Deutsche Bank may drop EY as its auditor after the Wirecard scandal left the Big Four firm under investigation and battling to restore its reputation.

In an unusual move, Germany’s biggest lender is inviting firms to compete for its 2022 audit just two years after hiring EY to replace KPMG, which had vetted the bank’s books for more than 60 years.

Deutsche’s chair Paul Achleitner told shareholders at the bank’s annual meeting on Thursday that the lender wants “to keep all its options open” regarding EY given the “future uncertainties”. He added that opening up the tender for its 2022 audit was a precautionary step.

Nonetheless, the decision is a blow for EY, which completed its first audit for the bank only this year. The firm has been under siege since Wirecard collapsed last June in one of Europe’s largest accounting frauds of recent decades.

After the implosion of Wirecard, which received a decade of unqualified audits from EY, the accountancy firm has lost several high-profile clients including Deutsche Telekom, Deutsche Bank’s asset manager arm DWS, as well as Frankfurt-based lenders Commerzbank and KfW.

The three financial services companies all lost hundreds of millions of euros in the Wirecard debacle and have indicated they may take EY to court. Deutsche Bank’s losses stand at €18m as the lender hedged most of its Wirecard exposure.

Until last year, EY had increased its market share among German blue-chip companies, winning mandates from Volkswagen and Lufthansa alongside Deutsche.

Organising a tender for a new auditor is a complex and costly process that companies tend to avoid. Under German law, banks are now obliged to switch their auditors after 10 years.

In a statement, EY said that “by holding a tender, the supervisory board of Deutsche Bank is keeping all options open and this does not automatically imply a change of auditor”. It will participate in the tender for the 2022 audit, the firm added.

EY billed 580,000 hours to Deutsche during its 2020 audit of the bank.

“The first audit is of course particularly effortful as they need to familiarise themselves for the first time with [their client’s] systems and processes,” said Achleitner.

“During the transfer of the mandate from KPMG to EY and during the audit by EY, the supervisory board did not find a reason for an objection which would question the quality or independence of EY,” the chair added, as he supported the board’s move to keep EY for the 2021 audit.

Shareholders at Deutsche’s annual meeting backed the move to keep EY for the bank’s 2021 audit with a majority of 99.3 per cent. 

Deutsche in 2018 poached Andreas Loetscher, the EY partner who had led the most recent Wirecard audits, as its head of accounting. Loetscher temporarily stepped aside from his role in December after Munich prosecutors opened a criminal investigation into potential violation of professional duties during the Wirecard audits.

Deutsche’s chief financial officer James von Moltke told shareholders on Thursday that Loetscher would remain on the sidelines until the case had been resolved. Von Moltke stressed that the presumption of innocence applied for Loetscher, who stepped aside to “avoid conflicts of interest, or the appearance of conflicts of interest”. Loetscher has previously declined to comment.

EY’s work as Wirecard’s auditor has come under scrutiny from a German parliamentary committee inquiry into the fraud. A special investigator commissioned by the committee found in two reports that EY’s audits suffered from serious shortcomings.

At a hearing this month, an anti-fraud specialist at EY told MPs that he found actions of his audit colleagues “incomprehensible”.

EY Germany this year announced a leadership change and a quality improvement programme. The firm said it was deceived by the fraud.

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