Deutsche Bank alleged to have hid losses in 2007-09. Good?

The effects of what's being alleged are far from simple.

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.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images
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A simple U-Turn may not be enough to get the Conservatives out of their tax credit mess

The Tories are in a mess over cuts to tax credits. But a mere U-Turn may not be enough to fix the problem. 

A spectre is haunting the Conservative party - the spectre of tax credit cuts. £4.4bn worth of cuts to the in-work benefits - which act as a top-up for lower-paid workers - will come into force in April 2016, the start of the next tax year - meaning around three million families will be £1,000 worse off. For most dual-earner families affected, that will be the equivalent of a one partner going without pay for an entire month.

The politics are obviously fairly toxic: as one Conservative MP remarked to me before the election, "show me 1,000 people in my constituency who would happily take a £1,000 pay cut, then we'll cut welfare". Small wonder that Boris Johnson is already making loud noises about the coming cuts, making his opposition to them a central plank of his 

Tory nerves were already jittery enough when the cuts were passed through the Commons - George Osborne had to personally reassure Conservative MPs that the cuts wouldn't result in the nightmarish picture being painted by Labour and the trades unions. Now that Johnson - and the Sun - have joined in the chorus of complaints.

There are a variety of ways the government could reverse or soften the cuts. The first is a straightforward U-Turn: but that would be politically embarrassing for Osborne, so it's highly unlikely. They could push back the implementation date - as one Conservative remarked - "whole industries have arranged their operations around tax credits now - we should give the care and hospitality sectors more time to prepare". Or they could adjust the taper rates - the point in your income  at which you start losing tax credits, taking away less from families. But the real problem for the Conservatives is that a mere U-Turn won't be enough to get them out of the mire. 

Why? Well, to offset the loss, Osborne announced the creation of a "national living wage", to be introduced at the same time as the cuts - of £7.20 an hour, up 50p from the current minimum wage.  In doing so, he effectively disbanded the Low Pay Commission -  the independent body that has been responsible for setting the national minimum wage since it was introduced by Tony Blair's government in 1998.  The LPC's board is made up of academics, trade unionists and employers - and their remit is to set a minimum wage that provides both a reasonable floor for workers without costing too many jobs.

Osborne's "living wage" fails at both counts. It is some way short of a genuine living wage - it is 70p short of where the living wage is today, and will likely be further off the pace by April 2016. But, as both business-owners and trade unionists increasingly fear, it is too high to operate as a legal minimum. (Remember that the campaign for a real Living Wage itself doesn't believe that the living wage should be the legal wage.) Trade union organisers from Usdaw - the shopworkers' union - and the GMB - which has a sizable presence in the hospitality sector -  both fear that the consequence of the wage hike will be reductions in jobs and hours as employers struggle to meet the new cost. Large shops and hotel chains will simply take the hit to their profit margins or raise prices a little. But smaller hotels and shops will cut back on hours and jobs. That will hit particularly hard in places like Cornwall, Devon, and Britain's coastal areas - all of which are, at the moment, overwhelmingly represented by Conservative MPs. 

The problem for the Conservatives is this: it's easy to work out a way of reversing the cuts to tax credits. It's not easy to see how Osborne could find a non-embarrassing way out of his erzatz living wage, which fails both as a market-friendly minimum and as a genuine living wage. A mere U-Turn may not be enough.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.