Commerzbank to cut 9,600 jobs by 2020

The Commerzbank headquarters in Frankfurt, Germany. (AP)
Updated 30 September 2016
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Commerzbank to cut 9,600 jobs by 2020

BERLIN: Germany’s second largest lender Commerzbank said it plans to cut 9,600 jobs, nearly a fifth of its workforce, by 2020 and withhold dividends to pay for a 1.1-billion-euro restructuring.
The Frankfurt-based firm added that the $1.23-billion plan, still to be agreed at a supervisory board meeting on Friday, would see it report a loss in the third quarter as it writes down the value of goodwill and other intangible assets.
But it forecasts a “slightly positive” bottom line for the whole of 2016.
Like other German banks, Commerzbank is fighting headwinds from low interest rates in the eurozone, tough regulation, intense competition and the arrival of new digital actors on the market.
Board members aim to achieve “sustainable profitability” by focusing on private and business banking customers while shrinking investment banking activities, it said in a statement.
“Profit volatility and risks from regulatory changes will be reduced and capital freed up for the core business” with the retreat from investment banking, it added.
To cover the costs of the restructuring, the bank said it would “cease dividend payments for the time being.”
Commerzbank reported a profit of 1.1 billion euros in 2015, and paid its first dividend since the 2008 financial crisis at 20 cents per share.
Shares in the bank lost 1.6 percent to trade at 5.90 euros in afternoon trading in Frankfurt, while the DAX 30 index of leading firms was up by 0.5 percent.
Commerzbank’s employee roster would shrink by roughly 9,600 — around a fifth of its current level of 51,300 — if the plan is put into action.
The size of the restructuring shows “how difficult the environment is for banks at the moment,” analyst Michael Seufert at Nord/LB bank said, pointing to Commerzbank’s restrained target of 6 percent return on capital after the changes.
“All banks are affected by the low interest rate environment” introduced by the European Central Bank in a bid to drive up inflation, he said, noting that European heavyweights Santander and ING are expected to present new strategies of their own in the coming days.
The ECB has set interest rates at historic lows, offered cheap loans to banks and spent hundreds of billions of euros on government and corporate bonds as it hunts for ways to push up growth and inflation in the 19-nation currency bloc.
German banks have complained loudly about the impact of the low interest rates on their profit margins.
Commerzbank managers predict that the restructuring will create savings of 6.5 billion euros per year and allow them to create 2,300 new jobs in “growth areas” at the bank.
The German state remains a shareholder in Commerzbank to the tune of 15 percent after coming to the lender’s rescue in 2008.
Chief executive Martin Zielke in August batted away rumors that he was considering a tie-up with Deutsche Bank, Germany’s biggest lender and a historic Frankfurt rival.
Deutsche is itself going through a painful restructuring that will see it slash almost 9,000 jobs worldwide and 200 branches in home market Germany.
The once-proud institution is laboring under a burden of around 8,000 legal cases worldwide, including a $14-billion demand from the US Department of Justice over its role in the subprime mortgage crisis.
On Wednesday, the German government strongly denied speculation that it was preparing a rescue plan for Deutsche in the event it faces a US fine that its legal provisions of $5.5 billion are too small to cover.


INTERVIEW: Nuclear war and peace — The view from Tokyo

Updated 22 September 2019

INTERVIEW: Nuclear war and peace — The view from Tokyo

  • Nobuo Tanaka, former executive director of the international Energy Agency, says the confrontation with Iran has complicated Saudi Arabia's ambitions in peaceful development of nuclear energy

DUBAI: When Nobuo Tanaka talks, people listen. In the course of nearly five decades at the top echelons of global policymaking in economics, trade and energy, he has been advising governments and multinational organizations on some of the most pressing issues in the world, usually with a focus on the all-important global energy business.

Now, the 69-year-old Japanese thought-leader wants some peace — not in the sense of retiring to the countryside, but as president of the country’s prestigious Sasakawa Peace Foundation, whose lofty aim is to “pursue new forms of governance for human society.”

In downtown Tokyo last week, the Middle East was much on his mind. It was just a couple of days after the attacks on oil installations in Saudi Arabia, and Tanaka had just attended a gathering of Saudi and Japanese refining engineers, led by senior executives of Saudi Aramco, the target of the attacks.

The meetings were a scheduled event organized by the Japan Cooperation Center Petroleum, which promotes international connections in energy. But it gave Tanaka the opportunity to gauge Aramco’s view on the attacks through the eyes of its senior technicians. 

“There are obvious risks of supply disruption, and if it develops into a direct conflict in the Gulf there would be serious consequences,” he said. But he added that the global reserve capacity could see the world, and resource-hungry Japan, through the energy stress.

Major oil importers in Asia should jointly consider how to ensure energy security.

The country has good reasons to pay close attention to what goes on in the Middle East, Tanaka explained. About 85 percent of its oil imports come through the Straits of Hormuz, and about half of that comes from Aramco facilities. Since 2009, Sasakawa has administered the Middle East Islam Fund to widen Japan’s knowledge of the region and contribute to policy debates there.

“Japan has an obvious energy-related interest in the Middle East, but I’m not sure we understand all the issues there, especially on religious matters and women’s empowerment,” Tanaka said. His own understanding had been expanded via his longstanding relationship with the Kingdom’s new Energy Minister Abdul Aziz bin Salman — “my very good friend” — as well as connections with the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies.

Tanaka’s energy expertise and network were augmented by a four-year stint as head of the International Energy Agency (IEA), where he helped manage the global energy community’s response to the fallout from the financial crisis, which sent oil prices gyrating wildly.

Toward the end of his time at the IEA came another cataclysmic event that has changed how Japan, and Tanaka, see the energy world. The 2011 earthquake and tsunami, and the damage done to the nuclear reactor at Fukushima — not to mention the 18,000 deaths and large-scale evacuations that resulted from the disaster — caused a fundamental rethink of the country’s policy toward nuclear energy.

Before 2011, there had been more than 50 nuclear reactors in Japan, which saw nuclear technology as the best alternative to its fossil fuel poverty. Now there are only nine, and there is a wide debate in nuclear-sensitive Japan about the future.

“Nuclear was seen as the solution, but after 2011 that has changed. Now it’s more costly than renewable energy,” said Tanaka. “Nuclear power was seen as cheap, safe and clean, but not anymore. Japan is the only non-weapon country that has the right to do the full spectrum of reprocessing and enrichment of nuclear fuels, under IEA scrutiny.”


BIO

Born Tokyo, 1950


EDUCATION
• University of Tokyo, economics

• Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, US. MBA


CAREER
•Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry

• Director of science, technology and industry, OECD

• Japanese Embassy, Washington DC, responsible for energy, trade and industry

• Executive director, International Energy Agency

• Adviser on sustainability at Institute for Energy Economics, Tokyo

• Professor at Graduate School of Public Policy, University of Tokyo

• President, Sasakawa Peace Foundation


Japan is learning lessons that other countries, including Saudi Arabia, could benefit from, he believes. The Kingdom has its own ambitions in peaceful development of nuclear energy, but the issue has been hugely complicated by the current confrontation with Iran.

Tanaka sees one potential solution to the nuclear conundrum as the integral fast reactor (IFR), a US technology that experts believe is safer and more efficient than other reactor types, and which does not produce weapons-grade products. “It’s proliferation resistant and passive safe, and could be the model for future nuclear systems. IFR isn’t perfect, but it’s more desirable,” he said.

Tanaka believes that Japan, from its unfortunate position as the only country ever to have suffered a military nuclear attack, can help lead the world in peaceful nuclear policy. He has made several visits to Tehran with Sasakawa to explain his view to Iran’s leadership, and believes this approach could solve one of the other intractable issues of the global scene: North Korea’s nuclear policies.

In a 2018 paper entitled “Iran and North Korea: Japan must take the initiative in the peaceful use of nuclear power,” Tanaka argued that “Japan has a responsibility to ensure that the technology and human resources as a global leader in the peaceful use of nuclear power be maintained in the years to come.”

Another current thorny issue is the escalating trade dispute between Japan and South Korea over the question of reparations for the use of forced labor by the Japanese during their many years of occupation of Korea. It was thought that the subject had been settled many years ago in a bilateral agreement, but that has since fallen apart in a bitter spat that has all but broken trade relations between two of the biggest powers in Asia.

“It’s serious. Korea refused to negotiate, mainly because of internal politics, and it’s now spiraling out of control,” Tanaka said. The US “hegemon” should take a lead in resolving the matter, he added, though he sees little chance of that happening under the current administration.

In another paper after US President Donald Trump’s election, Tanaka argued that the world had entered an era of “inconceivable uncertainty,” especially with regard to energy, and that policymakers in Japan and other Asian powers might have to plan for a world with less American participation.

“To cope with the unprecedented uncertainties and unpredictability of Trump’s America First geopolitics, major oil importers in Asia should jointly consider how to ensure collective energy security and sustainability. Now is the time to think about the unthinkable,” he wrote.

One example of something previously “unthinkable” is the proposal by Masayoshi Son — CEO of Japan’s SoftBank and a partner with Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund in the Vision Fund — to create an “Asia Super Grid” to distribute energy generated from renewable sources in Japan, China, Korea and other countries in the region.

Tanaka thinks the plan has a good deal of merit, though he points to regulatory and technical difficulties in Japan. “Son broke the telecommunications monopoly with SoftBank’s mobile network. Now let’s see if he can break the grid monopoly. Japan is risk averse, so Son is regarded as something of an outsider,” he said.

Another area in which Tanaka sees big similarities between Japan and Saudi Arabia is the position of women in business, politics and society. Both are largely traditional societies where women have been regarded primarily as mothers and homemakers, and where their involvement in the wider economy has been restricted.

While Japanese women do not face the kind of cultural impediments now being slowly unwound in Saudi Arabia, they find it hard to break through the “glass ceiling” of the Japanese economy. “Women’s representation in (Japan’s) Parliament is very low, as it is in politics and business,” Tanaka said.

Sasakawa’s Asia Women Impact Fund aims to promote understanding of these issues, and to promote relationships with Muslim-majority countries throughout Asia. With only a small indigenous Muslim population, Tanaka noted that there is a rising number of mosques in the Tokyo region as the number of tourists and business visitors from Islamic countries increases.

One policy recommendation that he believes should be implemented immediately, which would make life in Japan more welcoming for Muslim visitors, is directed at the country’s culinary profession: “We need more halal restaurants. It’s so difficult to find a good one in Tokyo.”