View from City Road: Cultural clash of bankers

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The Independent Online
The struggle to save Metallgesellschaft, the German metals and commodities conglomerate, is a striking illustration of the differences in corporate and banking culture around Europe.

Some of the most important banks in Germany, led by Deutsche Bank, agreed a rescue plan within days of the financial disaster emerging. It so happens they are also large shareholders in MG, a conflict of interest that rarely arises in the UK since capital adequacy regulations deter banks from owning large equity stakes in industry.

Surprise, surprise, the rescue plan involved an injection of fresh equity by the creditors, which means banks that are purely lenders will have to accept shareholdings alongside Deutsche and Dresdner Bank.

The result, predictably, is a row. It is not so much the principle of new equity as the feeling that outsiders are being steamrollered into it by the core German banks.

On Wednesday, Barclays bravely put its head above the parapet and issued a statement that, though firmly supportive of a rescue, said - in the politest of terms - the bank was not going to be stuffed with MG equity without further investigations of the company's position. The impact in Frankfurt was dramatic.

The fact that Barclays was expressing the views of many German and foreign creditors was confirmed on Thursday when a top team from Deutsche rushed off to Paris to talk to an angry group of French bank creditors. French banks no doubt understand the pressures on Deutsche. Some of them also own large industrial shareholdings.

Supportive long-term bank shareholders have been a force for good in German industry. But if a crisis does occur, it is a recipe for trouble.

Most big German companies nowadays borrow from large numbers of banks outside and inside Germany. This brings a high risk that their interests will conflict.

Indeed, Frankfurt could well benefit by adapting its own legal structures so that something like the Bank of England's London rules could be applied. These were developed to cope with just these situations, in which many creditor banks are involved. The rules set a framework for banks and companies to discuss financial restructuring while keeping a company afloat with short-term help until a solution emerges by agreement.

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