* Ministry, Deutsche Bank executives met 23 times – report * Report follows widespread merger speculation * Deutsche Bank, Commerzbank decline to comment (Updates with details from report, background, Commerzbank) BERLIN/FRANKFURT, Jan 11 () – Germany’s finance ministry regularly met with top Deutsche Bank executives in 2018 for talks that included topics such as strategic options, a German newspaper reported on Friday. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung based the report on a letter written by a deputy finance minister to a member of Germany’s parliament in response to questions. An excerpt from the letter, published on the paper’s website and dated Jan. 10, listed 23 meetings in 2018 between the finance ministry and Deutsche Bank executives. There has been longstanding and widespread speculation that Berlin may try to engineer a merger of Germany’s two biggest lenders, Deutsche Bank and Commerzbank. German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz has helped feed that speculation by stressing the need for a strong German banking sector, a shift in tone from his predecessor. The letter also responded to a request to evaluate a possible merger between Commerzbank, which is 15 percent owned by the government, and other lenders. “The government is open to economically viable options,” the newspaper quoted the letter as saying. The letter also said that operational and strategic questions were a matter for executives, the paper reported. Subjects discussed in the meetings included “strategic options of the institutes and evaluations by the leadership of the finance ministry”, the letter cited by the paper said. Joerg Kukies, a deputy, represented the ministry at many of the meetings, while Deutsche Bank’s Chief Executive Officer Christian Sewing represented the bank at six meetings. The bank’s chairman Paul Achleitner sat in on another six meetings, the meeting list revealed. A spokesman for the Finance Ministry had no immediate comment. Deutsche Bank and Commerzbank declined to comment. Executives for both banks have played down the idea of a merger, saying that they need to focus on restructuring and improving profitability before any possible tie-ups. (Reporting by Michelle Martin and Tom Sims Editing by Joseph Nasr and Alexander Smith)Our Standards:The Thomson Trust Principles.