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The Grossbanken have nowhere left to hide

Germany’s big four private-sector banks have enormous assets but dismal profitability, return on equity and market share and weak cost control. Put well into the shade in retail business by the local savings banks and state banks, which have peculiar funding advantages, they are ill-equipped to meet the challenge of the coming European financial market without frontiers. They are scrabbling around for survival strategies but few of them impress. Jennifer Morris reports on a banking system on its knees

Step one in the Bundesbank's approach to banking supervision: ignore a problem and it will just go away. Like an indulgent father unwilling to accept his son's failings, the central bank is doing its best to pare down the travails of Germany's private banks to a temporary blip in a history of otherwise strong earnings growth and sound profitability. "We've had some discussions about the stability of the banking system and I must underline that there are no concerns of a systemic nature," says Edgar Meister, board member of the Bundesbank and chairman of the banking supervision committee of the European system of central banks. "I think the big banks are well managed. They have hidden reserves and the kind of provisioning done in the past helps them overcome this lag in profitability. So I am optimistic that the big commercial banks have a really good chance of competing with other international banks."

How reassuring - but it's far from the whole story. The banking system of the world's third-largest economy is on its knees and the prospect of any German bank, with the possible exception of Deutsche Bank, being able to compete with British, Spanish or French banks is laughable.

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