Connect to share and comment

Meet the fat cats' defender: Josef Ackermann

The chairman of Deutsche Bank wants politicians to "stop the bank bashing."

Josef Ackermann, chairman of Germany's Deutsche Bank AG, addresses the media during the bank's annual news conference in Frankfurt on Feb. 4, 2010. (Ralph Orlowski/Reuters)

BERLIN, Germany — Most of Wall Street's “fat cats” seem resigned to silently taking their lumps as politicians follow President Barack Obama's lead in lashing big business on behalf of “Main Street."

In Germany, by contrast, one voice has rung out most clearly during the fallout of the financial crisis — and it belongs to a “fat cat” banker with a penchant for the status quo.

Josef Ackermann, the 62-year-old Swiss national who heads Deutsche Bank — Germany's largest financial institution — has been an unabashed defender of the banking sector throughout the crisis. Those few German politicians who have felt compelled to contradict Ackermann have largely failed to compete with him in capturing the public's attention. In fact, Germany's leading newspapers describe the fate of the national economy as an equally matched struggle between the leader of a private bank and the nation's chancellor, Angela Merkel — the person elected to steward the public interest.

Ackermann doesn't shy from defending the interests of big banks: He has heralded banks' “noble role” in the economy, while warning against imposing new regulations on their activities. He's dismissed the competency of the national government to intervene in the economy, while insisting that it “stop the bank bashing, the blame game.” And even though his bank earned some 10 billion euros in 2009, Ackermann hasn't hesitated to suggest that credit might only start flowing to businesses if the government agrees to lend the banking sector more money on generous terms. 

In a moment so ripe for populism, how has Ackermann been able to get away with this sort of rhetorical grandstanding? At root, the answer lies with the peculiar history of German banking: Though business practices of Germany's banking sector are of a piece with modern global capitalism, its public image domestically is still mainly rooted in a simpler age.

“Deutsche Bank has always been the representative bank of the German financial system,” said Dorothea Schaefer of the economic think tank DIW. “Though, of course, that reputation has suffered in the last year.” 

The gap between reality and myth was exposed most clearly in the earliest days of the financial crisis, when German politicians showed themselves eager to blame “Anglo-American capitalism” for the global turmoil — though it turned out that German banks were equally as exposed to toxic assets as their English-speaking competitors.