Worst Financial Crisis since 1931? German State-Owned Banks on Verge of Collapse

The German government has had to bail out state-owned banks with taxpayers' money after their managements recklessly gambled away billions on subprime investments. But if a state-owned bank were to go under, the consequences could be disastrous for the whole economy.

By Wolfgang Reuter

The future is far from bright for Germany's banks.

The future is far from bright for Germany's banks.

Ingrid Matthäus-Maier, a member of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the CEO of the state-owned KfW banking group, is undoubtedly in one of Germany's highest earnings brackets. Although her annual salary of €418,000 ($614,000) is substantially lower than that of her counterpart at Deutsche Bank, Josef Ackermann, who earns a tidy €13 million a year, she does earn more than twice the salary of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has to make do with a mere €200,000.

That's nice for Matthäus-Maier. A lawyer by profession who was a financial expert for the SPD for many years, she would not have been able to get on the board of a private bank in 1999, the year she joined the board of KfW -- she lacked the banking experience required by law. But KfW is not subject to the same regulations as other banks, which explains why Matthäus-Maier doesn't owe government auditors an explanation -- not even now, in the wake of recent public accusations that she botched the IKB crisis.

As the head of KfW, Matthäus-Maier is a major shareholder in IKB, the Düsseldorf-based bank that is on the brink of bankruptcy and is only being kept afloat by a series of government bailouts running into the billions. Last week was marked by one crisis meeting after the next, but the headstrong government banker had more than the future of IKB on her mind. Indeed, she seemed more concerned about her employment contract and whether it would be extended. Her demands triggered an irritated reaction from the head of the KfW supervisory board, Economics Minister Michael Glos, as well as from others present at the meetings.

Two days later, it was announced that former IKB CEO Stefan Ortseifen could look forward to a princely retirement pension of €31,500 a month -- effectively a token of appreciation for his failures. Ortseifen, after investing billions in the high-risk US subprime mortgage sector, insisted that the "uncertainties in the American mortgage market" would have "practically no effect" on IKB's investments. A few days later, IKB was on the verge of bankruptcy, with its supposed wonderful US investments worth little more than the paper it was printed on.

And German banks are not the only ones being hard hit by the subprime crisis. In the UK, the government earlier this week announced plans to temporarily nationalize the troubled bank Northern Rock until market conditions improved. The bank ran into difficulties last year as a result of the global credit crunch and was forced to ask the Bank of England for a bail-out. The House of Commons passed emergency legislation to nationalize the bank in the early hours of Wednesday morning, and the bill is expected to be approved by the House of Lords by the end of the week.

Amateurism and Greed

Ortseifen and Matthäus-Maier are perfect examples of the fatal mix of amateurism, greed and political protection that is symptomatic for many of Germany's state-owned, partially state-owned and public sector banks. It is an environment that can only thrive in the shadow of the state -- and that has drained more than €20 billion from the public treasury within the last decade.

KfW's Ingrid Matthäus-Maier is accused of botching the IKB crisis.

KfW's Ingrid Matthäus-Maier is accused of botching the IKB crisis.

Until now, the government has always been there to pick up the tab in the end. Fully aware of this safety net, the executives at state-owned banks gambled with their employers' assets as if there was no tomorrow. Munich-based BayernLB did it with stocks in Singapore, Bankgesellschaft Berlin with real estate investments, and WestLB with holdings in British companies.

Anyone who is not responsible for bearing the consequences of the risks he or she takes can easily turn into a gambler. And the bets kept increasing in recent years, getting more and more public-sector banks into financial hot water. Now the banks find themselves lacking the assets they need to weather the turmoil of an international financial crisis.

Matthäus-Maier's bank KfW has already had to provide IKB with close to €5 billion in a series of three bailouts. With KfW itself gradually running out of cash, the federal government has now contributed another €1.9 billion.

The state of North Rhine-Westphalia has injected €1 billion into WestLB, another state-owned bank, as well as providing the ailing bank with another €3 billion in loan guarantees. The situation is even worse in Saxony, where the state has issued €2.73 billion in loan guarantees to Sachsen LB, that state's Landesbank, as Germany's state-backed regional banks are known. The other state-owned banks are providing another €14 billion in guarantees. Hamburg-based HSH Nordbank urgently needs €1 billion in fresh capital, while BayernLB last week reported a €1.9 billion write-down as a result of subprime exposure. BayernLB announced Tuesday that the bank's chief executive, Werner Schmidt, will be stepping down as of March 1 as a result of the crisis.

The situation for Germany's public banks has become so dramatic that it threatens to topple what has been one of the key pillars of the country's banking system. The state-owned banks are supposed to bail each other out when necessary, but the problem is that many are in trouble themselves and hardly in a position to help their peers. And things could get even worse.

If an industry giant like WestLB were forced to its knees -- which almost happened two weeks ago -- at least two other state-owned banks and a dozen savings and loan associations would crumple along with it. The member banks of the German Savings Banks Finance Group (Sparkassen-Finanzgruppe) are closely interlinked, and they are required to vouch for each other -- as long as they are in a position to do so, that is. The failure of a major state-owned bank like WestLB would also inevitably affect corporate customers, even forcing some into bankruptcy.

Graphic: The federal government's rescue measures for IKB (click to enlarge)

Graphic: The federal government's rescue measures for IKB (click to enlarge)

It is a nightmare scenario that the government financial supervisory authority now believes is increasingly likely. Germany's public-sector banks speculated far more heavily than private banks in American subprime mortgage securities. Now these banks' beleaguered executives are calling on the government to bail them out from a disaster of their own making.

It is a paradoxical situation, because the government, responding to pressure from Brussels, was required to withdraw its guarantee of protection for state-owned banks as of July 2005. Since then, it has only been liable for risks incurred before that date.

The consequences of the change were devastating for the public-sector banks, which suddenly found their business model pulled out from under their feet. In the days of government backing, they were able to borrow money at lower rates, which in turn allowed them to offer loans at lower rates than their private competitors. But that advantage ended in 2005.

Hard up for funds, many of the public-sector banks began speculating with high-risk securities. According to a former bank executive, many "literally stocked up on these investments" shortly before the cut-off date. Others even continued to do so after the cut-off date. Lacking a functioning business model, they turned to what was essentially gambling -- and lost.


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