Späte Reue, Stefan Baron
Alexander Privitera a Geoeconomics Non-Resident Senior Fellow at AICGS. He is the head of European affairs at Commerzbank AG. He focuses primarily on Germany’s European policies and their impact on relations between the United States and Europe. Previously, Mr. Privitera was the Washington-based correspondent for the leading German news channel, N24. As a journalist, over the past two decades he has been posted to Berlin, Bonn, Brussels, and Rome. Mr. Privitera was born in Rome, Italy, and holds a degree in Political Science (International Relations and Economics) from La Sapienza University in Rome.
Writing a book about one’s own boss is a difficult task under any circumstance. The exercise is particularly tricky if the person in question is a highly controversial banker; if his name is Josef Ackermann, the former CEO of Deutsche Bank; and finally, if the author is trying to convince the skeptical German readership that his man is fundamentally a “good guy.” Stefan Baron, a former journalist and Deutsche Bank communications chief under Ackermann has done just that in a well-paced book entitled “Späte Reue,” or “Late Remorse.”
Baron takes the reader on a journey that allows us to witness how a determined banker first turns a primarily German bank into a truly global financial institution—and then realizes that a fulfilling life means more than robust earnings and large bonuses. It is a gripping, albeit slightly one-sided, view of Ackermann the visionary, the crisis manager, and the informal advisor to Chancellor Angela Merkel. Indeed, the book is particularly interesting in the depiction of Ackermann’s central role when the financial crisis jeopardized the fragile German banking system in 2007/2008 and the Berlin government had to be convinced to rescue financial institutions that were teetering on the edge of collapse. Baron acknowledges some mistakes, but never admits that the build-up of vulnerable assets on the balance sheet of Deutsche Bank and the over-dependence of the institution on short-term funding all happened under Ackermann’s watch. But perhaps those are details that could have proven to be too boring for the reader.
The success of the book in Germany is a testament to Baron’s writing style and to his topic, Ackermann, who has become a fascinating symbol in Germany for an age that ended amid the ruins of the financial crisis. Ackermann comes across as the larger-than-life figure that he is, at least as ego-driven as curious, and committed to leading the pack and never following trends from behind.
By stressing Ackermann’s commitment to take the bank back to its roots at the “service of the real economy,” Baron indirectly claims that the efforts by the current leadership of Deutsche Bank to make the credit institution more robust and regain the full trust of its clients merely reflect Ackermann’s realization that the culture of the company needed to change. I suspect that the current Co-CEOs Anshu Jain and Jürgen Fitschen, who are still adapting the bank’s business model to rapidly changing market conditions as well as regulatory requirements, may well see things very differently. However, Baron tells it as he and Ackermann see it. That in itself is an interesting contribution to a better understanding of the financial crisis, seen from a Swiss banker’s vantage point that came to symbolize more than a decade of German financial capitalism—as well as its excesses.