Global Economics

German Banks: The Silent State Takeover


In contrast to American and British bailout plans, a new scheme from Berlin would give the state ownership or even complete control of ailing banks

Josef Ackermann, the CEO of Deutsche Bank (DB), likes to come across as generous. A few days ago in Berlin, he said that he is by no means too proud to take advantage of the government bailout program for banks, and that all he wants is to see it benefit those banks that truly need it. "We are a long way from that," he said.

But the competition is skeptical, especially when the industry leader is having trouble hiding the fact that it lost about €4 billion ($5.2 billion) in 2008. In addition, both competitors and politicians have noted with interest Ackermann's behind-the-scenes involvement in the development of a "bad bank," that is, a sort of government dumping ground for unmarketable, high-risk securities.

Industry insiders suspect that Deutsche Bank hopes to shift its own toxic waste into this new entity—saving face in the process because, after all, everyone else will be doing the same thing.

Ackermann is receiving support for the project from the Association of German Banks, in which Deutsche Bank exerts substantial influence. Last Monday Hugo Bänziger, the chief risk officer at Deutsche Bank, appeared before members of the conservative Christian Democratic Union's (CDU's) finance committee to promote the potential benefits of a "bad bank."

But all of Ackermann's and Bänziger's efforts proved to be in vain. On Friday, a fundamentally different approach to solving the problems of German banks emerged at a meeting of the two members of the coalition government, the CDU and the Social Democratic Party (SPD). Instead of a single, government-run landfill for the banks' toxic securities, the new plan calls for a large number of privately held "bad banks." Contrary to the arrangement Ackermann and his allies comrades-in-arms envisioned, this would see the banks' shareholders being the ones who would primarily vouch for risks in the future rather than the government and taxpayers.

Nevertheless, the government is not abandoning all responsibility. Should the healthy parts of the banks lack equity, the government will provide the necessary funds. This would make it a major shareholder in the German banking sector, turning the federal government into a silent power in the skyscrapers of Frankfurt's banking district.

The bailout program will be costly. The government will have to more than double the €80 billion ($104 billion) capital injection included in its first bank rescue package. Experts at the Finance Ministry anticipate that the stripped-down banks will require up to €200 billion in additional capital.

Making the Bailout More Appealing

It is a development that would have been unthinkable only a few months ago, but is now being surpassed by another of the government's rescue projects, as it discreetly prepares to nationalize the stricken lender Hypo Real Estate (HRXG.MU).

Both programs may seem disconcerting for a market economy. And yet, in the state of the emergency brought on by the continuing financial crisis, they may be unavoidable.

The German government is more likely to face criticism from economists for considering bailouts for individual companies, like ball-bearing maker Schaeffler-Conti or Airbus. But the bank bailout plan involving many small "bad banks" has received widespread support.

Unlike the Ackermann concept, under the new plan the government would not simply take on the banks' risks. Instead, that would be left up to shareholders. Chancellor Angela Merkel and Finance Minister Peer Steinbrück hope that this approach will generate more support with the public for the government's second bid to use taxpayer's money to rescue the banks.

Most important, the federal government would not be acquiring the worthless parts of a bank, but instead would invest in its promising aspects. This also makes the proposal politically appealing.

After the first bank bailout package, this is the government's second major attempt to stabilize the center of the ongoing economic and financial crisis, the banking world. It is still deeply shaken by the collapse of the US real estate market in 2007, when millions of mortgage loans lost their value. Since then, these toxic assets have crippled banks' ability to do business virtually everywhere in the world.

Because the banks do not know how much of their old risk they can even write off anymore, they prefer not to assume any new risk. The consequences have been fatal. As the banks issue too few loans, companies lack the necessary funds for investment, causing the economy to slow down.

The amounts of money involved are already largely beyond the scope of human imagination. In Germany alone, the biggest 18 banks are carrying a volume of €305 billion ($397 billion) in toxic assets on their balance sheets, less than a quarter of which has already been written off.

Further value adjustments seem unavoidable. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates that worldwide losses could total $2.2 trillion (€1.7 trillion). No one has a formula for how best to recapitalize the banks and get credit flowing again.

Great Britain, for example, is placing its hopes on a government insurance system under which the banks, in return for a fee, could insure themselves against further losses. The new US administration under President Barack Obama is doing what Ackermann would have liked to see happen in Germany: It plans to establish a giant, government-owned "bad back" for toxic loans.

This American deposit fund would spend an additional $2 trillion (€1.54 trillion) to buy high-risk securities from lenders. The hope is that the banks, provided with fresh capital and freed of their toxic assets, could then devote themselves to their actual business: lending money to citizens and companies.

The government in Berlin does not consider either of the two Anglo-Saxon approaches to be suitable. The Germans see the British model as too costly and the American approach as inequitable.

Why should the government buy up billions in worthless securities and take all risk off the hands of those responsible for the crisis in the first place, ask those behind the new bailout plan? They characterize the US and British plans as gifts for shareholders at the expense of taxpayers. For this reason, the German government prefers a different concept, which it hopes to implement within the next four weeks. The plan, conceived by staff at the Finance Ministry, amounts to a radical modification of the German banking industry. Hardly any of the ailing lenders will likely manage without government investment in the future.

There are two possibilities for the disposal of bad loans. Either the securities are depreciated before being deposited into the special funds, or the "bad banks" receive large portions of the remaining equity to offset losses. Either way, the newly streamlined banks will lack capital to conduct their transactions.

Following Sweden's Example

This is where the government comes in. It provides the healthy banks with capital via its Special Fund for Financial Market Stabilization (Soffin). As a result, the government becomes a shareholder in many banks, initially through silent deposits. But if it comes to the aid of publicly traded banks, it soon finds itself forced, as in the case of Commerzbank, to acquire a blocking minority consisting of 25 percent plus one share. This is the only way it can prevent a buyer from simply clearing out the government's money.

The concept makes sense for both the government and taxpayers. The government can hope that its investment will eventually pay off. Once the banking crisis has been weathered, its deposits are returned and it can resell its shares, possibly even at a profit. This, at least, was the Swedes' experience during their banking crisis in the 1990s. German government experts were inspired by the Swedish experiences when developing their own rescue plan.

The establishment of "bad banks" within existing institutions also has a psychological effect, for employees and customers alike. Separating out the bad assets into a "bad bank" has a liberating effect on the healthy part of a bank. From then one, it can operate without the constant threat of further write-offs.

But the removal of their troubled assets also creates new challenges for banks. The risks are not decreased simply because they have been separated from the actual bank. The management of so-called troubled loans requires skills beyond those needed to issue ordinary loans, which merely require routine monitoring.

Hardly anyone is more aware of this than Jan Kvarnström. A Swedish national, Kvarnström headed the Institutional Restructuring Unit, the "bad bank" with which Dresdner Bank overcame its troubles, from 2002 to 2005. The job description of a chief liquidator ranges from tough negotiations with delinquent borrowers to the receivership and subsequent forced sale of the securities. He handles a wide assortment of large and small assets.

During the course of his career as a liquidator, Kvarnström has sold a bank in Chile, many forms of financial holdings in companies, real estate and a collection of guitars once owned by the Beatles.

"All of this has nothing to do with the normal work of a banker," Kvarnström recalls. For this reason, he says, it makes sense "to concentrate the bad investments, together with the corresponding personnel, in a bad bank."

The drawback of the plan is that the money made available in the bank rescue package, €80 billion ($104 billion) will not be sufficient for government equity capital injections. Soffin's authority to issue credit must be augmented by about €120 billion ($169 billion). This would make it the largest shadow budget in the history of postwar Germany.

Commerzbank, under CEO Martin Blessing, has already received €18 billion ($23.4 billion). The nationalization debate over ailing Hypo Real Estate is already burdening the Soffin budget. The bank needs at least €10 billion ($13 billion) in additional funds.

But that isn't the extent of it, because the government will also be called upon to spend even more money to buy up at least 95 percent of the Munich-based lender. This is the second front in the government rescue concept: The takeover of Hypo Real Estate is intended to prevent a possible bankruptcy from leading to other bank failures, thereby bringing down large segments of the German financial market.

Nationalization and Expropriation

This scenario could materialize, as a result of Hypo Real Estate having gambled away funds for the purchase of long-term government bonds. To be able to afford the transactions, the bank took out short-term loans. As long as the interest rates on those loans were low enough, the business was profitable. But then loan terms deteriorated as a result of the financial market crisis. Since then, the bank has accumulated an uninterrupted series of losses, which could only be offset with a constant stream of new government loan guarantees.

The government believes that it has only one option left to stop the downward spiral: to essentially nationalize Hypo Real Estate. This would allow the lender to take up new loans under the favorable terms of publicly owned financial institutions and turn a profit with most of its transactions. Only then would the previous liquidity injections of more than €90 billion ($117 billion) not be lost.

To minimize conflicts with owners during the takeover, the government will pursue an escalation strategy. Its preferred method would be to acquire the bank with the consent of previous shareholders, through a simple takeover bid.

But the shareholders are not biting, leading government representatives to believe that they are holding out for a better offer. The shareholders know that the government has a strong interest in a takeover, and they want to be handsomely compensated in return, which the government wants to avoid. When the negotiations ended on Friday evening, no results had been achieved.

As a next step, the government plans to amend the law on stock corporations and strengthen the rights of shareholders' meetings so that refractory minority shareholders can be booted out. It is also unlikely to shy away from expropriation of the lender's shareholders.

A proposed expropriation law to be debated by the cabinet in the coming weeks reveals how serious the government is. The nine paragraphs of draft legislation would define the conditions for the government's compulsory takeover of a company.

Because the German constitution bans nationalization without compensation, the draft legislation also contains compensation rules for the former owners of a nationalized company.

The compulsory nature of these measures has left a sour taste in the mouths of federal government experts. Because the constitution expressly protects private property, the German government hopes never to have to apply its emergency legislation. According to ministry officials, the purpose of the plan is to provide a credible threat of nationalization to encourage shareholders to negotiate. Members of the Grand Coalition already joke that the bank rescue program now apparently follows the logic of the Cold War: "You have to threaten with a nuclear bomb so that you will never have to use it."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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