Bad Week for Banks

Lots of folks think global bankers got off easy after the financial crisis.

But this week the tide started to turn.

Deutsche Bank, one of the world’s most powerful financial institutions, is under all sorts of pressure, and that could have serious repercussions for Europe’s already troubled economy. The shares took a hit this week after reports that the bank faces a $14 billion fine from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) for activities involving mortgage securities during the 2008to 2009 crisis. A fine that size would threaten the bank’s stability, as it only has about $6 billion in litigation reserves–and European authorities have said they wouldn’t provide help if the bank falters.

Amid reports that hedge funds were pulling money out of Deutsche Bank, its CEO felt the need to issue a memo to employees of the “all is well, nothing to see here” variety.

His view was vindicated somewhat on Friday, when the stock rallied on rumors that the bank and the DOJ would settle for a much lower fine, around $5.4 billion. A settlement wouldn’t be surprising; after all, the DOJ doesn’t want to cause another global financial crisis.

So Deutsche Bank is likely to survive this storm, but for the most important bank in Europe’s largest, most stable economy to be anywhere near in trouble is telling. Even after today’s rally, shares are down more than 50% over the past year. Net revenue fell 20% in the first half of the year. This summer, its U.S. unit failed the U.S. government’s stress test for large banks, and last month the International Monetary Fund called Deutsch Bank, in effect, the most dangerous large bank in the world.

Don’t expect the bank’s direct competitors to benefit from its woes, though. Another big German bank, Commerzbank, announced Thursday that it would lay off a fifth of its workforce. Ouch.

We’ll keep an eye on Deutsche Bank and other European banks over the next year. Brexit and continued economic weakness could put more pressure on them–and that would be bad for all concerned, including us.

As lousy as its week was, Deutsche Bank’s troubles were a pleasant stroll along the Rhine compared with John Stumpf’s, the CEO of scandal-plagued Wells Fargo. First, he gave up $41 million in compensation under pressure from, well, everyone. Then he got verbally eviscerated by practically every member of a House Financial Services Committee in a hearing. When elected officials of both parties explicitly call on you to resign, it’s time to update the old resume. Read Personal Finance Chief Investment Strategist Jim Pearce’s analysts of the Wells Fargo situation here.