Economy & Politics

ExklusivCommerzbank distanced itself from Wirecard as early as 2019

The state-owned Commerzbank was one of Wirecard’s most important lenders imago images / Jan Huebner

Commerzbank is still partially state-owned. That she too lost money because of the bankruptcy of the financial services provider Wirecard last June, a total of 175 million euros, indirectly affects the taxpayers a little. Therefore, Martin Zielke and Marcus Chromik can prepare themselves as witnesses in the Wirecard investigation committee on critical questions this Thursday – Zielke as the former CEO of the bank, Chromik as their head of risk.

Confidential documents that “Stern” and were able to evaluate now show that Commerzbank classified the risk of business relationships with Wirecard as relatively high a year before the bankruptcy. Accordingly, Commerzbank initiated a “soft exit” of the “entire customer relationship” at Wirecard in May 2019 due to “critical and unresolved transactions” – a gentle, sliding farewell. At the time, the bank was involved in a loan from a bank consortium with a total of up to EUR 1.75 billion with up to EUR 200 million. In addition, she had promised Wirecard its own credit line of EUR 35 million.

After the decision for a “soft exit” in spring 2019, Commerzbank remained part of the banking consortium – and kept the credit line unchanged. At the next extension (“Prolongation”) one wanted to get out. This is what Commerzbank said in its replies to the Federal Finance Agency in September 2020. This “soft exit” is also equivalent to a “freeze on new business”.

The evaluation of Commerzbank is also explosive because the Federal Financial Supervisory Authority (Bafin) and the federal government as a whole still viewed Wirecard as an aspiring company in 2019. The Bafin even filed a criminal complaint against two journalists from the “Financial Times”, who reported in detail about suspected fraud at Wirecard. Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) supported the company’s expansion plans during a visit to China in September 2019. And State Secretary Jörg Kukies, who is responsible for the banking industry for Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD), met the then-imprisoned Wirecard boss Markus Braun at the beginning of November 2019 for a private chat.

Open questions about top meetings with Braun

As internal documents that are available to “Stern” and suggest, questions about certain business figures at Wirecard did not arise at Commerzbank until 2019. For example, after a meeting between the bank’s top management and Braun in May 2018, points remained unanswered that the CEO apparently could not clarify either. It was about a noticeable development of balance sheet figures, which the “Manager Magazin” had already pointed out the year before in a much noticed article.

As a result of this top-level meeting, two Commerzbank experts traveled to Wirecard’s headquarters in Aschheim to discuss the critical points with the then CFO and the payment service provider’s chief accountant. The Wirecard managers put forward a presentation that was able to dispel the doubts. One of the bankers reported to management in September 2018 that the “explanations” from Wirecard are “comprehensible and therefore credible”.

A few months later, the Wirecard topic reappeared within Commerzbank. Apparently it was then an unusually high number of suspected money laundering cases at the Group’s own Wirecard Bank that led to the decision in spring 2019 to let the customer relationship with the major customer expire. In 2019 and 2020, Commerzbank’s compliance department repeatedly reported suspected cases of Wirecard Bank transactions to the Federal Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU), according to the Commerzbank report to the finance agency from September 2020. The FIU is under supervision of the Federal Ministry of Finance to fight money laundering. For this purpose, financial institutions and other companies are required to report suspicious transactions to the authorities.

In a note that the Bafin wrote for the Ministry of Finance on July 28, 2020, Commerzbank cited “more than 1500 suspicious transaction reports” about Wirecard. According to Commerzbank, there was “insufficient feedback” from the FIU.

The FIU rejected this in a statement for the Ministry of Finance on the same day. A number of 1,500 suspicious transaction reports from the bank are “not rememberable”. It also does not fit well with the total of 1,000 suspicious transaction reports that have so far been received about Wirecard from all sources.

Commerzbank also claims to have transmitted “processes” to the Bafin money laundering department in 2019 – but what, according to the Bafin note, “cannot be traced”. One thing is certain: on January 14, 2020 there was a conversation between the money laundering department of the financial supervisory authority and at least one representative of Commerzbank, in which he informed the Bafin “about suspicious transaction reports to the FIU relating to Wirecard”.

Almost 200 million euros in the fire

Of course, critics are now also asking why Commerzbank did not draw more severe consequences from the suspicious transactions earlier – and why the “soft exit” decided in mid-2019 was rather soft. In fact, at the time of Wirecard’s insolvency a year later, the bank still had a total of 197 million euros outstanding, as Commerzbank later announced to the Federal Finance Agency. Of the up to EUR 200 million in the large loan from the banking consortium, Wirecard had drawn down EUR 183 million. In addition, 14 million euros came from the additional credit line – money that was lost with the bankruptcy: In the second quarter of 2020, Commerzbank wrote 175 million euros off its Wirecard commitment.

With a view to the state’s participation in Commerzbank, the FDP financial expert Frank Schäffler raised the question of whether the federal government could have played a role in the ongoing Wirecard involvement, despite internal concerns. “The question arises as to whether State Secretary Kukies had any influence on the decision in his talks with the Board of Management of Commerzbank. We now have to clarify that, ”said Schäffler. In the past, Kukies had regular contacts with the Commerzbank management – intensively also in the context of the Wirecard insolvency in June 2020, as the Ministry of Finance had confirmed.

Upon request, the Ministry of Finance only referred to older statements in connection with Kukies’ discussions with the Commerzbank top management in June 2020, according to which the impression was “incorrect” that Commerzbank had “its credit exposure to Wirecard due to information from the Federal Ministry of Finance reduced”. In the opinion of the Ministry of Finance, there was also no “knowledge of a reduction in Commerzbank AG’s credit exposure to Wirecard AG before the economic problems of Wirecard AG became known”.

Commerzbank itself did not want to comment on individual customer relationships upon request. According to information from “Stern” and, and already in 2019, the major Frankfurt bank checked an exit from the syndicated loan. However, the bank found this contractually impossible. In contrast, Commerzbank ended its business relationship with Wirecard Bank in the course of 2019. Previously, the institute worked for the banking subsidiary of the payment group as a so-called correspondent bank, which, for example, processed certain transactions abroad for its customers.

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