No reason for reassurance
When the citizen movement 'Finanzwende' erects an oversized stack of money in front of the Goethe monument near the Deutsche Bank twin towers this Thursday, some bankers may have been reminded of the old days with a shiver of nostalgia. It has been 15 years since the US government wanted to set an example by letting Lehman Brothers go bankrupt, an example that nearly plunged the global economy into the abyss.
The consequences of the experiment exceeded all expectations. The abstract concept of systemic risk came to life. And that with a bang: although the macroeconomic significance of the institution was limited, shockwaves spread across the globe at an astonishing speed. Within a few hours, markets collapsed. Chancellor Angela Merkel and her finance minister, just like government representatives in other countries, felt compelled to appear in front of the camera to declare savings deposits as safe. Even in the branches of savings banks and cooperative banks, which had hitherto proudly portrayed themselves as rocks in the stormy sea of financial capitalism, some tellers trembled when they realized what was in store for them: explaining the term 'issuer default risk' to the kind old lady across the counter, to whom they had sold Lehman certificates as a kind of improved federal savings bond.
Since then, the (financial) world has changed. Some of the major players, such as WestLB or HRE, which tried to compensate for the lack of a viable business model through large-scale credit substitution business, disappeared from the market. Others, such as IKB or the HSH Nordbank (now HCOB) or the Royal Bank of Scotland (now Natwest) were substantially downsized in new ownership structures, and now have little in common with the institutions of that time. Commerzbank gained a new anchor shareholder in the form of the state after the acquisition of Dresdner Bank, as did ABN Amro, and it seems that they won't get rid of them too quickly.
The rules of the game have also changed. The capital buffers that banks must underpin their business with have become much thicker, and liquidity requirements have become stricter. How much it has paid off not only for taxpayers but also for banks to comply with the industry's yield-eating bureaucratic monster, as the Basel Committee's requirements were often labeled, was evident this spring. While US regional banks, which had benefited from exemptions , fell victim to the domino effect triggered by the bankruptcy of Silicon Valley Bank, the European banking landscape proved resilient despite some hefty stock price declines and rising risk premiums on credit default swaps.
However, there is no reason for complacency because the threats to the industry have also changed. The recent run on deposits at Silicon Valley Bank was, thanks to the rise of mobile banking and fueled by the algorithms of social networks, much faster than anyone would have thought possible in the years around the financial crisis. In addition, in Germany and other Western societies, there is a shortage of skilled workers, forcing banks to push forward with digitization and the move to the cloud as quickly as feasible. What happens when there is not enough human personnel to fix the expected hiccups was recently witnessed at Deutsche Bank, which received a stern reprimand from regulators due to the massive number of customer complaints.
The biggest threat to financial stability, however, is likely the persistent lack of profitability in the industry. Here, politics is called upon to finally implement the banking union . Anyone who has seen how the capital flows rushed back to the United States after the Lehman shock cannot claim that a Europe composed of national banking markets is a safe haven in the long run.