Anshu Jain said nothing. Honouring a long-standing commitment to appear on a panel at a Bloomberg conference in London, the man who co-led Deutsche Bank for three years until July last year, was careful not to mention the gigantic elephant in the room.

He was happy to talk about asset valuations, and the impact on deposit taking institutions. And he was only too pleased to wax lyrical on low interest rates causing serious issues for pensions. But discuss the ails of his former employer he did not.

Whether by remiss or by Jain's request, his questioner chose to steer clear of a subject the man who spent 20 years of his career rising up the corporate ladder of Germany's largest bank would surely have had lots to say on.

For the question of whether or not Deutsche Bank can survive without a bail-out by the German government is the only topic most other European bankers want to converse upon.

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The thorny issue of whether the mooted $14 billion (NZ$19 billion) fine from American regulators for mis-selling US mortgages will bring the German lender to its knees is, unsurprisingly, a hot topic right now.

But Jain's silence on the matter is probably for the best. Even those who remain closer to the current predicaments than he aren't talking any sense.

On Monday, Deutsche's chief public relations svengali took the unusual step of making a television appearance in which he denied that the bank's boss, John Cryan, had asked Angela Merkel for help in its negotiations with US regulators. "He doesn't intend to do that," said Joerg Eigendorf. But that didn't stop the bank's shares slumping to a 24-year low that night.

Cryan himself used an interview with Germany's Bild a day later to go even further.

The bank is "comfortably equipped with free liquidity", the British-born boss assured.

Requesting help from Frau Merkel would be "out of the question for us", saying he could not understand how "anyone could claim that".

But by saying there is no chance of a recapitalisation, and swearing that there have been no discussions with the German administration, Cryan is simply prolonging the inevitable, and putting a brave face on the truth. After all, it's not like we haven't been here before.

"The worst is behind us"

Two employees of Christie's auction house maneuver the Lehman Brothers corporate logo which was up for sale. Photo / Getty
Two employees of Christie's auction house maneuver the Lehman Brothers corporate logo which was up for sale. Photo / Getty

In the drawn-out death spiral that was the collapse of Lehman Brothers, I spent hour after hour as this paper's man on Wall Street listening to the bank's executives and communications folk denying they had a problem.

In March of that year, Lehman's chief financial officer Erin Callan, trying to stem a run on the bank's shares which had fallen 46pc a day earlier amid fears Lehman was the next Bear Stearns, assured that the bank had "the leadership, the experience, the capital strength and certainly the liquidity to ride out this period".

Within three months, under siege from investors questioning the bank's capital position, sheissued a statement denying rumours Lehman had turned to the Federal Reserve for cash.

But later that month, Callan admitted the quarter just ended had been "extremely challenging" as she unveiled the bank's first loss since going public 14 years earlier and a $6b (NZ$8.23b) discounted capital raise, to add to $4b (NZ$5.48b) raised in April.

As that long summer dragged on, Dick Fuld, Lehman's long-standing chief, dispensed with the services of both Callan and Joe Gregory, his right hand man, turning instead to the up and coming Bart McDade.

McDade had fundraising ideas, including spinning off investment management arm Neuberger Berman, and trying to bring in investment from first Korea Development Bank and later, anyone who would get around the negotiating table, including Barclays and Bank of America. But still the denials came.

On September 10, five days before Lehman collapsed, Ian Lowitt, Callan's replacement as chief financial officer, told analysts on the bank's quarterly earnings conference call: "I think that... our capital position at the moment is strong."

Business as usual

If there is a lesson from what happened in 2008 - there were more half-truths and lies to come in the shape of consistent denials around the US Treasury's bail-out of insurance behemoth AIG right until it was announced - it is that statements around recapitalisation and a lack of liquidity should never be believed.

Remember Adam Applegarth describing Northern Rock's position as "business as usual" in September 2007 as loyal savers queued around the block to get their money out?

Not only does it not make any sense for a bank executive to admit that it is in negotiations with its government to bail it out - for fear of a run on deposits and its shares - it also is an admission of failure, and as such, not going to happen until it happens.

After all the primary job of a bank's chief executive is to keep it afloat. By going cap in hand to politicians, he or she is admitting that they have not been successful in their role. A government intervention is therefore always going to be the lender of last resort in such cases, and only tapped up once all other possibilities have been exhausted.

Photo / Daily Telegraph Highscharts
Photo / Daily Telegraph Highscharts

In this particular case, there are other variables to contend with, not least the question of potential state aid from Mrs Merkel and how that would play out with her European Union partners, many of whom have suffered from harsh penalties as a result of bail-outs, and the fact that the amount of the fine has yet to be finally set.

It may be that Deutsche can limp through this particular crisis, but this is a bank that is deeply troubled, and the words of its executives, as so many before them, belie its balance sheet.