Germany's Scholz plays down government role in Deutsche merger talks: sources

BERLIN (Reuters) - German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz has played down the government’s role in talks about a possible merger between Deutsche Bank and Commerzbank, parliamentary sources said on Wednesday.

FILE PHOTO: German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz attends a media briefing during his visit to Beijing, China, January 17, 2019. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

Berlin has been worried about Deutsche Bank, Germany’s largest lender, which has struggled to generate sustainable profits since the 2008 financial crisis. Deutsche is trying to turn itself around under new leadership, but has faced hurdles such as allegations of money laundering and failed stress tests.

On Monday, Scholz told reporters in Brussels there were exploratory talks between Deutsche and Commerzbank about a tie-up following such media reports and weeks of merger speculation. The two banks have declined to comment.

Speaking to lawmakers during a closed-door meeting of the Bundestag lower house of parliament’s budget committee on Wednesday, Scholz said he was “closely watching” the reports about a possible merger, three participants told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

Scholz also said the government was always open for talks with private sector companies, but said he could not confirm that any such talks were taking place or had taken place, the sources said.

After the budget committee meeting, opposition lawmakers criticized Scholz for dodging their questions.

“Once again unfortunately, Finance Minister Scholz stonewalled totally,” Sven-Christian Kindler from the Greens told Reuters. “But parliament has a right to know if the finance minister wants to create a big German bank with big risks.”

Before the meeting, Scholz also drew criticism from senior members of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative bloc.

“The finance minister must end the speculation with a clear statement,” Hans Michelbach, deputy leader of the conservative CSU party in Germany’s lower house of parliament, told Reuters.

Michelbach called on Scholz to clarify the government’s role, saying there was no compelling need for such a tie-up.

“The benefits of a merger are limited. At the same time, the risks are high,” he said. Instead of talking about a merger, both banks should focus on their current challenges and pursue their own growth opportunities separately, he added.

Michelbach said the creation of a banking giant could also harm Germany’s competitiveness.

Florian Toncar, senior opposition lawmaker from the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP), accused the government of promoting the merger by giving a kind of state guarantee for the merged institution.

“Those who do that have not learned anything from the financial crisis,” Toncar told Reuters. Those that want to strengthen Germany as a finance center should not interfere in corporate structures, but improve business conditions for all.

Economy Minister Peter Altmaier, a senior conservative and Merkel confidant, last month presented a new industrial strategy where he called for the creation and protection of national champions, mentioning Deutsche Bank among other companies.

Scholz and other senior officials have repeatedly stressed that the government wants a reliable national banking champion to support its export-led economy.

Earlier on Wednesday, Finance Ministry official Christine Lambrecht told members of the Bundestag’s Finance Committee that the government was not pushing for a merger of the banks, according to parliamentary sources.

Lambrecht rejected the accusation that Berlin was interfering in a private-sector matter, one participant at the Finance Committee meeting told Reuters.

Lambrecht also said the government’s 15-percent-stake in Commerzbank alone was not enough to push through a merger, even if Berlin wanted such a scenario, the source added.

Additional reporting by Christian Krämer; Editing by Alexandra Hudson and Jane Merriman