FRANKFURT - Commerzbank AG's biggest shareholder, Cobra, said it is seeking a "strong partner" for Germany's fifth-biggest bank, the clearest signal yet that the 130-year-old institution may soon lose its independence.
"Our stake will speed up European banking consolidation," said Hansgeorg Hofmann, the head of Cobra, which controls 17% of the bank. Commerzbank chief executive Martin Kohlhaussen, who retires next year, said Mr. Hofmann should leave it to management to run the bank.
Mr. Kohlhaussen and Mr. Hofmann, the former Dresdner Bank AG investment banking chief, clashed at Commerzbank's annual general meeting. The bank may be a target for a foreign rival seeking to expand in Europe's biggest economy.
Credit Suisse Group, along with the U.S. interests Chase Manhattan Corp., Citigroup Inc., and Bank of America Corp. may be interested, analysts said, as Commerzbank, with a market value of $18 billion, lacks the strength to survive on its own.
Mr. Kohlhaussen expressed surprise at Mr. Hofmann's remarks. "You've said you won't interfere in the bank's strategy, but you've also said you're seeking a strong partner," Mr. Kohlhaussen said. "I see a contradiction here. It's the job of the board to run the bank, and we're also talking to partners."
Cobra, an investment vehicle controlled by businessmen Clemens Vedder and Klaus-Peter Schneidewind, plans to raise its stake in Commerzbank to 19%, Mr. Hofmann said. Cobra would need another 6% to block proposals at shareholder meetings.
"The name Cobra smells like death and damnation. I want to know who's behind this investor group and how they really influence the bank," said Rudolf Heinz, a representative for the SdK shareholder rights group. Mr. Heinz also urged Mr. Kohlhaussen to reconsider the bank's strategy, as it "doesn't bring much" now.