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Deutsche Bank's retreat to Germany gets tepid welcome at home

Stock Markets Sep 14, 2018 05:09AM ET
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2/2 © Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Christian Sewing, CEO of Deutsche Bank 2/2
 
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By Tom Sims and John O'Donnell

FRANKFURT/LONDON (Reuters) - German manufacturer Voith has been a customer of Deutsche Bank (DE:DBKGn) for more than a century. But as the maker of hydropower and paper plants expands abroad it said it has started to hire other international banks where it would have previously considered Germany's largest lender.

That could be bad news for Deutsche, which was founded in 1870 to help companies with overseas trade. In April, it said it would refocus on German customers as part of a push to restore the edge it has lost in the decade since the 2008 financial crisis.

The new strategy is getting a cool reception at home. Voith and other German companies such as auto parts maker Bosch have turned to rivals and Deutsche's share of its home market has diminished.

"German banks have lost ground compared to their international competitors," said Voith group treasurer Michael Hannig. "We had to differentiate and allocate our business also across some international banks."

Reuters spoke to 10 executives of German companies that are current and former clients of Deutsche who said they did not feel valued by the bank.

Interviews with more than 35 politicians, investors and public officials found that many of them are worried about the bank, which has a $1-trillion-plus balance sheet.

The bank says clients are happy with its work and it has cut risky investments, simplified its structures and settled most large court cases.

"We are getting very good feedback from our clients," said Karl von Rohr, Deutsche's co-deputy chief executive officer.

"What is clear: you cannot be successful if you are not successful in your home market."

Nevertheless, it captured just under 10 percent of the market share of investment banking fees for mergers and takeovers involving German companies so far this year and in 2017, according to Dealogic.

That is up from a 4 percent share among global competitors in 2016 but far below a 30 percent share in 2008, when the crisis unfolded.

Deutsche posted a loss that year but Josef Ackermann, chief executive at the time, boasted of the bank's strength as rivals turned to their governments for rescue packages.

The bank's trading in global stocks and bonds, the forte of its investment banking arm, rebounded and helped it to return to profit in 2009.

But problems were accumulating. The European debt crisis followed the financial crisis and Deutsche was facing lawsuits for wrongdoing in several operations including interest-rate benchmark setting and mortgage-backed securities, a market that has been blamed for triggering the 2008 crisis.

It has reported losses since 2015 and a $7.2 billion U.S. fine last year for its role in the mortgage market was a major blow that spooked clients. From a market value of 47.4 billion euros at the start of 2008, Deutsche is now worth just 20 billion euros.

MODEST EARNER

Christian Sewing was promoted to chief executive in April as the bank embraced its new strategy. With a background in risk management and retail banking, he is the first German to run the bank as sole CEO since 2002.

He wrote to staff in a May memo outlining job cuts abroad that Deutsche's roots in Germany were "deep and enduring", a message he underscored when he visited German chancellor Angela Merkel after his appointment.

Competition for ordinary savers is stiff because state-backed community savings banks are dominant.

It is even considering a new structure to distance volatile investment banking from steadier, if more modest, retail business, Reuters reported on Wednesday.

In Germany's corporate world, the rivals are foreign banks. Deutsche says its foreign operations are still important.

"For Germany our global presence is of vital importance. So we need both: a dominant role in the home market and a strong international network," said von Rohr.

Mann+Hummel makes filters for autos and industry. Christian Aue, group treasurer, said he dropped Deutsche from its lineup when it arranged 400 million euros of finance last year. He instead chose ING, BNP Paribas (PA:BNPP) and Bank of China.

Deutsche lost out after the pitching process to Macquarie when auto supplier Bosch asked the Australian bank to explore options for its packaging machinery unit, according to a person with knowledge of the matter. Deutsche Bank officials declined to comment on specific deals.

In the years running up to 2007, Deutsche was also the biggest buyer of newly issued German government debt, according to the German Finance Agency. It is now in eighth place with France's BNP Paribas in the top spot followed by German rival Commerzbank.

Deutsche's chief financial officer James von Moltke said the bank is "on a good path to rebuilding credibility".

"We are once again the full-service provider for our corporate clients in our German home market," he said.

WORRIED OFFICIALS

Deutsche's public image has suffered at home. A series on state broadcaster ZDF, "Bad Banks", about a fictional lender 'Deutsche Global Invest' has not helped.

The relationship with politicians has also cooled.

Ackermann helped direct Merkel's response to the 2008 crisis and she rewarded him by hosting the Swiss CEO's birthday party.

Sewing's first meeting with Merkel just weeks into his tenure was humble, according to three people briefed. His message to her was that the bank is cutting costs and "rightsizing" its global investment bank.

German officials have been worried about Deutsche since 2016. They knew a big fine for its role in the U.S. mortgage crisis was coming. At the time, Deutsche and the government publicly played down speculation that it could need state support. Behind the scenes, however, tensions were running high.

"We looked into the abyss at that time," said a German official. "To bail out an institution like Deutsche Bank would not just concern one government. It would concern a number."

Officials no longer talk of a rescue but politicians across the spectrum are reluctant to even speak about Deutsche.

"It isn't positive for a politician," said Bettina Stark-Watzinger, head of the Bundestag's finance committee and a pro-business Free Democrat. Her constituency includes an affluent suburb of Germany's financial center Frankfurt.

MERGER POTENTIAL

Deutsche Bank's shareholders, which include money manager Blackrock (N:BLK), buyout firm Cerberus and Qatar's royal family, are pinning their hopes on Sewing.

He was born in 1970 in Buende, a town in the industrial heartland of northwestern Germany known for its cigars.

Buende's economy has been booming the past couple of years, the city's mayor Wolfgang Koch said. He was surprised when Deutsche closed its local branch last year to save costs.

Arnold Andre, one of the city's last remaining cigar manufacturers, uses Commerzbank for its global operations, president Rainer Goehner said.

There has been wide speculation in Germany about a tie-up with Commerzbank, which is partly owned by the state. Executives at both banks privately reject this idea. They have declined to comment publicly.

Deutsche's managers are nonetheless considering an overhaul to loosen the bond between its retail and investment banks that could make it easier to merge some or all of the group with rivals.

The German official said any merger with Commerzbank (DE:CBKG) was "unlikely soon" although not impossible in the future.

He said it would take up to 18 months of restoring profitability and restructuring for the bank to reach "safe ground": "Deutsche is certainly not where I would say I can relax."

Deutsche Bank's retreat to Germany gets tepid welcome at home
 

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