The German central bank has opened an investigation into whether Deutsche Bank failed to correctly mark credit derivatives to market during the financial crisis. The allegations, which the FT reports were made independently by three whistleblowers from inside the bank, suggest that the bank did so to avoid officially recording losses which may have prompted a government bailout.
The proper reaction to the case is more complex than it might first appear, because this is one of the first allegations of massive misevaluation which deals, not with the the run up to the financial crisis, but the response to it. And it is massive: the derivatives position under investigation was worth $130bn.
But interestingly enough, if mispricing did occur, it may have been for the best. Marking to market is the practice of repricing your portfolio, not according to what you paid for it, but what it's worth at current market prices. So the allegation is that Deutsche Bank had a $130bn position, which had dropped to – let's say – $60bn on the open market; but were apparently recording it as worth $72bn in their books, so as to avoid looking insolvent.
In normal times, that would be pretty clearly a negative. But the days after the collapse of Lehman Brothers were anything but normal. To say markets were panicky is an understatement, and so it's pretty likely that the reaction if Deutsche Bank had revealed those losses would have been terminal. As it was, the bank muddled through, and came out the other side more-or-less intact.
Now, that doesn't mean that if there was wrongdoing it should be ignored. After all, if Deutsche Bank hid losses and collapsed despite that, then the hit that creditors would have taken would have been even bigger. But if, as seems to be the case, DB was considered a healthy bank based on what was reported, and would have been considered unhealthy if it had reported those larger losses, then the world might be better off for it. After all, the last thing the winter of 2008 needed was another bust bank.
It's worth noting as well that these allegations aren't new. As DB says, they are “more than two and a half years old” and have already been investigated by an external law firm which found them “wholly unfounded”. But just be wary of chalking this one up in the "bad behaviour from banks hurts us all" column; the real affects of what's alleged are far from simple.