SPIEGEL Interview with Axel Weber 'It Is Not Important Which Nation Puts Forward the ECB President'

In a SPIEGEL interview, Axel Weber, 53, the chairman of Germany's Bundesbank, discusses his abrupt resignation, his withdrawal as candidate for the office of European Central Bank president and the rumors that he may be the next CEO of Deutsche Bank.
Bundesbank President Axel Weber: "My motives are respected and accepted."

Bundesbank President Axel Weber: "My motives are respected and accepted."

Foto: ddp

SPIEGEL: Mr. Weber, you have a chaotic week behind you. Chancellor Angela Merkel is upset with you  and you are being maligned abroad. How are you doing?

Weber: I'm doing well. Nevertheless, I was certainly surprised by the momentum that things developed.

SPIEGEL: Couldn't you have expected that? After all, you no longer want to be president of Germany's Bundesbank or become president of the European Central Bank (ECB). 

Weber: Let's look at these issues separately. As far as the Bundesbank is concerned, I have been at the helm of this institution for seven years now, after having taken office at a very difficult time. During my term, the Bundesbank has re-oriented and consolidated itself, and it has contributed its weight and voice to the euro system. From my perspective, this means: mission accomplished. That's why I asked myself: Do I want to stand for another eight-year term? I decided against it. It's a little surprising that this made such an impact. Many of my counterparts in Europe have only a single term, which is often shorter and cannot be extended.

SPIEGEL: It's really the second issue that has tempers flaring: Why don't you want to be president of the ECB?

Weber: My name has been mentioned in the discussion about this position over the last year and a half. I have taken clear positions on a few important decisions in the last 12 months…

SPIEGEL: …especially the ECB's purchase of government bonds issued by troubled euro-zone members, a policy you are skeptical about …

Weber: …and I continue to support these positions. My positions might not always have served to increase my acceptability as an individual with certain governments. For this reason, it's been clear to me since last May that this would adversely affect a potential candidacy. Since then, I have become increasingly convinced that I should not seek this important position.

SPIEGEL: The government was apparently completely unprepared  for this information last Wednesday. Until then, you had been the German government's preferred candidate for the position.

Weber: As is customary on the board of any independent institution, I notified my colleagues first. It certainly didn't come as a complete surprise to them, because I had already said in October that I support clear positions. And if these clear positions have consequences for my professional opportunities, I certainly accept that. I already indicated at the time that I have a number of options as far as my career is concerned. It was important to me to be able to make an independent decision on what I was going to do. It was just as important to me that the German government remained independent in its negotiations (with other European Union members) and that technical issues relating to European bailout structures were not tied to personnel issues.

SPIEGEL: Is that what you said to the chancellor?

Weber: I indicated to her in January that I did not want to take part in any package solutions, in the sense of linking technical issues to personnel decisions (editor's note: It was expected that Merkel would have to make concessions on some euro-related issues in order to get her preferred candidate Weber appointed as head of the ECB). I also made it clear to her that she is completely independent in her negotiations and should not feel committed on my account. There was no decision that I would be the candidate, just the agreement that there would be another discussion in March. My decision has been finalized since January…

SPIEGEL: … which apparently surprised and angered Angela Merkel.

Weber: The conversation with my colleagues was leaked as a result of an indiscretion, which I regret. I spoke with the chancellor by phone on Wednesday. We agreed to meet on Friday and talk about the future and about a transitional solution for the Bundesbank. That's why I promised the chancellor that I would not make any public statements until then.

SPIEGEL: Now you are free to comment. Why, then, are you not interested in the influential job of ECB president?

Weber: First of all, the ECB is a bastion of stability in Europe. The institution, which is still young, made this impressively clear during the recent crisis. The president plays a special role in this regard. However, if he holds a minority opinion on key issues, then it has a negative effect on the credibility of the office.

SPIEGEL: Apparently you are not just critical of the purchase of government bonds, but of the entire direction of European policy -- including that of the German government.

Weber: That's wrong. There is no fundamental disagreement here. In my view, the long-term establishment of a regulatory framework is critical, so that the economy can develop freely. Conversely, this also means that the importance of instruments for fine-tuning the economy -- for example, relating to unit labor costs -- is often overestimated.

SPIEGEL: While you pursue the old, stability-oriented course of the Bundesbank, has the German government strayed from the path of virtue?

Weber: By no means. One always has to compromise in Europe. But in doing so you also have to know what the regulatory barriers are. Europe competes globally with other economic zones, and it has to orient itself toward these competitors, which are often more dynamic, like China. Reaching a balance within Europe cannot be the only important thing.

SPIEGEL: Last May, you not only voted against the purchase of government bonds, but you made your position public. In doing so, didn't you yourself ensure that you would become increasingly isolated?

Weber: There are minutes of meetings of the American Federal Reserve Bank and the Bank of England in which divergent opinions are documented. I think that's exemplary. I had already told my colleagues ahead of time that we weren't dealing with a routine decision, but an important change in direction, and that I could not keep my opinion to myself on such a fundamental issue.

SPIEGEL: You consider the purchase of government bonds to be problematic, while the majority feels that they are necessary, arguing that the additional funds being used can be recouped later. Don't developments so far prove that the majority was right?

Weber: The current volumes are still manageable, but that doesn't change my fundamental concern. A central bank must always be aware of the risk it is taking as soon as it becomes involved in the borderline area of monetary and fiscal policy.

SPIEGEL: On the ECB governing council, did you increasingly feel like a hawk among doves?

Weber: Your impression is deceptive in this regard, because most decisions were made unanimously. The ECB is a central bank with a clear anti-inflationary position. That will not change, no matter who is involved.

SPIEGEL: Isn't there a risk that the ECB will move away from its stability-oriented course as a result of your withdrawal?

Weber: ECB President Jean-Claude Trichet, my fellow ECB council members and I agree on most issues.

SPIEGEL: Trichet has never exactly struck us as a monetary-policy hawk.

Weber: Then you don't know him very well! He shapes the council's majority opinion, and he does an outstanding job. Everyone feels included and involved. The ECB's governing council vehemently supports a stability-oriented monetary policy, and I have no doubt that the stability orientation of the ECB and the Bundesbank will be preserved under my successor.

'My Motives Are Respected and Accepted'

SPIEGEL: Your withdrawal is humiliating for Chancellor Merkel in Europe.  Has Germany's position been weakened when it comes to future decisions about the euro?

Weber: I don't see it that way. Ultimately it is not important which nation puts forward the president. People are needed who are credible, embody a culture of stability and can convey this to the people of Europe. Central banks and governments got closer together during the crisis, and that was necessary. But now it's time to create more distance again.

SPIEGEL: Is it completely irrelevant whether the next president comes from southern or northern Europe?

Weber: It isn't about sending representatives of national interests to a European body. The ECB governing council is a European body consisting of Europeans from different nations.

SPIEGEL: What's next at the Bundesbank?

Weber: We have done our homework very well. The German economy is running smoothly and German banks have largely been stabilized. Now it's time to bring in younger people. The Bundesbank executive board was often staffed with people who were nearing retirement age. I don't think that is a future-oriented policy.

SPIEGEL: Merkel's economic adviser, Jens Weidmann, is seen as a favorite to succeed you. Can he establish the necessary distance from the government?

Weber: The choice of a successor is a decision for the German government in which I don't want to get involved. We need a signal of rejuvenation. Too often, politicians have seen the Bundesbank as an institution where positions can be allocated based on the relative strengths of different political parties. We need board members for the Bundesbank who can contribute their expertise to international bodies.

SPIEGEL: Does that apply to Jens Weidmann?

Weber: Mr. Weidmann is an excellent economist. I worked with him on the German Council of Economic Experts (which advises the government on economic issues) and at the Bundesbank. Despite his young age, he has indisputably accumulated a great deal of experience and is an absolute professional. Accusing him of being too close to politics is unjustified. And even if it sounds flippant: The Bundesbank only "lent" him to the German government. He would carry out his duties well in any position, right from the first day.

SPIEGEL: There has been a great deal of public speculation over what you plan to do after leaving the Bundesbank. What are your plans?

Weber: I am not going to discuss what I intend to do after serving my term. If I do go to a financial institution, my colleagues on the Bundesbank executive board will decide how much time will have to have passed since my departure. It's normally half a year. However, I certainly won't start a new job until 2012.

SPIEGEL: As head of the Bundesbank, you possess insider knowledge of private-sector banks. Observers have talked of a conflict of interests should you take a job with a commercial bank. Don't you have fundamental moral misgivings about taking a leadership position in the private sector?

Weber: Let me say this again: I'm still a long way from deciding what to do next professionally. There are clear rules, especially for central bankers, on how to handle potential conflicts of interests.

SPIEGEL: When will you make your decision?

Weber: First of all, I'll still be in this position until the end of April, and I have a full schedule. After I leave, I am going to allow myself a time-out. Besides, my professorship at the University of Cologne will also be reactivated. I was merely on leave there. I don't want to take on any new job until next year. And what happens in the future remains to be seen.

SPIEGEL: There are rumors that you will replace Josef Ackermann as the CEO of Deutsche Bank. Is there anything to that?

Weber: I will not become involved in speculation in any way.

SPIEGEL: Specifically, did Ackermann ask you whether you would like to be his successor?

Weber: As I said, as long as I am in office, I will not discuss my professional future. Not with anyone. Starting in May, I will enjoy my time off and decide what happens next.

SPIEGEL: Could you imagine working as the head of a major bank?

Weber: This question simply doesn't arise for me. I will have an active summer and, for example, will spend a prolonged period abroad again. In the next days and weeks, I will be focusing on an effective transition at the Bundesbank.

SPIEGEL: Do you feel damaged by the discussion of recent days?

Weber: I had made a promise to the chancellor, and I stuck to it. But I can explain why I am leaving, and I have no doubt that the public will ultimately understand the motives and the timing of my decision.

SPIEGEL: The chancellor clearly has little sympathy for your decision.

Weber: That's your interpretation. Judging by my very positive conversation on Friday with Ms. Merkel and Mr. Schäuble, my motives are respected and accepted.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Weber, thank you for this interview.

Interview conducted by Armin Mahler and Christoph Pauly.
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