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Why is Deutsche Bank in crisis?

The German banking giant has survived the fall in its stock price so far but there are still challenges ahead.

The Conversation
Deutsche Bank is in the news for all the wrong reasons. Some speculators believe that it will be the 2008 Lehman Brothers collapse all over again. Shares in the bank were briefly driven down to single digits. They seem to have stabilised around €10 but this remains well below the €30 just over a year ago and €100 a share in 2007. And the bank’s future is uncertain.

Clearly investors are worried and there is an absence of people who believe even €10 would be a sensible investment. At €10 per share, an investor has a right to €48 of equity. But the problem is whether that €10 will ever be returned to you – let alone with gains. Like many other banks though, Deutsche Bank faces a number of headwinds, which have knocked its profits in recent years.

Three structural issues

New regulation since the financial crisis requires that banks must accumulate their profits to create a greater cushion against the risks that became apparent in 2008. This means that the profits that Deutsche will earn over the next few years will be used to increase the size of that cushion rather than being returned to shareholders. Relief is unlikely, as the IMF has identified Deutsche as “the most important net contributor to systemic risks in the global financial system”.

Large well-established banks have a second problem. They have become fat with too many employees juggling outdated, disparate and often dysfunctional IT systems. Deutsche has more than 100,000 employees. Its retail branches – a number of which have been cut this year – are labour intensive and add to these problems.

Dealing with this problem requires reinvesting some of its profits in restructuring its activities – which again means less money for shareholders in the short-run. Failure to do so, however, will create opportunities for new entrants to the banking market such as alternative finance and new fintech operations.

The European Central Bank’s negative interest rate policy is compounding problems. Historically, banks benefited from retail depositor inertia – depositors that park their money in accounts and don’t act upon earning little or no interest. A healthy deposit base ensured a source of zero or low-cost funds that could be lent elsewhere. But the benefit of depositor inertia disappears when interest rates go negative as it costs money to service these customers with extensive retail networks. Imposing user fees is unpopular with customers.

Crisis catalyst and management

These structural issues are well known. The catalyst for the recent action is a US$14 billion fine from the US Department of Justice for mis-selling mortgage bonds a decade ago. Deutsche is looking to negotiate a smaller figure, but if the $14 billion fine sticks the bank could need to raise another €9 billion of equity. At current prices, hapless investors would need to subscribe an additional 60% of their investment to simply hang on to the share of future profits that they expected to receive prior to the fine.

While Deutsche talks confidently of lowering its fine, it is unlikely to attract buyers for its stock. Meanwhile, speculators betting on a decrease in the share price are pushing an open door. Plus, given the dysfunctional nature of eurozone financial regulation, the high political costs of German government intervention and risk of signalling that larger eurozone members play by a different set of rules – the German government will be slow to intervene.

Adding to this complexity, the fine from the US government comes just days after the US$13 billion fine the EU hit Apple with, making some suspicious that there is an element of revenge at play. True or not, the uncertain outcome during the lengthy appeals process will only increase the perceived risks of an investment in Deutsche Bank.

From the sidelines, one would be sympathetic to the CEO’s statement that Deutsche is a strong bank that is being targeted by “forces that want to weaken us”. The bank has assets of more than €1.8 trillion and equity of €67 billion.

As a large, complex entity, it is easy for outsiders to speculate that the bank may be weak, further eroding investor and customer confidence in both the bank and European bank regulation. The coming days will largely determine whether the negative feedback loop between confidence and the stock price can be broken. At worst, the outcome will be significant economic and political difficulties in the coming weeks. At best, it may create a sense of urgency within the eurozone to comprehensively address the banking sector issues that have festered for the past eight years.

Eamonn Walsh is professor of accounting at University College Dublin

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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UnHerd's rejection of the new isn't as groundbreaking as it seems to think

Tim Montgomerie's new venture has some promise, but it's trying to solve an old problem.

Information overload is oft-cited as one of the main drawbacks of the modern age. There is simply too much to take in, especially when it comes to news. Hourly radio bulletins, rolling news channels and the constant stream of updates available from the internet – there is just more than any one person can consume. 

Luckily Tim Montgomerie, the founder of ConservativeHome and former Times comment editor, is here to help. Montgomerie is launching UnHerd, a new media venture that promises to pull back and focus on "the important things rather than the latest things". 

According to Montgomerie the site has a "package of investment", at least some of which comes from Paul Marshall. He is co-founder of one of Europe's largest hedge funds, Marshall Wace, formerly a longstanding Lib Dem, and also one of the main backers and chair of Ark Schools, an academy chain. The money behind the project is on display in UnHerd's swish (if slightly overwhelming) site, Google ads promoting the homepage, and article commissions worth up to $5,000. The selection of articles at launch includes an entertaining piece by Lionel Shriver on being a "news-aholic", though currently most of the bylines belong to Montgomerie himself. 

Guidelines for contributors, also meant to reflect the site's "values", contain some sensible advice. This includes breaking down ideas into bullet points, thinking about who is likely to read and promote articles, and footnoting facts. 

The guidelines also suggest focusing on what people will "still want to read in six, 12 or 24 months" and that will "be of interest to someone in Cincinnati or Perth as well as Vancouver or St Petersburg and Cape Town and Edinburgh" – though it's not quite clear how one of Montgomerie's early contributions, a defence of George Osborne's editorship of the Evening Standard, quite fits that global criteria. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the full page comment piece Montgomerie got in Osborne's paper to bemoan the deficiencies of modern media on the day UnHerd launched. 

UnHerd's mascot  – a cow – has also created some confusion, compounded by another line in the writing tips describing it as "a cow, who like our target readers, tends to avoid herds and behave in unmissable ways as a result". At least Montgomerie only picked the second-most famous poster animal for herding behaviour. It could have been a sheep. In any case, the line has since disappeared from the post – suggesting the zoological inadequacy of the metaphor may have been recognised. 

There is one way in which UnHerd perfectly embodies its stated aim of avoiding the new – the idea that we need to address the frenetic nature of modern news has been around for years.

"Slow news" – a more considered approach to what's going on in the world that takes in the bigger picture – has been talked about since at least the beginning of this decade.

In fact, it's been around so long that it has become positively mainstream. That pusher of rolling coverage the BBC has been talking about using slow news to counteract fake news, and Montgomerie's old employers, the Times decided last year to move to publishing digital editions at set points during the day, rather than constantly updating as stories break. Even the Guardian – which has most enthusiastically embraced the crack-cocaine of rolling web coverage, the live blog – also publishes regular long reads taking a deep dive into a weighty subject. 

UnHerd may well find an audience particularly attuned to its approach and values. It intends to introduce paid services – an especially good idea given the perverse incentives to chase traffic that come with relying on digital advertising. The ethos it is pitching may well help persuade people to pay, and I don't doubt Montgomerie will be able to find good writers who will deal with big ideas in interesting ways. 

But the idea UnHerd is offering a groundbreaking solution to information overload is faintly ludicrous. There are plenty of ways for people to disengage from the news cycle – and plenty of sources of information and good writing that allow people to do it while staying informed. It's just that given so many opportunities to stay up to date with what has just happened, few people decide they would rather not know.