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Germany's reputable Berenberg Bank in spotlight over Panama Papers scandal

[FRANKFURT] Berenberg Bank, one of the oldest and most venerable institutions in private banking in Germany, is finding its squeaky clean reputation coming under scrutiny in the wake of the Panama Papers global tax evasion scandal.

Berenberg may not be a household name like some of its bigger peers, but the upscale Hamburg-based bank has cultivated an impeccable image, the epitome of courtesy and discretion for both customers and employees alike.

And it had remained unscathed by the multiple scandals that have tarnished Germany's major lenders such as Deutsche Bank and Commerzbank in recent years.

But its pristine reputation has come under wider public scrutiny after finding itself explicitly named several times in the Panama Papers.

"Germany's oldest bank is under pressure: dubious customers from all over the world and formerly good relations with Mossack Fonseca are tarnishing the image of the upscale Hanseatic bank," wrote the Sueddeutsche Zeitung.

The Panama Papers are a trove of about 11.5 million leaked documents of the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca that reveal the large-scale use by firms and wealthy individuals of offshore shell companies that enables the concealing of assets from tax authorities.

According to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) which coordinated the release of the tax evasion data, Berenberg's Luxembourg and Swiss subsidiaries were behind around a dozen shell companies and 76 offshore accounts domiciled in Panama.

The ICIJ also accused Berenberg of doing business with dubious customers reportedly linked to Hezbollah in Libya or even Colombian drug traffickers.

Berenberg has admitted "like many others" to managing offshore accounts for clients - which in itself is not illegal - and insisted it had done so "in line with the law".

Shell companies are also not illegal in themselves, and the number was just a tiny fraction of the some 1,200 in all attributed to 28 German banks.

Nevertheless, the suggestion that Berenberg might be involved in potentially dodgy dealings has raised eyebrows in the German press.

Part of the bank's excellent reputation was that it always appeared to be different from other institutions, noted the Sueddeutsche Zeitung. But that was now being questioned.

"One of the banks that stands out particularly is - to my great surprise - Berenberg," Georg Mascolo, one of the team of international journalists behind the revelations.

Berenberg was set up in 1590 by brothers Hans and Paul Berenberg, Dutch protestants who found exile in the northern port city of Hamburg.

Originally, they traded in cloth and only moved into banking later. And for much of its history, the bank remained a small regional financier for shippers and merchants.

Today the group employs 1,300 people in 19 branches in Hamburg, Frankfurt, London, Zurich and New York and manages around 40 billion euros (S$62 billion) in assets.

And it remains fiercely proud of its old name and tradition.

"We're a small house and must rely on the high quality of our service," says Hans-Walter Peters, one of Berenberg's two personally liable partners.

"In certain sectors, we compete directly with the major international banks," Mr Peters told AFP.

Mr Peters was recently appointed head of the mighty BdB federation of private banks, a major distinction for a small player such as Berenberg.

Hence, its possible involvement in the Panama Papers scandal "marks the worst possible start to his tenure," wrote the business daily Handelsblatt.

While so many financial institutions were dealt body blows in the financial and banking crises, Berenberg appeared to go from strength to strength.

It more than trebled its revenues in ten years and doubled its profits.

But with the rapid expansion also came challenges.

"The workforce is growing massively and the corporate culture is changing. Holding on to its ethical values will be one of the main challenges facing the bank," said a financial sector expert, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Last year when Berenberg celebrated its 425th anniversary in grand style, it helped both the Berlin-based start-up incubator Rocket Internet and the container shipping giant Hapag Lloyd go public.

As well as being Germany's oldest bank, it also pays its staff the highest salaries in the sector.

In 2015, the gross remuneration for an average employee was 140,000 euros, compared with 131,000 euros at the country's biggest lender Deutsche Bank.

A former employee told AFP the bank was fiercely proud of its "old school" culture, its traditions and its hierarchy. And employees enjoyed the "prestige" of working for such a "noble institution".


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