavy political seas. Then Deutsche started doing deals to settle regulatory cases and the sums are adding up to so much that the future of the bank must now be in doubt.
Angela Merkel is up to her neck in unpopularity. It all began when she insisted that the German taxpayer lead the rescue of Greece, largely to ensure that the ECB, based in Frankfurt, was seen as a true leader. Then she made her astonishing, and badly flawed, decision to announce to illegal migrants that they were welcome in Germany if they could get there. Again, the taxpayer picks up the tab. Germans are fed up with her high-handed determinations that affect their pockets and their way of life. And they are especially concerned that large numbers of migrants will destabilise society and that a crime wave, followed by civil unrest will result, punctuated with incidents of terrorism. So far, they have been proved right.
Merkel's party lost every election it contested in 2016, having its worst result ever in Berlin where far right candidates beat her leftist party roundly. In other cases, her party has been trounced by centrists. It is in a flat spin over the Federal elections later this year: Merkel wants to stay. The party may be forced to ditch her.
The Berlin election was in September, just as Deutsche was beginning to realise how much trouble it was in.
Deutsche is, reportedly, not the only German bank that is causing concern. But it's the poster-boy for mismanagement and regulatory attention around the world. And it's Germany's biggest bank.
Deutsche officials took the public stance that it had not asked for help, that it did not need help and that the bank was strong. Politicians, both privately and publicly, briefed against the bank, saying it should be kept under close watch in case its crisis became a catastrophe.
Merkel could not push taxpayers' money into another round of saving the banks: there had been enough criticism of rescues at the start of the global financial crisis and the idea that the banks could continue to stuff up and be bailed out again would have caused a major uproar. CNBC quoted "analysts" as saying that to bail out Deutsche, in particular, would be "political suicide for Merkel." That's probably accurate and she would have taken her party down with her.
Just a month later, the Washington Times reported "Merkel weighs bailout as Deutsche Bank turmoil strains US-Germany relations."
The September crisis was triggered by the US Department of Justice demanding penalties of USD14,000 million to settle (with the usual caveat that the bank neither admitted or denied allegations) claims of mis-selling mortgage backed securities. Fears that a collapse of the largest bank in the EU's largest economy would risk another global economic meltdown were palpable. The bank's shares fell by more than 50% in a matter of months as the problems mounted.
In early January, that case was settled and Deutsche agreed to pay a total of USD7,200 million. The settlement was structured so that USD4,100 of it went to what the Department of Justice called ""relief to underwater homeowners, distressed borrowers and affected communities."
US Regulators have a habit of going after foreign banks and failing to see the mote in their own eyes. US banks which had far greater positions have seen, proportionately, far lower penalties imposed. For example: P Morgan (USD1,300 million); Bank of America USD16,700 million; Goldman Sachs, (USD5,100 million) and Citigroup, USD7,000 million.
And so it was no great surprise when, just two weeks later, Deutsche was back in the news. While the UK's FCA levied a fine of GBP163 million for failures in counter-money laundering systems and controls, Deutsche found itself as the latest whipping boy of the New York Department of Financial Services. There a civil penalty of USD425 million was agreed in what will be seen as the last big action by Benjamin Lawsky who left the NYDFS in June, being replaced by Maria Vullo. Mrs Vullo has had a string of substantial orders made since she came to office.
This brings the total penalties for Deutsche to approaching USD8,000 million in less than three weeks.
That money has to be found from somewhere: the bank has already been cutting costs, even in the wrong places: according to the NYDFS
The bank’s anti-financial crime, AML and compliance units were ineffective and understaffed. A senior compliance staffer repeatedly stated that he had to “beg, borrow, and steal” to receive appropriate resources, leaving existing personnel scrambling to perform multiple roles. At one point, an attorney who lacked any compliance background served as the Moscow branch’s head of compliance, head of legal, and as its AML Officer – all at the same time.
Clearly false economies were being made.
According to analysis by The Financial Times (here Deutsche had the weakest balance sheet of all major EU and US banks, even worse than Barclays.
The bank had hoped to sell its 20% stake in Huaxia Bank, a Chinese commercial bank, for USD4,000 million. In November, it said it was pleased to have got USD3,370 million.
Is that enough to keep the bank above water now that its attempted floatation of its PostBank subsidiary has been delayed or abandoned in the absence of any obvious interest from institutional investors? Deutsche's own investors have been trying to press for a disposal of the subsidiary for almost two years but it seems to be in a Dutch auction with the market: it reduces its target and the market turns its back, clearly expecting that it will, one day, be picked up for a song. But it's got another problem: PostBank has been at best marginal and mostly loss-making for several years.
The fines are probably not enough to push the bank over the edge but its credit rating is likely to fall and if it tries a rights issue, the take-up may be small. Equally, the bank is not likely to find it easy to issue bonds unless they carry a substantial return for purchasers.