Josef Ackermann is a 66-year-old Swiss banker who served as the Chief Executive Officer of Deutsche Bank, German’s largest finance house, between 2002 and 2012. He is credited with navigating the bank through the 2008 financial crisis, and after leaving Deutsche Bank worked as the chairman of the board of directors at Zurich Insurance Group, as well as holding other board-level and advisory roles.
His daughter Catherine, 30, is an actress and film producer.
Ms. Ackermann, how often have you been asked whether you are the daughter of THE Ackermann, perhaps Europe’s most powerful financial manager for many years?
Catherine Ackermann: It happened a lot, but more in Germany than in Switzerland.
Josef Ackermann: Tell them about the taxi driver, Catherine!
Catherine Ackermann: Oh yes. It was late in the evening and I had just arrived in Stuttgart on a flight from Zürich. When I took a taxi to the film academy in Ludwigsburg, the driver struck up a conversation with me. When I said I was Swiss, he said, “We got the devil from your country.” He meant my father.
What values are still important in your home?
Catherine Ackermann: A healthy sense of ambition, diligence, curiosity, credibility and openness. Both of my parents, my father and my mother alike, strongly emphasized those values.
Josef Ackermann: As well as remaining grounded.
“Anyone who gets too overconfident is likely to come crashing down pretty quickly.”
Which certainly isn’t always easy for the head of Deutsche Bank, or is it?
Josef Ackermann: The challenges and risks you have to confront in a position like that are enough to hold you back. Anyone who gets too overconfident is likely to come crashing down pretty quickly. And in our family, we are also never quite satisfied with what we do.
What does money mean to you?
Josef Ackermann: The relationship with money starts with the question of allowances, which reveal what you spend money on. I always believed that parents should encourage anything to do with education and sports. We didn’t have to spend much on consumption, luxury and things like that, because Catherine didn’t expect it in the first place.
Catherine Ackermann: I still remember that I wanted a certain bicycle. There was a competition at school, where we had to swim across Lake Zürich. My father and I agreed that if I made it, I would get the bike. In that way, the achievement was tied to a great sense of anticipation.
No pain, no gain?
Josef Ackermann: Yes, that was sort of our family motto. I’ve always believed in the power of sports. My hope was that someone who is athletic won’t want to do bad things to his body and won’t end up taking drugs. I was always a little afraid of that.
Mr. Ackermann, Why exactly did you become a banker?
Josef Ackermann: I didn’t really want to at first. Because my father was a doctor, I originally wanted to become one too, specifically a psychiatrist. Then I became more and more interested in politics. When I eventually said, partly for that reason, that I wanted to study business at the University of St. Gallen, my teachers were initially horrified.
Was capitalism with an Anglo-American imprint always a little suspect to you?
Josef Ackermann: I’ve never questioned the market-based system. It has helped billions of people worldwide improve their lives. But it becomes problematic when ethical and moral principles are lost in the face of struggle and competition. Unfortunately, this was somewhat the case in the financial industry in the years before the big crisis.
Couldn’t all the irrationality and exaggerations have been predicted before the crisis?
Josef Ackermann: Probably no one predicted the brunt of the financial crisis, but the idea that we were heading down the wrong path in certain areas was certainly being discussed, and not just in the executive board of Deutsche Bank. We knew that risk premiums were too low and liquidity cushions too generous. We were even more or less in agreement that compensation. . .
That is, the bonus systems…
Josef Ackermann: . . . had lost all connection to reality. But recognizing a problem isn’t the same thing as trying to fix it, as an individual. You can find yourself failing pretty quickly.
“No pain, no gain was sort of our family motto.”
At the time, you were accused of letting people go while simultaneously demanding 25 percent returns.
Josef Ackermann: If we hadn’t achieved those results at the time, Deutsche Bank would not have made it through the crisis without government funds and would be in much worse shape today. We had to prevail in global competition.
What responsibility and culpability for the 2008 financial crisis do bankers have?
Josef Ackermann: There are many people to blame for the financial crisis – in politics, among regulators, at central banks and rating agencies and in the media, too. But, of course, the banks bear the brunt of the responsibility. When it comes to culpability, I think you have to distinguish between two categories. On the one hand, there were the unforgivable and even criminal machinations, such as manipulation of the LIBOR interest rate. . .
In which Deutsche Bank was also involved . . .
Josef Ackermann: . . . and if that was the case, the guilty should be held accountable. And then there were things that may not be illegal, but do not behoove an honorable businessperson. Finally, I also think there is a third category. It relates to the quality of financial products and services. In the years before the crisis, it was at times not at the level we see and demand today. This also has to do with a change in the zeitgeist.
You took some radical steps after leaving Deutsche Bank. Following a power struggle in the supervisory board at Siemens, for example, you resigned from the board. And you even stepped down as chairman of the Zurich Insurance Group after its Chief Financial Officer committed suicide last year. In a letter, you even appeared to assign some of the blame for his death to yourself.
Josef Ackermann: I left the Siemens supervisory board because I didn’t like the way a longstanding chairman of the board was being treated. With regard to the tragedy in Zürich, I really share none of the blame. Nevertheless, I made the very spontaneous decision to leave. I probably would have taken a different approach in the past, but I thought that my options were more limited than they should have been after that horrible suicide and the accusations against me. That was when I said to myself, ‘I really don’t need this anymore.’ Some thought it was wrong, but the majority of the opinions I heard were positive.
You will be appearing in court soon. In a case related to the bankruptcy of former media giant Leo Kirch, the public prosecutor’s office has filed a suit against you and other former Deutsche Bank colleagues over allegations of attempted fraud. How do you respond to the charges?
Josef Ackermann: I continue to deny the prosecutors’ charge that I made false statements in court.