At Deutsche Bank’s US unit, anxiety grows before axe falls

Firm likely to dismiss some pricey recruits from recent years


The gossip inside the Beverly Hills Hilton kept taking an unexpected turn — toward, of all things, Deutsche Bank AG.

In chandeliered conference rooms and marble-floored hallways, Wall Street A-listers chatted, with no shortage of schadenfreude, about the German bank’s recent capitulation: After two decades trying to build one of the world’s top investment banks, it’s settling for something less — and may eliminate thousands of jobs, especially in the US.

The main questions for many of its rivals attending the Milken Institute Global Conference: Can Deutsche Bank protect the US businesses it wants to keep? And if not, who’s worth poaching?

Back inside the firm’s US headquarters in Manhattan, that prospect is now weighing on Deutsche Bank executives who concede that a drumbeat of bad news, and potential for more, is taking a toll on morale. Several, speaking on the condition they not be identified, said they worry staff will start to defect to rivals — or, worse, that big clients might do that themselves.

In the weeks since Deutsche Bank outlined its fourth global turnaround plan in three years, a picture is emerging of mounting uncertainties within the US operations as executives make decisions on firings. The company’s April 26 announcement that it will probably shrink global equities trading, and in America scale back rates and corporate financing businesses, should’ve provided staff some clarity. But in the days since, many are realising those are just the biggest of many changes afoot.

Targeting Underperformers

Employees who remain should feel encouraged by the overhaul, which in many areas will focus on underperformers, said Mark Fedorcik, who was promoted last Friday to co-head of the company’s investment bank. “You’ve got to make decisions to shrink where you’re not efficient.”

Yet, as if to underscore the sweep of what’s happening, the bank announced late last week that it plans to abandon its US headquarters on Wall Street for smaller digs in midtown Manhattan. Days later, people close to the firm said job cuts may be expanded to affect about 20% of the US workforce. And despite the firm’s guidance on where it will shrink most, other desks may still be surprised by incremental cuts as the bank unwinds some past efforts to build.

The US division, for example, will probably end up firing some of the dealmakers it lured with multimillion-dollar compensation packages in recent years, according to executives, who, like others inside Deutsche Bank, spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid jeopardising their careers.

Already last week, the bank told staff it would close its Houston office. Not even four years ago, it made a big investment in that business, poaching a team of oil and gas bankers from Citi-group Inc. One senior executive emphasised that the firm still views its presence in New York, San Francisco and Chicago as indispensable for its corporate finance units.

CEO Christian Sewing, who took the helm in April, flew to New York early this month to bolster morale and dispel rumours swirling within the bank about a wholesale withdrawal from the Americas. Over three days, he addressed staff, consulted with business heads, greeted investors and hosted a select group of clients for dinner at a restaurant in Midtown.

‘Plain Wrong’

Christian Sewing

Rumours or the impression that we’re leaving the US or that we’re turning new York into a small hub are plain wrong, Sewing told employees at a town hall meeting (Pic: Bloomberg)

“Rumours or the impression that we’re leaving the US or that we’re turning New York into a small hub are plain wrong,” he told employees at a town hall meeting. So far, several executives said afterward, Sewing is striking the right notes.

Competitors are mistaken if they think Deutsche Bank can’t fend off attempts to poach talented employees, Fedorcik said in an interview last Thursday. “We will defend them to make it almost impossible for them to leave.”

Last year, the US arm surprised observers with its ability to recruit. Even this year, it’s planning to announce some strategic hires, Fedorcik said. Attrition has slowed from 12 months ago and most of its investment banking groups have expanded their share of the region’s fee pool, he said. The move to a Midtown tower, with a commanding view of Central Park, “gives us a fresh look”, he added.

Fedorcik, who’s been overseeing corporate finance operations, said most of the cuts in that business will be underperformers and that he will fiercely defend employees doing well. “It sends the right message to the top performers and it sends a message to people internally that you will continue to reward the best people,” he said.

His promotion last Friday was part of a flurry of leadership changes. Fedorcik will be joined atop the investment bank by Ram Nayak, who’s handing off oversight of fixed-income trading to John Pipilis. Those moves, and others, will simplify the leadership structure to establish “clear lines of accountability” during the overhaul, according to a memo to staff.

“A public announcement by a bank to cut units always leads to uncertainty,” said Ron Weihe, a Frankfurt-based consultant with head hunter Russell Reynolds. “But Deutsche Bank is unlikely to face massive unwanted staff attrition in the US as it will use targeted incentives to keep performers.”

The bank won’t only have to fend off rivals trying to poach from the outside, it will also need to lift morale, which had been in decline before this year’s tumult. US employees’ commitment to the lender as measured by an annual internal survey plunged to a multi-year low in 2017, dipping below the overall group level for the first time since the bank began disclosing regional readings for the survey.

Deutsche Bank’s “execution risk remains elevated”, the rating company DBRS Ltd said last Wednesday in a statement explaining its decision to revise the bank’s ratings trend to negative. The lender faces the challenge of balancing cost cuts with “the need to compensate its employees in order to retain top talent and improve morale”, DBRS wrote.

Annoyed Client

For clients watching from the outside, even incremental changes can be jarring. After all, companies and hedge funds want to know who they’re going to be dealing with. If they lose confidence that Deutsche Bank will be available to handle their business, they’ll move.

One London-based hedge fund manager, annoyed with the bank’s pullback in the Americas, said he will shift dealings elsewhere. Its unclear whether the bank will miss him. After all, it’s planning to curtail work with funds whose business hasn’t proven lucrative.

Altogether, the new strategy is a stunning turn-about from less than a decade ago, when Anshu Jain was climbing to the top of Deutsche Bank as an embodiment of swaggering, Anglo-American-style financial capitalism. Back then, an executive atop the Americas equities division, Barry Bausano, boasted to Bloomberg Markets magazine that Deutsche Bank was on a roll.

Jain and his British successor, John Cryan, have since departed after their halting attempts to improve profitability. The company’s stock has lost more than half its value over the past five years. Underscoring the issues at the investment bank, trading revenue in the first quarter dropped 17% from a year earlier, compared to a 12% increase at US rivals. Sewing has said the bank must now “act decisively”.

Milken Chatter

Rivals insist that spells opportunity. At the Milken conference, a sort of Davos-like gathering hosted by Michael Milken, several banking executives casually compared notes on whom they should try to pick off at Deutsche Bank. Others openly marvelled at how long some of the bank’s US leadership has held on. All spoke on the condition they not be named.

One of those leaders is Tom Patrick, the head of Deutsche Bank’s US arm. He rose to global head of equities in 2015 before handing off those duties in November to a new hire, Goldman Sachs Group Inc veteran Peter Selman. Patrick’s name has appeared on staff memos announcing recent changes, a sign he remains in good standing and is helping shape what happens.

That’s despite his at-times contentious relationship with Garth Ritchie, the global head of the investment bank, according to two senior executives with direct knowledge of their relationship. Ritchie built his career in cash equities and was frustrated to see it slip after he handed it off in 2015, the people said.

Client Relations

To be sure, Deutsche Bank’s struggle to overhaul its business was dealt a blow in 2016, when news leaked that the US Justice Department wanted the German lender to pay US$14 billion (RM55.3 billion) to settle an investigation into residential mortgage-backed securities.

That spooked clients, who worried about its strength as a counterparty. The firm suffered its worst haemorrhage of liquidity since the 2008 financial crisis, with private banks and money managers at one point pulling US$10 billion in a single day. The company settled the probe months later for US$7.2 billion and raised capital.

Bausano, in charge of managing Deutsche Bank’s relationships with hedge funds, helped persuade clients to stay. Last week, in a memo, the firm praised his work on “forging strong relationships” — and announced he’ll soon be leaving. — Bloomberg