Investors in Deutsche Bank were in for a shock last week: Shocked by a record loss for 2015, by the prospect of two more lost years looming on the horizon and, most of all, by the plunge in the stock price of Germany’s largest bank.
It’s been a tough start to 2016. The price has declined by 28 percent since the beginning of the year, and the bank has lost nearly half of its market value within the last six months. John Cryan, the bank’s co-chief executive, has warned the next two years won’t be much better as the bank undergoes a drastic restructuring and works to settle thousands of costly legal cases and regulatory investigation.
The share plunge has prompted Deutsche Bank’s major investors to announce that they intend to meet in the coming weeks with Paul Achleiter, the chairman of the bank’s non-executive supervisory board, which has the power to set strategy and hire and fire the bank’s top executives.
“From our perspective, it is not a question of whether Deutsche Bank needs a new supervisory board chairman, but when.”
The meetings will likely be anything but pleasant for the lender’s chief supervisor. Shareholders have demonstrated their power in the last year: An unprecedented investor revolt was responsible for the ousting of former co-chief executive Anshu Jain and the appointment of Mr. Cryan – a former UBS banker known for ruthless cost-cutting – in the spring of last year.
This time, the meetings with shareholders won’t just revolve around the bank’s management – they’ll revolve around Mr. Achleitner’s own future as well.
Mr. Achleitner, a former executive of Goldman Sachs Germany and Allianz, has several meetings scheduled with major investors before the Deutsche Bank’s annual shareholders’ meeting in mid-May, as Handelsblatt has learned from bank insiders.
Mr. Achleitner’s five-year contract expires in 2017, and he has said that he intends to remain in his position until then. Despite the deep crisis at Deutsche Bank, the former investment banker has shown no indication of losing interest in his job. On the contrary, in internal meetings he often quotes German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s now-famous remark about the refugee crisis: “We can do it.”
But a few investors are already thinking about what happens after Mr. Achleitner’s five-year contract expires.
“From our perspective, it is not a question of whether Deutsche Bank needs a new supervisory board chairman, but when,” said one of the bank’s most important shareholders, who declined to be named. Besides, he added, it is important to determine whether the supervisory board is composed of people who can effectively supervise the bank, or whether it is perhaps time for a broader shakeup of the body.
Similar statements were made by another major shareholder, who also believes that change at the top of the supervisory board in 2017 is the right approach. “We need to talk about a new beginning in the supervisory board of Deutsche Bank,” said the influential investor, who also declined to be named.
Investors say that they will want Mr. Achleitner to tell them whether lack of adequate control by the supervisory board is partly responsible for the bank’s crisis.
One of the investors’ points of criticism is that Mr. Achleitner took far too long to give up on the two former co-chief executives, Mr. Jain and Jürgen Fitschen, whose time at the helm since 2012 had been characterized a wave of lawsuits and regulatory investigations, including a record $2.5 billion fine for the bank’s role in rigging the benchmark LIBOR interest-rate benchmark. While many of the legal troubles were legacies of the 2008 financial crisis, Mr. Jain was blamed for failing to work with regulators to reach speedy deals. The emergence of a major new investigation into alleged money laundering in Russia, which reportedly took place until 2015, was the final straw.
Another bone of contention for shareholders: Mr. Achleithner for too long backed the bank’s strategy of creating a global, “universal” investment bank that aimed to operate in all countries and all financial sectors. Even as other global banks began to slim down after 2008, Deutsche Bank stuck to its global dreams. As a result, they say, the Frankfurt lender lost valuable time to come to grips with its obvious problems.
There are apparently two reasons why the major shareholders have taken this long to voice their criticism of Deutsche Bank, and particularly Mr. Achleitner himself.
First, the investors fear that replacing both the chief executive officer and the supervisory board chairman in the summer of 2015 would have plunged the bank into chaos. Second, they say that they only realized in recent months how urgently the bank needed to be restructured.
Deutsche Bank had no comment on the information.
The supervisory board chairman’s style of leadership may have played a role in the bank’s slow response to the crisis befalling it. Mr. Achleitner, who once built up investment bank Goldman Sachs’ business in Germany, saw himself as more of a moderator than a tough supervisor. He once said that he believed “slamming your fist on the table is more a sign of weakness.” For a long time, his motto was: “Lead by asking questions. Those who ask the right questions can achieve a great deal.”
But in May 2015, the time to ask questions was over. Even before the bank’s annual shareholders’ meeting that month, it was becoming clear that Mr. Jain and Mr. Fitschen had lost the confidence of investors once and for all. Mr. Achleitner, in a speech on the day, once again offered his backing to the embattled executives. Yet at the end of the shareholders’ meeting, the two co-chief executives received only a disappointing 61 percent approval rating from investors – a record low.
This outcome forced Mr. Achleitner to take action. Mr. Jain resigned in early June, and Mr. Fitschen is leaving the bank after the next shareholders’ meeting in May. Mr. Achleitner brought in Mr. Cryan, a British banker who he had appointed to the supervisory board in 2013.
In this turbulent period, Mr. Achleitner admitted to confidants that he had given too much latitude to the old leadership duo.
Unlike the two former chief executives, Mr. Achleitner received a vote of confidence of about 90 percent at the 2015 shareholders’ meeting. And even today Mr. Achleitner, a former chief financial officer for insurance giant Allianz, has many important supporters, despite the criticism of influential major shareholders. For example, the employee representatives in the supervisory board are apparently clearly on his side.
His supporters point out that after joining Deutsche Bank in 2012, it took Mr. Achleitner a year to familiarize himself with the bank and build internal confidence. Besides, they say, by removing Mr. Jain, he proved that he does not shy away from unpleasant decisions. Since then, he and Mr. Cryan have shaken up the bank’s entire top leadership and fired 26 senior managers.
His supporters also argue that it was Mr. Achleitner who professionalized the bank’s supervisory board in the first place. By hiring Mr. Cryan, he ensured that the bank had already prepared a Plan B early on for Mr. Jain’s replacement.
When push comes to shove, however, the major shareholders are unlikely to pay much attention to Mr. Achleitner’s supporters. His future depends heavily on whether the new leadership and the revised strategy succeed within a reasonable amount of time.
Daniel Schäfer heads Handelsblatt’s finance desk in Frankfurt, Michael Maisch is deputy finance chief and Laura de la Motte is Handelsblatt’s lead correspondent covering Deutsche Bank. To contact the authors: firstname.lastname@example.org, Maisch@handelsblatt.com and email@example.com